Blue-Violet Iris Interior

Friday, October 19, 2012

Three-Year Migraine Anniversary

It was three years ago today that I sat down to do some reading after wrapping up a busy week of projects for my graphic design classes and 35 hours of work at the flower shop and was overwhelmed by a massive let-down migraine. That headache set off a cycle of migraine sensitivity that has remained unbroken, banishing the future that had seemed so tangible in the previous weeks, one of happiness, independence, and creative challenges, and replacing it with a life of pain, seclusion, and dependence.

Bummer, as they say.

This year has not been without positive developments, such a gradual recovery from last summer's unlucky head injury, new dog-sitting clients, my growing involvement with horses, and my recent trip across the country. But it hasn't been an easy one, either. Our long, wet, gloomy spring made me feel too sick and dull to invest effort in my photo shop (or much of anything else, either) and led me to the tearful conclusion that I couldn't bear to spend another winter in Seattle. As the wet and gloomy weather continued into summer, I was discouraged by my lingering fatigue and cognitive dullness, which made living independently impossible. It looked like moving to a sunnier clime was out of the question, at least until my parents retired, something they don't intend to do for another eight years.

Once the sun came out in August, however, I made considerable gains, maintaining energy and good spirits despite my foot injury, and it was sunshine that helped me power through the rigors of my cross-country trip and its social demands. Seeing how much better I did when the sun was shining has reopened discussion on moving me to southern California in the near(ish) future. It seems senseless to keep me in Seattle, where rain is the norm and sunshine the exception (Seattle averages 226 cloudy days per year, and rain falls on 155 of them), when I might be able to function much better and with less pain somewhere else (Los Angeles averages 35 days per year with measurable precipitation).

The trip did catch up to me, it should be noted, and I spent five days in bed last week. The dry spell that extended into October has come to a wet and blustery end, and I find my life once again dictated by the state of the weather: my activity inside is determined by what is happening outside. Thus, when the wind blows and rain falls, you can find me slumped in my armchair, listlessly watching undemanding shows (I've been viewing a lot of "How It's Made") or retiring to bed with a book and the dog. When the weather is fine, my mental functioning is restored and at least for a few hours before fatigue sets in, I can take photographs, write blogs, make decisions, and draw enjoyment from my life despite its restrictions.

Things happen slowly for me, of course, and something so drastic as a move to another state will take time. I do, however, think that is where my future ultimately lies. We've decided that at the very least that my mom and I will take a trip to southern California (my parents grew up in the Los Angeles area and much of my extended family resides in Orange County; prior to the migraines, I spent a portion of my summer vacations there every year) in February, giving me something to look forward to as the days get shorter, darker, and wetter.

Maybe one day the migraines will stop. It's not out of the question. But it's also not to be expected; it's the kind of thing I can't hope for. I must live my life as it is and that means catering to every whim of my hypersensitive system. It gets me down from time to time; a few weeks back I spent several hours sobbing out some of my keenest feelings of loss. But having acknowledged that grief, I'm back to my day-to-day acceptance. I do what I can to treat and reduce the headaches--medication, acupuncture, physical therapy and massage, diet, special glasses, sensory interventions, trigger avoidance--and otherwise seek to fill my hours with photography and animals and other things that give me pleasure. I devote much more time to feeling grateful for what I have than bemoaning what I do not.

If you'd asked me, on October 19, 2009, prior to 5:00 in the evening, what I thought my life would look like three years later, this certainly isn't what I might have imagined. But then again, I've always had an almost superstitious aversion to predicting my own future, something that has spared me the pain of not having to compare where I am to where I had hoped to be. Also, I don't have time for regrets. I can't waste any of my energy on wishing things hadn't happened the way they did. My decision to start studying graphic design was a good one, even though the intense visual, creative, and intellectual involvement it required may have been a precipitating factor. And I absolutely refuse to wish that I was born with a different brain. Yeah, its inability to properly produce and process neurotransmitters the way most brains do has resulted in my bipolar II disorder, my sensory sensitivity disorder, and my chronic migraines, but it also has a lot to do with my intelligence and creativity, my wit and wisdom, my empathy and understanding, my writing ability and artist's eye, and my unique and invaluable way of looking at the world. On the days when the weather is fine, I still have access to all of that (though not to the part of my brain that handles creative writing; most writing I do for this blog is but a faint reflection of my talent at its fullest, and I do miss my ability to write at my best) and I would rather have migraines than sacrifice what is great about my brain. Also, changing my brain is not an option, even if I wished to. Thus, this migraine choir is mine whether I want to hear it or not, so I might as well spend my time on cultivating gratitude and pleasure. It's a highly rewarding way of spending one's time and I recommend it to everyone.

