Sunday, November 27, 2016

Thanksgiving, the Dallas Cowboys, my horseback-riding ineptitude, Yamaha pianos, and my brief stint as a dairywoman

This photo belongs to Judge Alex Ferrer. I didn't ask his permission to post it because he is busy. In the event that he sues me for copyright infringement (although he didn't sue Marco Rubio for lifting half of his essay and turning it into a campaign speech, so I'm not sure why he'd suddenly become vicious and come after a nobody such as me) I may need to start a Go Fund Me account for legal expenses. I shall throw myself on the mercy of his court and hope that such never comes to fruition.In any event, doesn't this lovely molded chocolate turkey make you want to give up the real thing and just eat chocolate turkey instead? I didn't think so.

Thanksgiving was Thanksgiving as the holiday always goes down with my family, whether I celebrate with my slightly-south-of-the-midline-of-the-state family or with my slightly-above-the-midline-of-the-state family. We usually alternate years, and this year we were with the northern contingent.

The northern Thanksgiving celebration is a hugely attended affair. I didn't bother counting, but my aunt thought eighty two people ate at one time or another during the afternoon. Most people other than I ate too much. A whole lot of people probably drank more than they should have. No one of whom I was aware became angry with anyone else, however. I wouldn't say the event was peaceful with all the yelling at the TV during the football games, but it was congenial yelling. I think everyone was even for the same teams, which was slightly odd -- especially that everyone there hated the Cowboys, especially since many of the men present are literal cowboys, either who ride and rope competitively on weekends or who ride horses while herding cattle for a living. Usually there's at least one @$$hole in any crowd who has to cheer for the Dallas Cowboys. We were blissfully spared the token pendejo this year.

I did my usual ban on Black Friday. I don't believe in Black Friday. it's like the Kardshians to me. If everyone ignored the Kardashians to the extent that I do, there would be no fincail incentive for any network to keep televising a show based on them, and they would fade into oblivion. i fell that the same is true of Black Friday.I plan for the rest of my life to budget my income carefully enough that I don't have to join the throngs of shoppers willing to stampede atop toddlers and elderly people in order to save a few dollars, to get their hands on the year's impossible-to-acquire toy, or to save a few dollars. If I ever can't afford to purchase gifts, I'll learn to sew and make quilts for people, or do something similarly ingenious to avoid participating in Black Friday.  Not everyone is in as comfortable financial position as I am; I'm far from wealthy, but my needs are met easily enough that I can put away enough money to buy gifts for those on my list without leaving the house or whatever house in which I'm sleeping on Thanksgiving night at 2:00 a.m. or earlier on the morning of Black Friday.

I've begun to treat black Friday almost the way Orthodox Jews observe the sabbath, except maybe not quite as extreme. I don't demand that my aunt put her lights on timers so that no one has to "work" by turning on and off light switches. If anyone feels like cooking something and it's something that's palatable to me, I'll eat it. Usually it's just leftovers from Thanksgiving, anyway.
I do not, however, shop under any circumstances, though I suppose a vending machine would be acceptable if I were desperate for something.  If someone needed medication and didn't have it, I would purchase it for them. It is sort of as Jesus explained to either the Saducees or the Pharisees or both when he said that if an ox falls into the mire on the Sabbath, it wouldn't be right to leave the poor animal there until Sabbath was over. Common sense should apply.

I do not, however, get into a car on Black Friday unless it's the equivalent to a medical emergency on someone's part or perhaps to flee to higher ground because of an oncoming tsunami. (We have a whole lot of tsunamis in the San Joaquin Valley. [sarcasm font])  My Aunt Victoria wanted me to go with her to Aunt Debbie's house to see Aunt Debbie's new piano. (Note: Aunt Debbie is not really my aunt. She is married to my Aunt Victoria's [my mom's sister's] husband's brother. It's just simpler to call everyone "aunt" and "uncle." ) When I was little I was confused about who my actual aunts and uncles were, but I sorted it out by the time I was about four. I'm not sure if Matthew has yet figured out who our real relatives are and who are the relatives-of-relatives or extremely close family friends. He usually just asks me. I made a chart for him once, but he lost it. Anyway, Aunt Debbie lives about three miles away, and it was raining, but my Aunt Victoria was determined that I see and play Aunt Debbie's piano.  

