I don't get it

Because I'm inspirational, that's why.

ty4 A few months ago, I got an email from Crate & Barrel thanking me for my purchases over the past year -- in other words, giving me props for snapping up the clearance page stuff other people passed on. They offered me a $25 gift card to spend how I saw fit at DonorsChoose.org. At first, I thought it might be a bit of a bogus cross-promotion where I'd click a button and wind up inadvertantly agreeing to buy an $800 patio loveseat. So, of course, I did it anyway. (I've since learned that this is an award-winning effort Crate & Barrel's been making for the past few years, issuing these gift cards so that customers can help direct how the company spends its charitable contributions. Which I think is very cool. Would that more companies follow suit.)

Anyway, I followed the DonorsChoose.org link and was intrigued to find that this is a website where teachers, mostly from high poverty schools,  post pleas for financial help purchasing specific supplies -- books, teaching tools, etc. I picked a project somewhat randomly. It was near the top of the list and it caught my eye. A teacher in Northern California needed $24 more to meet her goal of buying copies of Judy Blume's Superfudge for her class.


I love this one from my pal, Sal. Why does he like books? "Maybe because some are funny."

The project piqued my interest on three different levels. First, my mother was a teacher who felt very passionately about imparting to her students the love of reading. I figured my meager and free (to me) donation would honor her in some small way. Second, I was nuts about Judy Blume's books as a kid and I remember Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge were particular faves. And third, my donation would complete the amount the teacher requested and I do like to be a closer!

I'd completely forgotten about the project I'd selected when I fetched my mail today. In it I found a thick white envelope from DonorsChoose.org and with the following words printed on the outside:  "Hurray! Your student thank-you letters for your donation have arrived!" I vaguely recalled that this was part of the deal -- getting a thank you from the class or the teacher.


"When I grow up I'm going to be just like you - donate stuff to class rooms. Sincerely, Eunice." Yes, Eunice, because that's what I am best known for.

Still, I didn't expect what I found inside -- 24 individual hand-written thank you notes addressed to me. With names and drawings and notes about why they liked the book. I should mention that I'm an unbelievable sucker for a thank you note. I was raised in a household where writing them was mandatory and to skip them an unthinkable sin on par with putting your elbows on the table during dinner time. (Guess you had to be there.) Now it seems there are so few people who write them that to get any at all is always a treat. To get a thick envelope full of them from a bunch of little kids who are loving their books is pretty remarkable.

ty3Kids are so wise, aren't they?

I'm not saying the expectation of thanks is a reason to consider donating to DonorsChoose.org. I'm just saying it doesn't hurt.

Is it real? The past decade of my life suggests so

I'll be honest. I've been having a really difficult couple of days. I'm in the process of switching medications for fibromyalgia and coming off Effexor is proving to be every bit as brutal as all the web sites say. I'm unspeakably emotional, weeping at the drop of a hat. I feel dizzy and confused a lot of the time. And I get these random jolts, like electricity shooting through my body, especially, today, when I move my eyes quickly from side to side. So I suppose you could say I just wasn't in the right mindset to come across today's New York Times article by reporter Alex Berenson, entitled "Drug Approved: Is Disease Real?" As soon as I read the headline, I knew the article was about fibromyalgia.

A little history, if you'll allow me... Eleven years ago, I was rear-ended for the second time in two years. Instead of improving over time, the pain that resulted from the accident spread and worsened over a period of months. I felt, for days at a stretch as though I'd worked out really hard -- that same kind of achy muscle fatigue. Initially, the pain was mostly in my neck, shoulders and back, but it soon gravitated to my arms and my legs. It cycled in and out, so that sometimes the burning in the backs of my legs was so great walking up a flight of stairs was a tremendous challenge, or raising my arms to put away dishes left me in tears.

In addition, a whole host of other odd symptoms emerged -- I was constantly exhausted, but had terrible insomnia; I was introduced to the joys of irritable bowel synrome, the specifics of which I will spare you; I had great difficulty concentrating and my memory was tremendously affected, to the point that I'd wonder if I had some sort of early-onset Alzheimer's. I'd start a sentence and simply couldn't find the words to finish it. I'd start to do a task and, midway, forget what I was doing. My ability to recall basic facts ebbed and flowed and it affected my work tremendously. I was working at a marketing firm at the time and not only did sitting at a desk leave my upper back, neck and shoulders throbbing but whatever was happening with my mind was eating away at my performance. I was making a host of mistakes, forgetting to check things or complete tasks entirely. It was awful. I was afraid all the time of messing up, getting caught and losing my job.

