Rice and lemonade

It’s rice for dinner tonight because my gut is acting weird. It’s rumbly and I keep experiencing short bouts of nausea, occasional chills, immense tiredness, and a need to spend some time in the bathroom. (TMI?)

Lemonade isn’t a reference to Beyoncé’s recent artistic project…well, not *only* that. One of the benefits of living in an area where lemon trees grow is that it’s easy to make a glass of refreshing lemonade whenever one wants. It sits well in my sick tummy.

But back to Beyoncé: I’ve never paid much attention to her previous releases, although it was hard to miss hearing some of them (like Single Ladies). I don’t watch the Super Bowl (no, I don’t even tune in for the half time show or commercials), but with all the fuss about Formation, I saw some online replays of it and thought it was a powerful statement.

Last weekend there was a free HBO preview, and when I was idly flipping through channels Saturday night I tuned in Lemonade not really knowing what it was. I only saw/heard short segments while I cooked dinner, then sat down near the end to take it in. The ending segments Freedom and All Night were amazing. After viewing the entire thing again last night (how could I not DVR it?!), I still like those segments the best.

There are already plenty of analysis and reviews of Lemonade, and I can’t add any unique thoughts about it other than to say I see myself parting with some money soon to buy the film and album package.

“I break chains all by myself
won’t let my freedom rot in hell
Hey, I’m a keep runnin’
‘cause a winner don’t quit on themselves”

Yeah!

I’ve had my own “don’t quit on yourself” moments recently. After I returned home from slogging through the mess of Mom’s health, I acknowledged to M that this relationship we’d started just wasn’t working out for me. *sigh* He’s very sweet and there are several good things about him and the relationship, but he hasn’t been working for a while and that makes me anxious. I put up with patiently waiting for my partner to get a job for two years when I was with B, and I’m not going there again. I’m not the only one put into a bind by a partner’s unemployment, either.

For now I’m back to concentrating solely on myself (plus Hannah dog), and I really need it. After several months of limited activities I’ve put on some weight and lost my conditioning, so I’m getting back into hiking and had added weekly yoga in the park.

Sadly, I’m missing hiking group tonight due to this stomach thing and I’ll also miss yoga on Saturday due to some tenderness and weakness in my right wrist and forearm. (Tendonitis?) I’ve been wearing a wrist brace and limiting my keyboarding as much as possible (hard to do when your job requires it), but I’m quite sure downward dog poses are to be avoided completely for a short time. At least today’s diet of rice and lemonade aren’t high calorie, right?

So it goes

The visit back to Chicagoland was as disturbing as I’d feared. Although I landed on a Wednesday afternoon, I didn’t go to see my mother until Saturday. In between, I worked a couple days in our Chicago office and tried to set up meals and coffee breaks with friends. Sadly, only one one of those rendezvous actually worked out, but I had to try.

That Saturday morning I picked up a rental car and started the drive down to the rural area where Mom lives. I dawdled a bit along the way, stopping at a tollway oasis for coffee and a breakfast sandwich. When I arrived at her house, she met me near the door and seemed eager to see me. I had called her that morning and alerted her I was on my way and would be taking her out to lunch so she would be dressed and ready to go. We didn’t have to rush off after I arrived, though, so we visited for about an hour before leaving. This consisted of me showing Mom photos on my phone and me talking a lot. Mom — formerly an extremely talkative person — had hardly anything to say, even when I directly questioned her about things from the past and present.

The drive to the restaurant took about 40 minutes. In that time, I think Mom talked for about five. At lunch, I commented on the changes in the area. Again, Mom had little to say.

All through my childhood, teen, and early adult years my Mom would talk your ear off if given the chance. She would talk to telemarketers who called the house until THEY hung up. She had a limited filter and would often make borderline bawdy comments for laughs. But that person is gone. In it’s place is someone who often says “I can’t remember. My memory is no good anymore.”

Physically she is in terrible shape. She is obese and has asthma, diabetes, and hypertension, all of which are only marginally under control because she just doesn’t care to do so. Poorly managed diabetes is the mostly likely cause of her dementia, in fact. On this visit, her legs were swollen, and her breathing was labored after just the short walk from the house to the car.

