Sunday, September 30, 2007

Chasms


Here's this morning's homily. The Gospel is Luke 16:19-31.

*

Most story-tellers have favorite themes they use again and again, and Jesus is no exception. In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, he uses ideas we recognize from many other places in the Gospel. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Love your neighbor as yourself. Whatever you have done for the least of these who are members of my family, you have done for me. This story is, first and foremost, about the obligation to care for the poor, a duty as urgent in our own time as it was in Jesus’.

It would be easy to use this Sunday’s Gospel as the occasion for yet another homily about poverty and homelessness. These are, as most of you know, preoccupations I share with Jesus, and I probably become as repetitive on the subject as he does. But when I read this parable, what captures my attention isn’t Lazarus’ dire earthly condition, or even his joyous ascension. The image that haunts me is that gap, the distance between Lazarus and the rich man in torment. “Between you and us,” Abraham tells the rich man, “a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”

“A great chasm has been fixed.” If one of my freshman composition students wrote that sentence, I’d underline it and write in the margin, “Fixed by whom? Avoid passive voice!” The grammar doesn’t tell us the source of this chasm. Who has made it so impossible for the rich man to receive comfort? God? Personally, I’m uneasy with the idea of a vengeful God who tosses the rich man into Hades, slams the door, and says, “You got what you deserved, buddy. You wouldn’t share your scraps with Lazarus when he was right outside your front door? Fine, then. Don’t come crying to me or mine for help.” As natural as it might be for any of us to feel this way, I suspect that kind of psychology is human, not divine.

My hunch is that the person who fixed the chasm is the rich man himself. He fixed the chasm when he refused to bend down to feed the poor man on his doorstep. By refusing to bend even a few inches, he has created the uncrossable abyss between himself and Lazarus. Because the rich man would not close the distance between them, when he could have done so easily, Lazarus cannot close the much wider gap between them now. All things are possible with God; but God has given us free will, and if we use that gift to deny and avoid our kinship with God’s other children, we are denying and avoiding God Himself. We’re on one side of the chasm. God’s on the other, desperate to reach us, stretching out a hand or a lifeline, always there. But we have to reach back. We have to accept God’s embrace.

To me, this is the most sobering message in this morning’s Gospel. The rich man, denied water, asks that Lazarus to be allowed to warn his brothers. Abraham says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

Moses, the Prophets, and Jesus himself have commanded us to care for those in need. This is not an obscure or difficult point of doctrine. It’s bedrock. If we’ve missed that message, all the miracles in the world won’t convince us. If we’ve missed that message, the fact that Jesus has risen from the dead, to feed and comfort and teach us, won’t convince us either. Jesus cannot say “love your neighbor” any more plainly than he already has.

And yet I suspect all of us still struggle with the message, at least sometimes; I know I do. “Oh, come on, God. I know I’m supposed to love my neighbors, but surely you don’t mean those people over there?” All of us have people who make us recoil, who send us into furious bouts of searching for shovels so we can start digging moats and chasms. “God can’t mean me to give handouts to these lazy bums who won’t get off the sidewalk and get a job! God can’t mean me to accept people who don’t accept God in exactly the same form I do! God can’t mean me to help those who hurt others!”

These chasms run through every part of our lives: through international affairs and national politics, through our workplaces and our families. It’s easy to believe that our inflexibility is a virtue, that by refusing to bend a few inches, we’re keeping the moral high ground. Imagine the protests of the rich man: “You want me to feed Lazarus? But that would be wrong! Charity would just encourage him to keep lying there, instead of looking for a job!” Or, more simply: “I’ve worked for my money! I deserve my wealth! What’s Lazarus done?”

We all have people who make us recoil, but if we can learn to recognize why, maybe we can also try to bend a little, to keep from automatically reaching for our shovels. One of the behaviors that has always made me start digging is religious intolerance. I hate it when people dismiss me because I’m Christian, and I hate it when Christians dismiss those of other faiths. Since 9/11, I’ve been especially distressed by anti-Islamic bigotry, by people who assume that all Muslims are terrorists. One of the finest students I’ve ever had was a young man who grew up as a Muslim in Tennessee, and who endured terrible cruelty and prejudice at the hands of so-called Christians. When I hear the word Muslim, I don’t see a faceless mass. I see Nael, who stayed so thoughtful and loving in the face of hatred. I see my Muslim student Nadia, a Republican who served in the U.S. Navy. I see my friend Pamela, a progressive Muslim feminist. These are people, not stereotypes. And so when I hear others stereotyping them, my first instinct is to grab the nearest shovel, to dig a chasm and then assure myself that there’s no way to cross it.

During one of my recent shifts as a volunteer chaplain at the hospital, I met a man, alone in the ER, who believed that he was dying. He told me briskly that he didn’t need to talk, thank you -- but then he talked my ear off for thirty-five minutes. He told me about his childhood, about his hobbies, about his family. Quite early in the conversation, he told me that he’d cut off all contact with one of his grown daughters when she married “a raghead.”

