Floating elephants

First, apologies for taking so long to post again. I can hardly believe it’s been nearly two weeks. Obviously, taking on the 30 posts in 30 days challenge was unwise.

My excuse? Each time I had the couple of hours I like to give myself to write a decent post of decent length, my muse exited stage left. Vamoosed. Did a powder. The result was a pitiful mishmash of words tending toward the maudlin. Certainly not post-worthy.

I’m not sure this one will be any better, but since tomorrow is Thanksgiving and I find myself with an afternoon on my own and without distractions, I’ll give it another try. And this time, I’m writing the post within the WordPress app rather than using Word. I’m much more likely to click “publish” in this format.

First, I’ll finally fess up to the lie in the 3 truths, 1 lie post of Nov. 8 (gads, that was a long time ago!). Here were the possibilities:

1st : I had breakfast with Sir Peter Ustinov in front of the Cologne cathedral; 2nd: I once chased four tigers around a shipping harbor; 3rd: I skied the Alps with a bad RA flare in my right large toe; and 4th: I landed a two-seater Cessna on my first try.

The lie was that I once chased four tigers around a shipping harbor. They were actually elephants. The shipping harbor was in Bremerhaven, Germany, and I was there with an Armed Forces Network TV news crew consisting of two young soldiers, one with a camera and the other with good-looks, a microphone and the ability to turn breaking stories into complete 60-second newscasts in the blink of an eye. I, on the other hand, had at least a week to write up the story, so my goal was to take good notes, shoot a couple rolls of film and stay out of videotape range. Elephants at the harbor wasn’t something that happened every day, that’s for sure.

We’d been told the approximate location of the elephants, which were about to be put aboard a container ship bound for the U.S.A. The pachyderms were members of the European arm of the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus. We arrived at the specified spot after parking our Army van and walking about a quarter mile into the harbor–cars were not allowed near the docks–but saw no elephants anywhere. Hmmm. They really couldn’t be hard to miss, could they? Elephants, after all, are not small. We stood around for a while, hoping they’d materialize. Remember, now, this was in the late ’80s. We didn’t have cellphones, the Internet or GPS. We had to rely on our source for the time, location and directions, and in this case, we’d only found out about this momentous occasion a couple of hours before.

Suddenly, the sharp-eyed cameraman said, pointing, “There they are!” Sure enough, there were several elephants ambling along in a line, way off in the distance. They disappeared behind a two-storey stack of shipping containers. We took off at a sprint. Or rather, the soldiers did. I followed along gamely, sort of jog-trotting, supported by my cane. I was wearing a skirt and blouse, a wool coat and my two-inch pumps, and my left knee had been flaring since I’d left for work that morning. It never occurred to me not to go out on the story–my Army Public Affairs colleague, Sgt. D, was out on another story. If I didn’t go, we wouldn’t get the elephants. At least, not first-hand.

Besides, it sounded like fun and I didn’t want to miss it.

I caught up with the AFN crew when they stopped to catch their breath and regroup. The elephants had disappeared. We discussed splitting up, but decided we’d better stick together.

There was a shout from behind us. We turned, and several hundred yards away was a bundled-up man shouting and waving at us, his breath rising in puffs of steam on the frigid air. Did I mention it was February? About 42 degrees? We trotted over to him.

He was with the shipping company, and said that to get the best pictures of the elephants, we should go to another part of the shipping harbor, because it was there the ship was docked that the elephants would be loaded onto. We took off again. The cameraman slowed down long enough to ask me, solicitously, “You all right?” as I limped along, fast as I could. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I said. I always said that when someone asked. I didn’t want anyone to think I couldn’t do my job just because I had arthritis. In truth, I was always a little fearful that no one really believed me, and it was embarrassing. Arthritis, at least in the form that the vast majority of people were familiar with, was not a disease that struck 34-year-olds.

What followed could be best described as a Keystone Kops-style chase. We kept seeing the elephants, briefly, as they trotted toward the part of the harbor the ship was docked, but then they’d disappear again. It happened at least three times, and we were starting to get a little spooked and a lot frustrated. It seemed like they were always headed in a different direction, and always a fair distance away from us. There wasn’t time to shoot pictures of any sort.

