Category Archives: Personal

How I became a fiddler crab

fiddler_crab01_lIt was late in the snow season, but a forecast for mountain sun meant that our “cascade concrete” might be soft enough to ski on. My cross country ski club’s bus pulled into the Hayak ski area parking lot on Snoqualmie Pass at about 10:30 in the morning. The plan was to drop off the skiers here that wanted to do a one-way trip along the John Wayne Trail on the south side of Lake Keechelus; then move the bus to the Crystal Springs SnoPark at the east end of the lake. The one-way skiers would come to the bus there. Those who stayed on the bus could explore other trails near Crystal Springs.

I decided to stay on the bus. The lake trail was pretty level, and I like hilly skiing. Also, my diagonal stride isn’t that great. So I was still finishing up putting on my ski boots and gators when we arrived at Hayak. The boots have a partial plastic shell to better transmit my kicks to my skis, via the steel bar hidden in a recess under the toe that clips into the ski binding. Their soles are mostly smooth plastic, since they’re not intended for walking. Gators are waterproof tubes that fit around my shins, with a strap that passes under the sole of the boot. They’re to keep snow from going up my pant legs, though that didn’t seem likely to be a problem today.

Soon there were just a couple of us holdouts left on the bus. The driver closed up the luggage bay, came inside and started the engine. He tried moving forward, and he tried moving backward; but the bus seemed to quite like this parking spot and slid back into it. The driver and the trip guide got off, and I could hear shovels scraping outside.

After a few minutes, they came back in and the driver started the engine. We were still trapped. The engine was stopped, the door opened, and the two went back to shoveling. One of the remaining skiers decided not to wait any longer. He put on his backpack, got off the bus and got his skis out of the bay. I had been thinking of doing the same thing; this project could take all morning. So I got off and got my skis. The driver and the guide were shoveling sand under the rear wheels. The temperature was in the upper 30s Fahrenheit. The low sun was making the ice’s surface wet and even more slippery.  I retrieved my ski bag, pulled out the skis and tossed the bag back inside. I told them “See you down there,” and walked to the trailhead at the east end of the lot.

It was a Thursday, so there were not a lot of people around, which meant that the trail should be in good shape. And it was. The snow had been smoothed out by machine and fresh grooves cut into it for those who like to put their skis in them and just scoot along with no need to steer. The snow looked pretty chunky; it was basically roto-tilled ice. This might not be a great day to ski in the backcountry, so it was just as well that I hadn’t ridden the bus down to Crystal Springs. But on a groomed trail like this I thought I might do all right.

I laid my skis down in the snow and stepped into the bindings. But something didn’t feel right. I felt too light and had too much freedom of motion. I realized that I wasn’t wearing my backpack. It was still in the overhead rack above my seat.  So I undid my bindings and left my skis at the side of the trail. I walked back up the lot; but I didn’t see the bus. They had finally gotten it going and were on their way to Crystal Springs with my backpack!

Now I had a choice. I could ski the eight mile trail along the lake with no food, water, extra clothing or any other supplies. Or I could stay here, have a cold and boring day (and a hungry one too) and get picked up by the bus when it headed back to the city in the afternoon. I decided to ski, and to be more thoughtful next time I got off the bus. I walked back down the slight incline to the trailhead, perhaps a bit impatiently.  If I applied myself, I could probably reach the bus and get my backpack in time for a late lunch and still do some exploring.  My feet shot out from under me and I fell hard on my left side.IMG_3499

I was lying on my left hand. It had shot out instinctively to break my fall. Maybe I’d sprained something? It hurt, and the pain was not easing. Two men who’d come up behind me asked “Are you all right?”

They wanted to hear, and I wanted to tell them, “Yeah, sure.”  I told him I didn’t know. They helped me up and walked me, holding my arms, to a little building.  Here they turned me over to a ski patrolman.

He asked me if I’d broken my arm. I told him I didn’t know, but that it was hurting a lot. He told me he would call the park ranger. There was no shelter for me to wait in. It turned out that the building was just a cluster of little toilet rooms, and he and his partner were working out of the janitor’s closet. I could see the mop sink behind him. Downhill skiers have no idea what we cross country skiers have to put up with in exchange for a day of cheap or free skiing.  He started the engine of his pickup truck and let me sit in the cab to wait for the ranger.  I asked him to get my skis from the trailhead. He did, and put them in the back of the truck.

