Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Attractions, Coming and Current


This week's Grand Rounds is up over at David Williams' Health Business Blog. Thanks for including me, David!

I'm going to be hosting Grand Rounds myself on August 28. I'm more than a little nervous about this (especially since that's the first week of school), but I'm excited, too, and grateful to Nick Genes for reminding me that I'd offered to host this summer. He'll be doing an interview with me for Medscape, and I'll let you know when that's posted.

Elliot has posted a very smart and satisfying review of The Fate of Mice. Thanks, Elliot!

Gary and I are gearing up for Mythcon. This morning I practiced the new piece I'll be reading there, which clocks in at just about forty minutes. Perfect! Unfortunately, my reading's opposite a panel that includes the guests of honor, Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, not to mention the illustrious Ellen Klages, so I hope someone will come hear me. I'd go to their panel myself, if I could! But Gary will be there, even if nobody else is. And the reading was rescheduled from nine in the morning to one in the afternoon, which is much easier on my brain.

The conference includes a concert by the Renaissance and early-music group Broceliande, who perform Tolkien's songs on their album The Starlit Jewel (currently unavailable, unfortunately). Gary and I are really looking forward to that. And the evening video showings include Hush, one of our favorite Buffy episodes. All in all, it should be a great weekend!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Family Pics


My mother and sister left this morning; we all got up at 3:30 so I could get them to the airport by five, after which I went to the gym (which opens at five) and swam for forty minutes. I went from there to the office to try to get some work done, but predictably, I wound up coming home and taking a long nap instead.

So that first photo is Mom, as you probably guessed, in the red sweater I gave her for her birthday.

Here's Gary cooking pasta, as Liz looks on. Liz and I served as Gary's cooking assistants during this visit, chopping and grating and such. I'm very slow at such tasks because I haven't done much of them (I definitely need one of those "Don't Assume I Cook" t-shirts), but Gary was very patient with me.

Here's Gary tasting pasta. Everyone always enjoys his cooking, and he made several of his best dishes for Mom and Liz: his special garlic bread, his pasta putanesca, his Caribbean pork.

Here he is beating back the hungry dinner hordes with a spoon. Actually, the most persistent invasive force at dinnertime is the cats, who demand small tributes of uncooked meat. Bali's also crazy about carrot peelings. When I was peeling yams, he demanded samples, although when he got them, he didn't want them. We think that maybe he thought they were carrots because of the color -- but wouldn't his sense of smell be more sensitive than his vision, and wouldn't it tip him off to the fact that this was a different vegetable?

He's a very odd cat, although that statement's probably redundant.

Liz hates being photographed, but I got this nice shot of her standing in the kitchen.

Here's Mom standing in the dining room with the living room behind her.

Here's one of me and Gary, dressed up a little bit for the fabulous dinner Mom and Liz treated us to at the 4th Street Bistro, our favorite Reno restaurant. I'm wearing a new pair of earrings here, although you can't see them very well. Liz and I are champion shoppers, especially when we're together and especially for jewelry. We hit lots of local stores: Mom and Liz both bought me earrings, and I bought them earrings, and we all bought ourselves earrings. Liz and I also went clothes shopping, and did quite well. New shorts! New skirts! New blouses! New jeans! Wheeeee!

And, of course, no assortment of photos would be complete without cats. Here are Harley and Figaro luxuriating on Mom's bed (which is my study sofa, unfolded).

Figaro looks particularly cute here.

And Harley looks particularly furry here.

I don't have any shots of Bali, but he was certainly a force of nature during the visit. It's a really good thing that Mom and Liz both adore cats, and spoil them as much as Gary and I do, because Bali was into everything: luggage, water glasses, bedding, you name it. He managed to savage and deflate Liz's bed (an air mattress on the living-room floor) and also specialized in pouncing on her feet under the covers.

Liz thought all of this was hilarious, and doted on Bali, but my Dad's not particularly fond of cats, so I'm a little nervous about that aspect of his visit in a few weeks. But he'll be in my study, and can close the door at night.

It was a good visit, although Mom wasn't able to do much. I miss them already.

Liz just called from Philly to tell me that they landed safely. I'm sure they're glad to be back home. Now I have to start gearing up for my father's arrival!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Sweet Victory


I just won a Scrabble game against Liz and Gary (who beat me and Liz last night) by using all of my tiles on a triple-letter score . . .

. . . on my last move.

Which meant not only that I earned 77 points for the move, but that I got all of their remaining points, too.

Ahhhhhh.

So satisfying!

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Road Back to High Watch


My earliest memory is of being a very little girl on a large green lawn, sitting with my mother and some other ladies on chairs under towering trees. The ladies might have been drinking iced tea. I might have been drinking lemonade. All of them smiled at me a lot. One lady, who might have been wearing a sun hat, also wore a great deal of jewelry, large sparkling gems of the kind I adored as a child. She let me sit on her lap and play with her rings.

We also played croquet. At least, the ladies played, and let me take my turn trying to hit the ball through the wicket.

This scene occurred in the spring or early summer of 1964, when I was three years old. I was visiting my mother at High Watch Farm, a residential treatment facility for alcoholics and addicts in Connecticut. (As I always do when I tell any part of my mother's history, I want to emphasize that I have her permission to share it.) She had previously been in a large state mental hospital; I tell that story in this homily. The AA member who convinced my father to let my mother out of the hospital also recommended High Watch, which uses AA as the cornerstone of treatment, as an alternative. My mother was happy there, and even happier that my sister and I were visiting her, and the other women -- many starved for family contact -- were delighted to have a little girl to spoil. My first memory, of being on that green lawn, is therefore one of great joy and peace.

I recently visited High Watch again, although this visit was only a virtual one.

My journey began with the recent U.S. News and World Report listing of America's Best Hospitals. Because I'm interested in healthcare, I read the "Honor Roll" of the top eighteen hospitals, and because I'm interested in chaplaincy, I searched each hospital's site to see what spiritual-care services they offered.

One of the hospitals on the list is Yale-New Haven Hospital. I did my doctoral work in English at Yale, and I've had surgery at that hospital. My memories of New Haven are neither joyful nor peaceful; nonetheless, that rather grim city was home for several years, so I was particularly interested in the YNHH site.

A search for "chaplaincy" on that site uncovered this moving article by YNHH Chaplain Kathleen Blake Thompson. Thompson's credits note that she's also a chaplain at High Watch.

I hadn't realized that High Watch still existed, but I promptly Googled it. The photo at the top of this post is of the barn, where AA meetings take place. It gives you some idea of how lovely the grounds are even now, forty-two years after the ladies and I played croquet there. Looking at this and other photos, I experienced a rush of nostalgia, although as far as I know, I only visited once.

Further exploration of the High Watch site brought me to their donation page, where I read about a number of special funds, including this one: "The Wilson Bed Scholarship provides charitable beds to individuals who are in desperate need of treatment but have no means to pay for it."

I'm generous with my time, but I don't tend to give a lot of money. Among the nearly infinite number of worthy causes out there, very few feel like "mine." But this one did, urgently and immediately, even though my family had enough money to pay for my mother's stay at High Watch (which cost much less in 1964 than it would now).

So I sent High Watch a check, along with a letter describing my mother's recovery. Part of that letter reads as follows:
She’s 82 now, still sober. In addition to her alcoholism, she’s survived breast cancer, lung cancer, a stroke, and surgery to survive an abdominal aneurysm.

Thank you for helping to save my mother’s life.

I’m enclosing a check for _____ for the Wilson Bed Scholarship. This small amount can’t convey my appreciation for the work you do. I volunteer as an emergency-department chaplain here in Reno (where my day job is being an English professor at the University of Nevada, Reno), and I visit with many indigent alcoholics who are desperate to get better, but don’t have access to inpatient recovery services because they don’t have insurance. I often tell these patients about my mother –- and help them find AA meetings! -– and her story seems to inspire them. I’m acutely aware of the need for more residential resources for alcoholics and addicts without much money, so the Wilson Bed Scholarship moves me tremendously.
As I wrote that last paragraph, I was thinking about the patient, one of those indigent alcoholics, who came to our ED several years ago, in the middle of a particularly harsh winter. We had four feet of snow on the ground, which doesn't happen very often in Reno. He had walked -- or waded -- several miles through the snow to the public psychiatric hospital, where they told him that there were no detox beds available. They advised him to check back every day. He didn't have to walk to the hospital to check, they told him; he could call instead.

