The Saga Continues...

1.  As of last week, I finally have a floor!! It isn't what I would choose, but it's what my building's insurance paid for.  And's a floor (more floor!) (and new floor in the kitchen, as well as some new mirrored closet doors). It's a huge relief to, after 50 or so days, restore my sanctuary.  However...
Jack getting IV fluids and
modeling the cone of shame

2.   There was a bit of a crisis while the crew was installing the new floor:  they didn't call me to tell me they were beginning the work of installing the parquet so I could get the cats out of there (they previously said that they could work around the cats).  I come home at lunch the first day of the project to meet with the lead contractor (to discuss the scope and schedule) and find that (1) they had begun laying down the adhesive and parquet and (2) that my cat, Spike, had walked right through the adhesive (and tracked it all over my apartment.  Did they call me to tell me this? No.  So by the time I get home, the adhesive had already dried.  I was LIVID.  I bundle up both of the cats and take them to the vet where they had to sedate Spike to remove all the adhesive from between each of his four paws.  Poor little woozle and $190 later...but....

3.   While we were at the vet, I noticed that someone had urinated blood in the carrier.  My money was on Jack and unfortunately it was right.  Back in May, I was concerned about some of his behaviors (frequent trips to the litter box) and we had taken him to the vet and done some urinalysis that came back negative for a UTI.  However, as we now know, it was a fairly large struvite bladder stone!  I took him in this past Wednesday night to had surgery the following day to remove the stone.  I visited him on Thursday night and was able to take him home on Friday (approximately $1650 later), but I'm still monitoring his recovery.  I had to take him in the night before because....
Notice how pretty my brain is?

4.  That same Thursday morning, I was scheduled to get some fancy 3T MRIs on my lower back and my neck.  Turns out, I'm quite photogenic.  Based on (1) my friend Evan's expertise with MRIs, (2) the MRI technician's opinion (3) the radiology report and (5) my experience with my own scans, we could tell a few things:   (a)  here's no new damage after 5 years for my lower back (b) no new damage after 1 year for my cervical spine (c) I have a brain! and (d) neither the best case scenario (the discs put themselves back into place) or the worst case scenario (more discs were bulging/herniated) came into play. 

5.  Today I met with the spinal specialist that Evan (my wonderful medical sherpa) recommended.  Not only did he have fantastic hair, but he was a real laid back dude with the time to talk to me about my history, where I'm at now, and where I want to be.  He digs that I'm an active person and this is limiting me.  He expressed hesitation regarding doing either a fusion or an artificial disc replacement ("ADR") on "someone so young" (why thank you doctor...).  And so he wants me to do an intermediate step before we get there.  My previous epidurals were steroids injected into the epidural space and were meant to help relieve inflammation around the herniated/bulging disc.  He wants to try a more targeted approach and see if a a "root sleeve injection" where the steroids are injected closer to where the affected nerve lives (little bugger we know where you're hiding!!). If that doesn't work, he favors an ADR procedure as compared to a fusion, because an ADR would (1) help maintain the integrity of my cervical spine (i.e., it wouldn't increase the responsibility of the surrounding discs as a fusion does) and (2) would preserve the range of motion (a 1-level fusion wouldn't mean much of a change in the range of motion, but the ADR gives my other discs a better chance of not needing to be addressed). Did I mention that he has fantastic hair?

From the time he was my date to a friend's wedding in NY.
6.  I'm going to take a moment to just publicly thank my medical sherpa, Evan, for all the help he's given me.  I can't sing his praises loud enough.  He has enough experience in the medical field to (a) help me navigate insurance (**shudders**) (b) help me find the right doctors (based on feedback he's received personally, and the professional opinions of the doctors he works with) and (c) keep me focused on the task at hand -- which is about finding a long-lasting remedy, not just a BandAid.  While I love my family dearly, we're just not equipped to handle medical issues.  Evan anticipates each step and makes to easier for me to focus on healing, not the administrative stuff that ramps up my anxiety levels.  So... Evan, I love you.  I hope the universe bestows a heap load of karma on you (apple pie is not karma, it is apple pie). 

