16 July 2007

How are you today? What's Your Pain Score? (Pt. I)

Repost from 22 May 2007

I'm really getting tired of this whole pancreas thing. I've got a lot more trips up north in my future, and each ERCP is more painful and harder to recover from than the last. I have no muscle tone. I am addicted to opiates--physiologically, yes, but that still technically makes me a junkie and much closer than anyone else I know to being Sick Boy. My only hope is that I know someone who's a real junkie, but I just am unaware of that fact. Wow, that sounds awful.

I don't like hospitals. It's really a combination of their assault on my senses. Of course there's the pain, fear, discomfort, unease with not being in familiar surroundings. But it's more than that for me. Initially, it's the smell. It's that antiseptic smell that tells me so many things at once. First, nowhere in my near future would there be any sort of natural products--only man-made synthetics will be going in or on my body for awhile. Second, there is something to fear, something to kill: we have to be so careful to keep everything clean (although look closely at a hospital bed or phone the next time you're in a room because they are not at all clean) because there are things that you can't see trying to kill you. Outside with trees and dirt and a breeze, it doesn't seem like these things can hurt you. At least they couldn't when I was a kid. But in a hospital it feels like any little thing can hurt you. I guess that smell in hospitals is the smell I associate with despair and vulnerability--and no one likes those things. Perhaps it's that hospitals smell too much like nursing homes, too much like the discarded humans of our society and the death they're patiently waiting on.

Secondly, it's the way hospitals look. Institution-white floors and standard-issue fluorescent lights really bother me in any context, but especially in hospitals. Both the local hospital and the one up north are guilty of this. (At least Local's new campus and current outpatient center are trying to overcome it: fake wood flooring, mauve or moss green walls, and wood trim on cabinets and doors make a huge difference to my mind.) I suspect, however, that after awhile this won't matter. If you remember, the walls of schools and hospitals used to be painted that sea-foam green color. It got a bad rap, so they switched to white or beige, which currently has a bad rap. It's nothing inherent in the color itself; it's the context and connotation of the color that makes me cringe. Visually, I also cannot stand hospital gowns, paper cups, wall-paper, privacy curtains, etc. That multi-color 80s squiggle art--the ones that are usually mauve and turquoise--or the forgettable waiting-room-chair pattern makes me think of the hospital and fake gaiet

And I cannot imagine a more frightening vision than the ones I experienced quite a few times in the last year or so. It's become a sort of television/movie cliché by this point, but it is still very scary: imagine on your back on a gurney staring at acoustical tiles and fluorescent lights going by. I could either look at the dismal scene going by or close my eyes. I couldn't move my head really, so I didn't have much choice. That is kind of creepy, but what was much, much worse was lying on the operating table. You can't see anything except the ceiling, and in the procedure rooms, there are the giant OR lamps that you always see on TV, but there are also large metal tracks that run along the ceiling. From these tracks hang a lot of machinery. There's a giant fluoroscope (a sort of X-ray machine) and a large monitor bank made of 2-4 screens. These things are hovering over you; the doctors and nurses have on radiation gear; someone is sticking nodes onto your chest and back at the same time someone is strapping a blood pressure cuff onto your ankle, someone else is preparing the IV, someone is attaching guards to the side of the table that press your arms to your sides, and someone else is prepping the drain site by taking the dressing off, cleaning it, and removing the stitch.

You know this is happening, but you can't move, and you can't see it. It's cold, and all you can see is the random masked face and the machinery hanging over your head. That visual input, combined with the bustle of all the unseen hands working on you, can cause some extreme anxiety. At least until the drugs kick in, and then it's all good and everyone is your best friend.

