Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Major Setback

I'll just have to wait a little longer to be an aunt, that's all.

Wednesday night we went to the movies. By the time the trailers were over and the appropriately gloomy opening credits of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince appeared, my sister Morgan, who was four months pregnant, had started to squirm, and pretty soon she leaned over and whispered, "I think something's wrong." The rest of the evening -- the restroom floor, trying to follow the ambulance without breaking any traffic laws, the vials of morphine administered in the E.R., the devastating ultrasound -- are a horrific blur.

Miscarriages are, we're learning, a very common tragedy (nearly everyone we talk to has either had one or knows more than one woman who has), although this one occurred relatively late and came with an unusual amount of severe pain. Morgan and I, being of, as we like to say, hearty pioneer stock, have a high tolerance to pain, but this pain had her in eye-rolling, howling, incoherent, paste-white, sweat-drenched, writhing agony and had Kelly and I afraid for her life. It all happened so fast, less than three hours from the previews to the bad news: no tiny, fluttering heartbeat, and an unstoppable, awful process already in motion.

Diagnosis, prescriptions, and instructions received, we got our groggy girl home and to bed, gave her the water she had desperately needed for three hours and the recommended dose of Percocet. We washed the blood out of her clothes and tried to comprehend; Kelly and I bumbled around, angry without a target and in despair without relief. She was chilled so I piled on extra blankets and he crawled in bed to warm her, finally dropping off after 1. I curled up at the foot of the bed at first but sometime in the night -- we were up periodically, and she was strangely lucid at 2 -- I moved up next to her, wrapped in a quilt, with a pillow from the couch. Funny how, at times like this, you discover that you can sleep in any way and anywhere.

Everything moves on; sunny days and rainy days, the County fair, the downtown Brewfest. I didn't work Thursday -- I made crepes for breakfast and tried to be useful and made M laugh with -- but went back Friday and Saturday, both long days at the plant, which keeps trying to malfunction for various reasons. I would say Morgan and Kelly are doing well, that we're all doing very well. I know a miscarriage is hard at any stage, but it seems to me it's more difficult the later it occurs. Four months is a short time in the grand scheme of things, but is a long time to wake up every day with the knowledge that an immense and wonderful change is happening; they had already been shopping for baby supplies, had told everybody the news (which was particularly welcome to a family who hasn't had a baby around since Libby came along about 14 years ago), had been preparing to finish the basement. The baby, who was a boy, was four inches long and already had tiny fingers and toes, and it's hard not to think what might have been. We're all prone to little fits of weeping, and the oddest things set me off.

A miscarriage almost always means that the body detected something wrong with the fetus (and think of all the things there are to go wrong! We're horrendously complex) or any of the numerous temporary components of gestation: a malfunctioning umbilical cord, an incomplete placenta, etc. ("It's the body's quality control kicking in," said the E.R. doctor.) An extremely high percentage of women go on to have a normal pregnancy soon after. We have the responsibility now to remind M that it wasn't anything she did or didn't do; she had, in fact, done absolutely everything right, following the sage advice in What to Expect When You're Expecting and What to Eat When You're Expecting to the letter and getting the kind of sleep I only dream of in my fitful, insufficient hours of unconsciousness.

In the meantime there's a lot to do and a good-hearted (and equally disappointed) step-nephew to console us, although he's 15 and decidedly un-baby-like. And there are still four dogs to be roughed-up and walked, and one of them needs extra love to make up for a missing leg, although she's getting around better every day and has even figured out how to run. (Is it awful of me to call her Tripod? She doesn't seem to mind, as long as I'm scratching.) This has all been tragic but not discouraging, I think, and I'm sure it won't seem like much time has passed when they get to announce the news again. And it was pretty fun the first time.

