Sunday, November 12, 2017

Mending maybe — and a caution

"The remedy is worse than the disease." — Sir Francis Bacon, English philosopher, statesman, scientist, jurist, orator, and author

WHEN PAUL took me to urgent care four weeks ago, I was prescribed an albuterol sulfate inhaler, oral prednisone and over-the-counter anti-mucus tablets (guaifenesin). I've used the mucus-loosening pills — one before bed almost every night. It's helped clear my nose enough to sleep, finally. 

We filled the inhaler prescription, but I didn't use it because when the tech x-rayed my lungs at urgent care, to the surprise of the doctor, my lungs were completely clear. I'm much more prone to have things get into my sinuses and nasal passages and stay there, and in this case, eyes, ears nose and throat in the most miserable way, but not my lungs.

On the other hand, congestion is likely go straight to Paul's lungs. He was severely asthmatic as a child and has battled airborne allergies much of his life, so for him it's his lungs. This time has been no exception, so he's used the inhaler to breathe instead of me.

We didn't fill the prednisone prescription, however. Fortunately I'm married to an extra-smart guy. Prednisone is a steroid, and steroids are immunosuppressants. Although it's used to reduce swelling in sufferers' nasal passages to facilitate breathing through the nose, Paul's theory was that the short term comfort wasn't worth damping down my immune system when it's vital for it to be fully functioning to battle this particularly virulent virus.

I got curious about the relationship between steroids and viral infections and accidentally came across a concerning post in Phoenix Rising, an ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome) online discussion group and forum. 

I have at least two friends who suffer (and suffer is the key word) from ME/CFS and another friend who, like us, also came down with a horrible viral infection and was prescribed steroids, so I thought I'd pass along a link to the article.

Click on the link below to go to the discussion page.

Corticosteroids (Steroids) Such as Prednisone Given During an Acute Viral Infection May Cause ME/CFS. 

Dr John Chia has noted that corticosteroids given during an acute viral infection seems tobe a recipe for precipitating ME/CFS.

That is to say: acute infection + corticosteroids = ME/CFS

In this presentation, Dr John Chia talks about the factors and events his ME/CFS patients report just prior to them developing ME/CFS.

One factor that Chia says he hears of hundreds of times, occurring just prior to the onset of ME/CFS, is that the patient was given corticosteroids (steroids) such as prednisone or prednisolone at a time when the patient was acutely ill with a viral infection.

Click here to go to the entire discussion page.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Do not come down with this

"I am sick and tired of being sick and tired." — Fannie Lou Hamer, American voting rights activist and leader in the Civil Rights Movement

AS OF today, I have been sick four weeks. Seriously. The Halloween costume picture not withstanding. 

And Paul, too, although he's made more of a recovery than I have.

Paul got sick Sunday night, October 8, but insisted he could and must live through a photo shoot we had previously scheduled in Council Bluffs for the next day. It was extremely windy, and there we were climbing around for hours and hours on various bridge construction projects.

That was a Monday. I left Paul home sick in bed on Tuesday while I went to work, and by the time I drove home I knew I was doomed to suffer the same fate.

The following Saturday, although he was just as sick as I was, Paul took me to urgent care where they kept me for four hours. They x-rayed my lungs, drew blood for a white cell count, did a nasal swab and a breathing test. Everyone who came in to perform a test or procedure said, "Wow, you look terrible."

I wasn't offended. I did look terrible, and I felt even worse. It was validation. They see sick people every day, all day long, so I figured I must be really, extra, extremely sick.

Not influenza A or B; not bacterial. Some unknown virulent virus which they said would take two to three weeks to recover from. Well, today it's four.

Paul said that this virus has attacked every tissue system in our bodies.
  • Fever and chills ✓
  • Soar throat; holy buckets ✓
  • Sneezing; fits of it four and five at a time ✓
  • Blinding headache; Paul's much worse than mine ✓
  • Swollen glands ✓
  • Pain; the bones in my face hurt so badly that it felt like I'd smashed headfirst into a brick wall ✓
  • Eyes swelled up and crusted over; three weeks at least ✓
  • Intestinal distress; Paul, but not me ✓
  • Unrelenting cough; I coughed so much and so hard I threw my back out ✓
  • Excruciating back pain for at least eight days (see above), but fortunately Dr. Deb fixed me last week ✓
  • Chest congestion; Paul much more than me, he was asthmatic as a kid, so he's rather more prone to it  ✓
  • Constant running nose; we've gone through a dozen large boxes of tissues ✓
  • Laryngitis; me worse than Paul, I couldn't talk for ten days and still can sometimes only squeak ✓
  • Weight loss; me again; I lost three pounds which puts me today at 96.6 ✓

A week ago, I believed that I could see light at the end of the tunnel, and I went into work for about three-quarters of the day. I also thought I'd be able to wear my costume the following day for Halloween and go to work, and I did. But it was too much, and I relapsed the next day. 

