Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Happiness is...not breaking the skin

I experience the greatest muscle dysfunction at the very end of the day, when I'm too beat to stand up straight, and at the very beginning of the day, when the process of getting myself out of bed is like trying to get a very big, very comfortable dog off of the couch. In the morning, it starts with the sort of horizontal stretch that we are all accustomed to making before swinging our feet onto the floor. Often, that first stretch ends up as a whole-body spasm where my arms and legs go simultaneously stiff and jumpy. It's hard to describe, that brief sensation of being both uncontrollably rigid and uncontrollably jumpy.

This morning, the clock radio went off at the usual time, and I turned over to give my wife a snuggly good morning hug. She'd been out of town for a while, and it was really nice to wake up and remember that she was there with me. But in the process of turning over, I triggered that weird shuddering spasm, and kicked her in the shin with my big toe. "It's OK," she said, "I don't think you broke the skin."

Speaking of love and illness, I really enjoyed reading this article in WaPo about what it's like to be a young breast cancer survivor.

Monday, February 26, 2007

After a weekend blizzard, TGIM

More than a foot of snow over the weekend: a spectacular work of nature and, on a weekend when I'm home alone, a spectacular pain in the ass. Thank heavens for the little electric snowblower, which exceeded expectations in wet, heavy snow. Still, it turned into a weekend when my energy went into the driveway, leaving me rubberlegged and too tired to do anything interesting. Even today, I'm feeling tired and unfocused; I can't seem to get much done.

On top of everything, it's pledge week on public radio.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Study: treadmill training for MS patients

Today, there's a passle of new abstracts to peruse from the journal Multiple Sclerosis. Lots of stuff about depression, cognition, and pain, and a report from a small study investigating the impact of treadmill training on walking effort and fatigue. Bottom line: for the study's 16 participants, 12 sessions of up to 30 minutes on the treadmill improved comfortable walking speed and endurance. We just got our basement tidied up; maybe there ought to be a treadmill down there. They're expensive little buggers, but maybe a used treadmill?

Link to abstract.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

States address health care; feds, not so much

Today's NYT highlights states' efforts to expand health coverage through current programs like SCHIP and Medicaid, even as the Bush administration calls for returning those programs to their "original objective" of providing coverage for people with incomes at twice the federal poverty level or below (that's about $41,000 a year for a family of four, or about $27,000 a year for a two-person family like mine). Snip:
In Washington, health policy debates highlight the ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats over the proper role of government in helping the uninsured. Governors and state legislators tend to be more pragmatic.

“There is such a political divide in Washington that many people believe that the only reasonable chance to succeed is at the state level,” said Jeffrey S. Crowley, a senior research scholar at the Health Policy Institute of Georgetown University.
In his budget, Mr. Bush said the way to transform the health care system was by “subsidizing the purchase of private insurance,” not by expanding public programs in a way that would increase costs to the federal government.

I've got two basic problems with the administration's position. First, isn't it inevitable that 'subsidizing the purchase of private insurance' will increase costs to the federal government just as surely as the expansion of public programs? Sure, we can argue about which costs more, but if an 'ideological divide' separates the two, I just don't see it as about cost; it looks a lot more like a preference on the part of the administration to assure a role for commercial health insurers.

Secondly, and more importantly, I can't see that the administration's tax deduction proposal would cause anything like the transformational change needed to fix the problem. We can trim all the fat out of the current system through republican ideas like eliminating the tax incentive for Cadillac plans, tort reform, and cost transparency, but you can't really escape the fundamental principle that we need healthy people to help pay to care for sick people.


Marijuana effective for HIV-related peripheral neuropathy

A study involving HIV patients demonstrates that smoking pot is effective at relieving foot pain from peripheral neuropathy. Snip:
The study, conducted at San Francisco General Hospital from 2003 to 2005 and published Monday in the journal Neurology, involved 50 patients suffering from HIV-related foot pain known as peripheral neuropathy. There are no drugs specifically approved to treat that kind of pain. Three times daily for nearly a week, the patients smoked marijuana cigarettes machine-rolled at the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the only legal source for the drug recognized by the federal government.

Half the patients received marijuana, while the other 25 received placebo cigarettes that lacked the drug's active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol. Scientists said the study was the first one published that used a comparison group, which is generally considered the gold standard for scientific research. Thirteen patients who received marijuana told doctors their pain eased by at least a third after smoking pot, while only six of those smoking placebos said likewise. The marijuana smokers reported an average pain reduction of 34 percent, double the drop reported by the placebo smokers as measured with a widely accepted pain scale.