So, yeah, I have a disability. But it has forced me to live in the moment, which turns out to really be the best possible place to live. It has freed me from clocks and calendars, from the artificial stresses we place upon ourselves in our society to achieve things by a certain date or time in our lives. It has reinforced the value of simple pleasures. I have a roof over my head, good medical care, a family that loves me, a dog for company, internet access to the outside world, and deeply satisfying creative work. When the wind isn't blowing, I tend to feel lucky and I often feel happy. While I wouldn't wish my life on anyone, I get by okay.

Last year I chose, on this day, to write about what I've lost, and it's all still valid. But this year, despite being forced to spend most of last week in bed and being able to detect, yesterday evening, the falling of the barometer by my rising headache even before the storm hit, I'm feeling fairly positive. Perhaps it's because I see sunshine in my future.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Gotcha!: Celebrating Eight Years of Abbey

Last Wednesday, I sat down to begin work on a blogpost that I intended to make public on the 12th. I was only able to get the following amount of work done before I had to stop because I was finally experiencing the backlash of my exertions of my Florida trip:

The little whippersnapper back in 2004, two months after we brought her home.

Today is Abbey's "Gotcha! Day," her "adoptiversary." It's hard to believe it, but eight years ago on a sunny Tuesday, my mother and I showed up at the Seattle Animal Shelter before it opened to make sure we'd be first in line in order to adopt a sweet brindle stray we'd looked at over the weekend. Her shelter name was Keta; we'd already settled on calling her Abbey. We didn't bring her home until the 13th because she had to be spayed, but today's the day when she became ours. Or, more specifically, she became mine and I became hers.

She has brought us so much joy over these last eight years.

In these last few months, the first gray hairs have appeared in Abbey's eyebrows.

Since she was brought into the shelter as a stray, no one knew anything about her, including her age. The best guess that anyone could give was that she was 1.5-2 years old. That means she's somewhere in the vicinity of ten years old now and her age is beginning to show. Her eyes have acquired the bluish cast caused by lenticular sclerosis as her aging lenses densify. She's developed a couple of fatty tumors and I've found several sebaceous adenomas--benign fleshy tumors of oil glands in the skin often referred to as "old dog warts"--around her face. During her last physical, the vet noticed that she's displaying symptoms of sciatica in one of her back paws; just like her owner, she's not getting full information from her nerves in one of her feet! And that darling little Border Collie muzzle of hers has suddenly gotten quite gray. I've even spotted a few gray hairs in her eyebrows, evidence that a full "sugar face" (my favorite term for an elderly dog displaying a lot of gray/white facial hair) is on its way. She lost a tooth earlier this year and she no longer wants as long of a game. I've also had to reduce her food to not quite half of what it was in her prime because her metabolism has slowed down so much. As hard as it is to believe, my girl is getting old.

Her muzzle in 2008...
...and her muzzle in 2012.


My Abbey-just-planted-a-kiss face
So after writing those paragraphs, I decided to lie down and read for a while and Abbey, of course, was delighted that I was in bed because that meant we could have a nice cuddle together. Jumping up on the bed at my invitation, she came over to lick my face. That's when I smelled ammonia on her breath.

I'd noticed the day before that her breath had been unusually rank and had made a mental note that I really needed to recommit to brushing her teeth, but the ammonia odor took the concept of halitosis to a whole new level of ghastly. It also just didn't seem RIGHT. So I got out of bed again and did a Google search on "dog breath ammonia" and learned that it could be the sign of kidney trouble.

I have to say, I was rattled. I'd noticed, over the last couple of weeks, that sometimes the inside of her mouth and her tongue seemed a bit pale. Pale mucus membranes in a dog are never a very good thing, so when combined with the observation that she'd been drinking just a bit more water (I was refilling her bowl more often during the day), that her poop had looked slightly different recently, and then that awful breath, I was worried that she might be showing the first signs of some kind of serious health problem involving her organs. I wasn't able to get her into see the vet until the 12th, so Abbey spent her "Gotcha Day" being a good girl, first in the waiting room for half an hour, and then for another twenty minutes or so while the vet did a thorough exam that turned up nothing (and of course her gums were as pink as pink can be), and then while getting her blood drawn. Both of us were pretty tired by the time we got home. And then we had to wait all weekend for the lab results.

Pensive girl.

The vet called me Monday with the very good news that all of her blood work came back looking great. Her organs, her thyroid, her blood count, and everything else looked perfect. Why her gums are still occasionally pale remains a mystery, but I was very relieved to hear that her organs are all okay! The vet and I agreed to simply watch and wait. If she exhibits any other changes in health or behavior, we'll reevaluate, but as long as she is acting like her normal self, life can go back to normal.

This photo gives you a sense of Abbey's imperfect mutt proportions: long for her height and with very small head! She looks particularly silly in this picture because she's gotten distracted and forgotten to put her hind paw--the one that's exhibiting signs of sciatica--down.