I felt my spine stiffen. I felt my hands itching for a shovel. And then I remembered that I was working as a chaplain, that I wasn’t allowed to abandon a patient just because he’d made a comment that infuriated me. And so I said, as matter-of-factly as I could, “You know, some of the kindest and most gentle people I’ve ever met have been Muslim.”

The patient squinted up at me. “Really? But why do they all want to kill us?”

“They don’t all want to kill us,” I told him. “My Muslim friends are as upset by Muslim terrorists as any of us. Their lives are harder because people think they must be terrorists, too.”

The patient grew thoughtful. “Yes, that’s true. I was in Japan during WWII, and those people were nothing like what I expected. You know, they have quite a society over there.”

“Yes,” I said. “They certainly do.” I listened to him wax enthusiastic about Japanese culture for a few minutes, and then I asked, “Have you met your son-in-law? The Muslim one?”

The patient recoiled. “Oh, no! I don’t want to!”

“But you might like him,” I said. “He might surprise you, just like the Japanese did.”

“No,” the patient said, shaking his head. “I’ll never meet him. I have no desire to.”

I don’t know what other issues there are in this family, what else may have happened to estrange father and daughter, what bitter words may have been exchanged before the marriage. I suspect the situation is more complicated than I know, that the religious differences are an easy way to explain deeper hurts. But I do know that this patient has dug a chasm that he refuses to cross, that his daughter and son-in-law cannot or will not cross, and that, therefore, God himself could not cross. And I only pray that before the patient dies, he or someone in his family will bend down to start throwing dirt back into that hole, or to start building a bridge.

And what of me? Normally, I would have recoiled from this man as soon as he used the hateful term “raghead.” But because I had a job to do, I stayed and listened to him instead. And I discovered that I genuinely liked him. I wanted to help him. I prayed that he and his family would be reconciled, that they would allow love to fill the chasm between them.

I’m not claiming as any huge moral victory the fact that I managed to act like a human being, that I overcame my own bigotry and didn’t turn away from a patient facing death. That would be like the rich man priding himself on giving Lazarus his leftovers. I simply did my job. But I would suggest that as Christians, we must always remember the fact -- one I all too often forget -- that we are never off duty. Jesus has given all of us a job to do, and that job is to love our neighbors just as Jesus has loved us: not to dig chasms, but to reach down to those who need help, and to reach out to those who seem to be standing a world away.

Amen.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Cute Critter, and Knitting Update


Here's the bunny who was in our neighbor's yard yesterday afternoon. I tried to get closer, but of course he took off.

This morning, I taught myself to cast on, knit, and purl! At least, I think I'm doing everything right. At the moment, I'm using some really junky ribbon/yarn my sister and I got at the dollar store, with chopsticks as knitting needles. I have the stitches down (I think). I'm having some trouble switching between knit and purl, but I gather that's to be expected. The process will undoubtedly be easier when I'm using the proper equipment!

After dinner tonight, I may go to a craft store and try to pick up some real needles to practice with, so I'll be ready to start my first shawl when my mail-order supplies come.

Knitting is fun! I love it! Gary and my mother are very encouraging; my father's exasperated. "When are you going to find time for this, with everything else you're doing?" Well, I don't know, but it's really relaxing, so I'll do the best I can.

Oh, and my polyester suit came today and fits perfectly. Yay!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Info on Prayer Shawls


In response to the comments on my last post, here's a photo of a prayer shawl, taken from this page, which tells you all about them. This is where I ordered my supplies.

They provide a knitting pattern, but you can also crochet these. That's what my friend at church does. Since it's basically just a big rectangle, it looks pretty easy! I'm sure all of you can make them, too!

See also the Prayer Shawl Ministry website. If I enjoy this, I'll probably try to join or start a "prayer shawl circle," maybe at the hospital.

But that's way down the road. My first challenge is to see if I can cast on, knit, and purl!

Oh, and Lee: If I like knitting, I'll be doing it in addition to writing . . . hopefully not instead of writing!

Wish Me Luck


So I just took a bold step towards learning a new skill, and ordered some knitting needles and yarn from an online knitting store. This outfit also has handy-dandy online knitting instructions, and they make it very easy to order the supplies for their free online patterns.

Don't ask me when I think I'm going to have time to learn to knit. I don't have enough time to do everything I want to do as it is. Still, ever since my ceramics class got cancelled last summer, I've been itching to do something tactile, and with cold weather coming, knitting's appealing. And the supplies weren't very expensive, so it's not like I'll be out a lot of money if, as is entirely possible, this stuff only gathers dust on a shelf, or if I wind up in a hopeless snarl of needles, yarn, and pouncing cats.