He cried, telling this story, because he was homeless and didn't have a phone. The social worker (this was back when the ED still had them) wasn't very sympathetic. I think she probably thought that if he could scrounge up enough money to drink, he could also scrounge up money to call the hospital from a phone booth. She thought he'd just come to our hospital to get warm. She didn't think he really wanted to get sober.

In his circumstances, I'd have come to our hospital to get warm, too. And there were many years when my mother didn't really want to get sober, but she did get sober, finally. She went to the AA meeting that "took," in the state hospital, because she was hungry and knew there'd be cookies there. I don't see why going somewhere to get warm couldn't serve the same purpose.

When I wrote my letter to High Watch, I imagined that patient on a green lawn under towering trees, playing croquet.

He'll probably never get to High Watch. But I hope he gets somewhere joyous and peaceful.

And warm.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Behold Eck!


One of my first SFnal memories is of watching a TV show about a frightening creature who scares people at first, but who's then discovered to be friendly and misunderstood. I'd remembered that the creature's name was "Eeeek" and that it was an electricity monster, but when I mentioned it to my mother, she said, "Oh, that was Eck. You loved Eck." So Gary Googled it and learned that the creaure appeared in a 1964 Outer Limits episode called "Behold Eck!"

We rented it from Netflix and watched it the other night. It's unbelievably cheesy early SF, of course, with laughable special effects, but none of us had trouble understanding why Eck would have appealed to me so.

Eck's actually a two-dimensional creature trying to get back home to his own dimension, but he can't see right in our world and needs special glasses to find the doorway back. The hero's a kindly optometrist who defends Eck against the people who want to destroy him, and makes the glasses for him.

I was a strange, lonely kid, and I wore glasses; my vision problems had been diagnosed when I couldn't see the blackboard at school. This is part of why I only learned to read at the end of first grade, rather than earlier.

A TV show about a strange creature who needed glasses must have been thrilling to me, although I also must have seen that episode in reruns in 1966 or 1967, since I didn't have glasses yet in 1964.

See the reflection of Eck in the good doctor's glasses? He even has four eyes!

Watching the episode as an adult, I was irritated no end that everyone automatically assumed that Eck was male, and that his voice was male. (The Star Trek episode Devil in the Dark told a very similar story with a gender twist.) And the plotting was ridiculous. But Gary and I were both charmed by the idea of a hero optometrist. Somebody could easily update the SFX and turn the story into a feature film, given how much plot business we didn't get to see.

When I was a little girl, I undoubtedly accepted the default male gender as automatically as everyone around me did. Samuel R. Delany tells the story of reading children's picture books to his daughter Iva -- who's quite a bit younger than I am! -- when she was three or so. He became annoyed that the animal heroes were always boys, but he couldn't find a book with a girl protagonist, so he set about making his own. He bought one of the Corduroy books for Iva and painstakingly set about whiting out all the male pronouns and replacing them with female ones.

But the minute he started reading the book to Iva, she protested. "That bear's not a girl, Daddy. It's a boy."

"No, Iva, Corduroy's a girl. Look: it says 'she.' And she's wearing the same Osh-Kosh overalls you're wearing."

"No, Daddy, it's a boy! It has to be a boy, 'cause this is a picturebook, and the animals in picturebooks are always boys."

These days, of course, the rules aren't quite as stringent, which is a Good Thing. But if somebody decides to redo Eck, give us a girl this time, okay? Or -- wait. Would it seem sexist for a female alien to need help from a male human scientist? Maybe Eck's male and the optometrist's a girl? But then they'd have to fall in love, so that's no good.

Hey, I've got it! Eck and the optometrist are both female! And they can fall in love if they want to, but they don't have to.

Obscure Nerd Note: This time around, I caught a pun in the episode's title. In Latin, "Ecce Homo" is "Behold the Man," and "Behold Eck" seems to be playing with that. Also, the title can be read either as a command to the viewer to behold Eck, or as a command to Eck to see more clearly. As my sister commented, "Somebody had fun with that one!" And yes, Eck can probably be read as a Christ figure, since his going back home will save the world.

The story as it currently exists won't bear quite that much weight, though.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Lotsa Good Stuff


One Year Blogaversary

I began blogging one year ago today, and I have to say that it's been one of my more fulfilling hobbies. I've really enjoyed both writing my blog and reading other people's (although I don't have enough time to do nearly as much of the latter as I'd like), and it's taken me in directions I couldn't have expected: into the world of medical blogging, for instance.

I want to thank everyone who reads this blog, especially those of you who leave comments or e-mail me in response to a post. You make my days brighter!

Grand Rounds

Speaking of which, this week's Grand Rounds is up over at A Chronic Dose, and I'm delighted to have made the "front page." Thanks, Laurie!

Life's Little Ironies

Yesterday morning, the Great Chaplaincy Debate surfaced yet again, in the form of the first comment left on this post. That writer's position is that while volunteers do valuable work, we must never, ever call ourselves "chaplains," because we don't have the proper credentials. I explained that my hospital name badge says "volunteer chaplain," and that the professional, board-certified chaplains on staff at my hospital refer to volunteers as chaplains, although the nomenclature varies at other facilities. (I don't care if you call me chopped liver. Just let me do the work!)

Yesterday afternoon, I got e-mail from a palliative-care doctor back East who'd read this post, and liked it a lot. His hospital had recently lost its chaplain. Was I interested in relocating?

After I'd finished giggling at the juxtaposition, I e-mailed the good doctor and thanked him very much, but explained that I really wasn't qualified for the position, and that I'm not eager to leave Reno. (Not to go back East, anyway. If there were a job in San Francisco, I'd think about it!)

More Kudos for Shelter

Jo Walton has posted her blazingly positive review on her LiveJournal. This and the Orbe-Smith review I posted about yesterday have made my week! Thanks, guys!

In other news, the family visit is going very nicely. I'll post photos soon. And my father's coming out to visit in August! Yay!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Glowing Shelter Review


Jeremy Jose Orbe-Smith has written an extraordinarily positive review of Shelter. I won't reproduce the whole thing here, because it's long, but here are some of my favorite bits:
In Shelter, Palwick has crafted an epic masterwork. She notes that the book took more than a decade to plan and write, and it's obvious in the sheer complexity and richness of thought present throughout the entire thing.

[...]

Murder mystery? Legal thriller? Sci-fi extrapolation? Horror? Family drama?

Does it even matter what we call this kind of story? Palwick is a genre unto herself, and proves all the old classifications useless. Read this book.
The body of the review contains some very smart analysis of the novel's complexities. He makes it sounds as if I was being a deep writer, instead of thrashing around in a panic through a waist-high manuscript. (You know that look cats give you when they've performed some remarkable feat of gymnastics while falling off the top of the TV? "I meant to do that! I meant to do that!")

Orbe-Smith doesn't think the book's perfect -- neither do I, heaven knows! -- but "epic masterwork" will do. I'll take it. Thank you, sir!

Also, he singled out for praise one of my personal favorite sections of the book, when Meredith's an initiate in the Gaia Temple. This is one of the chunks other reviewers felt could have been cut, and perhaps I indeed should have followed Faulkner's dictum that writers have to "kill their darlings," but I still love that part of the story, so I'm glad Orbe-Smith did too.

This morning I got e-mail from Jo Walton, who also said extremely nice things about Shelter. And since her Farthing is one of my favorite books of all time, that means a lot to me.

If you haven't read Farthing yet, go read it. It will blow you away, I promise.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Making Meaning


A few weeks ago, a patient at the hospital started quizzing me about my credentials. "You're a volunteer chaplain? So you're a minister?" I explained that I was a lay minister, not ordained clergy. The patient looked baffled. "So you don't do this all the time?"

"No, I do it four hours a week. My day job is being an English professor."

The patient raised his eyebrows, and then squinted. "How completely bizarre!"

"Why is that bizarre?"

"Those two things have nothing to do with each other!"

The patient's doctor came in at that point, so I didn't have a chance to tell him that actually, the two things have a lot to do with each other. At the university, my bread-and-butter course is a fiction workshop where I encourage students to tell stories and (with luck) give them pointers on telling those stories more effectively. Often this involves helping them decipher what the stories actually mean, either to them or to the reader: identifying patterns, motifs, recurring metaphors.