7.  I've known Evan since college. And I know his very dry sense of humor.  Sometimes he just loves to pull my leg.  As we were leaving the MRI (yes, he's such a wonderful sherpa that he met me at my 7:30 am appointment), he tells me that he and the MRI tech doing the scans noticed an anomaly on my kidney.  I think he's just trying to pull my leg or to get me to relax after being in an MRI for so long.  But he assures me that he's not joking.  Chances are that it's nothing other than a fluid-filled cyst hanging out on my kidney.  They're pretty common and usually benign.  Most people don't know they have one until, like me, they go for a diagnostic test for some other reason.  Still, not going to tempt fate, and will be following up with my internist. 

So, now that I have a house, have two healthy cats, and am addressing my own medical issues, I feel a lot less stressed (still residual stress from not sleeping well, having gained weight, and the amount of money leaving my bank account).  I've gone from a 7.5 to a 3 or 4.  The feeling of always being in an adrenaline fight-or-flight panic mode has dissipated.  

Again, I want to thank everyone for bearing with me this past year where all I seem to talk about is being injured, chronic pain, and wanting to eat my feelings.  I also want to thank you for being there for me even if/when I have nothing to say.  I feel the love,  I really do.  Notably, I just received a card via snail mail from the amazing @coracast (who I affectionately cal "Lil" as in "lil sister" and she calls me Big Sis) with the sweetest words of support and love (as well as a prezzie!).  

I know how everyone makes vision boards to help them focus on their goals.  I think I want to make the most selfish board ever -- a love board -- a place to put all the reminders that I'm valued, that I'm heard, that I make a difference, that I'm loved.  You all have helped turn this stoic/stubborn/I-can-do-it-myself hardass into someone willing to reach out and accept help. 

You humble me with all the love and support.  Especially cause you know that I can be a massively arrogant megalomaniac sometimes. 


I've written before about what it means to be "on track" or "off track" -- and that if you feel like you're failing in one aspect, to put some energy and intention behind another part. 

Truth is that I haven't been taking my own advice.

We all know my body hasn't been playing nice.
I'm going to get a new set of MRIs tomorrow (in a fancy schmancy 3Tesla machine!) -- and hopefully come up with a battle plan.  It's not enough that doctors want to just deal with the symptoms.  I need them to attack the cause and get me exercising again. 

I don't think I realized just how important exercise is to me.  Part of the mourning process is (1) I feel like that since I neglected giving my body exercise for so long, there's this latent feeling like I need to "make up" for lost time; (2) I'm an emotional eater.  I'm not trying to say exercise gives me permission to overeat/emotional eat (damn you mac & cheese), but exercise helps balance my anxiety.  It gives me a release.  Without the release, stress/anxiety have taken a toll on my body in terms of stress eating and skin picking.

The other part of the mourning process is, well, the healing.
And the types of healing directly coincide with the "tracks" that we're either on or off:
  • Mental healing -- forgive myself, allow myself to cry, get catharsis
  • Food -- get back into food logging and asking myself "does this food get me closer or further from my goals"?
  • Exercise -- do the physical therapy I already know to do, commit myself to what's coming
  • Rest -- sleep well, wake up happy and hopeful
I know that when I can exercise, I feel better about life.  It's not about the results, it's about the behaviors.  I feel like I'm worthy of all the good things because I'm actively dedicating myself to myself.

Make sense?

Speaking of my back -- thank you, everyone, for having my back.  I know I'm not the easiest person to be around when I'm in pain, or even when I'm trying to process things mentally.  I shut people out and stop asking for help. But please know it means so much to me to have people saying they can't wait to see me back at the gym, or posting happier/more triumphant posts, or even willing to help me pull up my underwear when bending over hurts.  It's hard to feel this needy and broken.

Strong & Wrong

My childhood vocal teacher (surprise! I studied classical voice/opera most of my life) said that if you're going to sing something wrong, "sing it strong & wrong."  That way, if someone thinks "hmmm that doesn't sound right" they'll think "oh, I guess it was written that way."  It doesn't always work, but in a pinch it will do.