This was my first major scare with Abbey. I hadn't been worried at all about the mast cell tumor that was removed from her flank last year, to the point that I was taken by surprise when it turned out to be cancerous. I've been sure to regularly remind myself over these last eight years that Abbey is mortal, that she will die, and that it's going to hurt when it happens, but it will also be okay. It's such a different thing to THINK something than to FEEL it, though, and the idea that something might be terribly wrong inside my dog was a horrible feeling. She's not my "fur baby," I don't equate her with a child or think of myself as her "mom," but I do take care of her, look after her welfare, spend most of my time with her, and love her deeply, so it was a new (and difficult) feeling to look at this vulnerable creature that I love so much and to know she might be sick. It made me realize, too, that one of the things that scares me about her death is not that it WILL happen, but I don't know HOW it will happen. I hope I'll be given enough time given enough time, when the end draws near, to see it approaching.

But the end is not yet here.

(Abbey is barking in her sleep as I write this. The sound of a dog barking in its sleep is one of the cutest sounds known to man, in my opinion!)

My mellow pup in her typical one-paw-up lounging pose.

And thus we can resume our routine of mutual pleasure. Abbey has slept in my room since my concussion last summer and for a while, due to her concern for my welfare and an unwillingness to be separated from me, managed to undo seven and a half years of perfect crate-training. I'm pleased to report with intensive training and the use of the Holy Grail of treats, peanut butter, she is back to submitting without argument to being crated while we are gone, snoozing in her downstairs crate when she's looking for a cozy retreat while I'm reading on the couch, and voluntarily sleeping in her crate at night, preferring it, in fact, to sleeping on my bed. We'd never given her many treats in the past, since she has a sensitive stomach, but she's demonstrated that she's highly food-motivated, and perhaps because she hasn't had many treats, she views individual pieces of cereal, like Cheerios, to be a powerful incentive! I've harnessed that willingness to work for paltry snacks into teaching her a new command, "Look," as well as upping the stakes on previously learned commands, like asking her to remain in a down-stay while I leave the room and walk around the house. She's a pretty smart cookie, that Abbey! The treat motivation has also worked really well in neutralizing that bad habit she'd developed of barking ferociously at people and dogs outside the car. I mention in this blogpost from a few weeks ago the intensive training session I did while we were waiting for a ferry and I'm pleased to report that it's practically cured her already! So don't listen to that old saying, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks!"

"I can has peanut butter?"

But most of our days are oriented toward leisure over labor. I invite her up on my bed in the morning for a couple of hours of snuggling and snoozing, then, when I repair to my study, she either joins me, and sleeps on her pillow, or remains on my bed and sleeps there. She takes an interest in my various comings and goings, though sometimes only by opening her eyes and wagging the tip of her tail, but always offers some kind of response when I talk to her (and I talk to her a great deal). She comes alive in the evenings when my parents come home, yodeling with joy as they arrive and thumping the kitchen cabinets with her wagging tail. After dinner she likes to play a jolly game and then it's back upstairs to snooze on the pillow in my study until it's time to go to bed.

She takes an active interest in everything I do. In this photo, she's watching me photograph crocuses by our front door. 

There's nothing more special than being greeted with a yodel! Abbey is singing out her delight in my return with a happy "woo-woo-woo!"

It's a very simple life, interrupted by occasional variations in routine such as car rides and, when I'm well enough, short walks, but the wonderful thing about living with a dog is that you learn to recognize that simple pleasures are enough. From her perspective, she gets a selection of wonderful cozy places to sleep, she gets to spend nearly all of her days with the most precious object in the world (me) and have frequent affectionate exchanges with me throughout the day, she has a larger pack that she loves that reunites each evening, she gets dinner (hurrah!), and a game, and then she can fall asleep each night in the vicinity of her beloved. Why on earth would anyone or anything want more than that?

So Abbey's a great example of living in the moment and finding tremendous pleasure in simple things, but she also makes my family laugh. We love her exuberance while playing games, the way she snuggles with her rope bones but will not not chew them, her eagerness to perform tricks in return for a measly Cheerio, her spins of delight on hearing that a car ride is in the offing, and her funny habit of hanging her tail--or her whole rear end--outside of her bed while chewing on her weekly rawhide stick.

She may not need as long of a game as she gets older, but this playful gal still loves her toys!

Abbey's "Booda Bank," her collection of rope bones that she considers too precious to chew on. "Did you grow up during the Depression, Abbey?" we tease her. "Was there a shortage of Boodas?"

Look at that silly mutt hanging her rump outside her bed while working on a stick!

And why be dignified when you can get belly rubs?

