Saturday, February 28, 2009

Don’t Panic: Wash Your Hands

You have probably seen the headlines, or heard the scary stories, about MRSA: methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus. This is a “super bug” that we have created by taking penicillin and penicillin-based antibiotics.
You can’t blame anyone for this development, really. Penicillin was the miracle drug which was first used extensively on wounded soldiers during World War II. Why wouldn’t we use something that saved people from blood poisoning and sped healing? When I was a child in the 50s, I can’t remember how many times I was treated with a shot of penicillin. We all were. It was a miracle.
But staphylococci that survived a course of penicillin fell back and regrouped, developed resistance to penicillin, and produced new bacteria that would laugh at penicillin and all its derivative forms. So now we have MRSA. It is in hospitals, but it is also in the community. It is here on Vashon. Don’t doubt it.
MRSA and other bacteria and viruses are all opportunists. Like the boll weevil they are just lookin’ for a home. They have no morality that we know of; their single imperative is to live and reproduce. Hey, look, here’s a cut in the skin! Hey, blood! Wahoo! We’re in!
Neither do they consider the morality or worth of the host organism. They will infect the just and the unjust alike.
MRSA can – eventually – be cured, but it’s not a ride you want to take if you can help it. It is painful, and makes you sick, and in extreme cases can kill you, so don’t wait if you suspect you have it. Think you have a bad spider bite? Got an ugly boil or abscess? Get you to a doctor and ask to be tested for MRSA.
Prevention is the most important thing you can do. What is the best prevention?
Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Concentrate especially on your nails, cuticles, and between your fingers.
When you’re done washing your hands, use a clean towel – and then put the towel into the laundry. In a public restroom, get a towel in your hand to turn off the water, assuming you’re in a public restroom that has towels and hand-turned faucets. This is where those electric eye faucets on the ferries come in handy. Oh, you’ll want a good lotion to put on your hands so all that washing doesn’t crack your skin – and let the MRSA in.
Never use anyone else’s towel or washrag.
If MRSA enters your home, launder clothing, sheets, and towels in hot water, preferably with a little bleach, and dry everything in a hot dryer. You will want to clean surfaces regularly with bleach water (1 teaspoon bleach to 1 quart of tepid water). Be careful with bleach – it is dangerous. No kidding. Read the directions.
Or spray everything with hydrogen peroxide: toilet seats and flush levers or buttons, faucet handles, sinks and counter tops. Clean and disinfect any surface where bacteria might lurk. Wash dishes either in the dishwasher or with anti-bacterial dish soap. There are disinfectant wipes you can get, if you prefer not mixing your own disinfectants.
Taking all these cleaning measures and a course or two of sulfa or some other non-penicillin drug may see you through the MRSA plague, but you won’t be able to go to work or school as long as you are a carrier. You have to have your nose swabbed and wait a couple of days for the culture results to get an “all clear.” Until then you won’t want to go out in public, and, trust me, the public will not want you out mingling with them. MRSA is rightfully seen as a plague.
Why am I writing this public health column? Guess. Right. MRSA has invaded my family. I was lucky – I did not get it, but two family members did, and there ensued a few weeks of cleaning, disinfecting, laundering, washing, and constant hand washing, plus spending most of the food money on co-pays and drugs.
Has anything good come of this experience? (1) I have discovered the beauty of splashless bleach. Man, what a great idea. (2) I have learned that being close to MRSA does not mean you will get it. (3) I have warned you that MRSA is here on the island, and it’s not somebody else’s problem.
Don’t panic; wash your hands!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Went up to church this afternoon for the imposition of ashes. The mid-day service pulled quite a crowd, for a mid-day service. It is the beginning of Lent, the 40 days of fasting, prayer, and meditation that Christians are asked to do every year, with an emphasis on self-examination, repentance, and renewal.
I was thinking during the service how hard it is for people afflicted with depression to hear the Biblical words exhorting us to serve others, and think less of ourselves. It is too easy to slip into the swamps of low self-esteem, and believe that that is where Jesus wants us to be. It is too easy to believe that trying to help and fix others is more important than taking care of ourselves.
I beg to differ with that take on scripture. In my experience the true end of Christ’s teaching is that we become the best version of the selves we were created to be. Christianity is supposed to be transformative, not narcotic. I just wanted to mention that.
I’m not doing well with Lenten meditation and fasting. Last night I made pancakes for supper for Rick and me, in observation of Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday). This evening he said he really enjoyed those pancakes last night and I said yeah, we’ll have to do that again sometime.
“How about tonight?” he said.
Well, the poor guy has been sick and is craving carbs, so I heated up the griddle and went to work. Of course there were more pancakes than he could eat alone, so I had a couple, with maple syrup and boysenberry syrup. They were delicious. So not doing too well on the fasting. My skinless, boneless chicken breasts prepared a la diabetic recipe are simmering away, and I’ll have one of them and some green beans I suppose. I don’t know if that penance will make up for the pancakes.
They really were good.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Pre-Lenten Reverie on Grief