Finally, we decided to stop trying to chase our way to the ship. Instead, we’d just walk straight to it and hope we got there before the elephants. We were almost there when the handsome soldier looked over his shoulder. “They’re right behind us!” he shouted, and sure enough they were. Four elephants and their handlers were trotting toward us, fast, big gray ears flopping. I shot several photos, but frankly was concentrating moreon getting out of their way–elephants, my friends, are not just big, they’re huge–without tripping over guy wires or tracks or running off the edge of the dock to fall into the dark, green, oil-sheened water of the harbor. Elephants trot fast.

I didn't shoot this photo, but it looks like what I saw that day...

I got more photos when the beasts were loaded onto the ship, via a wide ramp into the the ship’s belly. And it was there that my AFN colleagues filmed their story for the following evening’s news. We talked for a while with one of the handlers, but he didn’t have much time. Apparently, the elephants were nervous and a little uppity, given the temperature and the unfamiliar surroundings. He was needed aboard the ship. The journey, he said, would take them approximately four weeks, as there would be several stops along the way. They would offload the elephants in New York City, and from there they’d travel to Minnesota.

By the time I got back to the office I was a popsicle, my knee felt like it had dull knives stuck through it, and I was dog-tired, but I was pleased and triumphant. I’d gotten my story, flare and all. Now I only had to write it, and hope that a couple of my black-and-white photos would turn out well enough to publish.

I’ll tell the stories behind Sir Peter Ustinov, the alps and the Cessna another time. Happy Thanksgiving!

Veterans Day

It’s Veteran’s Day.

It represents a lot more than a sale at TJMaxx. Mr. Wren and I are both veterans; he served in the U.S. Army, I in the U.S. Air Force. We were fortunate that during the years we served, there were no active “hot” wars – only the long, ominous Cold War that began its end in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and finished, finally, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

I’m proud of my military service. But to my mind, the real veterans are the Americans who’ve served in wartime, the ones who literally put their lives on the line to protect their country. I know many of them and met and worked with many more. Some of them were drafted, others were volunteers, like the men and women serving our country today in Afghanistan and Iraq, South Korea and Europe. Some saw battle, but many served in the “rear,” supporting the fighting troops. They were vital, each and every one of them.

One of the things I loved about the military was its diversity. People from all walks of life form the Army, the Air Force, the Marines, the Navy, the National Guard and the Coast Guard. Black and white, Asian, Native American, Hispanic – the military is a compressed American melting pot of people working and living closely together, all over the world.

If you’re a bigot, you’ll find yourself at a loss on an Army post. Nowhere is it more crystal clear that people are people, no matter their gender, the color of their skin, their economic status or where they’re from. They have an important job to do, a vital common cause, and they do it together. Their hearts all look the same.

For this white woman who grew up in a mostly white, California suburb – my high school class had one, single black student – the Air Force was an eye-opener. One of my favorite memories comes from when I was in training in Texas as an intelligence analyst. The tech sergeant in charge of a work detail I was assigned to one day asked me a question – and his deep drawl was so lush I couldn’t understand what he was saying. He repeated himself, twice, and I still didn’t get it. Finally, he said, “Airman, where you from?” His voice was as slow as cool honey.

I blinked. “California.”

“The laaaand of the frooooots an’ the nuts,” he grinned, as if that explained everything. “I’m from Miss’ssippee,” he said, relenting. “I’ll help y’out. Read mah lips …” It was the first time I’d ever heard that phrase used – and it was long before Bush 41 used it in regards to taxes. Because the sergeant was being very patient and speaking even more slowly than usual, I understood him this time, and before he was done giving me his instructions – where to go dig rocks out of a corner plot where grass seed would be planted — we were both laughing. He hadn’t insulted me, only teased, and it served to close the wide gap between our disparate cultures. I later learned that this man had served in Vietnam as a draftee, and when he’d come home, he decided to stay in the Air Force and make it a career.

Over the years I became very good at sussing out accents, drawls and colloquialisms. After I was discharged, and later went to Germany to work for the U.S. Army as a civilian, everyone sounded pretty much the same to me. My country, and the world, had become a much smaller place – a village.

