Downsizing

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Getting older is a pain in the you-know-what. Having entered my 8th decade last month and gone back to work four days a week two years ago, I have reluctantly faced the need to ratchet back a bit. Or, as we say in the corporate world, it’s time for downsizing. Now that daughter dear and our son-in-law are store owners – which is a seven-day-a-week job – they have very little time for ranch projects. The Big One is out of the house, The Middle One will graduate from high school in three years and The Little One is 12. TLO is the only one we’ll be able to count on for assistance for any length of time. We have to think about what we can handle essentially alone.

TBO and TLO helping with chores in their younger days.


The first thing to go was writing for pay. When writing was my main source of income, it took up a lot of time. Research, draft, write, proof, final check, post and sometimes revise – it all added up. But it was a reasonable living, was work that could be done while it was still dark outside and fitted into odd moments of time between various chores on the ranch. I still do some writing, but it’s an income supplement instead of the main event. However, once I do retire (again), I’ll probably be picking it up, so I’m keeping my hand in and staying with previous clients in a more limited fashion.

Radar the BatCat “helping” Mom write. He still does, but he takes up a lot more room.


Although I didn’t do it on purpose, we lost Maybelle the milk cow a couple of months before I went back to work for what I thought would be a six- to eight-week stint. I helped find, hire and orient a new clinic nurse manager and came back to be a ranch wife who happened to be bottle-feeding a calf twice a day. Six weeks later she quit (the new nurse manager, not the calf). No good candidates on the horizon, so back to the clinic I went. I was still thinking temporary and had hopes for Violet as a house cow, but I was also keeping an eye out for a good milk cow. There were lots of things at the job I thought could be made better and I was having fun. I eventually realized I wasn’t really ready to hang it up for good and instead of staying on as a consultant, I became an employee. I’m still looking for that milk cow, but I’ve also come to realize we have to have fewer cows. So we’re selling off the beefers or bartering cows for help in major projects hubby can’t do on his own anymore. This means less hay and water hauling, less time on daily chores, etc. If I’m just dealing with one milk cow plus her current and yearling calf, that’s doable, probably well into my older age. We may even get down to where we can rotate them through the various pastures and stop feeding hay entirely.

A properly tarped hay stack can withstand even high winds; if not weighted, the wind sneaks under the edges and the tarp leaves for the next county. But it’s a laborious job hauling, stacking and tarping.


Barred Rock chickens in the chicken tractor.


As far as the other critters, chickens are no big deal – we should be able to handle them and the associated chores such as bedding and coop clean-out until we need a walker. We’re still deciding whether to rebuild the pig pen and whether to get more sheep, which means a new sheep house. I suspect we’ll go on to do both, but we’re going to give some serious thought to how we site and build so we can manage them as we get (inevitably, darn it) older.

In our area, sheep that aren’t penned at night turn into cougar snacks.


The year, it’s the garden that’s coming under the magnifying glass. I am finding more and more that we do better health-wise with fewer carbs. We’ve pretty much given up grains and we eat few dry beans. We’re limiting potatoes and winter squash. All of these are space-eaters and the kind of thing I wanted the big garden for. I’ve also found that short of someone camping in the middle of the big garden and shooting ground squirrels all day from April to December, a lot of what I grow in the big garden will succumb to those pestiferous rodents. It’s too far from the house for the dogs or cats to cover it, and they’d have to be there 24/7, which means they’d turn into predator meals. I’ve also found that using the methods espoused by the Kaisers means I can raise a lot more food in the kitchen garden. So the next step in my downsizing plan is to figure out how to grow even more in that spot. In addition, I’m looking at how I can get around in it when I really do need a walker. The kitchen garden is on a south-facing slope – not real steep, but it has some ankle-twisting rocks we need to dig out. I’m hoping to build two new beds. In one area that is not only on a steeper slant and has a bunch of BIG rocks, I’m thinking to recycle the big plastic tubs in which we get cow supplements. They are big enough to make a planter for something like a winter squash but small enough that I can dump out the soil at the end of the year and refill. That way I can use them for winter squash every year – the squash will ramble happily over the rocks, which I can’t use for veggies. If I dump the used soil on top of the rocks and rough spots, I’m hoping I can also seed that area with pollinator annuals rather than using precious bed space for that purpose.
What’s that you say? Downsizing the housecleaning? I’ve always kept that well stomped down and firmly underfoot. It would be hard to do less than I’m already doing, but maybe I should put my mind to eliminating it entirely…

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The Real Normals – Mental Illness

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Time spent in nature improves mental health.

