Friday, October 28, 2011

Don't get sick unless you're a multimillionaire

$75,000. Actually $74,917.33. That's my hospital bill and both Big Dog and I are in shock.

It started last Friday, just around midnight. We had had a couple of intensely busy weeks renovating the duplex and now had our house packed with Big Dog's sister, her husband and their father. I was dead tired. My stomach felt strange. It's hard for me to eat much right after making dinner but Big Dog's family were used to eating early, so I was only able to have a few bites. At first I thought I was just hungry. But soon, it felt like indigestion. And a while later, something much worse. It felt like the pain of being kicked in the solar plexus -- except instead of being a brief kick, it was constant and lasting and getting worse all the time.

Pain makes you nauseous and it sure was doing that to me, so I quietly got up and tried to make my way to a bathroom. A sudden surge of pain made me stumble and fall at the top of the stairs. I crawled downstairs and into a bathroom. Nope, there's nothing to throw up. The little I ate was already digested. But the pain keeps making me retch and heave. I lie on the bathroom floor, hoping the pain will go away but it doesn't. It just gets worse. For a few hours, I go back and forth between the bathroom and the living room couch where I lie, curled up in pain, wondering what could be the problem. By 3am, the pain is unbearable. Should I call an ambulance? Should I wake Big Dog and make him take me to the hospital? Or should I just jump off our roof and end it all? When I started thinking that, I knew I had to get myself to a hospital one way or another. I woke up Big Dog.

I lay, curled up in the back seat of the truck, moaning in pain as he drove me to an emergency hospital in San Luis Obispo. The ride seemed like it took forever. Each turn, each bump made the pain that much worse. Then, it was another forever before they actually put me in a bed in the emergency room. During that eternity, I am writhing in pain, unable to remain seated in either the chair or the wheelchair, on the filthy hospital floor. Enough pain obliterates everything else: common sense, decency, inhibitions, etc. In my own delirium, nothing else mattered. So there I was, curled up like a ball on the linoleum floor, eyes closed, panting and moaning and kicking at the wall until they finally got a gurney to take me to the emergency room and, finally, a bed.

"What's your pain level?" they asked me in Admissions. "On a scale of 1 to 10, where would you say it was?"
I would have said "Twelve" if I had much consciousness, but I could barely think and groaned "Ten."

The first 4 ml morphine shot had no effect whatsoever. They had to give me another. And then another, and finally the pain subsided enough to let me breath a little slower, a little deeper. Shots to stop the nausea (and dry heaving) followed, as did an IV drip. I got an EKG, a CT scan and an ultrasound, then was left moaning in that room for 4 more hours before they got me into a hospital room. It was all pretty much a blur until later in the afternoon.

At one point, someone came by and asked what my pain level was now. It was so much better than when I came to the hospital -- I didn't feel like jumping in front of a moving truck to stop the pain -- that I told that person it was probably a 4 on the pain scale. Still bad, but not something I wanted to kill myself over.

Much later, I saw the Pain Scale on the wall. Zero was not simply "no pain" but a smiley face. A smiley face for me indicates more than just pain-free, it means you feel good. I was nowhere near that. I was nowhere near even Level 4. As much as things had improved, I realized that on their Pain Scale, even with the multiple morphine shots, it was perhaps at Level 8.

THEIR pain scale.
MY pain scale.

So, there I was. For days.

After about 3 days, the pain had moved further down my digestive system. It was no longer in my solar plexus but lower, around my belly button. I could now sip a little water. By Day 4, I could handle a little broth. I still needed my morphine shots every 4 hours and just when I thought things were improving, I would have a big setback. My roommates started with the tattooed mother with pneumonia who couldn't stop complaining and elderly lady also with pneumonia (they were on either side of me who insisted on my curtains being open so they could watch the tv which was right in front of my bed -- it was the World Series and Elderly Pneumonia Lady was a St. Louis fan -- and they yakked loudly all night long.) They both left on Day 3 and I had a night by myself (ahhhhh) in the room before they brought in Mrs. Dementia. By then, the pain had shifted all the way down to my lower abdomen, I could handle Very Soft Food (although I couldn't eat the hospital fare for taste reasons) and I knew I had to go home to get any better. None of the doctors could tell me what was wrong anyway, despite all the tests. The first doctor insisted it was food poisoning from the oysters I had eaten 2 days before The Pain. No matter what I said, all he could do was tell me about the time he got sicker than a dog after he ate Morro Bay oysters. It irritated me that a Man of Science was more a Prophet than a Skeptic. The second doctor, more sensibly, speculated that it was probably a virus since nothing showed up in the tests. Either way, neither of them knew, really.