I returned the following Monday to take her to the dentist. Since I didn’t need to do that until the afternoon and I had a few phone meetings, I brought my laptop and did some work. Mom has no Internet connection, but my employer pays for use of the hotspot when necessary, and my phone had a solid connection. It was still challenging to work at her house because I could only find one place to connect my laptop to power: the same power strip where her microwave is connected.

The truly appalling condition of the house struck me that day. Mom remarried after she and Dad divorced. Her current husband is a hard-working guy, but while he runs his own business as a “horse trader” (someone who trades in heavy equipment like backhoes and trucks), he’s not an educated man. He grew up in a poor household, never even finished grade school, and is functionally illiterate. He used to have Mom do his basic book-keeping and attend to anything that required reading and writing skills; now he has his son do that. Back when Mom would talk a lot and share all the nitty-gritty details of her life, we learned that stepfather’s main source of business capital was mortgaging the house and credit card cash advances. I’m sure he’s still doing that now.

Maybe lack of capital is why the house is in such bad shape. Or maybe stepfather’s standards are just really low. The door handle on the bathroom was completely missing. The door itself was mangled a bit, probably because the new puppy stepfather bought six months ago did it. (What was he thinking?! Why did he think it was a good idea to bring a puppy to a woman who can’t remember to take her meds or eat regular meals?!) The outlet in the bedroom in which I first tried to work wasn’t accepting my grounded power plug. I managed to find an adapter, but the laptop still wouldn’t charge, so the outlet must not have worked at all. In the kitchen, several of the cabinet handles were broken.  The linoleum is missing in some places and the plywood sub-floor is visible. Every piece of furniture in the house was suffering from heavy wear or in some state of disrepair.

The older dog would start barking like crazy whenever I made a movement, and Mom would then scream at it to stop. The now six-month old puppy wasn’t house trained and kept peeing around the house. Not finding any paper towels in the kitchen, I asked Mom where I could find something to clean up after the puppy, and she directed me to get a rag from the bathroom cabinet. I couldn’t tell the difference between the rags and the “good” towels.

That was my breaking point. That was when I started to cry, as I walked along the hallway, with a wet cloth in my hand to wipe up dog urine from the sides of the couch and easy chair, and from the stained wood floor. I don’t think Mom saw me cry.

After spending a bit of time talking with stepfather when he returned to the house, I started the drive back to my friend A’s house where I was staying for those few days. Along the way I stopped at a Walgreens and picked up beer and a giant bag of kettle corn so I could comfort myself that night.

I had to return to Mom’s house the next day to take her to another doctor’s appointment. It hadn’t been part of my plan for the day, but stepfather had asked me to call the doctor the day before and ask for advice on her swelling and difficulty breathing at night. In just the three days that had passed since I had seen her, Mom’s legs continued to swell. The pulmonologist looked her over and then said her problem was not her lungs. This wasn’t an asthma complication, and she needed to see a cardiologist. He said she had a problem with her heart. That’s all he would say, but he did get her an appointment with the cardiology nurse practitioner for the following week.

What he wouldn’t say was that she has congestive heart failure.

I drove straight from Mom’s house to the airport. I turned in the rental car and went through the motions of getting through security. I had some extra time, so I bought a large beer and sat at a table and tried hard not to cry. I’m still trying.

A visit home

It’s been great to have my energy back again! The new estrogen patch seems to be working well for me. I’ve been on it for a week solid and I finally feel like I’m firing on all cylinders again.

Sleep is pretty good. I do get hot spells, but they’re manageable. My new routine for the evening is to turn off the heat and open the bedroom window enough to let the cool night air inside. When I get hot, usually just turning back the top quilt is enough to cool me down, and if not I’ll toss off the other two layers (a blanket and top sheet) if needed. I have the fan with remote control in position just in case, but rarely have had to use it. In the morning, the house is usually around 60 F when I get up — which makes for a chilly start to the day — but the thermostat is just outside the bedroom door.

