Sunday, August 19, 2018

Eliquism

It was inevitable.

Sooner or later, I was going to have to come off my aspirin regimen and switch to a drug more target specific as a blood thinner to treat my atrial fibrillation (a-fib).

That change happened this past week. But not without a little adventure.

This all started seven years ago, when I was first diagnosed with a-fib. Apparently, one of the atrium's in my heart goes Boom-biddly-yop-de-whoop instead of a more rhythmic Boom, boom, boom. That's a-fib. Blood can clot in that chamber and then possibly move on the the brain, where it can cause a stroke.

When my cardiologist (yes, I can now say 'my cardiologist'), Dr. Katie Twomley, discovered this, she put me on 325 mg aspirin tablets as my blood thinner. Thin blood apparently lessens the risk of stroke.

But two years ago, when I turned 65, she told me it was time to consider something more precise than aspirin. We let that year pass because I was feeling pretty good. To this day, I don't feel any symptoms of a-fib, whatever they may be. If Twomley didn't let me know I had a-fib, I'd never know that I had a-fib.

Anyway, after last year's annual visit to 'my cardiologist', Twomley was more assertive, insisting that I switch to Eliquis, which I guess is pretty much the Cadillac of blood thinners for people with a-fib.

I was all for it until I found out that Eliquis retails for about $430 per month.

Gulp.

Up until now, my heart meds cost next to nothing. I could refill my metoprolol and lovastatin with a $10 bill and still have enough change to buy a refreshing vanilla-chocolate-strawberry cholesterol cone.

This was different. This was my first real brush with the cost of health care. There's no generic for Eliquis, which still has a year left on its patent before it can be considered for a cost reducing generic. Twomley kept me on aspirin for a little bit longer while we investigated pricing, and just what was going on with my health insurance anyway?

To make a long, boring story shorter (if not less boring), I called the customer service number on the back of my Plan D prescription card. My insurance did indeed knock the price down – to $212.44.

Yikes. There goes dinner.

I asked further questions. It took me two associates on the other end of the line, and 20 minutes into the conversation, before they told me that if/when I met my deductible of $256, my monthly cost for Eliquis would be $40 per month.

Well, geez, why didn't you tell me that 20 minutes ago?

I rushed to my pharmacy, where I gave my pharmacist a heads up about my impending Eliquis prescription, which Twomley had already called in. I'd pick it up tomorrow.

"Oh," he said, "do you have your free coupon?"

Whuuuut?

So I rushed back to my cardiologist, where an associate did indeed give me a coupon for a month's free trial of Eliquis. I called the activation number, and after about 15 minutes of dial-tone prompts, I was told that I now had a free month's supply.

All the while I'm wondering about the logic of a $430 drug being given away for free. How does that work again?

I'm also wondering about Medicare Plan F, where everything is free after the monthly premium. I think.

I also know my story is basically insignificant. There are other people who rely on life-saving medications that can cost upwards of four figures per month (if not more), making me wonder about the morality of a health care system that is based on for-profit capitalism and not humanity.

Meanwhile, the Eliquis is busy working, I guess, keeping my blood thin. We'll see how that goes. I have a dentist appointment next month, where they poke at my teeth with sharp metal instruments and make my gums bleed.

Could be another blog in there somewhere.




Monday, August 13, 2018

A tree grows in Blowing Rock

About a week before our annual three-day getaway to Blowing Rock, I heard this distressing news from one of my friends:

They cut down the trees in the town's Memorial Park.

Whoosh.

That was the sound of the vacuum sucking the air out of my lungs.

Say it ain't so.

But, sadly, the news was real. When we pulled into Blowing Rock late Friday afternoon, there they weren't – a total of 12 fully mature red maples had been chopped down because of some kind of internal rot or blight (see here.)

In their place were young black gum trees, a species said to be resistant to the disease that felled the maples. It'll only take about 50 years to get the park to where it once was. If it works, the place will be beautiful, especially in the fall. Black gum trees usually become bright red when the leaves turn, so it should be something to see.

I can't wait. I'll be 125.

