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Loss, impending as well as present [Oct. 17th, 2014|10:57 am]
Next Saturday I am flying to Bismark, North Dakota, to see my mom.

It will almost certainly be the last time I see my mom.

Mom has been battling health issues for a number of years now. She has been in complete renal failure for about a year, and now she has an infection and serious swelling in one leg. If they can't get that under control, she is looking at the possibility of amputation. In any event, she is almost certain that she will never be able to go home again, that she will be consigned to a nursing home.

And she's done. She's in continual pain. She can't really lie down anymore due to congestive heart failure, the dialysis is painful and eats up what quality of life she has left. She was widowed last year just after Thanksgiving, and she says she's ready to go and be with her sweetie again.

The thing that is tearing me up most about this is that Mom only moved to the Dakotas this summer to live with her cousin, also recently widowed. It was supposed to be a renaissance of sorts for her; after living in relative isolation in Montana, she was having such a great time with her new friends. Her cousin has a great social circle of robust old women with whom Mom was getting acquainted. They were welcoming, and she was getting out to play cards and have lunch several days a week. It was all going so well, and I really thought that she was going to get better and have a few happy years puttering around there. But as they say, humans plan and the gods laugh.

Still, a year ago when she was doing very badly, I was much more adjusted to the idea that she was likely to die. Now that she has a reason to live, I'm taking her impending death much harder.

My dad died almost two decades ago, suddenly and without warning. Now my mom is planning her demise. I'm the first of the kids going to see her, but she's trying to get all four of us out there for one last visit. Then, unless things improve radically and unexpectedly, she will refuse dialysis, accept only palliative care, and die rather quickly.

I have often said I wasn't sure which way was easier: the shock of an unexpected death, or the adjustment time for an anticipated one. After this year, I think I have enough data points to say that the unexpected death is much easier. Because the pre-grieving period when you know it's coming doesn't do anything to relieve the grief that follows. It just drags it out that much longer.

I used to think I had a pretty good handle on death and grief. I don't think that anymore. I am humbled by how hard I am taking everything that's happened this year.

I also used to look forward to the New Year like it was an actual turning of the tide. 2013 was a very tough year, so tough that we literally burned the calendar at the end of last year, hoping to banish that bad year. But 2014 has been awful. The years have slurred together, and I don't look forward to marking 2015 as a new beginning when things will change. Just more of the same uphill slog.

For now, the mountain I have to climb is looming directly before me. Time to tie up my boots and start climbing.
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Thank you [Oct. 13th, 2014|12:06 pm]
Thank you to everyone who responded to my last entry. I tried to go in and write individual comments to each of you, because you deserve them. But I have not the heart for it. Know that I have read and taken comfort from all of your comments several times. And please forgive me for my inability to overcome the terrible weight on my chest when I attempt to formulate responses.
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The state of the Z [Oct. 10th, 2014|10:59 am]
I have been all but silent on social media of late. Here, that's not news, as my journal has languished for some time now. But my Facebook updates have dropped to a small fraction of what they were, and my participation on SparkPeople has almost ceased.

Socially, I'm rolling up like a pill bug. I will tell you that I don't like it, but my actions belie my words.

Grief is a strange and difficult path to walk.

Before now, I believed myself to have a pretty good handle on the whole death thing. My views on the soul and the afterlife are very solid and established, so concern about the fate of the dearly departed has not been a concern since I was a child. I was sad when my dad died, and there was a lot of shock because it was so sudden and unexpected. But I was functional and pretty much back to normal within a month. When Ferrett's stepdad, Bruce, died it hit me quite hard. But by the time we got back from California I was able to go back to my daily routines pretty well. I had regular moments of being very sad, but they passed with a few tears. Very little about those deaths or the earlier deaths of much-loved grandparents consistently impacted my daily life.

Rebecca's death has been a completely different experience. We are four months away from that terrible day, and I still feel like gravity has been increased four-fold, like a weight is continually pushing down on my chest. I'll be driving in my car and tears will overflow from my eyes. Amy and I watched Tangled last night, and the scene of the king and queen working up their courage to face another hopeless lantern release reduced me to sobs--yes, I knew that their story would have a happy ending, but at that moment all they had was years of grief. Lilo and Stitch completely ruined Ferrett and me both for the next entire day after we'd watched it.

I'm kind of impatient and angry with myself that my grief is this deep. I don't feel like I have a right to it. Though Ferrett and I are the designated guardians for the Meyer children, should something happen to Kat and Eric, we are *not* the parents. We weren't there with the children every day like their parents were. We weren't there several days a week like the nannies were. We weren't even there weekly for the couple years before Rebecca got sick. Sometimes a whole month would go by that we didn't see her. I feel like I'm intruding on grief that I haven't earned. Like I'm a phony. Sometimes I worry that my grief is somehow damaging to Kat and Eric, that I'm hurting them in some way.

And yet this weight is on my chest, these tears fall. The stern talkings-to that I give myself have no effect.
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Rebecca, and CureSearch [Sep. 24th, 2014|09:37 am]
A year ago, Team Becca participated in the CureSearch Walk. We were a sea of purple, led by a lively and laughing 5-year-old who ran wild on the grass, chasing other children, teasing her uncles, getting tossed in the air and squealing in delight. We were a worried but hopeful group of family and friends, laughing and chatting and enjoying a sunny day. We had raised a record $11,000+ for CureSearch, and no one could have guessed that our giggling 5-year-old was a cancer patient.

The other families who were there probably thought, "Look at them; they're innocent children, playing at cancer. They have no idea what's coming."

And we didn't. Because, despite a completely successful tumor removal, aggressive proton radiation therapy, and chemo, 10 months later we buried Rebecca, who died on her sixth birthday. Her anaplastic astrocytoma reemerged in multiple sites in her brain, inoperable this time, and she did not respond to the experimental drug trial. On the first Sunday of June, her family held her birthday party a week early. She had her face painted and rode in the rocket car shouting, "faster, faster!"

The following Saturday, surrounded by loved ones, Rebecca died. If love had been enough to keep her alive, Rebecca would be thriving now. As it was, we all watched this spunky, spitfire of a child, who was never really ill, and agonized in frustration that we were powerless in the face of this cancer.

It was like watching her stand on a train track with the train rushing toward her, with nothing we could do to stop or even slow it.

For Rebecca, we can but mourn now. The grief remains overwhelming. But in her memory, we can do our best to save other families from suffering such a terrible loss.

Raising money for CureSearch this year has been agonizing. Every time I write about it, I am pretty much wrecked for the rest of the day. But it's worth it, because thanks to you amazing people Team Becca has raised over $8,700 so far. We only have 3 more days to go before the walk, and I think it would be a fitting tribute to raise $10,000 in her memory.

Thank you, all you amazing people who have contributed so far. To see my donations page jump to almost $3,500 is humbling. Your generosity overwhelms me.
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Time keeps on slippin' slippin' slippin' [Sep. 18th, 2014|12:13 pm]
When Ferrett and I were first married, I had a digital alarm clock with a bold, green display. One night I awoke around 2am and discovered that the display had turned to red. I wondered what had happened to the LCD, and in the morning I pointed it out to Ferrett.

"What do you mean?" he asked. "That clock has always been red."

Well, he was clearly wrong, so I called my daughters in to get them to verify that the clock had changed. They looked at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. No, they said. You've had that clock for years and it has always been red.

But this was no mere momentary forgetfulness. For at least two weeks, every time I entered the bedroom or rolled over in the night, I was actively, viscerally startled by the sight of that red display. If I rolled over, half asleep, and saw it, I was jarred to full wakefulness by how disturbing it was.

This is when I began to ponder whether the multiverse truly exists and whether our consciousness could "slip" from one layer of reality to another. Multiverse theory says that every possible outcome of a situation actually does happen, creating new universes that encompass all outcomes. So there are multiverses where I am president, and others where I didn't survive childhood. And if that is the case, then there must be multiverses where my consciousness can slip from one layer of possibility to the next.

I thought of this today as I was counting the steps in the old Arcade building downtown. During the four years that I worked downtown, I would eat lunch in that building at least once a week. And I remember distinctly the pattern of the broad staircase into the lower level: 7 steps, landing, 7 steps, landing, 7 steps, landing, 8 steps. I remember thinking that it was odd that they hadn't managed to build the steps so that they were all the same, wondering if it was intentional in some way. I am a compulsive step-counter, so I noted it almost every time.

Last week, I cut through the building on my way back from court. I was checking my email as I climbed the stairs, so it was only when I'd gotten to the top that I noted that the pattern didn't seem right. Convinced that I'd miscounted, I continued to my car. But it was niggling at me.

So today I went into the building again, paid attention, and counted. 7 steps, landing, 7 steps, landing, 7 steps, landing, 7 steps. The odd step is no longer there.

This fact leaves me with three possibilities: 1. They'd rebuilt the staircase, which they clearly haven't done; 2. I am misremembering, despite the strength of my memories; 3. I've slipped a little to the left in the multiverse.

I acknowledge that number 2 is definitely the most likely, though I am absolutely certain that my memories are accurate--then again, I would be. But it's number 3 that has me melancholy today.

Because if number 3 is right, then there are layers and layers of multiverses where Rebecca is still alive. Where Rebecca never had cancer at all. Where an alternate Rebecca is driving an alternate me crazy over some silly stubbornness and the alternate me has no reason to count her blessings. And while that should be heartwarming, to consider the possibility of alive and safe Rebeccas, instead it is making me jealous and resentful. I want that to be *my* reality. I want to live in that safe world. But it's too many layers away for me to reach.
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CureSearch [Sep. 3rd, 2014|11:17 am]
I would like to say that I have mixed feelings about raising money for CureSearch this year. But my feelings are not mixed. I am angry. Irrationally, ridiculously angry. Because, despite all the fore-brain logic in the world that knows that the fundraising we did last year was not directly for Rebecca, there's a part of me that is still screaming, "But we did all the right things! We raised money! We all prayed! We all pitched in to help the family through treatment! We were good and kind and loving! We cared more than anyone else has ever cared!"

And it didn't matter. Rebecca died.

If caring and praying were enough, Rebecca would still be alive. If caring and praying were enough, almost everyone would survive cancer. But they aren't enough. Better treatments are what's needed. Better treatments require research. Research requires money.

Part of me wants to just walk away from this, because every time I have to write about it just brings all the pain back to the surface: the sharp, immediate pain instead of the continual throbbing ache that is forever in my heart. It leaves me torn up for the rest of the day, in tears.

But I remind myself that there are other families out there at risk of feeling what we are feeling. That they *do* pray as hard as we prayed, care as much as we care. And I wouldn't wish this on anyone.

Wishing isn't enough. We learned that. We are left with only one practical option: raise money for research. Please give what you can, and join us on the walk if you are able. We will be wearing purple again, in memory of our special girl.
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On Ferguson and fear [Aug. 21st, 2014|11:52 am]
I remember the first mass hysteria about child endangerment: the news was filled with stories about razor blades and needles being pushed into apples and candy at Halloween. Parents were urged to check all of their children's candy before allowing them to eat it, and to discard anything that hadn't come packaged from the store.

That was the end of caramel apples, popcorn balls, cookies, and brownies as Halloween treats. But it was all based on absolutely no reality whatsoever. No case of anyone accused of trying to poison Halloween candy has ever turned out to be true. And yet the notion persists to this day that hand-made treats are dangerous.

