Sunday, April 18, 2010

Four Seasons of the High Desert

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say that this place is nice but they miss THE four seasons. This is especially true of those who are here because their job moved them here. They just aren’t paying attention. We have fours seasons. Northern elitism prevents them from seeing and embracing the four seasons of the southwestern high desert.

So what are these non-stereotypical seasons, you ask. Westerners in general tend to be of the ‘don’t tell me what to do or think’ mind set, so this disclaimer applies: these are what I see as our four seasons. They are neither generally known nor pondered. Most of us have better things to do than worry about this kind of stuff. I’m only thinking about it because this year two seasons have overlapped by a significant margin, which struck me with awe. Let me explain....

My take on the four seasons of the southwestern high desert are (in order): Wind, Hell-hot, Wet, and Beautiful. We are currently in Wind season, which normally occurs in some form between the beginning of March and the middle of May. It’s a time when the jet stream is making its annual trek across the western U.S.. Living above 5000' altitude and between low and high-pressure air masses engaged in a heroic annual struggle above you, you get wind – lots of wind. Some years it can blow for weeks. When this happens, especially when you are in week 5 or 6 of constant wind, people get really cranky. Snap-your-neck-off cranky. We tread lightly this time of year. The rattlesnakes come out of hibernation to the wind – cranky and hungry – makes this season even less attractive! Sure flowers bloom and birds sing, but the afternoon after a bud breaks it looks like it has been through a shredder. The birds don’t flit about – they hold on for dear life and only let go when they need to go in the same direction as the wind, with no hope of returning. Do not get spring fever during Wind season, even though there is a rough coincidence with official SPRING. Planting small unsuspecting living things in the ground when they cannot escape is harmful to their health. If they survive Wind season, then the next season will finish them off for sure.

Wind season is actually a good thing because it makes you embrace and welcome Hell-hot. The winds finally die down as the jet stream stabilizes and the heat cranks up. We are fortunate because our heat is not the heat of Phoenix, AZ, a lower desert enclave. We tend to be at least 20 degrees (F) cooler, which makes a huge difference. Sure, 105 degrees still feels really hot during the day, but at night the 20 degrees difference between 70 and 90 can really cool off for a pleasant night. Despite that creature comfort, there is usually no rain and things dry up. Another name for Hell-hot is "fire season". Depending on a number of factors, fire season can be ugly. Last year, we had a lovely mild fire season. In 1994, we lost 4,000 acres of forest in our valley. In 2001, we lost 38,000 acres of grassland. Most of these fires are – you guessed it – HUMAN CAUSED. Despite this knowledge, idiots still throw lit cigarettes from their car windows, as documented by the black expanses along road sides throughout the southwest. Hell-hot usually begins in early to mid-May and extends until July. Many of us think of this as the time we hold our collective breath and count the days until the next season which is heralded by start of the summer rains.

Next time: Monsoons and the rest of the year!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Irony of The Blog

I had a topic picked out for today, but it will have to wait. This is my first blogging experience, which is likely painfully obvious to anyone who happens to fall accidentally onto my page. In the course of exploring the pre-fab magic of my host, I clicked on the heading “MONETIZE.” Well, how cool is this!?! I thought. If I let the host, who really owns the space anyway, add some advertizing on space they already own, and someone selects it, I get some cash. Excellent concept in line with my belief in the free market economy. SOLD! So I signed up for it.

There is one catch. You must agree not to click on the advertising links yourself. What a wise proviso, lest a host of bloggers spend their days clicking on their own links to pay themselves. The concept of the self-licking ice cream cone is not lost on me. I do work in a bureaucratic job in a business that has a higher headquarters. Their logo is an ice cream cone trying to lick itself – OK, it SHOULD be that logo.... Back to the blog – I of course agreed to that wise rule.

Not sure what I was thinking, but it wasn’t quite what I ended up with. Was I perhaps expecting some sites related to products so useful that I mentioned them in my blog? Yes I was. Why not plaster a 2-day old blog with Target and Merck ads? Seemed rational to me, but I am on a 4-drug cocktail that makes me very happy and there could be some flaws in my logic.

Upon return to the site, there were ads relating to my first post with all manner of remedies and clinics for Shingles. I am in week 2 of what will probably be a 4-week recovery from the dread disease. In my desperate searches for understanding, help or relief from this condition, I did not encounter any of these sites. The urge to open some of them has been overwhelming. However, I am a woman of principle, so I have not broken my agreement with my mysterious host. But I am marveling at the irony of it all.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Building a better loaf

We eat a lot of bread in this house. When the price of a loaf of 'good' bread shot to $5 in late 2008, I'd had enough of being held hostage. Paying a high price for mystery ingredients had turned me into a crazy woman. OK, maybe I was already there, but this certainly did not help toward any recovery.