Sound-wise, a hospital is terrible. There is no peacefulness, no comfort. At the Northern hospital, I would constantly hear "MET Team to room whatever" or "Code Red in room whatever." All I could ever think (and this speaks perhaps more to my mindset than anything wrong with the hospital) was that someone was "taking a turn for the worse." That is hospital/doctor terminology for "really fucking bad news," by the way. At Local hospital, I would hear this lullaby ("Go to Sleep, Go to Sleep, Go to Sleep Little Baby") at random times. On my third stay, I finally cared enough to ask what it meant, and Ada, one of the coolest nurses there, told me it played whenever a baby was born. That should be a good thing, a good connotation. But I was there again recently, and that song played over the loudspeaker. I cringed, and my heart sort of dropped. If we have a child here, that song will play when it's delivered, and I'm afraid that such a beautiful moment will be tainted (even slightly) by what's happened to me over the last year. That is an unfair long-term effect of this experience on me.

13 July 2007

Wanted: Quality '76 Firebird (Must Run on Biodiesel)

(Repost from 21 May 2007)

The lease on our Vibe is coming due in August, and we've been looking to buy a car. It's been a good car mechanically, but cosmetically it hasn't held up very well. Nothing significant, but lots of dings and chips that show the poor quality of the paint Pontiac used. And on a road trip, we lost part of the luggage rack on the top of the car. It just flew off.

But we need a replacement that is a greener alternative to my SUV (We both use E10 bioethanol, but the SUV doesn't get very many mpg). The Vibe on the other hand has gotten very good gas mileage, but ethically, we feel like we have to do more than we are now (which consists only of the "easy" stuff so far: joining a CSA, switching over to a green power program for our electricity bill, using cloth bags for our grocery shopping, driving the Vibe whenever possible, and watching Living with Ed. So we started looking at hybrids, flex-fuel vehicles, biodiesels, and PZEVs--and I have to say that I am shocked and chagrined, horrified and stupefied. Well, maybe just confused.

What we looked at first were hybrids. Of course, everyone knows the Prius, and Toyota has started making a Camry hybrid, too. Saturn makes the Aura Greenline; Honda makes a Civic and Accord hybrid; GMC makes some sort of behemoth hybrid that defeats the purpose (leave it to a US car company to pervert green technology). But the one hybrid I was really interested in is for some reason not available here. The Nissan Altima is offered in a hybrid, but I think they only offer it in California, which is stupid. We test drove the Civic Hybrid and Prius, and the Civic is vastly inferior to the Prius--aesthetically, technology-wise, ride-wise, and comfort-wise.

But I wonder what happens to the batteries after they're finally depleted (which the Toyota and Honda salesmen said would be over ten years). Not only would I not want to buy new ones, but I also would be concerned about how recyclable those used batteries might be. The other (and relatively new) concept to think about is the cradle-to-grave sustainability of the car. From what I understand, the nickel used in the batteries for many Priuses is mined and smelted in Canada, then shipped to Japan to be put in the batteries. Once those batteries are installed and the cars assembled, they're shipped back to North America to be sold. That is a lot of diesel used in inefficient trains, trucks, or freighters to move this nickel around. It just doesn't feel quite right to me, but Mrs. Grendel thinks the gas hybrid is the best option. We're either uninterested in the alternatives (Saturn and GMC offerings), unimpressed with them (Civic), they are unavailable to us (Altima), or they are out of our reach, financially (Accord, Camry). The Prius remains the only real option here.

What we considered next is the flex-fuel vehicle (FFV). These cars can run on either gasoline or ethanol (or both, an E85 blend). The FFV is what the dirty bastards at GMC, Ford, and Daimler-Chrysler were making in past years but not telling the people who bought them. (Imagine that. You buy a car that can run of gasoline, ethanol, or a mix of both, and the carmaker doesn't even bother to inform you of this tidbit. That tells me that US automakers thought it would be considered a liability not an asset by American buyers. Why flexibility in fuel sources would be considered a liability is beyond me--even if there were no ethanol outlets where you live.) Anyway, I think there are actually fewer FFV models in 2007 than there were before FFVs were common knowledge: it's almost as if they're embarrassed that they made them. Dodge's Avenger is a FFV, but go to the website and see if they advertise that anywhere on the page. (Here's a spoiler: they don't.) You have to find the 2.7-liter V6 engine to even know they make a FFV model. Genius marketing strategy.