I also remember a childhood where we rode our bikes a long way to friends' homes, and no one thought anything about it. Where we slept out in the back yard in the summer and no parent felt it was necessary to stand guard over us. (Well, okay, my Gramma always fretted that we'd be kidnapped by "the Indians" or if it was harvest season "the Mexicans," but no one took her seriously on this or pretty much any topic.) Then came Code Adam and the fear that random strangers were just trawling the streets looking for small children to kidnap. And now there are kids who aren't allowed to walk two doors down in their neighborhood without an adult watching from the porch to make sure they arrive safely. Parents who allow their kids to ride their bike around the block alone are considered reckless or foolish or even neglectful by some.

And yet the incident of actual stranger abductions is only about 115 a year, and 60% of those children are recovered alive. So your child is statistically at much more risk riding in the family car than walking a few blocks to a friend's house. Yet we are so afraid of that uncontrollable factor that we instill fear into our kids. There are entire websites devoted to instilling paranoia in parents about all the danger their children are in if they don't keep them in sight every minute. We are so risk-averse that we smother our kids, all based on a fear hysteria that has nothing to do with real life.

Which brings us to Ferguson, cop killing, and cops who kill.

I don't think Darrin Wilson woke up on the morning of August 9, got in the shower, and thought, "Think I'm gonna go shoot myself a black kid today." But I do think he--and many, many cops like him--went onto the street with a mind filled with fear. The fear that cops get killed in the streets <i>all the time</i>. The fear that every confrontation, particularly with a black male, puts a cop in real danger of being shot, possibly with his own gun, and left to die in the streets.

And once again, this is fear hysteria. Last year only 33 police officers died of gunshot wounds, the lowest total since 1887. Yes, 157 years ago. In the 2000s police gunshot deaths have annually have steadily declined from about 50.

So far this year, police have killed over 400 people. And yet crime is at an all-time low.

Now, I'm not saying that the death of any officer is justified. It's always tragic when someone is killed in the line of duty. What I'm saying is that the perceived risk that is being instilled in the training of police officers in our very risk-averse and very bad-at-statistics world is leading to cops getting out of their cars already jangling with fear. And fear can burst into panic with very slight provocation. Being handed military-grade equipment to patrol the streets only increases the perception that this equipment must be necessary, so the fear must be real.

I don't think Darrin Wilson was out looking for a black kid to kill with impunity. I think Darrin Wilson got out of his car expecting an altercation, and whatever happened between him and Michael Brown, he actually did believe that he was in danger. I also think he made terrible decisions out of panic, and that those terrible decisions should not go without some kind of consequences.

More importantly, though, I think that police officers need to be trained to better understand that they are at relatively little risk from the general populous, and to stop treating the citizens they are sworn to protect like enemy combatants. The risk-averse panic mode is endemic in our country, and it needs to stop.
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A few thoughts from Italy [Aug. 15th, 2014|10:32 am]

1. Italians love their dogs. We saw dogs everywhere. Including in restaurants and shops. In Venice, many of them weren't even on leashes, just walking with their owners (no cars, no worry of being hit). And they were almost all well-behaved; only a couple of barking incidents. Most of the dogs were mutts, clear crossbreeds often involving dachshunds someplace. Seeing people in the grocery store with their dog in the cart or on a leash was pretty awesome.

2. Italians don't work out. The entire time we were there I saw three joggers, all of them tourists, and one gym, which was empty. Yet the people were all pretty fit. I believe there are two reasons behind this. First of all, there was almost no fast food (though McDonalds were dishearteningly ubiquitous), so most of the food these people eat is fresh and unprocessed. Secondly, they walk everywhere. Even in the areas of Rome where there were four lane, main thoroughfares there was relatively little traffic. But lots of people on their feet on the street.

3. All the amazing sites in Rome are actually pretty easy to get to on foot, once you get a lay of the land. We stayed in an apartment off the Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps), and it took us a couple of days to realize, but everything was pretty much within a mile or two. The map of Rome that we were provided was all but useless to us because it was so small as to be almost illegible and kind of resembled a plate of spaghetti. But on the evening after we visited Eataly (a sort of death march for which I take the blame because I didn't just follow my first instinct and say, "We go this way!"), when we took a cab to a restaurant that had come highly recommended, and then tried to find a Metro station that was noted on Google maps (inaccurately, curse you Google) (but at least we were wise enough to leave Ferrett's mom, Patricia, with Amy seated comfortably in a nice piazza), we learned from a waiter (whose restaurant was in the very spot that the Metro wasn't) that the closest Metro stop was Piazza di Spagna. (He was quite baffled when we let out a cheer instead of expressing dismay). And then the cab ride took us right up to this large castle, which he told me was San Angelo, and past some impressive palace looking thing, then half a mile later he was dropping us off and I raced to the map to see what this thing was that was so close by and, oh look, The Vatican. At that point I had an idea of scale and realized that the Pantheon was easily within walking distance. And, after having spent a confused hour trying to locate it the first day we were looking for it, we ended up at Trevi Fountain by accident at least twice.

4. While Venice is decidedly smaller than Rome, though, it is much tougher to navigate on foot. The water bus is awesome, because it takes you all around the island and also to the other islands. But once you are on foot, you are in a maze. A lovely, fascinating, picturesque maze in which you stumble upon delights regularly. But still a maze. We quickly developed a sense of how to get to shopping areas and restaurants and churches from our apartment--and more importantly, back. But attempting to walk across the island, even though it really isn't very far, was pretty much a no-go. We were on the outer shore, very convenient to the water buses, but a long way from San Marco square. So on our last day we rode over to San Marco square and began making our way through the streets, thinking to work our way to the Grand Canal, and then bushwhack with the aid of the map back toward our apartment. After a couple enjoyable hours of shopping, though, it was getting hot and Pat was getting tired, so we decided to ask about where we were.

We were 5 minutes fro San Marco Square. We had very determinedly walked in a circle. Despite taking only right turns and trying to go straight. So we returned to the square and took the water bus back. I am thinking of the place as a Venice Fly Trap.

6. Venice makes the best meringues in the world. And they are the size of your head. I only indulged in one. But I wanted more.

7. On our last night in Venice, I decided to get adventuresome with the local cuisine. So I started my dinner with sweet and sour sardines and then had cuttlefish in black sauce. The sweet and sour sardines were delicious. Everyone at the table enjoyed them. The cuttlefish in black sauce was...well, I appreciated that I had tried something so very different. And that other people at the table were willing to share a few bites of their dinner so that I didn't go hungry. But it made me happy. Because if I don't occasionally have something that I don't like, I am not really challenging my palate.

8. A woman in the restaurant on that last night was carrying on a lively conversation in French with a little boy. Then her phone rang and she rattled along in Italian. Then she spoke to me in decent English. I was embarrassed by my lack of local literacy. Erin had a similar incident in Eataly when she was waiting behind a couple to whom the clerk was speaking in Spanish, in which she is moderately fluent, then turned to her and spoke in Italian. She sort of froze, unable to summon any language, so he tried again in English. We really are bumbling around the world trying to speak SLOWLY AND LOUDLY ENOUGH.

10. Still, people were indulgent with the tiny bit of Italian we attempted to speak. And for the most part incredibly friendly. A few times I felt like they were refraining from patting us on the head or pinching our cheeks and telling us how adorable our atrocious attempts were. But we got through, and had fun.

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Venn diagrams I'd rather avoid [Jul. 8th, 2014|12:51 pm]
I went water jogging yesterday. I'm water jogging because my back injury prohibits many other activities that will get my heartrate high, including running, biking, the elliptical machine, and, oh, pretty much everything except walking and water jogging. (Even lap swimming is something that I'm limited in doing, though I'm working my way back up on that one.)

Anyway, so there I was, in the deep end of the pool, my head out of the water, inching slowly forward while my arms and legs pumped wildly beneath the surface, and I started thinking about the many similarities between chronic pain and grief.

Chronic pain and grief both slow you down. It's been just over a month since Rebecca died. The sharp edge of disbelief has dulled a little. The pain is not quite as fiery. At times, I don't think about it for a few minutes. But everything is suffused with sadness. Even when I'm not actively thinking about it, my brain is still muddy, my movements still slower and more cautious. Getting anything accomplished feels Herculean.

Chronic pain and grief both come slamming in on you without warning. I can be walking down the road or climbing the stairs or just twisting the wrong way and, BAM! I'm in pain. Bad pain. Pain that stops you in your tracks. Which kind of pain, you ask? Either. Both. They both sneak up on you like that.

Chronic pain and grief may be temporarily diminished, but they never go completely away. It's always right below the surface, twinging occasionally to remind you. People saying things like "I'm glad you're getting over that" is frustrating because they don't want to have to explain yet again that there is no getting over it, just better times than others.

You *can* rally for a while and spend energy to push chronic pain or grief away, but it will return, often with a vengeance. This is one of the things that people least understand about both chronic pain sufferers and the grieving. People will see them engaged in activities, talking and laughing, doing something physical, and assume that this is the magic moment when they are "cured" of their pain or grief. They are not. They are "deficit spending" their energy, and will have to pay back that debt in the days to come. So don't get impatient if you see them out and looking well one day, and then hear that they disappeared back into themselves for a week. They are doing their best, and sometimes they have to protect themselves from getting too stressed out.

Chronic pain and grief sufferers don't know when it's going to be worst, and can't always be sure about what is going to trigger their pain. Walking 4 miles one day didn't feel bad at all. Walking 3 miles a few days later was like having my left leg on fire. I can't tell you what was different about those two days. The same with grief. Some days memories will feel warm and comforting, other days they will trigger anguish. They can't tell you what was different between Tuesday and Friday.

Chronic pain and grief sufferers often feel lonely and frustrated. They have to say "no" to so many things, and then know that they are going on without them. People eventually forget to invite them, even though they would still come when they were able. They feel stupid about complaining about this, because they can't guarantee that they will be up to accepting the next invitation.

Chronic pain and grief may both diminish with time, but that time is not a week or a month or even a year. And both will always be there, ready to resurface with fresh agony. My dad's been dead for 18 years, and every once in a while his death completely flattens me. Still.

So if you are spending time with someone suffering from chronic pain or grief, don't say to them, "I'm glad you've gotten over that" or "I'm glad you're better." Say, "I'm glad you were able to participate today" or "I'm happy to see you." Enjoy what they are able to give, and don't put expectations on them for the future.
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Comfort [Jun. 30th, 2014|10:44 am]
Many years ago, I was happily pregnant. Then-husband John and I were excited about Baby Number Two. I'd had an easy first trimester and was well into my second when tragedy struck. Stung by wasps, I had a mild anaphylactic reaction and miscarried. We were camping with friends eighty miles from the civilization when I came back from the outhouse, bleeding profusely. There was a rush to the hospital, but nothing to be done. John and I were both heartbroken.

My mother-in-law flew in to help with Erin. She took over cooking, kept my busy four-year-old entertained, and was generally great. Until the day she made what was supposed to be a comforting observation. "You know," she said, "sometimes when this happens it's because things went wrong. When I was working as a nurse, you'd see women come in miscarrying, but all that came out was a blob with teeth and some hair."

I know she was trying to comfort me with "maybe this is for the best." But all I could here was, "Your grief is invalid and you are foolish for having it. Stop being so self-centered."

I eventually got over the miscarriage, but I never completely got over the callousness of that remark.

I hear of, and read of, people attempting to console the grieving with remarks like:
--S/he is in God's hands now
--It's all part of God's plan
--S/he is an angel now
--Imagine how happy s/he is in heaven
--S/he now has the best parent a child could ever have (yes, I know someone who had to hear that)

You may THINK you are providing comfort by talking about the wonderfulness of an afterlife, but I guarantee you that, with few exceptions* the grieving parent or spouse or sibling or child is HEARING "You should stop all this silly grieving; it's selfish." Even if the deceased was old or suffered a long-term, debilitating illness, don't assume that the grieving are okay with having their pain treated as a self-indulgent triviality.

