We're headed back to the farm this weekend (yes, the one with all the cows) for a family reunion.  This evening, I wondered aloud at the spectacle Brian and his brother might create with fireworks.

Brian:  It's nothing compared to my uncle.  One year he had driven home long-distance for a 4th of July party, stopping at every fireworks stand along the way.  He picked the biggest and best at every shop.  By the end of the trip, he had a huge garbage bag of fireworks.

Jennie:  What happened?

Brian:  Everything was great until the second one took a bad hop and landed in the garbage bag.

Jennie:  (laughs)

Brian:  He set the lawn on fire.

Jennie:  (still laughing)  Oh god, please stop.  I've peed my pants!  (the 3rd trimester sucks, y'all.)

My own family has a very long tradition of setting various patches of grass on fire on the 4th of July.  Some collateral damage includes hearing loss, heart palpitations, burned fingers, and a large orange glow in the far woods of a nearby house, where the garden hose couldn't possibly reach.  But I'll never forget the year we let a 5-year old boy hold a 5-ball Roman Candle, and after the first one we all made the obligatory "ooooh" noises, whereupon the 5-year old turned to us, proud of his handiwork, with a giant grin on his face and the Roman Candle aimed at us.  

You've never seen a bunch of ladies hit the deck that fast.  

This year we've been told that fireworks on the farm are allowed, within very reasonable limits on after-show cleanup.  That basically leaves giant cannon shots that can be seen for miles.  

This should be a very interesting holiday.

But with all the commotion, the cows will probably stay far away, and I won't get to take lots of pictures of them.  And that, Dear Reader, will be a win-win for you.


Heart Warming

When I was 4 months pregnant with Helen, Brian & I began the house-hunting in earnest.  There was a tight market in our area, and we learned quickly after some trial and error offers that we had to leap on a house as soon as it was available and cross our fingers.

At the time, we were living in an apartment on the 3rd floor.  Day by day, I was getting more and more winded going up the stairs to our place.  Sometimes I would be carrying groceries, and I'd get to the top landing with my heart racing a mile a minute.  Other times I wouldn't be carrying anything, and I'd still have to rest for a minute when I got inside.  

Now I know I'm not in shape, but it felt a little ridiculous to be unable to handle that little walk upstairs.  And I could just picture how it would go carting a baby, too.  Which suddenly was a very good reason to move out of that apartment.

My lease wasn't up until a few months after my due date.  I had a chat with the manager, and they would be able to let me out of my lease early with a note from the doctor.  So at my next visit to the OB, I explained my heart issues and 3rd floor issues and wondered aloud if she could possibly write me a letter to expedite the whole lease-breaking thing.

Instead, she sent me to a cardiologist.

Apparently I'd focused a little too much on the heart problem and not enough on the "I need a letter" problem.  But I was far enough along in my pregnancy to realize things might not be normal.   Or, at the very least, it was worth mentioning to a doctor.  Typically in the 2nd trimester, you notice a faster heart rate because your blood volume increases by 30%.  The heart has to work that much harder, and so it's not uncommon to feel exhausted by a little bit of effort.   But just to make sure, she recommended the appointment with the specialist.

So I went.  And walking into the waiting room, I thought it might be a huge exercise in futility to spend my hard-earned co-payment in that place.  I was half the age of everyone in that waiting room, and noticeably pregnant.  I got more than a few long glances in my direction, and I'm sure even the nurses were wondering why a young pregnant person was going to see a heart doctor.

The doctor was extremely thorough.  I got an EKG and an echocardiogram, and both of them came back normal.  He also listened to my heart but didn't detect anything unusual.  He got a complete history and explained everything to me about what they would do next.

I went home that day with a monitor that I had to wear for a month, and whenever I felt that unusually high pulse racing, I had to push a button to record it.  Any strange or fluttering episodes were duly noted as well.  My chief complaint at this point was, dang, I have another month to wait to get a letter.  At this point, I was feeling pretty stupid for having pursued this route.

At the end of the month, I was back at the doctor's office and they reported on the findings of all my careful monitoring - nothing unusual.  In fact, I believe they used the words "stone-cold normal."  Um.  Crap.  So they did an ultrasound of my heart, and that's when the doctor finally hit paydirt.

It turns out I have a leaky valve in my left ventricle, a condition called mitral valve prolapse.  Normally as the heart pumps blood through the 4 chambers, the valves close off behind the blood, keeping everything where it should be.  But one of mine doesn't shut all the way, leaving some blood to flow back into the chamber it came from, and this can cause a variety of problems.  Depending on how bad the leaking is, I have heart racing, chest pain, shortness of breath and a risk of a few other things.  The doctor told me that the pregnancy wouldn't pose a problem, in spite of the increased blood flow, but during the delivery I would need IV antibiotics to make sure I didn't get an infection in my heart.

I asked him if this would be a problem for walking up & down 3 flights of stairs, as I continued in the pregnancy.  He said I could look for another place to live, but that I should be fine and able to lead a very normal life.  Decades from now, I might need medicine or surgery, but for now I was fine.

Not the answer I was looking for, obviously.

Back at the OB's office, I learned that the two doctors had chatted, and my OB was willing to write the letter based on his findings.  A month later, we had our house and a move-in date, and everything seemed to be smooth sailing until Helen showed up 10 days before the closing.  The rest is history.

