Author's note: So, you've all been more than patient with me as I have been laboring over the edits of the book, which has limited my posting time here. You are all my favorites now! Writing is fun, but editing is hard. On the plus side, though, I believe that the first volume is approaching a good working copy. Volume two has been edited once, but needs further tweakage before being a working copy. I will mention that there are some things there that are not in the blog, and where there's overlap there has also been editing, so that the final form may differ a bit form the originals as posted here. Talks with publishing houses have commenced. I'll keep yopu posted. Meanwhile, back at the ranch....
It's kind of a chilly morning here in Alaska: Eleven below at my house this morning. Having nothing in the house to eat for breakfast (well, okay, nothing I WANTED to eat for breakfast), I elected to come to the local Pandemonium cafe` for quiche and coffee - from whence I now blog to you.
It was clear and starry last night, with a brilliant half-moon hanging in the sky. This morning a towering fog bank is rising over the Knik Arm, hiding all but the highest peaks of the Chugach, buliding and drifting slowly to the west. The ravens are in flight, wheeling and chasing each other; it won't be long before they begin their aerobatic courting flights. Spring is definitely on the way. I don't know about you, but I'm in the mood for it, myself.
Spring, of course, gets me to thinking about lambing, and lambing, this morning, has me thinking about my friend Yvonne; for some reason I'm flashing back to a time when I took Gumby the orphan lamb - be-diapered and convalescing from a bout of anorexia and diarrhea - to Yvonne's house. Yvonne's Westie, Heather, appeared to be offended by the idea of a lamb in diapers, so she promptly grabbed the seat of Gumby's diaper and yanked it off. Yvonne found this hilarious. I might not have, except for the fact that I had spare diapers with me. Gumby, at the time, was not master of his GI tract, and had significant issues with continence as a result. Picture driving home with an incontinent lamb in the front seat of your truck smearing yellow goo on everything. Delightful! Not.
Yvonne - also known as "Satan" at her place of work owing to a temperamental resemblance to Catbert the evil HR director, from the Dilbert cartoon - is a client with whom I've established a friendship. The very first time I saw her it was to check her cat Christie for a mass on her face.
All unsupecting, I walk into the exam room. There stands Yvonne next to the exam table, the more conveniently to pet her cat, who is walking up and down the table, inspecting it with interest. Christie is a sleek black cat, glossy of coat and elegant of build. Yvonne herself is something of the opposite: she is almost alabaster pale, with large, expressive blue eyes and thick, strait hair the color of ripe apricots. She looks up altertly as I enter the room.
"Are you the doctor?" she asks.
"Yes," I say, introducing myself. "So we're here to see Christie for a mass on her face?"
"Yes," Yvonne says. "I just noticed it last night. I was washing her face - she has her own washcloth, you know - and that's when I saw it." Her voice is highly inflected, as expressive as her eyes, and her diction is precise, almost formal, which lends a certain emphasis to her words. Her tone is confiding, as if she is sharing with me some personal anecdote - which, in a way, I suppose she is: This is her ritual with her cat, part of their personal relationship, unique to them. How many people, after all, wash their cat's face at night, or provide it with its own washcloth?
"Okay," I say. "Did she seem painful when you washed that area?"
"No, it didn't bother her at all," Yvonne says, opening her eyes wide, her tone suggesting that she finds this fact completely amazing.
"Hmm," I say. "Does she seem normal in other respects? No coughing, sneezing, vomiting or diarrhea? Eating and drinking oaky? No decrease in activity?"
"No, everything else is normal," Yvonne says definitely. I figure that if this client is meticulous enough that she is washing her cat's face at night before bed, she's probably up on what else is going on with the cat, and I am prepared to accept as true her assertions that Christie has not been pawing or scratching at her face bump, and seems in all respects otherwise normal.
"Okay, let's start with a physical," I say. It is my habit to do the entire physical exam first, then to focus on the presenting complaint; this is useful for a number of reasons. One is that it's possible I may need more information than I would get just looking at the item of concern; all amimals are integrated systems, and nothing exists on or in an animal that is completely independant of its other systems. Another reason is that I have countelss times detected, on doing a routine physical, something relatively unrelated to the presenting complaint, but of which the owner was unaware; a heart murmur in a pet presented for treatment of a skin complaint, for example. The third reason is that if I proceed in a methodical fashion, I am unlikely to omit anything by accident; habit is a powerful force - so much so that I have often embarrassed myself in a social setting by consequence of it. I have no idea how many times I've been at someone's house for, say, dinner, having a little pre- or post-meal chat, only to notice them staring at me oddly. Sometimes they go so far as to ask my what I'm doing. Startled, I will then look down to notice that - their pet having presented itself for affection - I am automatically doing a physical exam, peering into their dog's ears or lifting its lip to look at its teeth, groping under its jaw for lymph nodes or inspecting its eyes for conjunctivits, jaundice or cataracts. As I say, I have no idea how often I've done that, but the number lies somewhere between "frequently" and "REALLY frequently". (Surprisingly, most of these people asked me back to visit again. I know! Amazing!)
