It is officially 100 degrees Fahrenheit at 2:39 in the afternoon at 3,200 feet above sea level in the Sierra mountains of California — on the north side of my house. The barometer reads 29.99 and falling. My fingers are swollen; my hips achey; my energy levels in the dumpster. It’s 80 degrees in my kitchen.

I’m melllltingggggg…

Tomorrow, the forecast is for 10 degrees cooler, with a bit of overcast. And by Saturday, temps are forecasted to be in the mid-70s with a few showers. It’s a matter of holding out.

I think supper tonight will consist of smoothies. A bit of plain yogurt, a splash of soymilk, a lot of ice and frozen blackberries. Wish me luck.

Flux time

The air outside smells rich and hot, like cinnamon.

There’s a wildfire somewhere. It’s not close, but it’s not far away, either. I squint up at the hot blue sky above the spiky evergreen treetops and turn, slowly, 360 degrees. For what it’s worth, I can see no smoke.

There’s no wind right now, at 10:40 in the morning on August 24, 2010, but chances are there will be by late afternoon, when the “Delta breezes,” the winds that have their origin in the vast Sacramento River delta, start blowing, as they do every late summer and fall. They provide  a certain relief to people living in the big valley—the winds at least move the oppressively heated air around a little—but they’re the bane of firefighters trying to knock down a wildfire. The winds fan small smolders and encourage little flames to grow into big ones. The winds hurry the hungry flames along, faster and faster as they consume the brittle, wheat-colored grasses, growing in strength and ferocity until the fire does, indeed, go wild. It jumps roads and bulldozed firebreaks. It climbs up shrubbery and feasts on pitchy pines, leaving a smoky, black and gray wasteland behind it.

Sometimes, all the firefighters can do is wait for sunset and the dying of the winds.

I go inside and, because I’m a journalist at heart and nosey this way (and because I live surrounded by summer-dry, pitchy evergreens and a tinderbox understory), check the CalFire website for information about the latest “incidents.”  I expect to discover that there’s a big forest fire up near Tahoe, 53 miles due east, over the mountain summit, or perhaps a ravenous wildfire eating up acres of chaparral-covered foothills 25 miles down the mountain from me. But what I find is that the only fires that are presently burning in the state are in Southern California. They’re both huge fires that have been burning for several days now. It’s just possible that the winds are blowing just right to waft the scent of smoke this far north and east, up out of the bowl of the valley to my little house perched halfway up the Sierra range, but only just. That makes me a little nervous. If there’s no reported fire burning nearby, what is causing that over-baked cinnamon bread smell outside?

After days of warm, extraordinarily gentle temperatures that are not characteristic of late summer in northern California, today’s forecast is for serious heat. It will be, the weatherheads say, nearly 100 degrees here at 3,200 feet in the mountains, and in the high 100s down at sea-level in the baking Sacramento Valley. Tomorrow will be even hotter. (Hotter? This is, for me, hard to imagine.) But Thursday, they say, will dawn cooler: the low 90s here, high 90s down the mountain.

“Cooler” is relative.

Today’s heat rides on the broad back of a fast-moving high-pressure area. It should move over us and then leave again, soon. But even without looking at the weather news online, even without the rising temperature outside, I’d know things were in flux. My fingers—all ten of them—are sore and achy. I’m weary even though it’s just an hour before noon and I enjoyed eight full hours of remarkably restful sleep last night. My hip pulls and tweaks as I walk. My rheuma-dragon is always aware of the rise or fall of the barometer. Not only that: he’s profoundly dedicated to letting me know, just in case I don’t see the weather forecast or smell that strange, burnt-cinnamon fragrance, that change is in the air.

Update: It’s after 5 p.m., now, and it seems there are no wildfires burning anywhere in our area. Hard to say what it was that I smelled this morning; when I went out a little while later, that hot cinnamony scent was gone. I’m glad. This is always a nervous time of year in the Sierras.

Sunday morning musings

The Sierra foothills stay green, as in this photo, usually until mid-May. Then they totally dry out and turn pale yellow. By the end of the summer, they're almost silvery.

