Feet First

“It is much more important to know what sort of a patient has a disease than what sort of a disease a patient has.” - Sir William Osler






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    Monday, March 08, 2021
     

     Daytime Television

    Spending more time with my parents as I have done recently, I have become familiar with the drone of television in the background. It haunts me on an almost daily basis, to the point that it has become "white noise." I have the weekday schedule of my father's favorite channel nearly memorized: Perry Mason, then Matlock, then In the Heat of the Night, then The Waltons... you get the idea. The afternoon is a parade of Westerns, one after the other: Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman

    In a desperate grab to maintain my sanity I have started deconstructing these shows - at least, some of them. "Perry Mason" is still the king as far as I'm concerned. Yes, the general plot is the same episode after episode, but it has a great noir feel and the cast is just excellent. I can't get enough of Hamilton Burger and Paul Drake, not to mention Della Street - the perfect secretary and co-sleuth. But "Matlock"... ugh. The show was Andy Griffith's late-in-life meal ticket, and I can empathize with that, but it just isn't that good; from the Eighties hairstyles and power suits to the awful overacting, it is nothing short of cringeworthy.

    "In the Heat of the Night" was a favorite of mine back when I was a medical resident. Set in a small Southern town, the show featured location shooting which added lots of atmosphere and overall did a good job portraying the daily life of law enforcement. Plus, Carroll O'Connor anchored the whole production as the police chief struggling with the effects of racism on the town and trying to shake his personal racist past. Sadly, on re-viewing the show it is marred by overacting among the weekly characters/suspects and more bad Southern accents than you could shake a stick at. 

    "The Waltons" was a favorite of mine back in elementary school and junior high. A low-key drama, it showcased the trials and tribulations of a rural family growing up during the Depression and WWII. It was narrated at the beginning and end of each episode by the oldest son, the first in his family to go to college and who would go on to become a writer; it gave the show a retrospective and nostalgic feeling, sort of the "I remember the time Mama had to go off to the tuberculosis sanitarium" sort of thing. (Yes, that was an actual plot.) It's a comforting sort of show, but after a while it just became tiresome plus the child actors started aging out of the cast after a few years. Sometimes I like to imagine it's set in a postapocalyptic future, where Walton's Mountain is salted with booby traps and the family is living on squirrels and coffee... but it's hard to see that there would be much difference.

    On to the Westerns. Not much to say here, they're all alike really. I have realized over time that Westerns are just soap operas with the addition of gunfire. "Bonanza" seems to have more variety than the others, but it all comes down to Hoss being clueless, Little Joe getting framed for murder or Adam lecturing the townsfolk about the importance of being more openminded. "Big Valley" has it all over Bonanza as far as I'm concerned. 

    And then there's Adam-12. This was a Jack Webb production, similar to "Dragnet" in that it was a salute to police and their service to the public. The difference here was that the cast was younger and better looking, two earnest whiter-than-white guys in a patrol car driving around Los Angeles all day dealing with all sorts of stuff during their shift. The show is so dated that trying to imagine the patrolmen thrust into the reality of present day Los Angeles is impossible; the poor guys would get cut down by gunfire five minutes into their shift.

    After "Adam-12" it's time for the evening news, returning to the 21st century once again. Not much to be said here, except that when compared to today's news these dated old shows are much more tempting. 

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    Sunday, February 28, 2021
     

    Update

    Not much new to report here. I have signed up to work in the clinic on Saturdays in March (after talking about it for more than a decade, The Firm has finally opened on Saturdays - another instance of the pandemic changing work patterns). My aunt clinically is about the same, but I don't know how long that is going to last - so I did not want to commit to more than one day per week.