I complete Christie's physical exam; everything internal is presenting normally. I turn her to face me. There is, indeed, a raised black bump on her face, its color slightly more bluish than her glossy jet fur. Yvonne watches me, sharply focused, her fingers trailing over Christie's silky back as I inspect the mass.
"What kind of mass do you think it is?" she asks me intently. "I hope it's not something bad," she adds in the sort of hushed tones one generally uses for salacious gossip.
"Not too bad," I smile. "It's not a mass, it's a tick."
Here I think I'm delivering good news, but Yvonne's eyes spring wide with alarm. Because her eyes are so large and expressive to begin with, the effect is dramatic. Her hands leap off her cat as if burned and she staggers back to fall against the exam room wall. Her horrified gaze fixes on Christie, who is now bathing her paws unconcernedly on the exam table.
"But - but- but she's always been so healthy!" Yvonne wails, as if Christie's having acquired a tick is somehow a sign of being riddled with internal corruption.
"Well, she's still healthy," I say, smiling. "She just has a tick." I feel my lips twitch, fighting laughter. I can't help it. Yvonne's face is nothing if not expressive, and she looks so completely stunned and dismayed by the thought of her elegant little black cat having a tick that you'd think I'd told her Christie was carrying a virulently contagious and gruesomely fatal form of leprosy.
"But how could she have a tick?" Yvonne persists with a little shudder. "We don't have ticks in Alaska!"
"Not many," I agree, "but we see them occasionally."
"But what will we do?" she asks.
"Well, I think we should remove the tick and use a little medication on the bite mark, and then watch for tick-borne diseases - of which we also have very few in Alaska, so the risk is minimal," I add, hoping to forestall panic. Yvonne, still wide-eyed with dismay, nods; she also listens to my aftercare instructions carefully, and asks questions that indicate that she is having no trouble following me and is completely willing to do whatever nursing care I prescribe. Well, that makes sense, after all; her pet care is obviously meticulous, what with the bed-time kitty face-washing and all. As we discuss Christie's care, Yvonne gradually eases back toward the exam table, and her hands drift hesitantly toward the cat's silky fur again, as if Yvonne is afraid that having a tick makes Christie somehow too fragile for normal contact. I pluck the tick with a pair of hemostats, inspecting to be sure I have the tick's head; Christie herself seems mightily unconcerned with the entire procedure; her eyes drift half shut and she commences to purring quietly as I talk.
Christie recovered uneventfully from her tick encounter. The next time I saw her was perhaps a year later. This time Yvonne is concerned that Christie might have a fever.
"Okay," I say, taking my history. "What is Christie doing that makes you think she has a fever?" Clients very rarely take their pets' temperatures, and those who do are often unsure of the animals' normal temperature range, so I always ask this question.
"Well," Yvonne says, in her usual dramatic way, as if preparing to tell me a fascinating story. "Last night I was sitting with her on the couch. I was putting her ears in my mouth - you know, the way you do with baby's fingers, like this," she says, demonstrating: she rolls her lips in to cover her teeth and makes little "nom nom nom" noises while she does gentle little biting motions, indeed exactly as one usually does when some curious infant decides to investigate one's mouth with its fingers. My eyebrows are halfway up my forehead in astonishment (who comes in and tells you they put their cat's ears in their mouth?!?), but I try my best to make my expression look like one of polite inquiry rather than astonishment at this unusual behavior. Perhaps I am successful, as Yvonne continues her history without pause. "I do it all the time," she adds in a conspiratorial fashion, as if she is certain I do the same, and we are just sharing pointers about a favorite hobby. "So I'm used to what her ears feel like, and when I put them in my mouth last night I thought they felt hot."
I smile broadly, privately enjoying my mental picture of this rather endearing confession. "Let's find out," I say, getting out a thermometer. I take Christie's temperature while Yvonne exhorts Christie to be good for mummy and let the nice doctor help her. Christie does indeed have a fever; she's a degree and a half higher than I'd like.
"Well, you're right, she has a fever," I tell Yvonne frankly.
"I knew it!" she says, as if I've vindicated some deeply-held philosophical principle for her. I design a course of treatment for Christie, while Yvonne continues on. "I can't wait to tell them at work; they all think I'm weird for putting her ears in my mouth, but look how useful it is! If I hadn't done that I wouldn't have known she was sick, and she probably would have died!"
"Well, maybe not died," I temporize, smiling, "but there's no doubt it was helpful in this case."
"Well, I'm going to tell them - not that they'll believe me, but still."
"Why wouldn't they believe you?" I ask absently, scribbling in my chart.
"Oh, half of them are 19 or 20, and you know how kids that age are; they come in unbuttoned down to there, wearing their full metal makeup, sure they know everything, and that no one over 25 has a brain in their head. Sometimes I look across the desk at them and think: If I died right now you'd be the last person I ever saw - and then I just wish I had a flamethrower!" Yvonne says fiercely.
I start laughing. With her delivery - dramatic and expressive - it's impossible not to. I'm also amused by the expression "full metal makeup", which appears to be of Yvonne's own invention, but which I find so perfectly descriptive that I have no trouble understanding what she means.