Things like this tend to pull us together as a family, and we have a remarkable family. Poor Kelly got more than he bargained for when he married a girl with a sister like me, but M and I have what I suspect is a rather rare sibling relationship. Something about the pairing of our very different personalities, a good age difference (3 years- not too close, not too far), and a shared history in a relatively healthy, happy family (with its own quirks, it's true, but we're still unusually functional) made us close in a way that only the best of friends ever get to be. I'd never survive without her, and Wednesday night was quite a scare. My relief at her progressing recovery and my faith in her resilience makes this bearable. There is no one I admire more and very few people I love as well.

Life is made up of the good and bad. This could have turned out worse, but it was pretty horrible. Still, like Kelly says, what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. And we're already pretty strong. (I'm glad nobody has said to me, "It is what it is." I hate that line. LOATHE it. I think it is what you make it; nothing's black and white.)

After I got off work tonight, after the week I've had, I was lost. M said she'd need me tomorrow when Kelly goes back to work and I should get some rest, and that's what I did: slept for four hours, paused to walk for an hour in the cool, quiet night and share this story with you, and now I'm going back to bed, where I hope to forget that the dishes need done and the floor needs vacuumed and I'm going to have to put away the little blue Winnie the Pooh booties I bought... for just a little while.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Love and Reason

"There's nothing better than being in love with your car." - Tom Magliozzi, Car Talk, Show Number 200929 (No foolin': you can download a podcast of this episode at

Mom and I spent the afternoon and early evening yesterday at one of our favorite family outposts (the genius of it is that, from the freeway, it looks like a gas station, a barn, and a trailer park stuck out in the middle of the desert, and yet, to my eyes, it is one of the most beloved sights in the world). On the way home Puck's antenna picked up NPR around Little America and found Tom and Ray accusing a caller of putting transmission oil in the wrong hole on their automotive talk show, Car Talk.

I stopped the station scanner.

I didn't pay much attention to the next caller, who was talking about breaking in brake pads, but the final caller amused me to no end. Sensible, rational caller Wendy is a self-described "proverbial suburban soccer mom" who drives a nearly-paid-off 1999 Toyota Sienna, and she has a problem. She took her two sons, 9 and 11, to a car show one day, just for fun, sat in a Jeep Liberty with a retractable roof -- "the opposite of a Smart Car!" she lamented -- and developed a severe and abiding Car Crush bordering on obsession. (Don't laugh. It could happen to you.) She called the show to have Tom and Ray talk her out of buying what she, having read Consumer Reports and Motor Trend, sees as as a less reliable, less sensible car than her current ride. They pretty much blew it.

Part of the conversation touched on the feverish cult that is Jeep Culture, the result of insanely clever advertising on Jeep's part but also the result of something much more insidious, something anybody who's driven a Jeep knows: they may handle like crap and they're noisy and not remotely fuel efficient, but they're FUN. Ray asked Wendy what the car said to her when she sat in it, and that was the first, very emphatic word out of her mouth. "Fun. It said fun." She asserted that maybe she is just having a midlife crisis, or, as her sons call it, a "midlife Chrysler." Tom and Ray suggested she rent a Liberty and drive it every day for a week to see if it would really fill her vehicular needs the way the minivan does, which I thought was good advice... but there was already no question. "I'm getting it, right?" asked Wendy. "Yeah, well, we know that." said Ray.

As she was about to hang up, after admitting to having already picked out an ingenious name for her Jeep (Patrick Henry, "Give me liberty or give me death."), Tom reassured her with the statement above, a sentiment I wholly subscribe to, and elaborated. "It's a wonderful thing to be in love with your car, because you'll take care of it, and you'll nurture it, and you'll pass it on to your kids, and it'll be more fun to drive because you'll have a connection with it. Wendy, most people hate their cars. They kick the doors closed, they have a disparaging name for the car." I've seen this, and it breaks my heart.

However, after 19 months and 21,800 miles together (even after a new bumper, fender, main shaft and clutch), I can still say that I'm one of those incredibly lucky people -- however rare we are -- who is truly in love with their car.

