Sunday, April 26, 2009

One Flu Over the Cuckoo's Nest

(Yes, it's a re-run. But last night I spent entirely too much time at a nice restaurant gleefully talking about swine flu, I thought this quirk of my personality deserved another look.)

Sometimes I wonder if anyone reading this thinks I’ve been exaggerating my utter geekiness. “But,” I can hear someone in a sparsely populated county saying plaintively, “You live in Los Angeles. Los Angeles! Why, I bet you can walk out your front door, go to the nearest Starbucks to see Brad and Angelina making out next to Keanu while Britney nurses her son over by the cream counter. C’mon, you do go to clubs, right?”If any of you have the image of me finishing a QC Report, and then slipping into something plunging and taking my pearl-grey Porsche convertible to the hottest club in Hollywood and air-kissing Nicole Ritchie as I sashay past the doorman with a not-so-sotto “Hey, Bruno, keep that riff-raff out”, I want to present you with a more accurate visual.

Last night, I hunkered down in front of the TV to savor a long-awaited documentary on the Spanish Influenza of 1918.What makes it sadder still is that I already know a great deal about the Spanish Influenza of 1918.

In fact, Consort declared a moratorium on book reports at the dinner table due to the most recent book I read on the Spanish Influenza of 1918. Yeah, I said most recent book; I have read multiple books on the subject.

[I also hold dear an out of print book on execution methods throughout recorded history. In fact, this was the first present Consort ever gave me -- after a few weeks of social interaction, he suspected I might like it (Hands off, girls. He’s mine). As a child, I read The Book of Lists until it fell apart in my hands. Before I hit adolescence I could speak endlessly on the ten most brutal murders of the Victorian age. This, I imagine, has all but wiped out the image of my being cool to any reader, and replaced it with the image of the weird neighbor you never let baby-sit your kids.]

So, I sat through this documentary to see if it had any new information; and to feel smug. There are armchair quarterbacks. There are armchair golfers. I imagine there are armchair bowlers (the armchair bowler being in slightly better physical condition than the professional bowler). Me? I am an armchair pathologist. But I don’t rely on CSI; CSI: New York, CSI: Miami, CSI: Cleveland for my fantasy exhumations. No, for me it must be a real medical situation and, ideally, feature a bow-tied British PhD with a boiled-egg complexion, a frothy comb-over and, I can only hope, a mildly heretical new theory about the subject at hand.

So last night, as the narrator intoned “The rapid transmission of the flu can be attributed to…“ I hollered “Movements of huge amounts of troops who had grown up in small towns, leaving them relatively unexposed to disease!”

Narrator: “The first suspected case of the flu was recorded in…“

Me (hollering at screen): “A soldier in Kansas!”

Narrator (simultaneously): “…an enlisted soldier in Kansas”.

It was a pathetic little party.But then the narrator said, in what I took to be a smirking tone, “But Dr. Oxford thinks the point of origin might lie elsewhere…”


Cut to Dr. Oxford, his comb-over undulating in the breeze, suggesting that the first cases were at a military camp in France, about a year before the actual epidemic started. Such temerity! My blood -pressure rose.

“But where is the VECTOR?”

For those of you with lives, let me explain. Influenza begins in wild birds, mutates into domesticated birds such as chickens, and makes the leap into mammals, usually pigs. Only then can it be contracted by human beings. As if he heard me [which wouldn’t be surprising, as our neighbors have heard me yelling at such times], Dr. Oxford then presented pictures of young men living at the army camp smilingly holding up live chickens, and then pictures of other young men posing among pigs. I guess even when you are saving the world from the Huns, you can find time to get snapshot for the folks at home of you pointing at a pig.

“Yeah,” I sneered at the uncaring television. “But everyday livestock does not a flu make. Where were the cases?”We armchair pathologists don’t just roll over for a photograph or two.Obviously hearing me, he next presented evidence of a young man who had died at the camps in 1916 displaying the same distinctive symptoms, including a face which turned the color of heliotrope (so hard to find lip-gloss to go with that).

Grudgingly, I -- the person who didn't finish college – had to concede that the man with a lifetimes’ work in communicable diseases might have a valid point. And then I searched Netflix to see if there was another documentary covering exactly the same information, possibly from a new angle; maybe someone got the pig's perspective.

