Saturday, March 31, 2012

Cheese Wheels

Long before I broke my leg, I shelled out for two tickets to the Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma. Four hours of gourmet grazing with an occasional pause to sample a wine, port or microbrew. There was no way I'd get through this on crutches. My son put it succinctly: "Mom, you suck at crutches." No argument here. Not only would it be challenging – and exhausting - to navigate the show, it would be impossible, with both hands pressing down on the crutch-handles, to feed my face.

We decided to rent a wheelchair.

The show was held under a big white tent outside the Petaluma Sheraton Hotel. Le tout-fromage Californien was there: Cowgirl Creamery, Laura Chenel, Point Reyes Blue and many smaller, but no less inspired cheese makers. There were pungent blooming rinds, feisty blues, camembert wanna-bes and brie-manqués, old-school cheddars wrapped in black wax, new-school tomes coated in coffee grinds, goat crottins rolled in lavender and thyme, mini-mozarelles marinating in extra-virgin olive oil, crunchy parmesan crackers, delicate mini cheese cakes and unexpected luxury chocolates. If you wanted actual lunch, you could get gourmet pizza made fresh in a portable oven or crepes, your choice of ham and cheese or, for the true philistine, PB&J. The crowd consisted mostly of foodies, with the occasional cheese monger or specialty food buyer schmoozing and collecting brochures.

At first, the wheelchair experience was disheartening. We arrived around lunch time and the place was packed. I had a hard time learning to control the chair because I have a hard time learning to drive anything. Cars, sailboats, rowboats, ATVs, mopeds, wheel chairs... it's all counterintuitive to me. So I advanced tentatively, with my face just above the level of the average person's butt, stopping the chair with my good leg every twenty seconds or so in order not to run over anyone's feet. Getting close to a vendor display was a challenge, but if I managed to push my way in with my wheelchair, I was usually rewarded with an extra large sympathy sample.

The crowd started to thin by mid-afternoon, just as I was beginning to feel the cumulative effect of all those small wine and beer samples. (Can you get a ticket for drunk driving a wheelchair?). The chair is an inexpensive model, the kind with smaller elevated inner wheels that you turn by hand. It's a workout. When my biceps would start burning, my spouse would push me for a few yards. Sometimes, he'd stop without telling me. At one point, I found myself hurtling down an aisle, on a collision course with a lady almost large enough to block it entirely. Only when I turned around to tell hubby to slow down did I realize he was still three tables back, hovering over the cheddar samples. Good thing I'd finally figured out how to work the brakes.

Clover Dairy's cheddar sculpture.

We're keeping the chair until my cast comes off. It allows me to make dinner, which is tough to do while standing on one leg. We've also taken it on outings. At the movies, I get to sit in the handicapped area - lots of leg room and nobody blocking my view. We brought the chair along when we went to see a terrific exhibit of British 19th century art, The Cult of Beauty. After my husband dropped me off and went in search of parking, a nice man volunteered to push me up the inclined path to the museum. Later, at the museum café, I pulled right up to a table and dispatched Hubbie to get us capucinnos and warm bread puddings. When he returned, I confessed that there are advantages to this wheelchair business. (Rather George Costanza of me, I know). He joked that we should keep the chair to get good seats at the movies. At precisely that moment, a couple walked by pushing a tiny disabled boy in a diminutive wheelchair of his own. Suddenly, I felt like an impostor and my inner George Costanza went back to napping under his desk.

Still, there's no denying the chair's magic. People offering me giant cheese chunks, holding doors for me, helping me negotiate curbs, and handing me paper towels in the movie theater bathroom – the last time random strangers were this nice to me, I was pregnant with my son, so it's been about twenty years. It's not that I crave the attention, or that it makes me feel special. I am fortunate that unlike that little boy in the museum, I'll soon be back to standing on my own two feet. It's just that seeing people go out of their way for someone they've never met makes me feel just a little bit better about humanity. And I needed that.

