Thursday, February 22, 2007

“Nothing is Better…” (An Ode to Oatmeal)
— A Miniseries (3 of 3)

Sorely missed?
Earlier I mentioned two actions that were key to this story: an act of omission and another of commission. The omission was my doctor’s office dropping the ball in failing to re-up my prescription for Lipitor when I requested it in mid December of last year.

The act of commission was that of possibly the second most important woman in my life right now besides my lovely wife, Michelle, and it figures — she’s all about action. No dilly-dallyin’ around with this lady. She means what she says and says what she means. But she ain’t heavy; she’s my trainer.

I’m not sure how much I’ll be talking about her, so I’ll take the easy way out on the “what-name-to-come-up-with-for-this-person” dance I have to do each time I introduce someone from my real life into these stories; I’ll just call her Killah, because that’s what she does. She destroys me multiple times per week.

Killah is the in-house trainer at the fitness center on the grounds of my employer, The Company. She’s been there for a little more than a year, and after a period of adjustment for her in-your-face personality, she’s someone with whom I’ve become extremely comfortable trusting my fitness to. You see, in all the years I was a gymnast, I had some great coaches on whom I depended greatly. I depended on them to keep me going, because basically I’m a big baby. I have a difficult time putting myself through pain. But if someone else makes me do it, hell — I’ll run through a wall.

Killah is a great motivator. She’s in the mold of my all-time favorite gymnastics coach, my JC coach from my first two years of college — the first of which we won a National Championship as a team and the second of which I won one as an individual.

What made that 1976 season so special for me was the breakthrough I made personally, in large part through the pain-in-the-ass nagging of my coach. He had a way of making you so mad — at yourself, not him — that you’d do whatever he said just to shut him up.

Killah’s a little like that. She had me sized up, pretty much from the get-go, and doesn’t allow me to perform at anything less than the level to which I’m capable. And to her credit, she meets each and everyone else at that same individually based level. I came to respect her and her opinions on all things fitness from very early on.

She is essentially the reason I decided to go off my meds, and reintroduce oatmeal into my diet.

Back in December, a few days after running out of my prescription, I overheard Killah talking to a woman about the benefits of oatmeal. She said it was one of nature’s most perfect complex-carbohydrates and an excellent complement to a healthy diet, not even to mention its qualities as a cholesterol-reducer.

I pretty much made up my mind right at that point. Now you may be asking why, given its other healthy aspects I wouldn’t simply want to eat oatmeal for its nutritional value alone in addition to supplementing with Lipitor? Why stop using something that had provided such dramatic results (which I’ll detail in a later story), especially in light of my overall health picture?

The answer to that question is based upon a couple of things. One, I hate taking pills; always have. I take a baby aspirin (for my heart) and a multivitamin every day, and that’s bad enough. Those are two things I will continue to take for the rest of my life, and it’s reasonable to assume that at some point, as I grow older, I’ll need to add other daily medications to the mix as well. So why not eliminate one now if I can get away with it?

However as good a reason that is, it pales by comparison to the main one: muscular soreness. This is a well-known side effect of Lipitor and most other statin-type drugs. Some people are more susceptible to it than others, and had it not been for the horror stories detailed by my stepmother a couple of years ago, I likely wouldn’t have put two and two together with regard to my own circumstance.

Back in 2004, when Michelle and I traveled to SoCal in the first of what would be two such trips that summer to my former homeland, My doctor had just begun giving me Lip.’

Helen, my Pop’s wife was aghast.

“You take Lipitor? That stuff is horrible!” she exclaimed. “Nearly crippled me a few years ago! I had to get off of it. Doesn’t it hurt your legs?”

I went on to explain that I’d had no such symptoms, and that I was sorry to hear of her bad experience with the drug. Privately I wondered whether or not her age might have had anything to do with her reaction to it.

Now keep in mind that this was barely six months into my current two years-plus regimen of working out twice a week. Back then I wasn’t nearly as consistent as I am now, and the type of workout program I was engaged in was more aerobics-based than the strength training paces that Killah now puts us through, week-in and week-out. All that to say, I don’t believe that I was in as receptive a position to actually feel the effects of any soreness side-effects at that point, so I didn’t give a whole lot of credence to the aspersions my stepmom had cast upon this wonder drug.