    It's been stressful having her here, even though I know it's the right thing for her (and she knows it too). I know she feels isolated and depressed, though at least she is not in a nursing home but with her family. It is just too difficult to talk to my parents for any length of time, given my father's dementia and my mother's severe hearing loss. My aunt and my parents spend their days at opposite ends of the house. I have not been able to come up with a solution, as my parents claim a large part of my time and to be quite frank about it I do need some time to myself if I am not to implode. She has had many visitors, cards and letters and I think that is helpful but it doesn't make up for the fact that she is facing the end of her life. My aunt has asked for a television to be installed in the living room, where she sits; so we are going to be doing that next week. She loves to watch the news, so maybe this will make her feel better. 

    My study review materials for the Medical Boards have arrived, so that is something else I need to start working on. I have to recertify every ten years to keep my Internal Medicine certification. It's a couple of years early, but I would like to get it over with and this seems as good a time as any. Formerly the test was given twice a year, but (again due to the pandemic) it has been cut back to once. This will be the last time I have to take the test - but then again I promised myself eight years ago that I would not be doing this again, so there you are. 

    I had my colonoscopy done, but unfortunately I have to do it again! I followed instructions exactly but apparently the prep was not sufficient. That mixture you have to drink is the absolute worst. The archaic term for it was "saline laxative" and it works by pulling additional fluid into the intestine. This rinses everything out, so to speak. It contains magnesium, potassium, citrate and other lovely things. You also have to drink a lot of water with it so as not to induce dehydration. 

    Lately I have been pondering what to do when I am free to travel again. I would love to go back to Australia, to see the Netherlands and Scotland; but first of all I think I would like to travel Route 66. I'd bring along my camera and seek out some of the old buildings and locations to photograph. The route was decommissioned in 1985, with the completion of the Interstate Highway System, but has refused to die. It has a stature in American lore that I don't think will ever be replaced, partly due to the song, of course, but it is even mentioned in works like "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and, of course, "The Grapes of Wrath."  A sadder bit of travel history associated with it: "The Green Book," a travel manual specifically for Black motorists, listing places that were safe - and unsafe - for them to stay. There were plenty of  "sundown towns" along the route where African Americans were not allowed after dark.

    And now I have to figure out my schedule for the week. More later. 


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    Friday, February 19, 2021
     

     Ash Wednesday 


    I started Lent this year with a more introspective mindset than usual, what with my aunt on hospice and my elderly parents being themselves. (Deaf, stubborn, won't wear their hearing aids, a little confused.)  On Wednesday I had to go into the city in the hope of getting my first COVID vaccine at the hospital - most of my co-workers have completed it already but I was delayed due to contracting COVID in early January, though I feel fine now. 

    It was indeed a fine and appropriate Ash Wednesday. The humbling process started early, as my staff ID was rejected when I tried to pull into the hospital parking lot (I had not been there in months, so it had been deactivated). The ID problem duly fixed, I wandered into the building and found the walk-in line for the vaccination. I was issued a ticket and a sticker marked 2/17 (for that day's batch of vaccine), answered questions regarding symptoms (none, thank you) and while in line passed a table stacked with envelopes of ashes for application. I helped myself to one, curious to see how the do-it-yourself penance kit would work. Stood in line for a while and eventually made it to the front, handed in my ticket and sat down with a friendly nurse to answer more questions and read through the information provided (we are using the Pfizer vaccine). The injection was painless; I sat and read my Kindle for the required 15 minute observation period and then left. My next injection is in three weeks and I have an appointment. It's a relief to finally get this done. 

    Later that day at home I sat in my room and opened the envelope. It contained a cotton swab with a dab of ashes on it and a slip of paper with a two-sentence reading. I focused on "Dust you are, and to dust you shall return" - thinking of my aunt - and applied the ashes. 

    Hopefully this year I will be more focused on Lent than I have been the last few years. As for Easter... we don't know whether my aunt will still be with us then or not. The good news is that the outreach of love and support from her friends has been nothing short of uplifting; come what may, I know I will hold these memories on Easter Sunday.

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    Saturday, February 13, 2021
     

     Caboose Potato Soup


    One of my parents' caregivers recently bought us what looked like a job lot of zucchini, as it was on sale cheap. I happen to like oven-roasted zucchini, but my parents and aunt find it somewhat less appealing. So it was off to the Internet, the world's biggest cookbook, for soup recipes. 