My two immediate goals are:

1. To learn to knit prayer shawls. A friend at church does this, and they're beautiful.

2. To learn to knit simple, safe stuffed toys for kids at the hospital. This will be more fun and meaningful (if more time-consuming) than buying them at the dollar store.

If I get good enough at knitting, maybe I'll be able to knit my way through dull meetings at work, as some colleagues do. My mother knit her way through her high school classes; this annoyed her teachers no end, until they realized that she was absorbing more than other kids who were taking copious notes. (She was valedictorian of her class.) She knit a lot when I was growing up and made beautiful sweaters for me and my sister. I think one reason I've been nervous about learning to knit is feeling as if I'll never be as good at is as Mom!

However, the two projects I have in mind are rated "beginner," and the point's to bring comfort much more than to be pretty or perfect. That goal should help ease some of my anxieties.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Use the Force, Luke! (You too, Matthew, Mark, and John!)



This bit of fun courtesy of my friend Arthur Chenin at UNR, who got it from a friend's LiveJournal.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Today's Scary Food Factoid


Actually, I learned this several weeks ago, when I showed up early for a meeting at the med school and heard a family-practice doc talking to some residents about nutrition.

Guess what the leading source of Vitamin C is in the American diet?

Did you guess orange juice? Wrong!

Multivitamins? Wrong!

Yummy veggies like carrots, spinach or peas? Wrong again!

The correct answer, children, is . . . French fries.

I swear I'm not making this up.

Be very afraid.

How I Learned to Love Polyester


Like most lap swimmers, I've been in the habit for years now of buying three or four suits whenever I find a good sale, and then rotating them in the pool. "Good sale" means $29.99 for a smallish piece of nylon and spandex; that's still a ripoff, but not nearly as much of a ripoff as $66.00 for a full-price Speedo.

Indoor swimming pools eat these things. Even rotating them and rinsing them out after each swim, I've learned not to expect more than a few months of life from a suit before the chlorine dissolves the fabric.

Before our first trip to Hawai'i eighteen months ago, I'd done my annual suit stock-up. One of the four suits I bought had a slightly different texture than the others, but I didn't pay much attention to it. I did notice, though, that this particular suit was much more durable than its fellows. Three of the four suits died exceptionally quickly, sagging and stretching and shedding little bits of elastic. The fourth one -- the least attractive of the set, unfortunately, although who cares when you're swimming laps? -- kept its color and shape.

Then, one day in the gym, I complimented a woman on her suit. She told me it was polyester and chlorine-proof. Polyester suits, she said, don't fade or stretch or dissolve in pool water.

So I checked the tag on my ugly-but-durable suit. Sure enough, it was half polyester, whereas the ones that had died were the usual spandex/nylon combo.

After a year and a half of steady use, the suit has finally begun to show signs of wear; the elastic in one shoulder strap has broken, although the fabric's still bright and resilient. So I went online and ordered a 100% poly suit -- a pretty one! -- from a swimming site. Buying a suit without trying it on first is a bit of a gamble, but this is a fairly standard racing tank and shouldn't present too many surprises, and I trust that the company has a reasonable return policy.

For years, I've spurned polyester in favor of natural fabrics. But now I've seen the light!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Old Home Week


In the past week, I've gotten e-mail from two of my TAs from my first semester of college.

My English TA, who was a graduate student then and is now a professor at another school, contacted me because he's on a tenure-and-promotion committee, and a question came up about a candidate's science-fiction publication. He didn't know how to evaluate the magazine (is it peer-reviewed? is it any good?), and e-mailed me to ask about it.

My Physics for Poets TA -- yes, I really took this course! -- is living in Europe now, and has stayed in touch sporadically over the years. He e-mailed me because he'll be in Reno for a conference in November and wondered if he could get together with me and Gary.

I've known both of these guys since freakin' 1978. That's almost thirty years.

Gracious, I feel old!

But I'm also genuinely touched that both of them remember me and went to the effort of contacting me.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Happy Anniversary, Grand Rounds!


Grand Rounds, the weekly best of the medical blogosphere, celebrates its fourth anniversary with a splendid anniversary edition. As always, I'm delighted to be included.

Enjoy!

The Best Sound in the World


I woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning: slept far too late after staying up too late to grade, which meant that I didn't have time to get to the gym. Instead, I'm still in my jammies, drinking coffee, about to dash into the shower to start getting ready for work.

I'm bummed about the gym, but an extra rest day probably won't kill me.

But while I was sitting at my desk, Figaro curled up in a pool of sunshine there. I put my arms around him and rested my head on his side while he kneaded my shoulder and purred for all he was worth.

Listening to a purring cat is one of the best medicines I know. If I'm ever really sick or in a coma, I want somebody to tape the sound of a cat purring and play it for me over headphones. It's the sound of contentment, "all's right with the world" made audible, without words.

Although I love all animals, this is one reason I prefer cats to dogs. Purring is so much more pleasant than barking! And Bali even loves to fetch, although he rarely wags his tail.