The epiphany I had regarding my muscular soreness didn’t arrive until this past fall. After having then been involved with fitness training well over a year and a half, feeling really good, and pretty much seeing my body mold back into a shape which at least resembled that of my competing days, something happened that really opened my eyes.

Tennis (elbow), anyone?
It was a Saturday in early November, and I was performing my dreaded annual ritual of raking up the tiny elm tree leaves that would choke my back yard lawn into oblivion should I leave them (no pun intended) unchecked. The new grass that had sprouted from our early-September over-seeding had matured to the point that it could withstand light raking without extensive damage; and it had to be done before the cold, wet winter weather set in, or otherwise render a merely sucky job, pert’ near intolerable.

The tall, mature twin elm trees in my back yard are the only remaining originals that existed there before our house did. We specifically instructed that they be spared when the lot was cleared from its heavily wooded beginnings back in the fall of 1993. The two trees were actually one of the main reasons we chose that particular home site in the first place. They may not have been the most beautiful trees in the world, but they were perfectly positioned. Now directly in front of our deck, they provide shade for the back yard and a protective perch, from which the hundreds of birds that visit us each year can swoop down to Michelle’s well-stocked bird feeder below, just a few feet adjacent to them.

Michelle loves her birds, and we have always loved our big trees.

But unfortunately, there’s a downside to our precious elms: the leaves; those tiny, arrowhead-shaped rascals that float to the ground each fall. Not only does their size make them difficult to rake and pick up, they are also highly acidic and damaging to the grass they come to rest upon. So getting them picked up is pretty much a “gots-ta” situation, especially when the potential victims are the newly-emergent seedlings that will be depended on to keep that area beneath the trees from becoming a mud pond during the balance of the year.

So I’m always sort of between a rock and a hard place with regard to this circumstance. If I wait to over-seed until after the leaves have fallen and raked up, it’d be too late in the season at that point; the grass seeds wouldn’t germinate, due to the already inclement temperatures of the late fall. On the other hand, if I do nothing and allow the leaves to remain, their inherent acidity would kill most of the seedlings.

Tough call, ain’t it?

So I rake, knowing full well that I’m also uprooting a fairly decent percentage of my new grass plants in the process. Call it the lesser of two evils, I suppose. But one of those evils not only applies to the health of my lawn, but to mine as well through the toll that job takes on my body.

Raking those boogers is tough enough, but doing so without destroying the tender grass plants they cover is even more so. It requires a steady, consistent repetition of light, shallow strokes with the rake, and it’s an extremely tiring exercise.

I’m always exhausted when I finish this yearly chore. Because of the amount of repetitive effort required, I typically hurt for a couple days afterward. However this most recent episode didn’t just tucker me out, it absolutely blew me away.

Later that evening, I felt my left elbow begin to tighten. The next morning I could barely move the joint without excruciating pain. I’d had elbow soreness before, but nothing like this. It was obvious that the stress of the repetitive raking motion on my forearm/elbow area was the cause, but this wasn’t exactly my first rakin’ rodeo. Why was it so sore this time? I was scared. The pain continued for weeks with only moderate subsidence. I felt weak as a kitten. Would I feel this way forever?

My doctor said it was classic tennis elbow, which is basically just tendinitis. The only cure is rest, but how do you rest your elbow without putting your arm in a sling? I backed off using my left arm during the dumbbell exercises that Killah routinely puts us through in our weekly workouts, but I was becoming more discouraged as the weeks passed.

Fast-forward to mid-December and the aforementioned prescription lapse with my Lipitor, coupled with the subsequent lapse of follow-up by my doctor’s office. A funny thing happened during the 5-7 days that all this was transpiring: my elbow stopped hurting. And then it hit me: nothing was hurting, really. In addition to the elbow issue, I had long since assumed that the “normal” soreness I experienced on a daily basis was to be expected from my workouts. I had often felt some exasperation over the idea that having been at this for so long, I was still getting sore at all; and sometimes my discomfort was considerable. As a competitive athlete for over 25 years, I was no stranger to the rigors and associated after-effects of training, but for just two lousy days a week, this just didn’t seem right. But again, there was always the thought, “Well, maybe it’s just old age…” I didn’t like it, but I just accepted it as such.