At the hospital, I encourage patients to tell me their stories, and in the telling, the patient often gains new insights into what those stories mean. Sometimes the meaning of the stories has changed in the new environment of the hospital; sometimes the patient is casting about for a new story, a new way of explaining his or her life in the face of crisis.

But helping other people make meaning is my task in both places. The main differences are that the stories at the hospital are oral, rather than written, and that -- hallelujah! -- I don't have to grade them. And if my title at the hospital is "volunteer chaplain" rather than "volunteer story coach," that's because story-telling is a deeply spiritual act. Stories connect us with our pasts, with our hopes and fears for the future, and with the people we love. Stories are the threads we use to bind ourselves to what's bigger than we are, so that the bigger thing -- whatever we choose to call it -- can help carry us when we can't carry ourselves.

Many months ago, a suicidal patient was brought in by ambulance, in the fetal position. He hadn't eaten for several weeks. He'd been holed up in an SRO, planning to die, but then something moved him to call 911 instead.

Speaking listlessly into his pillow, he told me a long, sad story: struggles with alcohol, no friends or family or job, almost total despair.

"Is there anything that makes you happy?" I asked him.

"Like what?"

"Well, sometimes people who don't have anything else cling to music" -- he shook his head slightly -- "or to art" -- another shake of the head -- "or to a place they love."

He blinked. "A place? Well, there was this lake I used to visit." As he told me about his beloved lake in the mountains, describing fish and birds and trees, his voice grew stronger and more animated. The man who'd been in the fetal position uncurled, sat up, and started using his hands to imitate the movements of the birds as he mimicked their calls. "So my favorite birds, they'd skim along the surface of the water and then they'd dive down for food, but they always dove at the same time. They were perfectly synchronized. It was amazing. I loved watching those birds."

"Would you like to see that lake again?"

"Oh, yes!"

"Then that's a reason to stay alive, right?"

He grew quieter again as he pondered this, but then admitted that yes, it might be.

I ventured to use a metaphor with him; I still don't know if it was the right thing to say. "And, you know, those birds you love had to dive down under the water to feed themselves. They had to dive deep. Sometimes when life is hard, we have to do that too. It may look like there's nothing on the surface to keep us alive, but if we dive down, we'll find food."

"I'll think about that," he told me, although now he sounded more polite than enthusiastic. But at least he was still sitting up.

During that visit, I used skills I've learned in my work as an English professor: identifying the most important element in the story, helping the author identify it too, linking it to desire, which is one of the engines of narrative.

The stories I hear at the hospital are often disorganized and almost always fragmentary; they don't offer the pleasure of the perfect prose passages my students sometimes achieve, especially in revision. But I rarely get to see my students come back to life before my eyes, or wrest significance out of crisis.

I wouldn't give up either arena for the world.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Another Shelter Review


Jeff Vandermeer wrote a nice review of Shelter for the Washington Post. He basically likes the book; his main points -- which seem to be the consensus among people who (unlike the Publishers Weekly reviewer) understood what I was trying to do, are that characterization's my strong suit (I agree), but that the book's too long (I also agree), and that the ending doesn't work because it's too happy. One blogger called it a "fluffy bunny" ending; Vandermeer calls it a "rare failure of nerve."

This part I don't agree with. Criminy: I've been torturing my poor characters for 576 pages! Don't they deserve a little happiness, for a change? And in both Shelter and The Necessary Beggar (to which many readers have had a similar reaction), the happy ending's highly qualified, anyway. The characters are forever scarred by what they've been through; their lives will never be the same, and they can't go home again.

I suspect, though, that the problem's less with the happy ending than with the way it occurs in each book, with things being tied together too neatly and quickly. Vandermeer says the ending's too "compact," after an overly long novel: it's a proportion problem. The sudden, improbable turn for the better -- what mythopoeic types would call a "eucatastrophe" -- rings false to many contemporary readers. (In my experience, that's how many actual real-world happy endings happen, but as I'm constantly reminding my students, life isn't art.)

Oddly enough -- or not -- the new piece I wrote for Mythcon is about exactly this problem, among others: how does one reach a happy ending out of tragedy?

It occurs to me that this is also an issue of literary expectation: if a book has begun as tragedy, readers expect it to stay there, not to turn into comedy at the last minute. (Note that I mean "comedy" here in the technical sense of ending happily -- classically with marriage, rather than tragedy's death -- and not in the contemporary sense of slapstick ha-ha.) In life, we welcome eucatastrophe with exclamations of joy, but in fiction -- or in mine, anyhow -- it too often feels like a violation of genre.

Anyway, I wrote Shelter partly in response to the very accurate charge that the villain in my first novel, Flying in Place, was too cardboard. Nobody's calling Meredith cardboard (although some find her annoying), so I guess I resolved that issue.

My next challenge will be to write a book with a happy ending that doesn't make my readers feel cheated or unsatisfied.

I refuse to give up on happy -- or happier -- endings entirely, however.

I'll keep writing about Rickety Contrivances of Doing Good. And I'll make you like them.

Bwah hah hah!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Harley the Hilarious


Well, Mom and Liz's flight wasn't delayed. A few minutes after FlightTracker reported that their connecting flight had finally landed in Salt Lake City, Liz called and said, "We're at baggage claim. Where are you?"

"Baggage claim in Reno?"

Oy! Luckily, the airport's only half an hour away (faster if you take freeways, which I never do in town because people drive like maniacs), and they were waiting at curbside when I got there. But I'll never trust FlightTracker again!

They were pretty wiggy with jet lag, combined with lack of sleep the night before, but we had a nice first day anyway. Liz and I found all sorts of fun craft supplies at the dollar store; she wants to decorate masks while they're here. She and my mother greatly admired the cats and Gary's cooking.

And here, for everyone's delight and delectation, are some recent photos of Harley in funny positions. Click to enlarge.

"I know just what jet lag feels like," says Harley. "It leaves me feeling flattened!"








"Jet lag makes me so tired that I can't even lift my legs!"

"But once I've had some sleep, watch out, because then I become Superkitty! Faster than a speeding red laser dot! More energetic than a wind-up mouse! Watch out: here I come!"

Paws in Power Position!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Eight Random Factoids


My mother's and sister's connecting flight is delayed by several hours, so I have time to write a post (and maybe, afterwards, to answer some e-mail?).

A week ago, my friend Ken Houghton, evidently writing as a guest on a friend's blog, tagged me in this post to list eight random things that blog readers might not already know about me. Here goes:

1. I love Victorian novels, but can't stand most eighteenth-century ones. I have a prose allergy to the eighteenth century. Come to think of it, I'm not too crazy about eighteenth-century poetry, either. This is all pure personal taste, no more explicable than why I prefer the color red to the color pink.

2. My favorite colors are red and green, but not together.

3. I'm allergic to penicillin. We discovered this when I was a kid and broke out in hives after a dose of the stuff. To relieve the itching, my mother put me in a bathtub full of medicated oatmeal. I recently told this story to a little boy with hives at the hospital, who was fascinated by the oatmeal. His mother asked me, "How did your mother get all that oatmeal out of the tub?" and I realized that I had no idea. I'll have to ask her!

4. I've never been stung by a bee, wasp, or hornet, although I had entirely too close an encounter with a Man of War jellyfish in Puerto Rico when I was a kid. I tried to pick it up from underneath, and wound up with tentacles wrapped around my fingers and thumb. I was howling from the pain, of course. My father used sand and palm leaves to scrape off the tentacles -- he'd have gotten stung too, if he'd touched them -- and then poured two cans of beer over my hand to disinfect it. Within an hour, I was back to playing in the tidal pools, although my hand was swollen for a few days. I was very wary of jellyfish after that!

5. I have a birthmark on my neck at the base of my skull, although it's only visible when my hair's cut really short.

6. I've traveled to Canada, but never to Mexico; to the British Isles, but never to continental Europe. I hope to remedy these oversights before I die.

7. The first adult science-fiction novel I ever read, probably at age nine or ten, was a dreadful thing by Edmond Hamilton called The Star of Life, which I discovered while browsing through my father and stepmother's bookshelves. (I woke up earlier than they did on weekends, and often spent those quiet hours searching through the bookshelves for anything interesting: in later years, I acquired a lot of delicious and very misleading information about sex from various of their novels.) I didn't think the Hamilton novel was dreadful at the time. I was hooked.

