Thursday, November 15, 2018

Living with The 'New Normal' of Wildfire Smoke

On a clear day you can see...Wait, remind me what a clear day is?

View of Twin Peaks from Market and Noe on Nov. 15, 2018. AQI: 188.
The Camp Fire that has devastated large areas of Butte County, California, continues to pump dangerous smoke into the San Francisco Bay Area and much of Northern California—as deadly wildfires continue to blaze in Southern California.

"Over a decade or so, we're going to have more fire, more destructive fire, more billions that will have to be spent on it," California Governor Jerry Brown said back in August. "All that is the new normal that we will have to face."

Wildfires. The new normal. 

Now that this reality has sunk in and I can no longer at least halfway ignore it, I've upped my research efforts, looking for ways to deal with it. When faced with a problem, I tend to research the hell out of it.

Here are some things I've learned that, I hope, may help others living in the new normal of wildfires and smoke. 

The Best Air Purifiers for Home

The Wirecutter, a product review site that The New York Times acquired, recommends the Coway AP-1512HH, which sells for $225 on Amazon. After our friends Bob and Kurt recommended this model, we bought one, liked it, and just ordered two more. 

Consumer Reports didn't test the Coway for some reason. Their pick is the Blueair Blue Pure 211 (receiving a score of 89 out of 100), which sells for $250 on Amazon

Our friends Tempe and Jonathan recommended the Alen BreatheSmart brand, such as this model for larger rooms than the Coway and Blueair cover. It's $658 on Amazon

Seriously. You Should Be Wearing a Mask Outside

I'm surprised by how few people I see on the streets wearing protective face masks. Yes, they make you look dorky. Yes, they're uncomfortable. But at this point, who cares? Especially since the long-term consequences of breathing in wildfire pollution could be serious.

Wired has an eye-opening article on this topic. Among the points it makes: 

"Breathing will start to feel more difficult, and you might get light-headed. Children get hit harder, since they breathe faster than adults...even healthy adults just walking around will start feeling a sting in their eyeballs and at the back of their throats, chest tightness, and the need to cough...Symptoms like these will go away when air quality improves. But breathing in a lot of PM2.5’s can lead to serious long-term health problems."

Important aside: PM2.5 "fine particulates" consist of particles with diameters less than or equal to 2.5 microns in size. When there's a wildfire, the air is full of PM2.5-filled smoke. "PM2.5 is a...serious health concern, since smaller particles can travel more deeply into our lungs and cause more harmful effects," says the Spare the Air website.

Also, it's important not just to wear the mask but to wear it correctly. Here's one video that illustrates how to do it (you can skip the first 40 seconds or so of the 'blah blah blah').

And you should not wear a mask for more than a total of eight hours, SFGate reports.

The Best Mask to Wear

Recommended masks for wildfire smoke are those designated as N95 particulate respirators. This 3M mask ($14 for a box of 10 on Amazon) is what we've been wearing. It's slightly more comfortable than other masks because it has an escape valve for your exhalations, which helps keep the inside of the mask from getting too hot. 

The Best Apps to Track Air Quality Index

In times like this, we need data! I'm constantly checking the current Air Quality Index (AQI) using these apps: 

* The basic iPhone Weather app, which includes the current AQI for each city you track at the bottom of that city's weather data. If you have an Apple Watch, you can select 'AQI' as a complication for certain watch faces—which shows your current location's AQI on the watch.  

* The EPA's SmokeSense app, which is available on iPhones and Android phones for free. Along with your current location's AQI, it also shows all current wildfires on a map—which can look pretty scary. 

* The Fresh Air app is pretty good, too, but costs $1. Below, the reading the app just gave me on San Francisco's air quality—the worst I've seen thus far. 

The Easiest Way to Help Wildfire Victims

Of course, San Francisco Bay Area residents are far luckier than those on the front lines of the wildfires. People have lost homes, businesses, loved ones, and pets, and there's no immediate end in sight.

So what can you do to help? The easiest option is to send a text to 90999. In the message, just type the word REDCROSS to donate $10 to that organization. 

If you'd like to do more, or do something else, Fast Company recently published an article with lots of helpful resources.

How California Wildfire Victims Can Help Themselves

BetterHelp, which offers professional online counseling, is offering free counseling sessions via the internet for three months to anyone affected by the California wildfires. You can sign up online and learn more about how the service works

Living in the 'Smoke Belt'

The Wired article referenced above calls the West Coast and the Great Plains "the new Smoke Belt." 