    I am not a fan of sliced zucchini cooked in vegetable soup; it gets really limp and unappetizing. I gave this some thought, inspired by memories of a trip to Ireland I took with my aunt a few years ago. The hotels there which cater to tour groups do the usual choice-of-three-entrees dinner menu, and the first course was always soup. Described as "vegetable soup," it was not the tomato- or broth-based type you might visualize. Rather it was a pale green puree, a cream-type soup, certainly with potatoes as a main ingredient. It was always tasty.

    So I found this recipe and made it, of course with a few alterations: no garlic as my aunt hates it, vegetable broth instead of chicken because that was what we had in the house. For herbs I used the thyme and a small amount of Italian blend seasoning. I did throw in some half and half at the end. It was very well received, and I will be making it again soon. You do cook the zucchini and potatoes until very soft, then puree it which solves the consistency issues you get with long-cooked sliced zucchini. 

    My father tasted it and said "My father called this caboose potato soup." Oh, really? I asked for more information and he gave me some family history I had not heard before: his grandfather was a railroad man, working the Pittsburgh-to-Chicago run. In those days of the early 20th century the crew member assigned to the caboose was the designated cook. The meal was almost always a stew or soup, due to limited kitchen facilities on board plus irregular eating hours - this could be kept hot and the crew could help themselves. Potatoes were plentiful and cheap, and make a fine soup base. So this is really more of a soup concept than an actual recipe:

    Saute some onions, add broth or water plus a cooked green vegetable (peas, green beans, celery, even lettuce could work here), add the sliced potatoes and simmer; then puree when everything is soft. Add some cream or cheese if you like.  It's difficult to screw this up and it is always good. As a bonus, it freezes well. 

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    Tuesday, February 02, 2021
     

    "What's For Dinner?"


    As the chief cook and bottle washer for my parents and aunt I am constantly trying to figure out what to cook for dinner that they might like. I have limitations placed on me: my aunt can't tolerate garlic, my father hates vegetables, no one likes spicy food. I've been doing this for about a week and am perilously close to running out of options. Trying to feed people nourishing food on a nightly basis is not the easiest thing to do.

    Dinner last night was a success: everyone loved it. Also it was easy in that most of the preparation was done the night before.  It was roast chicken, but the ingredients and technique were specific: Mimi's Sticky Chicken. Check out the recipe. I can recommend it highly. I applied the spice rub the night before, leaving out the garlic powder and cayenne in deference to people's tastes, and chucked it in the oven the following afternoon. The chicken roasts at 250 degrees for five hours. Yes, that is correct - though I confess that I got nervous and turned it up to 275 for the final hour. It was moist, tender and delicious. 

    If you search for "sticky chicken" you will find several quite different recipes, so I appended a link above. We will definitely be making this again. I served it with sauteed spinach, which my father didn't eat; but then, you can't have everything.

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    Monday, February 01, 2021
     
    "But I'm Feeling MUCH Better Now!"

    Those of you of a certain age may remember a sitcom called "Night Court" which aired back in the 1980s. It was set in New York City and starred Harry Anderson as an unconventional judge who presided over sessions of night court, John Larroquette as the district attorney and Markie Post as the public defender. It was truly hilarious, one of the great sitcoms which has sadly been forgotten. Various character actors kept turning up on the show in recurring roles, one of which was John Astin as Harry's long-lost father. He had a history of mental illness and had been institutionalized at some time in the past. Every time he told another character about his history of mental illness he'd end his story with the phrase "But I'm feeling MUCH better now!" accompanied by a truly frightening smile. (You may remember him as Gomez Addams from The Addams Family, which made the smile even more effective.)

    The reason I bring this up...