I was fortunate enough, at the time, to be seeing a really terrific holistic physician. Lord knows why I chose her, but I'd gotten sober just a few months before and was on something of a health kick. At first, she thought perhaps what I was experiencing might be part of early recovery, as my body and brain tried to repair the damaging effects of alcohol dependence. But things got worse, rather than better and, after some concern that I was displaying signs of lupus or MS, my doctor finally concluded that my symptoms matched a diagnosis she had only recently heard about: something called fibromyalgia. She put me on Effexor, a now-very-popular drug used primarily for depression, which she told me was said to be effective in the treatment of fibromyalgia. She was, in her way, very ahead of the curve.

I was so grateful to finally have a name for what I was experiencing and I began to research fibromyalgia. There wasn't much information out there and what little there was highlighted the controversy surrounding it: some doctors felt it wasn't a real condition, that it was largely in the minds of sufferers who, for the most part, tended to be women in middle age. Protests from the medical community also surrounded the labeling of fibromyalgia as a disease, since there's no laboratory test to confirm the diagnosis. I wasn't overly concerned about whether or not it was truly a disease, versus a condition or a syndrome. What was far more disturbing to me was the idea that it was merely an "imaginary" condition mostly in the minds of silly, middle-aged women.

Over the next five or six years, I saw a number of different doctors -- from primary care physicians to pain management specialists to chiropractors -- with varying degrees of "belief" about the existence and/or the nature of fibromyalgia. Some were skeptical, but the worst of the lot was a cocky pain management doctor in Indianapolis who told me fibromyalgia was a "junk diagnosis" and then diagnosed me with it anyway. (Which I only discovered after leaving his office in tears and sneaking a look at the diagnostics form before handing it to the nurse at the front desk.) I've been told over and over again that I have it and, occasionally, that I don't. And the truth is, I don't really care if what I have is called fibromyalgia or not. I'm not interested in the label; I don't care what it's called.

But I do know that whatever it is I have, it's very real, despite the occasions I've spent in doctors' offices, reduced to tears by the suggestion that it's all "in my head." And perhaps I could have sunk further into depression and self-doubt, questioning my own sanity (which I did anyway, at times), did I not have a husband who witnessed my very-real symptoms as well as my active attempts to do whatever it takes to make them go away and, barring that, manage them as well as possible.

Again, I don't care what the medical community calls this. I don't care if it's a disease or a disorder or a syndrome. What I do care about passionately is the mindset of the doctors in The New York Times article: that this is just in the minds of the patients and that naming it and offering treatment merely encourages patients to think they have something. One of the doctors quoted even suggests that fibromyalgia patients just don't seem able (willing?) to cope with pain that the rest of the world just deals with by pulling up their bootstraps. It's an insulting, insensitive, dismissive and deeply disheartening comment. And it smacks of the same medical institutional sexism that dismissed menopause as "hysteria" for centuries. As a patient, I can tell you that there is nothing worse than being in tremendous, life-altering pain and being told, often with a hint of disdain, that it is all in your head.

I've admitted that I'm prone to bouts of tears with little provocation right now. But to this morning's article set me off again. I'm not trying to play the martyr, but I've suffered a great deal at the hands of fibromyalgia (or whatever the hell you want to call this group of difficult, unpleasant symptoms) for over a decade now -- and perhaps the biggest disservice I've done to others with this condition (and myself) is my pride-driven ability to hide it from those around me. (Ask nearly anyone who knows me -- only a select few know how much pain and exhaustion I'm usually coping with.)

I'm willing to field accusations of being reactionary but I also think the article is sloppy journalism. I think it takes a very limited and superficial "is it or isn't it?" glance at fibromyalgia, inspired, apparently by the FDA's recent approval of Lyrica as a drug for fibromyalgia -- without talking to patients or even providing a full, clear scope of the symptoms afflicting fibromyalgia patients. I understand the article's assertion that drug companies have a very real and lucrative motive for wanting to promote fibromyalgia as "real." But that doesn't actually mean it isn't. It doesn't mean that the suffering of all these people is imaginary.

I actually went to my doctor last month to talk to her about Lyrica. She wasn't gung-ho about putting me on something relatively new to the market, with no long-term data on its effects and I appreciated her perspective. Instead, we talked about Effexor, which I'd been taking for over a decade, and how much it seemed to be helping me and if it was time to try something new. Thus, we decided that I would come off Effexor and try neurontin, a drug that has many applications, not the least of which is pain relief.