I’m still allowing myself more time to rest and taking on less, too. Despite my new energy, I’m still healing inside. Last Saturday, for example, I had plans to attend a potluck party in the evening. A chance to go on a short hike that morning popped up, but I declined because I didn’t want to totally pack my Saturday. It turned out to be a good call.

However, there are some stressors over which I have little control. A few weeks ago I was urged by sister and stepfather to get back to Chicago soon for a visit with Mom. I had been planning a trip back to Chicago in late June this year to attend sister’s wedding celebration, but they told me not to wait that long.

I had to figure out how to fit a trip back to Chicago in the near term into my budget and schedule, so I went hunting for cheap fares online. I found a flight on Southwest that worked out for my schedule, and not *too* bad on my budget.

I depart on Wednesday, and I plan to spend two days with Mom: Saturday and Monday. Sunday will be a day of rest and relaxing  (I hope!), and the rest of the days are work days. Sadly, I can’t get work to pay for the trip since there is no business need for me to visit Chicago, but at least I won’t have to burn up a lot more PTO, and should retain enough for all the medical stuff I have to schedule in this year.

This trip is really stressing me out, and I’m not entirely sure why. There are plenty of possible reasons. It may be because:

  • I’m dreading seeing my mother. Talking with her weekly I get an idea of how poorly she’s doing, but that’s not the same as experiencing it in person.
  • I’m still mending and not feeling up to the rigors of packing and travel.
  • I’m leaving behind my personal comforts: the new friends I’ve made, my dog, and the little “nest” I’ve been building in the rental house.
  • I’m leaving behind the glorious weather (sunny, warm, lots of greenery and flowers from the plentiful March rain) and heading into a typical Midwest spring. (There was snow in Chicago on Saturday, and it was 70 F there yesterday.)

And, then there is answer E: All of the Above.

The stress is manifesting itself in waking up with a worried mind, and heartburn. I’ve been combating the first by writing down lists of things I need to do. The last one is a new development for me, and I had to pick up some OTC meds at the pharmacy to keep on hand.

I’ve been experimenting with different Bay Area airports over the past year, and this will be my first time flying in/out of Oakland International Airport. It’s both good and bad that the flight leaves Oakland at 6 AM: good because there should be little traffic on the expressway at that time of day, so my drive from Napa should take just over an hour; bad, because it means I need to get up at 4 AM. *gulp*

Part of my time this past weekend was spent online researching how much time to allow for the drive to the airport, what amenities are at the airport, and what amenities are on the flight. I’m a pretty good flyer, but that’s because I prepare for my personal comfort in advance. (Maybe that should be a separate blog post some day.)

M will drive me to the airport and take over house-sitting duties (mainly Hannah care) while I’m gone. On the Chicago end, sister will pick me up at Midway Airport and I’ll stay with her and her guy for a few nights. Come the weekend, I’ll pick up a rental car near their house and drive down to the south suburbs to stay with my friend A for the rest of the visit.

*Fingers crossed* all my prep goes as planned, and that I get a comfy seat on my early morning flight so I can sleep.

Taking care of myself

I’ve been doing too much.

My first month back at work I was barreling along pretty well. But as I entered the second month of full time work, I started fading. There were days that I just couldn’t sit in front of the computer and get anything done. I was listless and tired.

My employer provides one big pot of time off (referred to as Paid Time Off or PTO) to be used for vacationing or as “sick days.” It bothered me that I used much more of that time being “sick” last year: taking hours and days off to go to doctors, recover from repeated bouts of diverticulitis, treat my eye condition, and then deal with my renegade ovarian cyst. I really, really wanted to not repeat the pattern this year and to actually fit in more days off for fun stuff, but the pattern so far has been to continue using PTO for wellness-related stuff. OK, so be it.

Why hadn’t it occurred to me that I need more than the six weeks I was given for short term disability to recover? I had several organs and many, many adhesions removed, plus a few other major organs shifted around inside me. Not only that, but I’ve had hormones that affect the functioning of my brain, heart, and other major bodily systems permanently altered in an abrupt fashion.