It was good to sit and get warm.  But I was going to need some help with the pain.  After a couple of minutes I went out to ask the patrolman if he could give me some pain killers. He said he didn’t have any, but the ranger would give me some.

The ranger was a capable looking young woman in the traditional uniform and cavalry style hat. She said she would call the medics. She didn’t have any painkiller; but they would.  She took down my details on a clipboard and left.

I called my wife and told her what had happened.  I didn’t know where on the mountain I might end up. But she decided to leave the class she was attending and head up from the city anyway, and work out the details later.  Meanwhile, the ranger called my guide; and he called me.  Now we were all in touch and ready for something to happen.

A red fire department van pulled up.  Two men came out of it, walked me over to the van and had me get in the back.  They explained that injured people are in particular danger of falling.  They took my information down on another clipboard.  They had no way to determine whether my arm was broken, beyond asking me where it hurt.  And they had no painkillers.  They helped me out of my jacket and strapped a cardboard splint on my arm to immobilize it.  Back I went to the “Mobile ski lodge” pickup truck.

When left my own devices, I tended to rock back and forth and moan. I guess I was full of adrenaline. But I was anxious to maintain a calm demeanor when anyone was around; and when I was with someone it hurt less.  Everybody I met on this day was concerned, calm and reassuring.  Loving, in fact.  And that helped a lot.

Soon the ranger drove me (and my skis) down to Crystal Springs in her truck. She briefed another ranger who was stationed at the entrance, so he could direct my wife to the bus when she arrived.

The bus driver gave me some ibuprofen; he helped me get into my street shoes and tied them. The guide came to the bus and gave me some codeine with Tylenol. I wondered if all these pills were going to play well together; but I felt grateful and ready to try the experiment. My wife arrived, and we gathered up my gear. Thanks to quite a few people, i didn’t lose my skis or anything else.

By half past noon we were on the highway to Group Health Hospital in Seattle. I was feeling more comfortable, but thought sadly that it was the end of the season for me. We munched on food from my backpack and her lunch, not knowing when we’d have a chance to get a meal.


Shingles diary

Body odor was the start of my troubles; now I wish it were my only problem.

November 2016:  My wife was annoyed that I can only use a little hypoallergenic antiperspirant.  I have sensitive armpits.  She suggested I wash them with antibacterial soap.  All was well for about a month.  But toward the end of November my right armpit got sore.  So I gave up on the soap.  Two weeks later, it was worse, despite careful washings and rinsings; and several inflamed bumps had risen up.  Putting a cold compress in my armpit seemed to help.

At about this time, something started itching on my back.  I couldn’t see or reach it.  It felt like a spider-bite; but in November?   I tried pulling a towel across it to get some relief, but it didn’t last.

December 2016: I paid my doctor a visit and guiltily told him about my soap experiment.  He looked at my armpit and poked a bump with a gloved finger; “Is this sensitive?”


“I have good news for you,” he said.  “The soap is innocent.  You have Shingles.”


“Yup.  You’ve got another outbreak on your back.”

“What should I do?”

“It’s gone on for too long for an antiviral do do any good.  So wait it out.  If you still have pain after three weeks, I can give you some drugs for the neuropathy.”

I thought he was wrong; the soap seemed like the obvious cause, and I’d had a shingles immunization (Herpes Zoster) in 2012.  Later I read that the vaccine is only 51% effective; but that it might reduce the severity of my disease.

In the next two days the rash spread above my right nipple to the middle of my chest, on my upper arm and on my back.  The sensation range expanded from itching and tenderness through poking, stabbing and burning.  A devil was stabbing me with his pitchfork!

  • My daughter had shingles 15 years ago.  I asked her what she’d done.  She said to soak the rash in a solution of Domeboro.  Later I read that this treatment is just for the stage when the rash blisters and weeps; gross!
  • A friend of of my wife’s said Tylenol with ibuprofen might reduce the pain.  This didn’t help much.
  • I read that Benedryl could reduce the itching.  This didn’t help much.
  • I tried “Stress, Headache and Bodyache Relief” lotion from Feel Good Products.  It does feel good, tho it doesn’t last.
  • I read that cold-packs and hot-packs are not recommended.