I’m blathering on, here, so I’ll get to my point. Today is the one day of the year that America pauses to thank its veterans, our friends and neighbors who took an oath to protect our country in times of war and serve as guardians during times of peace. While there are as many reasons they signed up as there are colors, genders and cultures within the armed forces, all of them share a deep love for America – so deep, they were prepared to die for it. Many of them have seen war first hand, seen friends and comrades maimed or killed and have lived under dreadfully difficult conditions so foreign to American civilian life they might have been on another planet.

Many are still serving, all over the world. And there are thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, right now, who are serving their country as volunteers – our future veterans.

All of them deserve our deep respect and our thanks.

3 truths, 1 lie

Only one lie? There are so many I could tell! Oh, well. I’ll play:

1st : I had breakfast with Sir Peter Ustinov in front of the Cologne cathedral.

2nd: I once chased four tigers around a shipping harbor.

3rd: I skied the Alps with a bad RA flare in my right large toe.

4th: I landed a two-seater Cessna on my first try.

Guess which one is a lie?

This post was for Day 8/Post 8 of the National Health Blog Posting Month

NHBPM Day 7: My cure for a case of the Mondays

Today is Day 7/Post 7 of the National Health Blog Posting Month. The writing prompt for the day is A Case of the Mondays. Write about something that gets you down, burns you out or makes you sad. Turn it around at the end and tell Tuesday why you’re ready for it.”

I think yesterday’s non-prompt post already tackled this one, except that I wrote it on Sunday rather than today. I don’t know about you, but I can have a “case of the Mondays” just about any day of the week.

Here’s the thing, though. It’s rare that the Mondays get me down for more than a few hours. I’m simply not very good at wallowing. Yesterday I was bummed about my hip bursitis. Today I’m not, although both hips are still achy, stiff and sore. The difference?  Last night, the characterization for the condition I’d been looking for came to me during a pained, wakeful moment.

A little backstory: To go with yesterday’s post, Creature without a shape, I used an illustration of a mythological Celtic beastie called a púca. According to the website “Ireland Myths, stories and pictures,”  “The Púca are one of the most feared and mischievous of all the faeries in Ireland. It is a changeling who appears in many guises … Sometimes it takes the form of like that of some of the smaller faeries, from all accounts similar to a deformed hobbit like creature.” I chose the illustration without thinking, but as I wrote the post the creature seemed more and more familiar—it’s what, to me, this narsty, annoying bursitis looks like. Okay, it does, I thought, but unlike the rheuma-dragon and the osteo-wyrm, no memorable name for it comes tripping off my tongue.

Names are important, you see. The names of things give the mind a hook to hang them on, like rain-dampened jackets, and they can stay there until you need them again. A name gives the namer a modicum of control over the creature it represents, even if it’s only the diaphanous control of familiarity. But though I tried, yesterday I couldn’t find a magical name for the púca.

When the damned beastie woke me up at 2 a.m. to remind me, naggingly, of its presence, I growled and grudgingly turned over, putting my weight onto my other hip, which wasn’t hurting as much. And as I did, the púka’s name came to me: the bursa-púca.

Y-e-sssss! I said the name into the velvet dark a couple of times, voicing it to make it real. I visualized the mean little brown thing pummeling the trochanteric bursae and iliotibial bands in both my hips with stone hammers as it hopped and jibbered madly. And you know what happened?

I giggled. The image was so silly it tickled me.

Naming the bursa-púca didn’t make the pain go away, but the chuckle it bubbled out of me took the tired grimness out of it. I shifted my thoughts to my breathing—in (sohhh) out (hahhh)—and drifted gently back to sleep.

It made my Tuesday ever so much better.

NHBPM Day 6: Creature without a shape

For today’s National Health Blog Posting Month I’ve chosen my own subject rather than writing from the prompt:

You know, I think what’s worst about this constant bursitis pain in my hips (yes, it’s still hangin’ right in there) is that it’s boring. Second worst is my frustration with it. Because aside fro the bursitis, I’m feeling pretty darned good these days.

