Thursday, August 27, 2015

Health Benefits

Our local DES office. We spent a lot of time here right after Mark came to stay.

When Mark first got out of prison, he was told by his parole officer to head on down to DES and apply for food stamps, cash assistance, AHCCCS, and whatever else was available. Since he had no income and no assets, Mark would surely receive all possible benefits to help him get by until he found a job. That's what he was told.

Regardless of your reason for being there, everyone had to wait in line
to be seen at this window first. And they stood at that window for a very long time.

So that's what we did. We waited in long lines, filled out 12-page applications, went through phone interviews, and jumped neatly through every hoop they placed before us.

In between people, it was an empty window for a very, very long time.

Then came the irritatingly bad news: despite the fact that Mark and I have been divorced and lived apart for 9 years, despite the fact that I had full custody of our children all that time, despite the fact that Mark hasn't paid a penny of child support since 2007... the government in its infinite wisdom made the determination that since Mark and I were living in the same house as our 17-year-old (at that time) son, they had to include my income as part of Mark's income.

What?! If Mark had moved in with a total stranger (even if that person were rich), that person's income would have been inconsequential and Mark would have qualified for all the benefits available. But because we had a child together who lived in my home, suddenly I was responsible for paying all of Mark's expenses? How does that work? I guess it's true, no good deed goes unpunished.

While we wait in line, lots of open windows are waiting one.
Not surprisingly, the other side of the building was usually totally empty--
the side that houses Job Services--while the benefits side was always packed.

Fortunately, it only took Mark a month to find a job, and he hands over most of his paycheck each payday for rent and to pay down what he owes for the goods I provided before he could purchase them for himself. He's almost paid it all back already--not counting the child support, of course.

Even more fortunate, the criteria to qualify for AHCCCS (Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System) is more reasonable and did not include considering my income. He was finally awarded a health insurance card, and it's a good thing.

The clinic of Mark's primary care physician.

That first week Mark was with us, it was clear that we had some health problems to explore. First, he'd been experiencing severe, chronic back pain for a couple of months. In prison, they gave him muscle relaxants for it but he hadn't seen a doctor. Secondly, he has some major hearing loss. I think he hears less than half of what we say. Third, Mark was exhausted all the time. He fell asleep by 9:00, slept in until 9:00, and fell asleep on the couch throughout the day. I'm not sure he ever saw a TV program from start to finish.

So as soon as he was approved, we selected a doctor and took him in. We were very much surprised when the back pain and hearing issues were set aside because they discovered that Mark had a dangerously fast heart rate (around 130 beats per minute) and a potentially fatal, irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation. The doctor began writing out orders and prescriptions, fast and furious.

Lab Corp is where Mark gets his blood drawn regularly.

The first thing they did was put him on a blood thinner to prevent blood clots and stroke. That meant regular visits to a clinic to have his blood drawn, to monitor the thickness of his blood.

The cardiologist's office.

Next, Mark had to see a cardiologist. We've all been seeing a lot of each other. Thankfully, I like Dr. Ata much better than I did my own cardiologist back in 2009. A couple of cardio tests, including an echo-cardiogram, confirmed Mark's atrial fibrillation, plus a leaky valve and one chamber of the heart enlarged. The doctor said this meant Mark has had the A-fib for a long time.

Because Mark's heart rate and heartbeat haven't responded to the medications so far (lucky for Mark, the irregular beat doesn't cause him discomfort), he's had several EKGs and "rhythm strips" to see what his heart is doing. Dr. Ata put him on a new medication two days ago that he thinks will work. If it doesn't, he told us they may have to shock Mark's heart back into a regular rhythm. Aargh!

Preferred Homecare's office. They provide oxygen services.

A common cause of A-fib is sleep apnea, so the next step was to make sure Mark was getting enough oxygen while he slept. He has always snored in his sleep, so I figured this was a likely problem for him. They began with an oximetry study, where he wore one of those oxygen readers on his finger while he slept at home one night. 

The readings showed that his oxygen levels were dropping quite low while he slept. They put him on an oxygen concentrator with a cannula to deliver oxygen throughout the night. We all noticed right away that the snorting and muttering and rumbling sounds from Mark's bedroom stopped that very first night.