I tried everything, and got a little comfort.  Maybe just the comfort of doing something about it.  Clothing rubbing against it hurt.  It got so sensitive that even air blowing on my bare skin from the heat register hurt.

For the past couple of days, I’ve felt a bit better.  But the pain is shifting to the newer parts of the rash, which I suppose will have to go thru the same progression.

I hope to be well by New Years.  But I’m wondering; neuropathy?

I read that only one-fifth of sufferers get it.  Here’s hoping I’m just a normal case!

Mid-December: Although the rash was fading, it hurt even more.  I figured out a way to wear a soft old work-shirt by buttoning just the bottom three buttons and leaving my arm and shoulder uncovered, Roman-style.

  • “Blue Magic” lotion from Feel Good Products was soothing.

I asked my doctor for advice.  He said this is the neuropathy, and prescribed 10mg of Nortryptiline at bedtime, to be increased as needed.  The paperwork that came with the prescription said it was an antidepressant, and that a side effect was that it could make me feel depressed.  Contrary to the doctor’s instructions, the capsules were 25mg.  “This is scary stuff,” I decided.  I opened a capsule and poured half the powder into the garbage (you can’t flush it down the toilet).  It helped some, and I wasn’t depressed as far as I could tell.  Next night I took courage and had an entire 25mg.  I was still a bit sensitive, but I could wear clothes!

January: I resumed my normal life.  I forgot to take the Nortryptiline, and I still felt okay.  I was concerned to notice inflamed, itchy bumps on my left shoulder.  But some hydrocortisone cleared them up; they were just my normal psoriasis, welcome news at this point.

My wife met a woman who’s had shingles six or seven times!


I live in a house of many rooms.  Each room is different; and someone I like or love lives there.  But, now and then, I can’t go into a room of my house any more.  The door isn’t just locked; it’s gone.  The wall where it was is smooth and cold.

I was washing our red 2003 Corolla in the driveway one sunny afternoon, when a lady paused in her walk and gazed anxiously at me.  She was wearing a long black wool coat and a little pillbox hat.  “Do you know the lady who lives across the street?” she asked.

I glanced over at the squarish little workman’s house across the way.  A narrow cement walk bisected its minuscule front lawn on its way to an awkward little porch.  Inside, I knew, a side-hall kept two tiny bedrooms out of sight.  At the far side of the living room, a door led into the kitchen, the origin of many popcorn balls and Rice Krispy treats in my daughters’ trick-or-treat bags.

“You mean Victoria?”  I answered.  “She’s not there any more.  She died.”

The woman began to sob.  Why hadn’t I said “Passed away” like a gentleman?  I left my rag and hose and walked over to her.  “I’m sorry.  Was she a friend of yours?”

“We were friends once,” she said.  “But there was an argument.  And after that I never spoke to her again.  I’ve been walking past her house these past few weeks, trying to work up the nerve to tell her I’m sorry.  And now I never can!”img_3278

The improv comedy group called on the audience for skit ideas.  My father had just passed away.  His death was the first that struck close to me, and it was suffocating me.  “Death,” I said.

The players looked at each other.  “I don’t know …” one of them muttered.

“Sure, we can do it!” another urged.

One put his hands in front of him, and crept up to them as if he were using a walker.

“Grandpa!” exclaimed the other in a high voice.

“What is it, Jimmy?” muttered the “old man.”

“It’s my puppy!  He’s not moving.  Do you think …?” he sobbed.  The material was tragic, but the delivery was hilarious.  The audience roared.  Including me.

I was snowshoeing in the Central Cascades one day.  The snow was a bit dingy, and too crusty from rain for skiing.  The sky was an opaque ceiling, a vague gray-white mass, close.  I made a little lunch-camp, putting on a fleece, sitting on my blue foam square and looking up at a nearby peak.  It jutted into the fog, its top obscured.  I couldn’t see the top, but I had a pretty good idea what the top was like.  Logically, it had to be a continuation of the visible sides of the peak.  There wasn’t a MacDonald’s up there; just more snow and trees.  There might be a few crags, a bit of meadow or an avalanche chute, but no fantasy palace. What we don’t know has to be an extension of what we know — not radically different.