My rheuma-dragon, the evil beastie, has been dozy lately. Aside from a few nibbles at my knuckles, he’s leaving me alone. That’s wonderful! I mean it down to my toes when I say I’m grateful. But…

Heheh. There’s always a “but,” isn’t there?

The bursitis pain is always right here, lurking at the edge of my consciousness

Maybe a púca...

and making frequent forays into the here and now. I’ve tried everything I can think of to keep the bugger locked in the little brown trunk I’ve tucked into the back of a deep, dark closet in the attic of my mind, but he simply seeps out through the cracks. Bursitis wakes me rudely at least twice during the night (even with my sleepy pills finally working so well!), rousing me simply to remind me of his presence. Because of bursitis, the first coherent thought I have in the morning is “Ow! My hips! Ugh!” (“Ugh” is a stand-in word for any four-letter obscenity of your choice. Feel free to test several.) Eventually I work up enough courage to move my rheuma-stiffened joints and clamber out of bed. I stump to the loo like Frankenstein’s little sister, each step I take underlining the deep purple ache in both hips.

And what creature represents bursitis in my overactive imagination? I don’t know. The “rheuma-dragon” fits perfectly the diabolical randomness and varying intensity of the pain and disability caused by my rheumatoid arthritis. I might not be able to vanquish the dragon, but I can fight him to a draw.  And the occasional sharp stab and throb in the tiny joints at the ends of my fingers has manifested in my mind as the r-dragon’s cousin. I call it the osteo-wyrm, so named for the garden-variety osteoarthritis nearly all of us get as we age.

But this trochanteric bursitis, my constant, aggravating and tedious companion, defies characterization. And I’ll be honest: I’m almost embarrassed to complain about it. It’s much less painful than a bad rheumatoid arthritis flare. It’s not truly disabling; it hurts, but I can move, I can walk. I can pretty much do everything I need to do even though my hips ache. And ache. And ache. Unlike RA or osteoarthritis, this bursitis ache never takes a break. The only time I can escape from it is when I sleep, and until recently, I couldn’t even do that.

So to what phantom mythical or imaginary character should I assign my bursitis? I’m open to suggestions.


Post 5, National Health Blog Posting Month (30 posts in 30 days): Five things that changed my life, for better or worse, as a patient, a caregiver or a health activist:

In general (because a patient, caregiver or health activisti is first an individual, a regular person living her life as best as she can):

1. Giving birth to and raising my daughter. This was huge.  Not only was the commitment physical–nine months of pregnancy and everything that comes with it, including morning sickness, body-shape changes, and the realization that there was another person growing inside me with a life of her own–but it was also a serious commitment to responsibility. Giving birth to a child was one thing; caring for that child and meeting her needs day in and day out for the next 18 or more years was, to me, monumental. How can something like that not change a person’s life? It was–and continues to be–incredible.

2. Getting and living with RA. Before I had rheumatoid arthritis I coped with the same generic maladies and illnesses that most people get: colds, stomach bugs, childhood illnesses like measles, mumps and chickenpox, cuts and scrapes, sprained ankles, bumped heads, bee stings. Pain and sickness happened, but they always went away. Disability happened–the sprained ankle, etc.–but I healed. Every illness or malady I had until I was 31 years old either went away, healed or was treated and cured by my family doctor. So it took me quite a while after being diagnosed with RA before I understood–and accepted–the fact that my doctor couldn’t cure me of it. And not only that, there were no other doctors, anywhere in the world, who could cure me, either. Suddenly I was living each day with pain in one joint or another, disability because of the inflammation, swelling and pain, or both. RA didn’t wait for me to accept it–it just moved on in, and in ways both obvious and subtle, my life changed because of it. Left without a choice in the matter, I adapted and took on the challenge. It’s one that hasn’t ended yet and won’t until the day I die.