That jives with my experience with pot's effect on my MS-related peripheral neuropathy, I guess, but I can't really see myself functioning particularly well on 3 joints a day. I wonder whether this study was able to prevent the unmasking of pot vs. placebo by participants who could tell they were high, or not.
Update: here's a link to a WaPo story on the same study.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

What not to eat

Just heard an interesting piece on NPR about a woman who studies mushrooms, in particular Amanita phalloides, the death cap. I've got a thing for mushrooms, both the 6 species I'm comfortable picking and eating, and the gazillion others I like to look at and poke and photograph. It's an interesting piece, and I was surprised to learn that phalloides isn't in fact a native species. Actually, it's a European invader. Whatever its origin, it's the reason I stomp any white mushroom with a veil (the ringey thing on the stem) when I'm up at the cabin.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Education, money, and artificial milestones

I've been paying on my student loans for close to 10 years now. I've always told myself that going into debt to the tune of $50,000 total for my undergrad degree and my law degree was a fabulous investment in my own earning potential. After 10 years, I think I finally believe that's true.

God help me, for the first year, I actually paid on the 10-year schedule, because the idea of being so far in hock annoyed me. After a year, though, I went ahead and consolidated to lock in what seemed at the time to be a ridiculously low interest rate: 5.25% (although the rate eventually went even lower than that). Around the same time, I started putting $50 per month into an IRA.

Since then, I've kept hacking away at the student loans at $300 a month, watching how they've gone from paying almost all interest and principal to maybe half and half, taking advantage of the student loan interest deduction as it was phased in. At the same time, I've tried to keep contributing a bigger and bigger chunk of my earnings to retirement savings, initially just to the IRA, then to a 401k, and now to 403b. I'm up to $500/month, which is about 8.5% of my gross salary. In the last year, I've also bought a few individual stocks, too.

Thanks to the interwebs, I can, at any moment, watch my savings go up (or down) and watch my student loan balance go down. Recently, I realized that I had passed the point where the balance on my student loans was about equal to the amount in savings. So in a sense, I guess I've finally got myself back to zero (although in a different, more real sense, I'm still plenty in hock, onnacounta a mortgage, another year of car payments, and some outstanding debt for the purchase of a couch and a couple chairs, not to mention the fact that my retirement savings are pretty damn illiquid).

Then, there's a distinct possibility that the family educational debt stands a pretty good chance of going up. My wife is pretty seriously thinking (with my not-so-subtle encouragement) about going back to school to get a nursing degree. Seems like a good fit for her. The only problem is that despite an abundance of nursing programs in the area, there seem to be significant waiting lists to get in. So despite the acknowledged shortage of nurses, we're not so much short of people who want to be trained as we are short of people to do the training, at least that seems to be the story around here.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Do/be, doobie

It's cold and sunny today, the kind of cold that almost explodes your head when draw in that first outdoor breath of the morning. Over the weekend, we might not make it above 0 (that's Fahrenheit, folks), which means that this weekend is unlikely to be the weekend when I finally get out and enjoy some kind of winter fun like ice fishing or skiing. That's kind of disappointing.

For the last few weeks, I've had the annoying feeling that my life had become dramatically less interesting than it had been just a couple years ago. Last Friday, I drove to see an old friend who lives an hour and a half away, partly because I wanted to borrow his sausage grinder attachment, and partly because I just felt like doing something alone. It was good to see him, as always. He's one of just a few people that I think of as close friends. But it felt sorta strange to be doing something without my wife. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how unusual it has become for me to be out and about, hanging out with a friend, and not accompanied by my wife.

These days, it feels like my life has shrunk down to basically 1) getting ready for work, 2) being at work, 3) watching TV after work, and 4) sleeping. The occasions on which I am alone are generally the times when I am engaged in activity #3 and my wife is doing stuff with a friend. It didn't used to be that way. It used to be that I spent a considerable amount of time alone but doing stuff, and I felt like the stuff I did other than working was the stuff that more or less defined who I was as a person. A former teacher of mine used to say, "The more you do, the more you are," and it seemed right.

But now, I do less. I just don't have the juice after work to do much of anything except occupy my big ugly green recliner. Last night, my wife went with a friend to go see "The Queen" with the very fabulous Dame Helen Mirren. I stayed home, fired up the bong, watched old episodes of "Connections" with shaggy old James Burke, and ate a pint of ice cream. And the kicker is that even going to work doens't really feel like doing much of anything. My job is not particularly demanding, my work is generally not subject to real deadlines, so I sort of plod along for 8 hours, get back in the car, and go home. None of the anxiety, the excitement, the ego-inflating opportunities to demonstrate one's brilliance that I had in private practice.

Again today, I will wander my way through 8 hours at the office, stopping frequently to check out the latest news/stock prices/ Friday Sale items or to play a game of Solitaire, maybe answering the phone a few times, then I will get back into the car, drive home, open a beer, and watch the news. My wife will be out for cocktails with former coworkers. I will probably bake a loaf of bread and eat several slices of it while watching through googly eyes as James Burke explains how the discovery of earwax in ancient China led to the development of the modern cellular phone.