I was thinking about "Strong & Wrong" quite a lot during yesterday's 5 mile elliptical run that I'm not supposed to do.   Doctors want me to rest.  Okay, I've been (mostly) doing that for three months.  No running, no biking.  No lifting, nothing with torque/twisting.  And because my spine is so fubar, things like yoga (balance) and swimming (neck angle) are also verboten.  Walking on hard surfaces is even hard -- I start feeling compression after 30 minutes (my back begins to ache, I hear a clicking in my neck, or my left arm begins to ache/go numb cause the nerve is being pinched).

It's not good enough for me.  I want to be an active person, to keep the weight off, to be strong and fast.  And they tell me that I can't. It's not about how the world sees me.  It's about how I see me.  (a little nugget if you want to talk to me about my injury)

They're not trying hard enough to come up with a solution.  So I'm going to run strong and wrong for a while.  Let the inflammation and damage show on the MRI.  They want me to "manage" my injury.  I want to thrive.  I'm not trying to injure myself, but I'm trying to show them "When I live my life the way I want and need to live it, this is how my spine looks.  NOW FIX IT."  My "doing what I can" is not just about what I can do physically, but it's about not letting the doctors brush me off.

My injury can no longer dictate my life in a way that it restricts my happiness or how well I live.

Taco de Camote y Pozole (Sweet Potato Hominy Taco)

I was at the Dupont Circle Fresh Farms Market (I love my local farmer's market) and was so pleasantly surprised to see that one of DC's best restaurants was doing a demo of one of their many locally-inspired dishes. 

Oyamel is one of the many restaurants brought to the DC Metropolitan area by Chef extraordinaire, José Andrés.  Oyamel's Head Chef, Omar Rodriguez, is a bit of a badass: he has a Bachelor's degree in Biology, and was accepted into medical school, but decided to follow his passion for food.  He is a 2006 CIA graduate and has been with José Andrés almost his whole career.

The members of Oyamel that were present gave me permission to reprint the recipe they were sampling at the farmer's market.

Taco de Camote y Pozole (Sweet Potato Hominy Taco)

Camote and hominy taco filling:
1lb sweet potato
5 oz hominy
1/4 tsp Achiote paste (what is Achiote past? see here -- you can also purchase it)
2 tsp kosher salt
3 tbsp unsalted butter

Large dice the sweet potato.  Drain the canned hominy and wash with cold water to remove excess salt.  Heat a pan on medium heat and melt the butter.  Once the butter is melted, add and sauté the sweet potato.  Make sure to get a nice caramel brown color on the sweet potato on all sides.  Once the sweet potato is almost cooked through, add the hominy and Achiote.  Allow all the ingredients to cook together for one minute and then season with salt.

Mole verde de Cacahuates
1/2 cup peanuts
1/4 lb tomatillos
1/2 bunch cilantro
3 black peppercorns
1 serrano chile
1 garlic clove

Preheat oven to 350ºF.  Toast the peanuts for 5 minutes.  Then remove from oven to cool.  Once the peanuts are cool, place in a blender with all the other ingredients and puree until smooth.  If necessary, add some water to get the blender's blades moving.

Warm a tortilla (corn in this instance) and layer a large spoonful of the sweet potato mixture and then a generous portion of the mole sauce. And cause I can't leave well enough alone, I think there's room in that taco for some leafy greans, no?  ¡Salud y buen provecho!

Oh, and did I mention that they also were giving out some Mexican Hot Chocolate (Oaxacan (ancho chile, I believe) hot chocolate with sugar, cinnamon, vanilla bean, cloves and steamed mil)?  **happy sigh**  perfect on a cool fall morning!

If you're in DC, make sure to check out Oyamel or any other of José Andrés' other restaurants.  Not only is he a fantastic chef, but he's a big part of the community.  He has strong ties with local producers and believes in giving back to them.  Every year he and his team from Jaleo come to the Dupont Circle farmer's market and to make an 8' paella to share with the market community. 

Gaining, Losing, and Winning

No easy way to say this....

On November 6, 2010, I was on top of the world -- my best friend was getting married and I weighed in at my lowest adult weight of 188lbs.

