Flat Out

I’ve been writing lying down all day. For some crazy reason that I cannot pinpoint, I screwed up my back over the weekend. Did I sneeze the wrong way? Did my cough cause a muscle spasm? Whatever the explanation, I find myself unable to sit or stand for long stretches. I can’t lift a pot of water or a platter of pasta.

Ridiculous.

This follows at least a week of managing digital ulcer pain with a combination of antibiotics to control an infection, over-the-counter pain meds and my slew of bandages, dressings and ointments. Not to mention fighting a respiratory virus. Which is why I was coughing and sneezing.

Pain is exhausting. It interrupts sleep and demands attention. It voids concentration. It gnaws at your moods and throws obstacles in your path.

Most of all, it slows you down. There’s writing I’ve postponed because I need to rest my fingers. There are errands I want to do and places I want to be that must wait until I feel up to driving. Nothing to do but stretch and wait and rest and respect my body’s need to heal.

It could be much worse, I know. But it’s enough, already. I want to get back to my regular state of quasi-normal. Maybe I’ll get lucky and sleep it off. More likely, I’ll just need to dig deep for more patience and wait it out.

Aaargh!

Thanks for listening,

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image Credit: Aimee Vogelsang

In-between

On Tuesday, I turn 63. It’s one of those in-between birthdays, halfway from the momentous 60th to the liberating 65th (assuming Medicare doesn’t disappear in the meantime). The forsythias are in full bloom, at last, and the maples lining our street have flowered—prompting my annual early spring allergies or a cold, I’m not sure which.

Even still, I’m grateful for the trees’ chartreuse tinge, the daffodils in our neighbors’ yards, the violets, the tulips reaching skyward. My birthday falls on the last day of Passover this year, and I’m looking forward to some real cake when we go out for dinner in the evening to celebrate.

These are small pleasures. It’s essential to savor them when headlines blast bellicosity. Anticipating my birthday a year ago, I could have never imagined we would be wondering if North Korea really intends to fire nukes at Seattle, or whether the U.S. successfully sabotaged Pyongyang’s missile test this past weekend.

If history is any teacher, much as I would like to ignore the news, we need to pay attention. I have spent much of the Passover holiday reading the haunting memoir of Stefan Zweig, a Jewish Austrian playwright, novelist, poet and essayist who chronicled the destruction of Europe during the two World Wars in The World of Yesterday. (That 1942 memoir and some of Zweig’s stories inspired Wes Anderson’s 2014 film, The Grand Budapest Hotel.)

One of the most famous writers of the 1920s and 1930s, until his literary career was destroyed by the Nazis and he was forced into exile, Zweig struggled deeply with the role of the artist in response to the politics of his day, when dreams of a better world crumbled into ashes. His questioning parallels my own internal monologue as our nation wrestles with the meaning and value of our democracy. He provides no easy answers, even as he strives to remain true to his principles of the uniting humanism of artistic endeavor.

Among many striking passages, Zweig recalls a mixed sense of calm and foreboding on his 50th birthday. The year is 1931. Having survived the Great War and ensuing impoverishment of Austria, Zweig describes contentment with his rebuilt life. He has achieved literary fame and comforts in his home in Salzburg. He has been inundated with gifts from his friends, who include many of Europe’s leading writers, artists and musicians. But something eats at his consciousness:

Strange to say, the very fact that I could think of nothing to wish for at that moment made me feel mysteriously uneasy. Would it really be a good thing, some impulse in me asked—not really my conscious self—for life to go on like this, so calm, well-regulated, financially profitable and comfortable, without any more tensions or trials? Isn’t it, I asked myself, wrong for your real self to be living this secure, privileged life? . . . Wouldn’t it be better for me—so I went on daydreaming—if something else happened, something new, something that would make me feel more restless, younger, bringing new tension by challenging me to a new and perhaps more dangerous battle? (Translated by Anthea Bell, University of Nebraska Press, 2009)

The tragedy and irony of that premonition is not lost on Zweig, who, by decade’s end, was forced to reclaim “a harsher, harder life from its ruins and rebuild it from the ground up.” I read these words, and I wonder, too, what’s in store.