3. Discovering a talent for and love of writing. I’ve always been artistic and have loved to draw and paint from the time I was a small child. In school, I liked English and did well with it, and when I was given assignments that included writing, I enjoyed them and generally got good grades. I also loved reading, and when I was a young adult I decided to write a spy novel (my favorite to read at the time). I wrote and wrote and wrote in my spare time (I was new mother and was in the Air Force at the time), and finally produced my novel. It was rejected by publishers more times than I want to admit, and eventually it ended up at the bottom of a box in a closet. But I did it. And I while I did it I discovered how much I enjoyed writing. To me, it’s like painting with words.  A few years later, in Germany, I got a job as a writer/editor with the U.S. Army Public Affairs office on the post my husband was assigned to, and it was there that I started learning journalism. I loved that job, and I’ve worked as aprofessional journalist–a writer and an editor–ever since. I still write fiction in my spare time, too. One day I might actually finish another novel.

Lifechanging events I’ve had as a patient:

1.Finding a good rheumatologist. The doctor who first diagnosed me with rheumatoid arthritis was an internal medicine specialist. He was a U.S. Army doctor–a captain–and the closest actual American rheumatologist was a four-hour drive away. Dr. C did his best to treat me, but he didn’t have the best tools at the time. After five years of severe, active disease, pain and disability, years during which no drug I was prescribed had any effect on my RA (with the exception of narcotic pain relievers), I stopped seeing any doctor for it. Several years later, my RA went into spontaneous, drug-free remission. I was symptom and pain free for about six years, and then the rheuma-dragon woke up and started chewing on my joints again. By the time it started to get bad, I’d been laid off from my job and no longer had medical insurance. In desperation, I applied for medical care through the VA and was accepted, and within a few weeks had my first appointment with a VA doctor. She, in turn, wasted no time in referring me to the VA rheumatologist I still see today. He’s excellent. And I’m sure that without his care, my RA would be much, much worse than it is. That, to me, is lifechanging.

2. The Internet. When I was diagnosed in 1987, the only access I had to information about rheumatoid arthritis was what my doctor told me. He was informative, but I really didn’t even know what questions to ask him about the condition. There was a very small library on the Army post where I worked, so I looked there for more information–and couldn’t find any. The librarian found the address for the American Arthritis Foundation for me, so I wrote them. They sent me a pamphlet that included about three paragraphs about RA. The rest of the pamphlet was about osteoarthritis and other, lesser known varieties. I already knew the basic information in the pamphlet. It wasn’t until long after I was back in the U.S.A. and the Internet came along that I learned more about my RA. And when Google was created…well, I was able to learn far more than I really wanted to know. The Internet is such a gift. People who are diagnosed with this disease today have all the information about it they could ever want right at their fingertips, almost instantly. That’s something to be thankful for, because we can much more easily fight the enemy we know than the one we don’t. The Internet has also allowed me to blog about my RA. And that, in turn, has gifted me with the ability to communicate with other people who also have the disease. For the first time since being diagnosed I was able to  “talk” with others who knew exactly how I felt and what I was experiencing. I’ve made many dear friends within this online community. I’m no longer alone with my RA.

And that is the most lifechanging thing of all.


“Publish:” to press or not to press…

Write about what happens after you press “publish.” (Post No. 4 for WeGo Health’s National Health Blog Posting Month: 30 posts/30 days.)

I immediately re-read my freshly written post—and every single time the typos and awkward sentence structures and misspelled words I didn’t notice when I proofread before pressing “publish” leap off the page at me. Why didn’t I see that one? Am I blind? How could I have missed this? Humiliated, I go back and edit the post, fixing all the boo-boos and then re-publishing.

The real angst for me occurs as I write the post in the first place. I always wonder if what I’m writing, which is fascinating to me, is actually going to be deadly boring to my readers. Am I being too wordy? To melodramatic? Will that little attempt at humor fall flat? Am I being too whiney? Too pompous? Am I rambling? Will I offend someone? Will I put them to sleep?

One of the reasons I love blogging is that most of the time people leave a few words in reaction to what I’ve written. Many times I’ve been delighted to discover that they really liked what I wrote–and in fact, liked it far more than I expected they might.  And sometimes, a post that I thought just glowed earns no comments at all. Those can be a bit of a blow to the ol’ ego, but I like them anyway. They teach me to be more discerning. The posts that do the best comment-wise are the ones that seem to almost write themselves; paradoxically, they’re the ones that I have the least confidence in before I hit “publish.” Go figure.