Anyway these cars are an interesting option. There are few around, but I like the flexibility that they provide and the smaller carbon footprint they leave (in comparison to the regular Avenger). But efficiency-wise, the Avenger is not so good: 19 city/27 highway. My SUV is almost that. Almost. So the FFV is definitely an option, but the lack of selection makes it difficult to pursue.

Biodiesels are my personal favorites. They're a lot like FFVs, but there's not a lot of special adaptation between a regular diesel engine and a biodiesel one. As long as the hoses that come into contact with the fuel are synthetic rubber, I think you're good to go (the used vegetable oil eats through regular rubber hoses after awhile). We have a car lot here that sells biodiesel-converted cars only. They're mostly older model Mercedes-Benzes, since they were diesel-powered in the 70s and 80s. I'm not so keen on driving an '85 Mercedes 500SEL. I just don't think that the kind of performance and/or creature comforts we want is going to come out of an older Mercedes or Volvo. I think that VW is going to make some diesels in 2008 or 2009, but that won't help us now.

Which puts us in a quandary. What are we supposed to do for a new car? Our performance demands exclude a lot of the older biodiesel options, our ethical values exclude the newer gas-guzzlers or non-green options, and our financial concerns (stupid hospital bills) exclude most of the newer gas hybrids. What we are left with, as far as I can tell, are few options:

1) Buy a car with a high-efficiency gasoline engine (Subaru Impreza, Scion Xa, Mazda 3, Honda Civic) and use E10. Subaru has been advertising that their factories are zero-landfill enterprises, which is nice (and Imprezas are cool).

2) Lease one of the above cars for a few years (using E10) until the US decides to stop screwing around and provides us with some genuinely effective options.

3) Buy a cheaper, older car that I could work on myself (pre-1975 domestic models), and pay to have it converted to diesel engine, and then converted to biodiesel. If I had my pick and neither time nor money were issues, this is the way I would go. I would buy an older muscle car (Charger, Firebird, Camaro, etc.) or a late-70s Corvette, put a diesel engine in it, and then convert that engine into one that can burn biodiesel.

I just don't know what diesel engine might fit on those motor mounts, though. But, that would be my dream car: a 1976 Firebird with a Smokey and the Bandit paint job and biodiesel engine. I'd probably have enough left over to buy one of the cowboy hats with a feather on the front that Burt Reynolds wore. Keep your nose between the ditches and smokey out of your britches, I'm gone.

11 July 2007

The Threshold Limit Value of Car Air Freshners

(Repost from 20 May 2007)

So I was driving home from the hospital today, and I got behind this white Civic. We were sitting at a traffic light, and I noticed something odd: there were three of those dangly pine tree air fresheners hanging in the car. One from the rear view mirror and one each from the clothes hangers that they put above the doors in the back seat.

I find this odd. I mean, one I can understand. I wouldn't put it in my car, but I can understand it. One really has got to be the threshold of normalcy for a dangly air freshener. Two is pushing it. Three is way, way too much.

By passing the one-freshener threshold, I think you may be conveying some fairly unflattering information about yourself or your car. You're saying that either you or your car stank--not just a little funk, but actual stank. You're also saying that you would rather spend your money on fake-pine-scented cardboard than taking steps to actually clean and/or remove the source of the offensive odor. Perhaps removing the remnants of the old fries from under the seat, cleaning the splattered Mochaccino off the door frame, or steam cleaning the crumbs from dozens of Doritos that you repeatedly ground into the seat would help.

