August 26, 2014: There’s nothing like a trip to the doctor to make you realize you are not the invincible person you once believed yourself to be in your youth. Not that any of us feels invincible when we’re hitting midlife and the joints creak a little more in the morning and ache a bit more at night, but we usually roll with the pain and learn how to live with it as best we can — an ice pack here, a couple of aspirin there. But every now and then things don’t feel quite “normal,” or something happens to a friend of a friend of a friend that makes you think checking in with the ol’ doc because you haven’t for years might be a wise idea. And so it was that Glenn finally made the appointment for the general physical he’d been promising for quite some time but always putting on the back burner.
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You have to understand his reluctance. The last time Glenn had an encounter with doctors things didn't go so well. It was Halloween 2009, and he was suffering from what was later diagnosed as Valley Fever. That led to several weeks in the hospital followed by months of medication and blood tests and follow-up visits to make sure he was reasonably healthy again. It has been more than two years since he was certified fungus-free, and in that time his personal physician (as Kaiser likes to call them) had received a transfer to another facility, leaving Glenn to select a replacement doctor from the long and unhelpful list Kaiser provides online for its patients. Having to complete this task just gave Glenn more excuses to delay, but finally he decided that he needed to go and picked a new doctor more or less at random.
The physical in mid-July went fairly well, but the results of one of the blood tests showed elevated blood glucose levels that again raised concerns about diabetes. It had been during the hospital stay five years ago that Glenn was diagnosed as prediabetic and was temporarily placed on insulin while the steroids he was on to fight the Valley Fever played havoc with his blood sugar. But those greatly elevated levels returned to their slightly elevated normal state once he was off the meds, and the need to frequently monitor blood sugar was soon forgotten. But the body doesn't forget such things. Poor diet, stress and bad habits left unchecked had led to blood glucose numbers that were heading into the realm of dangerously high, so the doctor told Glenn he needed to reduce his blood sugar pronto and check back in a month.
After breathing a sigh of relief that he didn't immediately have to start taking insulin, Glenn began to accept the reality of the life changes that he now faced. It's not like a diet you get to try for a few weeks and then give up when the program bores you; this was something that showed no sign of improving if he went on with business as usual, so a radical change in diet was in order. Fortunately he has a health resource better than any invention known to modern medical science — he has Roni.
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RONI HAS DEALT with health concerns of her own in recent years, largely due to high blood pressure, so she knows all about trying to improve health through diet and exercise. She was ready and willing to help Glenn bring his sugar numbers down, and immediately started perusing the Internet and diabetes magazines in search of low-carb recipes we could try. Roni loves to cook, so this presented her with a fun challenge. She also is very label conscious when it comes to watching out for sodium, so having to focus on sugar and carbohydrate totals as well wasn't much of a stretch. We went to the grocery store that first weekend and spent more than an hour rattling off label statistics like we were discussing baseball player batting averages.
Some of the food choices were simple common sense: avoid the sweets, load up on fruits and veggies, eat smaller portions. But there were other subtleties to watch out for. For instance, not all fruits are created equal. Blackberries and strawberries are better than cherries or grapes. Bananas may be high in potassium, but they are also low in fiber and hence not so good for a diabetic diet. Kale rules when it comes to leafy vegetables, but iceberg lettuce is empty filler when compared to turnip greens or spinach on one's sandwich. Oh, and speaking of sandwiches, better ditch that bread. A slice or two of bread can shoot your carb budget for the day, and it matters little if it's white or wheat. Going gluten free? That's even worse in the carbohydrate department.
The bread was where Glenn refused to budge. Perhaps there would come a point where if making a moderate change didn't do the trick in lowering his numbers then he would sacrifice the sandwich rolls in his weekday dinners, but he didn't want to go that route if he didn't need to. He compromised by switching to lower-carb whole wheat rounds for lunch, and cut way down on his weekend dining choices. He switched to salads every day for lunch. The ice creams and rich chocolate snacks he enjoyed were replaced by bowls of fresh berries with Cool Whip topping and sugar-free chocolate pudding for desserts. And he started taking long walks in the evening.
Like a crack addict suffering withdrawal symptoms, Glenn was in a cranky mood that first week as his body adapted to the change in diet. He felt dizzy and light-headed from the reduction in sugar, but after a couple of weeks things started to improve. Glenn saw an immediate drop of several points in his blood sugar readings, and there were some rapid changes on the scale as well. He has dropped nearly 12 pounds in about six weeks on the new regimen, reaching a weight he hadn't seen since before last Christmas. Although he still wants to lose another 10 pounds, at least he is feeling positive that his numbers are headed in a better direction.
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PART OF GLENN'S effort to be healthy has involved those aforementioned walks. In May he stumbled across an iPhone app called RunKeeper that uses GPS to track your course whenever you walk, bike or run. It can compute the distance you travel and lets you track your workouts over time. There is a free version that gives you basic functionality, and pay-by-the-month or annual subscriptions that allow some other fancy features. The free version was perfect to motivate Glenn to start walking on his dinner breaks at work and to walk more often around the neighborhood at home. He has covered more than 108 miles in a bit more than three months, but sometimes the desire to beat his best time or farthest distance gets the better of him.