Please don’t think I’m flu-fixated. I don’t just make time for documentaries on Spanish Influenza, I also love a good “Separating Conjoined Twins” documentary; the “Large Man About to Have Surgery to Become a Very Large Woman” documentary; and who doesn’t enjoy the occasional “Black Plague Takes Out One Third of Europe!” recap? And let’s not forget the History Channel has a category I like to call “Those Darn Invaders!” Romans, Vikings, Huns, doesn’t matter to me -- as long as I am seeing some modern men with cheap wigs and bare knees being forced to run around in sodden grass whomping on each other.

Let’s just call it by name; I’m a documentary hag. I love documentaries about cane toads in Australia. I love documentaries about Scrabble championships. I love documentaries about mid-century propaganda musicals from Soviet Russia. Given an unexpected six hours to myself in the house, I brought out boxes of family snapshots that needed organizing and Ken Burns’ epic on baseball.

And I hate baseball.

I watch so many documentaries I’ve started to see the same experts over and over again. There’s nothing like seeing a talking head on The Mysteries of the Mayans who I instantly recognize from last year’s The Puzzle of the Persians. And where is Consort during all of this, you may ask? Hiding.

He hides because one time (after Daughter was asleep) he crossed the living room and glanced absently at the television screen. “What the hell is THAT?” he yelped.“Oh,” I said brightly. “It’s about the wife-swapping sub-culture in suburban America among the middle-aged and the elderly. Can you believe the woman in the leather swing has six grandkids?”Another time, he came in while I was watching Trauma; Life in the ER and happened to see what a patella looks like after it has taken the full force of a pick-up truck backing into it. So, when Consort sees me holding a new Netflix envelope, he tends to scurry.Oh, who needs him?As long as I have a talking head in a bowtie, am omniscient narrator, and someone dressed up as Elizabeth Bathory, the Hungarian Countess who sought of hold off the ravages of age by bathing the blood of virgin girls, I’m happy.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Consort strikes again.

First shrimp, now this:

I was drifting towards the computer and Consort, assuming I was about to say something in under 140 characters, said "Cogito ergo Tweet."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Back in the Saddle Again

About a week ago, I was standing somewhere public, dreaming my small dreams, when I happened to catch a glimpse of myself in a mirrored building. In seconds, my brain was flooded with questions:

How long has my hair been doing that?

Where in the hell did my lipstick go?

Why did I think these pants could still be seen in public?

What is up with my posture?

The last one was the most provocative, because I was standing in a singular way. My head was over here, my shoulders were way up here, only not symmetrically, and my hip was way over there. I thought, “I’ll just stand up strAAAAAUGH!”

Yes, it’s a word. It’s what “Straight” evolves into when you try to align your back and a thousand invisible elves with anger-management issues and white-hot carving knives attack you. My spine, from cranium to sacrum, made their feelings known (The coccyx remained neutral). Instantaneously, I went back to my old position, but I had awakened the beast.

I knew exactly what this was; I didn’t wail “WHY?????” and shake my fist at the Fates, at least partially because I couldn’t raise my arm above my hip. I was in five serious car accidents between fifteen and twenty-nine, and while I never broke a single bone, the EMT guys usually ended up tying me to a board and whisking me off to the nearest ER where I would be diagnosed with soft-tissue damage. Soft-tissue damage is like a very bad bruise which takes forever to heal and holds a grudge. Have five of those and that’s a lot of grudges. My spine and I would make a great episode of “Dr. Phil.”

[You are now thinking “Five car accidents? How badly do you drive, Quinn?” I was at fault exactly once. Three times, I was a passenger. My karma is mythically weird.]

So that answers “Why me?” and here’s the answer to “Why me, now?” At the start of the year, we put Daughter back in school and were rewarded with a book list only slightly shorter than the Britannica. The first day she went beetling off with her rolling backpack crammed full, and she came home with even more material. I was confused; why wasn’t some of this stuff staying at school? After a week, I wrote an email to the teacher, who wrote back saying there was no storage space for the kids. I suggested this was insane; she agreed and begged me to write to the principal and beg for bookshelves. I wrote, I begged. I got an email back from the principal letting me know the teacher had plenty of storage space for the kids, if she just organized her room correctly. I went around with them two more times and discovered that there was plenty of shelves or none at all, depending on which reality you chose to adopt.