Lent begins next Wednesday, and my church is going to have a Lenten Meditation Book this year. The book is a compilation of writings and images contributed by church members. Most are original works, and some are not. Each person was assigned one or more days in Lent, and given the scripture readings for that day, and was asked to write or draw or quote something relevant to the readings. I was assigned two days. My friend Megan Belia got everyone signed up, gathered in the submissions, and forwarded them to me, and I scanned or typed and formatted everything and placed it into one file, the master for the book.
There were stragglers. The deadline was February 8, and as of the 18th, there were two days left unfilled, one of which was Good Friday. Megan and I decided we would each do something to fill these blanks, and I took Good Friday – but then Megan called back a while later and said that the person doing Good Friday absolutely promised she would get her stuff in today. So I didn’t need write anything.
Too late. When I looked at the Good Friday scriptures, and noted the date of Good Friday this year, April 10, a reverie on grief began to pour out. It won’t be in the Lenten Meditation book, but I submit it here, a Good Friday meditation, for your consideration as we begin the 40-day journey from winter to spring, from death to resurrection. Here goes:
April 10, Good Friday
Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 22; I Peter 1:10-20; John 13:36-38
My father was born on April 10, 1912. “The day the Titanic sailed from Southampton,” I tell people. He died on March 13, 1975, less than a month shy of his 63rd birthday.
For about a year after his passing I was caught in deep grief. It seemed so unfair to me that he died so young. I would look at elderly people and think, “They got to live into their 70s and 80s – why not my dad?”
About three months after he died my mother moved. My parents had been renting my grandfather’s house, the house where my dad grew up, from my grandfather’s widow, and when my dad died the widow doubled my mother’s rent. My mother read this accurately as an eviction notice. There was never any love lost between my mother and my grandfather’s last wife, but that’s a story for another time.
I went down to California to pick up all the belongings I’d left there, plus whatever else my mother could stuff into my father’s old Ford Ranchero. My mother had a job, and one day when I was in the house alone, I was searching for something and for some reason I opened a drawer of my father’s dresser – and there were his socks, all neatly folded and clean, stacked in the drawer, waiting for him.
I went to pieces. I staggered into the living room and sat on the couch, where I wept, gut-deep sobbing. My father was dead. He’d never walk through the door again.
Ten minutes, twenty minutes, half an hour; I wept until I was exhausted and there were no more tears. As the tears finally abated, I felt drained. In that moment, though I did not realize it then, I began to accept the fact of my father’s death.
When I saw the date of Good Friday this year, April 10, it took me back to the days of my father’s passing, and how that felt, and I wondered how Jesus’ family and friends and followers felt on the day he died. Did they go through the motions of taking his body down from the cross and dressing it for burial and placing it in the tomb with the numb energy we have as we lay the dead to rest? I imagine those who loved Jesus were stunned by his death. They had no consolation. They didn’t know that Easter would come. They couldn’t believe he was dead.
And that’s the thing about this Jesus guy. It takes a while to believe that he died. It takes a while to believe that he rose again. It takes a while for the truth to break you to pieces, drain you, and leave you empty and exhausted. In that moment, in that darkness, Easter light begins to tinge the sky.
In that moment you begin the journey from unbelief to belief. Not now, but sometime later, you will see it. For now it is enough to walk through the grief one step at a time and see where the journey leads.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Ant and the Grasshopper