But all of the work I did to get there (100+ miles a month on the elliptical) took a toll on my body and I knew I had to give my back a rest.  I regained a few pounds through the first few months of 2011, but I let it go knowing that I was listening to my body and not risking re-injuring my lower back.

So in 2011, I switched gears and started boxing.  Not only was I kicking butt, but I was feeling great.  Not even someone trying to make me feel bad could affect my stride.  My running complemented my boxing, and I could feel my body changing and getting stronger.  But  that success was short lived when I started feeling weak in my left arm in July.  My doctor and I approached the injury conservatively.  I stopped boxing for a while, did physical therapy, and for a while the pain went away.  I resumed my boxing and running and the pain came back.  By December, we knew what we were dealing with:  a herniated disc at C5-6 and a bulging disc at C6-7.

2012 began with treating the new injury -- more drugs, more rest, more rehabilitation. I experienced some moderate improvement, but my recovery has been nothing like my lower back's recovery.  My lower back's injury wasn't as severe, and I think has been a bit of a non-issue as of late.  I'm aware of what hurts it (walking on hard surfaces, sitting for too long, using recumbent bikes, etc.) and take care to avoid those things.  I've tried to give my neck rest, but just about anything can aggravate it -- such as lying down, walking for 10 minutes, going down stairs, etc.).

With my friend Evan's guidance, I'm starting to investigate surgeons who will make my neck a bit more stable so I can get back to the gym.... because I've gained 17.5lbs since November 6, 2010.  And I do not like this.  I do not like this at all.  I'm disappointed in me, because I know there's so much I can be doing (i.e., being more focused about my diet, not drinking) and I'm just not.  I've been avoiding getting on the scale, but to tell you the truth, this number is lower than what I was expecting.  Part of the fat mentality is believing/fearing that any time you stray from the path, that you immediately go back to your worst.  I know how to get back on track.

I think reading Janet Oberholtzer's book is helping me realize one big part of the picture:  I need to mourn the loss of my spinal health.  It really does suck to be stuck in a body that is aging faster than my heart and mind. It sucks that I have to face making these decisions without any guarantees as to the result.  It sucks that I fear other people touching me because I feel so fragile.   The sooner I feel and deal with these feelings of loss, the sooner I can focus on what I can do, what I can do about my situation.

But you've come here because you want to know the winner of the Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer, right?
I want to thank each and every person that entered the contest.  I received a whopping 780 entries!! Can you believe that?

Without further ado -- I present the winner of the KitchenAid Stand Mixer:

Jess, congrats!! Send me an email with your address and I'll get that beautiful stand mixer to your new home!

Because She Could, I Can

Source here
If you were at Fitbloggin, chances are that you had a chance to meet the wonderful and amazing Janet Ober.  I've been following her on Twitter for a while as a casual acquaintance, I knew her name and her face, but I didn't know her story.  Imagine my surprise when I met her and noticed something a little different about this spunky blond with a huge smile:  (my dear Janet, I'm going to be blunt here -- anyone who knows me knows that sometimes my inquisitive nature doesn't have a filter and subsequently I can come off as insensitive, though it's not my intention) she looked like a shark had taken a big chunk out of her leg. 

I felt really bad for not realizing this about her before we had met, so I jumped on my smartphone and immediately looked up her Web site and then her story began to unfold before me.  Without having to say a word, I knew she understood and felt all the feelings I had about being injured and broken, I knew she understood the rollercoaster ride when one recovers from an injury. She knew what it's like to live with pain and restriction.

Our two messages seemed to belong to each other -- #GoTheDist Why? Because I Can.

On the last day of Fitbloggin, we ran into each other in the lobby and said our goodbyes.  She asked me if I'd hold on so she could give me a copy of her book, "Because I Can:  doing what I can, with what I have, where I am."  I'm so glad she did.

Though we might have entirely different backgrounds and entirely different injuries, the process of recovery is remarkably similar.  I found myself (especially in chapters 10-11 ("A Hurricane and An Obituary" and "Mentors and Counselors," respectively) nodding in agreement and recognition with what she was saying and what was being said to her (pg. 179 "Allowing myself to write this sentence: I am disappointed about the losses I have. with a period at the end was a big step for me.  Before that when I'd mention my losses, I would quickly add something about being thankful for how well I was recovering.   I had not allowed myself to honestly admit my feelings of loss, because I thought doing so would mean I was an ungrateful person...")

