Sunday, November 21, 2021

Thanksgiving at the donut shop with grandma

Meal time at grandma's orphanage in Covina, Calif.
Every afternoon my grandmother walked to the donut shop down the street for some coffee and conversation with the other regulars who felt like family. And they must have felt like family to the owners as well, because they hosted holiday meals for them. And one Thanksgiving, my grandmother invited me to join the gathering at the donut shop.

That was cool.

I don’t remember spending any Thanksgivings with my grandmother as a child. Likely because she lived in Los Angeles most of the years my parents were raising my sister and me near Santa Cruz, but also I’m not sure that holiday was very important to her. She didn’t like to bake or cook at all, and never seemed comfortable at social gatherings, especially those with family.
I was never really close to my grandmother, always too afraid of her temper and criticism to relax. But the years I was in college we came the closest to being friends, talking on the phone and writing letters at least once a week, and visiting each other several times a year.

My last year of college,
I drove up from campus to stay with her in Santa Cruz (where she had moved to when I was a teenager) during my holiday break, so we were both invited to the donut shop that Thanksgiving.
Grandma with my cat the year we ate at the donut shop.

She didn’t cook anything to bring; most of what she made in the kitchen was canned soup, toast and tea. But she did buy a pumpkin pie at Trader Joe’s, put on hose and her best hat, and seemed very happy to introduce me to her family at the donut shop.
I think she was quite proud that I was finally completing a university degree as my mother had, especially since for years it seemed I would never move on from community college.
I remember feeling proud of her that day, and happy she had found that family at the donut shop. Orphaned by the Spanish flu and raised in a Masonic home until she was 18, my grandmother had struggled ever since to maintain intimate relationships.

She never married or even had long-term romantic relationship, but she did have a daughter whom she raised as a single working mother in the 1940s and 50s. As adults they always had a tense relationship, but my grandmother deeply loved her only child, and was quietly devastated when she was killed in a car crash at the age of 41.
From a mostly respectful distance, my grandmother did all she could to make sure my sister and I were taken care of after the crash, especially financially since my mother had been the breadwinner. But for the nearly five decades that I knew my grandmother, everyone in her life seemed to be kept very carefully at arm’s length.

Which is why I think she sought out places like the donut shop, where you could sit and soak in other humans as much, or as little, as you wanted. And then leave whenever you wanted.

At the orphanage in Southern California where she was raised, the dozens of children ate all their meals together in a large dining room. I imagine for my grandmother, eating and drinking in a communal setting like the donut shop must have felt like home, giving her the kind of intimacy she was most comfortable with.
But the donut shop was even better, because she was always able to choose whom to sit next to and for how long, usually recording in her daily journals whom she talked with and what they discussed. 

One day it was the woman who “also likes Opera and loves to travel.” Another the man who was unhappy because his dog ran away and his wife was smoking too much. One afternoon she talked to “men, one named Bruce,” about “films and olden times,” and later that week the same men helped her solve car trouble, suggesting she use a hair dryer on her distributor when the engine wouldn’t turn over on cold mornings.

Learning my grandmother had such a support system that day made me so relieved. And to wish that we can all find a donut shop of our own.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Fridays with J: How a friend became part of our family.

I have a friend who visits every Friday. And when I don’t open the door to my house fast enough, she pats my leg with her nose.

That is cool.

Cool because it took many months of walking together before she would let me touch her. And much longer before she ever touched me.

And cool because the first time she came to my house, she didn’t want to come inside. Since she weighs 120 pounds and has four legs to anchor them all, I thought we would never get her through the doorway until my husband straddled and walk-pushed that dog into the house so she could spend the night while her owner was in the hospital.

Then a few months ago she began staying with us every Friday while her owner goes out of town for work. 

The first week I had to firmly pull her inside with her leash. The second week she walked herself in right alongside me. 
By the third week she was marching ahead of me to get to the door and patting my leg if it was not already open for her.

From other guests that behavior would be very rude, but from her it is very cool.

Yet I think the coolest thing of all about her weekly visits is when my husband comes home from work and gives her a good brushing, because seeing them both so happy from something so simple makes me happy.

