Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Big 1-0-0

I had most of the afternoon to myself today. With New Years Eve tomorrow, and another snow storm on it's way tonight, I know tomorrow will probably be pretty busy. So I thought I'd take advantage of today by finding some quiet solitude. I needed a good place to just walk around, think about the past year, and the year coming. A good place for that, for me, is Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, in Easthampton.

On the way up, as I crossed the Coolidge Bridge, I saw this small plane coming in for a landing, with a State Trooper helicopter following close behind.

Some VIP coming to town? Some terrorist alert? Or maybe they were just on the same flight path by coincidence? Thought it was kinda odd...

Arcadia is sponsored by the Audubon Society. There are a lot of easy trails to walk around, most developed with wildlife and plant watching in mind. Narrow paths through thickets, meadow-side trails, a marsh-side trail, and bird houses everywhere. There's a visitor center, with a deck over a vernal pool, out back.

There are also bird feeders around the visitor/learning center, attracting birds year round. Bird houses are set up all over for the migratory birds' return in the spring.

During the warm months it is indeed a wild life sanctuary. Of all the wildlife I've seen during my outings over the years, the most numerous and interesting have been here. Close encounters with beavers, snakes, one time a raccoon waddled about 5 feet ahead of me, as I walked along a trail. After about 50 feet, he turned into the woods. I've seen tanagers, warblers, bass, turtles, herons, and all sorts of water fowl. I'll often see them up close, but usually I'll need binoculars to get a good look.

One time, I saw a crow harassing a Red Tail hawk, swooping down on it over and over, cawing loudly. The hawk, perched, would turn and threatened to bite it each time. As the crow swept back up after each attack another, smaller bird (I couldn't tell what it was), would swoop down and harrass the crow! The 3 way dance went on for several minutes. Then the whole troop moved across a meadow, then into the woods, following the hawk each time it moved.

I brought this handy little instrument with me, that I just gotten for Christmas:

It's a bird-call device. You twist the wooden dowel, and it makes all kinds of squeaks and chirps. Does it work? I'm not sure. The first time I tried it, a few minutes later several titmice came and landed in the branches right overhead. They cocked their heads and stared, then flew off. Coincidence? I tried it again a few minutes later on a different part of the trail. This time chickadees came swooping in, landing close, then taking off. Same thing with a cardinal. It seems like it piques their curiosity, but the jury is still out on this thing.

As I took a relaxing walk around the place, I noticed the clouds were making strange patterns in the sky, as it was getting dark...

...More snowfall coming, to take us into the New Year.

Here's hoping it's a great New Year, for all!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Half and Half

The weather being pretty mild, we headed out for a walk, or hike, or whatever comes along.
The weather was so mild, in fact, there was fog in the area at 1:00 in the afternoon. That's kind of unusual.

As we approached the Notch, the fog was still pretty heavy.

But cresting the hill, the other side was suddendly crystal clear!


The best way to get a bird's eye view of this phenomenon, would be to scale Bare Mountain, which we had just passed. We U-turned, and parked at the Notch visitor's center.

The top of the mountain had fog billowing over the top as we got started.

It was a little slippery, but there was plenty of soft snow to dig boots into for traction.

There's a stop about half way up, where I could see Mt. Norwottuck across the way, half shrouded in the mist. I knew it was going to be a good scene up top. We hurried up. Rounding the southern side, nearing the top, the fog was still pretty thick. Made for some interesting photos.

As I had hoped, it was an amazing scene at the top. Mt. Norwottuck stuck out above a low cloud layer, that was billowing north around it. It looked like water crashing around a boulder.

The entire view to the south was buried, beneath the gleaming white clouds. It gave us the impression that we were much, much higher than we actually were.

Here's a summit-cam view, from the north side:

Friday, December 28, 2007

Clear As A Bell

My journey to the depths (of an intense illness).

December 28, one year ago, I began to feel a weird, slight pain in the center of my back. Funny, I thought. I didn't remember wrenching my back recently.

Little did I know that light discomfort was the beginning of two months of torture.