He's more than half paid off, but my heart still skips a beat when I see Puck across a parking lot, metallic paint glowing, sharp angles threatening. There are moments when, in the middle of an ordinary commute, I glance across the bright, expansive dash and I'm amazed that I called this marvelous machine into being. Because I requested something special, people I will never meet in a factory I will never see pulled together all these parts and pieces that might have gone into other, less unique cars of the same model, assembled these bits of metal and plastic and fabric together according to a generic formula but with a few specific ingredients. Someone who will never know me, someone who may or may not hate his job in an office in an expansive industrial complex in the chilly midwest, filled out a digital form and printed out a piece of paper that provided one of the most gratifying moments of my life.

The problem that resulted in the replacement of the main shaft was a very small thing, a broken plastic ring that has proven to be a common weakness in these cars (it could be much worse), and the clutch had to be replaced due to an excusable error in the installation of the new shaft, a forgotten seal that caused transmission fluid to leak out and soak the clutch lining. Covered by Dodge's lifetime powertrain warranty, the repairs cost me nothing but a month without my beloved car. Even though this hiccup occurred very early in Puck's useful life, I'm not worried that more problems will follow. And even if Puck turns out to be a total lemon before 50,000 miles, I'll stand by him. I'll do whatever it takes to keep him running until he will absolutely go no further simply because I love my car.

I love the way my Dodge Caliber drives and looks, but my deep emotional investment goes beyond engineering and cosmetics. Puck is "living" proof of my financial stability, of my independence and self-reliance. Puck is proof that I learned a hard lesson well. Dad, although he did it once or twice, was dead set against buying a brand new car. They lose value the instant you drive them off the lot! You're paying more than they're worth! "Think how much gas you could buy with that car payment!" he used to say. And he's right. But I can justify the purchase because I will drive Puck into the ground (very gently), I paid no interest, and it's my reward. This car is my gift to myself for having the discipline and endurance to dig myself out of a $30,000 hole in just a few years, and every time I see him I'm reminded that I can now handle money.

I hope Wendy does buy that Jeep Liberty, no matter how much cargo space and fuel efficiency and reliability she sacrifices. I hope when she's driving down the road -- on an ordinary day, with the retractable roof open and the sun shining in and the breezes of upstate New York blowing in her hair -- that she feels like I do when I drive Puck, because there really is nothing like being in love with your car. Because life is too short to make every decision based on cold common sense. I believe that most decisions based on heart and gut turn out just as well, and without them there would be no love stories at all.

Especially love stories about cars.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Chain Link Circus

When I got to work this morning I went through the old plant and through the lab in the back, where we still do our morning tests, to see what everything looked like (Travis had done them when he came in at 6 a.m. and written the results down on our charts). I left the old plant through the side door of the lab, which opens onto the wide alley, directly across from the rear staircase into the back door of the new plant.

As I was walking to the staircase I heard a scuffle on my left and looked through the chain link fence into the enclosed triangle down the hill, where our two waste lagoons that overflow to the river are. The gate has been open since we started pumping the sludge out of the west lagoon, and thrashing along next to the seven-foot fence with three lines of barbed wire tipped outward at the top was a very confused, very young moose.

I couldn't go into the enclosure; he was already agitated enough to try to jump the fence or possibly charge me if I cornered him, so I took off down the hill around the fence -- along the soft dirt bank of one of the drying beds, currently filled with eight feet of septic sludge -- to the far corner of the fence. I figured if I could spook him back towards the gate, he'd find his way out, but I had to climb a fence into the construction zone of a new home at the end of the street and crawl along behind the duplex units of the elderly housing on the road to the plant.

The moose saw me and went where I intended, but he bypassed the open gate twice making laps along the fence and went back down the hill behind the decant structure and tried to wedge himself between the fence and the metal storage shed I've never bothered to open in almost five years. So I headed back along the houses, through the construction debris, over the fence, and along the drying bed; finally I looked up to see him trotting up the hill and out the open gate. He took a sharp right and passed me at the head of the drying bed, and I watched him lope through the meadow as if the tall, thick sagebrush were merely clover. He covered ground like he was trying to win the Derby.