I’m an old nurse. Literally. I graduated in 1968. When you spend half a century in the same career, you are uniquely positioned to evaluate the changes that have occurred in the medical field. If you pay attention, you can begin to put things together and identify certain trends. One of those trends is how “normal” health indicators have changed in the course of those fifty years. That is not a good thing – in many cases, what was once considered normal is now considered a disease. And of course, a disease must be treated, preferably with the newest and most expensive medication. While treatment lines the pockets of the drug companies, it often does the patient no good.

Mental Illness in History
There are few medical conditions more unsettling to the average person than mental illness. Part of that may be the unpredictability of someone with serious mental illness – certainly people with acute psychosis are scary and dangerous. Primitive people often believed that mental illness came from the gods. Hallucinations meant the afflicted person was speaking to a deity. Sorcery and witchcraft were considered other possible reasons for mental afflictions, as was the idea of demonic possession. Mental illness has clearly existed for thousands of years – odds are high that King Saul of the Bible had bipolar disorder. Other famous people who struggled with mental illness included Issac Newton and Ludwig van Beethoven (probably bipolar disorder), Winston Churchill (depression), Thomas Jefferson (severe anxiety disorder), Vincent Van Gogh (schizophrenia) and Princess Diana (depression and bulimia).

The Rise of the DSMII
The origin of the International Classification of Disease (ICD) manual goes back to the 1860s as a way to track causes of death. In 1949 mental health disorders were added for the first time. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was originally a way to collect statistical information on mental illness. It belongs to the American Psychiatric Association, which makes about $5 million a year from the publication of this manual. Critics (including, interestingly, the National Institute of Mental Health) say it’s unscientific and subjective. Other criticisms: it may be neither valid nor reliable, it relies on superficial symptoms, it uses artificial dividing lines between normal and abnormal behavior, it is probably culturally biased and it medicalizes human emotions and distress. But it is also the gold standard for payment systems and as with diabetes, hypertension, cholesterol and obesity, once you have a diagnosis, it becomes a medical issue that must be treated with increasingly expensive drugs.

Mental Illness and Medications
Some kinds of mental illness seem to be increasing in America. Anxiety and depression, for example, clearly climbed between the 1930s and 1990s. Actually, what was once called anxiety is now more likely to be called depression. As advertising for antidepressants increased in the 1960s, patients who were once diagnosed as anxious were now diagnosed as depressed and given medications for that condition. Robert Whitaker, author of Mad in America and Anatomy of an Epidemic, makes a good case that the increased numbers of those disabled by mental illness result from the use of psychiatric drugs. In 1987, the disability rate for mental illness was one in every 184 Americans; by 2007 it was one in every 76. In his own words: “Although psychiatric medications may be effective over the short term, they increase the likelihood that a person will become chronically ill over the long term.” Specifically, says Whitaker, bipolar illness almost never occurred in children prior to puberty until doctors started prescribing stimulants for ADHD and antidepressants for depression. Other studies on medications for schizophrenia support Whitaker’s stand against long-term use of psychiatric drugs. Unfortunately, as in other areas, those like Whitaker who point out the emperor’s derriere is flapping in the breeze are attacked.

So What Does Work?
The answer to that question is – it depends. Something like PTSD is an acquired disorder in most cases; exposure to trauma, such as child abuse, sexual abuse or combat, causes mental and physical symptoms. Mental illness with a genetic component seems to be a horse of a different color. However, there are some possibilities.
? Improving Sleep Patterns – I once worked with a psychiatrist in a community health center, and we were trying to develop a quality improvement indicator for the department. I asked her, “How do you know when people are getting better? What’s the first thing that changes?” She said, “People start to sleep normally.” There’s no question that people who are chronically sleep-deprived are more likely to have symptoms such as depression and anxiety. I suspect that part of the problem in combat-induced PTSD is lack of sleep.
? Exercise – exercise helps balance chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. It’s been found helpful in treating depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and ADHD. Mind-body disciplines like yoga and tai chi seem to be beneficial across the board.
? Nutrition – if you are eating garbage, your brain is going to suffer. While the research on sugar and hyperactivity in children shows mixed results, I personally know that it makes me feel wired. Inadequate amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids are a problem for many; young people treated with Omega-3s for first-time psychosis seem to have a decreased risk of developing chronic schizophrenia. Children’s brains need saturated fat for proper development. Adult nervous systems also need high-quality fat. Could the low-fat diet craze of the last 60 years have something to do with increased rates of mental illness? I’d say odds are high.
? Vitamins – the minimum daily requirements for vitamins are way too low in most cases. As with baking a cake, if you don’t have the right ingredients, the resulting dish – in this case, mental health – is not going to be very good. Folate is being used to treat depression and schizophrenia. The B vitamins in general seem to be helpful in depression, dementia and in improving cognitive declines. Magnesium is also helpful for many people.
? Supplements – many supplements seem to be helpful precursors for neurotransmitters. Julia Ross (The Mood Cure) uses these in her practice. Among them: 5-HTP, tryptophan and melatonin for sleep, and tyrosine for energy and elevated mood. Ross is adamant that these must be combined with better eating and a good-quality multi-vitamin/multi-mineral supplement. She finds that once people’s nutrition improves with diet and basic vitamins/minerals, other supplements aren’t usually needed except occasionally in times of high stress.
? Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – this form of psychotherapy helps people learn to think differently. The brain develops neural pathways – habits of thought – some of which can be destructive. Neural pathways literally become part of the structure of the brain. CBT can help reverse this trend and restore the brain structures to normal.
? Combined Therapy – when CBT is combined with animal therapy, art therapy, music therapy or wilderness therapy, it seems to be even more effective.
? Herbal Treatments – sadly, herbs don’t get studied as much as medications, because there isn’t as much money in it. But St. John’s Wort can be helpful for mild to moderate depression and valerian improves sleep, as does passion flower.