The pain and discomfort slowly ratcheted up day by day, until by New Years Eve, the pain was nearly unbearable. It had also begun to stretch around, to the front of my torso. I had been popping Excedrin's non stop, tried to rest up, and hopefully shake it off. I didn't want to back out of a New Years gathering with several friends that night, but I'd never experienced anything like this before. Something was very, very wrong. I called my doctor at home, and described the symptoms. She said she wasn't sure, but it sounded like a lung infection of some sort. She advised I rest, and if it gets worse, to go to the emergency room at the hospital. At this point I was still convincing myself that it was just a pulled muscle of some sort. I felt I had to at least make an appearance at the New Years get-together. So we went there, just to ring in the new year, then head back.

My friend Rich was at the party. He's a pharmacist, but he should have been a doctor with the brain he's carrying around. He heard the symptoms, and immediately said it was probably pneumonia. I counted the minutes in a feverish haze, and drank glass after glass of water. People thought I was smashed drunk, the way I was stumbling around and sweating. By five of midnight, I was vomiting in the bathroom and having trouble breathing. I made it back just in time for the countdown. Afterwards, we said our good byes, and we headed home.

I hardly slept all night, unable to lay down or stand up without sudden shocks of stabbing pain throughout my torso. Sitting up seemed to be the only option to reduce the pain, and then only if I sat perfectly still. Thankfully the next morning, whatever the affliction was, it had seemed to subside slightly. I decided to ride it out one more day, and see the doctor after the holiday. At the doctor's the next morning, she listened to my symptoms again, and agreed with Rich's diagnostic that it might be pneumonia. She placed the stethoscope all around my chest and back, and listened. She then said the words that would echo in my head for the next two months:

"Clear as a bell!"

'Clear as a bell' ??? There was definitely something wrong! She obviously had no idea what it could be. To be safe though, she prescribed some heavy-duty antibiotics, and instructed me to go to the hospital for x-rays. I picked up the prescription, and went to the hospital. They said they'd send the results to the doc.

I've never really suffered any kind of serious illness that I couldn't shake off by a little rest and a little activity. So I returned to work for the rest of the week, and took it easy. The symptoms, thought still there, had indeed begun to alleviate. By the weekend I thought I was out of the woods completely. That was January 6, I believe, and the weather, you might remember, was incredibly warm that weekend. In the high sixty's I think. I took my kid target shooting with our bows and arrows, at the Granby Rod and Gun Club. The fresh air seemed to help immensely. I felt just about normal.

Then Saturday night came. Out of nowhere, I began to feel an increasing, painful tightness right in the center of my chest. My left arm began to feel numb. Then I began to get huge, immobilizing shocks of pain, throughout my chest. I thought I was having a heart attack. I could hardly move without another burning stab of pain. I could barely breath. I had my son call my sister, and she said she'd take me to the hospital right away. I thought I'd better call an ambulance, as I began to wonder if I was going to be able to stay conscious much longer. It was that painful. The ambulance came and off I went to the Hospital, my sister followed me there.

I had never been in an ambulance, but they very professionally got me breathing, semi-normally. They didn't think it was a heart attack I was experiencing, but they couldn't figure out exactly what it was, either. We got to the hospital, and this time they did a CIT scan on me. The scans were sent off to some lab for diagnosis. The shot me up with morphine, gave me more prescriptions, held me there for several hours for observation, and then sent me on my way. My sister stayed there waiting the whole night, until I got out. The sun was rising when we got back home. I got back home, shaken up by the whole experience and the mysterious illness. Throwing all caution to hell, and still high on the morphine, I smoked my final cigarette. That was January 7.

The morphine wore off and I was again back in dire shape by Sunday night. I remember the trip to the pharmacy that night as one of the most difficult things I'd ever had to endure. The pain was incredible. Monday came and went in a sweaty feverish haze. Tuesday I went back to the doctor's, but my regular doctor was out that day. The one I saw, could only prescribe more antibiotics and pain killers.

The rest of the week, the pain seemed to ease some, but severe nausea and shortness of breath was the new daily torture. I endured that week and waited for the antibiotics to win the battle. Another weekend came and I ended up at my parents house. I was pretty much a useless pile of dirt by now. I couldn't eat all week, and was looking pretty gaunt and sickly. My mother implored me to eat some soup she made, I couldn't. My father implored me to check back into the hospital.

I made one more trip to the doctors. This time my regular doctor was there. Checking me again with the stethoscope, she gave an alarmed look, and told me my left lung wasn't doing anything at all. She said I needed to get to the hospital, right away. I looked back in disbelief. Now she tells me.