One of the few nice things about being over forty is that I now see pointless turf battles much earlier than before and don’t try to engage, but it did mean the backpack never got smaller. By December, Daughter weighed fifty-four pounds and the backpack weighed forty five. She could pull it on its wheels, but there was no way for her to get the thing in and out of the car every day, so I did that. Every day, four times a day, I would grab something heavy and poorly balanced and twist it in and out of a confined space. A couple of times a week, I’d think “Ooh, I bet my spine isn’t enjoying this” and then I’d think “But nothing has happened yet, so I don’t have soft-tissue damage anymore! There will be no consequences for me!” This is the same part of my brain that thinks if a light on the car dashboard stops blinking, it means the car fixed itself. And every day, my posture got a little stranger, the backpack got heavier and I grew a little more helixed, until last week when I tried to stand my full 5’3” once more and got bitch-slapped, spinally.

When you have intermittent back problems, you learn certain skills, like driving yourself home even though you kind of resemble a grimacing ironing board. I inched into the house and fell face-first on to the couch. Consort and Daughter came out and stared at me curiously.

“Do you need help?” Consort asked politely. I said something into the couch, because turning my head wasn’t an option. Daughter tried to pet my back but stopped when the sensation of her hand moving the shirt-fabric closer to my back caused me to scream. By putting his ear next to the couch-cushion, Consort gleaned that I wanted one of the Vicodin my ER doctor had given me for the cat-bite. I knew it would make me seasick and nauseated, but I hoped it might addle the knife-wielding invisible elves. Considerately, he got the pills and some water. Sweetly, he turned my head and drugged me. Deftly, he peeled me from the couch and arranged me on my back, squinting painfully at the ceiling.

“We’re going to let you rest now,” he said, shooing our offspring and the pets away from me, all of whom found me unbearably desirable now that I was the Tin Man before the oil can. I hissed to grab his attention. He leaned over. I whispered, “If I die, you can start dating after Thanksgiving. If I’m still here on Wednesday, kill me.”

“Got it,” he said astutely, and walked out of my line of sight. I stared at the ceiling and lay very still and longed to once more be the Quinn whose biggest problem was bad hair and missing lipstick.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Fighting the Good Fight

We have a temporary ritual in the house. At least four times a day I go into the garage and look at the kittens. My rationale is to make sure Carmen has enough to eat and drink or her litter-box doesn’t need changing.

[One brief note about Carmen and her litter-box: a few days ago Consort walked into the garage and walked right back out again. He was ashen. “I think a Teamster crapped in there,” he said, shaking his head. Sure, this doesn’t move the blog forward thematically, but I thought it was evocative.]

So I visit the garage on a regular basis to do whatever housekeeping needs doing but mostly I go out to stare at kittens. Wouldn’t you? They are fat, fuzzy inchworms with pansy faces and funny little tails. When they aren’t nursing they are sleeping in an undulating clump, suckling each other’s paws. In short, they are wildly adorable and the reason I put up with litter-box duty. If I walk into the garage and Carmen is nestled in with them, she glances up briefly to determine if I’m there to dole out more food; if I’m not, she goes back to dozing.

Sometimes I discover her outside the baby-basket, just hanging out on the opposite side of the cage, enjoying kitten-free nipples while her babies nap in a warm pile. Seeing me approach, she scowls, returns to the nest and curls protectively around her brood, shielding them from me. This, of course, causes them to wake up and demand another meal. Carmen hisses at me for forcing her back to work during her break and for my being near her kittens. I don’t think she despises me anymore. She will even let me pet her while she enjoys her stinky wet food. I think if Carmen had a reasoning center in her brain she’d admit that the humans in this strange environment mean her babies no harm. Still, she is mom and we’re strangers. It never hurts to remind strangers how much damage you are prepared to inflict to protect your babies.