We love her expressiveness, too, the attentive way she listens, moving her eyes and ears and wagging her tail every time you speak or even look at her. It's so gratifying that we are in the habit of jokingly including her in conversations, pausing in discussions on topics such as current events, say, to ask, "So, Ab, are you running for office?" We like how she can use those eyes and ears and that tail to communicate with us, how she can clearly say, "Follow me!" by looking over her shoulder or request a tricks-for-treats session by looking meaningfully at my mother (Abbey regards my mother as the distributor of treats even though I do much of the training), perhaps poking her with her nose, and pricking her ears in a certain way. I love the way that she'll sometimes check in with me by gently bumping my leg with her nose, the way she'll lick my toes with delight when I get up in the morning, and how she'll quietly line herself up beside me as I prepare to transition to a different place, waiting for me to make my move. Our whole family loves to look at her and admire her brindle stripes ("Hey, Abbey, are you a tiger?") and her beautiful brown eyes. We like the way she lines herself up parallel to the carpet in the family room ("So, Ab, are you a mathematician? Do you study geometry?") or how she'll lie down with all her legs and her tail tucked completely out of sight beneath her. ("Hey, Ab, are you a seal?") And of course, we love to pet her, to stroke her wonderfully soft, thick, odorless fur and fondle her exquisitely velvety little ears. Without a doubt, Abbey makes our lives better.

Abbey patiently waits at my side in her "where to next?" position.

Her warm brown eyes are both beautiful and expressive.

Our beloved brindle animal on the move in our backyard jungle!

No words can properly describe the extraordinary softness of her darling ears!

It's hard to believe, in many ways, that eight years have passed (that's enough time for a child to be born and enter the third grade!) since Abbey came to live with us. They've been incredibly tough years for me as I struggled to gain control of my bipolar disorder, went through years of terrible withdrawal thanks to a problematic medication, and then was laid low by the disabling migraines. But every step of the way, Abbey has proved to be exactly the dog I've needed. She made me feel urgently essential to her existance when I was at my sickest, which helped me conquer my fears of being overcome by suicidal thoughts and allowed me to start getting better. Becoming a better pack leader for her so she wouldn't have to be so stressed out about trying to take care of me was instrumental in helping me uncover a confident and assertive side I never knew I had. She offered quiet comfort and companionship when I felt wretchedly nauseated or in pain during the withdrawal years and was my eager sidekick on walks when I finally was able to start regaining my strength. And her presence has proved invaluable once again as I've had to retreat from the world due to the demands of my migraines. I never feel lonely because she makes an amiable companion, happy to communicate with me and partake in my pleasures while making nary a sound. She likes nothing better than cuddling up against me if I'm too sick to get out of bed and that becomes a source of happiness for me on days when otherwise it would be easy to feel down. When Abbey is around, I never feel lonely. The way her eyes light up and her tail wags when I look at her is enough to brighten my days. Her love--pure, unswerving, instinctual, and total--has carried me through eight years of hard times. I will have many dogs in my life, but I have been so fortunate to have stumbled upon, in Abbey--who was chosen largely because of the patient way she was waiting in her kennel at the shelter--exactly the dog I've needed.

I am hers and she is mine.

I love the photograph below because Abbey is gazing at me a soft look of love in her eyes. She is waiting for me to follow her up the stairs and is holding still because I've pointed my camera at her. It sums up so much of what is wonderful about the two of us together.

It's been a joy to have you at my side these past eight years, sweetie. I hope we have many, many more.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Great Floridian Expedition

Well, I'm back from Florida.

Yes, Florida! After scarcely leaving the house for the last three years, I decided to go all out and travel to the opposite side of the country and risk all kinds of complications. Why? Because my one of my former college roommates (and favorite people on the planet) was getting married and of all the things I've missed since the migraines became a full-time disability (several weddings, my grandfather's funeral, trips to Europe and to visit family in California), this was the one I hated to miss the most. So my mother asked me, "What would it take for you to be able to go?"

It's absolutely crucial that I get a lot of sleep and if I don't sleep well, I can't just go on with my day anyway. And I can't deviate from my sleep schedule without consequences. Not only is there a three hour time difference between the West and East Coasts, but the wedding was scheduled to start four hours before I normally woke up. There was no way I could just show up in Florida, power through a couple days of getting up early to reset my clock and then be fine. I knew one of the most important things I would need to do was to shift my sleep schedule over to being in line with Eastern Time. So over the course of two months, I took my nighttime medicine half an hour earlier each week. That meant that in the weeks just before the trip I barely saw my parents at all because I was going to bed right when they came home from work, but it was a huge success in terms of being able to adjust to the three hour time difference without wreaking havoc on my migraines.