But now, not more than a week after my prescription had expired, my pain does too? What’s goin’ on here?

Que the light bulb!

Oh-my-GAWD! Could it be the Lipitor after all?

Beginning the first week of 2007 I decided to begin a self-imposed clinical test on the effects of oatmeal versus Lipitor on my cholesterol levels and overall feelings of well being.

I also decided to do something else that I should have from the outset; something that would certainly provide additional positive benefits. I resolved to add an extra day to my workout regimen, bringing it up to three per week, which I’d known for years is considered the minimum number of weekly vigorous exercise sessions necessary for real improvement of one’s fitness level.

I had tried my best to convince myself that I couldn’t sacrifice the time, but c’mon, AJ, what’s an extra 90 minutes a week from your life? I really don’t believe they’ll yank Law & Order off the air if you miss an episode or two.

So far, so(re) good
It has been eight weeks since I began my test; ten weeks since I stopped taking Lipitor. I’ve had my morning bowl of Quaker Oats at least six days a week (and usually seven) ever since and I feel great.

I’ve also noticed that in adding that extra workout day, my stamina has increased, my musculature has become better-defined, and that occasional late-night cookie rendezvous doesn’t seem to affect my midsection as affirmatively as it used to.

While I can’t say that I never get sore, there has definitely been a decided decrease. This is despite the fact that Killah’s program continues to progress, becoming more and more daunting with the passing of each six week period, as those of us participating in the Monday-Wednesday-Friday group become more and more fit. That I can live with.

But then again, I wonder; is it all in my head? Was my soreness anything more than the normal course that my body needed to take before breaking through to the next level, and now, in so doing, did that point just happen to coincide with the slip in my Lip’ prescription?

Am I doing myself more harm than would be wise at this point in my life; especially in view of my family history and my own known disposition for maintaining unhealthy levels of LDL cholesterol?

Time will tell. Actually I’ll know in about another month when I go back to my doctor for my six-month blood-work re-eval and annual complete physical. But what happens if he tells me I’m a dope for doing this without consulting him? What happens if even after eating oatmeal every day for twelve weeks my cholesterol is back up over 200?

But what if it’s not?

What if my EKG sings like a bird, proclaiming that my heart is ticking more strongly now than it has in years; what if my cholesterol is still at safe levels as a result of my increased exercise and healthier eating habits?

What if I can skip ‘The Lip’ for good?

Well, I’ll tell you what: that will be a great day, my friends; better health, an improved self-image; an extra thirty buck-a-roonies in my pocket each month…

Heck, that’s cause for a celebration!

Margaritas, anyone?


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

“Nothing is Better…” (An Ode to Oatmeal)
— A Miniseries (2 of 3)

“Quaker? I just met ‘er!”
Unless you’re nearly as old as I am, you probably don’t remember when that gentleman with the long, white locks and wide-brimmed hat, whose grinnin’ puss is still depicted on the Quaker Oats package, actually spoke on that venerable cereal’s television commercials. His lips never moved, but for years the spots would end with the sound of his deep, kindly voice uttering a familiar slogan, “Nothing is better for thee than me.”

I’m not sure why, but somehow over the years that fact apparently slipped my mind.

I had always loved oatmeal; I can’t remember not loving it. However after having eaten the ubiquitous porridge for breakfast practically every day of my life — from nursery school through high school — for some reason, I just stopped when I became an adult. It wasn’t as though I’d decided I no longer liked it, or had even grown tired of eating it — I just got out of the habit, I suppose. Of course the fact that when I became a bachelor, I would then have actually had to boil the water myself to make it might have had something to do with it…

Whatever the reason, the years passed and I just never thought about it, save for those very few occasions when I’d see someone enjoying a bowl in the caf’ at work, and think, “Hmmm…it sure has been a long time since I’ve had oatmeal.” But then the thought would pass and nothing more would be done.

Call me a pathetic, pampered chauvinist, but that earlier poke at myself regarding boiling water isn’t all that far-fetched. Until recently I had honestly never prepared a batch of oatmeal myself — ridiculous as that may sound. I had on various occasions done the instant microwave variety but that stuff just tastes like so much hobby paste to me; I’m sure those experiences didn’t exactly rekindle my affinity for oatmeal either.