When You Least Expect It


Last week's hospital shift began fairly quietly. For the first two hours, the pace stayed calm: the same patients in the same beds, more or less, no apparent crises, mellow staff. Halfway through the shift, I'd visited every patient in the department, plus a few in Fast Track, so I decided to take a cafeteria break.

Volunteers get $4 meal coupons that can be redeemed after four hours of service, and I'd worked many more than four hours since redeeming my last one. I always feel a little funny taking a break during such a short shift, but on the other hand, I tell the charge nurse where I'll be if anyone needs me, and if I heard a code, I'd certainly respond. So I'm still available, even if I'm not in the ED proper.

I went to the cafeteria and waited in a line rendered ridiculously slow by a broken cash register. Several other ED staff were there too. When we all got our food, the medical folks went back to the department, and I sat down by a window to eat my fruit and chocolate-chip cookie, anticipating that the rest of the shift would be mellow, too.

Nope. When I got back to the department after half an hour away, all hell had broken loose. Ambulance gurneys lined the hallways, and three more were coming in the door. A hysterical family member was standing outside the ED doors with a patient, hunched over in a wheelchair and vomiting, who hadn't been able to keep anything down for twelve hours. "Why can't we get back there? What's going on? We shouldn't have to wait this long!"

As I walked back into the department, a nurse who'd seen me in the cafeteria gestured at the gurneys in the hallway and shook her finger at me. "See what happens when you take a break?"

"Yeah," I said, "this is all my fault." She laughed.

It turned out that another hospital had gone on ambulance divert, so we were getting hammered with patients who normally would have gone there. And hammered is the right word: calls from incoming ambulances were coming in every two minutes. I don't think I've ever seen it that busy.

In the middle of the chaos, yet another ambulance call came in. I was near the radio, and heard the paramedic describe a patient whose chief complaint was a headache. The patient was ambulatory. The paramedics hadn't started an IV.

The nurse at the radio shook her head, rolled her eyes, and said, "Bring the patient to triage, please. Do not come back here." (Moral: If you call an ambulance because you have a headache, you'll still go to the ED waiting room. You'll just have a very, very large transportation bill.)

Needless to say, I didn't take any more breaks during that shift. But driving home afterward, it struck me that the sudden change in the tempo of the department mirrored the experience of ED patients themselves. You're going along in your day, thinking you have everything more or less under control, and then, wham, everything turns upside down. You're hit by a car, a stroke, a seizure. Life as you know it dissolves into pain and chaos. You don't know what tomorrow will look like, and you may not know if you'll live to see tomorrow.

ED staff are far more used to chaos than ED patients are; working in emergency medicine for any length of time requires, I suspect, a capacity to find bedlam invigorating. But it's worth remembering, when a sudden onslaught knocks "normal" upside the head with a 2x4, that the patients aren't used to this, aren't trained for it, and desperately need any reassurance and order they can find. This is one reason chaplains are so valuable: one of our jobs is to stay calm and centered when everyone else is overwhelmed. (I'm not always good at this, but I try.)

Crazy shifts can, if we let them, give us more empathy for what our patients are going through all the time. This isn't, to be sure, a very profound observation. Still, it may help those of us on our feet connect more meaningfully with the people in the beds.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Happy Autumn!


Today's the autumnal equinox. We don't get New England style color here in Reno, but the ivy outside my office window turns bright red, and the aspens go golden and glorious. It's a beautiful time of year.

I hope everyone's fall season will bring abundant harvests!

I got an unexpected windfall this morning in the form of this e-mail from Jonathan Strahan:
Dear Susan,

I am writing to you because I would very much like to reprint your story "Sorrel's Heart" in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Vol 2, which will be published by Night Shade Books in March 2008.

If that sounds okay, please let me know and I'll arrange for contracts to be sent out this week.

Best

Jonathan
What, like I'm going to say no? Jeez!

I'm very happy. Longtime readers will recall that this is the story I wrote on muscle relaxants after a back spasm. Fortunately, I've had other stories in "Year's Best" collections, and none of those were written on drugs, or I might be getting entirely the wrong idea!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Happy Birthday, Guys!


Today is Bilbo and Frodo's birthday. You all knew that, right?

It's also the anniversary of Frodo's setting out from Bag End on the quest that eventually led to the destruction of the One Ring. Beware of tall, dark, hollow strangers on black horses!

Tolkien purists will of course excoriate me for posting a photo from Jackson's film, but hey, I liked the first movie. The second and third were increasingly better as films in their own right, but worse as Tolkien adaptations; I never recovered from what Jackson did to Faramir in the second film.