I was willing to put on rain gear and walk the three-mile distance to Aunt Debbie's house. There's an off-road route that will cut the distance roughly in half, but it involves walking  in areas I'm not comfortable traversing. I'm not afraid to walk on the roads around here. If a person goes hiking on trails or across any territory beyond the pastures, he or she is taking chances. There are wild boars, coyotes, bobcats, and even occasionally mountain lions that venture down this far.  I refuse to hike around here unless someone carrying a gun who actually shoots proficiently is with me. That would not be my Aunt Victoria. My mother was going, too, but she would almost certainly be a worse shot than Aunt Victoria is. 

So then Aunt Victoria got the bright idea that we should put on rain gear and ride horses there.  There is exactly one horse (Georgia) on this property that I trust enough to ride by myself. Georgia currently has a sore hoof. I need a horse that I ride to be approximately as predictable as a merry-go-round horse, which Georgia is. My Uncle Ralph said I could ride Georgia if I really wanted to, but it would be uncomfortable for her. I am unwilling to intentionally cause pain to an animal if it's not a rodent, and even rodents I would prefer to kill painlessly. If I found rodents inside, I would transplant them to appropriate outdoor locations, but I'm too afraid of them to do that. Actually I'm too afraid of them to kill them, either. I just climb atop high surfaces and scream for help. If I were alone and saw a mouse or rat inside my dwelling, I would probably dial 9-1-1 if I did not have a heart attack first.

Anyway, my cousin Philip offered a solution. He said that he would ride his horse along with my mom (who can ride basically any horse that's broken) and Aunt Victoria (who can ride a horse whether or not it's broken) and would tote a gun in case we came across a predatory animal that challenged any of the horses. He said unless it's a mountain lion, you usually just have to fire a shot in the animal's general direction to make it retreat. With a mountain lion, one must shoot to kill if the animal is approaching or stalking. And he agreed not to go directly under any trees where a mountain lion might be poised to pounce on unsuspecting riders (the horses often sense their presence, but they rear back and try to throw riders of if the riders try to force them to go forward in such a case.) Anyway, I trusted my cousin Philip to be strong enough to control the horse and shoot at the same time. He's big enough that I would just need to hold onto him to avoid falling.

My mother thought the whole thing was ridiculous and used it as one more opportunity to voice her opinion that I am too strange to have been sired by anyone other than my father. She went along with us, though. She probably didn't want to seem like a wimp driving her car there while the rest of us rode horses in the rain. In the end, after we were wiping down and brushing the horses, she agreed that the ride in the rain was far more fun than simply driving there in a car would have been.

The piano at Aunt Debbie's house was a glossy ebony baby grand Yamaha. I'm not a huge Yamaha fan, but they produce a nice enough product, especially considering that no one in Aunt Debbie's immediate family actually plays the piano yet. I wish someone had asked me. I could have steered her toward a nicer Kawai for a comparable price, but I was not going to tell her that. She is proud of her new piano, and I would say or do nothing to make her less pleased with it or to make her think I didn't like it. Actually, I do like it. I just wouldn't have chosen it for myself. Elton John seems to be very fond of Yamaha pianos, and he's a skilled musician, though part of his affinity for Yamahas is that the corporation will make the pianos in any style or color he desires. He's quite the showman and likes flashy instruments.

My mom and I each played a song on Aunt Debbie's new piano. Then she asked if either of us knew how to play "Music Box Dancer." If there's a song that my mom and I despise hearing or playing equally, it's probably "Music Box Dancer."
Aunt Debbie is such a sweet person, though, that we couldn't deny her the pleasure of hearing a song she really wanted to hear played on her own brand-new piano. My mom and I did a quick rock/paper/scissors game with our backs turned to the group, and I lost. I'm not sure who the real loser was, however, as I'm not sure which is worse when you really hate a song: playing it or listening to someone else play it. Aunt Debbie liked it, which was the important thing. She had tears in her eyes. At least I assume the tears in her eyes were because she liked hearing the song. She may have been crying because she hated the way I played it, as though I was defiling her prized piano. One never knows for certain about such things.