Heather and Mike Spohr hissed plenty during their daughter’s lifetime. Maddie was born eleven weeks early and spent her first 68 days in the hospital. Her entire life was punctuated by intermittent health crises, constantly underscored by her medical fragility. Maddie’s life was also Christmas and trips to the park and Easter baskets and her first birthday and two parents who were prepared to fight off anything which tried to take their darling girl away. But some enemies are bigger than parents can fight and three days ago, Madeline Alice Spohr died suddenly in the hospital. She was seventeen months old. If you can, please donate in her name to the March of Dimes so other children can keep fighting. Or donate something toward Maddie’s funeral so her parents don’t have to suffer the obscenity of paying to bury their own baby.

Heather and Mike fought so hard for Maddie, and they won seventeen months with their lovely and irreplaceable girl. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go kiss my kid.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Mother and Child Reunion

She's Having My Baby

(Please read the one before this, or be prepared to live in confusion.)

Wednesday, April 1st, I came home from dropping the kid at school and the minute I walked through the front door I suspected something was different with the cat. This isn’t a testimonial to some deep emotional bond she and I have forged. It was because for the first time in three days I couldn’t hear her -- you should pardon the expression -- caterwauling in the garage. I raced back out to the garage and tiptoed in. Carmen was resting on her side. Next to her was something very small and very wet. At least I thought there was something next to her. Carmen is a tabby and the thing next to her was a tabby and it kind of looked like her leg and they were both pretty disheveled. When I tried to get a closer look, Carmen hissed at me demonically. I comforted myself that if it wasn’t her leg it appeared to be nursing. More comforting was that she wasn’t making her noises anymore. I tiptoed out.

Within two hours, we had more small wet things. How many more was hard to say because several seemed to be the same color as Carmen; or I kept seeing the same one. Also, Carmen tucked them under herself and hissed at me whenever I approached to look at them. The hiss worried me; her eyes told me that her loathing of me was still deep and profound, but the hiss was weak. Yes readers, I was worried that she didn’t hate me enough. She’d given birth several times but her belly seemed as distended as before. I suspected she wasn’t well, which wouldn’t have been a surprise as she’d been in labor for two days and had some health issues that came along with having lived on the streets. She wasn’t bothering to clean herself or the kittens. We birth partners know when we need backup so I called Kate, the head of the rescue group.

Kate arrived within an hour, bringing another volunteer who had extensive experience with feral cats. We stood around her cage, loved ones and medical professionals softly conferring about the patient. Kate and the volunteer gently pressed on her stomach. It was hard, which wasn’t a good sign. Carmen allowed this, which was a terrible sign. Remember, she once sliced open the side of my finger for changing her water. Now with a fresh litter and a crowd of aliens hovering overhead, she was suddenly complacent. Hmmm.

The pros agreed she might have at another kitten in there, maybe two, and either she wasn’t strong enough to give birth to them or there was a dead kitten inside which could eventually cause blood-poisoning. Carmen hissed slowly at us. Kate called the vet who works with the rescue group who also makes house calls. The good news was that between the three humans, we were finally able to get a definitive kitten-count: three tabbies, one black, one grey. Kate had me draw up some warm water and wash-rags, and we gently cleaned them up. We placed them next to their weak and hostile mother.

Within the hour, the vet came by along with an assistant. I raced them through the house, listing her symptoms or, as I was now disturbingly referring to them, our symptoms. We’d been in labor for two days. We have five kittens. We had a distended abdomen. We were fundamentally sweet but prone to lash out.

(Actually, I’m going to remember that last symptom as a potential inscription for my headstone.)

The assistant opened the cage, confidently grabbed Carmen with both hands and gently shook the kittens off her so that the vet could examine her. Kittens plopped like larvae into the bed. Unconsciously, I counted them. And then I counted them again. And then I told the vet that we, in fact, had six kittens. In the previous hour -- five hours after her last arrival -- she had given birth to another grey. I think I said something boundary-blurring like “We’re mothers again!” We birth-partners get a little keyed-up.

The vet prodded, poked and mumbled something to the assistant, who prodded and poked the same spot. The vet finally said, “There might be another kitten in there. I either felt a kitten head or a kidney.”

