Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The eyes have it

Stop the presses.
I've made a breakthrough regarding the chronic condition called Male Pattern Blindness that affects virtually every man once he gets married. You know, it's the malady that makes most men unable to see what they're supposed to see when they're supposed to see it, whether it’s a stray piece of laundry, an item on a refrigerator shelf or, especially, a note outlining suggested activities and/or chores for the day.
Now, before you nominate me for the Nobel Prize in Medicine, you should understand this: I didn't come up with a cure.
I've got something better.
An excuse.
It all started one day back in August when we were walking on the beach. A sudden burst of wind blew sand into my right eye. As I attempted to wipe and blink it away, I noticed something strange about the left one.
I couldn't see squat.
The vision in my left eye was blurred, with a big smudge-like area right in the middle that made it hard to see much of anything.
"Hmmm," I thought, and promptly ignored it, figuring I just had some gunk (scientific term) in my eye that would go away.
But it didn't. And it started to hurt, too, which really got my attention, especially when an irritating gritty feeling evolved into a lancing pain that brought real meaning to the expression "a sharp stick in the eye.
Hmmm, indeed.
To make a really long story a little bit shorter, I worked my way through a pair of doctors over the next few weeks. The first, a general ophthalmologist, muddled about treating me for a mysterious infection that required both twice-a-week visits and eye drops that cost an astonishing $175 for a teeny-tiny bottle. Doctor #1 finally gave up and handed me over to doctor #2, a cornea specialist, who cut right to the chase.
"You got Fuchs'"
Fuchs' Dystrophy is a rare, mostly genetic disorder that occurs when cells that normally help pump excess fluid from the cornea begin to die off. As more and more cells are lost, fluid begins to build up in the cornea, causing swelling and cloudiness. As the disease gets worse, small blisters may form, which can eventually break, causing severe eye pain. Fuchs' dystrophy can also cause the shape of the cornea to change, which results in further vision problems.
In short, it's real blurry, and it hurts, too. Actually, I've got Fuchs' in both eyes. The left one has the advanced, bumpy, blistery stage of the disease, and they tell me my "good" eye is not all that far behind.
"So, what do we do about it?" I asked, thinking an extended course of $175 eye drops would probably do the trick.
"A cornea transplant," he said.
Is that all?
On the advice of the doctor, we did some research and discovered that cornea transplants have become a fairly run-of-the-mill thing for those well-trained in the delicate art of peeling and replacing the parts of the eye. We even made up a little joke regarding the nature of the transplant donor.
Me: Maybe you should donate your cornea.
She: Why would I want to do that?
Me: Then I'd finally be able to see things your way.
Given the "do it or go blind" nature of the decision, it was a no-brainer to choose to go ahead with the transplant for the first eye.
In fact, we gave it a try last Friday. A donor cornea was FedEx'd in from an L.A. eye bank and I was doped up, draped and ready to go. The norm for this kind of surgery is what I like to call "the la-la land cocktail," a combination of local anesthetic and heavy sedation that makes you feel like wrestling bears, sky diving without a parachute, or going over Niagara Falls in a barrel are all within the bounds of reasonable activity, not to mention a little carving on one's eyeball.
A few minutes after being rolled into the operating room, I was happily dreaming my own little dreams when my doctor's voice cut through the clutter and burst my drug-induced bubble.
"I don't like the looks of this," he said.
Those aren't words you want to hear from a doctor with a scalpel in his hand and your eye in his sights.
I dragged myself a few more light years towards consciousness in order to inquire as to the situation.
Happily, it wasn't me that was the problem, but the donor cornea, which wasn't up to my doc's exacting standards.
"I gave it the family test," he said. "I wouldn't put it into my brother, so I'm not putting it into you."
A good thing.
So we're going to try it all over again on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.
Recovery consists of 24 hours staring at the ceiling, followed by a few days of light duty and Ray Charles sunglasses. Advanced transplant methods mean I might be able to measure improvement in weeks instead of months, at which time we'll start talking about doing the other eye one of these days.
I suppose I could think of other ways to spend the Thanksgiving weekend. The good news is that I'll miss Black Friday entirely. The bad news is that I'll have to curtail my own personal eat-fest at midnight on Thanksgiving to prepare for surgery in the morning.