I did some research on withdrawal from Effexor and, by all accounts, it is unpleasant at best and brutal at worst. I've spent the past few weeks weaning off to the lowest prescribed dose and yesterday was my first day without any Effexor in my system. And it has, to be honest, been lousy. In addition to the weeping jags, I feel constantly dizzy and off balance. I have what feel like small jolts of electricity going through my body, especially when I move my eyes quickly from one location to another or turn my head quickly. It is deeply, deeply unpleasant and unsettling...but it seems to be par for the course in getting off this drug, upon which my neurological system has depended for 11 years.

It's possible that these symptoms could worsen, although I hope not. And it's likely they'll continue like this for a while, although whether that means three weeks or six months remains to be seen. So what's my point in telling you all of this? Partly just because it's what's happening to me right now and that's what I write about here. But also, perhaps more importantly, because I think it's pretty obvious that a sane person wouldn't put herself through any of this if there weren't a very real condition for which she hopes to seek relief. No matter what you want to call that condition.

Irritable much?

Man. I'm in a mood today. I'm trying very hard to bear in mind that it's probably largely due to my change in fibromyalgia medications, that I am exhausted from the new one and grouchy from withdrawing from the old one. And the fact that it's grey and rainy again, doesn't help. But really. I just got back from the Y where I had a pretty good workout that left me in a relatively good mood. However, trying to exit the Y parking lot, I got stuck two cars behind an older gentleman. I couldn't see clearly from my car, but the exit gate wasn't lifting, so obviously there was some sort of error -- whether user problem or faulty system, I didn't know. All I know is that we weren't moving and I could see him pressing the call button for help a couple of times.

Since I was at the end of the line, I backed my car up and went inside to tell the front desk. Now, it should be noted there were four YMCA employees behind the desk at this point. I asked them if they knew that there was a man stuck at the exit. To my surprise, two of them replied that they did know. "He's too close to the gate," one said. "He needs to back up." Another said, "You mean the elderly gentleman? When he calls back up here again, we can buzz him out."

To which I responded, perhaps not patiently, that there were cars behind his and that somebody needed to go down there and help him. Which one of them did, but not without a distinct look of annoyance passing across his face.

Now. I know that I'm an uber-bitch when it comes to customer service, but this really got under my skin. They seemed to move into action only once they knew other members were stuck behind this elderly man -- at which point, I tend to think I'd be driven to apologize to my clients for the inconvenience. But that's just me. What really bothered me, though, is that the staff knew there was an elderly man at the exit, having obvious difficulty with the system, and no one considered going out there (which, yes, involves going downstairs and outside and a quarter block down) and helping him. Sure, he's old and doddery, but he's also apparently a paying client.

Am I being ultra-sensitive? Probably. Still, it cheeses me and cheeses me good. I just really hope that when I'm old and incompetent -- or, hell, young and incompetent -- someone will help me out. Is that so much to ask?

The problem with Ann Arbor

I know, I know. Since I moved from St. Louis to Ann Arbor, I've become the latter's unpaid ambassador, singing this small town's praises like nobody's business. I've been here long enough, however, to see that all is not golden in this little haven. For a supposedly liberal town, there's almost no gay community here and way too many environmentally-destructive SUVs parked outside the food co-op. Most of the punk rock kids are likely riding skateboards paid for by trust funds or, at the very least, generous upper-middle-class allowances. And while the university injects a certain amount of cultural diversity, this is a white, white place. In addition, there's not really much of a real working class here -- and no, sorority girls waiting tables does not count. And this, my friends is precisely why, this is what's wrong with Ann Arbor: http://annarbor.craigslist.org/rfs/335950974.html .

That's basically my dream house -- a cute little Arts & Crafts bungalow, with hardwood floors and a working fireplace. Granted, I'd ideally love to have three bedrooms and not two, so Chris and I could continue to have separate offices, but let's say I wasn't fussy about that. This charmer has an updated bath, a back patio and even a garage, which is a definite plus when the weather turns icy-snowy. And it's within walking distance of downtown, which means we could remain a one-car family and ensure at least a little exercise once in a while. It's a total of 910 square feet, for which the crack-smoking owners are asking...


That's right. Three hundred and nine THOUSAND dollars.

Now, this is just crazy talk, even for this inflated housing market. Pfizer lay-offs have resulted in a bunch of foreclosures in the city's outskirts, where housing prices are more "reasonable." And, yes, adorable homes within walking distance of downtown are premium real estate here. But seriously? The St. Louisan in me just cannot imagine that kind of housing cost. This isn't New York, people. It's Whiteyville, Michigan. Am I missing something? Are the basements here paved with gold? The foundations built with bricks of cocaine?

If we ever decide to stop renting here, we will have to live in a cardboard box. Although clearly we'll have to look for one on the outskirts.