Food was another important factor. Florida is a lousy place in general to be a vegetarian and the area where the wedding was taking place, in the rural Panhandle area, was even worse. Eating out is also stressful for me because noise and other stimulation, while deciding where to eat, especially when already hungry or tired, is hard for me even when well. So I packed a lot of food that I could eat in the hotel room. For breakfast I had my usual dry cereal, dried fruit, and nuts. For dinners I packed instant soup cups that I could make by heating water in the hotel coffee maker. When we got to Florida, I supplemented the food I packed with applesauce cups, Triscuits, and grapes. It worked out well to have filling, nutritious food at my disposal so that I didn't have to wake up in time to ponder the items offered by the hotel's complimentary continental breakfast (not likely to be very appetizing) and at the end of the day, when tired, I didn't have to worry about dinner because I knew I had a couscous lentil soup cup that could be ready in five minutes. (My father, meanwhile, got to enjoy some genuine Southern barbecue and local seafood restaurants.) Having sufficient sleep and sufficient food made functioning possible.

Taking my father along was also an important part of the plan. There was no way I could have done all that driving and maneuvering of suitcases (especially since I started out the trip on crutches!) and his presence spared me the necessity of taking care of the mundane details of travel, like checking in and out of the hotels. We had separate rooms so I wouldn't have to contend with his snoring and he wouldn't have to tiptoe around my sleep schedule. His presence made things much easier.

In addition to modifying my sleep schedule, I had worked to build up my physical and social stamina during the months before the wedding. I also purchased several new, cute summer tops (my summer wardrobe had not been updated for several years and a number of my tops were worn out or didn't fit well anymore) and found a clutch I could take to the wedding that I'd be able to fit a pair of sandals inside so I could take off my heels. I covered all the bases I could think of, including scheduling in days for resting during the trip, but there was one big question mark that remained: how I would respond to air travel.

Red stars mark stops during the trip.
We were concerned because I am so sensitive to pressure changes and while they pressurize the cabins of airplanes, there's still enough change on takeoff and landing that your ears pop. It was possible that a flight would be agonizing and here I was, proposing to fly across the country. We decided that a direct flight would be the best way to cope, since it would require only one takeoff and landing, rather than two. The only non-stop flight between Seattle and anywhere in Florida flies into Orlando. The wedding was taking place outside Tallahassee, nearly three hundred miles (and five hours of driving) from Orlando, but we concluded that it was better to drive than have to transfer planes in Texas. We also scheduled a day of total rest following our arrival in Orlando and I prepped for the flight with multiple migraine medications, muscle relaxants, a travel pillow, two different types of earplugs, an eye mask, a iPod loaded with classical cello solos, and easy-to-eat-even-when-queasy snacks, but it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I boarded the plane. So I doped myself up and off we went. The headaches didn't end up being too bad (I think my preventative medication approach really helped), but on flight to Florida I endured some pretty agonizing muscle pain. I'm so thankful I had muscle relaxants to take! The cello music helped, too, because it gave me something to focus on besides the pain. But the five and a half hours did pass, and after I'd taken a very long hot shower upon arriving in Orlando, I was actually okay.

The paradox that is Florida: gorgeous nature and
ugly development
And so there I was in Florida. This was not the first time I found myself in that state. I spent four years attending (and then graduated from) the excellent New College of Florida in Sarasota. My opinion of Florida, formed during my college visit in October of 1998, was that it was one weird state and that opinion never changed. It was the polar opposite of Seattle's brooding landscape of hills and mountains, dark green forests, gray skies, cool temperatures, and dark blue waters. Florida, and especially the southern Gulf Coast around Sarasota, seemed like a land designed and colored by Disney: turquoise water, white sand, pink stucco, palmetto greens, and blue skies with perky, puffy white clouds. Oh, and it was almost comically flat. That goofy, cheerful landscape had a dark underside to it, one of high humidity, zillions of insects, the sharp contrast between the wealthy retirees and impoverished black populations, a desperate lack of decent bread, an alarming number of sex shops and rent-by-the-hour motels, and a general swampy atmosphere of accelerated decay. There were things I loved about Florida--the alligators, the sunsets, my school, the beaches--but I was not the least bit sorry to leave it. Upon arriving in Orlando, I found myself surrounded by Florida's most depressing landscape: mile after flat, desolate mile of strip malls and chain stores, a soul-sucking vision of America at its ugliest. It reinforced my feeling that Florida was a place best left behind.

On the road in the Sunshine State.
Fortunately, after my day of rest following the flight, we hit the road headed toward points north and the scene of many fond memories. During three of my four years in Florida, I dated a native of Gainesville and his wonderful family had always welcomed me into their home with open arms. It meant a lot to me to have this surrogate family to spend breaks and Thanksgiving holidays with when my own family was 3000 miles away. I've remained in touch even after my boyfriend and I parted ways at graduation, so I'd arranged to have lunch with his mother when we passed through Gainesville on our way north. It was lovely to see her again and sit down at the table of the house that I knew so well and remembered so fondly, but the best part of the day was yet to come. My former boyfriend and I had remained very good friends and I was overjoyed when he and my first-year roommate fell in love after graduation--she was a much better match for him than I was! I had the honor of attending their wedding and now I had an opportunity to be present to celebrate another milestone: welcoming their first child!