The world feels fundamentally different to me on my 63rd birthday. I am grateful for so much—family, friends, home, community, creature comforts. Yet the accelerating pace of disruption overwhelms. Some days it’s hard not to get caught up in dark predictions. I struggle to find the balance between staying informed and staying sane. As Zweig wryly notes toward the end of his memoir (alluding to radio and the speed of news transmission), “The greatest curse brought down on us by technology is that it prevents us from escaping the present even for a brief time.”

Nonetheless, as Zweig speculated on his birthday 86 years ago, there is an immediacy and strengthened sense of purpose in a time like this. I feel as if my words matter more, now, than a year ago. I’m still finding my voice. I completed the first draft of my novel, which I have been writing for two-and-a-half years, about a month ago. It’s set in World War I. The parallels resonate more strongly than ever. The year ahead will be devoted to revisions, and new words, and finding the courage to say them.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image Credit: Portrait of Stefan Zweig, Austrian Cultural Forum

While the Soup Simmers

I’m writing on Sunday night, as the Egyptian potato soup simmers on the stove and our community radio station plays a Middle Eastern mix. I’ve been cooking all day for our Monday night Passover seder, and I’m feeling good. A lot better than I anticipated this morning, when I woke with pain in my ulcers, an aching foot and one thought: How am I going to get through the cooking marathon today?

I groused at Al. I rubbed my temples. I studied the long list of fruits and vegetables that I needed to buy before lunch and realized I’d forgotten to ask Al to pick up one key ingredient from the kosher market in Brookline (an hour’s drive from home) several weeks ago.

He suggested checking the Passover aisle at our local supermarket, just in case they had those kosher-for-Passover hearts of palm. I agreed, then thought of an alternative in case they didn’t. I knew Al stood ready to serve as sous-chef, as need, for all the chopping and peeling ahead. Time to dive in.

To my astonishment, when I got to the store, the Passover aisle was still well-stocked, including hearts of palm—three cans, even. I moved on to the second supermarket and filled my cart with fresh strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, bananas, a mango, avocados, cauliflowers, leeks, romaine lettuce, potatoes, beets, onions, garlic, celery, parsley, asparagus, baby spinach, eggplants. At the check-out, the cashier admired my choices and told me how much he loves vegetables (except eggplants). I told him how to enjoy beets in a salad (add gorgonzola and toasted walnuts).

By the time I got back home, Al had switched over our kitchen to all of our Passover dishes—the culmination of several days of cleaning and preparation. We went out for a quick lunch, and then I began cooking in earnest. The night before, I’d already started the pickled salmon, which marinates for a couple of days. Next up was curried eggplant. I was able to do all the peeling and chopping myself while Al worked on the yard.

Then came the Egyptian haroset, a mixture of dates, golden raisins, ground almonds and sugar syrup. Only one problem: when I placed the mixture in my little Passover food processor, it wouldn’t turn on. I tried another electrical outlet. No go. I asked Al to try it. Maybe I hadn’t aligned it properly. Zip. Four o’clock in the afternoon, and it was time for another run to Target.

I opted for an immersion blender and picked up a few other cooking items to make life easier for the rest of the week. Before we left for dinner, the haroset was well blended, cooked to perfection and chilling in the refrigerator.

By 7:30, I was back in the kitchen, separating nine eggs for the apricot sponge cake and cursing at the little pieces of eggshell that had dropped into the whites. But I persisted. Al helped me fold the meringue into the batter, the one part of the recipe I can no longer do.

Now the sponge cake rests upside down in its tube pan, cooling overnight. The asparagus are happily plumped with water, standing tall in their pan until it’s time to steam them tomorrow afternoon. The potatoes and leeks and celery and garlic and turmeric, salt, pepper, bay leaf and water have finished simmering in the time it took me to write, and the lovely mix is now cooling in the 70-year-old white enamelware that was once my mother-in-law’s Passover soup pot. Just need to add the fresh lemon juice before serving.

