Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Peeves & Perspective

Throughout this whole ordeal with my fingers, arm and neck, I have been reminded of the CSCM (the Chain-Smoking Canadian Mormon, for those who haven’t been reading my blog since its inception), with whom I recently technically reconnected via a professional networking site.  About a decade ago, the first clue that he had a brain tumor was when he woke up one morning and found he couldn’t see.  His eyesight was completely gone.  It eventually returned (and, given that he’s now back home working for a nonprofit, the tumor must be in remission), but I have been considering since Thursday before last how grateful I am that I have just been affected overnight by some loss of dexterity and some discomfort, rather than sudden blindness! 

There are two trends in response to my symptoms that have bothered me, though.  First, many of the laity, who when I mentioned the numbness in my fingers or the pain in my arms, have responded by positing all sorts of simplistic explanations: “You slept wrong” (“your mattress is too soft/too hard”, “your pillow is too soft/too hard/too high/too low”), “You picked up something”, “You twisted something,” along with recommendations for fixing the issue, mostly useless.  I’ve discovered that experiencing nerve pain (before I could point to specific MRI results) is much like experiencing a mental illness—everyone has an opinion about how you incurred this indefinite condition and how you can go about fixing it; they don't treat it as a concrete problem, like a broken arm, that had a cause, has a standard course of treatment, and will have a recovery date.   
Second, the professionals.  The doctors I have spoken to have both of them intoned the same phrase when discussing my test results: “As we get older, we experience degenerative changes…”  For crying out loud, I’m 38, not 58!  To have this level of disability at this stage without a significant external causal factor seems strange to me.  I was looking at my MRI images today, and even to me it is obvious that my neck is pretty screwed up (as if I already couldn’t tell from the diminution of my typing skills—my right pointer finger is fumbling the keys repeatedly).  There has got to be a genetic factor at work that predisposes me to spinal issues--true, my father broke his neck twice (once weightlifting, once in a car accident), but would it have broken had he not already have had spinal changes?  My sweet Grandmommy had some severe back problems in her mid-fifties--could I have inherited this trait from both sides of the family?  I really want this to be treatable by physical therapy, but why it is happening at all, now, is still a mystery.

I am entering a real sort of mid-life crisis.  Should I stay in DC?  Can I stay in DC?  I can’t work at the estate sale company anymore; even if physical therapy is completely effective, it will be months until I can lean over and pick things up as a matter of course.  Without work, I don’t have income. With no income, I can’t afford my apartment.  I fear and dread returning to my hometown—I don’t want to end up intellectually stagnant, working at some minimum-wage job, living alone and lonely, growing greyer and more insular by the day.  I want to travel, I want to see new things, new people, learn about new cultures.  I love my friends and my church in DC.  But being a single person really sucks when it means that you have no one to care for you in-house and no one to help you financially when you find yourself suddenly, involuntarily unemployed and effectively disabled! 
My friends have been really sweet about offering to get me things from the store and asking me if I want to come over to stay with them so they can look after me.  But I now totally understand that with what previously I really could only theoretically sympathize: the desire of someone who’s ailing or aging to stay in their own home!  The last thing I want to do is pack a suitcase and go to someone else’s house, no matter how sweet a friend they are, or how good their care.  I want to curl up in my own room, surrounded by my own piles of clutter (OK, truly I wish I could get rid of the piles of clutter, but I was in the middle of sorting and culling them when this happened, so there they lie) and convalesce.  I want to be able to get on my computer when I can, fiddle with my lamp projects in the moments when I feel up to it, and sort through my bead piles and fabric stacks likewise.  Of course, I really want my hand to start working, and I want to start working overall.  Be that as it may, I hate having nothing to do, and especially when you are “guesting” at someone’s home, there is little built-in to do, whereas at least I can putter around my own house.  While I have been in Rhode Island, my niece and nephew have been a welcome distraction, but this hasn’t been either a productive or a lucrative week from a extra-familial perspective.