I've never been sick before. Not enough to be hospitalized. Just being in that environment with all the Negative Energy was making it hard to get well. Not to mention the processed foods. But I think what really made me want to go home was knowing what the entire experience was costing.

When they brought the estimate to Big Dog, he howled "What?! Bring me a wheelchair! I think I'm going to pass out!" It was about $50,000 at that time. It was outrageous. Nowhere else in the world would they charge you that much for just a hospital bed and a few tests. Almost every country in the world takes care of the medical needs of its citizens, whether they are poor bankrupt nations or ones ruled by terrible despots. Even without insurance, medical costs are never as high as in the U.S. There is something terribly, terribly wrong with this country, but when you try to explain it to Americans, most of whom don't know how things are in other countries, they can't understand how broken their system is. No wonder there is so much resistance to a national healthcare policy!

Meanwhile, decent working folk are destroyed by medical costs and private insurers who won't pay up when the need arises. The indigent, the prisoners, the illegals, the ones who can't or won't contribute anything to society are the ones who get free medical care. Big Dog kept seeing prisoners from the nearby Men's Colony (a strange word for "prison") walking around the hospital, shackled and attended by 2 guards to each prisoner. And these guards are the highest paid in the nation, making six figure incomes!

So I guess the lesson learned (and a very expensive lesson at that) is: don't get sick in America unless you're a multimillionaire. If not, commit a crime, get incarcerated and get your free dental, medical, transgender hormone shots, whatever. Get it all!

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Monday, October 17, 2011


The squirrels are the new gophers, wrecking havoc in J&R's summer garden. They've taken out cucumbers, lettuce, squash. Maybe they're going for their corn, too.

They're ground squirrels and although we used to see them in Los Osos Valley, we didn't have them in ours. Until now. There seems to be a giant colony of them under the orange shipping container next to the garden orchard. My garden has escaped their greedy paws since it's beyond J&R's much bigger and more productive garden. Why move beyond the gourmet buffet?

As if the squirrels and gophers weren't trouble enough, we now have a population explosion of mice and rats. They are all over the chicken coops, storage sheds, and now Oak House where the McC Family live. All of this has turned Big Dog into the X-Terminator.

Each afternoon, he goes around setting traps, baiting the mouse traps with peanut butter (it doesn't fall off the traps) and the live animal traps with whatever fruit or vegetable we have available. Each morning, he goes back around, dealing with the dead (and sometimes headless!) rodents in the traps, as well as the live animal traps (we release the live animals on the other side of the valley.) We might have trapped one squirrel but they seem to be smarter than we think. Most of the animals caught in the traps have been birds, tiny ping-pong ball sized field mice, big eared deer mice (they hop like kangaroos!) and one time, a too-curious-for-her-own-good Ellie (J&R's cat who let out plaintive yowls until I came and got her out. She seemed a little embarrassed as she slunk away.)

At first, we used our own organic peanut butter as bait -- it was surprisingly effective -- but Big Dog, thinking it was a waste of decent peanut butter, went and bought a jar of the cheapest peanut butter he could find. We have not caught a single rodent since then! Now, what does that tell you about store-bought factory-made peanut butter?! It's not even good enough for the rats!

"I think there's something dead in our laundry room," Mama McC told us a few days ago. "I can hardly stand to go in there because of the smell."

Why doesn't she do something about it, I wondered, but I had to go to Oak House to see if I could plug up any rodent entry points anyway, so I decided to have a look.

After plugging up some holes in the kitchen and hallway closets, I had to go into the laundry room -- it seemed that there were entry points in that room as well. The minute I opened the door -- OH MY GOD! There was definitely a dead thing somewhere and it was putrefying the air with that fetid smell of death and decay. At first, I couldn't tell where it was coming from -- the laundry room was a mess of lint and dust and piled up junk -- but the moment I opened the closet to the hot water heater, there was no doubt the Dead Thing was in there. I wanted to just run out of there and never come back. Instead, I held my breath and started sucking up the rodent feces with their shop vac. And that's when I found it. Dead and decomposing and, worst of all, writhing with maggots! It was the most disgusting thing I had ever had to deal with.