Friday was always a good day, but now it is the coolest.
Update: Our dear friend J passed on Sunday, June 12, 2022. She had a long and happy life, and we are so grateful to have been a part of it.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

No one could figure out why I kept getting sicker. Until a blog post about spinach solved the mystery.

Starting to feel myself again at the ocean in April.
Last Christmas I woke at 2 a.m. with horrible gut pains. Since I indulged in some ham, I figured fatty meat was to blame. But actually the vegetables I ate with it, especially the pile of Swiss Chard, were the culprits. Because for months I had been overdosing on oxalic acid, a toxin in many “healthy” foods, and only realized this when I found a blog post about the problems spinach and kale can cause.

That was cool.

I seriously credit that blog post with saving me. Because three months and multiple visits with multiple doctors who prescribed multiple medications later, I was only getting worse: Terrified to eat, steadily losing weight and waking up every night with pain, although countless scans and tests could find nothing wrong with me.

By late March I was losing hope of getting better and was about to tell my husband to put me somewhere to be fed through a tube; I was done trying to figure out what I could eat without pain while slowly wasting away.

Night after night I woke shaking from pain and fear, telling myself, “THIS time you’re going to the emergency room. You can’t go on like this.” But I knew hospitals were drowning in Covid-19 patients, so I would curl up on my side and my husband would put his arms around me until I fell asleep, and in the morning I would feel OK again. Until I started eating again.

The week I hit bottom I had two doctor’s appointments, both on the phone because of Covid-19. And both times when the screening nurses asked if I was having suicidal thoughts I lied, denying that every night I was wishing not to wake up again to another day of pain. Not just the constant pain in my gut, bladder and vulva, but new symptoms no one could explain: burning in my throat and sinuses, the flushing in my neck and cheeks at night.

And I hated being so skinny. For the first time in my life I stepped on the scale hoping to see the numbers go up. At Christmas I was 140, now I was 125. Afraid to exercise, I had even stopped doing my favorite activity, hiking up a nearby hill with my dog, because that just made the numbers go down faster.

But worse than not being able to eat, sleep, have sex without pain or take long walks in the forest, was knowing that everyone, even my husband, and sometimes even me, was starting to believe I was crazy.

After the last phone call with my doctor, I sat out in the backyard, hoping the sun on my face would help me feel better, when I remembered something I read about recurring bladder pain with no underlying infection. I went back online and luckily stumbled upon that blog post with a man explaining how his wife stopped putting raw spinach and kale in her smoothies because the oxalates gave her vulva pain. And how eating too much oxalic acid can make your throat and sinuses burn…

Suddenly it all made sense. I had been eating handfuls of raw spinach in my morning smoothie for years, and when my gut pain was first assumed to be an ulcer, I began eating even more smoothies to help it heal. Some days I drank three smoothies with not only spinach, which has an extremely high amount of oxalic acid, but then added plenty more of the acid with almond milk and hemp.

Some nights the burning in my throat got so bad I woke at 4 a.m. to, yes, have another smoothie. Because at the time I had no idea what was causing the burning, and at least for a little while the cool liquid was soothing. But I was just making myself sicker.

As soon as I read the blog post I stopped eating any spinach, kale or Swiss chard. Next I found the website of Sally K. Norton and learned that oxalic acid could also be causing my gut pain, as it is “corrosive to the lining of the digestive system,” then it pulls minerals from your body to form sharp crystals called oxalates that can irritate your gut, bladder and vulva as your system tries to excrete them. 

After reading Norton’s lists of foods to avoid, I stopped eating some of my favorites like almonds, potatoes and dark chocolate. That was very difficult at first, but soon much easier when the burning in my throat stopped immediately, and the pain in my gut, bladder and vulva started slowly improving.

A month after I stopped eating spinach, I felt well enough to go to the ocean for the weekend to celebrate my birthday. I walked an easy, flat trail along the water, feeling better than I had since Christmas, and left determined to get my strength up enough to climb mountains again.

At the Yuba Rim Trail overlook in May.
A few weeks later my husband and I took the dog several miles up a new mountain, though I was still so skinny I scared myself. Desperate for more protein that day I wandered through the store and grabbed beef jerky; when it didn’t hurt my stomach I ate it every day for a month, hoping to gain my muscles back. I started eating arugula instead of spinach, bok choy instead of Swiss chard, sunflower butter instead of almond butter, and by June I was finally gaining weight again and feeling almost back to normal.