None of the above are likely to actually cure mental illness, but neither do medications. These activities can, however, help you manage your condition, just as exercise, eating saturated fat and limiting carbohydrates helps manage diabetes. It’s very important not to ignore or make light of symptoms of mental illness, especially if someone starts talking about suicide. But, as with many other “diseases” and medical conditions, there are people and organizations out there with definite agendas. Those agendas are not always good for the patient.
Think about it.

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We’ve Been Adopted

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A bit wide-eyed and spooky yet.


We lost a cat a couple of months ago. She had adopted us a couple of years earlier (people don’t adopt cats; cats do the adopting). Ranch cats often have fairly short lifespans, especially if they are left out at night. Raccoons, owls, coyotes, foxes, wolves and bobcats take a heavy toll. Many farmers and ranchers just let nature take its course and keep a constant supply of new kittens coming up. My sentimental side is not comfortable raising kittens that have an average lifespan of 18 months. My hard-nosed side sees excess cats as a financial drain, a disease reservoir and hard on the bird population. We prefer to neuter and bring the felines in at night. Our cats nearly always live well into their teens.

“Helping” Dad put in a new shower head.


Without cats, rodents become a problem. The rattlesnakes hunting the rodents are a more serious issue. We usually operate on the live-and-let-live principle where rattlesnakes are concerned. Finding one coiled up in the front yard or looking for breakfast in a feed sack, however, is a little more up close and personal than I care to get. Four mature cats, actively hunting in the vicinity of the house, seems to be what it takes to keep things in balance. With Cee-Cee’s death, we were down to three: Black Cat, Radar and my daughter’s cat, Sage. Black Cat, at 17, isn’t a hunter any more. He spends almost all of his time sleeping, preferably in the warmest spot he can find.

Keeping an eye on Radar, who wants to play.


Some people actively look for a new cat; we’ve found all we have to do is wait. In over 40 years of ranching, all but a few of our cats have simply showed up and adopted us. The practice of dumping unwanted cats and kittens in the country (which I consider reprehensible behavior on a par with child abuse, genocide and similar undesirable human activities) means there are nearly always replacement cats coming along. The truly feral cats, sadly, can rarely be tamed. Those we shoot; cats will quickly overpopulate and can decimate bird populations (including your baby chicks). They also tend to have hungry, miserable and very short lives. Dumped cats, however, have quite often been socialized to humans by their irresponsible owners. Rather than spay or neuter, these (expletives deleted) drop them off in the country about the time they become sexually mature. Bewildered, betrayed and starving, they quickly become predator snacks or road kill.
We knew there had been a cat dump recently, as we had seen several unfamiliar cats around. The last time this happened, it was the barn cats of a neighbor. Said neighbor was a severe alcoholic and it finally caught up with her. Her long hospitalization and ultimate death left her property and cats abandoned. Apparently no one in her family gave a thought to the cats. Cee-Cee adopted us, one adopted my daughter and said daughter found homes for two more; the others simply disappeared. Three days ago, a new face showed up. Literally skin and bones, her neck and ears loaded with ticks, and her fur in mats, she responded when hubby called her. He fed her, she was more than willing to be petted and allowed herself to be picked up on the second day. She was thin enough that she’d probably been dumped a couple of months ago, but she had also clearly been around people enough to be well-socialized. She looks like she’s about a year old.

OK, this is a safe spot. I think I’ll keep him.


As of this morning, Athena – so-named because she has a clear facial resemblance to the goddess’ favorite bird – is sleeping under a dining room chair. The boys have made friendly overtures; she’s deciding whether she will accept them. She ate first when I fed them this morning. We’ve been adopted, and hubby is now under the the paw of a new cat.

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