A month or so ago, when I was chatting with Rachel and the NPV, I told them that one of the reasons I did want to get married this year was that I knew I needed someone to take care of me in case I became disabled.  I was thinking more in terms of mental infirmity than of physical (I’ve always been pretty robust, so this nerve issue has thrown me totally off-balance) but here is a physical challenge sooner than I’d ever expected.  And, boy, does it make aloneness an issue!  Again, though, at least I am in a country where I am fluent in the local language for treatment—my single friend who moved to Seoul last year to teach English (she lives in Gangnam itself, but her apartment is not exactly posh) is having foot surgery soon, and she doesn’t speak Korean, so bilingual friends from church are helping her with the hospital communication and recuperation. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

MRI Results

So, maybe I have an excuse for being a wuss.  I got my MRI results at long last today (the hospital radiology department was closed Monday for President's Day!), and the scan revealed that I have one mildly bulging disk and two that are really, actually, fully herniated--and both are pressing on my spinal cord, which has a "narrowed passageway" (whatever that means) at that juncture.  So, I have a documented excuse for being in pain.  Whee.  Somehow, this is not gratifying.

I still have numb fingers, which is slowing my typing, but other than aches around noontime I haven't had too much arm pain today, for the first time in almost two weeks.  Rita and I went outside to play in the snow and built a respectable genderless snowperson with the requisite carrot nose.  Brad got home from school at 4 with his Dad and the younguns watched TV for another half an hour until I made them come upstairs and help me make a "Thunder Cake" from the recipe in the back of the same-named children's book.  It turned out delicious.

I keep calling my nephew Bob instead of Brad, because he reminds me of my brother when he was little.  My sister claims there is little resemblance, but they look and act alike to me, and I remember Bob as being a merry soul when he was young, rather than the moody creature he is now.  Brad is a total ham--I am going to experiment  uploading pictures from my iPhone tomorrow--there's not one shot I have without him being goofy.

I have extended my stay in Rhode Island through Saturday afternoon.  The orthopedist can't see me until next Wednesday morning, and I can't work in my current condition, and Rita begged me to stay (of course, she also just wants me to live with her full-time), so I changed my train ticket.  I've been watching a lot of Kdramas (Vampire Prosecutor, both seasons--like a blend of Sherlock and Law & Order, with the undead thrown into the mix) while the children rot their brains on Nickelodeon cartoons.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Lamps & Wussiness

OK, truth be told: I am a wuss.  I've been pretty much curled up in bed, moaning over my throbbing right arm, since last Thursday.  My MRI is scheduled for tonight (Happy Valentines Day! Other people get flowers, I get magnetic resonance imaging...)--one of the teachers from my Sunday School class is taking me.  It's not like they are going to sedate me or anything, but I just felt like I needed someone to go with me--being by yourself and hurting and somehow expected to gut it out is a challenge.  This morning, I called Amtrak to get assistance with my baggage for tomorrow's trip to Rhode Island and ended up talking to an employee who has a ruptured disc and arthritis, who was full of advice.  I was grateful, but also more than a little sheepish--he's got it far worse, as do my dear Grandmommy (whose eye-dilation last week somehow went wrong, leaving her still unable to see properly) and my bosses sister (whose second breast-cancer surgery last Friday went well)--both of whom have called me over the last couple of days to tell me they are thinking about/praying for me and to let them know what they can do to help!  Sheesh.  They are amazing.  I keep thinking about my sweet friend Paxifist, who's suffered from ongoing arthritis pain since childhood, and doesn't let it slow her down, and here I am with a couple of numb fingers and an aching arm for only a week and I'm worthless, unable to sleep without painkillers, and finding it hard to think beyond the tasks of toothbrushing and dressing myself.

I did make myself go deliver six lamps to consignment yesterday before I wussed out again and retired to the dubious comfort of my overripe sheets.  I sold eight lamps in January; six at an estate sale and two at the consignment place.  I have six more in various stages of completion on my living room floor, but having a mostly non-functional right arm means they may stay that way for the foreseeable future.  A numb index finger makes writing, typing, and holding a Drimel tool less easy than normal.