Black gum trees take the place of the felled red maples in Blowing Rock.
Still, it was a tough sight to absorb.

We talked with a local or two, who said when the diseased trees came down that some year-round residents had a difficult time with it.

I can only imagine, although after reading the stories about the trees, it appears the town is taking the reasonable and responsible path.

First off, I was surprised to learn the maples were less than 100 years old: most had been planted in the 1940s.

Secondly, the disease apparently had been discovered some 25 years ago, so town council had been aware of the problem for decades. Something had to be done. It would not be a good thing for dead tree limbs to fall on tourists licking their Kilwin's ice cream cones.

In many ways, Memorial Park is your prototypical small-town green space: there's a gazebo, tennis courts, basketball courts, strolling paths and a playground, not to mention crisp mountain air. You halfway expect Prof. Harold Hill to show up with up 76 trombones and a barber shop quartet for the town social.

There's also Art in the Park, which is why we were there to begin with. Kim and I usually do this in August to escape the heat of the Piedmont for temperatures that might be at least 10 degrees cooler.

This year, we seemed to get caught in a series of annoying pop-up rain showers. But that was OK, too. Because on Saturday evening, there was this:




Sunday, August 5, 2018

Air and Space

Whenever the five roommates go to Gettysburg (I did an approximate trip count in my mind's Texas Instruments calculator: This year's outing to the battlefield was somewhere close to my 40th visit in the past 35 years, and I have to tell you, the Yankees win every single time), we also try to make room for a side excursion.

This year, we took the time to spend several hours at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center – otherwise known as the companion site to the National Air and Space Museum – located next to Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Va. It's just a little more than an hour away from Gettysburg.

The Enola Gay is a featured attraction.
One member of our group had never been to the museum before, so that made it a no-brainer to go there this year. For me, it was my third visit, and each time I've gone, it's been a wonderment.

The first thing that strikes you is just how humongous this place is. It has to be in order to display hundreds (maybe thousands) of rare aircraft, including some of the largest the world has ever seen. Some of those very big vehicles include the space shuttle Discovery, the Concorde and the Enola Gay. They are all resting comfortably in the same building, under the same roof.

That's a big wow.

There are, in fact, several featured aircraft: Everyone, it seems, wants to see the Enola Gay, which dropped the world's first atomic bomb that helped bring World War II to an end. The space shuttle is also a huge (literally) attraction. But the plane that fascinates me the most is the sleek SR-71 Blackbird strategic reconnaissance plane that practically sits in the museum's front door.

The SR-71 spy plane is looking for you...
This plane was designed to be the next step beyond the U-2. What amazes me is that development began by the Skunk Works in the 1960s – yes, the 1960s – and features technology that is still said to be classified to this day.

Like just how fast is it? A total of 32 of these things were built, and none were ever shot down because they could outrun the missiles fired at them. The plane was designed for Mach 3 speed – three times the speed of sound – which puts it somewhere in the 2,000 mph range. But there is speculation it could go even faster.

The Blackbirds were supposedly decommissioned in the 1990s, replaced by spy satellites that were much more fuel efficient and didn't put human lives at risk. But I've read where some folks think at least a few of these planes still are doing Skunk Work work for the deep state. Hmm.

The technology behind the space shuttle is also mind boggling, but the most compelling moment for me was seeing the scorched heat resistant tiles that decorated the vehicle.

You can see clearly the scorched tiles on the nose of the shuttle.
And seeing those tiles made me realize that we were/are capable of putting men in space. It left me wondering why we aren't doing more of this stuff. I mean, how are we going to become the Star Trek generation if exploration sits idle?

The history of flight unfolds in this building almost from the very beginning. I say almost, because the original Wright Flyer remains hanging in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum at the Mall in Washington DC. So is The Spirit of St. Louis. I find it interesting that two of the most iconic aircraft in history are not located with their cousins in Chantilly. I don't know the reason for that. I guess the museum on the Mall can't give away all of its good stuff.