At the hospital, they did more x-rays, and found my left lung was completely full of fluid. They inserted a tube, and drained three liters of the sickly yellow goop, from just my left lung. It was indeed pneumonia. I was furious. It took two weeks, three trips to a doctor, two previous hospital visits, three x-rays and a CIT scan before the problem was found.

"Clear as a bell!"

It turns out it was a particularly vicious and unusual form of pneumonia. Two more specialists (a lung doctor and a disease specialist) were brought in to diagnose the illness. The lung doctor had to operate on me. He had to open up the side of my chest, and go in to physically clean the affected lung. That was after a further three days of agony, when they saw that the fluid wasn't subsiding. In the end, they said it was a near miracle I didn't lose the lung.

I ended up spending eight days total, laid up in the hospital. When I finally got to go home, it was with an I-V tube in my arm. I was required to pump doses of penicillin based antibiotics into myself every eight hours, to battle the remaining bacteria that the doctor could not get to. The home-bound recovery ended up taking several weeks more. After the first week, I returned for a check up, and they found that the illness was not subsiding very quickly. Another week, and it was apparent something was still wrong. Non-stop nausea, loss of appetite, light continued pain breathing. They recommended I stay on the I-V and get exercise.

I had to return to light duty work, almost three weeks out of the hospital. The activity seemed to do me a world of good though, and I began to feel like I was on the upswing. A few days after that I went to see another doctor for the results of the most recent blood work. He had some sobering news; a type of white blood cell, neutrofils, was almost non-existent in my blood. The penicillin-based I-V that I had been religiously pumping into my system every eight hours, had in fact been wiping out my natural defenses. At some point I had become allergic to penicillin.

I couldn't believe it, it had begun to feel like something devilish was trying to do me in, and refused to let go, even though it felt like I had gone through so much already. Now as I was feeling better, it was looking like I might end up back in the hospital. It was very discouraging. It seemed like it would never end.

However, luckily we had found this in time, (I hadn't caught anything else) and they immediately put me on a different type of antibiotic, a non-penicillin based pill type. Good bye to the I-V.

From there I began my true recovery, and by the middle of March I was feeling like my health had truly returned. There were some side effects though. I just haven't been quite the same since. There is permanent scarring in my lung, and I can still feel it when I take a deep breath. It still tingles around where they made the incision in my side. Reminders.

The repercussions:

I have not returned to my doctor since. I don't want to hold anything against her, but I guess I am, in spite of myself. I have questions about the whole overblown, hyper-expensive health care system. How could they not have caught this earlier? However, I am grateful for the things that were done right. I think if it was 50 years ago, I would have been a gonner.

I had lost 20-30 pounds during the illness, and have since gotten it back, plus an additional 20lbs or so, so that I am now a little overweight. Some of that though, I attribute also to not smoking since then...Oh yeah, and I stopped smoking, for now, but hopefully for good.

But the main, biggest, deepest affects the whole 2+ month ordeal had on me, are these:

Several times during the experience, I truly wondered if I was going to die this way. Or if I was going to end up some sort of invalid, and a burden on others. I didn't know when or how this was going to end. It was just more sickness and pain, day after day after day. I was in the grip of a deadly illness. But it ended, and I feel I was given another chance. Like I was shown the other side of being healthy, and returned.

Without health, we're nothing but moaning sacks of wet dirt. Almost completely useless to ourselves and others, and in pain. It's an entirely different world. Night and Day.

The old-timers were right. Your health is the most important thing.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Merritt Badge

Work took me way out of the valley on Wednesday, down near the coast of Connecticut, in Strattford. On the way there, I got off of I-91 in North Haven, and got on Rte. 15 south.

The northern end of Rte. 15 is know as the Wilbur Cross Parkway. It parallels I-95 heading into New York. The stretch from Strattford to the New York line is known by the highway's more popular name, the Merritt Parkway. Pretty much everyone calls the whole stretch of highway the Merritt Parkway, (sorry Wilbur).

The parkway was built in the late 1930's, partially to relieve congestion on U.S. Rte. 1. It now also serves as an alternative to the I-95. The parkway has a couple of unique attributes that are hard to find nowadays.