I saw my rheumatologist yesterday morning, bright and early. Although it takes most of an hour on a light-traffic day to drive down the mountain to the VA medical center, I like these early morning appointments. There’s something about being up and moving around while the birds are still tuning their instruments and the full colors of the day are only beginning to show promise that just jazzes me. Always has, even when I was rising early to go to work day in and day out.

So the drive was pleasant. There was very little traffic. It reminded me of my young adulthood in the Sacramento Valley, when a turn onto Highway 50 east meant leaving the suburban and city traffic behind within just a few miles. The whole area was much more lightly populated back then, of course (it didn’t seem like it at the time, though). The only reason anyone drove east out of Sac was to go camping in the mountains or visit Lake Tahoe for the lake or, just over the Nevada border, the casinos.

Today, suburbs stretch 20 miles around Sacramento in all directions, and it’s really not until the freeway passes through Placerville that the unbroken trees and wilderness really begins. Even that’s a illusion, though. There are small towns everywhere, dotted back in behind the tall evergreens and rising mountainsides. My own town is one of them.

Still, I enjoyed the drive. I got off the freeway about 30 miles down the mountain and into the valley and took a narrow, two-lane surface road the rest of the way in, just to be able to see the still-un-developed rolling, slowly flattening foothills in all their late-summer glory. These hills are covered with star-thistle along the verges of the roadsides and long grasses that turn a pale wheat color after the temperatures rise in late May and early June. By late August, they almost have a silver sheen to them. They roll along, seemingly without end, dotted with huge, ancient valley oaks, cottonwoods in the now-dry drainages, and red-tailed hawks on fenceposts. Once they were open grazing ranges for cattle; some areas still are. When I was very young, these hills really did stretch out almost forever. Now … not so much.

As anticipated, my doctor did prescribe plaquinil for me this time. He says my rheuma bloodwork still looks really good. I told him about my continuous, low-to-moderate level pain in my hands and wrists, and about the newer pain I’ve felt lately in my hips (not the bursitis), knees and feet. We talked. He conceded that while the disease might be slowed, it didn’t necessarily mean it was stopped, and that my pain wouldn’t necessarily stop, either. We’re both hoping the plaquinil, in combination with the Arava and sulfasalazine, might have a positive effect. In the meantime, it’s tramadol for pain, along with exercise, paraffin baths, and my spidey gloves. I’ve stopped, pretty much entirely, taking any stronger narcotics. I’m glad for that as for a while there, it was taking higher dosages of hydrocodone and percocet to achieve the same pain relief. Not good. I’m hoping I can stay away from them for a very long time, so that if I do need to take them again in the future, they’ll help me at normal dosages. Frankly, I get fearful when I think of having to take high dosage of those medications; I’ve been taking them long enough, off and on over the years, that needing a prescription outside of my PCP’s office means an inquisition and “the look” from unfamiliar doctors. Yuck.

The rest of the bloodwork had both good and bad news. The bad? My vitamin D levels are back in the rubbish bin again, so I’m back on 1,000 mgs per day of that, along with the calcium-plus-D supplement I’ve been taking all along. The good news is that my blood glucose level is wonderful. I continue to avoid pre-diabetes and the full-blown disease. I’d been indulging myself in the occasional white-bread PB&J, so I’d been a bit worried about it. But it seems as long as I can keep that sort of thing truly as an occasional “treat” rather than a daily indulgence, I’ll be fine. We don’t keep other sweets in the house at all, except for fruit. I’m relieved.

It’s unseasonably cool again today. The high is supposed to be 81, and it will be quite windy. That’s still a worry as far as summer wildfire is concerned, but man, is it comfortable otherwise.  You won’t hear me complaining about 81. As I’ve said before, these moderate temps are unusual for Northern California. In the past (and for nearly all my life) we’ve always slow-baked in the high-90s and low-100s here starting  in late May and just keep baking until mid-October. But it seems (based on the last few summers) our weather patterns are changing. I’m thankful, but it’s a bit disconcerting to find myself needing my light fleece jacket in the mornings during the hottest part of the year.