Then he spent a night in a sleep study clinic, where he was hooked up to literally dozens of wires while a tech monitored his breathing all night long. The verdict: severe apnea. He stops breathing about 30 times per hour. So next week they will add a cpap machine and mask to the oxygen concentrator, which will force the oxygen into Mark's lungs all night long. (My second husband, Ed, also had severe apnea and had to use a cpap machine and mask.)

Our local hospital, Summit Healthcare (just 3 miles from home).

Meanwhile, the doctor hadn't completely ignored Mark's back pain, which sometimes extends down his buttock and leg. For that issue, we made some trips to the hospital, first for an x-ray and then for an MRI. The x-ray revealed spinal stenosis, but they followed up with the MRI to see how serious it was.

Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the open spaces along the spine, which can put pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. I'd heard that it's extremely painful, but after seeing Mark deal with it in his quietly stoic way, I can now imagine how awful it really is. Mark rarely complains, but the way he moves when he hurts speaks volumes.

The MRI showed that Mark's stenosis is so severe that the doctor won't even try to treat it. Instead, they referred him directly to a neurosurgeon, who has already contacted us. A trip to Flagstaff awaits us in a month or so for a consultation, but if we decide to go the surgical route, we'll wait until we return from our northern California trip in October. After discussing the surgery with the cardiologist, we decided to wait because Dr. Ata wants to get Mark's A-fib under control first.

Mark shows off his wrist tag in the hospital.

It seems so funny that Mark is only 47, almost 14 years younger than me, and yet his health problems seem so much larger than mine. Clean living, right?

The one issue we have not explored is Mark's hearing loss, but I suppose we have bigger fish to fry for now. We're all learning to speak more loudly and to make sure Mark is paying attention.

Mark in the "Atrium" wing of the hospital, 
where the x-ray and MRI machines are located.

Since he's started sleeping with oxygen, Mark's exhaustion is all but gone. He can stay up as late as 10:00 or 11:00 and then wake up by 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning. He still falls asleep in front of the TV sometimes, but only occasionally now. And he has much more energy to accomplish tasks during the day. That's progress!

I love the local photographs featured on the walls of the Atrium.
We truly live in beautiful country here.

And so, despite my love/hate relationship with government programs, I am grateful we've been given the opportunity to address and resolve Mark's too-long-neglected health issues. I think we're on the way to better health now.

A scene from one of our favorite lookouts on the Mogollon Rim.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Flowers for Mommy

Aug. 18, 2015: Beautiful blue flowers from my firstborn.

On Tuesday morning, my daughter Sarah came by around 6:30. She often stops in like that after she drops her husband Chris off at work. As usual, I was in the bathroom getting ready for work. When I came out, I noticed a bouquet of unusual blue flowers on the kitchen table, so I asked Sarah if Chris gave her flowers. She said no, so I asked if she got them and was taking them home with her. She said no, so I asked, "Are you leaving them here for us?" She answered, "Something like that."

Then I walked into the kitchen and saw the note she'd printed out for me. I immediately burst into tears (so much for my carefully applied makeup...). Sarah has a gift for knowing when I need an emotional boost.

I took my gorgeous flowers to work with me, placing them on my desk where I could occasionally pause and feast my tired eyes on them while I graded...and graded...and graded... My students appreciated them, too. In fact, it was a student who pointed out to me how the centers of the deep-blue flowers were filling up with lengthening white petals (see below) as the week went on. He thought they were incredible, and I had to agree.

I have no idea what kind of flowers these are. They remind me a little bit of
chrysanthemums. Check out how they looked on the morning I got them...

My whole family knows how stressful the past three weeks have been for me. They know because I've become a crazed, cranky, easily-frustrated lady. Luckily for them, I haven't been home that much. Teaching 6 classes, three of them being large freshman and sophomore English classes, with no prep time and with papers to grade for 130 students, is truly kicking my booty. Kicking it hard.

...and check out how they looked 4 days later! The inner white petals
continued to grow out and fill the interior day by day.