But all in all, I know I'm lucky. Because unlike Macular Degeneration and some other progressive eye diseases, this one has a cure, with a high rate of success. And I know that thanks to a good doctor, a generous donor and modern medicine, I'm going to have something to be truly thankful for.
Here's looking at you.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bracing for a long, long year

Raise your hand if you absolutely dread facing the next 12 months and the upcoming presidential election cycle.
I suppose some folks find it interesting or exciting, even. But for me, the process of electing our leaders has become entirely distasteful as, more and more, ideological passion is overwhelmed by pure partisanship, and ideas and ideals are replaced by mean-spirited innuendo and all-out negativism.
What's worse is the fact that we will be forced to endure the cat-fighting, backbiting and out-and-out untruths that drive the public process we call politics nowadays in the form of the campaign commercials that will flood the airways from now until then.
So, what are we gonna do?
A couple of months ago, I wrote a column that, in part, addressed my belief that this country is quietly dominated by a "moderate majority" of folks who would like to see things change when it comes to our political process.
As I said then, I think there is a majority of citizens who share a more moderate view of things; who see both sides of an issue and believe there is room for compromise, and who don't claim to know everything about everything.
I continue to believe that there is a moderate majority, whose political and personal views are based on what's right and fair, instead of what serves special interests or a party line.
I was a little surprised at how many people agreed with what I had to say, not because I feel I'm at all wise or insightful, but because the negative, over-partisan approach seems to work so well in the political arena.
But here we are.
Waiting for something better.
I think we're good and smart enough to make our decisions without being subjected to an endless barrage of misleading information from people who often seem more interested in bullying us or frightening us into voting their way rather than telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I think it's time for a new era of civility and frank discussion. I think there's got to be a better way to find out what our candidates and their parties truly believe in, instead of only hearing about what they're against.
So here's the beginnings of my plan. Phase one of the Sloan Simplified Selection System would allow no paid political advertising. Instead, it would require each and every candidate to spend his or her time, talent and financial resources producing a clear, comprehensive standardized document stating their beliefs, goals and solutions to the problems they see. Each candidate's platform document would be required to honestly address specific issues determined by a bipartisan panel. Candidates failing to address those issues would be barred from discussing them in speeches or face-to-face debates, nor could they criticize or otherwise comment on their opponents' stance on those issues. That document would then be made available online, in libraries and free of charge to any registered voter or school requesting one. Visitors to the online site could also choose to click and compare the different viewpoints on any given issue.
I'd like to see the media saddled with the same responsibilities. And, in fact, I'm pretty sure that's the way it's supposed to be. But just think, just this first phase would, if nothing else, clear the airwaves and allow us to go back to watching reality TV shows, old movies, and "Leave it to Beaver" reruns, as is our God-given right.
And it would give us the right--and clear ability--to think for ourselves.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A world of inventions

I don't generally get too excited about so-called technological advances, though I imagine I'd get pretty fired up if someone came up with something truly useful, like an automatic potato peeler, a portable hot fudge machine or some kind of miraculous device that would keep my socks matched, even in the dryer.
But this one had me downright enthused. So much so, that I made a pronouncement on Facebook that was, for me, at least, pretty darn gleeful.
"Got a mobile broadband hotspot today!"
Now, I didn't expect anyone to get all worked up over the news. After all, it wasn't like I was announcing something truly important, like the birth of a baby or a great new recipe for chocolate chip cookies. But I was pretty excited given that the new gadget would, if it worked as advertised, allow me to wirelessly connect to the internet via my cell phone network just by carrying a little phone-sized devise along with me. In more practical terms, it meant I could get online anywhere a cell phone signal could reach, which is pretty heady stuff for a self-proclaimed road warrior like me. No more searching for the golden arches and the free WiFi they provide along with Big Macs and Happy Meals. No more skulking through prosperous-looking neighborhoods cyber-searching for a stray signal to latch onto.
"I'm free!" I proclaimed, while noting that the service most certainly isn't.
Later on, a friend made a comment regarding my jubilant post that kind of put it all into a new/old perspective for me.
"Mobile, broadband, hotspot. Try to imagine those three words used together 10 years ago."
Heck, how about 10 months ago? Or for a technodinosaur like me, 10 days, even?