I realize now the oxalates were likely causing the irritation that sent me to doctors four times in the six months before Christmas for what I thought were bladder and yeast infections. But no one had asked me about my diet. They just prescribed antibiotics, which likely just made the problem worse, because antibiotics kill your gut microbes, which can cause your body to absorb even more oxalates.

Only after I figured out what was wrong did a gynecologist confirm, “Oxalates can cause vulvodynia (vulva pain), no question. But you would have to eat a lot of spinach.”

Well, I was eating a lot of spinach. And kale. And hemp. And Swiss Chard. And potatoes with the skins. And sweet potatoes. And quinoa. And brown rice. And dark chocolate. And almonds. And almond milk. And whole grapefruits. And lemon peel. And cornmeal. And countless other “healthy” foods  that are high in oxalic acid.

But no one I saw about my pain asked what I was eating. They asked if I smoked. Or used illicit drugs. Or drank a lot of alcohol. Or took a lot of ibuprofen.

I remember telling my doctor in exasperation once, “It’s not like I’m eating cheeseburgers all day! I’m drinking smoothies, and still having pain.” He didn’t then ask, “So, what are you putting in those smoothies? Are they by chance full of spinach, almond milk, hemp powder and cinnamon?!!”

When I talked to my doctor again this fall and said I finally felt back to normal after determining I had been overdosing on oxalic acid, he seemed to agree with my diagnosis. “Huh. I didn’t think of that, but now that you mention it, that makes sense.”

Norton warns of everything that happened to me, not just the pain, but how medical professionals likely won’t know what’s going on. She describes how doctors used to be far more familiar with oxalate poisoning generations ago when fresh produce wasn’t available year-round, so doctors would know that when people suddenly began feeling ill in the summer and fall, it was likely because they were eating fresh fruits and vegetables full of oxalic acid again.

Yet these days, she says, your symptoms are far more likely to be attributed to something else, such as an ulcer in my case. And that even if oxalates do become a suspect, there are really no easy tests that can accurately pinpoint them as the culprit. 

The best way to figure out if oxalates are causing your pain and general malaise, Norton advises, is to stop eating foods with a lot of oxalic acid and see if you improve. And man, am I glad now I did just that.

Please be advised: This post is in no way meant to serve as a diagnosis for others; it is simply to share my experience recovering from a disturbing health scare that for a time seemed impossible to solve.

Monday, November 1, 2021

My Grandmother's Journals: November 1996

Grandma in Paris.
In tiny notebooks, my grandmother wrote down each day when she woke up, where she ate breakfast, any movie she went to see, any mail and phone calls she got, then what she read and watched on TV before bed.

In 1996, she turned 81 while living alone in a mobile home park in Santa Cruz, Calif. But I wouldn't describe her as lonely; she was an extremely independent and persnickety woman whom I never knew to live with another person or even a pet. (I wrote more about her life in an earlier post.) 
Close to her home was the famous surfing spot called Pleasure Point, and she loved walking to the ocean and watching the surfers. When she died at 97 in 2013, I took her ashes to those waves with a friend of hers and we each dropped some at the sand. A moment after I dropped mine, a surfer emerged from the water where I stood.

That was cool. 

She began November of 1996 in Paris, visiting her friend Mimi and going to museums, cemeteries, ballets and the opera. After she came home I joined her for Thanksgiving that year, and we attended a holiday gathering at the donut shop she went to each morning.

Friday, Nov. 1, 1996 [In Paris]
Up 8, looked for bank. Forgot, one almost across street.
Ate “quick.” To show, “Secrets and Lies.”
Got salad and tarte. Throat starting to hurt. 
Walked to hotel.
Washed clothes, balanced book. 
Slept good. Sore throat.

Saturday, Nov. 2, 1996
Got paper and card for Sy $3! Postcards for 1 F, postage 4.40. Mailed Sy’s card, 3 F.
Yvonne called, grippe. Can't make it! Told Phillipe to tell me.
May call Monday.
Could not find 30 bus, took Metro, ate.
To hotel.