That is, until pregnancy #2, when I was instructed by my OB to make sure everything was in order with the cardiologist.  At that appointment, I learned that the leaking has gotten worse, to the point that once I'm through with breast-feeding, I will need to start medication.  I've also got an enlarged left ventricle from the pressure build-up of the blood flowing back into that chamber.  For now it's just above the normal limits, and it's possibly due to the pregnancy.  But my doctor can hear the abnormal heart rhythm on his stethoscope now.  

This last visit to the cardiologist, I learned that heart disease is the #1 cause of death for women.  That's startling.  Both my grandmother and great-grandmother died of sudden heart attacks.  There is a strong family history of mitral valve prolapse as well.  I didn't know about that until I was diagnosed and shared the news with my mother.   So there's a small cause to be concerned and watch for developments and do whatever I can to fix this.

Honestly, I wouldn't even know about this condition if I didn't have an OB looking out for her malpractice insurance and a cardiologist who methodical tested me every single way possible.  All I wanted was to get out of my apartment!  

It makes me feel a little less ridiculous.  And I'd encourage you all to pay attention to your own little heart racing, chest pain, shortness of breath issues that could mean the difference between ridiculous and medication.  

To read more about mitral valve prolapse, click here.  


Computer Issues, Part Duh

This weekend the laptop died a spectacular death. We got a black screen that many Apple users will never see in a lifetime. I took the poor dear to a specialist who sadly informed us that all communications with the hard drive were lost, and did we have good backups?

Sigh ...

Fortunately we have a new hard drive to install, and fingers crossed, that may be all that's wrong with it. In the meantime, the search will go on to find the data on the old one, which will involve specialists and money - necessary evils when a year's worth of digital photos are involved.

By the way, a very special thanks to the 4 people who emailed me yesterday to say, "HOLY COW, GUESS WHO POSTED A COMMENT ON YOUR RENOIR ENTRY!!!!!" Trust me - I passed right out.


Master Artist

Yesterday Helen and I spent the morning at the art museum in the presence of a famous artist.

It didn't hurt that the artist's great-grandfather was slightly more famous than him.

In the picture above, in case you couldn't tell, it's the tall guy with the beret that's the artist. He is the great-grandson of Renoir.  Alexandre has been studied art and painted since a very young age, and he brought a giant collection of his own work to display in the museum, in addition to some lithographs of his great-grandfather's. One of his which, he later pointed out to us, was a drawing of his grandpa.

I cannot imagine growing up in the giant shadow of Renoir, but this guy is about the most friendly and down-to-earth person you'd ever hope to meet. We were at the museum for a children's art workshop, where he was "teaching" kids to paint in the impressionist style. Open to all ages - so of course, I dragged Helen straight away for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Did I mention it was free? Yeah, at no cost whatsoever.

Now, anyone who has read this blog for a few days realizes Helen couldn't possibly be shy.  She's loud, proud and ready to go to the head of the class at every opportunity.  Even when we go somewhere new, she gets into the zone after a few minutes.  So when I told her on Friday night that we were going somewhere special to paint the next day, she was standing at my bedside at 5:45 the next morning.  "Mommy," she whispered, "are we going to paint today?"

I made it a special time for us.  We stopped to get a donut for breakfast, and then we rode the bus downtown.  There's a big music festival in town this weekend, and I didn't want to deal with the hassle of parking downtown.  The bus dropped us off right in front of the museum, so it couldn't have been easier. 

They gave every kid a paint can lid.  Alexandre had sketched a flower, and signed his name on the back. The kids were instructed to paint the flowers with the acrylic paint at the tables, and they could do anything they wanted. Alexandre's plan was to walk around and visit with everyone, offer any tips they might need, and just comment in general.

We happened to be standing at the end of a long table, near the front of the room. So once the workshop started, Helen was the first kid he came over to talk to. This guy is extremely tall, and wearing a hat she'd never seen before, and even though I tried to tell her on the bus what to expect, as soon as he came over to our table and talked to her, she buried her head in my thigh. At the one moment I would have loved to have my chatty, friendly toddler in the room, Helen was completely shy.  I couldn't get her to even look at the man, let alone speak to him.  He picked up her paint can lid and asked what color she wanted to use, but it was a no-go from the get-go. Eventually he took some green paint and put a few strokes on the stems. She didn't budge. I couldn't grab my camera to get the moment, either.

But as soon as he moved on to another child, she went to town on the lid. Painting various colors everywhere, she was ready to be the impressionist artist. Heck, she could have been Jackson Pollock if I let her. And later, when she piled a frosting-thick coating of pink paint onto a plain white sheet of paper, I realized she really loved this stuff.

At the end of the workshop, many of the parents were getting pictures of Alexandre with their children and the lids. I decided to try it as well. Maybe after 30 minutes of painting, she'd loosen up, righ? As soon as I approached him, he was friendly and smiling. He complimented Helen on her painting, while Helen proceeded to bury her face in my neck. Then he shared with me that seeing Helen made him miss his own young son. He pulled out his cell phone to show me a little blonde boy with startling blue eyes. I told him that those eyes were gorgeous, and he said as soon as he saw Helen, those eyes reminded him of his son.

A museum photographer came up to get a picture of the 3 of us. I gave him my camera as well and we got another shot. This is the closest we could get to having Helen look up in his presence.

On the way home, I thought of a million questions to ask him. Of course, it was too late by then! But I was so thrilled to have had the chance to be there, and to see some beautiful art. Clearly he's inherited some talent, and his love for the children was evident in that workshop. I don't know how many artists of his great-grandfather's era would have been tempted to do the same thing, but it was truly a great experience for all those kids.