Okay, so here's something from the book I've never completely understood: Tolkien says that Frodo always experiences wanderlust in the autumn, wanting to set off on adventures. Does anyone else respond that way to autumn? Summer makes me feel that way, but fall makes me want to curl up indoors with a good book, a sweater, a cat, and a pot of tea. The idea of adventuring as the days are getting shorter makes me all chilly.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

More Fun with Cats


My posting's been spotty this week because I'm beyond crazed at work (it's good crazed, but still crazed!). As a result, my brain's been oatmeal. However, last night Gary and I found this delightful object in the stairwell, halfway between the second and first floors of the house, and I just had to take photos. I know they're a bit underexposed: sorry about that!

Evidently a Very Sneaky Someone -- or Someones -- wrestled the roll off the cart in the guest bedroom, had his or their way with it, and then fought it down the stairs. Toilet paper vandalism: it's not pretty. (D'you suppose they're practicing for Halloween?)

As you can see, though, Figaro and Harley completely deny any guilt. "Gosh! How'd that get there? We sure didn't have anything to do with it, nosirree. Nope. Not us. We've never even seen that roll of toilet paper before. We are not the cats you are looking for.

"And anyway, if it had been us, the toilet paper would have started it! We would have been acting purely in self-defense!"

Meanwhile, Bali's all: "What're you looking at me for, huh huh huh? I get blamed for everything around here! It's not fair! I never do a thing! It's all that neighbor cat's fault, the gray and white one! Oh, when you're awake, all he does is traipse through the yard and look smug, but when you're asleep, watch out! He breaks into the house and vandalizes the toilet paper! And he eats all our food! All of it! That's why we have to wake you up at 5:00 a.m. by jumping on your stomachs, because the Evil Neighbor Cat has eaten all our food! And those hairballs you find hawked up on the rugs? His! All his! I swear it! Do a DNA test, you don't believe me!"

Elsewhere in the animal kingdom, I've been working on planning our animal blessing service on October 7. I've been asked to preach that day ("Susan, will you preach about animals?" Whaddya kidding? Half the time, I preach about animals even when you don't want me to!), and I'm helping with the blessing, too. Instead of having it between or during services, we'll be having it at 4:00 in the afternoon.

The vestry has approved my recommendation that our loose-plate offering that day be donated to the Nevada Humane Society; I'm hoping that someone from the Humane Society can attend the blessing to receive the donation in person, although I'm sure they'll be in great demand from other churches that day.

I also, after a fair amount of hunting, found these lovely Saint Francis medals on the Bless Our Pets site. I originally thought I couldn't afford them, so I was looking at some much less expensive, much more generic medals; the problem with those, though, was that they weren't guaranteed pet-safe, and I was afraid they might contain lead. (I'd asked my vet about this and been told to avoid lead and copper.)

So yesterday afternoon I went back to Bless Our Pets, who specify that their medals are pet-safe. Lo and behold, I discovered that I could order in bulk, which brought the price down to $1.00 per medal plus shipping. This was still more than I'd wanted to spend, but the medals are so pretty that I decided to go for it anyway. But by the time I learned about the bulk-order possibility, the medals wouldn't arrive in time, given the three-week delivery timeframe mentioned on the website, especially since I figured they'd be swamped with other orders.

So I sent a frantic e-mail asking if I could arrange for a FedEx shipment. I included my home and work numbers, but figured I probably wouldn't hear anything useful in time, since this surely has to be an extremely busy time of year for this company.

O ye of little faith! When I got back from my swim this morning, I had a message on our home machine from Carol of Bless Our Pets, who told me that she'd ordered an extra 100 tags to meet the seasonal demand and could ship them to me Priority Mail on Monday -- but that she'd have to hear from me soon, before other people ordered them. She'd also left a message for me at work and sent me e-mail.

It's three hours later where she is in Tennessee than it is here, so I called her right away, afraid that I was already too late. But she told me, "I was planning to hold them for you for another two hours," and when I asked what the medals are made of, she told me that they're silver -- and thus very pet-safe! -- and can also be engraved on the back.

Thank you, Carol! And I think that's a very reasonable price for silver.

So I'm quite happy. The tags won't come with collar hooks, but folks at church can acquire those on their own if they want them; lots of critters, after all, don't even wear collars.

I especially like this medal because it includes a turtle. Our friends Ned and Janet have a box turtle named Myrtle, and they bring her to be blessed every year. So the medal's appropriate for her, too!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Grand Rounds


And speaking of nummy treats, this week's edition is up, with a clever grocery shopping theme. I'm pleased to be included.

Happy reading!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Nummy Treats


We've resumed DVD nights on Friday; we've just started watching the second season of Battlestar Galactica. Our friends usually bring snacks and beverages, and this week, folks were especially generous. Our friend Marin brought some of her favorite dark-roast Ethiopian coffee for us to try, in addition to a 70% dark chocolate bar with orange, and some particularly tasty chips. Our friend Rob brought chocolate-chunk cookies (for everybody) and some alcohol-free wine (for me), and our friends Katharine and Jim brought fresh tomatoes and another variety of alcohol-free wine.