The last I saw of him he was headed off into the sunrise, down the hill to the highway, which, if he managed to cross without getting hit, would have led him straight back to the State Park and the river where he belongs. How the devil he found his way out of the cottonwoods, across the highway, through the meadow, up the hill, into the alley, through the gate and into the lagoons I'll never know.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Other Duties as Assigned

Part of our job as operators at the water plant is to respond to customer complaints. We're lucky; we have very few. In the four and a half years I've been at the plant, we've averaged about three a year.

I'm not just tooting my own horn when I say our water is outstanding. We're lucky to have great quality source water in the Bear River and to be the first municipal user on that source. We fill Sulphur Creek Reservoir from the Bear River, but when water sits still for any period of time, it's apt to grow strong green algae in wide, sticky blooms and to dissolve solids like ash, animal fecal matter, dead fish, and dirt, the taste and odor of which are very hard to remove. We do our best to avoid it (especially if we have any sampling to do), but sometimes in the spring when the river turns to mud due to snowmelt in the Uinta Mountains, we have to switch to Sulphur Creek for a month, and sometimes in the late summer when our use of the river is restricted, we have to run a blend of river and reservoir.

Some people claim they can tell when we're on reservoir water, and I don't doubt them. We have to use more polymer and chlorine with Sulphur Creek water, so in general it's not the organics causing taste and odor problems, it's the chemicals. Chlorine is most detectable as an odor when your dosage is too low, actually, but people just assume we're putting too much in if they can smell it in their tap water. And right now, we actually are slightly overdosing; we have some samples to take that we can't risk any bacterial contamination in, and we were getting some unpredictable water out of the river when we switched back to it last week, so I wasn't suprised when Robbie took a complaint call Wednesday and made and appointment for that afternoon to go check it out.

The thing about water complaints is that 9 out of 10 times, the complainer is either elderly, infirm, retired, disabled, a little crazy, or some combination of these things. I'm not saying they're unreasonable complaints; I'm just saying that people who are at home all day get tired of Oprah and Ellen and are apt to pay more attention to what's coming out of their faucet. They are also often starved for conversation and company. On 9 out of 10 visits we make, we get a life story (whether we want it or not; I tend to encourage them, being curious and fairly compassionate [no, really]), most of them sad, some of them shocking. Wednesday's was no different.

We drove around the back of a compound of low-income housing units on the south side of town, right above the river floodplain, and drove through the parking area where some men were peering under the hood of an ancient Chinook RV with peeling brown and orange stripes. We found the correct building near the deserted office and a sandy playground where a few healthy-looking children were swinging and entered through the heavy gray metal door. The exteriors of the structures were bland and the interiors were bleak; the unit we were looking for was on the first floor, behind the staircase in a concrete hall choked with cigarette smoke. We knocked and got no answer, so we went back to the truck to call the customer, a cell number with a Utah area code. As Robbie was dialing, a lanky man with scruffy clothes, hair, and beard, a cigarette and an odd gait strolled up and hailed us, recognizing the City emblem on our truck.

"I thought I was watching, but I must have missed you. Had my head under a hood. You been here long?" The voice was a strange growly whine. We assured him we had just arrived and followed him past a blood-colored spill on the sidewalk, which looked to be, on closer inspection, glittery red nail polish. By the time we reached the metal door (he put his palm, lit cigarette wedged between index and middle fingers, directly in the center of the "No Smoking" sign as he pulled the door open) we had already seen the zig-zagging scar that ran the length of his spine: the beginning of his story, and the evidence of its truth. It made me forget to introduce myself and my coworker; he never asked for our names.