8. I love avocado, shrimp, salmon, dark chocolate, and good coffee (not together!). I dislike broccoli, cauliflower, clams and oysters, and coconut.

There you go, Ken. Thanks for tagging me!

And I hereby tag anyone who's reading this, hasn't yet done this meme, and wants to be tagged.

You're it!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Scattered Updates, With Smoke


Gary and I are frantically prepping for my mother and sister's arrival tomorrow. Actually, he's methodically prepping, as he's been doing all week: I'm the frantic one, and I'm doing a pretty shoddy job on my small bits, but I trust my mother will forgive me. "Good enough" has to be good enough right now. (This is why Gary's the main housecleaning force around here: he actually does a thorough job.)

The fire's still going strong, about 2,500 acres and 5% contained, the last I heard, thanks to high winds. All kinds of super-duper firefighting forces are converging on Reno, and I wish them much luck. Where we are, most of the air looks clear, but it smells like smoke outside, and sometimes inside, too. Our house is okay, but the indoor pool at my gym smelled so smoky today that I got out of the water after fifteen minutes (but I worked out for an hour yesterday, so I don't feel too bad about it).

I spent all day at work today, and good things are happening: I'm making progress on my fall freshman-comp reading list! I'm getting a new computer on Friday! (I'm one of the last people in the department with an old CRT monitor, and it will be great to be rid of that thing.) I've been invited to give a small talk on narrative medicine to med students in the spring! Two colleagues were impressed with my new loveseat!

I also have new pictures of Harley, an interesting online-nostalgia trip to report, and a meme tag to respond to . . . and I'll get around to all of that eventually. At least, I think I will.

But at the moment, I really, really have to get back to dusting.

If I owe you e-mail, please be patient!

And if I don't blog every day for the next week or so, it will be because of the family visit.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Code Red Redux


This week's Grand Rounds is up. I'm pleased that it includes my "Code Red" post. Thanks, Vitum!

Meanwhile, we have a genuine Code Red here in Reno, thanks to a 1,200-acre fire, only 15% contained, that started yesterday in a residential area five miles from my house and has now spread into Federal timberland. We also just had a fire north of here, on the California border, and eastward, in Elko County, there's yet another fire, this one huge.

And it's early in the fire season.

The air's full of smoke. We can smell it even inside the house, with windows closed and AC on. The elderly, children, and people with respiratory problems are being advised to stay inside. Since my mother and sister arrive on Thursday, and since my mom has emphysema, I hope this clears up soon!

Gary and I made a Trader Joe's run last night; the store's south of here, and driving back, we could watch the flames running along the ridgelines in the Caughlin Ranch area. A friend of mine lives in that neighborhood; she wasn't evacuated (and people who were got to go back home last night), but there were a lot of spotter planes buzzing around her house.

Last night, we saw planes and a copter hauling a bucket of water, which looked like a thimble in all the glowing red smoke.

Scary stuff. Please pray for all firefighters, and for everyone affected by fire.

All photo credits: Reno Gazette-Journal

Monday, July 16, 2007

Women! Love Books? Help Hospital!


My friend Marin at the medical school forwarded me this call for submissions, which I'm posting as a public service. Please pass the info on to anyone who might be interested.

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Fair's Fair Books ("For Book Lovers") Inc., Calgary, Alberta, invites submissions in English (or French with an English translation included) for a forthcoming online site project under the rubric of "Women Who Love to Read Project."

Submissions may be forwarded by e-mail to ytrainer@telusplanet.net with the Subject Heading "Women Who Love to Read." We ask that submissions be 500-700 words in length. We will accept submissions from July 10th, 2007-Dec. 2007.

100 of the online site entries will then be chosen for a hardcopy anthology titled "Women Who Love to Read." The honorarium will be in the form of copies of the anthology, and a portion of the sales from the Anthology will be donated to the pain centers at the Foothills Hospital and University of Alberta Pain Center for the purchase of books for patients. The copyright remains with the author. Slight substantive editing may be necessary for purposes of formatting and consistency.

You may wish to consider the following: (These are merely suggestions.)

What do you remember about your first reading experiences?

What did you read as a child?

Who read to you?

How has that reading affected, changed, influenced your later life?

Where did you read?

What were your favorite childhood and teenage books?

What are you reading now?

Contact:

Yvonne Trainer, B.A.; M.A., PhD (English) Info: ytrainer@telusplanet.net
Literary Arts Coordinator "Fair's Fair Books," Calgary, Alberta
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Humanities, Ambrose University College, Calgary, AB

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Least Likely Suspect


Here's this morning's homily. I found this image of the Good Samaritan, a piece called "The One Who Showed Mercy" by Christopher Koelle, at 12 Stone Art, an online Christian art gallery. You can see earlier versions of this piece here, and can read the artist's statement here.

The Gospel is Luke 10:25-37.

Longtime blog readers will recognize the man I call "Walter" in this homily as my friend A. I'm not sure why I don't feel comfortable using his real name, especially since anyone who already knows him will recognize him from this description. I guess it's a habit ingrained from the hospital, and reinforced by the fact that I haven't asked his permission to talk about him, and want to protect his privacy (a precious commodity indeed for people who live on the street).

*

Many of you have heard the story of my trip home from Diocesan Convention in Ely several years ago. I stopped for lunch in Eureka, only to discover that I’d locked my keys inside my car. I called AAA, who said it would take them three hours to get there, but that I should stay with my car, because if they arrived and didn’t find me, they’d leave again.

I was parked on the main street. My car sports bumper stickers that say CHRISTIAN, NOT CLOSED-MINDED and FEMINISM IS THE RADICAL NOTION THAT WOMEN ARE PEOPLE. I also have a planet-Earth decal. My car was in front of a shop. The shop window displayed a t-shirt bearing the word WRANGLERS. According to the shirt, WRANGLERS is an acronym for “Western Ranchers Against No-Good Liberal Environmental Radical So-and-Sos,” although “so and sos” was actually another s-word, one I can’t use in church.

The good people of Eureka were, shall we say, somewhat less than welcoming. A policeman came by, looked at my bumper stickers, and then, smiling, offered to get me back into my car by smashing one of my windows. I told him I’d wait for AAA. Small children trooped by on the sidewalk, pointing at me and my car and laughing. I was apparently the most entertaining thing that had happened in Eureka in months. I began to wonder if the lead headline in the newspaper the next day would be, “Dumb Liberal Locks Herself Out of Car.”

Next to the t-shirt shop was a small, decaying wooden building -- a shack, really -- with dusty plastic flowers in the window. When I’d been sitting next to my car for perhaps an hour, the door of this structure creaked open. The man who emerged, approximately eight feet tall and half that wide, sported a leather vest, a vast assortment of ominous tattoos -- think skulls and swastikas -- and a bad case of meth mouth. In other situations, I might well have crossed the street to avoid him. To my alarm, he lumbered up to me, but my fear was unfounded. “Honey,” he said, “I’m a four-time convicted felon, and I’m sure I can help you get into that car.”

He couldn’t, but he called a locksmith he knew, who unfortunately didn’t have the right key mold for my Ford Escort. My new friend apologized for not being able to help me, and then said, “But listen, if you need water or a phone or just to get out of the sun, knock on my door.”

Who was my neighbor that afternoon? Not the policeman, not the cute children, but the least likely suspect: the convicted felon, as despised by many people in our own day as Samaritans were in Jesus’ time. In first-century Judea, Samaritans were considered unclean, contemptible, the lowest of the low. But in the parable we just heard, the Samaritan is the person who doesn’t cross the street to avoid trouble, as the respectable priest and Levite do. Instead, he approaches the half-dead crime victim, going out of his way to offer help and hospitality.

I suspect this is no coincidence. People who’ve been despised know what it feels like to watch people cross the street to avoid them. They know what it feels like to need help and not receive it, because other people are afraid of them. They know what it feels like to be laughed at, to be threatened by public servants who should be assisting them, to be ignored. And so when they see someone else in this position, it’s easy for them to ask, “What would I need if I were in that situation? How would God have me help this person? How can I love this person as much as I love God and myself?” In New York, where I used to live, it was axiomatic that in any given subway car, the people most likely to give spare change to panhandlers were the ones who looked the least wealthy themselves.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that we love God both when we offer help to our fellow humans and when we allow ourselves to receive help, even from the least likely suspects. It tells us that if we try to justify ourselves by defining any given group of people as beneath our notice or concern, as not-neighbors, we have put our own eternal lives in peril. It tells us that when we try to avoid these people, keep them at arm’s length, or marginalize them, we are breaking God’s law: we are not loving our neighbors as ourselves. Would we feel loved if someone crossed the street to avoid us after we’d been robbed and left for dead?