On Aug. 9, Roni had to run an information booth for the Ironhouse Sanitary District during the annual Bethel Island '50s Bash. It was one of those rare events when Glenn wasn't needed to help set up, so the plan was that he would sleep in on Saturday morning and then drive out after noon to hang out with Roni through the end of the show. Did we say drive? Where's the fun in that? After rolling the idea around his brain for a while, Glenn decided to tackle the seven-mile journey on foot. It might not get him to the festival quickly, but it would be great exercise and a new sort of challenge hiking the backroads of eastern Contra Costa County.
Glenn already had some experience with lengthy walks, having ventured on foot to Freedom High School for last month's Oakley Cityhood Celebration. But that was just a bit more than four miles and late in the afternoon when the heat was already starting to fade. This time would be smack in the hottest part of the day, and along busy roads with no sidewalks. Undeterred, he slathered on some sunscreen, popped a couple of water bottles in his camera bag, and set out a little before noon for the two-and-a-half-hour journey across town.
Of course with a walk so long, even a one-way walk as this was to be, you look for any way to literally cut corners. The best one we know of is the set of railroad tracks that runs behind our home. Walking along the right of way, safely away from the rails, would shave at least half a mile off the route. BNSF has been in the middle of a major expansion of the line in our area for the last two years, adding a second main track to help ease congestion from its ever increasing freight business. It was very thoughtful of them to provide a rock-paved trail to walk on, even if that is not its ultimate intended purpose. Unfortunately, rocks are not as smooth as asphalt paved streets, and the uneven surface took a tremendous toll on Glenn's cheap tennis shoes. As a result, less than two miles into the walk his feet were starting to feel the effects.
By that halfway point along Cypress Road he knew there would be hell to pay for not taking better care of his feet. The insoles of the shoes felt like a pair of lumpy mattresses, and he could feel the heat from the ground burning into his toes and the pads of his heels. By six miles in, Glenn had slowed his pace considerably and was limping through unplowed fields as he tried to avoid the narrow clearances of the shoulderless roadway every chance he got. It was a relief when he at last set foot on the Bethel Island Bridge and hiked shakily up to its summit over Dutch Slough. Behind him lay seven miles of dirt, rocks and weeds; ahead was a street lined with classic cars, people hanging out with friends at the local bars, and live music pumping on speakers from somewhere near it all.
Glenn limped into town and found the park where Roni had set up her booth along the grass-lined pathway. He flopped down and she offered him some of her ice cold water. It was a good thing she had brought several with her, because Glenn quickly polished off what was left in his camera bag, then downed one of Roni's before starting in on another. He numbly sat on a chair in the booth and kicked off both shoes while he rested up, thinking little about the pain that gripped both feet. He just needed some lunch and time to cool down, he said, before he went on another walk around town about an hour later to check out the festival.
It was only after we got home around 5 p.m. that Glenn finally had a chance to assess the damage done by his inadequate shoes. A giant blister had formed beneath the toes on his left foot, and a smaller but equally painful blister was taking shape on one toe on his right foot. There was little to do at this point but to let nature run its course and wait for the healing to happen. Meanwhile, the old shoes were toast. So on Sunday afternoon we drove to Payless Shoe Source in Antioch to pick up a new pair of sneakers that Glenn hopes will be more durable than the cheapo ones he leaves behind.
The next several days were painful ones as Glenn attempted to get around without walking more than he had to. Needless to say, the evening exercise walks were out. But by Wednesday of the week following the '50s Bash, there was sign of improvement. It was a good thing, too, because the next morning would provide no mercy for aching feet.
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IT WAS DURING another of our summer information booth sojourns for the Delta Science Center — the Martinez Beaver Festival on Aug. 2 — that Glenn had a chance to visit with Susan Euing, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that owns the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge. Each year between August and October volunteers descend on the dunes to take part in the annual Lange's metalmark butterfly census, the only way researchers have of keeping track of the endangered butterfly's population. Keeping count of an entire species of tiny insects might sound like a daunting task — and make no mistake about it, it is — but it is made much more manageable by the fact that the Lange's metalmark can be found nowhere else in the world but on the roughly 55 acres that make up the Antioch Dunes. Although we had taken a tour of the western part of the dunes (known as the Stamm Unit) a couple of years ago, we had never been to the eastern end (or Sardis Unit), which is normally off limits to the public even during the monthly walking tours. It just so happened that this year's count was about to begin and volunteers were being sought for both areas, so Glenn eagerly signed up to help out in the eastern sector.