I know I've written before about the plethora of new stuff that both benefits and besieges us all the time. But the extraordinary changes in the way we communicate ideas and information ranging from mathematical theorems to pictures of new puppies to the really important stuff, like chocolate cookie recipes, got me thinking about the innovative trends of the past compared to what seems to be important today. Some of them seem almost generationally themed, as in my paternal grandfather's day, when the big thing seemed to be transportation, or better, faster, safer ways to get from point A to point B to better enable stealing land from the Native Americans. He was born in 1866, so that meant he lived in a world that saw the advent of transcontinental railroad travel and the invention of both the automobile and the airplane. He was, apparently, an early adopter of that technology, as noted in "Homeburg Memories," an early-20th century novel based on my hometown of Galva that was written by native son and nationally known humorist George Fitch.
“Our oculist was our pioneer automobile owner.  He bought a home-made machine and a mule at the same time, and by judiciously combining the two, he got a great deal of mileage out of both.  He would work all morning getting the auto down-town and all afternoon getting the mule to haul it back.”
For my dad, who was born in 1904, it was energy, and the ways it made life safer, more comfortable and more efficient that seemed to really change things on a daily basis. A 1910 publication entitled, "The Electrical World" included a recounting of a meeting of the Galva Commercial Club, where the introduction of electric power was discussed. According to the article, a New Yorker named Glenn Marston gave an address on the advisability of securing adequate electric power for industrial purposes.
Mr. Marston noted that "public improvements and public utilities mark the progressiveness of any city. No community can succeed without the best of both. Electric power means more industries, better pay, shorter hours and more money in circulation."
We know what happened next. Along with gas-fired furnaces, which meant no more coal to shovel or clinkers to dig out and dispose of, electricity helped make life brighter, safer and easier for everyone, which was a pretty good deal, I think.
But those are just a couple of examples of ways ideas have changed lives over the years. Some developments have been incredibly important. Others, not so much. But what, I wondered, are the most important inventions ever, uh, invented?
So I did a quick bit of research, just to see what people were thinking nowadays.
One online poll listed the telephone, computers, television, the automobile, the cotton gin, the camera, the steam engine, the sewing machine, the light bulb and penicillin as their top ten modern inventions, while a British poll conducted last year included this eclectic mix: the wheel, airplanes, the light bulb, the internet, personal computers, the telephone, penicillin, the iPhone, flush toilets and the internal combustion engine.
The telephone faired well on most lists, despite a more recent trend that now seems to place it lower down the list of preferred communications tools as indicated in a recent episode of "The Big Bang Theory,"
Sheldon: Sorry. I’m a little distracted. I can’t seem to get in touch with Amy. I tried e-mail, video chat, tweeting her, posting on her Facebook wall, texting her, nothing.
Leonard: Did you try calling her on the telephone?
Sheldon: The telephone. You know, Leonard, in your own simple way, you may be the wisest of us all.
One article I read said the camera was the greatest invention ever, and I've gotta admit that a device that's recorded images of everything from Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address to a man walking on the moon to my youngest grandson less than a minute after birth is pretty darn close. I was a little surprised that the internet didn't grab the top spot on more of the lists I encountered, but it was number one in plenty of minds and places, with lots of time to continue in an evolution that affects--in one way or another--virtually ever facet of modern life.
But an invention that continues to top many lists--and my personal choice for number one--is the one developed way back in the 1400s by Johannes Gutenberg. His moveable-type printing press fostered a veritable knowledge revolution in the sciences, arts and religion by making it possible for books and other printed information to be shared by more than the The Church and the very wealthy. His amazing printing method quickly replaced most of the handwritten manuscript methods of book production and spread literacy throughout the world to people of all classes and backgrounds.
Arguably, it's thanks to Gutenberg that you're doing what you're doing right now.
Now, that's what I call an invention.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Memories to be thankful for

Roadtripper (from Western Illinois Family Magazine)

Here comes November.
Fall is on the wane, with many of the beautiful colors and Indian Summer days of October starting to be replaced by bare trees, grey skies and the first warning signs of wintertime. It's both a beginning and an end, as we say goodbye to a season and a year, and look forward to the beginnings of the Christmas season, with all its joys, grace and blessings.
But before you start shopping, wrapping and watching for signs of Santa's elves, you've got something to do.