I did some research, asked around and consulted consumer reports. I decided on a Zojirushi BBCC-X20, which makes a large horizontal loaf. It does have the wierd paddle holes in the bottom, but you can get accustomed to that if the bread is good enough.

Next problem was actually buying one. Luckily it was near Christmas so they were abundant. Thank goodness for the internet. I did some comparison shopping and found that the price varied wildly for a new one. High was around $250 PLUS shipping down to a low around $200 including shipping. I did the math, even if ingredients and electricity cost me $2.50 a loaf, the machine would pay for itself in 40 weeks. Not bad. I went for it. I found a great deal on eBay from a seller that also has a brick-and-mortar store and 100% satisfaction, so that's where I ordered.

Bread, even if you are not doing the kneading, is still fascinating stuff. How did man ever figure it out? Powdering grain and mixing it with just the right stuff, especially the yeast, to get a light network of nutty goodness -- I couldn't have done it in a lifetime, yet we have inherited the secrets and take them for granted!

We live at 5000+ feet, so even with the bread machine there are subtlties that I NEVER imagined before. I can't dump the stuff in, turn it on and walk away. The humidity here is so low, and varies so much from day to day that you must actually adjust the recipes for the RH. There may be as much difference as a quarter of a cup of water to keep the 'loaf' from becoming a load of small, round, hard dog treats. My big, dumb golden retriever takes great interest in the process, knowing that if I goof, she gets the good stuff!

In making bread, some balance must be learned. The zen of bread making was previously unknown to me, but there is definitely a bread zone to enter! A few times I have put in too much of something I love -- like chopped dried fruit. I quickly learned how fruitcake was discovered when I retrieved a heavy, wet loaf of it from my machine. Another lesson: a cup of flour is not a cup of flour! At my altitude and humidity, a cup of flour, which is about 4.5 ounces, actually measures at 3/4 of a cup. That explained a lot of dog treats! I have come to appreciate what amazing stuff BREAD is and how we take it for granted because it has become such a small part of our bounty in this day and age.

The GOOD stuff is another reason I make my own bread now. Oh, we've jumped in with both feet. Not just buying the good King Arthur flour, which has gone up $2 a bag since the end of 2008, by the way. Same cost-benefit analysis led us to buy a small hand grinder for grain. We now grind our wheat, rye, brown rice -- you get the idea. We use local honey and have graduated to virgin olive and coconut oils rather than just butter or shortening.

We're down to two basic loaves a week, with an occasional third of sourdough just for variety. We also use the sourdough for pizza dough -- yes, Domino's misses us! I'm surprised they haven't sent a 'missing you' card! The first loaf replaces the morning bagels I bought for my husband. I feel really bad about that because the local bagel joint went out of business about 6 months after we bought the bread machine. I did not imagine my bread machine as a business murderer, but I guess it shares the guilt with me and others.

Our daily bread is now high protein, high fiber and really good. I know what is in it and rarely feel guilty eating it, because it is wholesome and healing. We do not scrimp on quality but are not 'breaking the bank' because the price of grain is still less than the price of white flour. Above all else, I am starting to feel the contentment of providing for my family in a different, much more visceral way. Some day soon I will probably stop using the bread machine and just do it all myself, but until then, Zo and I will continue to crank out the good stuff!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Getting through Shingles

Strange title for a first posting on a blog. Funny how unrelenting pain and a dearth of practical information available on line can serve as an inspiration! At some point I will provide a little bio about me, but that can wait. This blog is not planned to be a font of medical expertise, I am not a healthcare professional. As a discliamer, I am not recommending anything I have found to work for me. If you decide to try it and it works for you, cool.

First off, if you have ever had the chicken pox, you are a candidate for shingles. Until I got them I thought the CP vaccine was a bunch of hooey. So what-- chicken pox is no big deal. Guess I was wrong there. It is the encore that kicks your heiny. The vaccine for shingles is available but recommended for those over 60. News flash: If you have a high stress job or lifestyle, your body will not wait for your birthday so get it NOW. I wish I had gotten it!! I have a high-stress job. In the last few months it has gotten higher-stress -- some of that is actually good, but there is still the constant stream of stuff due and training-up the new people.