My contract day runs from 7:30 to 3:30. Teachers always put in much more time than that, of course. We all do. And, since I'm being paid extra to give up my prep, it's to be expected that I'll put in more hours to stay on top of my extra load. But this is ridiculous.

That first week, I stayed until 6:30 on Monday, 8:00 on Wednesday, and 5:30 on Thursday (I had to leave at 3:30 on Tuesday to get Mark to a doctor appointment). That's 9.5 extra hours. The second week, I stayed until 5:00 on Monday, 8:00 on Wednesday, 4:00 on Thursday, and 5:00 on Friday (with more medical appointments on Tuesday). That was 8 extra hours. Still too much, in my opinion, but within the realm of reason. Then this week: 6:00 on Monday, 5:00 on Tuesday, 9:00 on Wednesday, 5:00 on Thursday, and 7:00 on Friday. Putting 13.5 extra hours into five days is beyond absurd. At this rate I'll exhaust the extra pay (about 180 hours' worth) by the first week of December. And I still ended up bringing home the last 10 papers to grade.

I am not a workaholic. Never have been. My home and family are far more important to me than any job will ever be. My career, in fact, is all about taking care of my family and being there for them. Now I find myself on the edge of burnout, so something's got to give.

I've always felt an important aspect of teaching is grading all the students' work and giving them feedback on each assignment. To me, everything they do has value and part of my job is to let them see that their effort matters. Yesterday I spoke with the Spanish teacher about my endless, sky-high stack of grading. He told me he assigns plenty of work all week, but only chooses two assignments to score and put in the grade book. The students don't know which he'll choose. Other English teachers have told me the same thing. I don't necessarily like the idea, but now, after 35 years in the classroom, it's becoming a matter of survival. And I need to conserve some energy and time to actually plan my lessons and teach them.

Back at home today: So beautiful, like my daughter!

Coming home late so often has also wreaked havoc with my diet, which in turn drains my energy and affects my mood. Many nights I dash away for 15 minutes to pick up some fast food, then return to my classroom to eat it with one hand while I grade papers with the other. On Thursday night, I just couldn't take it anymore. I left work earlier than I'd planned (at 5:00), went home to grab a one-hour nap, then told Mark, "Let's go get some real food somewhere."

Aug. 20, 2015: Mark waits for his lasagna at Pasta House.
(The same restaurant where I had dinner with Orlando Bloom 6 years ago!
Click here to read about that experience... Orlando and Me)

He was game, so we ended up at an old favorite, Pasta House, where Mark ordered the beef lasagna and I got the manicotti. Yum! Then we splurged on dessert: hot fudge-drizzled chocolate torte with vanilla ice cream for him, raspberry-and-caramel-drizzled New York-style cheesecake for me. Both desserts were divine!

I must give props to Mark, too. Another big stressor for me is watching my home become progressively more messy and disorganized during my continuing absences. I accept that most people, especially the men in my world, do not share my OCD gene and simply do not see the chaos around them as I do. However, Mark is aware of the stress it places on me and, despite the toll his own job takes on his aching back (we'll get his MRI results on Monday), he heroically works at keeping the kitchen clean whenever he has a day off. That, my friends, is what real love looks like.

I love each and every one of my family members passionately. This week, my deepest gratitude to Sarah and Mark for reminding me that I am valued and loved, too!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Everly Brothers Tribute

Jake and Mary: A selfie before the concert begins.
August 14, 2015

While I was at Walmart around 5:00 yesterday to pick up Jake from work, I got a phone call from my son-in-law Chris. It seems he was the seventh caller on a radio program that morning and won himself two free tickets to a concert by an Everly Brothers Tribute Band (calling themselves the Evenly Bros).

The problem was, Sarah had to work and Chris's mom, Brenda, was too tired after work to go. She's really an early-morning person. So Chris offered the tickets to me. 

Well, Mark worked from 3:00 to midnight and Dylan from 4:00 to 9:00 (and the tickets specified that you had to be at least 21 to attend anyway). Since the concert began at 8:00, that left only Jake and me. We decided to go for it. We called it a "Mother and Like-a-Son Date"!