    I am now presiding over my family's Gilligan's Island-esque setup, consisting of my parents and my aunt. My parents continue to live in the house I and my siblings grew up in; it is now much too large for them, but they have consistently refused to move. My parents have some dementia and other health problems, as well as poor mobility, so they have caregivers 24 hours a day. About six weeks ago one of the caregivers came down with COVID, followed by all the others (and my parents and myself), but fortunately everyone has recovered. 

    My aunt has metastatic cancer and two weeks ago she underwent a procedure for treatment followed by five days of chemo. She has declined significantly since; her memory is now very poor and her balance is off. Her doctor strongly recommended hospice, but we are waiting until her next appointment in one week to make that decision. In the meantime she is staying with us. 

    I am monitoring meds, fixing dinner, running errands and scheduling doctors' appointments and palliative care visits. I am, in short, seeing medical care from the other side. The experience has convinced me that the US medical system needs far, far more social support than we currently have available. And we are the lucky ones; my parents can afford to pay for home help. This takes a huge amount of stress off me but it is still difficult. 

    So how does "Night Court" fit into this? Well, John Astin's catchphrase has become my new mantra: every time I feel exceptionally frustrated or at my wit's end, I tell myself "But I'm feeling MUCH better now!" 

    It seems to help. Give it a try the next time you're feeling stuck.

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    Tuesday, January 19, 2021
     

     Recent Developments 


    I'm trying to blog more. Partly because of the new crackdowns and censorship on social media platforms (namely, F and T), and partly because so much has been happening here, most of it not good. 

    I left full-time work a year ago and have not regretted it one bit, though I have been continuing to see patients part time. One main reason I left was my parents' and aunt's ill health. My mother in particular has been in a slow decline for months. Just before Christmas, their caregivers were diagnosed with COVID and my parents tested positive the day after Christmas; I tested positive one week later. Fortunately none of us had to be hospitalized. My father had basically no symptoms, I had the equivalent of a bad cold; my mother had a heavy cough and bronchitis but no fever. All the caregivers were out sick and it was a very rough two weeks, but things are much better now. 

    Unfortunately my aunt has metastatic cancer and without giving details, she is not doing well. I will be staying with her to provide support as she tries to make a decision about stopping treatment. Ironically, my COVID infection could not have been better timed; I'm bulletproof now, at least for the next few months, and am no longer infectious. I tested positive 17 days ago.

    The inauguration is tomorrow, I have no plans to watch. I am honestly disappointed with the results of the election. I don't see things going well, what with immigrants on the march from Central America and the president-elect's plan to shut down the Keystone XL pipeline (what the hell is that about?) - and the New Management hasn't even been sworn in yet.

    As for the immigration issue, I have one word: COVID. Uncontrolled immigration into Southern California and other areas of the Southwest US, already a hotbed for COVID infection: what could possibly go wrong? Or to put it another way, how is our already overloaded health system supposed to cope with this? No one has thought to ask that question so far. 

    I'm going to sign off for now and try to find something else to think about.

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    Tuesday, January 12, 2021
     

    Another Mystery Series

    Over the past ten days I have taken advantage of being in quarantine by reading my eyeballs to stubs. One of my favorite websites, Ace of Spades, has a weekly book post from which I have benefited many times: the book recommendations are always worth paying attention to. Recently someone on the site mentioned the Liturgical Mysteries series by Mark Schweizer and I wholeheartedly recommend these books.

    The series is set in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina and narrated by Hayden Konig, the town chief of police who doubles as the organist and choir director at St. Barnabas. In his spare time the chief, a rabid Raymond Chandler fan, bends his efforts to writing hardboiled mystery novels. He even went to the effort of purchasing Chandler's typewriter at auction, refurbishing it and using it to write. There's just one problem: He's a terrible writer. 

    The books are great. Vivid characterization, scathing religious satire, hilarious town developments, terrible puns and erudite musical and theological references which sail right over my head - they have it all. It is rare that I laugh out loud when I am reading, but every book in this series has made me do exactly that. And the mystery portion of the plots are really good. Do give these a try - you won't regret it. $2.99 apiece on Amazon, if you have a Kindle.