If we haven’t had such experiences ourselves, following God’s law requires empathy and imagination, the willingness to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. And because this parable is about how we live in community with other people, it is as inescapably political now as it was two thousand years ago. In first-century Judea, it asked its audience to put themselves in the shoes of such despised groups as Samaritans, lepers, and women. In our own day, here in the United States, it asks us to put ourselves in the shoes of such despised groups as inmates, illegal aliens, and the homeless. Can we imagine ourselves in those shoes? What would we need if we were in prison, crossing the border, living on the streets? How could others help us? What would make us feel loved?

There are many answers to these questions, and thoughtful people from every position on the political spectrum have come up with a variety of solutions. But for those solutions to remain faithful to God, we must first and foremost be willing to befriend and advocate for strangers in ditches, even when we incur a price for doing so. The Good Samaritan refused to abandon the crime victim, even when his care became expensive and time-consuming. As Christians, we follow Jesus, whose refusal to abandon his ministry led him to the most costly sacrifice of all.

In the summer, I often spend a week or two in Berkeley, taking a course at the Pacific School of Religion. Over the years, I’ve become friends with a homeless man -- I’ll call him Walter, although that’s not his name -- who’s staked out a corner near Holy Hill. He’s a science fiction fan, and we share several of the same favorite authors. I’ve given him books. He’s given me books. I’ve bought him meals, and he’s graciously invited me to share them. He sweeps the sidewalk in front of the stores on that block to earn a bit of money, and sells used books for the same reason. Everyone knows him: storekeepers, local residents, students from the many seminaries in the area. He’s part of the neighborhood. Merchants give him food. Students give him books to sell, or buy his books, sometimes for much more than their cover price. “I’ve been looking all over for this one, Walt, so I’ll give you twenty dollars for it!” On a recent day trip to Berkeley, I took my husband to Holy Hill specifically so he could meet Walter, about whom he’s heard many stories. I gave Walter a signed copy of one of my own books, and some money; he gave me a blue glass heart he’d found in someone’s trash.

My editor in San Francisco recently got married, and Gary and I went to the wedding. One of the other guests was a man named Tom who runs a science-fiction bookstore in Berkeley. I’ve bought books there for Walter. Tom told me that the Berkeley City Council is trying to pass a measure that will fine shopkeepers for keeping “illegal campsites” if homeless people sleep in front of their stores. They’re trying to enlist business owners in clearing the dangerous and undesirable from Berkeley neighborhoods.

Tom, furious, wrote a letter to the City Council telling them that the homeless people in his area don’t cause crime. They prevent it. They know who belongs on the block and who doesn’t, and they’ve stopped thieves trying to break into his store. They’re Good Samaritans. Tom has been a good neighbor to them in turn, and now the city wants to fine him for his kindness. His bookstore is already struggling. If the measure passes, he won’t be able to pay the fines. He’ll have to choose between evicting his neighbors or losing his business. Like Jesus in the garden, praying for God’s cup to pass from him, Tom prays that the measure won’t pass.

I worry for Tom. And of course I worry for Walter, up on Holy Hill, and for the many business owners who’ve come to consider him a friend and neighbor. I can only hope that they’ve also spoken out against the measure, that they’ve written letters to the City Council on behalf of the man who faithfully sweeps the sidewalk every day. And I hope and pray that the many divinity students who’ve befriended Walter see Christ in him, as I do, and that in whatever action they decide to take, they’re guided by the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Amen.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Code Red


Eager to experience the thrill of emergency medicine in the comfort of your own home? Try this nifty computer game, described thusly by its manufacturers:
You Are An Overworked and Underpaid ER Resident!

Interact with 35 patients and a top-notch ER staff. Uncover the triumph and tragedies in your patients' lives. Code Red will draw you in emotionally and keep you on the edge of your seat. It's the perfect game for anyone, with or without medical training, who wants to experience what it's really like to be an ER doctor. It's real life, heart pumping drama, and you're always at the center of the action.

You play an overworked and underpaid ER resident in a large public hospital. The city is up in arms after the recent death of a woman who was left untreated for 12 hours in your emergency room. Despite the scandal your job must go on, even in the midst of chaos. Every decision is critical. If another patient is lost, the next big headline might be about you!
I suspect that real ER docs -- and nurses -- would shudder at this scenario, rather than seeing it as a pleasant evening's recreation. The game was published in 2001, but that bit about the woman dying for lack of treatment sounds eerily like the recent ER scandal in LA.

However, I too can attest to the heart-pounding excitement of a Code Red, because we had one at my hospital this past week. Only in our case, "Code Red" doesn't mean "the city's erupted in riots and your ER's getting swamped." We have another code for situations like that, which I pray I never hear. Where I am, Code Red means "fire," which is quite bad enough.

Luckily, this fire (if it really was a fire and not a false alarm; I never found out) was in a non-patient-care area on an upper floor of the hospital. The ER's on the ground floor. I was talking to a patient when sirens and lights started going off in the hall. I rushed out to see what was going on, and heard the Code Red over the intercom. Medical staff were closing all the doors to patient rooms, and I helped them. After that, though, we kept about our normal business, if you can call it "normal" with klaxons and flashing lights going off every two seconds.

The noise was ear-splitting; the lights were migraine material, and maybe seizure too. Remember that scene in The Andromeda Strain where the super-secret biocontainment facility thinks the infected animals have escaped, and all kinds of lights and sirens are flashing and whooping, and the epileptic lady scientist falls down in a seizure, and everybody runs away from her, because they think she's infected? I kept expecting something like that to happen.

Instead, during the twenty minutes this lasted, the staff became increasingly tense and more and more wild-eyed. The patients, ironically, were calmer than we were, because the noise was much less severe inside their rooms. But out in the hallways, you could practically see people's heads exploding. I think the staff would have preferred a Code Red of the citywide-riot variety.

At one point, I asked an EMT, "Okay, so what would happen if there were a fire in the ER?"

He snorted. "We'd go up in a fireball from all the oxygen down here."

How reassuring. "But what if it was less serious than that? I mean, where would you move the patients?"

He shrugged. "Hey, I'd run for the hills. I don't know what the plan is for patient evacuation. There's a plan someplace, though."

More reassurance!

Finally the dentist-drill noise and disco-light action stopped, and everyone took a deep breath and relaxed. And into the blessed silence came the sound of an ambulance call over the radio.

Because I like advance warning if we might be getting a Code Blue, I usually listen to radio calls if I'm in the vicinity. This time, the paramedic said, "The patient's chief complaint is that she's just not feeling like herself."

The nurse who was taking the radio call looked at me, and we both started laughing. Not feeling like herself? We weren't feeling like ourselves, either.

I'll take the computer game, thanks.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Carnival of Hope: Volume 1, Number 11


Welcome to the July Carnival of Hope! I'm late posting this month's edition because my husband and I were at a wonderful concert last night, and because we spent today organizing and decorating my new office at work. It's a great space, much more comofortable than my old digs -- thanks largely to the fact that I splurged on a loveseat -- and I'm really looking forward to spending time there. Today was an object lesson that something as simple as reorganizing our work space can give us new hope and energy.

Before we move on to this month's posts, here's the information about the August CoH: The carnival will be posted on Friday, August 10. The deadline for submissions is 5 PM PDT on Thursday, August 9. You can either use the BlogCarnival submission form or e-mail me directly at SusanPal at aol dot com.

Many of our posts this month celebrate the power of community. Marc and Angel pass on a friend's story of his favorite job ever: being a garbageman. "It’s not that I love the idea of being a garbage man, or even that I enjoyed picking up smelly bags of trash. I enjoyed the job because I loved hanging out with the guys I worked with."

In hard times, such as after the death of a loved one, community is especially important. Meredith Mathews shares her hope for healing after a profound loss, movingly describing the community of mourners for her Aunt Karen.

After telling us about Grieving at Christmas for her mother and her mom's holiday cookies, Susie gives us an affirming -- and delicious! -- epilog, thanks to caring neighbors.

For several months now, we've been following Esther Garvi's ups and downs as she deals with her own beloved mother's cancer. In The art of walking on water, she shares a wonderful message her mother received, followed by the gift of family.