The "Evenly Brothers" on stage in Hon-Dah with their band.

So we went to dinner at Panda Express before driving up to Chris and Sarah's place to pick up the tickets. After that we stopped by home so Jake could change out of his Walmart blues-and-khakis, and then we drove on to the Hon-Dah casino on the Fort Apache reservation, where the concert was held in one of the conference rooms (the same one where we often hold our high school's junior-senior prom).

It's too dark to see all the dancers on the floor in front of the stage.

We arrived more than half-an-hour before the concert began, but the place was filled with large round tables that were already packed. Jake and I wandered around awhile, being denied seating by folks saving seats for their friends, until someone helped us find two unoccupied chairs at a table near the wall.

Once we were seated and had taken the requisite selfies, I looked around at the crowd and realized that 99 percent of those sucking down beers and wine coolers (no smoking allowed, thank you) were gray-haired and/or balding retirees, mostly from the diamond-studded country club set. I noted with humor how odd it was to be surrounded by such a geriatric crowd, when it suddenly hit me with shocking force, "Oh. My. Gosh. I'm one of them!"

It's always so strange to realize that I'm as old as I am. In 17 days I'll be 61, but I still seem to see myself as a thirty-something. Maybe it's because I spend my days in high school, or because I have barely any silver in my still-thick hair, or because I still have all my own teeth, or because I still have a child at home when most people my age have teenage grandchildren. Or maybe it's just a natural resistance to acknowledgement of aging. Whatever, I don't like it!

Jake was game to go to this concert with me, but he admitted on the way to Hon-dah that he'd never heard of the Everly Brothers. Well, Jake is only 24, and the Everly Brothers' heyday was from 1958 to 1985. I remember my mom singing "Wake Up, Little Susie" to me when I was just four or five. 

Nonetheless, I assured Jake that he may not know their names, but he would know their music as soon as he heard it. Their songs are a part of American music culture, practically iconic. And I was right. As soon as the tribute singers started the first song, he looked at me with big eyes and said, "Oh, yes!" Soon he was singing along with the rest of us oldsters.

It turned out to be a really fun evening. The concert went from 8:00 to 9:20, and the band covered most of the Everly Brothers' most popular songs, including:

"Bye Bye Love," "All I Have to Do Is Dream," "Let It Be Me," "When Will I Be Loved," "Love Hurts," "('Til) I Kissed You," "Crying in the Rain," "Walk Right Back," "Love Is Strange," "Bird Dog," "On the Wings of a Nightingale,"  and my personal favorite: "Cathy's Clown." I was probably seven or eight when I fell in love with that song.

After the first couple of songs, the folks around us made their way to the central floor and began to dance like a bunch of teeny-boppers in front of the stage to every song, gyrating and waving their arms like they'd suddenly misplaced several decades. A few, in fact, were dressed like teens from the 1950s. I admired their abundant energy. They put me to shame!

A 16-second clip where you can see the geriatric crowd dancing like a bunch of youngsters!

I tried to get pictures of them dancing, but all I got were shadows, as can be seen in the above photos. But they came out pretty well in the short video clip above. Everyone had a great time, including Jake and me.

Thanks for thinking of us, Chris!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Four Years Together

August 1, 2015: I'm loving this picture!

On July 30th, Chris and Sarah celebrated four years of marriage and made it memorable by enjoying a 3-day vacation together in northern Arizona. Normally, their anniversaries are quiet affairs with an evening out, but they decided to make it extra-special this year.

July 30, 2015: Chris at Bearizona.

They left home on the morning of their anniversary, Thursday, July 30th, and drove to Williams, Arizona, just west of Flagstaff. Their first stop was a wildlife park called Bearizona. There, they drove a 3-mile road into the heart of wilderness populated by black bears, bison, mountain goats, and other creatures. Sarah said the bears were quite abundant, and they have the photos to prove it!

Since they had to take pictures through the car's windows,
many were a bit fuzzy, but this one is great!

Some of the bison calves were only a few days old.