Friday, February 08, 2013


I woke up yesterday morning in considerable pain.  My right arm was in agony from my neck to my fingertips.  No rashes, no shortness of breath, so I dismissed my immediate concerns about shingles or heart attack at the same time that I was rapidly calling my sister to ask her for a remote diagnosis.  She told me to go to urgent care immediately.  I was in such discomfort I obeyed right away—didn’t wash my face or brush my teeth or hair (it would have been difficult anyway because of the arm pain), just pulled on some sweats, got in the car, and drove myself to the doctor.  I have never been so grateful for having had a sprained ankle—if I hadn’t gone to the urgent care for xrays five months ago, they wouldn’t have had my information in hand, and I was aching so badly (and my thumb and first two fingers had gone numb) by the time I got there that I could barely sign the authorization forms, much less would have been able to complete detailed paperwork.

I’m usually not a wuss when it comes to pain, but this hurt almost as badly as the Birthday Migraine of 2006, and they ended up giving me a shot of painkiller in the bum after an EKG cleared me officially of heart attack concerns.  The sweet, tiny, hijab-wearing doctor on call diagnosed me with the “classic” symptoms of a compressed radial nerve, most likely caused by a bulging disc, and referred me for an MRI at Virginia Hospital Center.  It’s scheduled for Valentine’s evening.  In the meantime, I have a prescription for steroids, and ten doses of Vicodin (generic), of which I’ve only taken one—it didn’t seem to work any better yesterday afternoon than conventional meds, so I fell back on ibuprofen for last night and today.
I’m not supposed to pick up anything remotely heavy, or lean over (the symptoms obviously get worse when I do, even a little) so work is on hold for the short term.  My fingers are still numb, which makes typing a challenge, and other creative pursuits—with which I’d otherwise be filling up my hours—out of the question.  You don’t realize how profoundly right-handed you are until your right arm flakes out on you.
Today, until around 7 PM, I didn’t have too much pain, but my nerves were jumping around under my skin all day like they were practicing the tarantella.  I was one of the guests of honor at the Georgetown History Honor Society’s 65th chapter anniversary banquet this evening, and I debated canceling, but figured I had to eat anyway.  Wwen I got there I really started to hurt again.  1000mg of acetaminophen got me through the otherwise pleasant evening (although they had me and a couple of other people get up and say a few words, and I’d had no forewarning that I was going to be put on the spot—managed to muddle through, though!). 
Friends have been very kind about offering me places to stay, but I don’t want to leave my house again, nor have to pack necessities for staying elsewhere in my reduced functionality state.  I am out of milk, and down to my last four rolls of toilet paper, but I think I can hold out until Tuesday, at least.  I hope that my finger feeling comes back soon—it makes me feel very clumsy.

The one amusing thing that happened when I got to the urgent care center was when they called me back to the examining room and I got up to go and suddenly the vision in my left eye was blurry.  “Great,” I thought.  “I’m having some sort of stroke.”  I reached up to my eyes and discovered that my left glasses lens had popped out.  As my sister says, there’s nothing more perversely cheering than realizing you are starring in your own personal farce.  I later found the lens and managed to resecure it in the frames, using my (functional) pinkie nail as a screwdriver.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Connery, Clients, Cinema & Cellphones

I knew I was in a good mood Sunday morning when I found myself doing a Sean Connery impression when I was putting on my makeup. “…we’ll listen to their rohckunrohll, while we perform misSILE druhls,” I burbled in a Scot-attempting-(badly)-a-Russian-accent, as I massaged concealer into the pores around my nose. (Yes, I have seen Hunt for Red October far too many times.) In the same spirit, I put on my coat with the giant fox fur cuffs, and my enormous Russian fox fur hat, and my black boots, and started for church, pausing to admire the neat row of outward bound kitty paw prints in the half inch of snow on one side of the steps, and the matching set of inbound prints on the other side—clearly, my friendly feline neighbor had been out to investigate, but was now comfortably situated at home. After church I invited myself over to Susan and Steven’s to cuddle Theo for an hour—I would post a picture, but when I showed it to Anita today she confirmed my own impression, that while Theo is a doll who looks like he’s trying to talk, I look a full thirty years older than I am, and fifty pounds heavier.