Fathers count too, as Leticia Velasquez reminds us! "Special needs children often have outspoken mothers, but let's give credit to the behind the scenes work of their dads."

Relatives aren't the only people who help those living with physical challenges. Roger Carr tells us about volunteers Fighting Arthritis in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Karen Bastille, who has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, celebrates a similar community when she delights in the network of COPD patients -- and shares a great song -- in One More Day.

Music also features prominently in Tupelo Kenyon's Gratitude for Home and Family. Tupelo and his wife Janey are musicians who travel a great deal; since they've lived in several vehicles and now spend a good bit of the year in a motorhome, they have a variety of homes to appreciate!

Continuing with our musical theme, my friend Lee shares the excitement of picking up the guitar again in How to Resurrect an Old Skill.

Elsewhere in the arts, we have Summer Dreams, Tim Abbott's lyrical celebration of summer, complete with images from some of my favorite painters. I have a framed N.C. Wyeth poster in my office at work, and another as the desktop on my work computer, so I found this post a visual treat!

From Chloe Tam, here's a wonderful story about how two people were led, as if by coincidence, to help a stray cat.

Chloe and her husband will probably be pondering that incident for a long time. Sometimes, though, we forget our own acts of kindness, until those we've helped remind us. Samir gives us a lovely story about a good deed rewarded.

When something awful is happening right in front of us, it's often easy to act. But what about suffering thousands of miles away? Charles Modiano shares the awakening of his activism against genocide in Darfur, and gives us some ways we too can make a difference, in "The Devil" Brings Death in Darfur... and to Indifference. Please be aware that this post opens with a graphic and disturbing photograph.

If trying to create change in Darfur seems overwhelming, how about doing it at home? How would you like to try to revolutionize retail culture and American consumerism? Charles tells us how Stephon Marbury and Sarah Jessica Parker are doing just that, bringing hope to many parents and kids.

Financial issues merge with familial ones in Aspeth's Whatever Happened to Frugality? "Lessons from a Depression-era grandfather resonate with me nearly every day. I'm indescribably grateful for the time spent with him, and when I find myself implementing something he taught me, I feel a connection that I don't think will ever be replicated."

And, finally, Chris614 tells a wonderful story of hope and renewal in 12 Months of Change. Congratulations on making so much progress, Chris!

Next month will be Carnival of Hope's twelfth edition, in which we too can ponder twelve months of change. May everyone reading this have a happy and hope-filled month!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Go, Volunteer Chaplains!


Today I learned that a) the police indeed succeeded in talking the jumper off the ledge and b) he wound up at my hospital. The woman who volunteers as a chaplain on Wednesday evenings is also a therapist, and she's terrific, so I was hoping that she'd been there -- with summer vacation schedules, one can never be sure -- and had talked to him.

During my shift this afternoon, I saw a couple of my favorite security guards, and they told me that yes, she'd been there, and had talked to him twice.

I was really happy to hear that, and wrote her a note to tell her so; she puts in a whopping eight volunteer hours a week, and is working tonight in another part of the hospital. I'm sure that talking to her helped him.

And speaking of volunteer hours, I've now passed the 500-hour mark: 500.5, to be precise. It's only taken me almost three years! I'm slow, but I'm steady.

It was a satisfying shift, too: busy, but not too busy, with gratifying and varied visits. A couple of times, I ran upstairs to look for one of the staff chaplains -- once because a family had specifically asked for her, and once because I was trying to hunt down a Spanish bible -- and at the end of the shift, she said, "You did good work today."

I know there are people who say one shouldn't perform this kind of service for strokes, but hey: chaplains are human too, and it's nice to feel appreciated, especially by the professionals.

And I'm going on Day 3 without a nap. Gosh. We'll see if I remain awake during the concert we're attending tonight.

My loveseat's being delivered between 8:45 and 10:45 tomorrow, which means I have to be on campus very early. So if I manage to remain awake for the concert, we'll see if I manage to wake up in time for the furniture delivery, especially since I got only six hours of sleep last night.

Carnival of Hope will indeed be posted tomorrow, but probably not until the afternoon or evening. Have to get that loveseat installed first!

Bits o' News


Here's an interview I did with SciFi Wire about the Mythopoeic nomination.

I don't see anything in today's paper about a suicide, so I'm hoping the police succeeded in talking that guy down from the roof of the parking garage. I'll find out when I go to the gym today.

Which I'll have time to do, before going to the hospital, because I woke up at 5:00 . . . which is reassuring after yesterday's snoozefest, although since I went to bed at 11:00, I got only six hours of sleep, which may be going too far in the other direction. Well, ten hours followed by six hours averages to eight hours, right?

With a swim followed by the hospital followed by an evening concert, today will be an excellent test of those B vitamins. Oh, yeah, and I need to put Carnival of Hope together at some point, too.

Do your stuff, B vitamins.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Mixed Day, With Clouds


It's been an unsettled day. We've been having grey weather here -- unusual for Nevada, although it hasn't brought the rain to this area that we need -- and I woke up feeling very gloomy.

Things improved, though, when I managed to finish the first draft of a new piece I'm working on to read at Mythcon. One of the problems with WisCon, much as I love it, is that so many people there want to do readings that everyone (except Guests of Honor) winds up shoehorned into sessions with two or three other people -- which means that one gets, at most, twenty minutes to read. The bookstore owners of my acquaintance all maintain that twenty minutes is now the length of the average adult attention span, but it's hard to read much of anything in that amount of time. Given my druthers (as at last night's Sundance reading, which was great fun), I always read for a longer time, and no one's become comatose yet.

So when Mythcon chair David Bratman offered me an entire hour to myself, I was overjoyed (not that I plan to read the whole time, mind you!). At Jacob and Rina's wedding, Bernie Goodman had suggested that I start something new to try to break my writer's block on November. Those two events have resulted in a new piece . . . although I'm not quite sure what to call it. It's meta-fantasy, sort of, although it's also a memoir. It's an essay about writing: let's leave it at that. The thing's experimental enough that I was very worried about whether it works, but Gary likes it. So now I'm happy. And it's about 5,000 words, which should take -- I think -- about forty minutes to read? I'll time it once I've revised it.

And maybe somebody at Mythcon can suggest a market for this oddity.

So, anyway, getting some writing done was good, and getting a thumbs-up from Gary was even better.

Then we went to campus and finished unpacking the thirty boxes of books. The room's slowly starting to look like an actual office; I think it will be very nice once we get the new loveseat (which was on clearance at Macy's) in there and hang pictures. The loveseat's supposed to be delivered on Friday, but I couldn't get an answer at Macy's contracted delivery service all day . . . and they didn't call back when I left a message. I'll keep hounding them tomorrow.

We drove home via a strip mall where Gary got his hair cut, where I got some stuffed animals at the dollar store for kids at the hospital, and where we picked up a few groceries. Then I headed out again to mail my father's birthday package and to go to the health club.

On my way to the post office, the song on the radio was interrupted by no fewer than three ominous National Weather Service alerts. None were for Reno proper -- the closest was for Fallon, ninety miles away -- but they were warnings of the "very dangerous thunderstorms: go inside and stay away from windows" variety. I've never even heard one of those here, let alone three (although, granted, I usually only listen to the radio when I'm in the car).

Driving to my health club, I took a shortcut through a supermarket parking lot, and saw a coyote in a strip of bushes between the store and the house next door! Even though I've lived in Reno ten years, and even though coyotes are very common here, this is the first time I've ever seen one in Nevada outside a zoo. (My sister and I saw one at the Grand Canyon several years ago.) So that was a thrill. I think they're beautiful animals -- despite the fact that our cat who disappeared in 1999 probably became a coyote's dinner -- and this was a particularly fine specimen.

My workout was a little wimpy; I only lasted half an hour on the elliptical and did my remaining ten minutes on the rowing machine, but at least I burned my target 250 calories. As I was leaving the club, somebody at the front desk said, "Don't cross the driveway, please; go under the overhang."

"Oh," I said, "did it finally start raining?" No one answered.

When I got outside, I saw a small group of security guards looking up at the top of the parking garage, and I heard someone say something about a jumper. Then one of the guards saw me and said, "Go under the overhang, please."

I looked up where they'd been looking, and saw a man sitting on the top of the parking garage with his feet hanging over the edge, looking down. "Has he said anything?" I asked them.