Robbie and I both being animal lovers, we were pleased to be cordially greeted by a very young, surprisingly nimble basset hound with mismatched eyes (one brown, one silver) and one long, soft ear dappled gray. At first glance I thought he was a very large Dachshund; "the runt," said his owner. He was chewing on a mule deer antler (a shed, said our host proudly, which the dog found himself), and there were more antlers mounted on the walls. The small living/dining area, which was cluttered but relatively clean, also held a couch, a large cage containing two parakeets (one blue, one yellow), a TV stand with a small TV, a coffee table strewn with hunting magazines, several blankets, and a dining table covered with stacks of papers and photographs in frames. The walls were covered with hunting calendars and childrens' drawings.

We squeezed into the shoe box of a kitchen and set about sampling the tap water for chlorine and discussing possible solutions to the problem. The dog watched us from under the table, gnawing on his his prize, occasionally coming to wind his long body around our legs and bring us other toys.

Our customer was attentive as we explained the high chlorine residual (time of year, looped distribution main) and the procedure for flushing taps, and he demonstrated the little screw-on DuPont filter he had installed, which removed almost all of the chlorine residual (from .91 mg/L to .02 mg/L, which is normal for even a cheap charcoal filter). We couldn't smell the "putrid" smell, and he conceded it was more of a chemical odor, probably the chlorine. But throughout our visit he constantly circled the conversation around to his health problems and his children and ex-wives, producing X-rays from a closet and photographs from his battered leather wallet.

We learned that his last wife had left him with his two girls (very pretty, happy-looking girls, who must know they have a doting father), 11 and 14 at the time, and that the oldest girl had since had a son and the youngest is now 18. He had buried two sons from his first marriage, one killed at 14 by a blow to the head from the hoof of a deer he was trying to free from a barbed wire fence (they found him face down with his arms at his sides, having tried to walk home; the deer had stumbled 15 feet and died as well), the other at 19, shot in the face by a friend when he refused to drive him somewhere to complete a drug deal. One remaining son was completing a prison sentence in Utah for a crime he claims he didn't commit, a stabbing during a bar brawl he says he doesn't remember. His picture was on the table, long, straight black hair and blue prison tunic, blank face.

The X-rays, held up to the dim kitchen bulb, showcased a variety of steel brackets and giant screws, the two lowest of which had pierced and broken both hip bones when his 250 lb. "little brother" threw him down during an argument and jumped on him. The brother had given him a fine lacquered maple cane he was obviously fond of, but he admitted to rarely using it. "It's demeaning, you know?" (I thought of Dad and the wheelchair he loathed and I nodded.) Doctors suggest another surgery with an 85% chance of paralyzation, but if he doesn't have it he'll eventually be unable to walk anyway. His hips already grind with each step, hence the strange swinging gait. He refuses to use any more morphine.

We were just sympathetic enough to satisfy him, apparently, and he was pacified by promises to flush a hydrant on the main and suggestions to flush his taps, even though he pays for the water he uses. He hadn't talked to management about the problem but said others in the building agreed that the water -- which he insisted was normally the best water he had ever tasted anywhere-- just wasn't right. (People are highly suggestible or may not want to disagree and provoke and argument; we haven't had any other calls from the complex or anywhere else on that end of town.) The high chlorine residual rules out a water softener (when incorrectly adjusted they can make the water taste salty and bitter) and the aerators on his taps, when inspected, proved to be clean (they can get clogged with flakes of calcium and grow bacteria).

I don't think we'll be hearing from him again about the water, however. I believe he really is unsatisfied with it, but we're bringing down the chlorine dose due to better source water and with his little filter and a good hydrant flushing he should notice an improvement. But I suspect that most of our calls really aren't about the water. They're about life. At 52 a man who might ordinarily be healthy and able, working towards retirement and spoiling his grandson, is instead eking by on a disability check in a small, cramped apartment on the outskirts of town. He has scars on his body and heart and needs someone to tell about the pain and frustration, about life not being fair.

We left him at his door with the friendly, well-mannered dog and the children on swings in the sand and the sunshine of July, having done all we could do. Having listened.