My friend holding his new baby.
The baby hadn't been in any hurry to make his debut and things had reached the point that his mother was scheduled to have labor induced the day I was passing through Gainesville. Fortunately, he decided it was time to come out on his own and was born the day before the deadline! I was planning on visiting my friends and their new baby on my way back through Gainesville after the wedding, but was delighted (and honored) to learn that they wanted me to come visit them at the hospital! So that is how I found myself on the maternity floor of the UF hospital, cradling the 28-hour-old son of some of my dearest friends in my arms. I've always been intimidated by babies and babies, sensing my discomfort, have always squalled in alarm when placed in my arms, but holding this brand new infant was different experience. He really was amazing, so tiny and warm and vulnerable and alive! Fortunately, he's proved to be a very mellow baby, still spending most of his time sleeping, so he made no protest when he was transferred into my arms, allowing me to marvel at his newness without fear of discomforting him. I've hear people rave about baby feet and toes and hands and now I know why: they are astonishing in how perfectly formed they are, complete with all the creases at the joints and those amazing tiny nails! It was also so special to see my former boyfriend transformed into a father as he held his infant son in his arms! I felt so honored to be invited to share these early moments with them as a family and was really blown away by the experience of meeting a newborn in the flesh! I was feeling much more inclined to view the state of Florida in a positive light when my father and I once again got under way, heading toward the Panhandle.

On the backroads of the Florida Panhandle.
During my college years, I went to Gainesville regularly and visited both Cedar Key (on the Gulf Coast) and St. Augustine (on the Atlantic) several times, stopped off at Dino World in Plant City and had dinner in Orlando on a day-trip, went down to the Everglades on two occasions, and flew in and out of Tampa whenever I went home, but I'd never been to the Florida Panhandle. I knew very little about it, other than that it was considered part of the Deep South (there's the saying that "The farther south you go in Florida, the further north you get"), that many of Bailey White's stories take place nearby, and the highest point in Florida, a laughable 345 ft about sea level, is located in the region. (Did you know that the highest non-nautral point in Florida is the roof of the Four Seasons Hotel Miami, at 789 ft?) I was therefore rather unprepared for how beautiful it was as we left Tallahassee behind us and turned south toward the Gulf, heading toward Wakulla Springs.

The spring-fed Wakulla River
I HAD heard of Wakulla Springs before. Many years ago, while watching TV in the hotel room during a long car trip, my family had viewed a program about the spring, one of the largest and deepest in the world. Divers have found plenty of bones of prehistoric animals in its depths, but the network of underwater caves is so vast (12 miles have been mapped and surveyed so far), that it has yet to be explored in its entirety. I found the program fascinating enough that I've remembered it after all these years and recognized it as the spring in Bailey White's piece "Large and Deep" from Sleeping at the Starlite Motel. I was pleased, therefore, to get a chance to visit in person a place that I'd heard about.

It had been late enough when we finally checked into our hotel in Crawfordville that we put off visiting the springs until the next day. By then, I'd been on crutches for five and a half weeks. I'd gotten quite skilled at getting around with them, but found that using the crutches in the sweaty, humid Florida climate produced some agonizing chaffing under the arms. I'd been doing exercises to strengthen my back and reduce pressure on the nerve and had noticed it was getting easier for me to walk around my hotel room without crutches (or any pain) as long as I wore my shoes with major arch support. I decided to venture out that day without the crutches, and while I had to walk very slowly when I first started out, I haven't used the crutches since! It turns out that improving the nerve signals to my foot by strengthening my back helped the bones in my foot move back into their usual positions so that the bone spur no longer was digging painfully into places where it didn't belong!

I loved this sunlit patch of swamp visible from the road that ran through the park to the lodge!

I had been warned by my friend, the groom-to-be, to watch out for wild hogs because the best man had encountered two on one of the area roads, an incident that resulted in some damage to his car. I was quite delighted to add hogs (pronounced as two-syllable word when spoken by the locals) to my list of animals to keep an eye out for, but when my father and I arrived at the springs, the dominate wildlife on display was several hundred teenagers on a field trip. The cacophony they created was a great incentive for us to quickly hop on a boat for a tour of the Wakulla River, which is created by the 400,000 gallons of water flowing out of the spring every minute. It was a fantastic decision because that beautiful boat ride ranks as one of the greatest outdoor experiences of my life!

The Wakulla River

The river flows through a magnificent landscape of tall cypresses draped with long gray streamers of Spanish moss. The shores are dense with brush and the shallow river is dotted with swaths of pickerel weed and bullrushes. Ibises, anhingas, and egrets abound, as do turtles, common moorhens, and alligators. The very best part of all, however, was the manatees. During my previous years in Florida, the only manatees I saw were those in an aquarium, so seeing them in the wild was such a treat. We must have seen about a dozen of them, including a mother and baby. I was absolutely thrilled when one surfaced right next to where I was sitting in the boat, allowing me to snap several clear photographs! By the time the hour-long trip was over, the buses carrying the hundreds of rowdy teens were pulling away and my opinion of Florida had been vastly improved by the beautiful scenery of the Wakulla River.