Seeing my unaccountable joy at dinner tonight, Anita says I may be punch-drunk, particularly given the trio of trying clients that have driven my boss, my colleagues and me almost to distraction over the last month, and sucked away any energy I might have had for blogging meantime. She may have a point. (Or it could be the “new-aunt buzz” I’m enjoying thanks to Theo.) We thought January’s sale was going to be a record event, something so full of treasure and exotic atmosphere that it would impart a glow of success to the rest of 2013. We’d talked it up for months, telling regular clients to come, that it would be an exceptional sale—we might even have a preview night, something we haven’t done in two years, since the estate in Georgetown with the 200 year history and eleven bedrooms. I was more than a little nonplussed when we actually got to the house. Where were the treasures foretold? Why were the owners still around? There were so many stacks of stuff the husband still had to go through. And the items that he pointed out as if they were really special…weren’t. Everything was filthy, and the wiring in the basement (where there was a lingering odor of gas) buzzed and flickered alarmingly. When my boss suggested sleeping at the house the night before the sale, I said it was a miracle the place hadn’t burnt down before, and I would take the train in if sale-day parking were the problem.

Extremely limited parking was only one of several problems that sank the sale. The weather was bitter, and it snowed irritatingly on Friday, and was gloomy Saturday. The owner didn’t let us lower prices at all on most of the big, interesting pieces that probably would have sold had we had some small leeway, and on whose selling we had counted when we had agreed to take the sale in the first place. So, when we totted the receipts this last week (actually, I did an Excel spreadsheet of the whole write-up book, just to make sure of the numbers), the sale earned only half of what we’d expected. And as I had worked the equivalent of more than 3 40-hour weeks in 2 ½, not to mention the hours all my colleagues contributed to cleanup and setup, doing it actually may have cost our company money.

We have been bedeviled by two other problem clients over the same period. One is the insane toilet-paper lady (“I’ve feel RAPED! I feel VIOLATED!” …after we used half a roll of her toilet tissue.) of last fall, who still hasn’t gotten over our selling her oak roll-top desk for $200, and her “Victorian” (covered in bile-colored crushed velvet) sofa for $100. [Incidentally, everything in her house was also dirty, and worthless, so that our company lost several thousand on that sale in revenue versus salaries.] She’s been sending my boss multi-paragraph emails from Florida, alleging that we swindled her. Never mind that we’ve steadily continued to put remaining items from her costume jewelry (which she’d considered worthless) collection in subsequent sales (all items carefully accounted for), and have sent her several nice checks following, which have more than compensated for any imagined losses in the furniture department! The second spanner-in-the-works person was ever only a consignor, for whom we never did an in-home sale. One of her adult children has a severe mental illness, and had trashed the house where she wanted us to do a sale, so my boss turned down the big job, but accepted a cluster of items on consignment from her out of sympathy. Truly, it’s been a lesson in how mental illnesses usually do not spring full-armored from the head of Zeus but are cultivated to an extent in previous generations. The stuff this woman gave us was mostly junk—chipped stemware, shell necklaces of the beach type, etc. We managed to sell quite a bit of it, though, in one of our last 2012 sales, and for a very nice sum. Yet, since Christmas, she has left my boss poisonous phone messages, and within the last week has gone from sugar sweet to raging beastly then back again, from slandering her and our business to unusual cordiality, all without discernible pattern or trigger. Thank God my boss is a diplomat, inclined to soothing rather than threatening when threatened. Still, I will be heartily grateful when these three unpredictable spirits fade from our awareness, having returned to curling protectively around their precious, dead possessions and muttering sweet nothings to them.

Honestly, I feel like our company letterhead should read, in capitals, YOU ARE GOING TO DIE!!! Sheesh, it may not be tomorrow, it may not be for a decade. It might not even be for another fifty or sixty years, but we are all going to turn up our toes (bar the end of the world) and, (especially then), OUR STUFF WON’T MATTER. I do like stuff. I have a lot of it. I am a packrat. I like jewelry, and books, and handmade lovelies of all make and model. I like original art and handmade rugs and china and silver and fur and DVDs and electronic gadgets and so on and so forth. I would hope, however, that if it were all to be reduced to ashes in a catastrophe I would have the good sense and fortitude to remind myself, “It’s just stuff. It was nice while it lasted” and go on without excessive handwringing. In any case, I want to be righteous and give generously, and share my blessings, not be like the rich fool of the parable. In DC, so many people seem to think even the horse manure in their middle-sized barns is made out of gold. For insurance purposes, value it as such; for second-sale purposes, realize that we'll get what money we can for its worth as garden fertilizer.