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    Monday, January 11, 2021
     
    So Here We Are 

    Ridiculous, yes? - to run a medically-based blog and to have no specific posts addressing the defining medical issue of the early twenty-first century. I drafted a post on COVID months ago but never got around to completing it, but it's nearly a year later and here we are. We continue to be plagued by The Virus and the vaccine is just beginning to be rolled out.

    Like everything else about the COVID phenomenon, the vaccine is surrounded by fierce argument and conflict. There are groups who state that preference should be given to various groups based on age, race, profession; or conversely that these groups should NOT be given preference as there are other groups that need it more. All of these arguments have a grain or more of truth. But as happens so often, each group is ignoring or downgrading the needs of other groups at the expense of their own. Not to mention that there are many potential recipients who plan to refuse the vaccine for various reasons.

    The good news is that testing accuracy has improved, and the majority of those who get COVID don't get that sick. For those who do get really sick, the immediate and long-term consequences are severe. I type this as I sit at home on my last day of quarantine (I tested positive on January 2). I was one of the exceedingly fortunate ones who never got that sick. It was the equivalent of a nasty cold, and I still can't smell or taste much of anything. 

    This thing spreads. Our little epic began just before Christmas when one of my parents' caregivers informed me that she had tested positive. Her husband and son are two of the other caregivers and they tested positive a day or two later. Then everybody else got sick. Do you know how difficult it is to find people willing to care for COVID-positive elderly? Pretty damn hard. My mother was coughing heavily and after examining her it was clear that she had bronchitis at the very least. I dragged my parents in to our urgent care on December 26; they tested positive and I was negative. I helped care for them as we frantically searched for a home health company willing to take on COVID positive patients, and finally found one. (My mother is bedridden and can't even sit up by herself, so this was necessary.) 

    One week later with the onset of cough I retested, and this time I was positive. One of our regular caregivers and her daughter both wound up in the hospital with low oxygen, but my parents never ran a fever and their oxygen levels remained good. We were so, so lucky.

    Many were and are much worse off. Plenty of people younger than I have died from COVID or are still disabled from it with severe shortness of breath, memory issues and cardiac problems. The US was unable to react to the infection in an organized manner, as we run more on a state-based system than federal; so some states reacted better than others, plus travel was not locked down as soon as it could have been. (I'm looking at you, New York.) This assisted the spread of the virus over the holiday season last year. 

    Speaking of New York, many state/county/city governments packed the elderly into nursing homes like sardines and then we had to watch them die, in many cases alone and abandoned by terrified health care workers. The fact that 2020 was also an election year contributed to the general chaos as blame was thrown like hand grenades, resulting in a massive delay and waste of effort which could have been put to much better use in reacting to the pandemic.

    I have been among the privileged few in the medical field in that I retired just before the whole thing kicked off. I don't do hospital work. I have been doing both in-office and telemedicine visits - my first experience with telemedicine, and I must say it has gone rather well. 

    Everyone is pinning their hopes on the vaccine. Many feel that now the election has passed and a new (demented) sheriff is in town that things will be handled better; I myself don't agree, but I do hope that government leaders everywhere will learn from this and prioritize planning for potential future pandemics. You never know when it will happen again. 



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    Sunday, July 26, 2020
     
    Crack Chili Con Carne

    So I acquired a tenant some time back who thinks my chili is truly awesome. Any time I make it, I freeze most of it and she will devour it over the next few weeks. I thought I'd post the recipe here. If you will allow me a detour into pedantry, chili basically means some type of stew or liquid flavored with chilis. (Chiles? However you spell it, you know what I mean.) Chili con queso: with cheese, chili con carne: with meat. Technically, I suppose meatless chili would be chili con frijoles though I have never heard that term used. At some time in the past few decades, however, chili con carne was shortened to simply "chili," in the assumption that the dish is going to contain meat. 