Next, Chris and Sarah walked through Fort Bearizona, where they were able to see baby animals and smaller critters up-close. And, of course, Sarah fell in love with the petting zoo called Bearizona Barnyard. She has been a huge animal lover since her infant eyes first focused on a four-footed friend.

This iridescent peacock appeared out of nowhere near their car.

There is also a Birds of Prey show featuring hawks, falcons, owls, and other raptors. Sarah said she got a great picture of Chris when a bird flew right over his head, but she accidentally deleted it. Darn!

Now accepting donations: this bird takes your money and puts it in the donation jar.

From Bearizona, the happy couple went on to their hotel room in Williams, where they spent the next two nights. They said the bed was uncomfortably hard and the walls were so thin that they could hear everything the neighbors were saying (so Sarah kept hushing Chris), but it fit into their budget. Cheap, in other words. I remember those days, when Mark and I stayed in cut-rate hotels with our kids so we could enjoy a family trip. We made good memories in those run-down places...

July 31, 2015: Chris with one of the Wild West show actors.

Early the next morning, Friday, Chris and Sarah headed over to the Williams depot of the Grand Canyon Railroad, where they enjoyed a Wild West show and shootout before boarding the train. Then they relaxed and soaked in the amazing scenery as they traveled through the rugged mountains toward the Grand Canyon.

Chris the conductor.

Mark and I took the kids on the Grand Canyon Railroad way back in August 2002. I'll have to do a post on it sometime. Sarah was only 12, Jacob was 11, and Dylan was 5. We road the train there, spent one night at the Grand Canyon, and then rode the train back to Williams the next day. We all have amazing memories of that trip.It was hard then to imagine that our children would all be grown up someday. Now that they are grown up, I still have a hard time believing it!

July 31, 2015: Chris and Sarah at the Grand Canyon!

They got to see a Native American performance at the ruins.

Back to the train.

After just a few hours of marveling at the view from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, it was time to re-board the train and head back to Williams. Chris and Sarah both agreed that the two-hour-and-fifteen-minute train ride is simply wonderful. Chris especially loved it when robbers on horseback held up the train, forcing it to stop and boarding the cars to demand money from the passengers. I remember how big our kids' eyes got when our train was robbed back in 2002!

The great train robbery.

August 1, 2015: Watcha got in yer cup there?

On Saturday, the first day of August, Chris and Sarah checked out of their hotel and made one final stop, at the Grand Canyon Deer Farm, also located in Williams. The farm has deer, elk, and even reindeer galore, along with a host of other animals, such as the camel caught kissing Chris in the first picture of this post. Priceless!

Chris feeds the deer from a cup of feed.
$3.00 for the cup and feed, and keep the cup as a souvenir.
Bring the cup back on another visit, and the feed costs only $2.00.

Sarah thinks she died and went to heaven.

August 1, 2015: Sarah at the petting zoo.

They had a great time, an anniversary they'll never forget. And I'm so proud of Sarah for doing all the research and planning ahead for this fun and educational trip, preparing an itinerary to fit their budget, time, and interests. She got that from me, of course! Happy anniversary, my darlings!

Sarah holds a baby wallaby. Now she knows she died and went to heaven!
1 Aug 2015

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Freshman Friday

The Spirit Rock. Different messages are painted on its face,
depending upon the occasion.

Since our high school went to a 4-day school week three years ago,  opening up Fridays for students who need remediation or seek enrichment, one of our new traditions is to set aside the first two Fridays of the school year for The Freshman Games. It's sort of like an intensive orientation for the kids who are new to the school. Through a variety of fun games, activities, and competitions, they get to visit and learn about important locations on campus, spend time with their new freshman homeroom teachers, and bond with their classmates while learning what it means to be a Yellow Jacket and express school pride.

All the freshman who showed school spirit by dressing up in purple and gold
lined up to await the big vote for "Most School Spirit."

Yesterday was the second and final day of Freshman Friday. There was music, there was food, there were rah-rah speeches, there were glittery handmade homeroom banners, and there were students racing all over campus in a freshman version of The Amazing Race. As a junior homeroom teacher this year, I wasn't involved in the race, but I nearly got knocked over when I stepped out my classroom door at the exact moment that Mr. Crain's freshman homeroom kiddos rushed by to look for clues in the library!