Wakulla River views.

An ibis.

A female anhinga.

A close encounter with a manatee.

A small alligator shares a sunning spot with four red-belled turtles.

A larger alligator swimming in the river.

The wedding guest.
I encountered my friend in the lobby of the 1937 lodge on the park grounds where the wedding was to be held, but he was deep in preparations for the wedding and I opted not to take up much of his time. I intended to go to the informal party being held that night, but ended up needing to rest after my first day of walking and the effects of so much scenery. The next morning I dolled myself up for the wedding and headed back to the lodge. It turned out the only person I knew well other than the groom was another one of my former roommates, so I felt a bit awkward. I went to a very small school, so I knew most of the guests by sight and remembered many of their names, but I didn't personally know most of them, especially since they were almost all a year or two behind me. (The groom, also a year behind me, was my roommate my senior year and made friends with most of the guests from our college who were present, as well as the bride, after I graduated.) I also found that while I was able to get around without crutches, my legs were so weak from five and a half weeks of minimal use that I kept having to sit down. But at least I looked fabulous! I also did a great job chatting with the people at my table once we'd sat down for a meal, but ultimately had to leave before the wedding was over. That said, I was there for eight hours! I had only expected to make it through two or three, so this was a triumph.

Egrets wading in a pond in the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.

Heavy rain falling
on the refuge.
All of the other guests departed the next day, but we had scheduled an extra day in the Wakulla area in case I needed to rest up after the wedding. I arranged to see the groom later in the afternoon and then my father and I set off for the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, comprised of 68,000 acres spread across three counties along the Gulf of Mexico, and only a few miles south of Wakulla Springs. It's a vast system of pine and hardwood hammocks, wetlands, ponds, and estuaries that have been set aside as wintering habitat for migrating birds. Our arrival coincided with that of a heavy downpour, but after a bit of waiting, it moved on and we slowly drove out to the St. Marks lighthouse, stopping now and then so I could photograph various birds and butterflies. The sun was shining--rather thinly--over the choppy, silvery Gulf when we reached the end of the road at the lighthouse. I was thrilled, when looking up into a pine tree next to the lighthouse, to spot an osprey sitting on a branch just above me! I took dozens of photographs and was immensely pleased to have found myself in such close quarters with one of my favorite birds of prey. On our drive back toward the visitor's center, I spotted an even more exciting photographic opportunity: a softshell turtle! I'd never seen such a weird-looking face on a turtle and was delighted that it tolerated my presence as it basked on the road, allowing me to get some extreme close-ups. I also saw a snake sunning on the road as we were driving, but unlike the turtle, it didn't stick around to get its picture taken. Then we took a little walk near the visitor's center where baby alligators had been sighted the day before, but we spotted nary a baby gator. I did get to photograph a colorful grasshopper, though. I was well pleased with my nature photography successes as we went back to the lodge at Wakulla Springs so I could spend a little time with my friend.

A colorful Gulf fritillary.

The St. Marks lighthouse.

An osprey overhead.

A bizarre-looking Florida softshell turtle!

A large and brightly-colored grasshopper.

Here I am with the happy couple.
I was glad to spy him in the lobby and we were able to engage in pleasant conversation for an hour or so, just the kind of talking that we used to do back when we were roommates, the sort that had endeared him to me all those years ago. I was so glad to have a chance to spend some time with him outside the rather stressful setting of the wedding. After my father snapped a photo of me with my friend and his new wife, it was back to the hotel to get some rest ahead of the next day's drive back to Orlando, once again through Gainesville.

We rolled back into Gainesville in the early afternoon with two items on the agenda: to hang out again with my friends and their new baby and also to meet some dogs I met on the internet.

Bug and Pug share some love.
Yes, dogs. Of course, anyone who knows me at all knows that I love dogs and it should be no surprise that I follow quite a few dog rescues and "dogs" on Facebook. One of the pages that makes me laugh the most is the one belonging to Sarge Wolf-Stringer. Sarge himself is now deceased, but I find the antics of the remaining members of his pack, and especially those of elderly Mary Todd Lincoln the Pug and her young boy-toy Junior "Bug" the Pit Bull, to be highly entertaining. Their family had recently moved to Gainesville and I'd sent them a message asking if I could meet the dogs while I was in town, figuring it to be a long shot. But they said yes! So on the first of October, I found myself in the company of their six friendly dogs, distributing petting and being enthusiastically licked in return. It was fun to meet them in the flesh, though they seemed SMALLER in person than they are in their photos and I was reminded that the personalities they assume in cyberspace are, in fact, largely invented by their owners, not that I couldn't project them back on the dogs! It was a lot of fun and a great example of how the internet (and Facebook) can help strangers find common ground and meet, then, in person. I wasn't able to take as many good photos as I would have like (the dogs were far too wiggly!), but I certainly carried away some wonderful memories.

