Archive for September, 2011

My pups

My friend M’s mother is elderly and exhibiting signs of dementia. She shuffles along slowly, with the help of a walker. She falls sometimes. She’s becoming incontinent.

My dogs are elderly and exhibiting signs of dementia. They shuffle along slowly. They fall sometimes. Thank goodness they are not yet incontinent!

I have thought about M’s mother a lot this year, since my dogs were diagnosed with dementia. Who knew that dementia is common among older dogs?

My first dog, a golden retriever named Molly, lived to the ripe old age of 14. She had some joint issues as well as some selective hearing issues, but otherwise she seemed “with it.” My second dog, a rescued mixed breed named Cameron, didn’t live long enough to get dementia. Bless her heart, she developed cancer and kidney disease about five years after I found her running in the streets.

My current dogs, Bailey and Nanaline, are rescues as well, and are around 12 years old. They are mid-size dogs, plus or minus 65 pounds. I believe they are siblings, descended from the breeds Labrador and chow.

Nanaline has always been the attention seeker, wanting to be patted constantly. When she first came to live with me, she was very skittish and fearful of people, traits I attributed to abuse earlier in her life. Turns out I could be correct: recent x-rays revealed she had been shot by a BB gun.

Bailey, on the other hand, was more of a loner. She didn’t quite trust, or care, about people. Any chance she got, she would jump the backyard fence and roam the neighborhood. She was even running around for hours with a torn knee ligament!

An animal communicator with whom I worked said that Bailey saw fences as obstacles to overcome. As such, her running away wasn’t personal.  Though, the communicator surmised, this was Bailey’s first time around as a dog and she just didn’t know what it was like to bond with a human. Oh, and in Bailey’s view, cats were toys, to be shaken quite vigorously. This last  personality trait has made life in the land of feral cats very challenging!

It’s been nine years since these dogs were adopted, and after a brief period of getting used to each other, the dogs and I have settled into a new life quite nicely.  Nanaline is less afraid of loud noises or people coming in the house. Bailey has learned to trust not only me, but other human beings as well. She’s particularly fond of her acupuncture vet.

Some things haven’t changed. Nanaline still wants to be patted all the time. Bailey still thinks cats are toys. And, while I have doubts that Bailey would still be physically able to jump the fence, I won’t leave her in the yard unattended.

My dogs used to love to go on long walks, and they especially loved going to the woods. I was fortunate to be able to take them to my dad’s beach house in Connecticut during the summers.  They were able to roam the beach and bark at bunnies and skunks in the neighboring marsh.

But now, due to arthritis and hip dysplasia, walks are hard for them. Now we attempt two or three short, slow walks a day, because the dogs still want to, and because exercise helps them stay mobile. I’m sad, though, that they can’t walk like they once did.

I’m also sad that their other faculties are slowing down. The dogs often seem confused. They don’t hear as well, so I have to practically scream at them if I want to get their attention. They used to play with each other, but now they pretty much do their own thing. And I’m not sure whether they always recognize me. Case in point: I had to leave Bailey at her rehab vet for a few hours. When I came back, she was asleep. I had to call to her several times before she finally woke up.  At that point, she  just looked at me questioningly. Maybe she just can’t see well, or maybe her mind is getting more confused. Who knows?

It is what it is, I tell myself.   One should be so lucky to have dogs that live long lives!  I want to give them the best quality of life possible while they are still around. And while I definitely miss our more active — and interactive — days, I want to enjoy the time I have left with them, even if it means having to scream to get their attention.


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NPR this morning had a story about food cravings. Apparently current research has found that kids are hard-wired to crave sugar and salt.

In their research abstract in “Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care,” Alison K. Ventura and Julie A. Mennella state: “Scientific literature suggests that children’s liking for all that is sweet is not solely a product of modern-day technology and advertising but reflects their basic biology. In fact, heightened preference for sweet-tasting foods and beverages during childhood is universal and evident among infants and children around the world. The liking for sweet tastes during development may have ensured the acceptance of sweet-tasting foods, such as mother’s milk and fruits. Moreover, recent research suggests that liking for sweets may be further promoted by the pain-reducing properties of sugars.”

Halleluiah! It’s not my fault that I love sugar and salt! My body is only following its basic biological instinct!

“But, MaryNell,” you say, “you are not a kid. The research points to the decline of sugar and salt cravings as youngsters go through adolescence. Since you are way past that stage, shouldn’t you have a handle on your cravings?”

Uh… darn!