All that’s left for tomorrow are the spinach-cheese patties, the avocado-tomato-hearts-of-palm-pesto salad, the roasted cauliflower, the boiled eggs and the seder plate. That’s the easy stuff.

The prospect of cooking for Passover, with my once-a-year set of dishes, the crazy schedule, and the inevitable stuff that goes wrong, always overwhelms—especially because the holiday falls in the spring, when my ulcers are at their worst. But somehow, it always works out. And tastes great. And provides a beautiful setting for our seder. This year, more than ever, I am grateful that I can still make a splendid feast for family and friends, and focus on what really matters: what it means to be free.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Superbug Superheroes

It’s been one of those weeks for my hands. Cold temps, spring weather fluctuations, too many digital ulcers—the odds were against me, and I ended up with another infection, this time in the knuckle of my right pinky, that woke me three nights in a row before I started antibiotics. Slowly, it’s improving, thank goodness.

Which brings me to some important news. At long last, several research firms are teaming up to develop new classes of antibiotics. This is a major breakthrough, because there haven’t been any new antibiotics brought to market since, believe it or not, 1984. Much has changed in 33 years, particularly the fact that overuse of antibiotics has created a slew of drug-resistant bacteria—some deadly.

Here’s a March 30, 2017, article from the Washington Post that explains this important development: Quest for new antibiotics gets first major funding from global partnership.

Bottom line: We’re running out of effective antibiotics because the research investment doesn’t reap a profitable return for Big Pharma. Here’s a July 22, 2014, five-part series from Healthline that explains the economics and incentives (or lack thereof), as well as some promising research by start-up companies and small biotech firms.

Ultimately, this is a global health problem that requires global investment. I am profoundly grateful that I can take a yellow-and-gray capsule that kills the bacteria in my ulcer, allowing my skin to heal and sparing me more sleepless nights of significant pain. I know this research into superbugs will take time. In my book, those researchers willing to take on the challenge are the real superheroes.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Spring Tease

I bought a bouquet of Irish daffodils on Friday, three bunches of slender stalks with buds barely open. By Sunday, they had bloomed, a vase of sunshine in our dining room. Outside, snow still covered the ground. I bundled up in my long winter coat, wool hat, scarf and mittens to brave the damp chill for a half-hour walk around the neighborhood. Winter is clinging, white-knuckled, to Central New England. It’s high time to let go.

In some ways, the spring-masquerading-like-February makes me feel like a bear that is groggy, awakening from a long winter’s hybernation. My finger ulcers are simply not healing, and they smart when I change bandages twice a day. My metabolism feels sluggish from the cold. It’s hard for me to get going in the morning, when the sunlight spells spring but the temperature remains in denial. I really had to force myself out the door on Sunday, but I was glad for the reward of a cleared mind.

But winter cannot supress spring forever. As I walked, I noticed a misting of pale green about some trees. The Callery pear in front of our house has white buds, too. Near the melting edges of snow, tender green blades of grass poke skyward. The earth smells muddy and ripe.

There is birdsong, too. On Sunday, beneath overcast skies, the crows dominated. But the day before, as I walked up the street, dozens of melodies filled the air. Exuberant birds trilled, tweeted, cooed. I wondered what they were saying to one another, and I was glad for their company.

So, I await warmer weather with impatience, yet reassured that nature’s rhythms prevail. Until the snow melts, I’ll fill my vases with daffodils and let the sunshine in.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Small Courtesies

Amidst the chaos of wire tapping accusations, North Korean ballistic missile tests, proposed budget cuts to so many important federal programs—including the National Institutes of Health, which fund, among other things, research for cures to diseases like scleroderma—amidst all that and more, plus the minor annoyances of daily life, such as discovering that this blog did not publish properly last week (apologies if you subscribe and received a duplicate of last week’s post), I am trying to focus on something positive to keep my blood pressure from spiking.

