Archive for April, 2009

The birds must be crazy

April 28, 2009

J0239597 Edgar Allan Poe’s raven rapping at his chamber door seemed like a literary device to me, nothing more.

Until this spring. Because both my teen son and I are being tortured by birds. Not the same birds, oh no, we each have our own feathered nemesis.

I’ve never actually seen mine. I just hear it. Most mornings, just before 5 a.m. It’s got a short, high pitched, and steady chirp, kind of like a smoke alarm with a dying battery, but more constant. It is impossible for me to sleep through, and, even more frustrating, my husband doesn’t hear it, at all; I’m thinking it’s out of his frequency range. It goes on for about an hour, or long enough so it’s not worth attempting to go back to sleep when it’s over. I’ve been staggering around for days as sleep deprivation accumulates.

Meanwhile, around the side of the house, a male robin has decided that he wants to build a nest inside my son’s room. He, too, is an early riser. He carefully gathers strands of grasses and tiny sticks, and, beak full of them, flies into my son’s screen and beats his wings against it. This is not a case of a bird slamming into a window by accident; he knows the window is there, he just wants it open. He, too, carries on for an hour or more most mornings, hanging on to those sticks, flying to a nearby tree branch to rest and then attacking the window once more. His mate sits on the ground, watching him. The sidewalk below is turning white from his droppings. And my son isn’t getting much sleep either.

Ahh, spring…

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The story of the swine flu epidemic and the pig who cried wolf

April 27, 2009

Influenza_Vaccination_1976 The swine flu outbreak is now a national emergency, a swine flu epidemic, coming in, it seems, from Mexico. Here in California, travel to Mexico is nothing, heck, one of my daughter’s middle school teachers pops down there to surf every time he’s got a three-day weekend.

So I should be concerned. I’m trying to be concerned. But I’m having trouble working up a healthy level of paranoia because I used it all up during the swine flu panic of 1976.

I was at Michigan State then, one of 45,000 students. Since swine flu was expected to attack young, healthy people living in close quarters, we figured we were going to be ground zero for this epidemic. We were afraid, very afraid, and relieved when the administration told us that we were all going to be vaccinated. We were herded into long lines somewhere in the center of campus; we didn’t even have to go to the health clinic. And we were zapped in the arm by some kind of shot-gun; the person giving the vaccine simply pulled a trigger; I remember thinking this was pretty amazing. What I don’t remember thinking about is whether or not I wanted this vaccine (of course I did, if I didn’t get it, for sure I was going to die), or hearing anything about possible side effects.

I went back to my dorm feeling relieved; that was done, now I could get back to parties and obsessing about boys and, oh yeah, classes and studying.

Instead, for the next day or so, my dorm mates and I found out about one scary side effect—random episodes of fainting.

My suitemate was the first to go down. She taking a shower in our shared bathroom, my roommate and I heard a thud and went in to see what was going on, and she was on the floor. It hit me a few hours later; I started to get up from the couch, and, classically, things did start to fade to black; I managed to toss myself back down on the couch safely, but was afraid to stand up again for a long time. And we weren’t the only ones; from what we heard, it seemed like more people were having fainting spells than weren’t. And we all felt altogether lousy for at least 24 hours.

I was one of 40 million people vaccinated in the U.S. that year.  There was no epidemic, a reported 25 people died from the vaccine itself. I pretty much forgot about the whole experience, chalking it up as a waste of adrenaline and time.

Until now. This time, it may be for real. So I’ll have to try to forget about 1976, and pigs who cry wolf.

Stopping to smell the cherry blossoms

April 17, 2009

IMG_3000 We took our kids to Japan for spring break. We gathered up all those frequent flyer miles that we’d been saving for a decade or so and figured out that while we couldn’t all go on the same flights, we could indeed all get to Tokyo the same afternoon. It seemed like a good time to turn my kids’ worlds upside down.