Glenn's count took place the morning of Thursday, Aug. 14, bright and early at 9:30 a.m. There were about a dozen counters, including the handful of wildlife service biologists whose job it was to train us and to make sure we searched the right places for our winged quarry. We were first shown what to look for — the inch-wide butterflies with orange and tan wings tipped with white spots. These would most likely be found in or around something called the Antioch Dunes naked-stemmed buckwheat, the plant that metalmarks prefer and which can only be found in — you guessed it — the Antioch Dunes. We would literally have to beat the bushes in order to find them, and part of our training included the fine art of using long sticks to roust insects out of the native plants.
The next things we were offered were a mechanical clicker counting device and a chance to slip on a pair of black nylon gaiters around our shoes and ankles. "Some people prefer not to use the gaiters," said Susan, the biologist in charge of our group. They looked clumsy, but judging by the number of stickers already embedded in them, wearing them might be a wise thing to keep said stickers out of our shoes and socks. We were about to hike into golden, hilly terrain in the middle of summer, and that color is the product of a lot of dried-up thorns and thistles. Glenn took the gaiters and fumbled with the straps until it at least looked like they were fastened correctly. If only.
Looking for the butterflies is straightforward enough. Everyone finds a stick about three feet long, then starting with the first section of the property we fan out into a line, each person responsible for the few feet immediately to his or her right and left and ahead. We walk slowly forward like a phalanx of soldiers, tapping the brush with our sticks and watching for movement. The buckwheat plants have all been identified with colored flags, and we are especially encouraged to tap those bushes when we are near them. At the end of each section we regroup and are dispatched to the next section where the process repeats. If any butterflies are spotted, all attention is focused on the location of the sighting until one of the experts can tell whether we've seen a metalmark or one of the several other species of butterflies that also happen to inhabit the dunes.
Looking for metalmarks is easy. Finding them is maddeningly difficult. The week before our count there were a total of four metalmarks identified, and that was four more than anyone expected. On this day, we would have to settle for a pair of the butterflies — one male and one female — that were bred in captivity in Moorpark, Calif., and delivered to the dunes by a trio of young biologists who made the six-hour drive north that morning. Anyone with a camera had it out and firing away when the two butterflies were coaxed from their tiny cage and immediately took up refuge in the branches of a large buckwheat plant. They were cooperative enough to let us take their picture, content not to fly far from this one bush.
As for the other metalmarks that allegedly inhabit the dunes, they were playing coy with us. Susan told us later that she had personally counted another three in the same area as the two that were released. Glenn felt somewhat cheated at this news, considering he had yet to tally a true in-the-wild sighting on his mechanical clicker and was beginning to wonder why it was necessary to carry one around at all. The fact that the clicker could count up to 9,999 made the situation all the more comical.
Had we been counting stickers, the clicker would have come in very handy. We hiked up one steep hill, then into a steep ravine, then thrashed our way through what had been industrial property where weeds poked up through ancient pavement. We ducked under branches and crawled over the steel braces of utility towers. In the end, we got to eat luch on a small beach along the shore of the San Joaquin River as if some reward for our battles with the weeds. The gaiters had failed miserably at keeping stickers out of Glenn's new shoes, so he spent nearly an hour the next morning meticulously picking them out of shoes and socks.
Roni got to visit the Stamm Unit at the dunes several days later as part of her monthly Contra Costa County Fish & Wildlife Commission meeting. Her group got to see six butterflies, and all of them were wild. Those sorts of numbers don't bode well for the future of the species, but at least we both can say we saw them.
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IT'S BEEN A busy month for festivals for us. In addition to the Bethel Island '50s Bash and the Martinez Beaver Festival, we also continued our annual tradition of visiting the Delta Pear Fair in Courtland, this year as visitors instead of as exhibitors. It's much more fun this way. There were some minor variations with the festival this time, including a new entrance to the parking area that brought visitors in from the north of town on the road that previously had served as the exit. The classic car show was moved from the field behind the elementary school to Riverside Avenue, where the entries were able to spread out along the street. A nice change. It also rained on us – just a few tiny sprinkles – for the first time in the many years we have attended, thanks to a tropical storm system that was moving up from Baja California and stirred up a few dark clouds in its wake. The festival parade was still as short as ever, and there was plenty of pear pie to go around; we took one home as always, and Glenn wound up eating most of it despite his concerns about avoiding high-carb foods. He said tradition took precedence over doctor's orders, at least for one day.
The 6.0-magnitude earthquake that inflicted serious damage on parts of Napa the morning of Sunday, Aug. 24, had no impact on us some 40 miles to the southeast. Only Ben felt it, as he was woken up by his cat Eevee when the quake struck. Glenn and Roni were asleep, although Glenn did crawl out of bed afterward to help his colleagues at the newspaper with their initial online coverage until others had reported for duty. We're sad for the folks in the Napa area who were affected by the quake, but it sounds like most of the attractions we love about the wine country survived. We'll have to make a trip out there once things are cleaned up and sort of back to normal.
That's a wrap for August. Labor Day weekend and the end of summer are just around the corner, and so is the start of football season. We can't wait.