Today, I studied nearly all day to the extent that I was almost anti-social.  I have grand rounds on Monday morning and need to know everything I can learn about the patients, their diagnoses, their proposed treatments, and any other information I can glean. Even though I will be tired, I will make it to the hospital about ninety minutes before grand rounds are scheduled so that I can speak to each of the patients and find out if there is any pertinent information missing from their charts. It sounds as though I'm doing this out of a competitive streak, and such is not entirely untrue, but my primary motivation is that I want to help the patients to get well. I don't have any particular in with young and middle-aged adults -- they tend not to trust me because of my age -- but I'm reasonably good at communicating with the elderly patients. It's like I remind them of their grandchildren, and they will sometimes speak more openly with me than with some of my peers or superiors.  I have an inside track with children as well, but we won't be seeing children on the internal medicine rotation.

Today (or yesterday, technically) I did venture out to watch a cow give birth to her first calf. It looked for a moment like she might have difficulty, but the new little calf (a heifer; heifers are what the dairymen want) got herself turned around and out with relative ease. It took her just minutes to stand and nurse. They only need so many bulls, so the bull calves are of limited value. Unless there's reason, usually due to lineage, that they have potential to be prime bulls themselves eventually, they're sold to ranchers who raise them for beef, but dairy cattle do not provide the prime beef. They don't have terribly long lives.  The little girls have a much better shot at long, happy lives. (Happy cows are California cows, you know.) The dairy at which the calf was born is an organic dairy, which means that the cows get mandatory pasture time, as opposed to the more factory-like operations of non-organic dairies. Organic calves also get a little more time (how much I'm not certain; with non-organic dairies, it's within a day that separation occurs) with their mothers before they're shipped off to calf-raising operations. The calves are bottle-fed a mixture of milk and other nutrients, and their mothers produce milk for consumers. 

The dairy here is a Holstein dairy. Holsteins are the black-and-white spotted milk cows, although red Holsteins pop up on occasion just as black labrador retrievers mate with other black retrievers yet produce chocolate lab babies. Holsteins are desired for the quantity of milk they produce. Their milk isn't especially rich in fat, although there is some fat in their milk. Jersey cows, who are usually a soft brown color, produce the milk richest in fat. Jersey cows are more valued for the fat in their milk than for the milk itself. If you are a fan of cream, butter, or ice cream, you probably have a Jersey cow to thank for it. There are breeds whose milk is in between that of a Holstein and that of a Jersey - more milk than a Jersey, but milk of a higher fat content than a Holstein. Guernseys are probably the most populous of such cattle in the U.S. and Canada.

An incident I had forgotten about but mentioned to a friend briefly was that when I was seven years old, I helped to deliver a cow. The mother was a small heifer, and it was her first calk (hence the term heifer; a heifer is a female calf until she births her own first calf). After that, she is a cow. Cows are females. Males of the breed are bulls are bull calves until they are castrated, at which point they become steers. Anyway, the poor young heifer was having an awful time getting this calf out, and had labored long enough that my uncle and his brother were concerned about her. All three vets they used were unavailable. It was a busy tie for calving. 

My uncle put on the arm-length gloves and tried to reach in and turn the calf, but his hands and arms were too large to go far. Then his brother noticed me. My Uncle was at first a bit skeptical. but decided they had nothing to lose in giving me a shot at pulling the calf out. They put a pair of long gloves on me. My entire hand fit in each thumb slot. Then they took a garbage bag, poked holes for my head and arms, and slipped it over me. I pushed my arms through the holes and was ready to go to work. My uncle's brother showed me with a nearby calf the ideal position the calf should be to come out of the heifer. It needed to be head-first with its front paws extended. I gamely stuck my hands inside the calf, felt for the head, but the head wasn't quite in the direction my uncle's brother had shown me. I told him that, and he said to try to gently rotate its head. I did. Then he said to feel for the front legs and to gently pull them forward, which I did. Then he said to put my right hand over the cow's neck, and my left hand (I'm a lefty) on the cow's chest just below where the legs connected to the body. He said to pull gently. I pulled gently, but gently for me was not enough force to get the calf out. He said to pull a bit harder, but to try to keep the front legs in position. I did and got the calf out all the way to its midsection, with both legs out. The heifer gave another push, and the calf was all the way out.