Yesterday, Gary and I finished Rob's cookies after a dinner which featured Gary's new soy-cheese French-bread pizza. This was such a hit with both of us that we're now thinking of buying pizza dough and a pizza stone for the oven. (The fact that dairy products send my sinuses into instant-infection mode is one of the great griefs of my gastronomic life.)

This morning, after last night's pigout on pizza and cookies, I discovered that my weight had gone up yet again. Duh! That discovery, plus a load of grading, sent me into a funk; I managed to pull myself back into happy land with a bit of aromatherapy, thanks to the lovely lavender salve my friend Sharon brought over for me yesterday. (Lulu seems to be doing better. Yay!) I also got the grading done, using nearly all of Marin's chocolate bar as fuel.

The forecast for the waistline is grim indeed. But I wonder if part of the funk is decreasing daylight: it may be time to drag the lightbox out of the garage. That was a gift from Rob, too.

My friends are very good to me! Thanks, y'all!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

They're Baa-aaaack


Remember last October, when I wrote about the hateful Christians who'd set up shop on campus?

Last Wednesday I was walking to one of my classes, halfway across campus from the English building. Passing the library, I heard a ruckus. The ranting so-called Christians were back, standing in front of the library waving placards about hellfire and damnation and how anybody who doesn't subscribe to their extremely narrow definition of righteousness will fry forever. Want to see heaven? Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, liberals, feminists, and gays need not apply.

These people send my blood pressure through the roof. The last time they were on campus, I tried to tell them that they'd make a better impression if they tried, oh, feeding people or building transitional housing, which of course got me nowhere very quickly. This year, students sitting on the library steps were trying to argue with them, but the folks waving the signs are very good at not listening.

Funny. According to my reading of the Gospels, the one thing Jesus never did was ignore anybody. But then, the people waving the signs aren't reading the same Bible I am. (I've long maintained that if Jesus came back tomorrow, the Christian Right would crucify him again in about ten seconds, because he'd be hanging out in all the wrong places: shooting galleries, welfare offices, gay bars.) Something truly gnarly must have happened to these people to make them this way, and I know I have to pray for them: but dang. Y'know?

This year, I went up to some of the students on the library steps and said, "I just want you to know that I'm Christian too, and these people don't represent me or my faith. Some of us really believe in love and acceptance." The students smiled and assured me that they know that.

I gave the same speech to both of my classes; my students seemed relieved that someone was addressing the issue, although some just viewed it as street theater. In my freshman-comp class, one woman perked up and said, "Oooooh! The Crazy Christians are back? A friend told me about them last year."

"Yup," I said. "The crazy, intolerant, hateful, homophobic Christians are back." (So much for love and acceptance, right? Mea culpa! As always, the biggest challenge is being tolerant of intolerance!)

Another student said, "All the religious groups on campus should go there and just hold hands in front of them." I thought that was a great idea.

Yet another student told us that somebody had quoted Scripture back at them, gleefully citing some text about false signs and deceivers. Very clever, but of course, since the CCs a) don't listen and are undoubtedly b) oblivious to irony, what good would it do?

Students who'd listened to them longer than I could bear to did assure me that the homophobic rants have been considerably toned down from last year. I suspect somebody told them that outright hate speech isn't allowed on campus, although the anti-Muslim stuff's bad enough.

After my fiction workshop, the class halfway across campus, one of my older students walked back to the English building with me. When we got near the library, she steered me away from the turn I'd usually have taken, which would have taken me right past the CCs. "No, Susan, let's go this way. Don't listen to them. Just don't listen to them. Just breathe. Look at the sunlight in the trees! Isn't that pretty? Okay, we're almost there."

Smart lady. I think she has the right idea.

What if the Crazy Christians had a hatefest, and nobody came?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Another Nice Review


There's a new, smart, and very favorable review of Shelter up on SciFi.com.

The review calls it a "deeply disturbing and profoundly uplifting novel."

Thank you, A.M. Dellamonica!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Road Ahead


I don't dream about the hospital very often, although my work there certainly occupies a fair portion of my waking thoughts. Last winter, I had two surreal anxiety dreams about the hospital. Sandwiched between them was a dream in which I was driving a car down a two-lane road through a forest; it was dark under the trees, but I could see light ahead. I didn't get there, though, because I stopped at a roadside stand and then my car broke down. In the dream, I was anxious about continuing my trip, but glad to be in the beautiful forest.

As dreams go, this is a pretty banal one -- and other people's dreams are always banal anyway, I know; please humor me! -- but it stayed with me, partly because of its placement between the two hospital dreams. I couldn't discern any connection to the hospital, and I wondered what it was doing there. I finally just dismissed the whole incident as brain-static and forgot about it.