Today I'm maybe, maybe back to where I was a week ago, seeing a little light at the end of the tunnel.

One might be tempted to think that we must have picked up this awful virus in Europe, and indeed as we were boarding our plane in Brussels, the young woman ahead of us in line, was clearly ill. But viruses just don't incubate for three weeks. Nope, we contracted it here at home, Paul thinks possibly at the last Turner Center Jazz Orchestra concert. The timing is right for it, anyway.

One unforeseen outcome of this miserable sickness is that Paul and I have bonded even tighter and stronger than before. It might be hard to suppose that two people who work together and live together 24/7 could get any closer than we already are, but so we have. 

When everything else is stripped away, all the doing and going, and going and doing, all the busyness and lists of things that must be done, you realize that so many of the innumerable distractions that seem so important at the time, just aren't. The world shrinks, and there's just that one you love, who loves you, the mutual comfort of one another's presence, the perfectness, despite all else, of being together. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy Halloween

“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” — William Shakespeare

HALLOWEEN is my favorite holiday. I get to be wacky and still be considered perfectly normal. Paul and I have been extremely sick for three entire weeks (more about that in an upcoming post), but I've been looking forward to Halloween since September, and I didn't want to miss it. 

So here we are as hot sauce and popcorn. FYI: We made my clever popcorn hat by hot gluing individual pieces of popped popcorn to a stocking cap. It was Paul's crafty idea; he glued about half of the popcorn on, and I did the other half.

We stopped by Paul's parent's retirement community where there was a Halloween party in progress, and a fair number came in costume. We fit right in. See what I mean? On Halloween you get to be outrageous and no one bats an eye.

PS: This was my Halloween joke for the night: "If this isn't the best costume you've seen all night, I'll eat my hat!" C'mon. That's worth a couple of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups at least.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Homeward bound

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” — Mark Twain

AMAZINGLY, Paul and I crammed all of the seeing and doing I've shared with you over the course of the previous ten posts . . . into a single week. We left on September 13 and flew home from Brussels on the 21th.

This eleventh and final post is intended as a sort of wrap-up, a mélange of general observations, impressions and other oddments noted as we traveled the northwest quarter of Belgium, known as Flanders, and stuck our toe into the Netherlands.

Before we get to that, let me just say in all sincerity: OH MY GOD! I thought we'd never make it from Bergen op Zoom to the Brussels airport, certainly not in one piece!


It's not possible to adequately describe the frightening, frustrating journey of a mere 83.5 kilometers (51.88449 miles) from BoZ to Bruxelles-National in such a way that anyone who wasn't along for the ride will get it. It was literally the stuff of nightmares . . . as in Paul had literal nightmares after we were home about making that drive. It was that harrowing, and it took hours!

Narrow, congested streets jammed with bumper to bumper cars, trucks that were entirely too big for the road even if there were no other vehicles, a phalanx of bicyclists, innumerable scooters weaving in and out, and pedestrians.

Do I exaggerate? Au contraire mon ami. Brussels is listed, depending on which survey you consult, as the city possessing either the eighth- or fourth- or second-worst traffic in Europe, and the survey that listed Brussels as number two, lists Antwerp as number four. Remember, we were traveling from Bergen op Zoom through Antwerp to Brussels, and Belgium in general is listed as the country with the worst traffic in all of Europe. Whee!!

They drive fast, and they drive aggressively. The thing I appreciated most about where we live when we returned home is that by and large, most people obey most of the driving laws most of the time.

When I hear people blather on about having "too much governmental regulation" — I want to shake them. The only reason that utter chaos doesn't exist on streets and highways is because there are lots of specific rules about where, how fast and in what way we're allowed to drive. If everyone follows them, we all get to where we're going in an orderly, safe manner. (You'd think that Americans would be smart enough to see how that applies to government in general.) On the other hand, public transportation in Belgium is fantastic: subways, trains, street cars, buses — and people bicycle everywhere. 