Like the fact that the guy behind me in the supermarket check-out line smiled and nodded thanks when I placed the metal spacer bar after my food on the conveyer belt, to make room for his groceries.

Or the way that people I don’t know held a door open for me as I was leaving a building this the weekend.

Or how someone graciously allowed me to make a left hand turn from a side street, across busy city traffic, to get in line in front of him for a stoplight.

Small courtesies, the ways that we acknowledge each other’s needs and feelings without fanfare, are essential to keeping sane. More than that, little acts of consideration are the warp and weft of a civil society. When leaders flaunt basic social norms—like honesty and respect for others with different points of view—it falls to the rest of us to strive even harder to be, yes, polite.

Maybe this sounds silly, trivial, like a schoolmarm’s chiding. Etiquette is one of those subjects that has been shoved into the back closet, mocked as an arcane, snobbish concern over which fork to use at a fancy dinner. Those rules are not my concern here. Rather, I’m referring to the deeper meaning of the word. At this time, in this country, with so much social strife and dissension, it’s well worth remembering the wisdom of etiquette maven Emily Post:

“Consideration for the rights and feelings of others is not merely a rule for behavior in public but the very foundation upon which social life is built.”

Amen to that.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image Credit: Andrew Branch

Storm Tracking

I’ve been staying indoors for much of the past few days. First, we were hit with single-digit, bitter cold and wind. It’s sunny out as I write on Monday afternoon, but still too cold for a much-needed walk. And by this time on Tuesday, I expect to be watching snow swirling and piling all around as a Nor’easter sweeps up the coast. We’re due for 12-18 inches, maybe more.

So much for gliding into spring.

My hands have certainly had enough. Four fingers on the right hand, three on the left, bandaged up because my ulcers and cracked skin won’t heal in cold, dry air, even with the heat on and plenty of clothing layers. I really wish I could use one of those Sick Bay gizmos on the original Star Trek, wave it over my hands and make the ulcers go away.

I wish I could do the same to solve the terrible discord in our country. I read and read and read, trying to stay on top of all the news without driving myself insane. Staying informed is the essential first step. Balancing how to manage my health and energy and anxiety level as I debate how to get involved in preserving our democracy has become a major preoccupation.

What to do? What to do? When we were kids, my older sister used to write comics with a stick figure girl (you could tell because she had a triangle for a skirt) who would ask that question and then, in a lightbulb flash, always declare I have it! with a ready solution to the dilemma. I can’t recall any more of the story lines, but they always made me laugh.

No quick solutions to our national crisis of conscience, no magic tricorder for my hands, no way to avoid a Nor’easter hurtling our way. Nothing to do but sit and watch the snow fall. I will remind myself to be grateful for our warm house and secure roof and full cupboards, for doctors who care about me and insurance to pay for it all. I will give myself permission to plan my personal political commitment in my own time, rather than over-reacting to the outrage du jour. And I will seek comic relief.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image Credit: Jude Beck

Introducing Trumpcare

Yesterday, House Republicans revealed their plans to replace Obamacare, otherwise known as the Affordable Care Act (ACA), with their own remedy, the American Health Care Act (AHCA), soon to be known as Trumpcare.

The good news: the AHCA still mandates that people with pre-existing medical conditions cannot be denied insurance coverage, and that insurers cannot charge them more due to their health. The bad news: It may become more difficult to find robust policies that offer the comprehensive coverage needed by people with chronic health concerns.

Some of the proposed provisions of the new legislation do not go into effect until 2018 (after the mid-term elections) or 2020 (after the next presidential election). Here’s a round-up of some of the best reporting and analysis I’ve found so far:

Washington Post  House Republicans release long-awaited plan to replace Obamacare  3-6-17

New York Times   The Parts of Obamacare Republicans Will Keep, Change or Discard  3-6-17

CNN Money   Republicans’ Obamacare replacement bill: The winners and losers  3-6-17

Forbes   Republican Health Care Plan’s Continuous Coverage Idea Needs a Redraft 3-6-17