The funny thing is that I don’t remember being particularly attracted to sweets or salt UNTIL I was going through puberty. You see, MamaNell was big on balanced meals. We did have dessert, but only after we cleaned our plates. We didn’t eat at McDonald’s or Burger King (the only fast food options available back then), though Friday nights often featured Swanson’s frozen TV dinners.

But once I became a teen, the food choices opened up. Socializing included going to McDonald’s or Pizza Hut with friends. There were more options for frozen and processed foods, including Lean Cuisines. Food, often too much of it, became a comfort when my BFF was mad at me, or when that special guy just wasn’t that into me. I learned to love and crave all those sweet foods, salty foods, fatty foods.

As I got older and became a vegetarian, some of my food preferences changed. I love fresh asparagus, though I still can’t stomach the canned stuff MamaNell would serve back in the day. I eat oatmeal, broccoli, greens and black beans on a consistent basis. My body will crave these things if I go without too long.

But I still find that when life gets stressful or sad, I often reach for potato chips, ice cream or cookies. So while craving sugar and salt may have a biological component for children, I am afraid my cravings have a strong behavioral component. And no amount of science is going to justify that. Darn.

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Soup’s On!

Praise the lord and pass the ammunition: it’s payday! And that means a Costco run. I’m stocking up on laundry detergent, fish oil and coffee (thanks to coupons), as well as dog food for the girls. Plus I’m purchasing big bags of carrots, celery, onions and potatoes to start making homemade stock. Soup’s on, folks!

I love soup. I really, really do. Soup is about 90 percent of my diet during the fall, winter, and early spring. It’s just so easy to cook a pot or two of soup on the weekends, freeze some, then eat the rest all week.

So this weekend I’ll be making and freezing about 10 batches of stock. I’ll make a new-to-me soup from one of the Moosewood cookbooks. I believe it’s called “Mariner’s Pepperpot Soup,” and has bell peppers, carrots, celery, rice and hot spices. Probably some tomatoes, too. I’ll also make an old stand-by,”Garlic Red Lentil.”

If there’s time, I’ll make some spiced apple butter with delicious, tart apples from the mountains. I’ve also got my eye on a recipe for pickled nectarines, though I’m pretty sure those will have to wait until next weekend, or next year.

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Fall garden in and mostly growing

My fall garden is, for the most part, growing happily. So far, I have planted: two kinds of beets, three kinds of lettuce, two kinds of spinach, broccoli raab, Japanese greens, chard, two kinds of mustard greens, collards, kale and kohlrabi.  There’s just a small problem: I didn’t write down what I planted where, and now I”m not sure.

I normally write down what I plant  for several reasons.  One is to ensure that I rotate my crops.  Another is because I plant lots of different things. (I have a shoebox chock full of seed packets!)  And I plant several different varieties of the same vegetables.  So if I don’t write down what I planted where, I can’t answer when people ask, “What kind of tomatoes are these?”

I distinctly remember my neighbors laughing and not understanding why I do this.  They, too, have a large garden, and they seem to be able to identify what they are growing.  They probably have better memories than I do, but they also don’t grow the variety that I do, either.

So I don’t know what possessed me to neglect writing down my fall planting.  I think I thought it was small enough that I would  remember or be able to figure out.  Some things are indeed obvious.   The Japanese greens, for example, are very distinct even at only an inch tall.  As are the mustard greens and kale.  Other things I recognize as “greens” or “lettuce” or “spinach” but I can’t tell you what variety.  I’m not quite sure I could tell you what a baby kohlrabi looks like, though it will be easy to identify once it’s grown.

My main problem is going to be with the chard and beets, who are part of the same family and have very similar leaves.   My other main problem is trying to figure out what didn’t grow.  There are several beds with only a few seedlings sprouting.  I want to do a second scattering of seeds, though who knows if what I plant in there now will be the same as what I planted earlier.

I guess in the grand scheme of problems, not knowing what you’re growing (or not, in some instances) is pretty minor.  But this little lapse in memory  has taught me that my garden lists are important.



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I don’t actually feel old, but sometimes it’s very obvious that I’m not a spring chicken anymore.

I recently read a book written by a young woman who had walked the Camino. She chose to walk this path because she had experienced two failed love affairs and, career wise, wasn’t where she had thought she would be. In other words, her life wasn’t quite going according to plan. Happens to all of us, no? Well, apparently it happened to her much earlier than any of her friends, because there was an inordinate amount of attention paid to these lost loves as well as to her confusion as to what to do next. At 23! I’m thinking, “Honey, chill out. You have plenty of time. You will figure out what you want to do, and you’ll have interesting experiences in the process. There’s more fish in the sea too. So what if it didn’t work out with these two guys who, by your account, were dogs? At least you found out before you married one and had kids!”