Sunday, Nov. 3, 1996
Tennis. Walked to opera.
To hotel, changed top.
Watched three games.
Got grapes, ham and candy.
Balanced money, OK. 

Monday, Nov. 4, 1996
Yvonne may call, Mimi called.
Slept good. Breakfast at 8.
Mailed letters to Mina and Justine.
Took bus, then Metro to opera.
Rested in afternoon, read or crossword.  
Got grapes.
Bed to read.

Tuesday, Nov. 5, 1996 [Election Day]
Up 7:45, got paper. Women said “Clinton.”
Paid maid 20F? Got plug for sink, 7F
Forgot address book, took 40 mins to find Mimi, asked at grocery.
At pharmacy, woman phoned Mimi, finally got in! Lovely dinner, etc.
Metro out at night, walked. 
Wonderful day.

Wednesday, Nov. 6, 1996
Mimi called. Wanted to make chicken soup. Very nice. 
To opera. 
Got food, also to pharmacy, got Vick’s Vaporub. 
Windy and raining.
Thursday, Nov. 7, 1996
Called Sy and Mimi after eating.  
Sy wants to sell stamps, Mimi invited me to dinner.
To Pére-Lachaise cemetery, saw Simone Signoret, Yves Montand grave. Many flowers.
Did not find Jim Morrison Grave. 
Ate poached eggs, spinach, tarte.
Raining. Looked at curtains.
To Sacré-Cœur (Sacred Heart). Lovely. Many tissues on statues there.
Got brandy, food.

Friday, Nov. 8, 1996
Ate McDonald’s.
To Embassy. Couldn’t get in.
Walked a bit, got batteries.
Got grapes and candy.
Not good sleep. 
Saturday, Nov. 9, 1996
Up a lot. Washed underwear, shirts.
Looking at curtains again, then to exposition at Hotel de Ville. Very interesting!
Rested at hotel.
To Mimi’s, left gift. Bought sandwich, tarte.
To Metro to expo, closed Saturday!
To Marche St. Germaine. Bought Man Ray plate.
To hotel 4:15 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 10, 1996
Lunch at Mimi's. Take brandy and hot water bottle!
Pay more rent, Phillipe not here.
To Louvre. Saw Caravaggio, DaVinci’s Madonna. 
To Mimi’s. Raining.
Talked about trip, pix. Arsenic killed Napoleon, French say cancer.
Foned Mimi, went there and back because forgot soc. The woman gave me free one.
Hotel, got candy.

Monday, Nov. 11, 1996
Caravaggesque, British. Different!
To Picasso, line too long.
Walked, looked for video. Not sure it will run on USA.
Rainy, can’t find Marks & Spencer?
Walked a lot in rain!
Tired, ate sandwich, slept!

Tuesday, Nov. 12, 1996
Get ticket to ballet?
To Taipei Exposition.
Ate delicious tarte, lemon. 19F
Got sandwich. To hotel, rested.
To ballet, good.
Walked a bit. Blind man on bus?

Wednesday, Nov. 13, 1996
Feel good, slept, sandwich too much.
Took pix of Phillipe.
Metro, to opera. Asked about buying ticket ahead?
To Mimi’s. Tea, cookies!
To Louvre, got video.
Got sandwich. To hotel, packed.

Thursday, Nov. 14, 1996
Return, arrive SFO 2:45 p.m.
House key in pocket with calculator.
Taxi, then bus to GdG. No coffee again!
Book, “Reflected Glory: The Life of Pamela Churchill.”
Greyhound to Santa Cruz, bus to home, 9:30 p.m.
10 p.m. news.
Friday, Nov. 15, 1996
Breakfast at Dunlap’s.
Home, put items back, trimmed plants. Phila grew.
Elastic band off mailbox??
To Post Office, got mail, sorted. Most campaign mail or ads.
Got girls’ checks ready, Mary brought rent receipt by, talked 1 hour.
Watered plants with rain water, swept patio.
TV: News, Geraldo, Grodin. 

Sunday, Nov. 17, 1996
Awake 2 a.m. Chris Clark radio and x-word.
Talk of Texaco, Jesse Jackson, Sharpton rhetoric.
Breakfast at 5:30, back to sleep until 11.
Car won’t start, damp air.
Football, other things.
To corner for coffee. Men said to heat distributor.
49ers won. 