C: … I wish to complain about this parrot what I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique.

O: Oh yes, the, uh, the Norwegian Blue…What’s,uh…What’s wrong with it?

C: I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it, my lad. ‘E’s dead, that’s what’s wrong with it!

O: No, no, ‘e’s uh,…he’s resting.

Monty Python, “Dead Parrot Sketch”img_2485

Now and then when I visited my mother in her nursing home, I would see that she’d lost something, and I grieved for it.  Then I’d walk around a decaying light-industrial neighborhood that was nearby, and photograph it; somehow this made me feel better.

She lost the ability to turn her radio on and off, because it was too complicated.  I put a green sticker on the knob so she would know which one it was; but it didn’t help.  Then she lost the ability to push the red nursie button on the cord clipped to her pillow.  Instead, when she wanted something she beat on the wall.

While I was wheeling her to the beauty shop one day, a friend of mine drove up in his electric wheelchair.  “Mom, this is my friend David,” I said.  Mom nodded at him with an odd, ironic look on her face.  I wondered if she would ever speak again.  She didn’t.

A day or two later, a nurse came up to me and reported that my mother wasn’t eating.  I sat down at her table and talked to her, and offered her a little spoonful of food.  She willingly took it in; so I offered her another.  I was just starting to feel pleased with myself when the food  spilled out of her mouth onto her blouse.  She’d lost the ability to swallow, or perhaps the interest.

My brother came over from Hood Canal; and my daughters flew in.  We took turns sitting by Mom’s bed in her darkened room, talking to her now and then, holding her hand and offering her a wet sponge to suck.  On one of my shifts, she was breathing like a steam engine on a steep incline — deep, rapid gasps.  I talked to her quietly, and tried the sponge.  I’d arranged two straight-backed chairs facing each other next to her bed.  I put my feet up and watched her.  After a while I dozed off.  I was startled awake.  Something had changed.  It was quiet.  She’s just resting, I told myself.

I went out and brought back a nurse to check her.  “She’s passed,” he told me, and left.

“We’re all here waiting to die,” another nursing-home friend told me.  “It’s the last stop, the big Waiting Room.  Now and then, someone’s name gets called.  They go in the boss’ door, and they never come out.”img_2336

Passing means you’re moving faster than whoever you’re moving past.  It’s meant to be a comforting, soulful metaphor; that we’re all going somewhere, some further ahead, some behind but with uncertain speed.  All of us passing, at last, out of sight.

When a candle burns down, the flame doesn’t go anywhere.  It just isn’t.  When a computer breaks, its software doesn’t go anywhere; it just isn’t.  There’s no comfort in this soulless metaphor.  Not to exist is a disturbing concept.

What am I to make of this passing, dying business?  I think that what you see is what you get.  When I get to the top of the mountain, there won’t be anything special there.  So I have to think about what matters to me in life, and concentrate on maximizing what matters.  I believe that what matters most is love.

Hey, everybody, let’s have some fun
You only live but once
And when you’re dead you’re done

B.B. King – Let The Good Times Roll

Fear of elevators

Sometime in the early 1950s, in Seattle’s swanky Fredrick And Nelson’s department store that has long since folded, a Chicago transplant waited for an elevator.  She’d moved to Seattle with her vet husband to escape Chicago’s postwar housing shortage, and the competition for jobs with other returning soldiers whose employers were welcoming them back.  On her shoulder she held me, a little blond boy.

The elevator doors opened.  Mom carried me into a strange, small room; and for some reason a lot of people crowded into it with us.  From her height I had a good view of the proceedings.  The elevator operator sat on a little stool that folded out from the wall to the right of the door.  She pushed up a hinged lever to close the solid outer doors.  She unfolded an inner cage door in front of them.  Then the doors slid down into the floor, and in my stomach something creepy started to happen.  I yelled.  This was the start of my fear of elevators.  For a year or so afterward, on subsequent visits to Fredrick and Nelson’s my patient mother brought me up flight after flight of escalators to the eighth floor.