And Japan will do that for you. Jet lag, of course, helps; you’re physically out of synch. Driving and walking on the left instead of the right means that nothing is automatic—not crossing the street, not stepping onto an escalator, not turning a corner. You have to question everything you do. You thought you knew how to go to the bathroom—you were wrong. Handle the sniffles? Wrong again (you sniff, wear a face mask, but never blow). That soda you got out of the vending machine that’s now in your hand, well, kid, now you have a problem, because you need to find some place to sit down and drink it; read the sign (if you can), it seems to say that you’re not supposed to drink it on the street.

It was good for the kids to realize that our way isn’t the only way, to watch mom and dad struggle along with them to adapt, to watch us make mistakes, to be surprised. I got in trouble when I stepped onto the carpet wearing the sandals that were meant for the stone patio; the kids took note and never made that mistake. They made other mistakes though—taking their shoes off to go through airport security? Wrong! (Though it seems we were taking our shoes off every five minutes everywhere else). That lovely platter that, in the picture on the menu, looked like an entrée? It turned out to be dessert. (The kids shared their entrees and then shared the unplanned dessert—or maybe that wasn’t a mistake).

IMG_2992 They learned to bathe Japanese style, in a group, and even my body-conscious tweens didn’t balk. They learned the proper pattern for washing before entering a temple, and “purified themselves” every chance they got. We burned incense, and rang bells, and made donations and wishes. And wondered about the lives of the geisha and maiko that we occasionally spotted. And talked about why cherry blossoms are so important in Japan, why whole cities shut down so everyone can admire them.

The trip to Japan, perhaps our last as a family of five before our oldest is out of the nest was, for us, like the cherry blossoms: a reminder that beautiful things only last a short time. We need to stop and pay attention to them while we can.

And for a week, that’s just what we did. We paid attention: to what we ate (strange or familiar), to the people around us, to what shoes we wear when, to which way to look when we crossed the street. And to the cherry blossoms, each branch more perfect than the next.

Now, back in Silicon Valley, of course, we’re not paying attention anymore. We’re rushing to get to a sports practice, a rehearsal; hustling to do homework, squeezing dinner in in between.

Meanwhile, down the street, two perfect cherry blossom trees are in full bloom. I haven’t seen one person stop to admire them, to whip out a camera or cell phone and take a picture, or to lay a blue tarp on the ground and call their friends for an impromptu party. And while I slow down a little as I pass them, I don’t stop either.

The Downside of Digital Mammograms

April 3, 2009

J0407126 I got my annual mammogram today—my first with the new digital technology. And all I can say is that the genius behind this gizmo was not a woman.

The device isn’t more accurate than a regular film xray (at least in women over 50 with normal breast tissue, like me, for younger women, maybe, studies are still being done); it is, at best, comparable. Theoretically, it could offer lower radiation doses; at this point it’s, again, about the same.

So advantages, not so much.

Disadvantages, huge. Because digital mammograms require LONGER SQUISH TIME!

I’m not sure how long the squish time on the old film mammogram was. If your technician hustled back to her station to hit the button, probably no more than 7 or 8 seconds. Now, I’m guessing it is at least three times that long, perhaps longer; I wasn’t counting, I was in too much pain. It is so long that the technician no longer tells you to hold your breath, because, she told me, I’d likely need to breathe. It is so long that I’m still feeling sore four hours later.

Apparently, when the gee whiz news articles about digital mammography tout the fact that the device shortens exam time, they  mean that you don’t have to wait three minutes for the technician to go check the film before she releases you. This is three minutes that you spend sitting comfortably in a chair, perhaps glancing at a magazine. They ignore the dramatic increase in squish time.

And there’s one other unpleasant little fact about digital mammography—the examining rooms need to be kept uncomfortably cool; crank up the heat enough so a half-naked woman feels comfortable and the machine gets too hot and shuts down. (Or so this is what the technician told me when she apologized about the chill.)

The person who invented this lovely “improvement” in mammography is not someone with breasts