I guess I'm a little sensitive to the ubiquitous American-style handling of problems. Bigger, newer, more is what we want, and it's also how we solve lots of our issues. (I know that others before me have noted and railed against the consumerism rampant in America, but it's my blog and I can produce whatever kinds of hackneyed drivel I want. And I will...oh, I will.)

Lane County, where I live, lost its funding from the federal government (we were getting money because a lot of our land is bound up in parks so we can't develop it), and the county's first response was to try to institute a 1.1% income tax to keep "vital systems" running. Why? I want a good police force, too (because we've got a lot of tweakers here), but I'm not paying a county income tax on top of my federal and state taxes so they can continue to waste money in other areas of local government. I've passed utility workers four times this week, and on each side of the work site, they pay a guy to hold a sign that says "Slow." That's all they do. Those guys make good money, and I'm not sure I see the value of it. Trim some fat off before asking me to dig deeper into my pocket. Damn.

I've experienced it in the medical world, too. Western medicine is really, really good at covering up symptoms but sometimes really bad at finding the root causes of those symptoms. They'll throw morphine, demerol, fentanyl, and oxycontin at you until you feel better (or sometimes until you end up with vertigo for a day and nausea for three), but at times don't seem all that concerned about the root cause for the need of narcotics in the first place. Maybe if my doctors and nurses weren't so focused on that particular aspect, I wouldn't have gotten so sick (and wouldn't be a a virtual junkie right now). Maybe I would have. I don't know. I'm not complaining that they worked to make me comfortable because I needed it and am appreciative of it, but I just wish someone, somewhere along the way had taken an interest in what was causing this before it got bad enough to put me in the hospital for three weeks.

And since I'm on the subject: God help us if we continue to eat like we do in this country. Take, for instance, KFC. What the hell happened to just regular fried chicken? It's been around for a long time. People have apparently enjoyed it. So why does KFC need to invent a bowl that consists of reconstituted mashed potato flakes, cheese product, chicken bits, and corn? We survived for centuries in this country with regular fried chicken; why do we need a chicken bowl? And the thing is big, too--more than anyone really needs at one sitting. Again, bigger, newer, more. Same thing with Pizza Hut or Papa John's or whatever chain is stuffing the crust with cheese or making it into garlic bread that pulls off or whatever. It's all a big song and dance to cover up for the fact that the food is substandard fare.
23 October 2007 UPDATE: We now have Oreo dessert pizza, which is, I think, one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse; I'll need to check the verses to be sure.

But let me clarify: there's nothing wrong with novelty in the food world. Fusion cuisine has produced some of the most wonderful dishes I've ever had, but the eateries that make fusion dishes also typically don't fall into the bigger, newer, more category. They--and other non-fusion but creative places--are experimenting and innovating to see what they can actually do, not attempting to make it easier to eat ever-greater amounts of crap-tastic food or to make it possible to eat without the need of even a spork. It's the difference between a place like Noodlism in Austin, TX and Panda Express. Hell it's even the difference between California Pizza Kitchen and Pizza Hut or CiCi's. Essentially, it's the difference between innovation for the love of food and innovation to sell more "units."

I seem to see it in almost everything now that I've conceptualized what I think the problem is. Bigger cars, newer cellphones, more food. Flashing lights, Powerpoint presentations, and snappy soundtracks to cover up the lack of real content. I guess you could say that it's the Vegas-izing of America. Bigger, more, new to cover up the lack of original thought (which explains the Paris and Luxor hotels there).

I even see it in my students' writing. They tend to want to include four or five different supporting reasons in their four- to five-page essays. Instead of including less and actually thinking about what they're saying, they'd rather throw more information, quotations, or points into the paper and think about them less. It drives me nuts. And it's so obvious to me because I used to do the same thing. If there were pictures, tables, or graphs in one of my papers, you could be sure that I had no idea what I was saying or that I didn't say it very well. And I knew it. That's why I put that crap in there. Those bells and whistles were nothing more than an overabundance of pine-scented-cardboard to cover up my lack of effort.