Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 in Review

2013. What an awful year.

I don't know if we're feeling "survivor guilt" or merely survivor exhaustion, but 2013 was a bad year for people and animals around us.

Our elderly adopted cat Quigley died of bladder cancer; our beloved cat Mabel was diagnosed with large-cell lymphoma at the beginning of the year and in September she was gone. Her passing left a huge hole in the household.

Several friends have had a rough year. I'd like to write a big-picture piece about that (perhaps something publishable, though how I could be both truthful and protective of their privacy I can't imagine).

Some vignettes, with identifying info blurred:

  • Last spring we drove to another part of the state to buy some "stuff" from a disabled and impoverished friend, only to discover that the day was her birthday and she has no living relatives or close friends with whom to celebrate. Of course, we took her out to dinner. 
  • For the past year, we've been part of a group helping a friend with serious health problems (whose only two relatives have even more serious health problems) relocate, only to discover that he has enough possessions to fill two houses and can't face making decisions about getting rid of any of them.
  • Since late October, we've been worrying about a young friend whose experience with chronic pain from an "undiagnosable" condition drove him to attempt suicide. Doctors expected him to die, but two weeks later he walked out of the hospital. However, after hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on him in intensive care, the only follow-up care he was offered was a referral to a heroin clinic because — since he had used over-the-counter drugs and whiskey to try to kill himself —"he must be a drug abuser." The clinic told him he didn't belong there.

These are three people I care deeply about. I could easily list a dozen other friends who are sliding into homelessness because of a sequence of either a physical illness or loss of job leading to mental instability which then prevents adequate handling of the physical illness and/or a return to employment. The healthcare, economy and social systems today are such that you have to sink so low to get help that by the time you get there, the help can't help you because you are irreparably damaged.

Exactly one of all the people we know who has slipped into this situation has climbed back out. Though she pulled herself out on her own, I suspect it was because she knew that if she was faced with loss of her apartment, she could resort to retirement savings or ask a relative for a loan. Her complete recovery is something to celebrate, and we're trying.

But, really, what kind of year can we have with all this going on around us?

Tom and I are grateful every day that we enjoy doing the very basic things in life together, from going to the store, cooking, taking a walk, playing with our cats, volunteering, and working with our clients. We are grateful for our warm house, our safe neighborhood, and for the good health of my mother and his brothers. I'm very pleased that we are in frequent contact with my cousins from my late father's side of the family.

While we've both been appalled by the instability of some of the businesses we work with as contractors, we've also had some great experiences and are continually reminding each other to do more for the good clients and "fire" the bad ones (even if turning away business can initially seem counterintuitive).

One wish for the new year is good things for our friends in need. We just don't see how things can go on this way for another year.

Our resolution is to make sure we spend time with friends who are fortunate (and strategic) enough to be doing well. To often we see them across the room, also helping someone with problems, and all we find time to do is wave and smile at each other. We realize that we need to spend more time with these folks, regrouping and regathering our strength.

So, here's to 2014.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

How to troubleshoot and fix a weak refrigerator door seal

Note: Despite the title, this is post is more about how to avoid replacing a refrigerator door seal. 

Very few refrigerators made currently will fit the odd-size space in our cabinetry where our 10-year-old Kenmore Elite refrigerator sits. Thus I'm highly motivated to keep the current refrigerator running.

Last weekend, it dawned on us that the door to the main refrigerator section wasn't closing very firmly. One a few occasions, it had even drifted open.

I began troubleshooting, and it was bad news.

The paper test: Close the door with a piece of paper (or a dollar bill) inserted at least an  inche into the closure. If the paper pulls out easily, the seal isn't tight enough. (Our freezer compartment passed; the main compartment seal failed.)

The temperature test: I used an inexpensive refrigeration thermometer (which I usually keep in the freezer compartment) to test the main compartment. It was running a bit too warm, so I used the controls to dial it back to nearly the maximum cold setting for the main compartment. It had already been set quite cold (5 out of 7) so I realized I'd need to take further action to keep the colder air in.

It was time to study up on repairs.

Replacing the gasket/seal: Hoping to get the seal repaired and this whole episode over with, I called two repair companies. But they said replacing the gasket would be more than $300, and they suggested that I simply get a new refrigerator since the existing one was more than 10 years old. But they also gave me some suggestions, which I'll cover later. (I also read some descriptions of how to replace the seal yourself, which I would never consider trying unless I were desperate for material for a humor column. Baby powder and hair dryers were involved.)

My online research yielded an odd assortment of ideas, some of which I tried and which resulted in  moderate success.

Level the refrigerator. One fellow told the story of taking his refrigerator (with a weak door seal) to his brother's shop to have the gasket replaced, only to discovered that it closed firmly at the shop. IT turned out that the refrigerator had been tilting slightly forward at the original location. They took it home and used shims to adjust it so that it tilted very slightly back. I haven't tried adjusting the feet or shimming my refrigerator yet — but read on.