Translation: If you haven't yet bought at least one air purifier and a box of N95 particulate respirator masks, do it. Now.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Why I Didn't Want to Visit My Mother

During a recent trip to my hometown of Greensboro, N.C., I considered not visiting my mother.

I hadn’t had a good visit with her in more than two years. Why should I expect something different this time? During those visits, ‘Moop’ (as we call her) had been dead asleep. Or if awake, she was ornery. On one occasion, she was downright mean. I’d pat her on the shoulder gently and tell her I loved her; she’d swat my hand away and scowl at me. Making matters worse, her caregiver said she’d been pleasant just before I arrived.

But I knew I couldn’t travel across the country and not at least check in on Moop. So I put on my yellow Piggly-Wiggly T-shirt—which has always elicited a smile from her in the past—and with trepidation, I went to the Arboretum, a memory-care facility where she lives, with husband Nick by my side for support.

Entering the communal area, I saw Emma, one of the caregivers who has tended my mother for years. It was 4:45 p.m., and most of the residents were seated in the dining area, about to have dinner.

“Jimmy!,” Emma called out to me. We walked over and exchanged hugs.

Beside Emma was my mother, her back to us, in her wheelchair. She turned around, as best she could, and smiled. “Heyyyyy,” she said.

“I brought you a happy meal,” I said, showing both Moop and Emma the cup of Coke and the paper bag containing the child-sized hamburger and fries. Emma wheeled Moop to the other side of the room, where we could visit with her away from the other residents, whose blank stares were focused on us.

“Oooh, she’s gonna like that,” Emma said in her thick Jamaican accent.

Emma put Moop’s hamburger on a plate and cut it into four pieces. She brought me a smaller cup to pour the Coke into, so it would be easier for Moop to hold.

Moop smiled and spoke gibberish, as she normally does. She emphasized some unintelligible words with raised eyebrows, a head nod, a smile. I nodded my head, too, to convey I understood her, though I had no idea what she was saying.

I patted her arm gently, noticing how thin and fragile my 99-year-old mother’s body had become. She held out her hand, all bones and deep purple veins. for me to take. When I did, she gave my hand a weak squeeze. I showed her my Piggly Wiggly T-shirt; she smiled.

Alternately, Moop drank from her small cup of Coke and brought a piece of hamburger to her mouth slowly. She chewed in silence for long stretches of time, or at least, it felt like long stretches of time. The world had slowed down; the minutes ticked by. I felt the deep fatigue of so many visits with so many people over the past week and a half.

Across the card table, Nick smiled and blew a subtle kiss to me from time to time, signaling his support.

Moop began to close her eyes as she slowly chewed a bit of hamburger. Was she going to fall asleep? Was she already asleep? At times it was hard to tell. I’d gently touch her shoulder and she’d open her eyes again. After awhile, she stopped smiling and gazed at me vacantly.

Nick and I had arrived nearly two hours earlier, and I was ready—though hesitant—to leave. It had been a good visit. Moop not only recognized me, she was pleasant, even a little affectionate, to me. But she appeared to be winding down, ready to resume what occupied most of her time now: sleep.

Emma and a colleague of hers I’d just met (and whose name I can’t recall) came over to check on us. I gave them a report of how the visit had gone, and that we were about to leave. I leaned over and kissed Moop’s forehead several times.

She perked up and looked directly into my eyes. And then she said something miraculous, something that all of us could clearly understand.

“I love you!”

I told Moop I loved her, too, and kissed her forehead again. Nick looked astonished. Emma put her hand over her heart. Her colleague’s eyes were wide.

“She hardly ever says complete sentences,” Emma remarked.

Suddenly, I didn’t want to leave. What if this would be my final opportunity to enjoy my mother’s company? Shouldn’t I try to stretch this moment for as long as possible?

But the moment had come and gone. It wasn’t long before Moop closed her eyes again. She’d finished her Coke. She’d eaten half her hamburger, which Emma said was more than usual. She’d munched two or three french fries. When Moop opened her eyes again, she looked at me blankly, then closed them.

It was time to go. To linger might be to make the winning gambler’s mistake of continuing to play as the dice grow cold.

I couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye to Moop. So I kissed her once more and simply said, “I’ll see you again.” She nodded but didn’t open her eyes. As Nick and I walked toward the car, I was already wondering how soon I could get back to see her.

Postscript: In recent weeks, several of my sisters have reported equally sweet visits with Moop.