Sometimes when a birth is difficult, a calf has more difficulty standing than it otherwise would. A cow must stand or it will not survive, but it can receive a bit of assistance. My uncle had a bottle of colostrum ready for the cow. He gave it to me and allowed me to feed the newborn calf.  Within forty-five minutes, the cow was trying to stand, and in less than ninety minutes flowing her birth, she was on her feet, nursing from her mother. The placenta was hanging out, and dropped shortly thereafter. 

I was allowed to name the calf. I named her Christianne. For some reason I wanted her to have a French name. Christianne lived to be almost nine years old. Dairy cows are slaughtered when they can no longer produce milk. With conventional dairy farming, a dairy cow may last only five years, but cows raised in organic environment are given more time between pregnancies, and they spend more time in pastures and less time on concrete, which reduces hoof infections and is less stressful. Still, almost nine years is a long life for a dairy cow. (A cow left to its own devices in a pasture setting, particularly in a mild climate [remember, California cows are happier than Wisconsin cows] allowed to get pregnant when ever she got around to it, and to nurse her own babies to maturity, might live to be twenty or more years old.) It seems sad but dairy farming -- even organic dairy farming -- is a business, and profit is the bottom line.

I don't pretend to know everything there is about the dairy business, but if tomorrow someone gave me one hundred healthy dairy cows and either a quality bull or contact information for of a good artificial breeder, the facility and equipment needed for a dairy, the phone number of a good large animal vet, a tutorial on the business end of dairying, a few experienced milkers, and contact information for a few experienced dairymen to answer inevitable questions,  I'd have a fighting chance at making a go of it. If medical school ends up not working out, I do at least have another career option.

Image result for holstein cow giving birth
This photo does not belong to me.  I didn't take my cell phone with me when I wandered out to the shed. It is essentially what I saw today.


  1. Alexis,my first "patient"was a dairy cow on my uncle- or to use your terminology-,pseudouncle's farm. A newly minted medical student treating the cow for mastitis.

    1. "Mastitis." How that word brings back memories. Mastitis is a term I learned as a four-year-old kindergartener living on the dairy. When a classmate whose mother had given birth a month or two earlier came to school and announced that his mother had mastitis, I knew it as an affliction cows sometimes developed. I said that if Michael Faruhmpa's (I cannot recall for certain the spelling of the last name; it's an Azores Portuguese name) mother had mastitis, that meant she must be a cow, or at least part cow, because eeryone knows cows get mastitis. Michael went home and told his mother. The next Sunday at mass my parents, who knew nothing of this, sat in the pew directly in front of the Faruhmpa family. The Faruhmpa parents, taking their children with them, got up and moved to a different pew far from where we were sitting. My aunt and uncle, sitting at the end of the pew in which we sat, had to stifle laughter because they had already heard about my referring to Mrs. Faruhmpa being at least part cow, as they had been part of the particular parochial school for a few years already and were much more into the loop of the happenings, gossip, and feuds of the school. My uncle didn't want my aunt to tell my parents because he was afraid they might be overly punitive over what was essentially a childhood misunderstanding. My aunt explained to me that mastitis was an infection of the breasts that lactating females could get, and that since cows and women both produced milk for their babies, both cows and women could get mastitis. My aunt also explained that it wouldn't be taken kindly under any circumstances to tell another person that his mother must be a cow or even at least part cow. I understood what my aunt was saying and never made the mistake again, though it was the first of many faux pas on my part. My aunt and uncle then had to tell my parents after church what was so funny.

      The Faruhmpas still hate us to this day over something a four-year-old said. We're going to mass in a few hours in the same parish affiliated with the school I attended that year and two years later. If the Faruhmpas are there, at least one or two of them -- probably the parents -- almost for certain will give us the stink eye.

      The ironic thing was that Mrs. Faruhmpa did and still does sort of look like a cow even in her non-pregnant or non-lactating state. six weeks or so after having a baby and with swollen boobs, the resemblance was unmistakable.

  2. I would love to ride a horse again... but, like you, I hate causing pain to animals.