    My chili is not gourmet in the slightest. It's made with ground beef, not chunk or stew beef, and the base recipe is the 1:1:1 of one pound meat, one 1-lb can tomatoes (technically we now have 15-ounce cans, but whatever), and one 1-lb can of beans. I'm sure it sounds pretty pedestrian, but allow me to suggest a few choices which can add up to a significant improvement in the final product.

    Beans: I go with either small red beans or pink beans, though you can use pinto or black beans if you like. Do not drain the beans.The starch in the bean liquid will help thicken the chili. 
    Tomatoes: diced fire-roasted for preference, and I also add a small can of tomatoes and green chilis (the best known brand in the States is Ro-Tel). Don't drain the tomatoes, either.
    Additional liquid: Rinse the cans with a small amount of water and add that in. In addition, I use beef broth. Beer is an alternative (at least a small amount) and some cooks add coffee.
    Flavorings/spices: This is where you can get creative. I dice an onion and two cloves of garlic and cook these after the meat is browned and drained. Then add the meat back in and add the beans/tomatoes/Ro-Tel and the beef broth. Now, keep in mind that chili powder also is a thickening agent. Standard prepared chili powder consists of pulverized dried chilis, oregano and cumin and often paprika. You can also purchase powders of individual chilis such as ancho chili, but I go with the old tried and true. What I like to do is to start with pouring in some chili powder - I really don't measure but I would estimate 1.5 to 2 tablespoons - and then add in varying amounts of oregano, paprika, garlic powder (yes, on top of the garlic), maybe some celery salt, cumin and a little cayenne. Depending on what is available and my whim, other options would be crushed red pepper or hot sauce. And if you're going for that gourmet touch, a small amount of cocoa powder or bitter cooking chocolate can be added, though I've never tried that either. Be sure to taste as you go. Don't forget the salt, though with the sodium in the canned vegetables you may need less than you think.

    Once all this is in, I bring it to a boil, lower to a simmer and let it go for at least an hour. Don't let it go at a hard boil, because the beans are already cooked and they will fall apart. Lastly, another authentic touch if you want to thicken your chili is to take a small amount of cornmeal, mix it in a cup with some water or liquid from the chili until you have a smooth, loose slurry, and stir it into the chili. You should not use a lot, maybe a couple of tablespoons of cornmeal, and it will need to cook for 20 minutes or so. 

    You can serve with diced onions, grated cheese, sour cream if you like. You can also put chili on baked potatoes or cooked rice, or even on spaghetti. Warm leftovers and toss with romaine or iceberg lettuce, corn chips and cheese and you have taco salad. Enjoy. 

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    Tuesday, July 21, 2020
     
    Thoughts Before Work

    I sit here waiting for my first patient of the day, desk fan set up, coffee ingested. The iPad is set up for video visits and charging cords snake over the desk. A freshly charged phone is at hand for the inevitable telephone visits for our older patients and the telephone number for the translator service is within reach. All set to go.

    My parents' 60th wedding anniversary is this week (my sister reminded me yesterday; I ordered a cake for pickup and she has taken care of the flowers). We will have a little Zoom meeting to celebrate after Dad gets back from his visit to the cardiologist. Yesterday I was on the receiving end of a telephone appointment - for my parents, not for me. With the primary care doctor on the phone I reviewed their medications, blood pressures and symptoms. I also have to talk to them about completing an advance directive form (not the most pleasant conversation I've ever had).

    This is a weird way to live. I veer between doing nothing and being booked with patients all day long. Later this week I plan to go back into the office to see patients in-person for the first time since February. I suppose you could call this a working retirement. I have to pay for my own benefits now, and that comes expensive; but the ability to say "no" to work when I feel like it makes it all worth it. 

    Here in the US there is a growing drumbeat of resistance against the ongoing lockdown orders. I have no objection to wearing a mask, but I am concerned about all the small businesses that are at their last gasp because they aren't being allowed to open. This stressful atmosphere, added to the fact that this is an election year, combine to create a fertile support system for conspiracy theories and accusations. I'm about ready to give up Twitter, because I just get angry every time I log on and start reading. I do wonder whether there was a similar atmosphere in the time of the Spanish flu, post WWI, a time of even greater social upheaval. My mother once told me that her father was prevented from enlisting in the Army due to the flu, but she has very few details. It's too bad; I would have liked to know more. 