I was doing some volunteer work last Saturday and was talking with another volunteer during our four-hour commitment when I had the realization that I’ve been pushing myself much too hard. I don’t recall how it came up in conversation, but I mentioned that I’d had surgery three months ago. She commented how that was not very long ago and she was surprised that I was so active. Hmmm.

The previous day, I had been unloading some groceries from the car when the neighbors next door asked how I was doing. The husband commented that it usually takes a full year to recover from surgery. Hmmm.

On Monday of this week I told the volunteer coordinator that I had to back off doing so much. I feel bad about not being more helpful to this group, but I need more rest and recovery time. I also contacted my local gynecologist about making yet another adjustment to my estrogen dosage.

After the surgery, I was started on a very low dose estrogen replacement in the form of a patch. Trying to figure out what works for my particular body chemistry takes time, and these past three months I’ve been trying different brands and dosages of estrogen patches. Over that time, I’ve had problems getting a good night’s rest due to hot flashes and disrupted sleep. I’ve also had just bone-deep tiredness and issues with fuzzy thinking.

I think (I hope!) that I’ve found the sweet spot with the patch dosage I just started last Monday. Previously, I would have reduced fatigue for the first two days after applying the patch, but on the following two days I would feel my energy flagging and my sleep disruptions would get worse. I would just have to limp along until my next patch change. On this new dosage I’m feeling more mentally alert and energetic, and my sleep disruptions have been minimal. I’m due to change my patch again today, yet I still feel pretty good. *Fingers crossed* this continues to work out for me.

 

Recipe: Salmon cakes

Revanche at A Gai Shan Life recently asked for recipe ideas, and this is one of my favorites. I know I’ve shared this recipe with a close friend, but I couldn’t find a copy of it in my email or when I searched my blog. So I’m remedying that situation since I’d like to keep a copy of it anyway, just in case I lose the book in which I found it.

I didn’t originally find this recipe in a cookbook or on a website, but in a book about perimenopause, of all places. The recipe produces a single loaf or the mix can be baked in a standard muffin/cupcake tin and produces 12 “hockey puck” sized salmon cakes. I like to freeze them so I can pull two or three at a time out of the freezer and defrost as needed to make a single serving. These work equally well for breakfast, lunch, or dinner and are easy to make ahead.

Canned fish can be a really good source of protein that doesn’t cost much. I love to eat fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna fresh, but it’s often cheaper and easier to buy it it in a can. Even wild-caught fish is usually affordable when it’s been canned. It’s also very shelf-stable. (Now I’m thinking I need to put a can or two of sardines in my earthquake kit!) My edits to the recipes and comments are added in brackets.

Salmon cakes

Serves 4

1 1/2 cups canned salmon [I use one large can of wild-caught salmon]
1 cup steel-cut oats [I use Trader Joe’s Quick Cook Steel-cut Oats]
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 cup liquid from salmon plus water
2 eggs
2 Tbsp butter
1/2 cup green bell pepper, diced [of course you can use a yellow or red pepper, too]
1/2 cup onion, diced

Preheat oven to 350º F. Drain salmon and save liquid. Remove large bones. [I usually don’t find large bones, but if I do I’ll just crush them up. They are usually quite soft and just add more calcium.] Slightly beat eggs in a medium bowl and add salmon, oats, salt, pepper, and salmon liquid plus water. Mix well and let stand while sautéing vegetables. [I usually cover the mixing bowl with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge overnight or for several hours at this point so the oats can get soft. Letting it sit for at least an hour helps, especially if standard steel-cut oats are used. Without the longer resting time I’ve found the cakes to be too crunchy.]

Dice pepper and onions. Sauté in butter until tender. Stir vegetables into salmon mixture. Spoon into an oil-sprayed 12 serving muffin tin and bake 10 minutes until golden brown. [I’ve usually had to cook these for closer to 20 or 30 minutes to get them golden brown.]

——

You can have some fun jazzing these up by adding different herbs and seasonings — dill would be an obvious choice, or maybe even grated lemon peel — and veggies, such as chopped mushrooms, chopped celery, shredded carrot (?), or olives. Just make sure any crispy veggies have been sauteed first to soften them up. Enjoy!