"Oh, I can deal with it later," I heard Mama McC saying from the bedroom, but she hadn't dealt with it in all these days and I had no confidence that she would do so any time soon, so I manned up and managed to pick up and discard the Dead Thing, dump bleach on the maggots to make them stop writhing, suck up everything from the water heater closet that wasn't supposed to be there, plug up entry points and run home. I couldn't get out of there fast enough. And once home, I immediately ran into the shower where I stayed for at least the next half hour. I couldn't scrub enough, gargle enough, wash out my nostrils enough. I finally allowed myself to scream hysterically for a while, too. A scream worthy of the best horror films. A scream worthy of the famous shower scene from Psycho. A scream worthy of a young Jamie Lee Curtis. A scream worthy of "Scream."

Who needs Halloween after an experience like that!

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Saturday, October 01, 2011

Forbidden Fruit

how was it that they chose
an apple hard crisp

to represent the forbidden fruit

seeds dried, black

-- impenetrable, inedible

i would have chosen

something like a tomato

warm, fleshy, moist

lover's thighs, mouth, breasts

ripe, red

don't you think it more apropos?

drinking of its wetness

dripping seeds
vulnerable like the rest of us?

That's a poem I wrote when I was 18 or 19, but my love affair with the solanum lycopersicum, the "swelling fruit." the "golden apple," goes way back. In fact, I cannot remember a time when the tomato was NOT my favorite fruit and vegetable. (It is botanically a fruit, but "legally" a vegetable, at least in the United States. Leave it to Americans to have "legal" definitions for produce.)

I tried to grow a tomato when I was in grade school. Maybe fourth grade. I wasn't much good at taking care of things back then and had a long and terrible history of killing everything I looked after: turtles, canaries, goldfish..... But I managed to get one beautiful giant tomato out of the plant. It thrilled me to no end. I could not bear to eat it. I sniffed it endlessly. (I still think there's nothing better than the smell of a beautiful ripe tomato!) I tied it to a string on the end of a pole and swung the tomato around and around. My tying skills were crappy, too, and in no time at all, the tomato came loose and SPLAT! Onto the concrete patio it went. I cried. "I never got to taste it!"

My paternal grandmother, who lived in Kyushu during her last few decades, had a small farm around her house. She grew the most awesome white peaches -- big, juicy and sweeter than sweet -- but now that I think of it, everything she grew was awesome, including her tomatoes. We only visited her place a few times, and only for a few days each time, but I loved being in the garden with my grandmother. I loved eating the just-picked tomatoes right there in the garden with her. Not only was the taste unbelievably wonderful, but over the years, my memory has warped the taste into something mythical. My own homegrown tomatoes can never compare. But I try!

My grandmother was a tough old bird -- uncharacteristically direct for a Japanese, as well as completely independent. She didn't seem to have much of a maternal instinct and was never very affectionate, either with her children or theirs, but she must have poured love into her garden. Unlike my maternal grandmother, she never doted on me, never bought thoughtful little gifts, never played "house" or other silly kid games with me, but she gave me her love of growing things, her love of art and poetry, her connection with nature. It just took decades for these gifts to mature.

But back to the tomato.

"Cherry tomatoes are easy!" swore Big Dog, back when we lived in the middle of Tokyo. So I got a planter and once again tried my hand at growing my favorite fruit/vegetable. Tokyo summers are hot and humid and the plant grew and grew. It was quite an impressive plant, with lots of little yellow flowers. But the flower kept wilting and falling without producing that little swell, the embryo of a future tomato. Fall came and the plant died, without giving me a single fruit. It was a long disappointing summer.

Today, at the ranch, I am able to grow a number of different kinds of tomatoes and I await their season like an impatient lover. Ooo, the cherry toms have fruit! Ohhh, they're sweet -- like candy! Ohhh, here come the Romas. Mmmm, the Brandywines are almost ready... Ohhh, why don't we live in the Central Valley where it gets hotter faster?

Our tomatoes don't really get going til near the end of September, so by the time the major tomatoes arrive, I am almost sick with anticipation. But now, here they come and I am in heaven. Or should I say Eden? This Eve needs no temptress Snake. The Forbidden Fruit is seductive enough.
Canned Love!

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