Good thing I’m not holding my breath. I just checked the weather report and learned that by Tuesday we’ll be near triple-digits here in the mountains, and in the valley … ohmygod. It hardly bears thinking about. Convection-oven heat is what I expect for this part of the year, so even as I wrinkle my nose and wonder how I’ll cope with it in a few days, the normalcy is oddly comforting.

At any rate, I think I’ll stay right up here at home, where the Stellar’s jays start arguing about 5 a.m., the tall firs whisper to each other in the breeze, and it’s several degrees cooler than the valley. Here’s wishing everyone a terrific week to come.

We’re all winners

I was delighted, late last night, to discover that RheumaBlog has won an award as one of the Top 40 Athritis blogs on the Intertubes, as presented by the Medical Assistant Schools.  Other winners include Helen of Pens and Needles, WarmSocks of ∞ itis, Cathy of The Life and Adventures of Cateepoo and many other excellent blogs and their writers.

Go take a look at the list, visit the winners and if you’re a winner yourself, grab a badge from the site, post it on your blog and preen a little!

Our arthritis blogs are an important source of information, confirmation and camaraderie. By reading and commenting, we discover online friends and can give and get a singular type of support: from other people who, just like us, live and cope with rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases every day. It’s unique — and it’s a lifeline.

Congrats to all the winners!


Shadow and Finny McCool play "tug" -- practically under my feet, as usual.


We all need it. Dogs know–they’ll play anytime, anywhere, collapse for a snore-session and then play again. Children get it, too. Play works off excess energy, works the muscles, delights the mind and leaves the soul satisfied.

As adults, we often forego play in favor of taking care of business. We work, we have chores, we pay bills, we have responsibilities. Not many of us have time for play–and if we do play, we structure it like we do everything else in our lives.

This morning, the first thing Finny McCool did upon crawling from beneath the covers on my bed was go looking for his big buddy Shadow. They rolled around together under the kitchen table while I got their breakfasts. I took the big one outside for his morning constitutional, then the little one. As soon as we were done, they started playing again. They ran back and forth, first Shadow chasing Fin, then Fin chasing Shadow. Shadow played “drag the little guy around by his topknot” for a while; then Fin played “hang off the big guy’s ear.” When they finally needed a rest, the took it with Fin laying on my feet on the ottoman, Shadow on the floor as close as he could get to both of us.

Dogs are such simple creatures. It was a joy to watch them (I’ve moved the most breakable things out of their range, now–it’s like child-proofing a house!) and it made me think. What do I do for play?

Well, I don’t. At least, not anything that involves outdoor games, or running, or, well, playing. My mind plays while I write, though, and it plays as I surf the Internet, or read a good book. I guess you could say I play when I cook, too, since I truly enjoy serving food for myself and my family that’s delicious and pretty to look at.

But I need to find a form of play that will take me outside, challenge my mind and body, and allow me to work off excess energy. Because, yes, even in middle-age, even with rheumatoid arthritis, we all have excess energy. And if we don’t use it, if we suppress the need to move and laugh and be joyful for no other reason than that we’re moving and laughing, it’s lost. It trickles away in nervy, bouncing knees, or comes out as frustration over small defeats. It build up as a sort of low-level stress that, in the end, makes us unhappy and blue. And it exacerbates pain.

Today I’m thinking about possibilities for play. I have a jump-rope. I bought it for exercise, but putting that dull, adult word on something as fun as jumping rope made me pack the thing into a closet and forget about it. I’m going to get it out and do some jump-roping today. I’m going to play.

How do you play?

The guys tell me to get off my duff and play a little, too!