We have all heard the story of the ant and the grasshopper. It’s a beautiful summer day, and the ant works hard taking grains of wheat, or kernels of corn, depending on who tells the story, to the anthill to store up for winter. The grasshopper plays his fiddle, and tells the ant she should relax and not worry – there is plenty of food.
A few months later it is winter, and the grasshopper is cold and hungry, while the ants are snug in the hill eating the supplies they set by in the summer.
The grasshopper sees the error of his ways, now that he’s cold and hungry. In some versions of the story the ant says, “Neener neener neener,” to the grasshopper, but in others the grasshopper is left to deplore his thoughtless ways in solitude.
The moral of this story is: it is wise to think about tomorrow today.
This story is attributed to Aesop. It is one of the animal fables that were told to teach lessons about life and the world. I was thinking about this fable last night as I listened to the radio. People were talking about how they had saved money all their lives, and had pensions invested in the market, and now – gone. A young man said he hesitated to save money now, because he knows there is no guarantee that his savings will be there when he retires.
So many industrious ants are finding they’ll be out in the cold with the grasshoppers, was my first thought. But then I realized that Aesop created these fables centuries before the stock market as we know it existed. The ant was putting away food, not making contributions to her Roth IRA.
The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that Aesop lived during the sixth century BC and was probably a slave on the island of Samos. Though no historical information on Aesop is available, he was probably a real person.
Phaedrus was a Roman slave born in Macedonia. He lived from around 15 BC to around 50 AD, during the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius. He put together books of fables, including Aesop’s, in Latin. Phaedrus' treatment of the fables influenced later writers.
So the story of the ant and the grasshopper comes from a time when people lived on agriculture, livestock, and the maritime trade in the Mediterranean. The stock market was where you bought a chicken or a goat or some other farm creature.
You could say that we all still depend on those things globally today, and we do, but most of us are a few layers removed from the farm, the ranch, or the boat with a cargo of amphorae of olive oil. Whether we eat or stay warm depends on how much money we have more than whether we gathered the crops in sufficiently and stored them wisely last summer.
So our savings are financial. The IRA, the 401k, the mutual fund, stocks, are all tied to the ups and downs of the market.
You may have been an ant all your life, but now you’re sitting around having a beer with the grasshopper wondering how the heck this happened to a nice hard-working ant like you. The grasshopper sympathizes; he has nothing, either, but fortunately he can still play that fiddle, so the evenings can be merry.
We are being stripped of our illusions of what security is. It ain’t money. This might be a good year to consider what security is.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Snow Day

It is snowing today. Looked innocent enough this morning when I left to sing at the nursing home: a flake here, a flake there. You had to watch closely to see that it was snow.
“Oh, it’s not going to stick,” I told Sonya. We got in the car and took off.
Sang at the nursing home for an hour – long enough to wear through my voice and my energy. Ended with “You Are My Sunshine,” and “Good Night, Ladies.” Looking out the windows, I could see the snow coming down quite visibly now.
I visited Christine Tokar Weil for a few minutes, giving her some photos I had printed up of the Australian branch of the Blakemore family. By that time the snow was coming down steadily, but not sticking.
We drove across the street to my church to use the facilities and of course stop and chat with people coming out of the weekly silent listening group. When we left there it was snowing heavily, but, still, not sticking.
Stopped off at Reva’s for a while and when we left there, the snow was starting to produce a white sheen on the pavement and sticking a little on the grass.
Went to Vashon Market to pick up a few necessities, and when we came out of there, there was a thick slush on the ground, and the snow was still coming down hard and definitely sticking. We beat it for home.
Which is where we are now, listening to YoYo Ma playing “The Cello Suites” “inspired by Bach.” Huh. I thought the cello suites were written by Bach. Live and learn. Cello music goes well with falling snow, I think.
The air is sweet with the fragrance of the onions and bits of ham Sonya is sautéing in preparation of a pea soup dinner. Pea soup goes good with falling snow, at least when you’re inside a warm house looking out at the snow. When it’s about done, we’ll bake some corn bread, and put together a salad of some sort. That’s dinner tonight.
We had intended to go up town to see “Milk” at the Vashon Theater this evening, but it’s snowing, and we live at the top of perhaps the worst hill on the island to go up or down in slick conditions. A veritable ski jump of a hill. So the movie is probably not going to happen.
The snow is wet and sloppy; sticking, yes, but also melting underneath, so that it doesn’t get deeper than an inch or two. Ropes of rotten snow drape off the back of the outdoor chairs and fall to the deck. Finches and juncos continue to forage on the deck where we feed them, not regarding the snow.
It’s mid-afternoon, so even though it is snowing the sky is bright and so is the world. It’s almost mid-February, and all the bulbs have pushed up outside, so I know spring is on the way and it can’t be stopped. In a few weeks, ah, the snow will be last winter’s memories and the daffodils will be in bloom. Not my daffodils; mine are still in the mesh bag I bought them in, unplanted. Oh well.
All in all, though, conditions are perfect for an afternoon snowfall. Guess I’ll finally get all those clean towels folded.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