It's one of my favorite holidays, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.
It's not the day-long football-fest on TV, nor even the half-true stories of pilgrims and Indians I regale my grandchildren with.
It's certainly not the big box pre- and post-Thanksgiving weekend Christmas sales that start bombarding us on the airwaves sometime around the end of July.
It's not even the turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and other tasty delights that entirely make my day, though I'm honest enough to admit that the eating is a big part of it.
Yes, I'm thankful for all the above, but for me, the biggest, best thing about Thanksgiving is getting ready for it.
What'd he say?
It sounds crazy, I know, but I think the very best times are those spent together with family and friends preparing for the big meal and the big day. Of course, if you're imagining it's all a kind of living Norman Rockwell scene around my house, think again. My memories of our shared culinary triumphs, trials and downright disasters are, for the most part, a little more, uh, interesting than the average "over the river and through the woods" trip to grandmother's house or anything you'd see on the Food Network.
Like the year I thought it was time to treat the family and our friends to something new. As an avid National Public Radio listener, I had heard commentator Susan Stamberg wax poetic about her mother-in-law's cranberry relish for years. She has, in fact, shared the recipe with listeners every year on the Friday before Thanksgiving ever since 1972.
I'm not saying Mama Stamberg's Cranberry Relish ever really sounded particularly good to me. After all, the recipe calls for an unlikely mixture of raw cranberries, chopped onion, both a dollop of sour cream and a healthy dose of sugar, and--wait for it--a potent portion of horseradish. But I was so smitten with Ms. Stamberg's warm delivery and intelligent viewpoints that I wanted to give it a try, just to please her, I guess. Besides, I kind of figured anything that came from public radio was apt to make us all a little smarter, too.
Or not.
Actually, most of our dinner guests that year showed an immense amount of good sense when they politely declined even a tiny taste of the light-pink Pepto Bismo-looking stuff I ended up with. A good choice, as it tasted almost exactly like how you'd expect combined cranberries and horseradish to taste.
Enough said.
Our son Colin, who has worked for years as a sous chef and other in-kitchen positions, owns his own page in our family memory book based on a phone call he made home the first year he was in college. This was way before his career path took a turn through the kitchen door, though he was, apparently, already developing an interest in cooking for a crowd.
I answered the phone that night, and Colin explained that he and a number of his friends were planning an early Thanksgiving feast of their own before returning to their own homes and families for the actual holiday.
"We're bringing the turkey," he said proudly. "So I was wondering, when should we start defrosting it?"
"When is the dinner?" I asked cautiously.
Uh oh.
For years, I had been told that a slow, cold defrosting process was an absolute must, lest bacteria grow in the too-warm turkey. Dire newspaper headlines filled my mind's eye.
"Galva kid poisons college chums. Dad held for giving bad advice."
But other than suggesting a trip back in time with Sherman and Mr. Peabody in the wayback machine, I had no choice but to instruct him in the best, safest ways I could think of to quick-defrost a frozen fowl. Luckily, either the college kids he shared it with had hardened intestinal systems from their cold pizza and warm beer diets or he just got lucky, because they all lived to talk about it.
But perhaps the most, uh, explosive Thanksgiving faux pas came at the hands of yours truly. With a big crowd expected for dinner, I was in charge of peeling twenty pounds of spuds for the spectacular sour cream mashed potato recipe I learned from our friend, Lynda. I disrobed the entire bagful, while blithely jamming the peels down our in-sink disposal without taking time to grind and wash them down periodically throughout the long process.
All fine and good until, with the job done, I attempted to run the disposal with the entire pile of peelings jamming the works.
Yes, jamming. Thanks to me, our kitchen sink was as clogged as, well, a drain jam-packed with lots and lots of potato peels.
I tried every amateur drainpipe-unplugging trick in the book, plunging, snaking and adding water to the stopped-up sink with no result, until finally, in a flash of inspiration, I made my way to the basement. Just above where the drain pipe entered the floor was a plug that looked like it could be unscrewed.
"Aha," I thought. "This'll do it."
Well, I guess it did. In spectacular fashion.
Actually, nothing happened at first, so I called upstairs to my wife, who was standing by the sink, waiting for a miracle.
"Try the plunger again," I called.
It worked.
And how.