However, my ineptitudes in the kitchen aside, there is one good reason why I don’t cook. Michelle has completely dominated our relationship in that regard from the first time she stepped foot into my apartment back when we were dating. She pan-fried me a rib eye steak one evening that absolutely melted in my mouth; I’ve been wrapped up in her culinary spell ever since.

Michelle believes that cooking is as much her role in our marriage as mowing the yard is mine. It’s just another of the myriad reasons why, physically as well as emotionally, I’d be up shit creek without a paddle if she ever left me.

Beyond that, growing up in the South as she did, with her Southern Belle Mother doing the cooking, it was grits, not oatmeal was a part of normal breakfast faire. In that regard Michelle was the exact opposite of me, having experienced oatmeal much more after she left home than she had during her childhood.

I actually learned to like grits after we got married, on those occasions when Mom-in-Law cooked them for breakfast — that is, just so long as I was allowed fix them up like I always did my oatmeal — with butter, a little sugar and a splash of milk. This of course was near-cause for the renting of garments amongst the in-laws; it was the quintessential yankee-fication of a cherished southern breakfast staple, for which I was good-naturedly chided many times over. But undaunted, I enjoyed the grits, not so much for the taste as for the way eating it made me feel; that connection to my past that the warm cereal, dressed in butter, sugar and milk always seemed to make.

But despite the many times that eating my Mother-in-Law’s grits drew forth memories of my childhood, I still never followed up on that always-fleeting thought to add oatmeal back into my diet. It should have been a no-brainer a long time ago; ever since my doctor diagnosed me with cholesterol high enough to put me on 40 milligrams per day of Lipitor, the well-known statin-type anti-cholesterol drug.

Oatmeal’s benefits in controlling “bad” cholesterol are well-known, but it still never dawned on me that it might actually be in my best interest to try. Interestingly though, how I eventually did was a result of two acts — one of omission and the other of commission — by separate parties who both play a vital role in my life and overall health.

Don’t gimme no ‘Lip’
The ommisive act was that of my doctor’s office. Since I began my cholesterol drug therapy a little more than two-and-a-half years ago, my doctor wanted to closely monitor my progress. Given the family history of my Dad, in 2002, followed by my eldest brother, Jack, two years later going under the knife for multiple-bypass heart surgeries, I realized that I am most certainly at risk for heart disease. Now more than at any other time in my life, I need to treat that risk seriously — ’bout as serious as a heart attack, I reckon.

Heart disease and high blood pressure run in my family on my Pop’s side, the biggest factor for which is naturally-high cholesterol. But to be honest, that’s not something I’d spent a lot of time thinking about over the years— hardly any in fact. I always figured that if anything, what I would need to be concerned about was the Early-Onset Alzheimer’s from the maternal end of the family gene pool.

But wouldn’t you know it, just at the point I’d become reasonably certain I had dodged the family curse, Jack calls and says he’s going in for a double-bypass, and warns that I now need to start thinking about my heart — and not just my head.

I guess there just ain’t no easy ticket, is there?

But as usual, I digress…

I had been on a consistent regimen of Lipitor since March of 2004 when in the middle of last December 2006 I realized I had run out of my prescription.

Like most people in my position, whenever my standing prescription runs out I simply call my Doctor’s office to let them know, and in short order — usually within a day — my ‘script is renewed and I can go get my drugs.

However this time, when I discovered my dilemma it was a Saturday, and obviously the Doc’s office was closed. So I called the pharmacy to see what they could do. They told me that they would fax my doctor on Monday, and that things like this were common; no biggie. They said I wouldn’t have to do anything more; just check back on Tuesday and the prescription should be in place.

“Okay,” I thought, “I’ll check back on Tuesday.”

On Tuesday I called the pharmacy and my doctor’s office still hadn’t responded. They told me to give it another day. “Great,” I thought, “Should I try and contact the office or just wait like the pharmacist suggested?”

Then I realized that it was now a week away from Christmas, all the presents had been purchased and we were pretty much out o’ dough — with nearly two weeks to go until the next payday, no less. The fact of the matter was I really couldn’t justify spending the $30.00 it would cost to refill the prescription anyway, so I let it ride. I’d had lapses in my Lipitor therapy before; what was another one gonna hurt?