By the Numbers, or, Do We Buy These Numbers?

January is gone, and I'm beginning to come out of hibernation. It's good to be back. Here is the latest Smart Aleck essay:

Dire numbers tick by us these days – Boeing lays off employees, and Starbucks lays off employees and closes stores. Other employers lay off their workers by the tens of thousands. On the bright side, the US economy declined only 3.8% in the last quarter of 2008. Whoopee.
Tough times, and getting tougher. Something former Senator Daniel J. Evans said in an interview back in the 1970s keeps running through my memory.
Evans managed the affairs of Washington State as Governor from 1965 to 1977, and later served in the Senate, following Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Slade Gorton followed Evans into the Senate, but I only mention that so I can mention that we used to call Slade Gorton “Skeletor.” He earned this sobriquet by bearing a surprising likeness to the Masters of the Universe®™ villain of that name.
Getting back to Dan Evans: the Boeing Bust occurred during Evans’ terms as governor. In those pre-Microsoft, pre-Starbucks, pre-“let’s move the corporate offices to Chicago” times, Boeing employed more people than anyone else in Washington. When Boeing stumbled, Washington stumbled. In those days a famous sign along I-5 read, “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights?”
I arrived on these beloved moldy shores in 1972 and missed the lowest days of the Boeing Bust. The local economy still ailed in 1972, but improved incrementally over time. Somewhere around mid-decade someone interviewed Dan Evans about unemployment. The interviewer asked, “Are you worried about the 12% unemployment rate?” Evans replied, “Well, it depends on whether you’re looking at it on the way up or on the way down.” He pointed out that Washington was coming back from an 18% unemployment rate.
Those who lost their jobs were forced to find new paths in life. For example, Hammond Ashley, former Boeing employee, became one of the premier string bass builders in the world. I knew about Hammond Ashley because I took a cracked dulcimer to his shop for repair around 1974. His shop lay under the flight path at the south end of the SeaTac runway. When you walked from the green and gray suburban surroundings of Des Moines into his shop and saw the ranks of glowing instruments along the walls, you knew you were in a world of wonder, created from wood and glue and loving care. Although many people left the state seeking opportunities elsewhere, others, like Hammond Ashley, started a new profession, and a new life, right here.
The numbers I heard on the radio last week stated that unemployment is at 8%. Of course, if you lost your job, you experienced 100% unemployment, and the numbers (ONLY 8% unemployment; ONLY a 3.8% decrease in the economy the last quarter) comfort ye not.
We hear all these numbers, but what do they really mean? The numbers that count are: how many numbers do we have in the checking account? How many numbers do we need to keep this roof over our heads? Do we have enough numbers to buy groceries this week? Do we have jobs so we can get more numbers?
It turns out that our ability to control numbers was exaggerated. So what do we do now? All the usual remedies: we share; we cut back; we make do. We plant gardens, mend what is broken, put on a sweater, and drive less. Do these measures wound your pride?
Pride takes a lot of numbers. Pride and his brother shame may have to be two of the things we cut back in these tough times. I’m about 50% sure of that, up from 35% last quarter.