The next step in my elevator education was in another swanky 1950s Seattle institution, the Washington Athletic Club.  My parents sent me there regularly for swimming lessons, and other boys were there for the same purpose.  They would torment me by taking advantage of a peculiar feature of the club’s elevators; if one pulled a depressed floor-button back out, the elevator would skip that floor.  I had to ride the elevator until the boys got tired of the game, or else get off on a strange floor where children weren’t welcome and look for the stairs.

Maybe there were intermediate steps in the progress of this phobia.  But the next that I remember was, as an adult, working in the United Pacific Building, a decrepit pile on Second Avenue and Madison Street that had once belonged to the United Pacific Fruit Company.  The two elevators in this building were prone to getting stuck; several times I spent a claustrophobic 20 minutes or so inside one, waiting for the custodian to rescue me.  I began using the stairs religiously.

My employer liked the doddering old office buildings in the south end of downtown.  So in due course we moved to the Arctic Building, once the province of Seattle’s Arctic Club.  Its two elevators were the tiniest I’d ever seen.  Later we moved to the Dexter Horton Building, Seattle First National Bank’s mouldering birthplace.  Here an elevator boarded at street level would occasionally mutiny, taking its captives on a slow descent to the sub-basement.

This is when the elevator dreams began.  I relived that descent at night, with exaggerated shudders and stomach-lurches, and a dismal world of junk at the end.  By day, I never hesitated to board an elevator.  I knew perfectly well that it was safe, and that its braking system wouldn’t let it fall.  But whatever part of my unconscious decides that in the next dream I won’t be wearing pants returned to the elevator theme often, perhaps to torment the part of me that’s still a little blond boy.

I approach the lobby.  Columns of fire are spouting from grates in the wall.  Here is a row of normal elevators, and at its end one small, old, untrustworthy elevator.  That one, for some reason, I must ride.  Its call button is dirty and worn.  It opens to reveal a car that’s narrow, shabby and dark.  The panel of floor buttons is high up on the wall, almost out of reach, as they would be to a young boy.  I push one.  It climbs dizzily, pauses, lurches, shudders; or perhaps it droops down to sub-basement hell.  At last it opens, sagging below the floor as I scramble out.   

Lately I’ve been working as a barista in an old building.  Each day when I open the coffee shop I need to fill a cooler with ice from the cafeteria kitchen upstairs.  I used to use a public elevator.  But one day a coworker told me that the kitchen had its own elevator; so I tried it.  It’s a tiny, grubby little thing with cage doors front and back, a tight fit for a serving cart and a person.  And it’s utterly reliable.  Now I use it at every opportunity.  It’s closer to the coffee shop than the public elevator, and I’m hoping it’s therapeutic.

elevatorNow and then, I’m blessed with a lucid dream.  They’re a rare treat, and I quite enjoy them.  I usually use the time flying.  Or I push the bounds of the dream-universe, grabbing control of the story from that cretinish dream-weaver who’s never bored with making me pantless.  Lately I decided that, whenever I had a lucid dream, I would use it to face down my personal dream-monsters.

Someone has a lot of kittens, all black.  He hands one to me.  While we’re talking, I pet it.  Things go along smoothly at first.  But then the kitten turns into a gargoyle, latching onto my hand with teeth and claws.  I pull on it, swing my arm, smash it against a wall.  But the little monster is impossible to get off my hand.

A lucid dream occurred; I demanded the kitten.  I petted it.  It remained a cute kitten, and did not attack.

So far, so good.  Some time later, I had another lucid dream.  I rushed into the lobby of an office building (these dreams don’t last very long) to a bank of elevators.  i went to the end, confronted a narrow door and pushed its call button.  The door opened; the dim, shabby elevator-car demon I had summoned awaited.

Even knowing that it was a dream, I couldn’t nerve myself to step inside.  I turned my back on the elevator monster, and that was the end of the dream.

A few days ago I shared an elevator with a new mother who was carrying a little girl on her shoulder.  The door closed; the car rose.  The little girl went on smiling as if nothing were happening at all.