 

Slogging along

Life is just a series of ups and downs, with a lot of steady slogging in between. I’m in a slog phase now.

Good things happening

Some friends visited last weekend. This particular couple and I have been friends for several years. We first met when I lived in Chicago and they lived a few hours away in a rural area. They were hosting a podcast with a lot of great information about running a hobby farm while they also held down full time tech jobs. At the time we started building a friendship, I was married. In the intervening years, while I got divorced and eventually moved to the Bay Area, they remained a couple and moved to a different country. They’ve now moved back…to the Bay Area! We’ve been able to maintain our friendship and we had a very good time last weekend.

The relationship with the BF (I’m going to refer to him by his first initial, M, to make it easier for me going forward) is going well and growing. So far we’ve spent every weekend together and I’m continuing to get good vibes from him.

Despite my odd (for the west coast) need to leave social settings around 8 PM most of the time so I can get adequate rest for work the next day, I’m still able to fit in an hour or two of evening fun things like knitting group and volunteering. I had dinner at a friend’s house one day this week. She’s someone I met through knitting group and we’ve been connecting very well and spending some time together outside of knitting group occasionally. So, I continue to strengthen my social networks, while sticking to my budget.

Budgeting is going well, too. Yes, I’ve overspent in some categories in previous months, but I’m making adjustments, as needed. That means I’m either spending less in other areas, or being more realistic in my monthly spend. For example, my pet expenses have been much higher than in past years due to Hannah dog having a few minor health issues last year, some training expenses, and increases in pet care expenses since I don’t have a housemate or partner to care for her when I go on business trips. I’m able to afford it, but I need to make my budget reflect that line item more accurately.

I think my budgeting is also being helped by spending time with people who are also focused on optimizing their spending. My friend from knitting is not in a lucrative career so she doesn’t want to go out and spend money, and M is also a frugal person. M and I tend to cook at home and stay in, rather than going out for meals and drinks. This helps me stay on track towards my savings goals.:-)

Bad things happening

Mom ended up in the hospital with pneumonia the week before last. She’s prone to respiratory infections because she has (poorly controlled) asthma. Usually that means she gets bronchitis at least once a year, but this time it was pneumonia. I spoke to her the day after she was admitted and she sounded OK. Now that she’s been out for over a week she seems to have lost ground. She’s listless, her throat hurts, and she’s chipped a tooth somehow. With both the throat and tooth bothering her, it’s uncomfortable for her to talk, but in even the brief moment I was connected to her today she sounded like she was drifting away.

Stepfather had to take her to the pulmonologist yesterday for a scheduled check up, and the doc was concerned about how much water she is retaining in her legs. He ordered a diuretic and said she should get some sort of cardio test, but he didn’t order it himself for some reason and Mom’s primary care doc refused to order it. Or so says stepfather, at least.

So, we continue to have challenges with coordinating Mom’s care. She can no longer provide any sort of input or background to us, other than to tell us how she feels at the time she is asked. Stepfather can’t fill the gaps, nor can sister. While sister spends a lot of time on the phone trying to fill in the details that stepfather can’t seem to grasp, and takes time off work to bring Mom to specialists, it’s still not enough. I can’t see how I can provide any help here other than to dutifully send money every month. I have taken on some phone calls myself, but when it comes to scheduling things on Mom’s behalf, I can’t help there.

Besides, I have quite a bit on my plate just taking care of myself right now. I’m back at work full time and it seems like I’m tired all the time. It may be because my body is still recovering from surgery, or it may be that my hormones are still not adequately controlled, or it could be both of these things. I’ve found myself climbing into bed before 8 PM some nights because I’m just too tired even to sit on the couch and watch TV.

I think this sense of overwhelm may be why I’ve been so cranky about Mom care. I’m having a hard enough time just taking care of myself these days.

Just today I’ve started a new estrogen patch that I hope will bring me some renewed energy. And it is Friday, so I can sleep past 6 AM tomorrow. Hurray! As long as Hannah dog doesn’t wake me up, that is.😉

February budget: a work in progress

As previously noted, I made some changes to my recurring expenses and discretionary spending goals for February. It’s a new month, so I decided to pop into Mint and check my Trends report to see how I did.