Only one person EVER has been able to say something like this and get away with it: Jesus. And Jesus only got away with it because the next thing that he did was raise Lazarus from the dead. If Jesus had just told Mary and Martha that Lazarus would rise in the afterlife and then gone on his merry way, they probably would have secretly thought he was kind of a jerk. So unless your next action is going to be raising the dead, then stop saying crap like this. You are actively wounding those already in grief when you say such things.

I hear the excuse of, "People don't mean to cause hurt; they just don't know what to say." So let's make this simple. Here is the guide of the things you should say:

--I'm so very sorry.
--I'm so very sorry. Can I come over on Tuesday and do your laundry?
--I'm so very sorry. Here is an easily-rewarmed dinner that can go in your freezer.
--I'm so very sorry. Let's make up your grocery list, then I can go to the store for you or I can take you if you want to come.
--I'm so very sorry. Can I take your kids on a playdate?
--I'm so very sorry. I'm here to spend time with you. We can talk, or we can just watch TV.
--I'm so very sorry. I'd like to tell you one of my wonderful memories of your loved one, if that's okay.

I hope by now you are detecting a pattern, and realize that this list is just a jumping-off point. Offer your condolences, and then offer something concrete by way of assistance. Accept rebuffs of offers as something that might seem too overwhelming for now. Check in again next week, next month, over the next few months. Don't just say, "Call me if you need anything." They never will, because they are too overwhelmed to know what they need

If the person who is grieving wants to talk to you about it, they will take the lead. If they don't, then stop after "I'm sorry."

*There are some people who find much comfort in faith. You should still only start with "I'm sorry" and let them take the lead on any talk of God or heaven.
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6 years, 11 hours, 30 minutes [Jun. 7th, 2014|11:30 pm]
At 6:45 this evening, surrounded by her family and loved ones, Rebecca died. Today was her sixth birthday.

I feel like I will never stop crying. Please don't try to console me with promises that my heart will find peace. I know these things intellectually, but at the moment they feel like poison. Cradling her small, warm corpse against my chest, I breathed in the scent of her hair, felt the smooth, fine muscles of her arms, and remembered the tiny baby she had been when I first held her just short of six years ago, when the Meyers brought her home. Back then I held her in the crook of my arm while joyous telephone calls rocketed around the country, announcing her arrival. Today I held her while her grieving parents dealt with the personal calls that needed to be made to distant relatives to break the terrible news.

Back then I spent an entire day waiting in excited anticipation for the arrival of a new baby. Today I spent the entire day listening to her breathing and wondering if it was going to stop. Back then, watching the Meyers show big sister Carolyn her new baby was a day of joy. Today, I was the one who went to pick Carolyn up at the birthday party she was attending and had to tell her to come home because her sister was dead.

The parallels stab at me: memories of overwhelming joy; experiences of unendurable sadness.

I can't help but wonder how we ever go on from this.
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The long goodbye [Jun. 7th, 2014|04:53 pm]
We wait, as Rebecca lies still. Her chest rises and falls, her strong heart still beats. This body is ready to run and play. This body is growing and thriving.

The tumors in her brain have stolen away consciousness. Soon they will steal away breath and heartbeat.

Rebecca turned 6 today. She may have a tomorrow, but it won't be one she sees or feels. She may have two tomorrows as we all sit vigil, watch her chest rise and fall.

She will not have any tomorrows where she smirks at silly jokes, runs after her brother, or even cuddles her mom and dad. All those tomorrows are gone.
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Death stalks these halls; we fight back [Jun. 5th, 2014|11:29 am]
We knew, from the look in the doctor's eyes as he came through the door.

But really, we knew before that. We knew from the way the anesthesiology doc who oversaw the MRI made sure that we were going to talk to the oncologist before we left the hospital. We knew from Rebecca's slow fading away from the world. We knew, in spite of the CT scan that had promised false hope. (I remember hearing the results of the scan and feeling depressed and a little angry with them. I wondered what the hell was wrong with me. It wasn't me; it was knowing in my gut that we were being lied to, no matter how innocently.)

Mike from Child Life came in to take Rebecca down the hall to the playroom while the doctor gave us the news. The genetic treatment had been ineffective. The tumor had grown considerably, and two of the flare sites were now larger and clearly emerging tumors. There was no point in continuing treatment, and with the metastisization, no other treatment options.

It was time to take Rebecca home and make the best of the time she has left.

The doctor asked if Kat and Eric wanted to tell Rebecca, and if they wanted him to help. They said yes. Ferrett and I left the room to give them the space they needed as a family. We didn't need to witness so private a moment. We were adrift in the hall, and Mike from Child Life offered to let us use the playroom, now deserted for the evening, to have a space to ourselves.

It's where I found myself with my hands over my mouth, my head pressed against the window, sobbing "No no no no no!" over and over again. And even as I cried, I wondered how many of the children who played with these toys are now buried in tiny graves. How many parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, friends have cried out their despair in that room? How often had hope died here? How do they go on? How do we?

The bravery of the doctors and nurses and other staff that work in pediatric oncology is lightyears beyond my ken. When the doctor came out of the room, Ferrett and I were back in the hallway. Ferrett thanked him for what he was doing, and tears welled up in the doctor's eyes. As we left the ward, all the nurses and staff who knew Rebecca came to say goodbye, knowing that they would not be seeing her again. Their caring and compassion made me both grateful and awestruck. They see this so many times. Childhood cancer steals away so many bright futures. And yet they continue to open their hearts to these children, to care. It's a humbling thing to watch so much dedication where success is so small a commodity.

Back in the fall when we did the CureSearch walk, I was amazed by the involvement of the organizers, because their daughter had died. I thought, "if we lost Rebecca, I don't think I would have the heart to continue doing something like this." And yet, even though I know that she will not be there to run and chase and laugh next fall, I *will* be doing the CureSearch walk. Because no one should ever have to go through this. And I want to do everything I can so that those toys are played with by children who go on living.
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Take a look, it's in a book [May. 30th, 2014|10:50 am]
I'm sure almost all of you have heard about LeVar Burton's wildly successful Kickstarter to bring back Reading Rainbow. The goal was a million dollars, and by the end of day three they will probably be hitting three million.

But almost as soon as the Kickstarter was opened, The Washington Post ran an article discouraging people from donating. You might want to reconsider that donation to the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter is completely wrong-headed and, I believe, points to one of the reasons why literacy is falling and continues to fall.

The article cites PBS' reason for canceling Reading Rainbow as "no longer the best way to teach kids reading skills." In the funding crunch of decreased taxpayer money for Public Broadcasting, there also came a tragic shift in the philosophy of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting:

"The change started with the Department of Education under the Bush administration...which wanted to see a much heavier focus on the basic tools of reading — like phonics and spelling.... Research has directed programming toward phonics and reading fundamentals as the front line of the literacy fight. Reading Rainbow occupied a more luxurious space — the show operated on the assumption that kids already had basic reading skills and instead focused on fostering a love of books."

In other words, Reading Rainbow was one more casualty of No Child Left Behind.

Reading Rainbow never had the goal of teaching children to read. As quoted above, it was all about fostering a love of books, the love of narrative structure, the love of story.

It is staggering to me that such a love is now considered to be simply a "luxury." And it is appallingly short-sighted. It begs the question: "what is reading for?" And if the answer is simply, "to minimally function in the world," then it's no wonder that literacy is dropping like a stone from the sky.

Phonics and spelling never caused anyone to fall in love with stories. They never introduced anyone to new ideas or different cultures. They never expanded anyone's idea of the world. The notion that we can create a literate populous simply by teaching them phonics and "fundamentals" is absurd. Why should kids care, if there is nothing to touch their imaginations? I've spent the last half hour looking at reading materials for different grades, and they are dreadful. Grinding sheets of uninteresting story snippets followed by multiple choice "comprehension" questions. I was a kid who loved to read, and I hated--HATED--the once-a-year assessment tests that included these kinds of questions. No wonder kids who are in these programs don't see anything positive about reading. There is none of the magic or wonder of good story-telling in that kind of learning.

Are phonics and spelling important? Certainly. Learning to read depends on them. But they are not the whole of the toolbox for learning to understand story and love reading. It's like teaching someone to use a hammer, a saw, and a screwdriver, and then stepping back and thinking you've taught them to build a doghouse. They cobble together something vaguely doghouse-shaped, and you lament that the doghouse is inadequate, but assume that all that's needed is better hammer, saw, and screwdriver skills. And when that doesn't work, you spend all your resources on new methods for teaching and testing hammer, saw, and screwdriver skills, never questioning if your student is missing some other important steps in learning how to use their skills to successfully build a project.

Will Reading Rainbow's return--onto the web and mobile apps--teach children phonics and spelling? No. But it will enrich their lives with story and enthusiasm for reading and books. It will help kids learn that their basic skills are for something more than just filling out comprehension worksheets and passing tests. And for our populous to be actually literate, those things are not a luxury item.
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Splish Splash [May. 25th, 2014|05:40 pm]
I went to the pool for the second time today. Because it's the weekend, the main pool had no lap lanes, just one rope dividing the shallow end from the deep. The therapy pool had lap lanes, but there were at least two or three people in each one. So I decided to get in the main pool and just walk back and forth across the pool--short distances, but at least I was at a consistent depth. The first five minutes I was stuck inside my brain, trying to coach myself to a "this is recuperation; this is good" mentality.

And then an amazing thing happened. My body remembered how much I used to love to play in the pool. When I was in junior high, I would walk almost 2 miles every day that I could to go to the public pool. I didn't swim laps. I played tag and Marco Polo with friends; I dove off the low and high boards, climbed out and dove again dozens of times in a row; I just swam around for the fun of it.

When I was in high school and my first two years of college, we lived in an apartment complex that had a small pool. I was in that pool all summer. There were lots of teen girls who went to the pool and laid in the sun to tan, but not me. I swam and swam and swam. I would go by myself and toss a rock in, dive to the bottom to retrieve it, and toss it again. I would pretend to be a mermaid. When I was in college and working and not getting home until late in the evening after the pool was closed, I would climb over the fence and swim anyway.

Somewhere along the way, swimming turned into a goal-oriented activity--how many laps, how long. I got away from that some when we were in Hawaii and swimming in the ocean, but today I suddenly felt reconnected with the smell of chlorine meaning fun. I bobbed along, back and forth across the pool, eventually joined by another woman who couldn't get a lane and decided to try my workout instead. We laughed and chatted, and it was like those 15-minute friendships that you have when you're a kid on a playground: nothing lasting, but gratifying in the moment. There were a gazillion little kids playing in the water park, sliding on the slide, having fun. And I got to be one of them.

I feel so much more at peace with myself, because I found the fun again. On weekdays I will be relegated to the lanes, but I'm going to stop avoiding the weekends at the pool. I'm going to go and have myself some fun.
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The Verdict [May. 23rd, 2014|03:19 pm]
The neurosurgeon's evaluation was, for the most part, good news. While the disc at the base of my spine just before the coccyx area starts is pretty much nonexistent at this point, and those bones are pushed out of alignment, he believes that I can avoid surgery through building up my core muscles and exercise. He is letting me start to swim again – in fact, encouraging swimming as the best form of exercise – and start to bike again! Running, however, is right out for the time being.

I have to start everything very slowly. Like he said go to the pool, walk in the water for a while, swim one lap. Or bike a mile. But he said that I can work my way back up to longer distances, as long as I do a lot of concentration on building up my core, which I also have to do slowly and carefully and gently.

I'm hoping to make at least two of my triathlons this summer. I will probably have to skip the first one, but he said to consult with my physical therapist about my progress before that. So maybe I'll get really really lucky.