"Reno PD's up there," one of the guards told me. "Go under the overhang, please."

They'd been directing people that way since I'd left the club, but they weren't volunteering the information that someone was threatening to jump, and nobody else seemed to notice what was happening. One older man asked if there was a problem; a guard said, "This is a hardhat area," but didn't say why. The older man and I both took the stairs in the parking garage, and he was making small talk about the weather and such. He obviously had no clue what was unfolding above us. As I left the garage, a police car passed me, lights on but sirens silent. It was all very eerie.

The whole way home, I prayed for the man on top of the garage (and also, I have to confess, for the coyote, whom I hope won't encounter any hostility). I'll have to wait for tomorrow's paper to learn what happened, and of course I may not know even then.

I hope they'll both be okay, and that everyone in the path of those storms will be, too.

On a slightly less somber note, today's the second day in a row that I've gotten through without a nap (although I did sleep an appalling ten hours last night). Maybe the B vitamins are working?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Maybe There's Something to this Black Cat Business After All


Bali and Figaro both have excellent computer and video skills; Figaro once changed the language on a movie Gary was watching from English to French by sitting on the remote, and Bali's been known to delete entire folders while walking across a keyboard.

So today little black kitty was in my office, and I was patting him and playing with him, and when I turned back to my computer, I found myself blinking at a Google list of sites about Satanism and the Devil.

Bali had typed "666" into the AOL search window.

As Gary said -- when he'd finished laughing long enough to catch his breath -- "We've obviously stumbled into the beginning of a horror movie."

Matters Medical


This week's Grand Rounds is up; thanks for including me, Tara!

Elsewhere on the medical front, Gary had a routine checkup with our primary-care doc yesterday, and I went back with him to ask about my stress-echo results. I know this was obnoxious, but our doctor was very nice about it. (I offered to pay my own co-pay, and she said, "No, no, that's all right.")

Her take on what happened was, basically, "The cardiologist who read your test is excellent, and if he says it was a false positive, it was a false positive."

"But this EKG was worse than the one three years ago, wasn't it? Can you compare the two?"

So she obligingly did. "I'm not sure it's worse."

"But last time the ST depression was one millimeter; this time, the PA told me it was two or three millimeters. Isn't that worse?"

"I'm not sure it's worse, and if it is worse, that's probably because of the nortriptylene." (The reason we added Effexor rather than upping the dose of the nortrip was because I'd had a few short episodes of tachycardia.)

"So you don't think we should do a thallium test? The PA said that provides better pictures than the stress echo."

"No. The stress echo is the best test for women; it's better than the thallium test."

I've spent the past week reading about coronary microvascular disease in women, which classically produces abnormal EKGs but normal visual scans. I told her that, and then said, "But I gather there's really no way to test for it, and anyway, I'm already as risk-reduced as I can get." (Regular exercise, low cholesterol, healthy weight, good blood pressure, non-smoking, yada yada.)

"You took the words out of my mouth. Even if we knew you had that, what else could we do?"

Actually, some things I've read about the WISE study indicate that SPECT can pick up microvascular, but she'd already dismissed that study because it hasn't been reproduced. And even if we saw the problem on a test, there's still the "what else could we do" problem. And I'm sure SPECT's even more expensive than the stress echo; when Gary and I were driving home, he said, "Well, at least we won't have an eight thousand dollar copay for another test."

I like our doctor a lot, but I'm not thrilled with all this. I really wish she'd said something like, "I know you're nervous, but you're really okay." She's usually more empathetic, but I was being obnoxious by horning in on Gary's appointment, and she's entitled to bad days too.

I'm still having chest pain, but I guess now we go back to square one and chalk that up to GERD. Mind you, it's not like I want to have heart disease, but at least that theory accounted both for the chest pain and the fatigue. If cardiac issues aren't causing the fatigue, the most likely candidate is our old friend depression. Although, to complicate matters, depression is its own risk factor for cardiac issues.

I saw my psychiatrist yesterday, too, before the other appointment. She suggested that I try taking B vitamins, which can help with energy. She wants to see me again in a month, and if I'm not feeling better, she's going to take me off the nortrip (probably a good idea anyway, if it made the EKG worse) and put me on Lexapro, and then take me off the Effexor so I'm only on Lexapro.

Welcome to the medication merrygoround.

I. hate. this.

Especially since we don't know for sure that the fatigue's from depression, anyway; during the two or three hours a day when I'm not too tired, my mood's fine. I really wish there were a handy at-home blood test for depression, a depressometer.

I wish even more that I could just be off meds. The other day I met someone with a much more serious depression history than mine (multiple hospitalizations, suicide attempts) who tried every antidepressant on the planet, was still depressed on all of them, and has now foregone all medication in favor of yoga and ACT therapy.

I ran that story by my shrink. She wasn't impressed.

Sigh.

Okay, I'll stop whining now. Maybe the B vitamins will work. Wouldn't that be lovely?

And now I have to drive Gary to the lab for fasting bloodwork.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Two Reminders


For Renoites:

Tomorrow -- Tuesday, July 10 -- at 7:00 PM, I'll be reading from and signing Shelter at Sundance Bookstore.

For everybody:

Don't forget the Carnival of Hope submission deadline, Thursday at 7 PM PDT. You can use the BlogCarnival submission form, or e-mail me directly at SusanPal at aol dot com.

Thanks!

Seven Weeks


Today is seven weeks since Doug Henry vanished.

Yesterday I called Beth. The car's been processed, and the crime lab found nothing, so the car's back at her house. The police finally told her where they found the car: Boundary Peak, the highest mountain in Nevada. She drove out there. "It's pretty remote," she told me.

She's gone back to work. She says the police still have her computer, but that when they return it, "they'll be done with me." The police have no leads and are moving on to other cases. Beth's trying to figure out how to move on with her life.

Last Sunday was her and Doug's first wedding anniversary.

I don't know if we'll ever learn anything else. If we do, I'll post it.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

When There's Nothing to Say


In August, I'll be co-teaching a seminar on grief and loss for medical students, using writing exercises to help them connect with their own experiences and those of their patients. As a result, I've been thinking about grief a lot lately, which made this article, from the chaplaincy e-newsletter PlainViews, especially relevant. The writer, the Rev. Susan Wintz, cautions chaplains and other caregivers to be very sensitive about what language they use with the recently bereaved. In general, saying "I'm so sorry your husband died" is better than saying "I'm sorry you lost your husband." The widow standing in the ED code room next to her husband's body -- still with all the tubes in place, waiting for the coroner -- is likely to think, I haven't lost him. He's right here: that's his body. I know exactly where he is. Euphemisms may make the comforters feel better, but rarely have the same effect on those who feel eviscerated by the death.

One of the most common "How to Help Grievers for Dummies" genres, in fact, is the List of Things Not to Say: for instance, The Top Five Things Not to Say at a Funeral. Here's The Top Ten Things Not to Say at the Funeral of a Disabled Person. (The BBC has an entire page of links to similar lists around disability issues.) Here are two excellent lists of what not to say to grieving people, from a hospice volunteer. There's an entire book of Things Not to Say, beginning with the dreaded "Please call me if you need anything," which I'm still guilty of saying too often myself.

You'd think that hospital staff and volunteers, who see more than their share of death, would know what to say and what not to say, but we're as uncomfortable with the subject as anybody else. The two most emotional conversations I've had with nurses have been around the subject of grief. A year or so ago, I arrived at the hospital just as a chaplain was being paged to the surgery waiting area. When I found a staff chaplain already there, I went back downstairs -- only to have an ED nurse literally grab my arm and demand, "Where were you? Where were you? I was paging a chaplain and nobody came!" I tried to tell her that the staff chaplain and I had both responded, but I got drowned out in the torrent of her words. "The dad has cancer! The mom never told their teenage son the dad was sick! They opened him up and it's inoperable, and this is the first that kid knows of it! His father's going to be dead in weeks, if not days! Where were you?"

During my shift this past week, a nurse said, "I wish you'd been here yesterday! A patient died, and his wife was inconsolable. They'd been married sixty years. She didn't know how she was going to get up in the morning." That nurse told me how difficult the conversation was for her, because the wife's description of her spouse sounded so much like the nurse's husband. She listened to the wife for about half an hour, got her calmed down enough to let go of her husband's hand, and then went home and told her own husband how much she loved him.