I have a special fascination for World War II aircraft, and there's a bunch of familiar mixed in with the rare. There's a P-38 Lightning, a P-40 Flying Tiger, an F4U Corsair, and F6F Hellcat, a P-47 Thunderbolt, along with a Hawker Hurricane, a German FW-190 and several Japanese planes. Not on display are ME-109s, B-17s or B-24s. I'm guessing they're somewhere on site, in storage or restoration, waiting for their turn in the rotation. Or a bigger building.

There's never enough time to see all of the things you want to see in a place like this, and that's a dilemma for future side trips.

I was hoping we could go to the Tastykake Bakery next year.




Sunday, July 29, 2018

Philly Dilly

There's a huge part of me that doesn't want to jinx this, but I'm going to write about it anyway.

Here it is: When I summoned up the National League East standings this morning, there were my Philadelphia Phillies still in first place, 2 1/2 games in front of Atlanta.

Whoa. It's now the end of July. The Phillies have 58 games left in the regular season, so now it's a race against time to see if they can hold on long enough to clinch a division title.

It's oh-so unexpected. The Phillies are generally regarded to be one of the youngest – if not the youngest – team in major league baseball. They were not picked by most experts to do this well this soon. And, indeed, there's still enough time for the bottom to fall out.

Most of us Phillies fans still remember – vividly – the collapse of 1964. The Phillies held a 6 1/2 game lead with 12 games left to play.

And lost 10 straight. St. Louis won the pennant that year.

These old hats of mine are not a prediction, but rather, just a predilection...
 Believe it or not, 1964 was the year I became a Phillies fan. We'd just moved back down to Bethlehem, PA, after a four-year residency in New Hampshire and Connecticut. I was 13 years old and baseball was a big part of my summer tapestry. The Phillies were an hour away and in first place. I became a fan. Jim Bunning. Chris Short. Tony Taylor. Cookie Rojas. Clay Dalrymple. Richie Allen. Johnny Callison. They're still like family members to me.

In fact, I know the 1964 roster better than I know the 2018 roster. After Rhys Hoskins, Ceasar Hernandez and Carlos Santana, I'm pretty much lost. Go Phillies.

Although I must say, since the team has been doing relatively well this year, I've followed them with more than passing interest. I actually check the standings most mornings now.

Something is going on in Philadelphia, though. I mean, first the Eagles win the Super Bowl. And then Villanova, a smallish Catholic school in the suburbs, wins the NCAA championship. And now the Phillies? It's too good to be true.

Time for a cheese steak.

I do have a back-up plan in case the Phillies falter. I still follow the Boston Red Sox. This is a love affair that's actually deeper than my fandom of the Phillies. Because, you know, we lived in New England during my formative baseball years. Ted Williams. Pumpsie Green. Vic Wertz. Frank Malzone. Tracy Stallard. Bill Monbouquette.

I've always been fascinated with Fenway Park, and no doubt, that's part of the Boston allure for me. Old School. Green Monster. Bunker Hill.

This year, the Red Sox might be the best team in baseball. They are 40 games over .500 with a wowzer 73-33 record and showing no signs of stopping. They are 5 1/2 games ahead of the New York Yankees, but anything can happen as we make the turn into the stretch drive.

But for now, I think I'll just sit back and enjoy seeing my two favorite teams playing good baseball at the same time. How often does that happen?

Not often enough.


Sunday, July 22, 2018

Spiders and snakes

Is it me, or have the spiders arrived early and in force this year?

I spent a good part of my day yesterday with broom in hand trying to clean away spider webs. And not just a few spider webs. A ton of spider webs. The balusters on my front porch are clearly woven together with silky webs.

The mailbox attached to the front of my house appears to be particularly attractive to spiders. So do the corners of most of the windows on my house.

Spiders have done their work everywhere, including our flower boxes. Some of our geraniums are now connected to the siding of our house, and the steps leading up to my back porch are also webbed.

It's amazing.

I try to clear away the webs as often as I can, but spiders apparently are insistent. I can remove a web one day and it'll be back the next.