It's hard to explain injuries and chronic pain to people -- some people think that just because you're not bleeding out, confined to a bed, or buttressed with metal that you're okay .  That couldn't be farther from the truth (pg. 156 "Yes, I might have survived the trauma, but daily life was kicking my butt.  It was not looking like I  thought it should.  The constant pain and low energy levels were wearing me out.").  Once the acute issues are handled, there are so many other issues that come up--about learning how to live with your injury versus letting your injury run your life, how to grieve for the loss of the life and body you wanted and the things you might not ever do again, and how to forgive the causes for the injury as much as the injury itself. 

While hugging her, I told Janet that she was the light at the end of my tunnel, telling me that I can get through this.  I meant every word and I am so thankful to have read her memoir.  I wasn't left with pity or sadness for her (or for myself), but a very strong sense that somewhere in Pennsylvania was this amazing woman who knew my pain and didn't need me to tell her every detail to be able to tell me I'd survive it.

So go and read her book and be inspired to "Bloom where [you are] planted."

NB:  One thing her doctor said to her really stuck with me:  "Our bodies protect themselves by giving us pain signals when something is not working properly. ... Your body has been beaten up, but you've done what you needed to help it recover well.  Trust yourself—you know your body better than anyone else.  Don't allow what others have said to hold you back."  (pg. 266, Dr. Tuckman)

Olfaction Reaction

As part of the launch for their Generation Fresh/Spices4Health campaign, McCormick Spices generously invited some Fitbloggin participants to their campus in Hunt Valley, Maryland (recap here).

In our goodie bags (OMG, thank you thank you thank you, I love my goodie bag!) there was an invitation to "Join Generation Fresh":
1. Take everything you learned here today as well as your McCormick herbs and spices and freshen up your own favorite recipes.

2. Share these freshened-up recipes on your blog and with us.
I wanted to do this. I wanted to be a good little blogger and follow the instructions, but I kept remembering one comment during the tasting experiments -- about how olfaction (smell) and taste are located right next to the part of our brain (the amygdala) that holds our memories and touches our emotions.  After all, my blog isn't about recipes or exercises, but it's about emotions.

For as much as I wanted to write about how I could freshen up favorite recipes, I wanted to write more about recipes that were a part of my memories and how that little red cap had always been a part of my life.

Color & Nutmeg
Every year, my mom would pull down from the cupboard my grandmother's old/repaired tilt-head stand mixer with ceramic bowl and we'd begin the process of making her Aunt Elva's "Refrigerator Cookies" -- we know these now as sugar cookies.  We can find them now packaged in tubes and buckets in any grocery store, but back then these were special.  Making these cookies with my mom were some of the best memories in my life.  I learned why we cream butter and sugar, and that after beating in the eggs was the best time to add the vanilla extract or food coloring (she'd let me use food coloring and make the cookies in any color I wanted using McCormick's little gnome-like bottles).  I feel close to her as I repeat the steps the same way as I have for over 20 years. 

What set these cookies apart from the standard sugar cookie, is that before baking them, we'd roll them in a mixture of sugar (sometimes colored sugar) and nutmeg.  That little half-bottle of nutmeg was a special occasion spice -- the very signal of the holidays.  When the cookies came out of the oven, we'd give the cookies another dusting of the sugar/nutmeg mixture and shake off the excess.

After my mom died, a friend's mother did the most wonderful and meaningful thing ever -- she invited me over to make cookies with her and her two very handsome sons.  We followed Aunt Elva's recipe, down to the nutmeg.  I'm not sure how my mom would have felt about the camouflage-colored cookies (okay, they were vomit colored, but I was trying to be kind to Pete) but I know she would have approved of the number of cookies we made to give away to the local food kitchen that year. 