The best news about all this, no knife!

Yesterday I biked for the first time, and today I went to the pool. It's frustrating to be set back so far, but at least I'm moving forward again.
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That whole "nature" thing works out well! [May. 21st, 2014|11:20 pm]
Early this evening Ferrett and I had an errand to run that took us close to a lovely park with a nice hike by a stream. We had Shasta with us and so we stopped and had the perfect kind of hike: the air was warm but not muggy, the sun was shining, a light breeze. Nothing strenuous, just holding hands and enjoying the peace that comes with water falls.

We watched a beautiful sunset as we drove home, and once we were safely inside, there was a terrific thunderstorm with lots of rain. When it came time to take the dog out for her last widdle, I expected to be huddled under an umbrella. Instead, I was looking up at a starlit sky while all around us--literally 360 degrees--there were lightning flashes in the distance. So I called Ferrett out and we strolled around the block in the warm, slightly damp air, watching the light show that was just distance enough that we couldn't hear thunder. That's what I call a perfect evening.
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Racing against time [May. 19th, 2014|11:11 am]
It seems like all I'm ever on here for these days is asking for donations. Hence, the icon.
But we are less than two weeks out from the Race for the Place. If all goes well, I will be walking this event (because running anything is definitely out), and then going to Rebecca's sixth birthday party. We are all rooting for Rebecca to get to enjoy that party. This last weekend was not a good one--she was not her usual bouncy self. As both Eric and Kat said, it's hard to know whether what we are seeing is a red flag or a red herring. And it's really, really hard to live with that kind of continual tension and fear. The Gathering Place is an amazing resource for families and friends who are going through the anguish of cancer. And to keep going, they need our help. Even if you can only give $5, it's such a worthy cause for the sacrifice of a trip to Starbucks. For the many of you out there who can't even afford that, please share this so that friends of yours who might be able to give get the opportunity. And, as always, prayers and positive energy is welcome. Thank you all.
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So, about that journaling [May. 15th, 2014|04:00 pm]
Things fell apart at the end of March. I stepped wrong, and was in sudden and intense pain through my pelvic region and back. Now, I've done this before, with overuse, and always before a night of sleep set me right again.

Not this time. I called the doctor the next day and ended up at his office on April 2. He sent me to physical therapy. The therapist evaluated me and told me she thought I had a bulging disc in my midback. This meant no biking, no swimming, no running. Walking, and gentle exercises. But she was hopeful that we'd get me back on the road in no time.

A month later, I still couldn't sit in a straight-backed chair for more than 10 minutes before it started hurting. It was back to the doctor, and an MRI.

The results of the MRI. A small tear in one disc, several others with mild to moderate bulging, and in one place arthritic calcification to the point of starting to compress my spinal cord. "Moderate to severe."

So next Thursday I have an appointment with a neurosurgeon. All I want to do is get back to biking and swimming. I want to do my triathlons. I want to just get on with life.

Comparatively speaking, the pain is not horrible. It's throbbing, not sharp, and much of the time I am pretty okay. I just don't know if I'm going to hurt myself worse with any activity. If they tell me that I can live with this, I just need to do certain exercises, not do certain activities, and sit only on certain chairs, I can live with that.

But my imagination is running away with me. And it's hard not to worry. Particularly since I am not getting my workout endorphins.
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The Gathering Place [Apr. 28th, 2014|12:59 pm]
I ended up at The Gathering Place by accident, really. I had physical therapy scheduled, but had written down the wrong time and so was an hour early. The Gathering Place was right around the corner, so I thought I'd just stop in and see what they had to offer. When I walked through the door, the receptionist smiled and asked, "Can I help you?"

I opened my mouth, and then dissolved into tears. It was the first place where I was able to let go and cry. Before I could get myself together enough to go on, two counselors were at my side, inviting me into a comfortable room and sitting with me as I sobbed out Rebecca's situation. They didn't try to make it all better. They listened, and they encouraged me to keep talking, and keep getting support. They talked to me about the programs available at The Gathering Place, of which there are many.

All of this is provided for free. It's a program that deserves support. On June 1, I will be participating in The Race for the Place. If you can join us, fabulous. If you can donate a few dollars, thank you.
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30 days in [Mar. 31st, 2014|12:24 pm]
So, I'm 30% through my hundred-days-at-the-gym commitment. What are the results so far?

-I've gained 2 pounds
-I am not able to lift appreciably heavier weights
-Other than swimming, I am not appreciably faster
-Lifting yesterday, I twinged my old shoulder injury which made me temporarily lose control of the weight and pulled muscles on my left side in my arm and my chest wall that keep giving my twinges that make me scared it's my heart (yes, I am going to the doctor on Wednesday to get myself checked out, but taking Advil made it go away yesterday evening, so I'm not too worried)
-I have improved my abs so that I can do 3 sets of 10 leglifts on the captain's chair, whereas at the beginning I could only do 3 sets of 5

What is my analysis of these results? It would be easy to be discouraged, because the markers that we generally look for are not there. But I'm looking at it a different way. I was already walking quite a bit and lifting, though not with regularity and discipline. So my fitness in these areas was already pretty good. Therefore, it's not actually surprising to not see much change in so short a time, since my baseline in those areas was already high.

My swimming speed and my abs, however, were abysmal. I hadn't been swimming since last summer, and I hadn't been doing ab work. So it's not surprising that I saw quick improvement in those areas because my baseline was really low.

When we see a story about someone who made vast improvements in their fitness really quickly, they usually involve either someone who was not involved in fitness at all prior to their effort, or someone already in great shape who is now making fitness pretty much their full-time job (I'm thinking of actor training up for physical roles where they spend 6 weeks in intense training and such). If a person is starting from a position of "already working out and in reasonable shape," then the changes that upping that workout time will bring are going to be less dramatic.

Which is to say, yes it would be awesome to say that my cardio fitness went through the roof and I can now benchpress a Volkswagen. But also not a realistic expectation. My improvements are smaller, but they are there. And they will continue to grow.
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Rebecca [Mar. 30th, 2014|11:01 am]
Last fall, on a crisp and sunny October morning, a mob of Meyer relatives, friends, and friends-of-friends gathered at Wade Oval, all dressed in purple shirts, to participate in the CureSearch Walk for Children's Cancer. We were a merry group of about 40 people. We'd raised the most money of any group, and we had our precious Rebecca running about on the grass, playing chase with Uncle Ferrett, riding on Uncle Jim's shoulders, laughing.

I can only imagine now that the other participants, battle worn from their years of fighting, the pain of their losses, looked upon us and thought, "They're like innocent children. They are still playing at cancer."

Because, despite hearing the prognosis for anaplastic astrocytoma, despite living through the crisis of her original diagnosis and surgery, despite radiation and chemotherapy, despite knowing intellectually that this cancer kills almost all of its victims in a relatively short time, I don't think there were any of us who didn't still believe that Rebecca's story was going to have a happy ending. In our minds, this was going to be a long battle, but it was going to culminate in extra poignant, happy tears at her high school graduation. We were going to remember how close we came to losing her, and cherish how lucky we were to still have her with us. Cancer was going to make us extra grateful for the blessing of Becca in our lives.

Rebecca is not going to graduate from high school. She may not even make it to her sixth birthday. As Eric explains here, her cancer has returned, despite the fact that she was in chemotherapy: a large tumor in a different part of her brain than before, and multiple "flare sites" throughout her brain that indicate new tumor growth. The doctors have told them that surgery would be pointless, and would probably negatively impact the quality of life of what time they have left. They are still seeking to get into some studies, but those would only be to prolong her life a matter of weeks or months. If they qualify, and if the study drugs work.

We are still all praying for that miracle, that wonder drug that bursts onto the scene and saves her. We all still want that happy ending and those poignant tears at life's milestones. But that window of possibility is closing quickly. Far, far too quickly.

People ask me how I feel. I feel like someone has jerked the rug out from underneath me and I am falling backwards. I'm off balance, and in shock, and trying to find a way to brace myself for the impact of when I hit the ground. I know I'm going to break something when I finally crash down, I just don't know what yet. I can't even cry yet; tears well up, but I panic that if I let go my sobs will turn into screams and I wont. stop. screaming.

I just can't imagine a Rebecca-less world.
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100 days: 25% through [Mar. 26th, 2014|03:54 pm]
Things have been more than a little tough around here. With Rebecca's cancer, it just seemed rather frivolous to be writing about my silly little goals. But in a moment between I thought I'd report in.

First of all, 100 days is a long-ass time. What the hell was I thinking?

Then I remember that it isn't long at all, in many ways.

I've been to the gym every day It's the one thing I have managed to do consistently. Today is the first day that I haven't gotten there yet, but I'm gonna try.

The cooking has been dismal. I haven't been practicing Italian. I have been reading. Journaling, some. I did actually work on a quilt a little bit.

I'm not going to apologize for my mediocre performance. A lot of days I haven't even wanted to get out of bed.

But I am gonna hit that gym.
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(no subject) [Mar. 21st, 2014|10:48 am]
Rebecca's MRI was yesterday. I will quote the Meyers for the results:

The MRI showed a mass behind Rebecca’s left eye that wasn’t there on the previous MRI. The doctors at CCF are communicating with the doctors at CHOP, who will determine what they can do.

We may be headed to Philadelphia this weekend, if they tell us they can remove the tumor. If they can’t remove it, given the tumor’s growth rate, Rebecca will likely live anywhere from a few more weeks to months, but nothing is impossible and studies are always being opened.

That is literally as much as we know right now. We are staying in a holding pattern until we get a decision from CHOP, and must ask you to do the same. Please don’t call or text the house or our cell phones. Comments here are fine, but we really can’t handle a flood of calls right now.

If we haven’t contacted or don’t contact you directly, please don’t take it personally. There are a lot of things we have to deal with right now, Rebecca’s sorrow and fear primary among them. We haven’t told her that she might die soon, because we don’t know that ourselves, but we have told her the bad rocks are back and that she might have more surgery and radiation treatments.

To which she said: “I hate that dumb ol’ rock and I want it to be gone!” And then curled up in our arms and wept.

I've been sitting here for five minutes, trying to figure out something to say that doesn't sound self-centered or self-indulgent. Right now I feel like I've been hollowed out and then smashed flat.
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BBA #16: Kaiser rolls [Mar. 20th, 2014|10:35 am]

My gaming group has learned to look forward to the days when it's my turn to cook, because it's usually when I will try the next BBA bread. The first question that Ian asked when he came through the door Tuesday night was, "what's tonight's bread?"

The answer was, Kaiser rolls. Also known as hard rolls or bulkies. You know, the hamburger bun-sized rolls with a little star-shaped pattern in the top.

Now, I debated about making these rolls, because what I was making for dinner was not something that naturally went on a bun. I was making chicken and corn chowder, otherwise known as "CSA soup." This is because I had a lot of produce from my CSA and also a chicken that needed stewing rather than roasting. So my first thought was that I would make a different bread to go with the soup. Alas, my OCD nature is such that skipping forward in the book and not doing the breads in order was something I just couldn't get behind. So my second thought was to make them small like dinner rolls. But that would mean shaping a LOT of them, so eventually I just gave up and put these two great tastes that didn't go all that great together in front of my diners.

None of them complained. Except to say that the bread would be really fabulous with the pulled pork I made a while back. So I will eventually do that.

Anyway, on to the bread. Once again I will spare you pictures of dough. It all looks like dough. This was another bread that started with a preferment, and then putting it all together on the morning of the second day. Once it was risen, the fun began. I made a double batch (because I know my friends), so had to divide it into 12 "even" parts. I realized that I just plain need to use the scale to do this, because I am crap at eyeballing these divisions.