Sure, yeah. I wasn’t in a position to dispute that. I asked worriedly, “But what if she can’t give birth to it?”

[I’m going to write down the answer the vet gave me, because I found it fascinating, but I’ll write it as the first comment in the section below. So, if you have a weak stomach, you can avoid it. Suffice to say, I had to keep a close eye on her but she wasn’t in any immediate danger.]

“But what about her abdomen?” I persisted. “She’s huge.”

Carmen, wrapped in a towel for her examination, hissed at me and she was right. It was a bitchy thing for a birth-partner to mention. The vet put her hand on Carmen’s belly and pushed. She said, “I think it might be..."

The sound and the odor filled the garage for almost fifteen seconds.


The vet suspected the kittens had been sitting in such a way as to block her colon. The wideness had not been twelve kittens, as we feared, but six kittens and a thousand farts. Her stomach was already visibly smaller. Carmen, possibly out of relief, lay her head on the towel and shut her eyes. We washed the back end of her and put her back in with the babies, who inched over to her blindly and latched on. The vet and the assistant packed up. I stayed in the garage with Carmen, watching our babies eat. She watched me through slitted eyes. Slowly, I slid my hand in and petted her head. I whispered, “Well done, Carmen.”

She hissed mildly, and then for just a second rubbed her head against my hand. I went out to get myself a celebratory cigar.

Friday, April 03, 2009

There is a Season (Turn, Turn, Turn)

Eventually, each one of us will experience some life-event from both sides. The heartbreaker gets his heart broken. The doctor becomes the patient. A child grows up and becomes a parent. Or, as in my case, first I gave birth and then nearly a decade later I served as the spouse to a pregnant cat.

She came to us hugely pregnant. The vet who had examined her after she was trapped told us two things; she had another week or so to go and manual palpitation of her abdomen indicated that there were a lot of kittens in there. I, who never attended vet-school, could have told you that. My first clue would have been that she was wider than she was long. One of the small amusements of the week was watching her try to unsuccessfully find a comfortable position to lie down, finally settling with using her stomach as a kind of a bean-bag cushion. Then, noticing I had been observing her shame, she’d hiss at me. Oh, how she hated me. She hated me for looking at her; she hated me for cleaning her litter-box; she hated me for having the temerity to put a hand in to offer her a bowl of food, and then she hated me for there not being more food. The way she squinted at me led me to understand that she suspected I had something to do with her being pregnant, and she really hated me for that. A pregnant cat is referred to as a Queen, which seemed fitting; had she been able, she would have screamed “OFF WITH HER HEAD!” at all of us.

Every night, I’d put her to bed with her third dinner and a volley of hisses and say to Consort, “We’ll have kittens my morning, trust me.” Every morning, it was just her, her demonic noises and an empty food-bowl within striking range of her claws. I’ve never been so grateful to already be on antibiotics because by day four my hands looked as if I had been attacked by maniac wielding a dull grapefruit knife. When she’d get up to eat or attack me, I’d speculate that she was acting as a surrogate for an Irish Wolfhound. Daughter declared the cat’s name was Carmen; Ddaughter has no knowledge of the opera, but I thought the spitfire suffering through the wages of sin seemed like a Carmen to me.

And then the growling began. When I wasn’t in there, she was shrieking but when I was near, she growled a low tigerish sound I hadn’t heard before. A quick check on the Internet said that growling was a sign she was in labor and that her mood might also change. It did; she became a pleasant cat about 33% of the time. Actually, not so much pleasant as wildly, cloyingly affectionate, howling if I wasn’t scratching her head and howling louder if I did it wrong. The next 33% of the time she was trying to bite me. The last 33% of the time she was trying desperately to get out of the cage which meant that when I’d go to put in her food I was fending off a charging rhino that would-- when thwarted from leaving the cage and birthing someplace unsafe --then collapse into my arms, weeping. The last 1% of her time was spent kicking cat litter all over the garage. Once, I walked into the kitchen, brushing cat rage and specks of enraged-cat saliva from my eyes and asked Consort tiredly, “Was I like that during labor? Do I owe you an apology?”

He thought.

“No. You didn’t have a litter-box.”

(I'll finish tomorrow. Sorry, but I've got some work to do today.)