Being human …

As I continue my journey toward my goal weight, it’s sometimes necessary to step back a few paces and acknowledge that I’m an imperfect human being. I can want, with all my heart, to be less chubby and more slender, yet rationalize—and make, then eat—a peanut-butter-and-jelly-on-white-bread sandwich for lunch. I can make note that my pants are feeling a little too tight when I put them on in the morning, yet make myself believe that a couple of slices of pizza for supper won’t really hurt. I can be frustrated and complain that I’m “stuck,” unable to get my weight to slip under that next milestone, then eat half a bar of Nestle’s Dark Chocolate when I meant to eat a single square as a small, delicious treat.

Yep, I’m human.

Because of that, I need to remind myself why I’m trying to lose this excess poundage in the first place. First and foremost, my health. Obesity hurts me in a myriad of ways, most of them subtle and nefarious. The excess adipose tissue in my body puts stress on my heart and lungs. It plays havoc with my pancreas, making it difficult for it to produce insulin and thus increasing the likelihood that I’ll develop diabetes—a truly frightening disease that damages everything from the circulatory system to vision. And carrying around excess fat, which is heavy, puts stress on my hip, knee, ankle and foot joints, making the damage my rheumatoid arthritis is doing to my joints even worse. It makes me stiffer, hurt more, and be less able to move and enjoy my life.

The other reason for losing this weight is that I, like most human beings, like to look nice. Now, I’m not saying that chubby people are ugly, because they aren’t. But I’ve found it difficult to find affordable clothing that looks nice on my chubby frame. It’s disheartening to look in my mirror after spending time making myself presentable to go out, only to see that I still look short, lumpy, thick and pudgy, the only skinny part of me my calves, which look like two sticks beneath a fat pear. Clothes don’t look flattering. While I realize that it’s unrealistic to expect I’ll ever look like a skeleton-thin fashion model or TV star, my culture and society perceives beauty in fit slenderness, not flabby tubbiness. I can’t help but be influenced by it. This is the world I live in. It’s my reality.

I’m human, but I want to be a fit, slender human.

Finally, losing that weight means I can move smoothly and with grace, the way my body was designed to. Already, with the first 50 excess pounds gone, I’m far more physically active than I was. It no longer hurts to lean down and tie my shoes. I can kneel and reach into low cupboards without being fearful that I’ll not be able to get up again. When I walk up the steep driveway to the mailbox, I’m not winded when I reach the top anymore. I have more stamina and more energy. I can walk without resting for several miles when my RA isn’t flaring in my legs. I can turn over in bed more easily, and if I’m not hurting from rheuma, I sleep better. Chairs don’t seem as narrow and spindly; I don’t worry that I might break a resin lawn chair by sitting in it. When I’m in the shower, it takes a little less time to wash myself—and when I look down, my belly doesn’t obliterate my feet.

These are all great reasons to stay on the path to slender health and physical fitness, even at the age of 53-going-on-54. And yet, I frequently lose my resolve and eat the kinds of foods I know won’t nourish me properly and that will only turn into more fat padding my naturally broad, Scandinavian hips.

I’m only human. Fallible. Often weak. But I’m also persistent. Because even though I stray into the forest now and then, I’m keeping my path to health and fitness in view so I can get right back on it.

Today’s lunch was delicious, a bit more calorific than it probably should have

Oops. Took a couple of bites from my sammich before I remembered I wanted to take a photo of it...

been, but very healthy nonetheless. I’m sharing again:

Wren’s Avocado and Provolone Sandwich


2 ripe avocados, mashed

1 shake garlic salt

1 shake of Italian herbs

Provolone cheese, very thinly sliced

1 generous drizzle of lemon juice

2 slices wholegrain bread

½ tbsp. butter

Method: Spread the butter thinly on the bread slices and toast until crisp and golden. While the bread is toasting, mash the avocados, season with the garlic salt, and drizzle the mashed avocados with the lemon juice to preserve their pretty green color. When the bread is toasted, spread the mushed avocado on it (like peanut butter!) as thick or thin as you like, and top with enough cheese to cover. Put the slices under a hot broiler just long enough to melt the cheese, then sprinkle with Italian herbs. Eat and enjoy.

Why it’s a heathy, yet tasty sandwich: Provolone is less fatty than other cheeses, so it’s a bit less calorific without sacrificing flavor and texture. It melts quickly and has a light, creamy flavor.