(Note: $309,000 is the reduced price for this home. It was on Craig's List last month for $330,000.)


I saw the date on a bumper sticker yesterday, accompanied by the tagline: "Bush's last day in office." Jarring, isn't it? Nearly two more years of this. A quick glance at the headlines and I've got stomach cramps worrying about what else can go wrong -- and then, likely, get swept under the rug -- in the next two years. I'm still reeling from the Big Brother-esque revelations of the Gonzales-and-US-attorneys scandal that's brewing. I'm not entirely sure what scares me most: the idea that this sort of control tactic went on or that Bush and his lackey Tony Snow have the audacity to respond petulantly, acting like the whole thing's a "nuisance" and that they're doing a favor offering their ridiculous "generous offer" to have Karl Rove and Harriet Miers testify to Congress in private and not under oath.

Seriously? How does this stuff even continue to happen?

As if that weren't enough, somewhere hidden in the pages of the news this week was the tale of a little bill in the South Carolina legislature that requires abortion providers to show their patients an ultrasound of the fetus before performing the procedure. It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? The idea that this sort of emotional blackmail could be mandated. But it's happening and, frankly, it's terrifying.



From the "no duh" files

I love scientific studies that back up my own opinions. It always seems like such a wise use of resources. Thus, I was pleased to see this headline on MSNBC.com today about a new study:

College students think they're so special

Study finds alarming rise in narcissism, self-centeredness in "Generation Me"

However, they probably could have saved a few pennies by skipping the scientific method and just spending an afternoon in a college town like Ann Arbor.

O Neighbor, Where Art Thou?

I just read this story on CNN.com, about a 70-year-old man in Hampton Bays, New York, who died of natural causes in his home a year ago -- and nobody noticed. Until a water pipe burst, no one realized he had died. Neighbors assumed that the man, who was diabetic and blind, was in hospital or in a long-term treatment facility. This touches on a couple of human tragedies, I think. The idea of dying alone and having no one notice is a particularly terrible fate. It pains me to think of how lonely this man's life must have been before death in order to be able to disappear and not be missed by anyone.

Then there's the whole issue of loss of relationships with neighbors. No one talks to their neighbors anymore. Everyone's so concerned about their privacy and keeping to themselves. In St. Louis, we had a good relationship with only one set of neighbors who would certainly have noticed if we disappeared. Here, even in what seems like idyllic Ann Arbor, we know none of our immediate neighbors. Thank God our landlord would notice if the rent check didn't arrive.

Take my blood, please

I have mad cow disease. Okay, I probably don't have mad cow disease but just in case I DO have mad cow disease, the American Red Cross will not take my blood. Seriously.

I signed up at my Curves about a month ago to donate blood this past Friday. I marked my little calendar. I polished my platelets, put bows on all my red cells and cute little party hats on the white ones. I was all set. To give blood. For the first time. Ever.

I know. It's something I've felt guilty about for years, the fact that I'm hogging all this perfectly good O-positive blood when real people out there need it. And over the years, I've flirted with donating. But there are a lot of things that interfere with a girl giving blood.

Like tattoos. You can't give blood within a year of getting inked. I've been turned away on that account. Fair enough. And given the arsenal of meds it takes to keep fibromyalgia and its accompanying ailments at bay, I thought for a long time I was probably toxic. It probably would have been fine, it turns out, but the rules change frequently and rapidly.

And, yes, there were years when I had more of an alcohol-blood content than a blood-alcohol content and anything I donated would have done more good at a distillery than a hospital. But those days are gone and now I was ready to give back.

The very nice man who ran the Red Cross blood mobile handed me a book of restrictions and requirements and warnings to read before I gave blood. I was two-and-a-half pages into the thing -- and we're talking small print, people -- when I got to the line that would be my undoing. It seems that if you lived in the UK for more than three months between the years 1980 and 1996, you're disqualified just in case you happened to be infected with mad cow disease.

Certainly there was a joke to made about being called a mad cow, something indignant, but it probably was even less appropriate because, well, we were at a Curves, after all. But I was truly disappointed. I'd guess that if I had mad cow disease, we'd know it by now. Tonight, I asked Chris what the symptoms were and he said, "Craziness. Dementia. Then, coma and death." I said, "So all we're missing is the coma and death part?" Oh, the fun we have! If my life were a sitcom, I think at least six people would watch. Sometimes.