Mary Todd Lincoln and Martha Washington were nearly as happy to see me as I was happy to see them!

Dark clouds and rain move across Paynes Prairie
I should also mention that some scheduling conflicts with squeezing in both the dogs and my friends arose, so my father and I found ourselves with about an hour and a half of spare time. We opted to drive out to Paynes Prairie so I could take more photos of Florida plants and animals, though we once again encountered a Floridian downpour of the sort that makes driving nearly impossible. But like most Floridian downpours, it eventually moved on and we were able to take a walk out onto a viewing platform. We didn't see any alligators, as we had hoped, but the rain ended up giving me the opportunity to photograph dragonflies. With an abundance of mosquitoes and other flying insects to feed on, dragonflies are all over the place in Florida, but they move so quickly and are so easily startled that it was impossible to get a picture of one. As it so happened, the dragonflies needed to stop and sit and dry their wings out after the heavy rain and one opted to do so on the railing of the viewing platform where I was standing. I carefully moved my camera closer and closer, taking picture after picture, knowing it might fly away at any moment, but it never budged! I was able to photograph a few other dragonflies pausing to dry their wings, too, though none nearly as close. I was also extremely excited to spot a pair of yellow garden orbweavers. In my mind, "garden" implies a certain smaller domestic scale as well as an indication of habitat, but these spiders were enormous. The body of the larger was about the size of my thumb! I personally think "huge dramatically-colored orbweavers" would be a better name, though they were surprisingly camouflaged; I'm sure many people walk past without seeing them. I was glad to add their photos to the great shots of a banana spider I'd taken up at Wakulla Springs.

I couldn't believe my luck when this dragonfly remained still long enough for me to photograph it!

The innocently named "yellow garden orbweaver."
It is bigger in real life than it appears on your screen!

And then it was time to see the baby again, now at home and five days old! It also gave me an opportunity to converse more closely with my friends, though make no mistake, I made sure I got to hold their infant again! It was such a pleasure to sit in the pretty sunroom of their apartment, cradling a baby, and having pleasant conversation with longtime friends! It was evening when my father and I finally got on the road again, heading south to Orlando. We were followed into town by yet another downpour, but Florida without storms wouldn't be Florida!

Babies are cool.

Especially this baby.

Baby feet!

Heavy rain in Orlando.

Our plane bound for Seattle didn't depart until evening, so my father and I decided to use our final day in Florida to drive over to the Atlantic coast. We thought about visiting the Kennedy Space Center, but ultimately decided it would be too much walking for me. Instead, we opted to see the ocean and found ourselves in Cocoa Beach. I was surprised by how glad I was to see "my" kind of Florida. Cocoa Beach may be an Atlantic surfer town and Sarasota a artsy/wealthy-retiree Gulf town, but they share the same plants, the same pastel hues, and same cheerful brightness to the light. I hadn't thought I missed Sarasota at all, but I guess part of me HAD developed a fondness for the landscape. But what I really wanted to see was the water, so after passing the Ron Jon surf shop that had been advertised on billboards our entire route, we parked at the end of a side street and made our way over the small dunes and onto the beach.

Yours truly enjoying
the beach.
Boy, was it ever lovely! I love the ocean and of course couldn't resist wading in the water. It was incredibly warm, probably close to eighty degrees. It was the kind of water you could have lingered in all day. I was rather sorry we only had fifteen minutes to spend there. It did my soul a great deal of good to stand on the white sand with warm water swirling around my ankles, gazing out at the blue ocean and the white foam of the breaking waves even for just those few minutes. It was with a light heart that I followed my father back to our car. After lunching on some excellent Thai food (why is Thai food in Florida so good? and furthermore, why was all the Thai food I ever tried in Chicago so mediocre?), we headed inland, back to Orlando, to the miles of chain stores, and toward looming storms. Once we reached the airport, I changed out of my shorts into a pair of soft pants for the plane, but I liked knowing that I carried on my legs the sand and salt of one coast as I journeyed to another.

Cocoa Beach.

Laughing gulls taking it easy.

Warm surf.

All in all, I was gone for eight days, traveled 1,010 miles by car, traveled more than 5,000 miles by plane, and took 927 photos. I saw some of my closest friends from college, encountered wild manatees, finally ate at Waffle House, photographed a softshell turtle, and met my first newborn baby. I discovered I could once again walk without crutches and I could fly on an airplane without too much misery. In other words, the trip was amazing.

A flock of ibises flying over the wetlands in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.