Based on the applause and cheers of the crowd, the candidates are whittled down.
The boy on the far left is in my first period English class. As he left class yesterday,
he asked if I'd be there today to see him win first-prize, an iPad mini. That's confidence!

After the games, I joined the crowd back at the gym for the final activities. My favorite was watching the kids vote (by applause) for the students who'd gone to great lengths to dress up in their most spirited purple-and-gold outfits. They can get quite creative! At stake were two prizes: the coveted iPad mini and a Starbucks gift certificate.

The final two contenders are judged.

As it turned out, I didn't see which of the two finalists won first place because I had to go out and meet my son Jacob. I'd loaned him my car to haul a borrowed lawnmower (from his Grandpa Butler--my dad), and Jacob brought my car back on his way to work, so I had to step out to get my keys from him. Then I ended up helping out the crew that was preparing lunch for the kids, so I never made it back into the gym for the end.

Mr. Gouker mans one grill with the aid of Mrs. Slaughter and Mrs. Barton.

My assigned duty was to ferry the barbecued burgers from the grills to the concession stand, where another group of teachers served them up to the freshmen for lunch, along with chips, potato salad, and beans, before the buses came to carry the teens home at noon. 

Mrs. Slaughter preps the raw meat while Mr. Williams mans the second grill
and Mrs. Howard drops the patties onto the hot surface.

Now, my duty may have seemed a simple one, but au contraire! By the time both grills were cooking away at full capacity, the smoke was so thick we literally couldn't see the meat in front of us. My eyes are extremely sensitive anyway (can't even chop an onion), so I had tears pouring down my face. There were times when it felt like my stinging eyeballs were melting. Sometimes I'd just squeeze my eyes shut, hold out my pan, and hope Mr. Williams could find it to drop the burgers into it!

Mrs. Clark, Mrs. London, and Mrs. Shores prepare the burger toppings
before the freshmen are released from the gym for lunch.
(The male teacher is new and I can't for the life of me remember his name
or what he teaches. Ask me to tell you about my prosopagnosia sometime...)

When all was said and done, I survived the ordeal, and it was fun to be among the teachers serving the students. Freshman Fridays, established by our former principal Eric Harmon, has become a great way to develop confidence and build school spirit among our favorite newbies, the freshmen.

Freshmen enjoyed their lunches before heading home at noon.

And so here we are at the conclusion of the second week back at school, and I have to say my new schedule is kicking my booty a bit. For thirty-five years I've primarily taught special education classes for students with average (sometimes even gifted) intelligence who have processing difficulties in reading, writing, or math. I've taught English, earth science, and general math over the years. But, due to the nature of smaller Resource classes and the need for more one-on-one instruction for students with learning disabilities, I doubt I've ever had more than thirty or forty students at one time (total for all daily classes) in any given semester.

Now here I am, teaching regular freshman and sophomore English classes for three out of six classes--half my day--and no prep time, with about one hundred thirty-five students to plan for, provide instruction for, and (groan) grade for. And, although I've now stepped down as special education department chair after 22 years, I still have the responsibility to monitor the progress and write IEPs for about a dozen special education students. (Individual Education Plans are at minimum 14-page documents that must be renewed annually, detailing a plan to provide for the academic and vocational needs of students with special needs.)

It is all very time consuming. My contract day is 7:30 to 3:30, but I was at the school until 6:35 on Monday, 7:45 on Wednesday, and 5:40 on Thursday. I'd have stayed late on Tuesday, too, but Mark had an appointment in Snowflake after school. This extra investment in time is to be expected since I'll be paid extra for teaching on my prep time, but those are some very looooooong days.

My own low-carb plate after the students were fed.
I've lost 12.2 lbs between July 7 and August 7!

Despite the stress of keeping up with such a load of work and the nonstop nature of wall-to-wall classes with no prep time to take a break and catch my breath, I really do enjoy teaching, and it looks like I've got another great group of kids this year--all one hundred thirty-five of them! Here's to a successful year for the students, teachers, and staff of Blue Ridge High in 2015-16!