Once divided down, the dough gets shaped into rolls. This is where I learned the awful truth about Kaiser rolls. You want to know how bakeries get that traditional star shape in the top of the roll? They just form them into little balls and then use a Kaiser roll cutter to cut the shape into them! Scandalous!

There would be none of that for me. For one thing, I don't have an Kaiser roll cutter (and don't have a large enough kitchen for single-purpose tools like that). For another, if I'm going to do a thing, I want to do it the original way.

The original way is to turn each piece of dough into a long rope:


And then to tie it into a knot:


You then take the ends of the knot and tuck one under and up and the other over and down:


This was one of those amazing moments when I looked at the pictures in the book and then looked at my own rolls, and realized that my rolls actually looked better than the ones in the book.


While they were rising, I got in my workout for the day, then got home just in time to put them in the oven. I changed the recipe a little at this point by adding an egg wash to get better color and gloss on the finished rolls:


Half of them are poppy seed, the other half sesame seed. The thing that is still amazing to me is that they actually look like Kaiser rolls!

And thanks to a great suggestion about tossing ice cubes into the oven to create steam, I got a great, thin and crunchy crust on them, as well as an airy crumb:


If it weren't for that pesky "having to work" nonsense, I don't think I would even buy a hamburger bun again. These were really delicious.
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"Not those people" [Mar. 17th, 2014|11:43 am]
On Thursday our goddaughter Rebecca will have yet another MRI to determine whether the toxic chemicals being poured into her system are successfully keeping her brain cancer at bay.

Rebecca is 5 years old.

She was diagnosed in August. Ferrett and I were there in Philadelphia with her and her family while she underwent brain surgery to remove the tumor. We were there to see the x-rays and hear the discussion of the diagnosis and the treatment plan and the prognosis. We cared for and cuddled her siblings, and hugged her parents and did what we could to help care for them. We have been along for every MRI results meeting since they were able to return home permanently after proton radiation treatment. We have walked for cancer in Rebecca's honor, donated to and helped raise money for her sister having her head shaved for St. Baldrick's just yesterday.

I still can't quite believe that Rebecca has cancer. Because the Meyers aren't supposed to be a family that goes through this. They are wonderful and amazing and I consider it one of the greatest gifts that I am part of their lives. In my mind, this can't be happening because they are simply "not those people."

The thing is, "those people" is not a derogatory designation in my mind. My extended family? TOTALLY "those people." If one of my siblings or cousins was diagnosed with cancer, I would be saddened and shocked, but I would be able to accept it. It wouldn't feel so impossible. When Ferrett's stepdad contracted ALS, it was awful, and that he died so quickly from it was terrible and tragic. But while I felt like it was unfair and I was grief-stricken, I never went through this ongoing sense of, "but...this just can't be!"

I'm not quite sure why Rebecca's cancer feels so different from so many other illnesses and tragedies, but I do remember the one other person I felt this way about: my friend Annie, who died of inflammatory breast cancer when she was just 36, the mother of four small children. Annie and Grant were also a family was wonderful and amazing, and the notion that Annie, who worked so hard to feed her family fresh, organic food and lived such a green lifestyle, could have this genetic timebomb within her that mowed through all those good decisions? It just wasn't right! It's been at least 14 years since Annie died, and I still get moments when it pulls me up short.

Because the fact of the matter is, there is no magic that protects any of us. There is no magical good fortune that keeps illness and accident and tragedy at bay. We are, each of us, vulnerable.

I don't know how to end this. It's not a happy entry. I have no deep insight that leads to a positive outlook right now. Do I just fall back on platitudes: hug your loved ones; appreciate life's every moment? The truth is that this is a dark and scary place, and I'm not in a good headspace about it right now. I spent yesterday afternoon cheering on Carolyn and her friends as they got their heads shaved, getting snuggles from Rebecca, and visiting with friends as we all hang on together trying to feel like we are making a difference. And we are, overall. The money raised goes to research that will help kids in the future, just as the money raised a decade ago and more went to the research that has led to developments that are giving Rebecca a good chance of beating this.

But each of us, in the moment, is just clinging to each other against the cold, howling winds of chance. We stick together for comfort and support. And right now all I can think about is Thursday, when we will be there with Rebecca's parents to hear the verdict once again. I believe right now that it will be fine, that the MRI will be clear. But believing it and knowing it are two different things, and we won't know until then.
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"Well, I'm back." [Mar. 14th, 2014|04:31 pm]
Today, I walked through the door of the house and said, "Well, I'm back." The last line of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. It made me a little teary. You see, I started on the Walk to Rivendell back at the beginning of 2006, and after 7 years and 2 and a half months, I have completed every step of that journey. I walked the miles with the Fellowship to Rauros, then followed Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom and through their rescue by the eagles. I then "flew back" to Rauros and followed Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas through the final battle. Then once again, flew back and followed Merry and Pippin until they got split after Helm's Deep, following first Merry and then Pippin. With the Fellowship reunited, I walked and rode the journey back to Hobbiton, and finally the journey to the Gray Havens and back. A total of 8,349 miles.

I've kept records throughout all those years. I've only counted the miles that were part of exercise, not just walking around for errands or work. The mileage tells the tale of where I've been emotionally and physically. In 2006 and 2007, I walked over 1,000 miles. But from 2008-2011 my mileage was minimal--shocking minimal. As little as 282 miles in 2008. Part of that was that in 2007 I was hit by a car on my bike. I wasn't badly injured, but I lost my nerve for riding. I went from riding over 500 miles to not riding a single mile in 2011.

But at the end of 2011 I took control of my life again. I joined Spark People in September and started working out. In 2012 I completed 2542 miles, and in 2013, 1684. Considering how crisis-filled 2013 was, I am not surprised that my mileage fell off considerably.

And now, I have reached the end of an adventure. The last of the Walk to Rivendell. I'm proud of that accomplishment.

So what's next? After a short celebration, tomorrow I will head out with Bilbo and the dwarves for the Lonely Mountain. Because there are always adventures to be had in Middle Earth.

Now please excuse me; I have to attend an Unexpected Party at the home of Mr. Bilbo Baggins!
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Self-deception for fun and profit [Mar. 13th, 2014|10:55 am]
Yesterday's weather was abysmal. All the schools around us were closed because snow was ... not so much falling as being hurled vertically across the landscape like tiny ice bullets. The wind velocity combined with this punishing precipitation inspired me not so much to go to the gym as to climb back into bed, pull the covers over my head, and refuse to come out until April.

Plus, it was a swimming day. Which meant getting WET in a non-home location. It just sounded terrible.

So I promised myself that I could just go to the rec center, climb in the hot tub, and marinate for half an hour. After all, I only committed to going TO the gym every day. Not to working out every day.

Of course I was lying to myself. I knew that when I got there, I would at least get into the pool first and paddle a couple leisurely laps.

That was also a lie. I went, and I swam a mile freestyle, then an additional 5 laps of backstroke just to finish out the hour. Then I finally went and sat in the hot tub for a little while.

It's useful, at times of low motivation, to break things down into baby steps and to tell ourselves that we only have to do the first step. Right now my kitchen is a mess, and I'm telling myself that when I finish this entry I only have to put the dishes in the sink into the dishwasher and start it. Nothing else.

Sometimes we really do just complete that one baby step. There may well be a day when I go to the gym and just get in the hot tub because I really need a day off. But most of the time, it's just a little lie, coaxing us on to the next part of what feels like an overwhelming task. Just one mile on the bike, just one time around the track, just one load of laundry, just one errand.

And with a little luck, we will finish the day feeling quite smug about all the things we lied ourselves into accomplishing.
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BBA #15: Italian Bread [Mar. 11th, 2014|11:35 am]

I did this one a while back, and didn't write it up. Partially because it was very much like the French bread in the process: make a preferment the night before, knead it all together the next day, shape loaves.

The difference was in the recipe. Whereas the French bread called for only the basics of flour, water, yeast and salt, the Italian bread added milk and oil. I'm not really 100% certain how authentic the recipe is because of that, but I'm making them from the book, so I'm making them by the book.

Where things really got different was in the shaping process. The recipe makes two large loaves or eight hoagie/torpedo/sub rolls. It just so happened that on the day I was making this bread our gaming group was coming over, I was making pulled pork (an extremely bastardized pulled pork that included a bunch of root vegetables to up the nutrition and was pronounced delicious), and decided that, as there are four of us in the group, I would make one large loaf and 4 rolls.

I divided the dough evenly, and formed the large loaf, which I prepped sliding onto the baking stone with a peel.


Then it was on to dividing the remaining half into four even sized rolls. In retrospect, I should have formed a second loaf, and then cut it, because trying to divide an uneven half-circle was not my forte:



The thing about the gluten skin on well-developed dough is that you can mess it up pretty easily. I couldn't just be whacking some of it off of one roll and smooshing it into another roll. so I was stuck with a sort of "Three Bears" situation: Papa, Mama, Baby, and Goldilocks.

Still, they baked up pretty:


As did the main loaf:


As for the flavor, Ferrett pronounced it to be the first bread I've made that actually evoked sense memory of the bread he ate in Italian restaurants back home. And no one except my gaming group got to taste it because they had their pulled pork on their hoagie rolls and then went on to devour the entire loaf of bread. I'd call it another success.
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100 days of All The Things: 10% [Mar. 10th, 2014|03:39 pm]
Well, I promised not to talk about this project all the time, but I am planning to report in every 10%.

Gym: So far, I’m 10 for 10 on getting to the gym, which was the one about which I was most concerned. But it was also my highest priority. I am focusing a lot on swimming because it was my weakest leg in last summer’s triathlons. I am still slow, but I’m getting in the water. As we move into outdoor exercise weather and I start biking and running outside, I will still be going to the gym for strength training on those outdoor days.

Cooking: I’ve cooked, but not every day. I was out of town this weekend and missed Friday-Sunday.

Reading: I’ve read every day.

Practicing Italian: About 50% successful in getting this done.

Journaling: I missed Saturday because I was completely away from the computer, and yesterday because I was just plain tired. So I’m writing two entries today to make up for the missed day.

Crafting: Not. One. Darned. Day. There are only so many balls I can keep in the air. This ball has fallen to the ground and rolled under a table.

In all, I’m pretty happy. Not perfect, but I’m getting a lot more done. We’ll see how the next 10 days go!
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Canine PSAs [Mar. 10th, 2014|03:16 pm]
If I ruled the world, I would outlaw those awful extending leashes. There is nothing to be accomplished by having your dog 12' away from you when your dog then has to walk at your pace anyway. No, the only thing that you accomplish is having no control over your dog when a crisis happens. I've seen dogs almost hit by cars because they ran into the road. I hit a dog while biking because it lunged off the sidewalk after me. And on the multiuse trail in the park, I've had to come to a screeching halt on my bike when my call of, "on your right" led to the dog owner stepping off the trail to the right and the dog running off the trail to the left, effectively clotheslining the trail.

But yesterday was the limit. We were at Petco, waiting in line to check out. The woman in front of us had a very pretty bulldog on an extending leash. As we get to the line, the bulldog rushes back toward us. I let out a squeak, and she reeled the dog in. He sat beside her for a moment, but then came back toward us. Shasta was fine at first, but when Ferrett spoke to the bulldog, he jumped toward Ferrett. It was a friendly jump, but Shasta is very protective of her people, so she was alarmed and lunged forward to protect Ferrett, and the bulldog turned his attention on Shasta. I had her, and things should have been under control. But the owner, who was paying no attention, upon feeling the lunge? Released the fraking leash. The bulldog went after Shasta, who ran behind me to get away. The bulldog chased after her, and suddenly I was wrapped in the extending leash, unable to get to Shasta to help her. Fortunately, Ferrett was there and able to help me get untangled. Throughout all this, the owner was oblivious. Eventually she retrieved her dog and wandered away.