But then I remember when I was in my 20s, and how every experience seemed so unique and special. I loved someone who broke my heart! My parents couldn’t be together in the same room! One of my siblings “had” to get married! I ran up some debt that took years to pay off!

After a few more years under my belt, and a lot more life experience, I realized that most people have challenges with finances, family, and/or relationships at one point or another. Most of us have experienced situations that don’t turn out the way we’d like. It’s called life.

I felt old again today, when I read that a Duke student was killed in a drunk driving accident. Times like these I am reminded how lucky I was back in the day. I would hitch rides with people who had been drinking; I’d even driven a few times myself when I shouldn’t have. Thank heavens I didn’t kill anyone.

And all this was before “Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.” Back when I was in high school, it was acceptable for people to drink and drive. The brother of one of my friends wrecked his car after drinking; he was not arrested. The father of one of my best friends would drive us around, drink in hand, as if it were no big deal.

Speaking of high school, one of my friends from back in the day has told me that there are several women from her home town who are attending Duke this fall. They know no one, and she asked if I could be a contact person for them and for their families.

Sometimes people do have to learn lessons on their own, but what advice could I share with them to perhaps help them along?

“Watch those upper class boys! Many are out for only one thing and they brag about preying on young, innocent freshmen!”

“Don’t drink and drive! Call Safe Rides!”

“Even though there’s this culture of ‘work hard, party hard,’ it’s really not cool to black out during drinking. Try to figure out how to have fun without permanently damaging your brain.”

“Try to eat a balanced diet and get enough sleep. Nothing brings on sickness like living in a dorm, a bad diet and being overtired.”

“Camp out for basketball games once. It will be a life experience. That being said, once might be enough. And come in from the cold if you are sick!”

And perhaps my most sage advice:

“Steer clear of the crazy bus driver. You’ll know immediately which one I’m talking about.”

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Nells don’t get sick

You know how your family has some sayings that are repeated so often, they become part of the family lore? Well, one of the sayings on my paternal side is that Nells don’t get sick. Daddy Nell was particularly good at repeating this sentiment, right after hacking up a lung.

So I’m thinking about this statement, because I really don’t get sick very often. Granted, I was good for a few colds and perhaps a flu annually during my school years. But now that those days are long behind me, I find myself in better health than a lot of people. So did I inherit some good genes that keep me immune to most things? Is not being around a bunch of kids the trick? Is the health department right that frequent hand-washing prevents illness? Or does eating an abundance of citrus fruit in the winter help boost my immune system?

Whatever it is, I am grateful that I hardly get sick. Because here’s the other thing: this particular Nell is a baby about being sick. Don’t like it. Not one bit. Don’t like being in physical pain either. Don’t like going to doctors. Don’t like taking medicine. Though, weirdly, I’m okay taking supplements that are supposed to help me stay healthy.

So the past week or so has been a bit of a challenge. Fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat. One goes away, the other takes over. That goes away, something else arrives. Lather, rinse, repeat. I’ve taken all kinds of supplements and (yikes!) medicine, from homeopathic to herbal to straight-up chemical. My poor body has been assaulted! I do feel better today than I did a week ago, but I’m more than ready for this to be over.

I really don’t have much room to stand on the complaining front. A friend’s husband has cancer and feels really bad ALL the time. I could not imagine a life of just feeling sick. I am fortunate and I realize that. So while I’m a bit inconvenienced now, I am pretty positive that this seemingly endless cold will eventually go away. I can only wish the same return to health for my friend’s husband.

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My friend K texted me a message about happiness yesterday. I’ve deleted the message and, unfortunately, my middle-age mind doesn’t remember exactly how it went. Something about happiness being free or the best things in life being free… But it got me to thinking about what makes me happy. Luckily, I could come up with lots of things very easily. My list could vary by the day, and even by the hour. So at this exact moment, what are 10 things that make me happy?

1. Walking pre-dawn with the dogs, seeing the stars and enjoying the sound of crickets.
2. Losing two pounds last week. (Note to self: do not focus on being sick this week and getting no exercise; stay in the happy moment!)
3. Water to drink.
4. Soup for lunch, made with spices that are sure to help ease the symptoms of my cold.
5. A crisp soon-to-be-fall day, complete with a little wind and some sunshine.
6. More seedlings sprouting in the garden.
7. My cat Patches being his usual silly self.
8. Shopping at Costco.
9. An email from Netflix saying my next DVD will arrive today.
10. My co-worker bringing me a piece of apple pie she made last night.

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