Until some weeks ago, when a patient died in radiology during my hospital shift. The patient had been brought down from ICU; family at the bedside had just left to have lunch, and were supposed to be returning soon. The hospital staff didn't want to wheel the patient's body through the hallways to the morgue for fear of meeting the family, so the body was put in one of the radiology rooms. A nurse dragged me all over the hospital -- ICU, ICU waiting area, cafeteria -- looking for the relatives. We had no luck. We returned to radiology, where a harrassed staff chaplain who'd just been paged to another floor asked if I'd please wait with the body until the family arrived.

Of course I said I would. A CNA waited with me, and we chatted pleasantly about the weather and shopping and shoes, occasionally walking over to gaze respectfully at the corpse, who looked placid and peaceful. Dead bodies don't bother me unless I interacted with the patient while still alive; in that case, the difference is chilling. But by the time I showed up, this patient was already gone.

Occasionally the radiology charge nurse popped in to see how we were doing and to bring us extra chairs and tissues for the family. The radiology people were a little freaked out. Patients don't die on them very often.

At some point I looked around the room and realized that it was the stress-echo lab. In addition to the exam table and various monitoring equipment, the room contained a treadmill. (This is why the room was available as a holding area; most stress echoes happen in the morning, and the patient died in the afternoon.) Taped to the wall in front of the treadmill was a photograph, probably from a calendar, of a two-lane road winding through a redwood forest. The road under the trees was dark, but you could see sunlight ahead, where the road bent out of view.

I blinked. I walked over and examined the photo. I haven't been able to find one that really looks like it on the net; in the photo at the top of this post -- the closest I could find, but only a pale approximation -- the trees are too short, and there isn't enough contrast between darkness and light.

Some thoughtful tech had clearly put the photo there to make the treadmill test less boring for patients, to try to create the illusion that instead of walking in place in a colorless hospital exam room, they were walking on a road through a forest. Looking at the photograph, I thought about the dead patient on the table, and I had a vivid image of the patient still walking on that road, but out of sight now: around the bend, where the road became invisible to anyone still under the trees.

That was also where the sunlight was, though.

I showed the photo to the CNA, and shared my thoughts about it, although I didn't mention my dream. Later, I did the same with the staff chaplain and the distraught family. I don't know if the image meant anything to any of them, and I don't know if talking about it was appropriate. The staff chaplain merely gave me a baffled look, and the family was far too stunned to deal with metaphors.

But now I know what my dream about the road was doing between the two hospital dreams, all those months ago.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Updates, Various


* I got great, moving comments on yesterday's post, and also on Saturday's. Thanks to everyone who stopped by, and if you haven't read the comments, please do!

* Lulu Lavender continues to be a problem plant. I last watered her over a week ago, but the soil's still moist. (How is this possible in Nevada?) Meanwhile, about 75% of her foliage is really droopy, but the other 25%, all on one side, is upright and healthy looking. I want to do something for the droopy bits -- although it may just be a matter of waiting for transplant-shock to wear off -- but I don't want to injure the section that's doing well. Any ideas?

* More mucking about with meds: I'm now on 10 mg/day of Lexapro, and we've discontinued the Effexor entirely. My doc thought the mild nausea I've been having might have been caused by the combination, but I'm still having it. Meanwhile, I'm gaining weight, despite working out almost every morning. Gary's excellent cooking is partly to blame here -- especially since he made a particularly yummy meal last night -- but I suspect the Lexapro is playing a role, since weight gain is a known side-effect. Since my general body type is "stick insect with pot belly," I'm managing to hide the flab with big shirts, but the pot belly's definitely expanding. Oh well. At least I'm happy. (And before someone asks: no, there's no possibility that I'm pregnant.)

* I've been having bizarre dreams. Two nights ago, I had a long, complicated dream about trying to learn to knit, which involved acquiring a very complex wooden frame. Last night, I dreamed that a giant scary robot was roaming through a fancy hotel and I was trying to avoid it. It wasn't actively dangerous -- more like a very large and metallic inquisitive puppy -- but it was scary. I haven't had a scary-robot dream since I was a kid. At the gym this morning, the woman on the elliptical next to me mentioned that she's been having weird dreams, too. Either we're both on Lexapro, or it's something in the water.

* I got a thank-you note from Rita Charon for making narrative medicine the theme of Grand Rounds! She said a lot of people had sent her the link. How cool is that?

* As expected, the Grand Rounds traffic boost has worn off, which means that I've devolved from Crawly Amphibian back down to Flippery Fish. I suspect I may descend another notch or two before too long. But the last shall be first, right?

* The UNR Police have sent out a campus bulletin that there were two bear sightings on campus early this morning. Yikes! Holy Marauding Mammals, Batman! The dry conditions have driven critters down from the mountains; last week, there was another bear sighting in a supermarket parking lot quite close to here. I hope the bear or bears on campus don't cause any trouble, and that the authorities manage to capture and relocate them instead of having to kill them.

And now I'm off to grade.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Six Years Ago Today


The phone rang at seven in the morning -- ten back East -- and my mother said, "Turn on your radio." (She knows we don't have TV.) "Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center, and another one flew into the Pentagon."