Also, Petco is dog friendly, but people, PLEASE watch your kids. As we walked through the front door, someone was walking a dog out that lunged forward to sniff Shasta. She is a little dog-shy, so was startled but okay. But then another dog passed, and at the same moment a little girl ran up, squeeing "cute doggie!" and stuck her hand right in Shasta's face. My heart was in my throat. Fortunately, Shasta didn't freak out and snap at her. Please, please, parents, teach your children to always ask before petting a dog. Even friendly dogs can be nervous dogs if they are startled, and I'm just glad that the little girl didn't learn that lesson from Shasta.
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Hypersensitive, or legitimately irked? [Mar. 7th, 2014|01:08 pm]
Lifted at the gym yesterday. I'm a little miffed. I was using the cross-cable machine, and had just switched to an exercise that only required one side when one of the personal trainers came in and started using the other side with his client without asking if they were interrupting me. I didn't say anything, but a little while later he went back to it when a man was using it. He stopped to check in with the man that they weren't interrupting his routine. Now, it might be that he was just concentrating the first time and realized his gaff afterward, which is why I didn't make a deal out of it. But if it happens again, you can bet that I will speak up!

The thing is, I know that dismissive treatment happens to women in gyms, particularly around the weight room. It's not that unusual to see some guy's eyebrow go up when I skip by the small, pastel-colored dumbbells and reach for the regular weights. And to be honest, not many women are putting in much time in the weight room there. Which is a pity, because lifting is so good for women.

I don't like feeling paranoid. But if this trainer treats me in the same way again, he and the management are all going to experience a "teachable moment."
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What I hate about all the fitness sites [Mar. 6th, 2014|11:51 am]
I have been an active member of Spark People for a couple years now. I like the point system, and that it's nicely all-inclusive for tracking fitness and food. I like the groups and support.

What I don't like about it, and other sites like it, is the emphasis on weightloss. On a regular basis I find myself encouraging people to not give up on their fitness goals. What almost always triggers their despair? The scale isn't moving.

Study after study has shown that permanent weightloss is achieved by only a small percentage of people who embark on a diet program. That, in fact, losing weight and then regaining it is not only bordering on inevitable, but that people often gain back as much as they lost and more. And that when they gain all that weight back, they don't regain the muscle mass they lost in their weightloss efforts, so they actually have a higher percentage of body fat than they did before.

The evidence is clear: dieting in the leading cause fatness. The more our society has been inundated with diet plans, the fatter we've gotten. And the unhealthier.

What does contribute to good health? Good eating habits, and physical activity. For some people, this will lead to weightloss. For others, it will not. And that's the part that these fitness sites don't emphasize. Calories in/calories out sounds great, but we aren't machines. Our metabolisms adjust, and we don't all process food with the same level of efficiency. Not everyone will react the same way.

So when people approach fitness with their only goal being to lose weight, they generally go through a short period of elation, and then fall into dejection when the scale stops moving. They think, "what's the point?"

The point is that you are healthier and fitter. Even if you aren't skinnier, you have improved, and can continue to improve, your fitness level. You will feel better, sleep better, and probably live longer. That is worth your effort.
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Full of beans [Mar. 5th, 2014|08:07 pm]

Yesterday we had our gaming group coming for the evening and it was my turn to cook. I was not feeling very inspired, menu-wise, but then while I was on the treadmill at the gym, The Chew was on and they were talking about it being Fat Tuesday and the tradition of red beans and rice. I’ve never made red beans and rice before, but I ticked off the basic ingredient list in my head, realized I had everything for it at home, and figured I’d give it a try.

Part of the reason I had everything for it at home was because I knew I had lots of dried beans. I had lots of dried beans because they’ve come as part of the CSA. And they were still around because I was completely intimidated by dried beans.

You see, I had tried, in the past, to learn how to cook beans. I had soaked them overnight. And the skins split and the beans turned mushy. I had not soaked them. And the skins split and the beans turned mushy. I had tried adding salt, not adding salt, adding baking soda or vinegar. Always with the same result: split skins and mush.

So for a couple of decades, all bean dishes in my household used canned beans. I never bought dried legume more challenging than lentils. I was resigned to the fact that beans were simply beyond me.

But now bags of them were taking up space in my cupboard. And, unlike the occasional fresh produce that doesn’t appeal to me and eventually turns black and slimy in the back of the fridge and then gets thrown out, beans don’t go bad and give you an excuse to toss them. Those bags weren’t going anywhere. They were just perched there, a silent testimony to my culinary failure.

Something had to be done. And that something was NOT going to be making a bunch of corn hole bags with them!

Besides, I now have a pressure cooker. And pressure cookers are supposed to be good at making beans. So I decided to give it a shot. The recipe said to clean and pick over the beans (and sure enough I found a couple stones), then place them in the pressure cooker, cover them with water, and set the cooker for 20 minutes.

At the end of 20 minutes, I released the pressure and found…slightly softened beans. But at least they still had their skins. I added more water, reset the cooker for another 10 minutes, and ended up with beans that were still inedible.

In all, it took 40 minutes of pressure cooking. But in the end I actually had edible, unmushy, jacketed beans. And red beans and rice into which I had substituted chicken and chicken sausage to make it healthier. And so here are the instructions. Disclaimer: this is just what I did in my kitchen, not a tested, professional recipe. It was, however, praised highly by my fellow gamers.

Red Beans and Rice

2 cups small red beans, dry
2 cups water
2 cups chicken stock

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, chopped
6 cloves of garlic, minced
3/4 cup celery, sliced
4 chicken sausage, sliced
4 chicken breasts, diced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 cups kale, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
4 cups hot cooked rice

Cook the beans in the water and stock. Good luck. (Alternatively, you can use canned small red beans, approximately 4 cups.)

Saute the veggies in the olive oil until they are soft and beginning to brown. Add the chicken, the sausage, and the herbs and spices. Cook until done.

Add all that to the cooked beans. Add the kale in batches–it will seem like a lot, but it will cook down nicely. Simmer together for half an hour or so, adding additional water or stock as needed, then taste to adjust the seasonings and add the balsamic vinegar.

Spoon the hot rice into individual bowls, then ladle the bean mixture over the top. Serve with cornbread.
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The Ultimate Hope in "Turn Away the Gay" legislation [Mar. 4th, 2014|03:14 pm]
Last month states like Kansas and Arizona made John Stewart's life so easy. The Daily Show practically wrote itself, thanks to the appalling behavior of legislatures whose elected officials have a distorted view of what constitutes religious freedom.

And it would be natural to look at their behavior and be depressed. But instead, I celebrate it. Because it means that we actually are winning.

In the years after the Second World War, when African-American soldiers returned from serving their country and refused to return to the subservient role that they had left, the push for civil rights could no longer just be swept under the rug. So in the south, the state legislatures and city councils reacted in a very predictable way: Jim Crow laws were proposed and passed right and left. What little wasn't already regulated was by gosh regulated now! Those in power clutched at that power with everything they had.

And they lost. It wasn't easy. It took a lot of time, and a lot of bloodshed, but they lost. All those laws were overturned.

What we are seeing now? That same, final panicky grasp at the status quo. The turnaround on these changes is a lot faster--after all, neither state actually enacted these laws. But what we are seeing, and what we saw back in 2008 when a bunch of states passed constitutional amendments prohibiting same sex marriage, is a final bodice-clutching, fan-wafting, smell-salts-fueled hysteria.

They'll lose. It'll take a little more time, hopefully no more bloodshed, but they will lose.
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The poison of always and never [Mar. 3rd, 2014|10:34 am]
Ferrett and I are passionate people who get along wonderfully until that unfortunate moment when we aren't getting along. We will never be one of those couples who says, "Oh, we never argue about anything!" We are both stubborn and convinced that we are right.

But one of the things we have tried to do over the years is to learn to fight fairly. To use "I" language, to step back when discussion turns into yelling, to trust that if one of us says, "I need a minute to calm down" that doesn't mean "I'm going to stomp off and fume and not speak to you anymore."

And to deal with "always" and "never" language. We are both given to hyperbole. And high emotion in our worst moments. And so at one point we would readily throw around those two words: "You always assume I'm trying to control you!" "You never show me any respect!" These statements had nothing to do with reality, and everything to do with the mental state we were in at that moment, where the world narrows down to the grievance at hand.

But once the disagreement at hand was resolved, there would be a secondary tension based on the accused hurt at being told that he or she was "always" or "never" doing something that they knew was unfair. And that lower-key tension could be carried as a deep hurt for hours or even days, waiting its moment to erupt into an echoing argument, leaving the other person--who had generally forgotten entirely about the moment--suddenly blindsided with hurt that felt like it was coming out of nowhere. And, frankly, ridiculous to the one party while monumental to the other.

So we reached an agreement. We would both do our best to stay away from "always" and "never."

And you know what? We both fail at it dismally.

In the midst of a disagreement, those terrible words still erupt from our mouths on occasion. But there is a big difference now. Usually, we are aware enough to catch ourselves doing it. And if the other of us points out what we've said, we take a step back, acknowledge that we are in error, and start again with calmer, more realistic language.

But even if we don't manage that, we each know that the other didn't mean it and we don't carry it around with us for days. Our dialogue is healthier for it.

And now? I'm working at removing those dreaded words from my internal dialogue. We are our own harshest critics, and we say things to ourselves that we would never dream of saying to our friends. Example: last night at the Oscar party I ate WAY too much junk food. I woke up this morning feeling bloated and logy. In my head, I started scolding myself: you always do this. You never have any self-control around snack food.

And then I made me stop. It was a party. I had fun. I have plenty of self-control, in that these snack foods only enter my house about 4 times a year, but I'm at the grocery store every week and I don't buy them. I am, in fact, a competent person who is capable of taking good care of myself. I deserve my own love and respect.

Here's the one always I need to internalize: I am always worthy.
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Just a quicky today [Mar. 2nd, 2014|01:18 pm]
Walking across the parking lot back to my car from the gym, I noticed that someone had dropped a hat in the lot. I wondered, as I always do, whether it was better to leave it where it was so that the owner could retrace their steps or to pick it up so it didn't get run over and try to put it somewhere really visible.

Then I noticed that it was my hat.
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Day 1: I make with the post [Mar. 1st, 2014|06:54 pm]
I'm writing now only because of my own stupidity. Erin and I are having an evening together, and when I found out she hadn't seen Frozen I determined that this must be rectified. We headed out from sushi dinner to the closest theater with an evening show--a theater rather some distance away. When we got here, we were going to go have a drink first. But I glanced at my watch and it was 6:55, only 20 minutes until the movie. So we headed in and got tickets.

It wasn't until we were settled into the theater that I realized that it had been 6:35. Six. THIRTY. Five.

Well then.

So here we sit in an empty theater playing with our phones. My senior moment of the day.

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My insanity: let me show you it [Feb. 28th, 2014|05:46 pm]

I am about to embark on a completely crazy project, and the only way to do it properly is to put it out to the world so that I have nailed my trousers to the mast ("don't you mean your colors to the mast?" "No, trousers; that way I can't crawl back down")*

I am starting a project that I'm calling "100 Days of All The Things." From March 1 until June 8, I am committing myself to:
  • Go to the gym daily
  • Cook healthy meals (except for days when we are specifically going out or doing something that takes me away from the kitchen, but no, "Eh, don't wanna cook; let's get Chinese.")
  • Read
  • Practice Italian
  • Journal (and not endlessly about this experience; actual, substantive journaling)
  • Do something crafty
I fully expect that by day 2 I will be wondering what the hell I was thinking. But if I can do this, I hope that I will develop some good habits that will stick. I feel like I'm doing too much "drifting" through my days. I want to live more intentionally. I will also continue working, and keeping house, and having time with Ferrett, and walking my dog, throughout this.