Remove everything from your refrigerator door and see if that improves the door closure. Bingo! In our case, it did — dramatically. (Of course, this limits the usefulness of the refrigerator; we ended up putting lightweight items, such as breads, in the door and putting large, heavy bottles of liquids in the main shelves.)

Tighten the hinge screws. One website suggested that if you want to improve the door's ability to deal with a heavy load, you might consult the manual for the refrigerator and try locating and tightening the door-hinge screws, which can loosen over time. I've put that on my "maybe" list. After reading the directions, I'm not so sure I want to go there.

Apply Vaseline to the gasket. I'm not sure exactly how or why this works, but the repair company I called suggested that after thoroughly cleaning the rubber gasket with soap and water, and drying it, I lightly coated the flat face of the gasket on the hinge side of the door with Vaseline. Some of the websites made this same suggestion. I tried it, and it certainly didn't hurt.

The combination of applying Vaseline, decreasing the door's load, and adjusting the setting for the main compartment seems to have worked quite well. Meanwhile, I'm watching for an appliance sale at Sears.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Mabel's last summer

One Monday in early February Mabel, our little black Bombay cat, collapsed. I thought she had an abscess, and asked Tom (who's a massage therapist) to feel for a lump. He didn't find anything serious, but we made a vet appointment for the next day.

The vet wasn't very concerned. They did a quick blood panel, which came back normal. Tom asked the vet to check out what he thought was a small lump in her lower abdomen. The vet did a needle biopsy, but told us not to worry.

We got a call the next day. They were very sorry, but Mabel had fatal large-cell lymphoma and would likely live only another two or three weeks. I asked about oncology, and they said I'd have to get her an appointment in the next two days. By this time, it was Wednesday. And the oncology clinic didn't have Friday hours.

I managed to get us in at the oncologists the following Monday, where we were told we had three options for chemotherapy: A series of weekly treatments with one drug; a series of weekly treatments that alternated between two drugs, and a series of weekly treatments that cycled through four drugs. All three regimens are palliative, not curative, chemo. We picked the four-drug regimen, they started it on the spot, and within two days of starting it Mabel was seemingly back to normal. It was like magic.

This was in mid-February.

Mabel responds exceptionally well to chemo. She doesn't mind the treatments — even the series of subcutaneous injections (cats don't do well with IV drips) that we have to give her at home every few weeks. We rub prednisone cream on her ear every night, but that's the only other medication involved.

After eight weeks of treatment, the vet tried putting Mabel onto every-other-week chemo. Ten days into it, she took a dramatic turn for the worst. One eye was shut, and she began twitching. We rushed her to the clinic, thinking it might be time to put her down. But they administered her next dose of chemo, and a hour or so later we had Mabel back to normal. We're back to weekly chemo, which we refer to as "renting the cat."

Mabel has always been a hugely demonstrative and affectionate cat, and the cancer and chemo have made her even more interested in sitting on people. And it's much harder now to tell her to go away and let you work because you realize that your time with her is limited. It is very difficult to imagine life without Mabel.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Smokey loses a friend

An update on Smokey, who was my cat 10 years ago but has since chosen to live with a succession of elderly neighbors.

I got an email today from the son of Emilia, Smokey's current owner. Emilia died yesterday. She had dementia, and her son had moved in to take care of her about a year and a half ago. Shortly after the son moved in, Smokey was allowed in from the garden shed, where he'd lived for three or four years, to the house, which he enjoyed enormously.

"Smokey lost his best buddy," the son wrote. "The two were great companions for one another."

We last saw Emilia this spring, when we stopped by while out on a walk. I'm not sure she recognized us, but she appreciated our interest in the cat.

"Smokey's a good cat," she liked to tell us.

This is the second elderly companion Smokey has lost. In 2003, the cat had gradually moved in with our neighbor two doors down, a retired homicide detective who had a great resemblance to the cartoon character Crankshaft. After the detective moved to a nursing home in 2007, Smokey hiked seven blocks north to find Emilia, whose husband had just died. Emilia and I had a deal where she fed Smokey and I took care of the vet visits.

During Smokey's first year with Emilia he'd walk seven blocks every night to sleep in the laundry room, but rush back up there at sunrise. Then he moved into Emilia's garden shed, where we eventually installed a barn heating pad for the winter months. We'd go up and check on Smokey every few weeks until Emilia's son moved in with her. Fortunately, he likes cats.

I suspect that Smokey, who is 13 now, will probably stay with the son. Though there is an elderly man who lives next door...