In case you're wondering what Europeans think of the United States these days, pretty much to a person they seem to think that America has lost its collective mind. Can't say as I blame them. That's precisely why we had to take a break. 

We could tell that our host, Pieter, didn't want to dis the US — wouldn't be a gracious way for a host to make his guests feel welcome — but after he got to know us better, he confided that as insane and frightening a face as the United States presents to the world now, the individual people who come to visit Belgium from the US "aren't like that."

He made an insightful point. Pieter thinks that people who are cosmopolitan and inquisitive enough to spend time and money traveling to other countries, experiencing other cultures, self-select as open-minded, respectful and intelligent, in contrast to the uneducated, nationalistic, ethnocentric saber-rattling buffoon we (didn't) elect.

Pieter is a perfect example of what it means to be a citizen of the world. Whenever someone from the United States is a guest, he gets on the internet and reads all about where they're from. Before we'd even checked into our room, he wanted to know what state and what city we call home and found both on a map. The next time we saw him in his office, he had all sorts of information pulled up about Iowa's topology, weather, agricultural base and economy, as well as pictures of Des Moines.

Belgium seems to suffer from a bit of an inferiority complex. One of the most surprising things about our time spent there was that pretty much down to a person, local residents who asked us where we were headed were incredulous to learn that we came to Belgium expressly to see Belgium  . . . that we hadn't flown into Brussels merely as a jumping off point for somewhere else: LondonParisAmsterdam, somewhere else, anywhere else . . . and that we had no other reason to have to be there

I came across this quote in the Lonely Planet about Ghent“Here hides one of Europe’s finest panoramas of water, spires and centuries-old grand houses. And it seems the Belgians forgot to tell anyone.” I believe that could be said of the whole of the country. 

Aside from the traffic, which I may have complained sufficiently about (but maybe not, so don't get me started), Belgium felt surprisingly homelike even with all the unreadable signs and two or three unfamiliar languages being spoken around us. Paul pointed out that part of it is the terrain. Flanders is flat, and farmers there raise many of the same crops we do. The towns and cities felt 'foreign' in that many parts of them are so very old, but the countryside looked like Iowa.

I read an interview with Howard Liebman, Chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Belgium. Born in L.A., and raised on Long Island before moving to Belgium 38 years ago, he said that Americans have a mind-set in common with the Flemish which made him feel at home right away. I'd have to agree that there is some sort of intangible shared world-view with America, at least the America Paul and I and our parents grew up in. Can't vouch for it now.

Besides a general like-mindedness, there's a historical basis for Belgians feeling kinship and gratitude toward the United States. During World War I, the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force tipped the balance in favor of the allied forces towards the middle of 1918. 

Americans also helped change the course of World War II when our forces came to fight in Europe and in Belgium in particular. There are 13,344 American WW II service members buried in Belgium, compared to 8661 British and 2516 Belgian soldiers.

Almost without exception, people were extremely gracious to us everywhere we went . . . although a bit less so in Bruges. You may recall that Paul and I were not very favorably impressed by Bruges. We found it to be too touristy for our tastes; it was also the only place where shopkeepers and restaurant personnel were somewhat impatient and impersonal. I had the feeling that when they looked at us, they saw dollar signs instead of individuals. The food was extremely overpriced, and the servers blatantly asked for tips.

Paul had done his homework before we left and learned that in Belgium servers are paid respectable wages, so they don't need or expect tips to compensate for, as is the case at home, the below minimum wage that food service workers earn. Restaurant checks and receipts don't even have a 'tip line', and nowhere did anyone try to wangle tips except in Bruges where restaurant personnel bluntly asked for them. I have a strong suspicion that they only 'asked' Americans, who they figured wouldn't know any better.

On our flight from Reykjavik to Brussels I sat next to a lovely and likable young woman named Nora, who was on her way back from a couple of weeks' stay with friends in Canada. She's a college student who plans to go on to law school and afterwards get her dream job . . . working for the European Union. Nora is a passionate, outspoken proponent of the EU

Although the EU has no official capital, with Brussels' long history of hosting official European Union seats within its European Quarter, it's considered the de facto capital. Just another thing I would never have known if we hadn't traveled to Belgium.