The two areas that were “low hanging fruit” and easiest to adjust were around TV and food. In January, I called AT&T Uverse and changed to the lowest cost TV package they had. Last month’s bill for Internet service and TV was $76.50. (Most of that expense was for Internet service. I pay for a higher tier connection since I telecommute.) I expect the bill to be a bit higher going forward as the first bill after service change is usually a little wonky, but it will still be about 50% less than was most of last year.

My Food & Dining expenses had been quite high last year. While I enjoy cooking and preparing meals at home and do it quite a bit, I was also enjoying treating myself (and sometimes friends) at some of the wonderful restaurants here in Napa. When sister was visiting last spring, we joined a wine club, too. Alcohol can be a big expense, especially when splurging on fine wines.

Last fall I quit that wine club, so that obligation would no longer have an impact on my budget. At the end of January, I joined a different wine club, but the purchase commitment for this new club is much lower and more affordable for me. Unless I quit drinking altogether (which I don’t see happening!), I’ll always buy wine here and there and wine club membership doesn’t involve any up front costs. Wineries are good places to bring visiting guests, too, and as a wine club member my guests and I will get free tastings. Besides wine, I’ll still buy other alcohol like beer and hard liquor regularly, I just need to keep all of these purchases within the general Food & Dining budget guidelines.

As part of my cost-cutting goal, I adjusted my restaurant budget down from a very high $400 a month. As I looked at my Trends report over the past 12 months, I realized that I had set that budget up back when I was with B to account for the fact that when we dined out I regularly paid for both of us. My new target was $150 a month, which seemed perfectly reasonable for a single person who mainly eats at fast casual places no more than once a week. That would have worked, too, except I had two big dining out events last month with friends, so I blew my budget by about $100. It’s a consolation to me that my spending in January was more in line with my budgeted amount, so I think I have the right numbers in my budget, I just need to be more diligent about these “special” dining opportunities. Since my Budget line in Mint is set to rollover any leftover amount, months of higher expenses should be smoothed out by ones with lower expenses.

I manged to come in about $50 less than my $400 monthly grocery budget, so that’s a promising trend. I can eat very well on that generous grocery budget, and also have enough to make extra to share with the friends, neighbors, and my boyfriend.

Of course there are always “unexpected” expenses that pop up. In February, I paid what I hope are the last bills for medical expenses from my early December hospitalization. The only real upside of my body’s apparent melt down late last year (starting with the eye problems in September) was that by the time I had to go into surgery at the end of December I had met all my deductible amounts for the year. So that very expensive robotic laproscopic procedure ended up costing me $0 out of pocket. I’m very grateful that I have good health insurance as the EOBs were showing expenses of about $115,000 for the surgery and hospitalization, anesthesia, and doctor.

For 2016, I’ve elected to withhold the maximum amount for my pre-tax flexible medical spending. Although $2,550 may sound like a lot of money to spend on health care expenses when I have good medical insurance, I’m still paying quite a bit for medications these days for the eye. (One of my eye drops was $63 last time I refilled it, and the other was $50.) I also have co-pays for specialists I see at least every two months (ophthalmologist and gynecologist), and a potential eye surgery at some point. Any medical costs paid for with my pre-tax dollars don’t impact my monthly budget, so I hope to stretch that $2,550 to cover at least 90% of the co-payment and prescription cost I have this year.

My only real disappointment for the month of February was that I completely forgot to pay most of my bills on time! I have an automatic funds transfer and payment set up for my monthly rent, but my other bills (utilities and credit cards) are ones I like to review first before I schedule the online payment. I do this so diligently that I ignore the automatic alerts and reminders I get regularly from Mint. When I saw that I had a finance charge in my transactions, this alerted me that something was very wrong. Luckily I was able to get the finance charge and late fee waived with a phone call. I just hope that my credit history hasn’t taken a hit from this mistake.

I’m still making adjustments to my Budget lines, but I’m feel like I’m on the right track now. Simply paying attention to my spending is a big help, and I hope to see steady increases in my savings this year.