But then I began to think about it and all of a sudden, another reason to skip the Lip’ occurred to me.

I had a field test to conduct.

Next: Sorely missed?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

“Nothing is Better…” (An Ode to Oatmeal)
— A Miniseries (1 of 3)

An Acquired Taste
My wife doesn’t get it; in fact sometimes it just makes her cringe, my taste in tastes. She just can’t understand the way that I like to mix and match in one bite, things that some folks wouldn’t even put together on the same plate. Things like baked beans and applesauce, yogurt and wheat thins, beer and chocolate; sweet and salty, soft and crunchy, cottage cheese and…well, you get the picture.

It’s all about contrasts with me. I love the wonderful juxtaposition of contrasting flavors, temperatures and textures as they do their unique tango on my tongue-go, eventually meeting up in my belly — which, by the way, is the same place they would have met if I’d eaten them separately. So what’s the big deal?

It really used to bother her, but now in more recent years, I suppose Michelle has accepted her husband’s palate-ial weirdness and no longer feigns disgust at my crazy combinations like she used to. But then again, while she might not be the type that eats everything on her plate separately (a habit of some that drives me crazy) she’s still got a few food quirks of her own.

Michelle is usually very careful to not allow the different foods on her plate to mix, or preferably, even touch. Sometimes she’ll go to great lengths, using her knife to prop the plate up slightly at one end, in order that a particularly juicy dish is pooled at the low end and can’t mingle with those on the uphill side.

Sheesh. And she calls ME weird.

As for me, I never had a problem with my food touching; like I said, they all get mixed up in the end up anyhow. And again, I actually enjoy the mixture of tastes as I’m eating. More often than not, I’ll take a sample of two different foods on the same bite and revel in their mutual commingling in my mouth.

And speaking of baked beans and applesauce — my all-time fave contrast combo, BTW — at least now as an adult I’ve outgrown my childhood habit of literally stirring the two foods together on my plate before eating them (Emily Post might have a problem with that one). But either way, the sensation of contrasting foods in my mouth concurrently is something I have always savored and had never even questioned — until recently.

I believe I may have finally placed a finger on the genesis of my quirk about mixing foods, tastes and textures.

Perhaps you can blame it all on oatmeal…and my Mother, Annie.

All mixed up
You see, what I realized very recently is that nearly the sum-total of the few strong memories I retain of my Mother are surrounded by food; and one food in particular reigns supreme in those memories — oatmeal. It’s the first thing I can ever remember eating. And oh, how I remember eating it.

It quite possibly could be among my earliest memories, but I clearly recall sitting in my high chair, with a warm bowl of that golden mush in front of me, loving every bite.

However there was more than just oatmeal in that bowl — and therein lies my epiphany. Mom used to add one other ingredient to the standard mix of oatmeal, butter, sugar and milk — a soft, poached egg was also a part of the mix. And I so remember the wonderful conglomeration of tastes; the egg yolk with the oatmeal — the semi-solid yolk’s naturally saltiness combining with the sweetness of the sugar and the milk. It still literally makes my mouth water thinking about it.

And the weirdest part is that having held that memory my entire life, never once that I can recall, had I ever tried to duplicate it. It makes me laugh at myself to think about it. Why not try it again at some point? It’s almost as though I didn’t want to taint the memory because it was such a touchstone to my Mother for me. Maybe I was afraid it wouldn’t taste as good as I remembered it. Maybe I didn’t want to be disappointed if that were the case. Aww hell, maybe I was just too frikkin’ lazy.

Whatever the reason, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision that encouraged me to try to create at least a reasonable facsimile of that moment from my childhood one recent Sunday morning.

This whole thought process began innocently enough when I was preparing my oatmeal that morning. I reached into the fridge for the milk and spotted a hardboiled egg, just sitting there, waiting to be eaten. Immediately I thought, “Hmm…it’s not exactly poached, but, hey, why not?”

I peeled the egg, chopped it up and threw it into the microwave for about 15 seconds, just enough to take the chill off. Then I scooped the pieces into my bowl of oatmeal and mixed it all up.