Nora graciously guided us through the labyrinth of restaurants and designer shops that make the Brussels airport as much a high-end shopping mall as an airport. Nora, who is a tall, well-grown, mature-looking young woman, strode with long, confident strides through the the twists and turns of Bruxelles-National, explaining to us that, yes, ever since the 2016 terrorist bombing of the airport, there are always soldiers present armed with machine guns and dogs on leash. When we reached the barricaded area where friends, family and transport drivers await passengers, Nora caught sight of her mother, and her face lit up like a five-years-old's. She shouted "Mama" in full voice, ran to her mother and threw herself in her mom's arms. It was unbelievably adorable.

One final tidbit; remember in the very first post in this series, I mentioned that the photo of us at our gate in the Chicago airport was taken by a monk, and I said that I'd say more about him and his order later? Here ya' go. 

The brother who took our picture was British. I'm not sure where the brother (in the religious order sense of the word) who was traveling with him was from. They were on their way from working in Wisconsin to some new mission in Europe. They both wore coarse-cloth, brown, hooded robes, heavy socks and sandals. One reader guessed they were Trappist monks. 

Nope, they're from on order called The Community of Saint John. Their website says that they are "present in 22 countries of five continents and numbering nearly 800 Brothers and Sisters."

They list their Charism (I admit that I don't know what a Charism is) as:

  • To follow Christ as Saint John followed Him.
  • To be sent to those who thirst for truth and love.
  • To offer centers for formation and communion to those who are searching for meaning in their lives, especially the youth and families.
And how they, to use their words, "live it" is described in this way:

With the Virgin Mary, we live together

  • A life of silent prayer, adoration, the Eucharist and Divine Office.
  • Charity.
  • A fraternal life: Community life in an apostolic priory lived out in simple and joyful (there's a word missing at the end of this point; simple and joyful something, but what?)
  • A life of study: Seek Wisdom to grow in an intelligence of the faith and of the world’s present-day challenges.
  • An apostolic life: to respond to the needs of those whom the Lord sends us, by formation, and accompaniment, all in a great diversity of missions (teaching, preaching, missions, work with those in the peripheries).
What was surprising to me was that this order was founded in 1975. That's recent! 

From an interview published on The Community of Saint John's website, here's how the order formed:

"It all began at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, where several students were studying with a Dominican, Father Marie-Dominique Philippe, a professor of philosophy. Some of these students, wanting to consecrate their lives totally to Christ, asked Father Philippe to be their spiritual director, and began to live a common life." 

"At first Father Philippe was very busy with his teaching responsibilities, and he only came to see the group of students once a week for spiritual direction. He was also a bit hesitant to become associated with the 'brothers.' He did not consider himself to be mandated by the Church to take responsibility for a nascent religious community."

"Martha Robin’s intervention was decisive in Father Philippe’s decision to go forward with accompanying the growing group of students. Father Philippe had known her since 1946 and presented his 'dilemma' to her: some of his students wanted to form a little community and were seeking his help. Martha replied quite simply that he could not refuse their request; he couldn’t abandon them."

"Who was Venerable Martha Robin? Born in 1902, on October 25th, 1925 Martha consecrated her entire life to God. In the following years, Martha, stricken with paralysis of her legs, then her arms, was forced to remain in bed. She no longer ate nor drank and slept very little. In 1930, she received the stigmata and began to relive the passion of Christ each week. In 1940, Martha was struck blind, having offered up her eyes for France. Until 1981 Martha welcomed into her room thousands and thousands of visitors who came seeking encouragement and advice. "

Okay, I realize that was a very 'shiny' detour, but who knew there were orders of monks still forming as late as 1975, that the above history is how it might happen and that I would meet a couple of the brothers in Chicago's O'Hare Airport?

Below are some of my favorite pictures from our week's trip.

The view from our room, Brussels

Panoramic view from our room, Brussels
Grand Place, Brussels

Cinquantenaire Park, Brussels

Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent
Ghent by boat



The belfry of Ghent

View from the belfry of Ghent




Grand Hotel de Draak, Bergen op Zoom

Bergen op Zoom

Bergen op Zoom

Friday, October 20, 2017

Restaurant Hemingway and a walk around BoZ

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” — Miriam Beard, American author and historian

LUCKY US to discover that the Grand Hotel de Draak has a Michelin-rated restaurant on the premises: Restaurant Hemingway.