The highly compressed water-and-potato-peel mixture shot out of the pipe with a force very similar to one of those water cannons cops in certain parts of the world use to break up crowds of rioters and political dissenters.
The high-charged mess hit the floor and ceiling. It sprayed the furnace, the hot water heater and even the cat, who had followed me down to supervise my efforts. But mostly it blasted me, soaking me from head to toe with the unpleasing mixture.
"You did it, honey," called my wife. "You're a genius."
"Yeah," I thought as I began to pick peelings out of my hair. "That's just what I was thinking."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A change of seasons, a change in days

Do they have seasons here?
That's one of the first things I asked a coastal Carolina native when we were first considering a part-time move to the region. Because as much as I like sunny beachbound days, I knew I would miss the changes that occur with the passing of the year.
"Of course," was the reply. "We have summer and fall and spring and winter. It even snowed once last year."
Once. Wow.
We've now seen those seasons change, one by one, since starting our back-and-forth treks between Illinois and North Carolina last January, when it actually did spit a little snow a couple of times. It's pretty darn subtle, but we are now seeing October roll into November and the sure signs of autumn are beginning to appear.
Some of the leaves have finally begun a slow, gradual transformation from dark green to a sort of soft rusty tone that falls way short of the rich red-gold hues we know at home in Illinois. But those colors have a certain prettiness all their own that we like and watch for as they gently appear. The temperatures have begun to drop, too, with the moist, balmy breezes of summer now replaced by a cooler offshore version that creates a persistent daily chop and and a sudden unaccustomed chill to the water.
Autumn in Carolina.
Instead of farmers gathering golden grain at the end of a midwest growing season, we now see fishermen, shrimpers and oystermen pursuing the rich harvest that both the deep sea and marshy backwaters have to offer as cooler water generates new, livelier life in ocean and inlet.
But, no matter what time of year it is, the place that seems able to change every day is the beachfront. We're regulars along the shore, with very few days passing without a long walk, sandcastles and shelling with our grandsons, or just few minutes with a book and a chair.
"I wonder what kind of day it will be?" is her question almost every time we make our way across the walkway that bridges the fragile dunes that divide our front yard from the shoreline.
The answer is almost always a surprise, because that's how it goes when you live next door to an active ecosystem that's likely to toss any number of treasures your way on a daily basis.
There are "shell days," when the waves deposit unusual numbers of different kinds and colors, ranging from perfectly patterned oyster and scallop shells to the ones that are tougher to find, like Whelks, Olives, Scotch Bonnets and Sand Dollars. We call some days "crab days," not because of my sulky mood or behavior, but because the beach is littered with the bodies of blue crabs and other larger crustaceans who have washed ashore, or busy with the darting of sand-burrowing ghost crabs, who scuttle at lightning speed from hole to water and back and forth. We're now experiencing what we call "jelly days," with both mushroom-shaped bell jellyfish and round, transparent "moon jellies" lining our path along the surf line. And, of course, we always hope for "Dolphin days," when offshore pods jump and dive and splash in a watery ballet.
The shorebirds, who come and go with the weather and food sources, now crowd the beach. Strutting, overstuffed gulls that resemble 19th century Tammany Hall politicians compete for space with quick, darting sanderlings and sandpipers, while daring terns and pelicans swoop, soar and dive recklessly into the fishy seas.
All in all, it's a pretty scene, no matter what kind of "day" it is.
I was wrapping this column up the other morning when my wife and youngest grandson, John, announced they were heading to the beach for a walk. I'm always willing to put things off, so I rushed to join them, even thinking I'd be able to put a label on the day as a sort of concluding statement for my essay.
The morning's scenic selection varied, with a spectacular mess of glistening jellyfish, a long scoop of daredevil pelicans and the shattered remains of some shells that would have been pretty spectacular if they had survived the trip through the surf in one piece. The sun was high, turning what had been a cool, windy day into something nearly perfect as we headed towards the fishing pier that lies a mile south.
"So what kind of day is it, anyway?" I wondered to myself.
I got my answer from a solitary fisherman we ran into along the way.
"You doing any good?" I asked.
He looked up and smiled.
"Can't help but do good on a day like this," he said.
I smiled back. He was right.
Because whether its a shell day or a crab day or a jelly day or a bird day or even a dolphin day, it's always a good day, too.