It was after that that I decided that Yvonne and I might have to go out to coffee together. Her wit is ascerbic, but her delivery is so expressive that the most ordinary story is often wildly funny. She has a gift for description that relies at times on misdirection and overstatement, but which invites collusion. As an example, one day (while changing in the locker room for racquetball), Yvonne was again talking about Christie.
"She's just the smartest cat," Yvonne declares. "If she's hungry she comes and cries at me and then leads me to the pantry where her food is! Isn't that amazing?" she inquires, eyes wide. "I swear next week she'll complete her calculations for the Hubble Telescope and finish the proper identification of the Shroud of Turin!"
Two women have entered the locker room just in time to hear about the Hubble Telescope. One of them raises her eyebrows, trying politely not to listen to our conversation, but unable to completely suppress her reaction. I purse my lips judiciously, playing along with Yvonne's exaggerations. "Well, you're probably right; no doubt she'd be done with those already, if not for the fact that she's been working out the design for that pocket atomic decay analyser - you know, for carbon-dating the Shroud of Turin. Of course, she might be delayed a little, since she's brokering that peace accord for the middle east and eradicating world hunger this week."
The two women are now alternately exchanging curious looks and glancing at us from the corners of their eyes, wondering who this woman we are describing might be. Yvonne, oblivious to this, and not missing a beat, replies, "Well, you know the atomic analyser took longer than she wanted it to, because she had to miniaturize it so it would fit in a locket on her collar. I don't know how she does it, without opposable thumbs!" Yvonne exclaims in tones of admiration. "Besides, you know she'll get the peace accord knocked out before lunch. She'd have it done by ten in the morning, you know, except for the fact that she's authenticating a copy of the Gutenberg Bible for the Louvre that day," she adds.
"Oh, I forgot that," I say, nodding. "Well, maybe the atomic analyser will come in handy for that; she can carbon-date the ink and the binding. Isn't she presenting her results at the Hague next week? That would make a good case-study for her paper," I add. I notice that our two locker room companions are moving in slow motion, evidently riveted on our conversation against their will.
"You're right!" Yvonne exclaims. "I'll mention it to her. Of course, this afternoon she's correcting some calculations from one of Einstein's journals - I swear, the man was just riddled with misconceptions about particle physics. And his handwriting! She should get the Nobel Prize for deciphering that!"
The two women exchange increasingly mystified glances; who are we talking about, and why have they not heard of her? And what kind of accident did she have that she doesn't have opposable thumbs?
"I thought she was getting the Nobel Prize!" I say, frowning. "Didn't you say she was getting the award in Economics, for creating that formula for eradicating the national debt in two weeks without raising taxes?"
"Oh, that," Yvonne says dismissively. "That was nothing. Christie doesn't consider it her best work. It was so obvious, she's almost embarrassed."
"Well, I think she should accept the prize anyway. If she's embarrassed, she can always sit down on the podium and have a bath." I pause; our two listeners exchange a shocked look before I continue, squinting judiciously. "She IS a cat, after all - isn't that how all of them cope with embarrassment?"
One of the two women listening to us suppresses a snort of laughter. The other grins into her locker, biting her lower lip hard.
"What?" Yvonne exclaims in tones of outrage. "Christie would never do that! She's far too ladylike! And what would Queen Elizabeth think? You know Christie is her personal advisor for protocol and etiquette! The next thing you know, the entire Royal Family would be stoping to have a bath in the midst of their press conferences! It wouldn't do. Christie has to watch that kind of thing - she has to set an example!"
"Hmm, I didn't think of that," I allow, tying not to laugh. "My apologies for suggesting Christie wold be so inappropriate."
"I should say!" exclaims Yvonne, putting her street clothes in her locker. "So, you ready?" she asks, with an abrupt return to matter-of-fact, swinging her racquet experimentally.
"Yep," I say, picking up my own racquet. I frown at it for a moment. "This is getting pretty beat-up," I mutter to myself. "Say, didn't you say Christie was working on a new graphite polymer? Maybe she can give me a prototype racquet," I say. Snickers erupt from behind one locker door. The other woman firmly presses her towel to her face.
"Oh, yes - that was her tea-time project Wednesday," Yvonne says carelessly. "I'll ask her about it. Of course, that one tennis player - you know, that hairy one - he wanted to get the formula and patent it, but Christie can't abide him - skinny calves. So naturally she said 'No'. She has a contract with Nike instead, so they'll ship her some prototypes next week, I think."
"Isn't she going to be at the Everest base camp next week, doing oxygen telemetry?" I ask as we mosey out of the locker room.
"Yes, but she's invented a new cell phone - did I tell you? - and she'd be happy to call Nike from there and have them deliver one to your door; she re-engineered their corporate jet, you know, so they owe her."
Behind us a muffled guffaw is heard. Someone else is giggling uncontrollably. I nod sagely.
"She really is handy to have around," I muse.
"Yes, she's my favorite," Yvonne says.
Well.... and who can blame her?