We have a long way to go before this issue is resolved. Four Republican Senators have already expressed their concerns about the House proposal, and the Democrats are promising a fight. Somehow, someway, I sincerely hope we can get past the partisan wrangling to come up with a solution that truly works for all Americans. It’s not going to be easy, and it certainly is not going to be quick.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image Credit: Motion Studios

Guilty Pleasures

That old saw about New England weather—just wait a minute, it will change—holds true now more than ever. After what seemed like an onslaught of snow and ice, we suddenly were treated to a major thaw. Temperatures last week rose to the high 60’s. Only lumps and clumps of snow remain, blackened by car exhaust and grit. Friday afternoon, I went food shopping wearing just a sweater to keep me warm.

We’re back to seasonable 40’s for a few days, then more balmy temperatures. Some find this anxiety-provoking. Record-breaking warmth is more evidence that climate change is real. I worry about this, too. News reports are frightening: severe drought in some parts of the world versus severe flooding elsewhere, melting ice caps, reduced ocean oxygen levels, bleached coral reefs, declining biodiversity, extreme storms—how will our precious planet survive?

But I must admit, on a purely personal, very selfish level—I really enjoy the warmer weather. I can’t help it. I just feel so much better when the temperature goes above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. My whole body relaxes. My ulcers heal. And I don’t have to go anywhere beyond my front door.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe we must do everything possible to slow the trend of global warming. There is far too much reliable scientific evidence that without serious efforts to reduce human production of greenhouse gasses, the ice caps will continue to melt, ocean levels will continue to rise, too many species will die before they can adapt to rapid climate change, food production will be disrupted . . . the list of dislocation and natural disasters goes on and on.

Knowing all that, doing my best to recycle and reduce my carbon footprint and support public policy that promotes responsible environmental stewardship . . . I still can’t help it. I won’t go so far as to wish for oceanfront property in Central Massachusetts. But I’ll take a warm day in February over ice and snow, any time.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image Credit: Miriams-Fotos

Clued In

All day long, I think about words. For a writer, they are my lifeblood. Sometimes, my head feels so full of words that I need to do something, anything, nonverbal. Walking helps. So does weaving or sewing—making something with my hands, however challenging that may be.

But one of my favorite ways to relax is to immerse myself in words and more words—doing The New York Times crossword puzzle. I used to limit myself to the Sunday crossword because we have a print subscription to the big, hefty weekend edition. Then came the 2016 presidential election. I decided I needed to support a free press more actively and bought a digital subscription to the Times (as well as The Washington Post).

My Times subscription came with an added bonus—a reduced digital subscription to the crossword app. Why not? I thought. I need a break from all the bad headlines.

Doing the daily crossword has now become something of an addiction. There’s the Monday crossword, an easy start to the week that I can finish in about ten minutes. Tuesday is usually a snap, too. The puzzles get harder by midweek and can be a real challenge by Friday. Saturday’s puzzle is almost always a stumper. Sunday is a crapshoot. Sometimes I get the theme right away; others can take a few days to finish.

Aside from being a welcome distraction from upsetting news (which I certainly understand better, now that I’m reading more comprehensive coverage, but wish this weren’t such a disheartening civic responsibility), the crossword’s digital version has an added bonus: It’s so much easier to complete with a stroke of my laptop keys than to write in with pencil. My hands don’t get as tired. I don’t have to struggle with a smudgy eraser (no, I’m not one of those pen-wielding crossword purists).

This is especially true for the Sunday puzzle. A few years ago, the Times switched format to a semigloss paper stock, which I find incredibly difficult to write on. It requires far too much finger pressure to inscribe anything legible on it, and the light reflection off the paper makes it hard to see what you’ve written. Fine for magazine photos, not for Number Two pencils and bifocals.

The downside of the digital version: It’s much more tempting to cheat and look up answers on the Internet.

To avoid that downfall, I’ve invited Al, my crossword ninja, to do the puzzles with me. He has an uncanny ability to decipher clues. And it’s a fun way to relax together in the evening.

Who knew that “fake news” wars could have such a delightful side-effect?

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.