One of those unique attributes, are the beautiful stone and concrete bridges that cross overhead. All are artistic in some way, and no two are alike.

They aren't overly elaborate, but still. They are nice, and no two are the same. A small detail, but sooo lacking in the average cookie-cutter construction project of today.

Something else you don't see everyday; there are full grown, hardwood trees on the median strip.

The dead of winter doesn't do the scene much justice. You'll have to imagine how beautiful it is with the trees in full greenery.

Unfortunately the trees are slowly being phased out. They have been deemed dangerous, as they have been involved in several accidents over recent years.

As far as the construction of the road however, it's not an expensive or elaborate bit of engineering. But so little, does so much to beautify the scenery, and make the ride enjoyable. That's tax dollars (and toll dollars) at work. Even the road signs are unique, with saw toothed green edges against white backgrounds.
Approaching New Haven, you reach the piece de resistance on this northern section of the road; the Heroes Tunnel.

Cut through the same basalt ridge that makes it's way into the Pioneer Valley, it features low pressure sodium lighting. Those yellow, color blanking lights that are also getting harder to find. The tunnel is small, but just another neat little feature of this great road. Nowadays they'd probably just blast a corridor through the hill, and be done with it.

Save a few bucks here, blow a few bucks there...

From what I hear, the road gets even nicer on it's southern section to the NY line. Kudos to the engineers who constructed this road; They had foresight, and the understanding that the journey can be as important as the destination.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Boxing Day

My parents being away, we always go over my sister's to open the presents, and leave her to dispose of the torn up wrapping paper!

Here she is, (the true photographer in the family)

The mob, hungrily tearing into their packages...

My nephew Jack. (what kid doesn't love a toy dump truck?)

As our extended family became larger and larger, a few of us cousins formed a Christmas tradition, of getting together to see a movie Christmas night. The success of this endeavor varies year to year.

This year's feature film was the enlightening and stimulating 'Alien vs. Predator 2, Requiem'.

Hey, I went in there expecting pretty much what I got, so, I wasn't disappointed.

Still better than 'Juno', I'll wager!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas

Here's hoping everyone has a happy Christmas...

No matter how it's celebrated!

Monday, December 24, 2007

All Over But The Wrapping

The sun came out late, just in time to set on yet another frenzied Christmas Eve.

I couldn't be happier.

Like a well seasoned athlete, I rounded out the Christmas list, in record time, just as everything was closing up. Champion, once again.

Next year I start gift-buying earlier. I swear...

That's No Moon...

I know I've been doing a lot of posts about stores and shopping lately, but hey, it's the season. This is the final one, (I'm pretty sure. Probably.) since Christmas is just about here, and I'm just about done with the buying.

So what better way to wrap up all the Christmas-shopping-posting of the past few weeks, then with a visit to the mighty 'Death Star' of area shopping centers. The Holyoke Mall.

I've never been a huge fan of malls. They're temples to absolute consumerism, and the lost souls who follow that religion. They're also where mall-rats hang out. But it's hard not to be impressed by this behemoth. By far the biggest mall in the valley, and getting bigger. A new Borders Books and Music is a very recent addition to it's 180+ stores. At the time of it's renovations and expansion in 1995, it was billed as the third largest mall in America.

The mall has been up for sale for a year, and zillionare Donald Trump recently looked into buying it. He was considering transforming it into one of the proposed casinos that Governor Patrick is trying to establish in Massachusetts. The vast square footage, extensive parking, and close highway access were the primary reasons for it's consideration by The Donald.

The mall is still in terrific shape, and as popular as ever. I can't imagine the work involved in transforming such a building into an entirely different structure, like a casino. But if they ever added a casino to the existing mall, it would probably become the pocket-emptying capital of the northeast.

There's a three-story chasm in the center of the structure, (Kind of like that bottomless chasm where Ben Kenobi shut down the tractor beam. Remember that scene?). I've always been very impressed with this section of the mall. From here you really get a sense of just how big this mall is.
It goes down to an extensive food court three floors below:

There are many plexiglass domes throughout the mall, letting in daylight. (this one kinda reminded me of where that ray gun on the Death Star goes)

I think maybe this poster put the whole Star Wars thing in my head for the day...

Geek Alert:
Did I mention that Star Wars was the Best...Movie...Ever?