    At any rate, it's time to start work. It's been good to start blogging again; it gives me time to get my thoughts down without the constant background static that comes with other social media. It does have a calming effect. 

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    Friday, July 17, 2020
     
    Feral Cat Land

    Here we are on another tour of my neighborhood, one of my frequent morning walks. Today we embark on an east-west walk, rather than north-south. I start out heading south on the big boulevard I mentioned in my previous post for a block or so, then make a ninety degree turn and head east. 

    This neighborhood is nice and quiet, a bit on the exclusive side, and becomes more so as you head further east away from the boulevard: The reason being that all the streets in this section dead end at the local movie studio. Once upon a time this area used to be farmland until it was purchased in the 1920s by Twentieth Century-Fox. The surrounding neighborhood was sold off to become housing and what is now known as Century City, but the studio remains, an island of Hollywood commerce in the middle of Westside suburbia. 

    I like to check out the homes in the neighborhood as I walk along. The styles and sizes of the houses vary. Some are still the one-story ranch type homes that were originally built here but many have been renovated and are now much larger (read: taller). In this area, if the homeowner wants to enlarge the house there is nowhere to go but up. The newer homes are two, sometimes even three, stories and really are too large for the lots they are built on. Many are starkly modern and, to my mind, not very attractive when compared to the Olde California mission or classic ranch styles of their smaller brethren. Some front yards are drought proofed with cactus and gravel; some are tangled webs of rose bushes and overgrown grass with winding paths of brick or stepping stones glimpsed when you crane your neck or venture onto the driveway (with caution, at 5:30 am).

    There are a few north-south cross streets here which run between the two defining east-west streets of the area. They are lined with apartment buildings, most of which are new and look fairly nice. As I approach the terminus of my walk, however, there are a few holdout buildings which are older and shabbier - the chief of which is a faceless two story building, which could best be described as a single block of stucco dotted with a few minimalist windows. It is surrounded by a blasted patch of dry earth which likely has not seen water since the last rain months ago. As I plod up to the dead end of the street the side of the stucco block is enlivened by a small side porch lined with potted plants and an oil-stained driveway on which usually lounge two wary cats. 

    Welcome to Feral Cat Land, the most exclusive amusement park in Southern California. Population: two cats and me. As per my custom I chirp to the cats, which either ignore me or give me a shocked look and disappear. The attraction of Feral Cat Land, other than the cats, is a battered pickup truck several decades old painted teal blue and bearing the International Harvester logo. The truck is a fixture on this street: it's always there every time I come here.  Based on my (minimal) online research, it dates to about 1951. By the time I reach this part of my walk I usually lean on it and pant for a while.

    Feral Cat Land is bordered by a tall wrought-iron gate edged by two impressive Art Deco-styled concrete pillars, painted white. The pillars are topped by two lovely, elaborate street lamps which burn bright in the predawn twilight. If you look more closely you will see a placard on the gate which states that, per municipal code, you can't go through the gate without permission - although you can peer through at the little bungalows by the gate (probably administrative buildings) and a large filming stage looming in the background. Occasionally a golf cart will zip across the parking lot. This is the closest most Angelenos who are not employed by the entertainment industry will ever get to a studio or film set. I always linger here for a minute or two, wondering what it would be like to slip through that gate. The whole matter-of-factness of the location fascinates me: six inches on one side you're looking at a rundown apartment building and feral cats; six inches the other side and it's Movieland!

    If you turn away from the gate and walk north you will find several similar streets dead-ending in similar pillars, marking the borders of the studio. It's rather like traveling from Main Street U.S.A. to Tomorrowland in the Kingdom of the Mouse. Except here, Tomorrowland is strictly off limits. 