I know my dad reads my blog, so I will not give away any of his cooking secrets (the few that he may have).  HOWEVER, I will say the times he's tried to put nutmeg into his apple pie were valiant efforts towards innovation, but I'm a purist when it comes to my dad's apple pie:  apples, lemon juice, corn starch, cinnamon in hand-made crusts.

At the McCormick taste testing, we blind tasted two different types of cinnamon -- their red cap cinnamon and their gourmet cinnamon -- and I knew instantly which was which.  My family consumed more cinnamon (in their 2.37oz bottles) more than any other spice (okay, outside of black pepper).  Cinnamon toast, cinnamon on eggs (it's french toast without the bread), cinnamon on everything.    One taste of the first applesauce and my mouth/brain connection transported me to Thanksgiving and Christmas (the two yearly appearances of Dad's apple pie), and more importantly, the mornings after when I was allowed to eat pie for breakfast.

This red-capped bottle witnessed my father and I trying to build our relationship from scratch:  we learned to work together, listen to each other, and compromise over that apple pie.  If you want to warm the cockles of my heart, you slice an apple, toss it in the microwave until it starts to get mushy and then top it with some cinnamon and all will be well with my world.  Better yet -- you'll call my dad and tell him to bring me a pie.

I used to hate spinach.  I think I hate it before I even tried eating it.
But never-the-less, you would never see me eating it.  We were an iceberg lettuce family!

That is until my dad's stepmother ("Ma") introduced me to Spinach Balls.  The basic recipe (per the internet) is usually the same, but they often have "Italian Seasoning" or "finely diced onion" as part of their recipe.  Ma's recipe is much more explicit about the additions -- the Parmesan cheese was to be freshly grated, and instead of generic "Italian Seasoning," one spice was called out for its extraordinary relationship with spinach:  thyme.  The recipe always called for ground thyme, but my mom used the dried thyme leaves.

Thanks to the addition of thyme, I love spinach.  I don't need to make the spinach balls to bring these two together, as I'm often just microwaving some frozen spinach, adding a bit of Parmesan (or other salty hard cheese like Pecorino Romano, or Asiago), some black pepper, and the requisite thyme.

I love watching people who have never liked spinach try Ma's take on the spinach ball.  I have never once had a party with any spinach ball leftovers.  Always the one to make us grandkids eat our fruits and vegetables, Ma would be proud that I think of this recipe every time someone asks me to bring an appetizer, or even when I'm in the kitchen with some spinach.

Lemon & Herb
After my mom died, I ate to comfort myself.  I've told this story many times without ever really talking about what I ate.  Sure there were the quick and easy meals that my dad brought home (McDonalds, pizza, and Chinese), as well as the sugary pastries, but there were also the cheap and easy go-to meals that Dad could trust me to make at any given time (such as spaghetti with meat sauce).   But when I longed for something that reminded me of my mom, or there was a special occasion that merited this dish, I'd make my mother's breaded chicken. 

For a second, we'll ignore the fact that she basically deep fried chicken breasts in vegetable oil to make the breading nice and crispy (and yes, I can make the dish just as tasty baking it) because the important point was that this was her secret ingredient in an otherwise familiar dish.

McCormick pulled this seasoning because they had issues with the amount of water/condensation it could absorb. It would eventually cake up and become unusable.  They even have a "Perfect Pinch" Lemon Herb seasoning, but I hear it's just not the same as Lemon & Herb.  Just as well, no one could make it as good as my mom.

I could go through each red-capped bottle on my Lazy Susan and tell you a memory or a person that belongs to that spice--such as the peppermint extract that belongs to my Nana and her choco-mint snaps, or eating fries smothered in Old Bay (now owned by McCormick) with my friends in Rehoboth beach, or making Alejandra Ramos' Italian Rainbow Cookie Cake with neon colors for my friend Emily

I can only hope that one day someone will remember me by my Hot Madras Curry Sweet Potato Soup, or that how much black pepper I attempted to put on one piece of steak, or in one pot of chicken soup.

So, I encourage you to play with your spices.  Take a sniff of each one and try to associate them with a memory, a person, or a recipe and share those memories either with me or your family!  Build new memories with each new flavor. 

Happiness is...

It's been a while since I've done a poll...