You know, it’s truly amazing how our senses of taste and smell are such powerful triggers of memory, but I tell you honestly, with my first bite I was transported back to my mom’s kitchen, in our old house; my mind exploding with thoughts that I know I hadn’t touched upon in decades.

I saw glimpses of my Mother, the kitchen, our family eating dinner at the table. I saw myself eating spinach for the first time — and liking it. I saw Davey at breakfast, eating his own favorite cereal, Post Toasties, working that bowl so that he always had one last bite of cereal at the end of the milk.

I saw our old refrigerator — that scary thing where they kept the bananas; the bananas that made me so sick from eating too many that my stomach still feels queasy. I still can’t take bananas — or their texture — to this day as a result.

I saw my high chair. And again, I returned to that vivid memory of seeing my bowl in front of me, filled with all those wonderful ingredients that spawned my vision.

Then I thought, "Could it be — that unlikely concoction? Is that the source of my penchant for contrasts in taste and texture?" Perhaps that’s a bit of a leap. But just the same, it made sense to me. It even made sense to Michelle when I related my little flashback to her later. Ya just never know how the mind works or how quirks are born.

Now, where’s that plate of beans and applesauce…

Next: “Quaker? I just met ‘er!”

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Changes ‘a Comin’

Not sure if all the dust in the air around here is from the new construction — or if it’s just from a lack of activity over the past several months, but I'm happy to say that I'm fixin’ to stir things up quite a bit here shortly.

You may have noticed, but with the upgrade to the “New Blogger” things look a little different. I spent the lion’s share of last weekend tweeking the new and improved template and testing some of the new features that the overall upgrade has afforded. The look isn’t really different right now, but may change soon, after I've had a little more time to experiment with the CSS code (yes, Dylan, I’m finally doing it).

But then again, I may just decide to leave it as it is. Actually, I’d like to enlist the opinion of whomever is still out there (yeah...all six of you); those of you who continue to check faithfully each week to see if there’s anything new to read around here. Tell me what you think in the comments for this post. I’ve always considered readability my utmost concern, hence the white background. However the title of my blog was never intended to be anything that relates to its content, so it’s a little tough to do any kind of motif in that regard. I’m open to suggestions, so lay ’em on me.

Okay, and now the juicy part. I’ve started another blog; a private one — private, at least to the point that it will mostly be a one-way conversation, and it will not be listed as a public blog. The link will never be posted here, and I will do everything in my power to make it non-searchable.

Why am I doing it? Mostly to keep what has happened to this place over the past year from ever happening again. I want to have a place to tell the stories that nobody but me really needs to hear. I want a place to amuse myself with things that are important to me, but likely a bit on the boring side for those in my normal blog readership. And almost as importantly, I need a place to cut loose and be as non-PC as I want to be. I want to rant; and I really can’t do that here. There are too many people who visit this blog who might take something I say in a particular vein out of context, because they don’t really know me. And I guess that’s the gist of it.

Specifically, I’m referring to this current series, with which I’ve been laboring for well over six months now. It should have never been posted here in the first place and I’m sure that most of you have been absolutely poking your eyes out waiting for me to finish the damn thing. Believe it or not, It’s almost done, and I will finish it — but not here. I don’t want to hold things up any longer, so I’ve decided that I will pull it once again and move it to my other blog. I've got a half-dozen other stories already started that I can finish must faster and finally get back into a more frequent posting mode here; stories that are fun and important to me, without being the soul-sucking chore this current In Limbo series has been.

So where does that leave you, you may be asking? Well if you're interested in getting an invite to read my rants and boring personal shit, I’d love for you to join me. I never had any intention to have this other blog be a personal diary, although I have yet to decide whether or not to enable comments on it.

So here’s my proposition: If you want an invite, drop me an e-mail. If you don’t have my e-mail address, you probably don’t care anyway. I will be sending out invitations to the people I know read and care about this blog, so those who fit that description — and you know who you are — don't worry about it; I will contact you. If you’re a new or more recent reader, and want an invite as well, then by all means, let me know in comments.

I’ll certainly be interested to see the response. If my recent Site Meter logs are any indication, there won’t be a lot — but being the self-absorbed moron I am, I had to throw it out there anyway...