Caught in the act: This spider is already at work this morning...
I'm not a big fans of spiders – I don't screech "Eeek" when I see one; I emit more more like a groaning "Yuck" – but every once in a while, like early in the morning when it's still dark and I head to my car in the driveway as I prepare to go to the YMCA, I'll walk face-first into an unseen web that was spun overnight. That's a "yuck" moment.

The back of my mind keeps whispering "recluse" or "black widow," but what can I do beyond setting up Klieg lights?

I started noticing the spiders in early June and thought to myself that this might be unusual. Don't spiders usually show up en masse around September and October? Isn't that why they're so popular around Halloween? I don't know.

Spider webs are all over my front porch...
Snakes haven't been much of a problem in our neigh-borhood, although some of my friends on Facebook are posting pictures of the black snakes and occasional copperheads that show up in their garages and driveways. Nice. Thank you for that.

Still, I keep a wary eye out whenever I'm doing yard work. Shortly after we moved here about 15 years ago, one of our neighbors was bitten by a snake while clearing his backyard. Thus the lane behind us has been known as "Copperhead Alley" ever since. Local lore there.

The good news is that we live in a neighborhood where there are a couple of free-ranging cats, who happen to be natural foes of snakes. We've been told the cats have been bitten so often that they are now immune to the copperheads. Consequently, now and then we might see a baby snake carcass lying belly-up in the yard. Good cats. Kim occasionally puts a bowl of cat food out for them. I don't know if she's rewarding them or enticing them to stay. Maybe both.

Spiders and snakes. I don't know. We share the planet with them, so I guess we just have to cope.

And hope we don't live near a road named Sharknado Alley.










Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Underhill Rose, minus one, plus two

For my wife Kim and myself, the anticipation level had reached a different plane. Not higher. Not lower. Just different.

We always look forward to hearing Underhill Rose perform at High Rock Outfitters, but on Saturday, for the first time in the six years or so that we have been following them, we would see them as a duo instead of a trio.

Salley Williamson, the upright bassist who provided a third part of near angelic harmony to the group, left the band last October to reclaim something like a normal life beyond plucking strings and touring down Interstate highways every weekend.

We didn't know what to expect.

We shouldn't have worried.

Guitarist Molly Rose Reed and banjoist Eleanor Underhill, who began life as Underhill Rose about 10 years ago as a duo, were back to their roots. They met while attending Warren Wilson College near Asheville, and then soon after became part of a well-regarded local female string band, the Barrel House Mamas. When that group eventually dissolved, Molly and Eleanor decided to strike out on their own.

That decision makes the rest of us who follow them very, very lucky. Their harmonies have almost always seemed effortless, and to make things just right, they are both accomplished musicians. Eleanor, in fact, can accompany herself with the harmonica while at the same time bringing her banjo to its knees. It's truly something to see. And hear.

On this particular night, Gary Oliver – who's traveled off and on with the band before –  was playing upright bass (he can also play drums), providing the girls a steady, bold and confident bass line.

And drummer Michael Rhodes was also there, giving Molly and Eleanor one less thing to worry about (he said) while establishing rhythm and beat.

They played two sets Saturday night, tossing in a couple tunes now and then that we hadn't heard before in their show. Molly served up "Dublin Days," a wistful song she penned about their tour to Ireland last year. I wanted to hop on a plane and go.

Eleanor gave us her "Captured in Arms," inspired by the massacre at the Bataclan Theater in Paris in 2015. It's an unlikely tune for Underhill Rose to perform, but I'd heard her sing it before in a solo performance in Asheville last year. This time, with Molly, Gary and Michael backing her, it was an amazingly moving song. The line "Please don't kill my friends anymore" is a hard one to let go. (Listen here )

During the first set, Eleanor told the audience to feel free to ask for requests. About five or six were suggested (including "Freebird." Sigh), and consequently, about half of the songs planned for the second set were bumped by the requests. That was cool.