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    Monday, July 13, 2020
     
    Architectural History: The Apartment House

    Around the corner from my house is a large north-south boulevard that begins a couple of blocks south of me and runs north into the San Fernando Valley; it's often used by commuters as an alternative to the dreaded 405 freeway. The south end of this road is lined by apartment buildings and terminates at the local public golf course. As the road runs north into the hills, the apartment buildings disappear and are replaced by individual homes. I walk in the mornings for exercise and my route often takes me up this street. Therefore I have had plenty of opportunity to ponder the differences among the buildings as I wander. 

    As with all of Los Angeles, the buildings here are constantly being renovated or torn down and rebuilt. An architectural historian would probably have a field day identifying the styles and dates of the various apartment complexes lining this street. The appearance of the buildings gives most of the clues you need. First, the size:  are they two stories, or three or four? Do they extend for half a block, or are they only one or two units wide? The design of parking spaces alone would be enough, in most cases, to tell you when the place was built. The newest buildings have underground parking accessed by an automatic gate; the older ones have parking slots on the ground floor of the buildings, which may have garage doors or be open to the street. Most tenants of this type of building park their cars on the driveway apron extending onto the sidewalk, because everybody knows that if you park in the garage your car will be blocked by another car and you'll never be able to move it.

    The detailing of older buildings often gives information about the decade in which they were built; buildings from the Fifties and Sixties will have fancy detailing known as "dingbats" - in fact, the nickname has transferred to the buildings themselves. More information, and a nice photo, are here. (Love those garage doors.) In older buildings, more time and effort was spent on windows; you may see French windows, bay windows or windows curved to fit the corner of a building rather than those  Bauhaus-inspired flat atrocities. Scattered around town, a few complexes dating from the 1940s still survive which can be identified by their auto-court design (garages in the back) and curved corners echoing Art Deco streamlining.

    Light fixtures and paint color are also good indications of when a building was constructed. Seventies buildings are noted for their dark wood detailing, overall blocky and squarish design, and globed light fixtures. Sometimes you'll see some wrought iron detailing as well. Everything built after 2000 has that awful Tuscan-inspired pinkish ocher stucco and white trim. Eighties buildings tend to be a little more froufrou - the architectural equivalent of big hair and shoulder pads. There is one building I pass on my walks which is painted blue with fancy metal detailing on the balconies; for whatever reason, it reminds me of a French chateau.

    The buildings I truly love are the garden apartments, which are slowly dying off. They are being torn down and huge, efficient hivelike buildings are appearing in their stead. One such building directly behind me was torn down over the past few weeks; nothing is left of it but dirt and the concrete stairs at either side leading up to the back of the property.  In a garden apartment the living space lines the edges of the lot, with a narrow path leading into a central garden space shared by the tenants. Granted, it isn't the most efficient use of real estate but there is a peace and graciousness to these spaces that will be sorely missed when all of them are gone. Our local architecture conservation group is fighting to save some of them, but it is an uphill battle as developers have no compunction about rewarding our City Council with cash, cash, cash for getting their plans approved. 

    I will try to post soon about one of my other favorite neighborhood landmarks that I visit on my walks.


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    Friday, July 10, 2020
     
    Cake or Death

    The comedian Eddie Izzard has a wonderful routine called "Cake or Death." It's sort of a meditation on religious and geopolitical history and you can see it here (language warning). Basically, he's saying that if the Church of England tried to mimic the Spanish Inquisition everybody would  wind up getting cake. Why would you choose death if you were offered cake?

    But I seem to be entering that part of the life cycle in which you're surrounded by death. Patients I have known for years are dying. My trainer has lost both parents in the three years we've been working together, and another trainer I work with occasionally is about to lose his mother to breast cancer. A close relative of mine has metastatic lung cancer. My parents are reasonably stable - for the moment - but the question is for how long; they're both in their eighties. 

    Several friends of mine have lost parents or other family members recently.

    I guess what I'm saying is it would be nice to be offered some cake for a change. 

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