Cheese Samples

Fun Classes (My daughter and I have taken a half dozen of these)

The wheelchair of tomorrow is not a chair.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Break Dancing

I have always been sensitive about my shortcomings, most of which involve my mechanical, mathematical and athletic skills, or lack thereof. This makes me self-aware enough to know that I shouldn't fix cars, play poker, ballroom dance, ski or juggle chainsaws. Since I am a terminal klutz, I try to stay away from anything dangerous. As a result, I had only broken three small bones in my life:
• My pinky trying to catch a kickball.
• My big toe tripping over a vacuum cord.
• My little toe, executing a yoga lunge. (Told you I was a klutz.)

Note the use of the word "had".

As I type this, my right leg, (yes, the driving leg) is propped on a big blue exercise ball. My calf is straining against a tight plaster cast like a sausage about to burst from its casing. You see, a couple of weekends ago, I finally got my husband to go hiking with me. I am a fast walker and I march up and down hills with all the conviction of an invading army, but my old man has a 4 mile maximum, after which his knees turn on him. We agreed to try a gentler hike – he would push himself and Helen Redy here would reign herself in.

We decided to go to Black Mountain Regional Park, in the South Bay, where my husband lived back in his hippy days. Choosing comfort over common sense, I eschewed the heavy hiking boots and put on my old walking shoes with the worn out soles. The hike started out with great drama, as there had been a car and bicycle accident up the road. A rescue copter was idling atop a small butte behind the entrance to the staging area. We stepped aside to let two paramedics go by, carrying the unfortunate cyclist on a stretcher. I snapped a few pictures of the copter taking off and we headed down the trail.

It was T shirt weather and the sky was impossibly blue. We passed gophers, hawks and deer on our way up to the top of Black Mountain, where we were greeted by a panoramic vista of the South Bay, three other hikers and a chatty female ranger who told us all about the big controversy over the president of the California Fish and Game Commission's love of mountain lion hunting. We rested a bit, drank some water and headed back the way we had come. It was an uneventful descent until about a mile and a half from the staging area. The trail was dry and pebbly,slanting downward, towards the base of the mountain, as well as sideways, towards a dip just deep enough to call a precipice. In retrospect, the hiking boots would have been a better choice of footwear.

The first time I slipped, I didn't really fall. I skidded. I made like a surfer and adjusted my weight to stay upright. The ligaments on the side of my ankle strained as I regained my balance. It stung, but I sucked it up.

Five minutes later, I literally fell. On my hindquarters. It would have been embarrassing were my husband not used to it.

The third time was the charm. I tried to check myself the way I had before, but I couldn't stop my momentum. I went down, and this time, it hurt. A lot.

My ankle didn't feel broken. I was convinced I just had a bad sprain. I hobbled, butt-dragged and hopped the remaining mile and a half back to the staging area. Some nice hikers broke a branch for me to use as a cane. I reached the bottom of the hill just as my leg gave out. I plopped down on a log next to the fire lane while my husband went to get the car. As soon as he pulled up, a ranger appeared and asked us to move. When he saw my leg, he chided us for not calling for help. I said we hadn't thought of it, though actually, I had. I wasn't about to suffer the embarrassment of an airlift, and one always ends up getting billed for this sort of thing. Besides, now I can say I walked a mile and a half downhill on a broken ankle. I have earned my macho street cred for life.

Enough crowing.

I went to see the podiatrist the next day, and the X-ray showed an inverted V-shaped break in my lower fibula. I've gone from hard-driving hiker to the spaz with the cast. There are just enough steps in the house that I scoot and crawl rather than hassle with them. My dog is afraid of the crutches and is mad at me because I can't walk him. Bathing is a nightmare. The toilet is very close to the tub, so I sit on the seat and tape a garbage bag around my leg. The first time I washed, I straddled the edge of the tub and got in the shower with my good leg, letting the injured one rest on the commode. When I had cleaned up to the best of my limited abilities, I pivoted on my good leg, turning the bad one towards the tub, and lowered my butt backwards onto the toilet seat, which chose that precise moment to pop a bolt. The seat swiveled all the way to the side and I went flying. I fell on a half open drawer, bruised my behind and banged my broken leg on the tub. There I lay, wet, naked and pathetic on the cold, hard tile, crying like a little girl.

So much for macho street cred.