Monday, Nov. 18, 1996
Awake 3 a.m., KGO.
Ran tape from last night, good story with Russian mafia.
Showered, washed hair.
Put hair dryer heat on distributor — worked!
To corner, talked to man with white dog, ran away. His wife not good, still smokes.
Kmart, got turkey sandwich to go!
To show, “Ransom.” Exciting.  
Foggy. To Longs, got “D” batteries, TV Guide.
Bed 6:45. Football started, but too tired.
Tuesday, Nov. 19, 1996
Awake 2, back to sleep til 4:30. Up 6:15.
To laundromat, coffee and toast here.
OSH, got another flashlight. Cheap.
Corner, many people. V invited me to Thanksgiving with Justine. 3 p.m.
Spread seeds.
Bought new watch, $10.01 
Rained hard.

Thursday, Nov. 21, 1996
Up 7:30-45. 
To Longs, got thumb tacks, rubber tips, tissues.
To corner, talked to Bruce, another man. Films, olden times, etc.
Rain started. Library, three books.
Longs, looked for mints, no luck.
Rain in night, up 3 to 4 times.
Friday, Nov. 22, 1996
Awake 4:45. Stayed in bed until 7:30.
Got paper to heat car.
To show, “Stark Trek: First Contact.” Good, but had to leave near end. Man outside asking for opinions. Said good, applauding at end.
To Sears, got 2 bras.

Saturday, Nov. 23, 1996
Awake 4 a.m. Cleaned one box of travel, Canada.
Cold, read a bit. Some food early.
To Penney’s, walked around mall. Got black velvet turban.
Talked to lady with cane. She going to NYC with daughter. Buying hat.
Home, figured tax basis for AT&T.
To corner, showed money: France, Britain, Hong Kong. Ate donut!

Sunday, Nov. 24, 1996
Talked to Mina.
Breakfast Kmart. Walked half hour.
Home, housework.
Football, tennis. Sampras won over Becker. Both men exhausted!
49ers over Redskins in OT.
Graf over Hingis. Both limping yesterday.
Read P.D. James, taped PBS.
Tuesday, Nov. 26, 1996
Food at Live Oak. Forgot!!!
To Carmel after coffee, gave Lee Chinese spoon.
Ate in Seaside at McDonald’s.
Bought cards for Mimi, got X-Mas cards.
Thought lost hair comb, then found flashlight behind blue pillow, and comb.
Finished “Original Sin.”

Wednesday, Nov. 27, 1996
Laundromat. To corner, coffee.
Trader Joe’s, gave pumpkin pie and cheesecake to Monty.
Library, returned Original Sin.
Looked at travel maps, folders. Threw away some.
Washed clothes, ate here.
Carol called, she does not like Thanksgiving. 
To corner, Lee, Dave, me. Had chocolate donut. 
Called Justine.

Thursday, Nov. 28, 1996
Justine up, between 1 and 3.
Up 7:30. Got paper. To corner, not as busy as usual.
Housework, football. Marcus Allen 112 TD, Payton 110, Emmett 107.
Justine here 2 p.m. To corner 3:10. Pearl late with turkey/cake.
Yams good, took turkey, clam chowder.
Left 4:30 to 5:15 “Star Trek: First Contact.” To Santa Cruz Coffee.
Taped “My Fair Lady.” (On a.m., not p.m.)

Friday, Nov. 29, 1996
No sleep. I had Justine’s coffee, she had my chocolate.
Up 2:30. Ate toast, some fruit.
Breakfast Zachary’s, Long’s, got her a watch.
She left about 10:30. Me rested, read remainder of the day.
Did nothing constructive, like writing Sy or Sandra!
Some TV.

Saturday, Nov. 30, 1996
Up 7:30. To donut. Checked bank balance.
Wrote Sy and Sandra. To Post Office, mailed both.
To Kmart.
To show, “English Patient.” Sometimes hard to follow because of flashbacks.
Scenes in Tunisia, sands in lovely shapes, “Cave of the Swimmers.”
Long show. Home after grocery store.
Mail: Letters from Prudy, Mimi.