And now y'all know. So you can help keep me honest. Wish me luck.

*Extra Brownie Points of Extremely Impressed-ness for anyone who knows the original source of that slightly-rewritten exchange!
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Dear Xenophobic Hate-Mongerers: The Coca Cola Company thanks you for your support [Feb. 4th, 2014|02:19 pm]
On a relatively mild Sunday afternoon in early February, during a ball game that people continued to watch mostly because it was like unto Christians being fed to lions, the Coca Cola company aired a commercial in which people of many nationalities appears and "America the Beautiful" was sung in numerous languages.

At which point, the Internet went batshit crazy.

I will not recount the spewings of hatred aimed at the Coca Cola company as a segment of the population vented their spleen over the taking of "Our National Anthem" in vain. Instead, I will try to reimagine the reaction at the Coca Cola headquarters when the first of those Tweets and YouTube comments came pouring in:

Several people in suits, drinks in hand, leap from their chairs, cheering. Fist bumps, chest bumps, and mimicry of spiking a football follow. After the initial cheers, toasts are drunk and the suits all settle back to their computers, watching the insanity unfold, reading aloud the most ridiculous complaints and laughing, laughing, laughing.

You see, dear redneck 'Murican, the Coca Cola people did not make that ad to try and get your dollars. They know very well that your soda dollars will be returning their way in a few days when some other outrage has come along to blow up your proverbial skirts. No, the Coca Cola people were not surprised by your vitriol. They were, in fact counting on it.

For a few million dollars, they made and placed an ad in the Superbowl time slot that, without you, might have had a minor branding bump to their label. But thanks to you, that ad is worth millions more in the outrage of the greater population at your despicable, hate-filled behavior. People who don't buy Coke are suddenly feeling a need to defend the label for their bravery in taking on bigots like you. And how better to display loyalty that to buy a Coke and stand with this brave company against the embarrassment caused by your rude and appalling -- and frequently misspelled and ungrammatical -- spewings on the internet.

Yes, dear racist, your own disgusting attitude is selling cola to the rest of the country in ways that one mere ad could never accomplish. And if you don't think that the Coca Cola ad executives counted on your reaction to that ad, then you are even stupider than your internet rantings make you sound.
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Bread that's not a challenge [Jan. 30th, 2014|12:27 pm]

The BBA breads are pretty awesome, but they are time consuming. Most of them require starting the evening before baking, and a number of steps along the way. But when Ferrett and I were snowed in last week, and out of bread to just make a sandwich, I decided to try the Easy Sandwich Bread recipe from Cook's Illustrated. It promised bread in two hours, and by gum if it didn't deliver. It also suggested that the loaf was really best if eaten that day, and I have to say that we managed to accomplish that task rather nicely. It's not a bread that is going to wow you with its flavor profile, because the quick rise doesn't give a chance for much flavor development. But it makes great toast and is terrific for sandwiches.

So, for everyone who is intimidated by bread, I am going to give you the step-by-step of making this quick and simple bread. The recipe does require a stand mixer with a paddle attachment; I don't know if it would hold up to an old-fashioned, beater style mixer. I checked into the copyright rules, and I am allowed to reprint the list of ingredients, but must write the instructions myself. So here we go:

Easy Sandwich Bread

2 cups (11 ounces) bread flour
6 tablespoons (2 ounces) whole-wheat flour
2 1/4 teaspoons instant or rapid-rise yeast
1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons warm water (120 degrees)
2 tablespoons olive oil (the original calls for melted, unsalted butter)
1 tablespoon honey
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten with 1 teaspoon water and pinch salt

Whisk the flours and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer, then add the 1 1/4 cup warm water, olive oil, and honey. Using the paddle - not dough hook - attachment on your mixer, beat this on low for a minute.The dough should be pretty wet, so if it's balling up nicely, add another couple ounces of water. Then continue beating on medium for two full minutes. It should look like this when you are done:
Sandwich bread 1
Remove the paddle attachment from the mixer so that you don't have to try and get dough off of it. Leaving the paddle in the bowl, cover it with plastic wrap and set it someplace warm to rise for 20-25 minutes, or until doubled:
Sandwich bread 2
Turn your oven on at 375F, and make sure your rack is in the middle. Reattach the paddle to the mixer and the bowl to the stand (probably the trickiest part of the whole operation). Dissolve the salt into two tablespoons of warm water, then add to the bowl. Mix for 40 seconds to partially incorporate the salt water (adding fluid at this point in any bread is going to look gloppy and soupy), then on medium for another minute. This is going to look more like a batter than a bread dough, which is why it can't be hand kneaded:
Sandwich bread 3
Use cooking spray to coat a 4x8" loaf pan (you really should use 4x8 rather than 5x9 as the dough isn't enough to rise well in a 5x9), then pour the batter into the pan.

Use a greased rubber spatula to scrape the last of the dough from the bowl and to smooth the dough evenly in the pan.

Cover with plastic wrap that has been sprayed with cooking spray and allow to rise for 15 minutes or to half an inch below the lip of the pan. Then uncover and allow to rise another 5-10 minutes, or until the center is level with the lip of the pan.

Slash down the center of the dough, then bake for 40-50 minutes or until just past golden golden brown.
Sandwich bread 7

(As you can see, mine sprang rather more on one end than the other. This happens sometimes. Slash better than I did.)

Let cool for 45 minutes before slicing. Or at least 30. The pleading looks from your family will be hard to resist. When you do slice, do so with a light hand as this is a very airy bread and will squish easily if not handled gently.

Sandwich bread 8

The crust is delicious, and the crumb nice and airy. Toasting makes is a crispy treat.
So there you have it: bread in two hours that doesn't require bicep strength. I have made it twice, and may whip some up today, it's that easy.
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BBA #13: French bread [Jan. 27th, 2014|12:09 pm]

I have to admit that I spent far too much time stuck in the face of French bread. I'd read that it was really hard, and it never seemed to be the right time to make it. But I finally got to it last week.

Once again, this is a bread that needs to be started the night before. the pane fermente must be put together, given a good kneading, and then refrigerated overnight. The effect of this overnight refrigeration is to let the yeast beasties eat up the sugars surrounding them and then offgas alcohols and other byproducts, and then for those to just sit there in the quiet of your cold bread and stew a bit.
Yes, the rich taste of good breads is pretty much reliant on yeast farts.

ANYway, in the morning, about an hour before your ready to begin throwing the bread around, you must remove the pane fermente from the fridge, chop it into about 10 pieces, then cover it and leave it to warm up a bit:

French bread 1

After an hour, measure out the rest of the ingredients, plop in the fermented dough, and begin kneading. This is a 10 minute process if done by hand, and I love the way the dough transforms under my hands from a sloppy, ragged mess to something smooth and elastic.

Into an oiled bowl to rise for two hours. If it rises too high in that time, degass it done to a small ball and continue the rising time. Then turn it out on a well-floured counter:

French bread 2

Divide it into two or three even segments. I chose two, because my French bread pan has two segments.

French bread 3

Shape the clumps into loaves.

French bread 4a

There are fussy instructions about stretching and curving around and pinching to stretch the outer skin of the bread. I did that with one, didn't with the other, and couldn't tell them apart.

Move them onto your loaf pan or do the whole couche method of heavily floured cloth pinched up between the loaves to separate them. I chose the pan because then I don't have to be touching them again and risk deflation.

French bread 5

Cover and let rise again.

French bread 6

And when they are all nice and puffy give them a slash to help with oven spring, then into the 500 degree oven with a cup of water poured into a pan before them to create steam.

French bread 7

There are no pictures of me pouring boiling water into a 500 degree jelly roll pan. Because good grief. Most of the steam escaped by the time I was able to close the oven. I think the next time I might try to figure out some kind of Mythbusters trick wherein I use a metal cup and a string, and pull the cup over just as I'm closing the oven. I would be able to rescue it in a very short time, because 30 seconds after the initial steaming, you need to crack the oven door and mist the inside of the oven. You do this three times.

After that, the baking time is about 25 minutes. And they do spring nicely in the oven.

French bread 9

I have conjoined bread.

They weren't hard to separate, and when they cooled and we cut them, this is what we got:

French bread 10

The crumb was a little denser than I would have liked, and I think that next time I will give them an extra 10 minutes in the final rise. But the flavor was delicious. The crust was thin and crisp, and the crumb creamy. Dipped in olive oil, it was out of this world. Definitely a keeper.
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BBA #13 – Focaccia [Jan. 22nd, 2014|03:16 pm]

My friends will all be surprised to see this post, because I have made focaccia for two years now. It’s the bread I kept making when I didn’t make bread. It’s the bread that was not just expected but *demanded* for events. It’s the bread that people refer to as “a tradition” for our friends’ Bread and Soup party, even though this year was only the second year that I’ve brought it.

It’s that good.

But I never wrote it up back when I first made it. Which, from the dates on the pictures, was November of 2012. I’ve probably made it a dozen times now. But writing it up is standing in the way of moving forward, so let’s do this thing.

First, focaccia requires some planning. You make it the day before you bake it, so you have to have room in your fridge for a large pan of dough to rest overnight. Secondly, you need to make the topping oil the day before, so that it can soak up all the flavors overnight. So plan it for an evening you’re going to be around.

Second, the dough for focaccia is very soft, bordering on wet. This isn’t a dough you knead, it is a dough you fold onto itself. The ingredients get measured into a mixing bowl, then you spend about 5 minutes just slopping them around in the bowl. Honestly, this would be a good job for the stand mixer, but I’ve done it all be hand up until now, so I just wear out my arm scooping dough in a clockwise pattern for a minute, then counterclockwise for as long as I can take it, then clockwise again.

Once this is done, you can let it rest for a short time while you dust the heck out of your countertop with flour. The instructions say a surface about 6 inches across. I say, “AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!” This dough sticks like crazy, so be ready for that.

Then you pour it out onto the counter. At this point it has the consistency of oobleck. Maybe a little thicker. You pat it down a bit, then lift one side up, let it slump away from you, then fold it over the rest of the dough. It’s a lot like the ciabatta, but not quite as goopy:

Focaccia 1

You do this a few times, let the dough rest, covered, for 30 minutes, do it again, repeating 3 times. After this, stretch the dough out onto a jelly roll pan that you’ve placed parchment paper into. The dough will be very elastic and not the least bit interested in stretching to the corners of the pan. Give it some time, coax it along, but resign yourself to never actually reaching a square. Cover it with plastic wrap and slide it into the fridge.

Now it’s time to make the topping oil. I make it with rosemary, garlic, and coarse sea salt. A lot of garlic. Like, I chop an entire head of garlic. Strip fresh rosemary off the stems and chop both pretty fine. Pour about a cup of high-quality olive oil into a saucepan and add the finely chopped rosemary and garlic. Set this to simmering slowly–don’t burn the garlic; you want it to just get a little color. Then turn it down low.

Taste it now, and it will probably be a little bitter. Add the sea salt and taste again. It’s like magic! Let this all warm for the rest of the evening and fill your house with delicious aromas.

(If you don’t like rosemary and garlic? You can try other combinations of flavors. But you’re on your own; for me, this is perfection.)

About 3 hours before baking, the bread needs to come out of the fridge. You will look at it and think, “well, that didn’t amount to much” because it will not have risen much, if at all. Fear not; the night was not wasted because the yeast beasties were doing their slow thing. Be sure to pull the plastic wrap away and resettle it on the bread, because things are gonna start moving now.