Never any doubt as to where we would have dinner, but first we took a walk around Bergen op Zoom. Below are some pictures . . . but if you haven't seen the previous post about BoZ, you might want to take a look so you can properly appreciate this jewel. 

Above and below: Typical streets in the center of Bergen op Zoom.

So that's where our Shiva came from. Who knew?!

The Gertrudiskerk. The towers of this church are called "pepper plant towers". An old legend says Saint Gertrude of Nivelles founded the church in 654. The older part of the church dates to around 1370. 

We came across this building containing a series of tunnel arches. Going through was a little bit like going down a rabbit hole; we weren't sure where we'd end up.

We enjoyed our meal excessively. Hemmingway is the kind of place where you come for dinner and stay the evening. 
My ravioli and Paul's carpaccio. Notice the little gelée lobsters made by the chef?

First we were served an aperitif and an amuse. Then for starters I had the ravioli with shrimp, fennel, lobster bisque and Cognac. Paul had the carpaccio with Dutch beef, black olives, pine nuts, capers and Parmesan cheese. 

As a main course, I had the catch of the day: sea bream with risotto and olives, sea lavender and sweet and sour fennel. Paul had the entrecôte (premium cut of beef) with hasselback potatoes, radishes, shallots, celery and oyster leaf. For dessert Paul had the cheese plate, and I had the tarte tatin with figs, bay leaves and mascarpone. The whole dinner was stunningly inexpensive: $44 each, so a total of $88! Wow!! At a comparable restaurant in the US, our meal would have been upwards of $200. 

This is Willy, our server. He's worked in this restaurant for 30 years. It was obvious how that might happen: he's great at his job! Our chef was Bart Van Oefelen, a stellar artisan, as evidenced by the photo and food descriptions.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Kristiina and Bergen op Zoom

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” — Mark Twain

I WAS the one agitating for a vacation. I needed to get out of Dodge! Concerts by the two Big Bands Paul plays in and promotes were set to resume in early October — which meant that rehearsals and marketing would begin the month prior. I knew if we didn't get away by the middle of September, we wouldn't go.

Since I was the one lobbying for this trip, by default I was the chief planner and organizer. I chose the destination, the airline, our B and B in Brussels, our hotel in Ghent (high marks for the first; low marks for the second), and our day trip to Sint Martens-Latem and Bruges.

The plan had also always included getting ourselves to Boom, a suburb of Antwerp (Antwerpen in Flemish), to meet up with Kristiina Kariluoma. She was a foreign exchange student at Ankeny High School when we were seniors, and we'd reconnected through Facebook. Kristiina was from Finland when I knew her all those years ago, but then she married and moved to Belgium

How could we go to Belgium — it is after all only the size of Maryland, and Brussles is only 26 miles from Boom — and not see her? 

Kristiina and I toast one another.

That was as far as my brain could go, however, and there was still one more day and night to plan. I thought it would be fun to run into Germany or the Netherlands if we could, and since we'd spent all of our nights in two relatively large cities — Brussels has a population of more than a million, and Ghent has about a quarter of a million — I was hoping for a smaller place. I'd considered dozens, and finally turned the problem over to Paul a few days before we left home, probably with the words "you figure this one out" or something similar.

And he did! What a completely awesome choice he made for us: Bergen op Zoom. Considered a 
cultural treasure of the province Noord Brabant, Bergen op Zoom has a population of about 66,000, so certainly not a village or even a small town, but nevertheless, we loved this place so much! And the Grand Hotel de Draak was absolutely the pièce de résistance. Located on the Grote Markt (city square), it's more than 600 years old — the oldest company and hotel in the Netherlands!

We would go back to Bergen op Zoom and the Grand Hotel de Draak in a heartbeat.

Grand Hotel de Draak takes up all three buildings to the left of the stone archway.

Our hotel at night.

We adored our room with its massive beams.

I discovered this stairway to the basement.

Here's what I found . . . almost a grotto.

Closer into the grotto.
Our hotel was right on the Grote Markt, or city square. Paul took this panoramic of the square from one direction.

This photo and all those below are buildings surrounding Grote Markt where our hotel was located.

This panoramic is looking the other direction in the square.