The wholegrain bread provides carbohydrate energy, but because it includes all parts of the grain, it’s more nutritious than highly processed white bread. Because the fiber in it converts to sugar in the bloodstream more slowly, the pancreas can keep up with the sugar load and produces insulin in a more steady way. This avoids the sharp sugar/insulin spikes that can cause damage in the body and bring on diabetes.

And avocados! While they’re probably the most fattening of all the fruits (50 calories for 1/5 of a medium avocado, 35 of those from fat), they’re absolutely delicious and provide 20 essential nutrients, including fiber, potassium, Vitamin E, B-vitamins and folic acid. They also act as a “nutrient booster” by enabling the body to absorb more fat-soluble nutrients, such as alpha- and beta-carotene and lutein, in foods that are eaten with the fruit.

My RA continues to bother me with mostly low-level pain much of the time. But I’m grateful that it’s not worse. I still have an occasional more painful flare, but these don’t last longer than 24 hours, generally. My energy levels are good, I sleep well with a little nudge from a single, 20 mg. tablet of amitriptyline (Elavil) each night before bed, and my RA drugs seem to be keeping the disease from progressing or becoming more aggressive. I see my rheumatologist next Saturday, and I expect that I’ll be adding plaquenil to my current arsenal of sulfasalazine and leflunomide. I hope that the addition will relieve the constant pain. Even though it’s not terrible pain, it does wear me down and leaches some of the joy out of my days. I remain hopeful.

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you’re all feeling well, strong, and are keeping your eyes open for the small gifts the world has to offer us each and every day. And, if you try my avocado and provolone sandwich, bon appétit!

Note: I use a toaster oven to toast bread, so spreading butter on it first works. This might not be such a great idea if you use a regular toaster, though…  just sayin’.

What I like …

… about healthy eating:

It’s so easy.

When it was time for lunch today, rather than making a tuna sandwich on white bread (we’re all out of whole grain bread at the moment), I decided to eat something better for me, instead. Granted, tuna isn’t a bad choice — it’s full of protein and other good things, like Omega 3s, so you’re getting a lot of goodness in an efficient food — but this tuna was mixed with mayonnaise into tuna salad, adding a lot of extra fat calories. Eating it on white bread just seemed awfully self-defeating to me, and I’ve allowed myself too many “bad” foods lately. The scale and the fit of my clothes have begun to remind me of why I just can’t eat hamburgers and French fries. Denial only lasts until, as I pull my pants on, I discover I have to “oof” to button them.

So. Healthy food today. I’d made some brown basmati rice ahead yesterday, cooked in organic vegetable broth. (I find it easier to stick to eating nutritiously if I make sure I have things like cooked brown rice handy). Now it was a matter of what to have with it.

I looked in the fridge. Mmm. There were zucchinis and a red bell pepper in the crisper, and Roma tomatoes in the bowl on the cupboard. Why not just stir-fry those veggies in a little olive oil and have them over the rice?

Zucchini, red bell pepper strips and chopped Roma tomatoes cook in a little olive oil ...

And that’s what I did. While the veggies were cooking, I added a sprinkle of garlic salt and a generous shake of Chinese Five Spice. The whole thing took about 10 minutes.

Here’s the recipe:

Wren’s Quick Lunch Stir Fry

1 med. zucchini, quartered lengthwise and chopped

1/2 red bell pepper, cut into small slices

1 Roma tomato (or any tomato) chopped roughly

1-2 tbs extra virgin olive oil

Season to taste

Method: Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. When it’s hot, add all the chopped veggies and cook, stirring often and adding seasonings, to the desired degree of doneness (I love veggies hot but not cooked until they’re soggy). While they’re cooking, heat 1/2 cup of the brown basmati rice you made ahead yesterday on a plate in  the microwave; you could also dump the rice into the skillet with the veggies near the end of their cook-time and heat it that way.

Put cooked veggies over the rice, grab a fork, and eat. Yummmmmm!