This is the place where I really depart from the instructions in the BBA book. They say to put the oil on the bread at the beginning of this rise. The one time I did that, the bread was too high and didn’t taste like focaccia. So I say, wait until you’re just about ready to put it in the oven.

2 and a half hours after you’ve taken the bread out, turn your oven up to 500. Yes, really. Once it’s nice and hot, take your saucepan of flavored oil and start scooping it over the bread. You need to scoop because you want to distribute all the rosemary and garlic goodness all over the bread. You will appear to have way too much oil. Set it aside about halfway done.

Then comes the fun part. Pounce the fingertips of both hands all over the bread, pushing holes into it that the oil and goodies will enter. Do this over the whole bread. Don’t be alarmed that you are deflating it terribly. Pop the giant air bubbles that will appear. Then pour on the rest of the oil and do it some more. Slide that baby into the oven, lower the heat to 450, and keep the door closed for 10 minutes. Your bread will spring in the oven and suck up all that oil. After 10 minutes, rotate it and cook for 5-10 more. When you pull it out, let it sit for 5 minutes, then slide it off the pan and onto a wire rack so the bottom doesn’t get mushy. It will look like this:

Focaccia 2

At least it will for about 5 minutes. Minutes after you cut into it, it will look like this:

Focaccia 3
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The philosophy of an unmade bed [Jan. 21st, 2014|12:29 pm]
(Originally published at Living Graciously. Hence, references to LJ.)

Every "clean up your home" book tells you to make your bed every day. And for a long time I thought that was silly. In fact, I started this post almost a year ago from the presumption that it was silly.

Notice that "a year ago" thing. That's important. Because two years is about how long this journal has lain fallow, gathering cobwebs.

It's not that a lot hasn't happened. 2013 was one of the most eventful years of my life. Some of it good, much of it bad.

I ran a bunch of 5ks. I completed 2 triathlons. We went to Hawaii. We got a dog.

Ferrett had a heart attack and triple bypass surgery. A number of family members died. Our 5-year-old goddaughter was diagnosed with brain cancer.

And I had pretty much stopped journaling. Some of these events are recorded in my almost-equally-neglected Live Journal, but most of my internet interaction had moved over to the quicker but less permanent annals of Facebook and Spark People.I felt sort of bad about not following through here, but it was too much work, and took too much concentration. I was spending way too much time on the computer, and not really getting much constructive out of it. It was casually addicting, letting the hours slip by.

I wasn't baking bread. I wasn't quilting. I wasn't reading books. I wasn't gardening or doing as much cooking as I'd wish. I was, honestly, in the face of many crises, sort of just holding on. Getting enough work done to keep getting paid, but letting a lot else that made my life a good place just slide.

Then sometime in November, I started making the bed. Every morning. If I was out of the house before Ferrett was up, when I got home I would go and make the bed. It was suddenly, after many, many years, important to me. On the morning after my stepdad died, I made the bed. On Christmas morning, when we were all in crisis because my 6-year-old niece had seized the evening before and was lying unconscious in a hospital, I made the bed. On the morning when we got the good word that she was going to recover, I made the bed.

And then other things started happening in life. I began putting together menus again so that I can actually do the cooking I want to do to keep Ferrett and me healthy. I started quilting again. My workouts got more consistent. I have the next bread in the BBA Challenge, French bread, rising in the kitchen right now.

I can't say for certain that it isn't me kind of recovering from a tough year and regaining the energy to do all these things, but I know that starting the day with that one small ritual of making the bed causes me to then pick up any laundry or detritus in the bedroom, and I come out of it with a feeling that I'm starting out on the right foot. Now excuse me, I have French bread to make.
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Gonna start 2014 right! [Dec. 31st, 2013|11:44 am]
There is an old Welsh new year tradition called First Footing. It calls for the first person to enter your home in the new year to be a dark-haired man, to whom you immediately offer a drink. It is supposed to ensure good luck for the coming year.

I have been First Footing the house every year for a decade. What I do, immediately after midnight, is to collar a dark-haired guest and send him out the back door of the house. He walks around to the front door, knocks, and I let him in, drink to offer in hand, while the rest of the guests laugh and cheer.

Except last year. Right after midnight on Jan. 1, 2013, a female couple arrived and entered the house before I could get my dark-haired man out the back door.

"Oh, well," I thought. "It's just a silly superstition. It doesn't really mean anything."

And then, we had 2013. A year filled with health crises and deaths. It was terrible.

So tonight, you can be certain that I will have a dark-haired guest's shirt clutched in my grasp as we count down the last 10 seconds. He will be *flung* out that back door, and greeted with great gusto when he reaches the front.

Between that and burning 2013 in effigy, I'm hoping to bring in a much better year!
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Miracles DO happen! [Dec. 28th, 2013|11:30 pm]
Brianna is awake! She's slow in recovering, but she's eating a little and talking a little. Improving by the hour.

Yesterday afternoon I was hopeless. Today, a miracle seems to have occurred. Thank you all for your wishes and prayers.
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Yet again. Yet again. [Dec. 26th, 2013|02:17 pm]
My 6-year-old grand-niece Brianna was life-flighted to the hospital on Christmas Eve with sudden seizures. As of this morning, she is still intubated and sedated, and while they think this was a febrile seizure, they don't really have any answers as to what's going on. My niece Dayna, who herself spent three days in the hospital last week with some terrible rash all over her lower body and chest pains, has been there all night for two nights now. Her husband is with their two little boys, trying to keep things together at home.

My poor sister has endured both her daughter and grand-daughter being hospitalized in the last week, our stepdad, to whom she was closest among us, dying, and caring for Mom, who has to be taken on a 130 mile round trip three days a week for dialysis. It's been a hard year for me, but an even harder one for her.

My poor mother, widowed at the beginning of December, ended up spending her first Christmas without her husband of three decades almost completely alone because she is not healthy enough to go up to the hospital.

The doctors tried to get Brianna awake last night, but couldn't. They're trying this morning, and though she did squeeze her mom's hand earlier on, her fever started spiking again.

I am stuck in a continuing legal education class, continually updating Facebook and checking my phone. If you pray, please pray for Brianna and her whole family.
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You can't hurry love [Dec. 20th, 2013|10:52 am]
No one can resist this sweet little face:
Shasta 12/20/2013

And no one can resist *this* sweet little face:

And yet, the two of them are resisting each other mightily. The black dog is my Shasta. The curly little mop is my mother-in-law, Pat's dog Koshi. And so far their interactions have consisted primarily of growling at each other with the occasional barking and snapping bout.

We were really hoping they were going to be good little buddies for each other. But they are like two boxers in their corners, Shasta curled up next to me, Koshi curled up with Pat. They ignore each other until one of us gets up. Then there is posturing and raised hackles. They are, however, so little, that the two of us and Ferrett can only giggle at their antics.

But if we take them for a walk? They're just fine. Shasta is a good walker, game for 5 miles without tiring in the least. Koshi isn't used to that kind of exercise, so I can't take them for a long enough walk to wear them both out. But they do great as long as they are on the leashes.

I'm hoping that by next week they might consider playing with each other.
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Farewell [Dec. 6th, 2013|11:14 am]
Yesterday started out so awesomely. I finished a project ahead of the deadline, then decided that, even though I have a ton of work to do this weekend, I would take advantage of a small window of nice weather and get up all the outdoor Yule lights. Then in the evening we were gaming with friends. Then the phone rang.

My stepfather died yesterday evening. We had a house full of people when my niece called, and I just sort of fell to the floor. Everyone was wonderful and kind and stuck around to see it they could help, but of course there is nothing to be done, really.

My sister said that she had left Mom at dialysis and gone up to see Carey, and that even though his stats weren't changed, she could suddenly tell that something was wrong. She rushed back to get Mom from dialysis, and they got back to the hospital just 15 minutes before he died.

Mom doesn't want anyone to come to Montana at this time. There will not be a funeral. Instead, she wants us to come next summer and have a memorial for him that is a picnic and family gathering. It's what he wanted. I can barely begin to imagine what she's going through. Last night I put my arms around Ferrett and whispered to him, "Thank you so much for not dying."

I'm feeling sad and in shock and kind of ... not numb, but like the world is all being muffled through cotton wadding. Like I can't quite move forward. I have a huge amount of work I need to get through in the next two days, but I can't really get myself started on anything.

I am glad that I got the Christmas lights up outside yesterday before all this happened. I can't imagine trying to do it today.

It's gotten to be so many things too much in 2013 that I can't even muster being angry with it anymore. It's defeated me.
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Tis the season to be greedy! [Dec. 4th, 2013|11:02 am]
Ferrett has put up his "greed list," and he has been bugging me to get my list together. My problem is that I can hardly ever think of things I want for the holidays. I've become allergic to "stuff" and am trying to simplify life, so more things to store just doesn't make me excited. But there are definitely some things that I can use, so here's my list.

First of all, fitness-related things. I am linking to online pictures, but I encourage shopping in your local bike shop if possible, because I like supporting them:

Cycling shoe covers. I have most of my bundling up for cool weather riding under control, but my toes are often frosty. These would really help me be more comfy for the winter riding.

Bicycle repair stand. The simply act of oil the chain on my bike would be many times easier, and I am trying to learn to handle some simple repairs myself. Getting the bike off the flood to do so makes like many times easier.

Bike repair tool kit. I think I might be getting a little too ambitious with this one, but if someone gave it to me I would definitely try and learn to do a lot more of my own maintenance.

A gift certificate to Second Sole. I have a couple foot problems caused by having a longer second toe than big toe. There are shoes that are designed to deal with this problem, but they are kind of spendy. This is our local running shoe store, and if I am going to have to upgrade to more expensive running shoes, and I am not willing to shop for them anywhere else. These guys are great, support the running community a lot, and deserve support.

Heart rate monitor. You know, because. (And yes, of course purple!)

Jogging leash. Trying to jog with the dog leash in one hand is throwning off what little rythmn I have. This would be a great help.

Moving on to non-fitness items:

Knife sharpening kit. Ferrett got a small stone for sharpening his straight razor, and that works for small knives, but is not really good for large ones. I'm both excited and scared to ask for this. I would love to get a good edge on my chef's knife again, but I'm worried about messing it up. If I receive it, my plan is to go to Kat and Eric's and practice on their knives, which are in DIRE need of sharpening.

A 12" cast iron skillet. This would make my collection of convenient skillet sizes complete.

Tortilla press. I am determined to get back into bread baking, and I love flat breads.

And, since no wishlist is complete without the over-the-top, no-way-I'll-get-it gift, let's just add:

A Bernina sewing machine. I was very conservative here and linked to the one that only costs $6,000, not the one that costs $14,000. For those prices it should also drive me to work and give me massages, but I'm not expecting to receive such a thing. I just thought it would be amusing to throw in here. After all, it is a GREED list!

And finally, the "experience" category--not things I would end up owning, but things I would very much love to receive:

Gift certificates to Sacred Hour massage. I love this spa like no other. Sometimes I want to go and ask to just sit in their waiting area. It has an amazing feel. And of course the massages feel even better.

Gift certificates at the Venetian Nail Spa here in Rocky River. This one is a bit of a challenge, since they haven't managed to get an online system for their gift cards, but I would love to have a gift card to them. I like mani/pedis very much.

And finally, stocking stuffers:

Chamois Butt'r. I go through TUBES of this.

Coochy Cream shaving cream ... Yeah, I got nothing.

And, as always, Amazon Gift Cards are NEVER regarded as a tacky or thoughtless gift by me!

That's pretty much all I can think of now. Undoubtedly my wonderful hubby will buy me something not listed at all, and I will be amazed at how perfect it is. Because that's how he works.
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