She did exactly the right thing -- listening instead of talking, and bearing witness to pain instead of trying to erase it -- and I told her that. But while she did a wonderful job, she'd rather another chaplain or I had been there to do it instead. (Evidently none of the staff chaplains were there, either; the hospital tries, but it hasn't achieved anything approaching 24/7 chaplaincy coverage.) As puzzled as doctors and nurses sometimes seem about the less dramatic things chaplains do, they all know that we're the people to call if someone dies. We're the people they look for when they don't know what to say themselves.

So what do I say when someone's died? Well, mostly I try to shut up and listen, like that nurse did. When I'm really at a loss in secular situations, I say, "I'm so sorry, and I know there's nothing else I can say." But in my capacity as a chaplain, I've learned that one of the things grieving people are most anxious about is, oddly, whether they're doing it right. I've heard a lot of people describe their feelings or reactions and then ask, "Is that normal?"

And so I have come up with three things I often (not always) say.

1. There's no "right" or "normal" way to grieve. Everyone's process is different, and the only "wrong" one is violence. If your response to a death is to harm yourself, someone else, or property, then yes, you need to talk to a professional. Almost anything else, though, is well within the ballpark.

2. In line with number one, don't let anyone tell you how you should or shouldn't grieve, and especially don't let them tell you how long it should take. The human heart has very little use for timetables.

3. Take very good care of yourself. A disproportionate number of ED patients I see have been bereaved within the last three years. Grief is hard, stressful work, and it will exacerbate any underlying medical conditions.

If the people I'm talking to are religious, I'll encourage them to use the resources of their faith community: Jews, for instance, have the very healing tradition of sitting shivah. Ritual can be a great help, offering the refuge of order during a time of chaos. I wish our society still had cultural, non-religious traditions like wearing black for a year after a death, if only as a way of alerting other people that the wearer is in a bad place and won't always be able to maintain social decorums.

Grieving people are fragile, and we all need to learn ways to care for them -- and ourselves, when we too are grieving -- gently.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Prodigal, Bearing Cookies


It's been over a year since I've met with my spiritual director, Sr. Maria at Carmel of Reno, but yesterday I finally made good on my interim bishop's pastoral directive and saw her again. We'd been trying to get together for a few weeks, but we both have busy schedules!

The reasons I stayed away for so long are complicated and not very logical. Sr. Maria has never been anything but my staunchest friend and advocate, and she certainly hasn't been included in my recent ambivalence towards Institutional Church. She was my rock through the crises, church-related and personal, that started in 2003; she shared my dismay and indignation over various messes (indeed, her indignation often dwarfed mine), listened to me agonize over courses of action, prayed for me and mine through the whole dismal saga, and always assured me that I was doing the right thing. I never doubted that she was completely on my side, through a very long stretch when there were -- or seemed to be -- very few people in that category.

So why, when the miserable epic concluded with a particularly painful sputter in April 2006, did I stop going to see her?

I honestly don't know. Part of it was undoubtedly the depression that was deepening then, and for which I finally went on a second medication. After a while, a lot of it was guilt: I felt awful for turning my back on her (especially when she left a loving phone message saying that she was thinking about and praying for me), and the longer I went without contact, the more awful I felt, and the awfulness kept me paralyzed. We've all been there, right?

But there were other factors too, which I haven't been able to suss out yet: deep hurt and anger at other people that I was afraid or ashamed to let her see (although, God knows, she'd already seen plenty of both), longing simply to leave the mess behind me (although I was dragging it with me like the proverbial ball and chain, and still am), and a deep-rooted, exhausted feeling of What's the use anyway?, although that was the depression again.

Whatever the factors, Jerry Lamb's kick in the keister was exactly what I needed.

So yesterday I went back, bearing cookies. Gary has always baked cookies for the nuns when I've gone to Carmel, but this time, the food was a kind of non-verbal apology. I always go to the monastery for vespers before meeting with Sr. Maria, and I was afraid the nuns would glare at me and say "Where have you been?" Maybe cookies would soften that.

Naturally, the nuns did no such thing. They weren't mad at me; I was mad at myself. The sisters smiled, greeted me warmly, told me how nice it was to see me again. That sentiment was echoed most emphatically by Sr. Maria, who said, "You can come here any time, and you don't have to bring cookies."

Our meeting was, as usual, deeply affirming. My current position is that I most likely won't go for ordination, but that I'm waiting to see who our new bishop is, just in case that changes things (although I can't imagine that it would, since the main problem is the structural one of the vow of obedience). Sr. Maria agreed with all that; as someone who's now in her sixties and took final vows when she was seventeen, she knows all about the problematic nature of promises to human hierarchies. She told me, "You're already doing the work. You don't need the title." And she compared my situation to the situation of the nuns themselves, who feel marginalized in the Roman church but who nonetheless faithfully do the work to which they've been called. (The sisters take a decidedly dim view of the current Vatican. People who think nuns are meek and demure must not know any.)

Sr. Maria was relieved to hear that I'm still preaching, since she thinks I'm good at it. And she was very interested in my continuing hospital work. When I told her about some of my interactions with unpopular homeless patients, and about having my priorities questioned by the medical staff, she said, "That's who you've always been. You've never been someone who wanted a decorous suburban ministry. You're called to reach out to outcasts."

The homeless-services complex in Reno is supposed to be opening a triage center that will address mental illness and substance abuse (at least, so they say -- but I hope it happens within my lifetime). I'd love to be a chaplain there, but this is one of the places where lack of ordination, or lack of CPE, could hinder me: I can be a chaplain at the hospital because I've had their training, but that only applies within those walls.

But the hospital's enough; it's not like I have time for much more, anyway.

Sr. Maria repeated one observation she's made before. When I first came to see her, at the very beginning of the ordination process, my life was calm and smooth, and it looked as if the journey would be an easy one. But then the problems started, and pretty much never stopped, which has to be some kind of sign.

Other people have said that, too. So we'll see if anything changes. But I think I've finally reached a place where I'd feel okay walking away from the formal recognition of what I'm already doing.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Happy Birthday, Mom!


Today's my mother's birthday. She's 82; next week, my father will be 85. I called her this morning and sang the Happy Birthday song to her, and we talked about the trip. She's really looking forward to it, although she's grateful to be traveling with my sister.

She was originally disappointed that I wouldn't be in Philly for her birthday, but now she'll be in Reno not long after!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Assorted Treats


Gary and I just got back from seeing Ratatouille, the new Pixar movie. We thoroughly enjoyed it, and recommend it highly. It's very clever, so much so that we wondered if kids would be able to follow most of it, although a little girl in our row seemed to be having a wonderful time.

We also enjoyed being in efficient air conditioning, since Reno hit an all-time-high of 108 degrees today. Our house has AC, but the theater's was better. The nice thing about being in the desert, though, is that the temperature drops when the sun goes down, so it's always cool enough to sleep.

I learned today that my sister and mother are coming to visit! They're arriving two weeks from today and staying until the 30th. My sister hasn't been here for three years, and it's been even longer for my mother; we didn't know if Mom would ever feel up to traveling again, so I'm really thrilled that she's coming out. We've changed a lot of things in the house since she's been here, and she's never met Figaro or Bali. Her activities will be limited -- she needs a wheelchair to go anywhere, although she can manage stairs -- but at least she'll get a change of scenery.

My sister's planning to bring their wheelchair. Gary and I could rent one, and of course there are wheelchairs in airports, but Liz is worried about getting stranded without one. I think wheelchairs can probably be checked at the gate, right? Anyway, she's going to look into all of that and let us know if we need to rent one. And we're planning to get a stool or chair for the shower in the guest bathroom. Our stairs have a landing halfway down, and we may put a chair there so she can sit and rest if she needs to.

Gary's pleased that he has a good excuse to subscribe to the Times' daily crossword puzzle: he and my mother and sister enjoy doing crosswords together, although I've never acquired a taste for them. But my sister will play Scrabble with me; my mother finds it too slow, and Gary won't play with me because he says I always win (which isn't true: he's an excellent player and has beaten me lots of times).

Mom and Liz leave right before Gary and I leave for Mythcon, so I'm going to miss three weeks at the hospital. After next week, though, I'll have volunteered 500 hours, and that seems like a good time to take a break.

Finally, please don't forget that the next Carnival of Hope deadline is a week from today: Thursday June 12 at 5:00 PM PDT.