'Shingles' is a viral infection of your nerves by the same herpes virus that brought you the chicken pox, only this time it is back to show you how it can kick your booty. The rash is only one of a host of symptoms. Do not underestimate this syndrome. You need rest and drugs to get through it without lasting pain, called post-herpetic neuralgia. You do not want this, so taking care of yourself can help reduce the chances of ending up with it.

If anyone out there is experiencing shingles, they probably don't care if I am a Martian, as long as my 'tips' can help. Here are a few that I've learned in the last 2 weeks of semi-drug-induced haze.

First: If you hurt and have a rash GO TO THE DOCTOR. Everyone is familiar with the rash part, but you hurt like hell for 5 days before that even starts. I thought I had some kind of horrible cancer it hurt so bad. I went to the MD before the rash and they missed it. You may need to mention: COULD THIS BE SHINGLES? When I finally broke out in the rash and figured out it was shingles, I was actually RELIEVED that it wasn't something worse. I am still thankful that it isn't something worse, but it is still a process to recover.

Once you broach the shingles thing, GET ANTI-VIRAL DRUGS from urgent care. DO NOT WAIT until your regular MD can see you, unless it is two hours from when you call to ask for an appointment. This stuff progresses rapidly and every hour you wait can mean days more of recovering time. I used acyclovir at first, went back to my MD and got VALTREX -- it worked better. Unfortunately, I had a huge swath of rash by then, but it cut out the icky blistery and oozy part of the disease and will reduce my recovery by about a week.

You must also get pain meds. Strong ones. Some nerve-calming drugs may also be in order. I will list some suggestions later. Do not try to 'tough it out.' It hurts. Everything hurts if it is near the rash -- oh, you can also have sensitive areas that are not near the rash. Your need to do this right the first time to avoid the post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN).

Being a well-endowed female, I prefer wearing a bra. AT this point, it feels like the band is made of coarse sandpaper. I wore pantyhose a couple of days this week. Can't tell you what a bad idea that was, but duty called. Today I bought thigh-highs in anticipation of returning to work on Monday.

My rash and inflammation are on the right side of my torso (mercifully, shingles usually happens only on one side at a time), about bra-line to bottom of pantyline. If you have similar coverage, here is what has helped me:

1. SOLARCAINE for surface anesthetic and antiseptic before the scabs fall (sorry to be gross, but shingles is a gross condition). NO ONE will suggest this. It does help.

2. Loose clothing. GO TO TARGET and buy some moo-moos or other loose dresses if you are female. Not sure what to tell guys -- maybe a night shirt or some plus-size ladies' moo-moos. If you absolutely must go into the office, try loose dresses from the maternity department. Don't forget the thigh-high stockings -- you will probably need a little exfoliation with a washcloth to keep them up). Panty-hose will feel like an iron-maiden, even with the solarcaine.

3. COOLER showers. Do this quickly, as one half of your body will be freezing and the rash-affected area will feel like it is on fire. Use a gentle liquid shower soap -- unscented if possible. I used a moisturing Aveeno product for sensitive skin. It helped and most of all, did not hurt. I did spill a little of my normal rosemary and eucalyptus gel on the rash. Bad idea. Do not use a strong herbal shower gel.

4. STAY HOME. I went back to work too early. It was torture. If there is anyone at your workplace who did not have chicken pox, they can get it from you during about the first week of the rash. Do not gamble withtheir health either.

5. Take drugs. Pain will make the experience MORE STRESSFUL and that's what got you into this mess. Here's what I took, in addition to the VALTREX: Lyrica or neurontin to help calm or strengthen the nerves. Try to get samples of this, it's expensive. Percocet-- half of a 5 mg every 8 hours made a huge difference in my quality of life. I skip one every two days to see if I still need it and to give my body a rest in case I'm getting constipated. Don't forget your vitamins, like B-12 and C with bioflavinoids.

6. If you get muscle spasms, another exciting symptom, try Skelaxin. It did not add to my drowsiness when I took 800 mg, 3 times a day.

7. Schedule another follow-up appointment with your MD for about 10 days after the rash appears. At this appointment, if the rash is cleared enough, they can prescribe lidoderm patches for the really painful places. These are more powerful than the solarcaine but you can't put them on the open rashes. Another thing that may help prevent the PHN is a 7-day course of prednisone. I went for it. Again, anything that can help prevent PHN is worth a try.

8. Take care of yourself NOW and don't fall back into the habits that got you to the point of shingles. Remember: you can get them on the other side of your body, head, face, etc. even if you've already had them once.

9. Try not to be an idiot. If you are under 70 years old, that's probably what got you to the point of shingles. This will be the hardest part for me!