After Anita and I dined this evening, it was still early, so I took myself to a movie. I hadn’t seen anything in the theater since Skyfall before Christmas, and I knew there were a couple of good ones out (my boss and I want to go see Zero Dark Thirty together sometime soon). I chose Argo, which has gotten several Oscar nominations. It was the first film in a long, long time to actually get my heartrate up—James Bond is fun, but most so-called “action” movies don’t really get my blood moving anymore, no matter how much I enjoy them, being as they are pretty formulaic and more about explosions than tension. I really liked Argo—I remember more about the Lawrence Welk show and the weather reports from 1979 than I do about the hostage crisis, and so didn’t already know the end of the story—and I thought Ben Affleck did a good job directing, and also admirably subdued himself onscreen. Mainly due to his earlier attention-hogging, he’s not been one of my favorite actors (in contrast to my appreciation of his buddy Matt Damon’s work), but I thought he did really nice work here. It was funny, though, to glimpse the picture of the real Tony Mendez shaking hands with President Carter and observe that the man is a medium-build somewhat swarthy Hispanic guy (probably why Affleck chose to sport a dark beard for the role, as otherwise he looks about as classically Hispanic as Ron Howard)—just what you’d hope for in an exfiltration expert: someone normal, even average-looking, who could blend comfortably into dozens of world cultures without attracting any special notice. The end credits said Mendez lives in retirement in Maryland; probably quietly and unremarked upon by his neighbors.

Around here, though, sometimes even when something is designed to attract attention, people seem to ignore it deliberately. I went to work yesterday at the house in upper-middle-class suburban Maryland where we’re doing our next sale. My colleague unlocked the front door, and the burglar alarm tripped. The husband and wife are still living there (they are moving to the same golfing/retirement community where my aunt and uncle live in North Carolina, but not until after the sale—they, in contrast to the Three Ghouls of Estate Sales Past, are nice, and non-possessive, but it’s still challenging to work around resident clients, since most people don’t live with all their possessions set out on counters with price stickers on them), and he had obviously been operating on auto-pilot when they’d left that morning, and turned on the security system. Alarm blaring around us, we called my boss. No answer. We texted. No response. After ten minutes, the alarm company hadn’t called, nor had the police shown, so we decided that it was too deafening to wait indoors for them, and returned to our cars to keep warm. We waited for an entire hour (my Yugoslavian colleague told a long, angry, non-linear story while I listened sympathetically and tried to follow the constantly-disappearing thread and figure out exactly what had pissed her off). The alarm sounded for a full 50 minutes. No one from the security company ever appeared, no police cruiser ever pulled up. A neighbor even walked past with her dog, deaf to the hubbub. I told my colleague that we had obviously missed our calling as daytime housebreakers, given the quiet in the bedlam. After the alarm had finally shut off, we decided to make a second attempt at getting to work. We opened the front door again. Beep, beep, BEEEEEEEP! At that point, we called it a day and drove off on separate errands.

I went directly to the Verizon store, since I’d noticed during the morning’s frantic telephoning that the speaker mechanism on my old-school phone had died, a major problem in DC and MD, which are legislated hands-free. I was the only customer, which was a pleasant first. To replace the old phone with a like model would have been fifty bucks after rebate (!), but getting an iPhone4 was free. Odd, but there it was. So, I now have an iPhone. It doesn’t have a Suri or whatshername on it (I always think of the Tom Cruise kid every time I hear of that function), but it’s very cool nonetheless. I bought the two-year replacement insurance, but balked at the $50 protective case, figuring I could get one cheaper online. Way, way cheaper, it turns out—six bucks on Amazon Prime. Even if the case falls apart and I have to get half a dozen replacements, it’ll still have been a savings. My plain red case should come tomorrow, but maybe I can eventually find one with fun Kdrama illustrations (the Russian-related options were all quite boring). I can hardly wait to get the DramaFever app!