I asked for two cover tunes: Jamey Johnson's "In Color," and John Prine's "Long Monday." I love both of these songs in any case, but Molly and Eleanor have somehow made them their own. Johnson and Prine ought to pay them performance fees. "Long Monday," a plaintive but thoughtful love song from a master lyricist is special, especially with Eleanor's melancholy harmonica bridge and soulful vocal interpretation. It's an earworm that is still with me days after the concert. The difference is I don't want it to go away. (Listen here).

Changes are possibly on the horizon for Underhill Rose. They are still negotiating a landscape without a third voice. Duo or trio – which way will they go? Meanwhile, Molly is pregnant with her and her husband's (Tyler Housholder of The Broadcast) first child. How will parenthood affect band dynamics? And Eleanor is preparing for her first solo CD release.

I'm a selfish guy when it comes to Underhill Rose. I just want them to continue on for as long as they can. The harmony. The talent. The personalities.

It just all adds up.








Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Jeepers

I just completed a bucket list item that I didn't even know was on my bucket list.

My neighbor, Perry Leonard, gave me a ride in his 1952 Willeys CJ-3A Jeep. I was both excited and hesitant at the same time. I was excited because I enjoy classic vehicles, and what could be more classic than a vehicle that looks like it could have landed at Omaha Beach?

But I was hesitant because, you know, there are no airbags. No doors. No roof. No rollbar. Perry's wife, Jeanne, refuses to ride in it because she figures there are only two viable options for her: (a) getting thrown out of it, or (b) getting crushed by it. Maybe both.

Perry Leonard stands over his 1952 Willeys Jeep.
I decided to suck it up. When Perry came by to pick me up, I eagerly hopped in the passenger seat and buckled my seatbelt, the only concession to safety in sight. Unless, of course, you factor in Perry's driving ability. I was counting on that.

I actually thought my chances for survival were pretty decent because, according to Perry, the vehicle rarely goes faster than 35 miles per hour. I think the gearing must be really low because when he motors down the road, the engine almost screams and it sounds like it's ready to pop off its mountings.

Cool.

He took me across town. We drove out to Lexington Golf Club, and then through Twin Acres before doubling back into town and up Main Street. I noticed people were looking at us. I remembered that exact same sensation when Kim and I drove our 1966 Mustang convertible around town. Those were the days.

The Willeys four-cylinder engine provides incredible power, not speed.
 But the Jeep was somehow different. All I had to do was glance to my right and see the road passing under us. I loved the wind blowing through the two hairs left on my bald head. I loved that I could barely hear myself think against the straining of the engine. Plus, I felt every bump in the road.

Ahhhhh.

I was having a blast. I thought we were nearly through with the ride when Perry headed us over to Northside before coming back on Winston road, and then we made an encore appearance down Main Street again. We might have been gone a half hour to cover what normally takes about 10 minutes.

Along the way, Perry told me he bought the Jeep about three years ago from Chip Ward. The vehicle was resting comfortably in the tree line near the lake there and had been idle among the foliage for about six years, but Perry made an offer and it was his.

He thinks it's an old Navy Jeep, because Navy Jeeps didn't have tailgates and this one is tailgate free. It's also painted kind of a hideous Forest Green (Perry thinks it even might have been purple at one time), but he's hoping to paint it Navy grey at some point and throw in some military serial numbers on the hood for authenticity. But first he has to recover from having the transmission refurbished ("Some of the gears were missing teeth") before he goes any further.

It may not even be military. If it truly is a CJ-3A, the CJ stands for "Civilian Jeep" (according to Wikipedia). But I think it's close enough.

Some of the gauges on the dash still work – on occasion. The speedometer worked a couple days ago, and Perry's still guessing how much gas is in the tank, which is located directly under the driver's seat. It holds 10 gallons, which I guess minimizes the risk of an explosive fire. There are no windshield wipers right now, and the steering wheel is incorrect to the vehicle. He's been caught in a sudden downpour more than once.

Mere trivialities.

The whole point of this thing, of course, is in taking some history to the road. Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces on D-Day and thereafter, said the Jeep was essential to winning World War II. And even though Perry's Jeep is Korean War vintage, you can appreciate the lineage.

As long as you don't get thrown out.