Ignore this if you hate knitting

Believe it or not, I have readers who are not just non-knitters but who have distinct reactions to knitting. Thus, I provide the warning that this blog entry is about knitting. I know, I know. The last thing in the world anyone needs is another knitting blog. But this isn't one. It's a blog on which I happen to be writing about knitting. HUGE distinction. I'm staring at a bag full of Patons cotton yarn in baby pastels. I bought it from Smiley's Yarn a while back because...hell, I don't know. The same reason I buy yarn most of the time - it as a good deal and it seemed that I needed it. I've only got a handful of balls of each color and I'm trying to cobble together an idea for a simple but not cheesy baby blanket for a friend who's due in February. The problem with so many baby blankets is that they're boring. Or cheesy. Or both. Feel my pain.

My family does a gift exchange at Xmas and this year I drew my new stepmother, Marvin. (Technically, her name's Marilyn but for reasons too long to go into, she's Marvin to me.) I was pretty thrilled because she's an elegant sort of gal and the price guideline for gifts is reasonable so I was able to concoct something from the kind of fancy schmancy yarns I don't get to knit with for myself. I used S. Charles Ritratto, a mohair blend with a metallic strand running through it, and a modified version of the Trellis Scarf from the Spring 2006 Interweave Knits. I wish I'd taken a picture of it, since it turned out pretty well, although in that 20-20 vision of hindsight, I would have liked to have made it a bit longer and a bit wider so that it was almost a shawl.

The cool thing was it was my first lace project on which I got to use my lace blocking wires. I ordered up a set from Knit Picks since I'm in love with lace but in hate with the blocking it requires. Instead of using a zillion pins to shape the item, these long sturdy metal wires are inserted along the seam. They'll probably save me some time in the long run but what I like best is getting a uniform, straight side seam instead of jagged marks where individual pins hold the sides in place.

I also ordered some of Knit Picks' Palette yarn in fall-ish browns and oranges to make a fair isle hat. As a handful of little Tibetan girls can testify, I've been playing with simple fair isle details in hats for a while now. It can be a really fun way to spice up otherwise boring knitting projects. Among the many great books I got with my birthday gift certificates was Louisa Harding's Hats Gloves Scarves. Finally, a book with fantastic simple and elegant basics for the aforementioned items all in one place. It's fast becoming one of my favorite knitting books.

Anyhoo, there's a pattern in there for a full-on fair isle hat, featuring top to bottom patterning. I decided to give it a whirl, as you can see from the results. (Please ignore the stray yarn still visible in this glamour shot.) It's not a bad looking hat, but I have a few thoughts.

One, the Palette yarn is kind of scritchy, but what do you want from affordable wool, right? Two, keeping the colors straight is a chore. A big chore. I knit a lot of this in the car on the way to Indy last week and believe me, juggling six different balls of yarn in the car is no easy task. Three, fair isle requires a lot of finishing. I'll need a lot more practice before the back seam doesn't look like a surgical scar and the pattern lines up properly. Four, I feel like this level of color work is something I wanted to try but now that I have, I'm not exactly chomping at the bit to do more. I love color work as details or accents on simpler items and I think that's what I'll stick with.

Let's see...what's on my knitting horizon? I just bought eight more balls of the Louisa Harding angora I used to make my fingerless gloves. (I would photograph the beautiful gloves but I can't FIND them! ACK!) I got it on eBay at a ridiculously low price - I think I paid $4 a ball and it usually retails for $10-11. I've learned the hard way that angora gets loosy-goosey and loses its shape easily and that it felts, as one magazine said, if you look at it wrong. But I reinforced the cuffs of said missing gloves by weaving some elastic thread on the inside and I'm looking into sources for Rainbow elastic thread which comes in a ton of colors and can be carried through the knitting with the angora for extra stretch in a hat or gloves.

And last but not least, I bought my eight-year-old niece Rebecca some learn-to-knit supplies for Christmas and although I didn't pick the yarn all that wisely for a beginner, it was a special thrill to see her whip up a coaster! Wonderfully imperfect, but the ideal project for her. I'll admit, too, that it was cool to see it inspired Jenn, my 19-year-old niece, to pick up the spare set of needles and give it a whirl. I get such a sense of satisfaction out of making something with my hands and it's really neat to plant that seed with others and see if it takes.

There are some things in life I will never understand

Including the cost of a bed skirt. Seriously. It's this little bit of fabric that goes around the bottom of your bed. Nobody really wants one. Nobody even really knows why they need one, except maybe to hide all that junk under the bed. (Lord knows that's why I need one.) And yet, everyone wants to charge me upwards of $30 for what looks suspiciously to me like about a yard and a half of cheap cotton.

AND they only have them in-stock in chalky green or cat-food beige.

My life is very, very hard.