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mysterious reaction

On the way home from a visit to a friend in Harborview Hospital today, I nearly collapsed. We had just stepped into the hospital elevator when I was overcome with exhaustion. I could barely walk to the car. Fortunately, Tom was driving. I was so sleepy I was having trouble understanding what he was saying. When we got home, the thought of anything resembling dinner made me want to gag. I had a glass of grapefruit juice and stumbled upstairs to go to bed. At 7 p.m.

In the course of preparing for bed, I washed my hands. It was as if I'd knocked back a double espresso. I suddenly felt fine; not sleepy at all.

And I got to thinking. One of the reasons I'd washed my hands was that I was bothered by the cloying scent of the Purell hand sanitizer I'd rubbed on my hands at the hospital — about 15 seconds before I stepped into the elevator and nearly collapsed.

I Googled "Purell reactions" and discovered there are a few other people who have reported experiencing extreme drowsiness, lethargy, and lack of appetite as a result of using Purell. Who'd have imagined it? The motion-sensor machine dispensed a squirt of it, so it wasn't as though I'd used the wrong dosage by accident.

Fortunately, I don't work in a healthcare environment, or a school, so I haven't had been required to have much experience with Purell hand sanitizer. I carry another alcohol-based hand sanitizer with me and, while it may not have as broad a spectrum of effectiveness against viruses as Purell, at least it doesn't put me to sleep.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

D.C. Trip Report

The fearsome heckler did not materialize at my workshop last week, but the Thursday-night switch to the far distant hotel triggered a chain of events that led to the destruction of my beloved Ricardo roll-aboard suitcase. I'm still not ready to talk about it.

When we returned home, I ordered two High Sierra roll-aboard suitcases at deep discount from Sierra Trading Post. They arrived today and, while not quite as capacious as the Ricardo, they seem sturdy and well designed.

I had the two new suitcases, one blue, one gray, standing side-by-side in the living room when Zoe, our big tabby, came yowling into the room with her puff toy. She dropped the toy, lay down, lowered her head, and glowered balefully at us. Zoe has an extremely expressive, almost clownish, face, but I had never seen her with such a glare.

"It's the suitcases," Tom said. "She thinks we're leaving again."

We rushed the suitcases upstairs and put them into the attic. Zoe raced upstairs and looked around to make sure they were gone.

Fortunately, she does't know we're going to Minneapolis in June.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Signposts on the way to conference hell

Last fall I was invited to give a workshop on websites at a writers conference on the East Coast. I accepted because this would force me to marshall a lot of materials that I use in client presentations and shorter talks into workshop or ebook form.

The more work I did preparing this seminar — including surveying the people who've signed up to take it — the more I became convinced that there's a tremendous market for the material. The workshop is an attempt to span the huge gap between what small business owners want to put in their websites and what web users want to find on those websites.

Most web designers are forced to go along with what the small business owners want because the small business owners are paying them. People like me, who advocate for the website user, rarely get a chance to present our side of the picture to the website owners.

In the process of designing my presentation, I looked at hundreds of websites that belong to award-winning writers. I didn't look at the people who write best sellers — I looked at the mid-list folks.

I'll write on my public blog in the next week or so about the disasters I found at every turn — like the site with gorgeous graphic design that forgot to mention the writer's name anywhere on the homepage. And, yes, there are still sites out there that blast you with tinny MIDI music files.

Suffice it to say that this has been a huge project. I got a phone call from one of the conference organizers. The hotel is overbooked for the night before the conference begins, and they're asking attendees they know well to spend that "pre" night at another hotel. Which turns out to be miles away in Outer Slobovia.

This is a huge stressor for me because we're landing at 10 p.m. tomorrow night (after 11 hours in planes and airports) and were planning to take the hotel shuttle, get settled in our rooms, and get as much rest as possible — we're involved in an 8:30 a.m. program Friday and I present the workshop in the afternoon. Instead, we'll be landing, finding a cab to Hotel Outer Limits, checking in there, getting up at the crack of dawn, repacking all our stuff, and taking an expensive cab trip to the conference hotel, where our luggage will have to be stored (so I can't get at any of my clothes or toiletries) until we can check in to a room in the late afternoon after the workshop.

I was gritting my teeth in anticipation of this when the conference organizer mentioned that I should be on the lookout for a man who had registered for my workshop. She said that at last year's conference he had harassed the presenter of a similar website workshop, arguing with every point, querying the presenter about obscure and arcane web technology and protocols and, in the end, derailing the workshop for the attendees. He was specifically told he could not attend my session this year, but signed up anyway.

"If he shows up and causes problems, just let us know," the organizer said.

I've been mulling this over, and contacted a few people who know the man in question. They confirmed the guy's a horse's behind.

I've decided to save all my deep annoyance about the hotel situation for him. One peep out of this dude, and I'm calling in the big guns. And on the plane ride tomorrow I'll be practicing my Zen stare.