"What?" I said, struggling with sleep. "What kind of planes?"

"Commercial jets. They say it's a terrorist attack. Turn on your radio."

I woke up Gary and we turned the radio in the bedroom to NPR. We were both sitting up in bed when the newscaster announced that the first tower had collapsed, and I watched Gary's jaw drop, literally. I'd always thought that was just a figure of speech.

I was having a medical procedure, an endoscopy, that afternoon, and I wasn't allowed to eat, which made the morning even more surreal than it would have been otherwise. We had radios on all over the house, all of them tuned to NPR, broadcasting horror in stereo. We were numb, disbelieving. Back East, we'd lived in Jersey City, directly across the harbor from the World Trade Center. Gary took the ferry across every weekday morning, and then took a subway to work from the WTC itself. I often took the ferry across to rollerblade on the long bike path that ran past the WTC and the World Financial Center.

We worried about friends in the city, especially my friend Claire, who worked in the WTC. A few days later, we'd learn that she was okay: she'd left for work late that day, and by the time her train pulled into the WTC station, people on the platform were yelling, "Don't get off! Stay on the train!" She took the train into Brooklyn and another back into Manhattan, and then started the long walk home to the Upper East Side. Her husband Peter, who worked in the Wall Street area, was doing the same thing. Neither of them would know for hours that the other was still alive.

Back in Reno, a friend from church picked me up to drive me to the doctor's office; since I'd be sedated for the endoscopy, I needed someone to take me home. My friend's son worked in DC, near the Pentagon. He was okay, thank God.

As I was being prepped for the endoscopy, one of the techs and I talked about the attacks. We agreed that there must have been at least 10,000 people killed. I'm still amazed that the death toll wasn't higher than 3,000, as incomprehensible as that number is.

The endoscopy showed that I had GERD but no precancerous damage, which was good news. It was hard to take in what the doctor was telling me, between the morning's news and the fact that I was still in a haze from sedation. My church friend took me home, and Gary and I kept listening to the radio. We couldn't wrap our minds around the fact that the World Trade Center wasn't there anymore. "It would be like waking up in Reno and finding the Sierras gone," Gary said.

On Wednesday I taught. My students were angry and grieving and acting out, especially in my workshop class. One woman punched my desk, furious at my comments on her manuscript. "The only reason you don't like my story is that you don't know anything about fantasy!" (In any other context, this would have been funny. At any other time, I also would have called the campus police if a student displayed any kind of violence in my classroom, but that day, I let it slide.) Another student, a young man whose mother was a flight attendant and knew one of the pilots who'd died, exploded in my office. What had I been thinking, telling everyone that I'd lived in New York? Did I think I was the only person affected by this?

Of course I hadn't meant that at all, but everything I said that week seemed to make someone angry.

On Thursday, I blew out the brakes of my car. I'd been driving with the emergency brake on: everything was so much more difficult than usual that it didn't occur to me to wonder why driving was, too. The brakes went out on a quiet side street, when I was already almost stopped. A minute earlier, I would have been on a very busy, 50-mph road, and could easily have been killed.

I called AAA, who towed my car to my garage, where I proceeded to become semi-hysterical. My mechanic sat me down, gave me a glass of water, and said gently, "Susan, the important thing is that you're all right. You wouldn't believe the stories I've heard this week. Nobody's normal right now. But you're all right. The car will be all right. Everything will be all right. Nobody got hurt, and the damage can be fixed."

On Friday, I went to a prayer service at church. By then, everything was plastered with American flags, but it seemed to me then -- and still seems now, although I've drawn plenty of criticism for saying so -- that nationalism was part of what had created the horror. I wanted to try to find a way to express solidarity with all victims of terrorism, wherever they lived: not just here, but in Europe and Asia and the Middle East and Africa. So my bumper bore a Planet Earth decal, instead of a flag. I wore a cross to the church service: I'd carefully avoided that the rest of the week, because I didn't want it to be seen as an anti-Muslim statement, but I figured I'd be safe wearing a cross in church.

Ha.

I walked in, wearing my cross, and promptly ran into a friend who was sitting at a table making American flag pins. She tried to give me one. "Thanks," I told her, "but I'm not comfortable wearing that right now."

She glared at me. "Why not?"

I tried to explain about wanting to express solidarity with all victims of terrorism, not just the ones in the United States. I told her that I respected her position, but also felt the need to honor my own. She sniffed and said, "Well, that's very nice, but it wouldn't hurt for you to wear your colors."

Hands shaking, I held up the cross I was wearing. "Here are my colors."

Her voice was icy. "Well, excuse me, but I think that's bullshit!"

Whereupon we both burst into tears.

I wound up being bundled into a bearhug by one of our priests, who kept telling me it was okay, I was okay, whatever I was feeling was okay. During the brief service, I sat in a back pew and bawled, hunched over the kneeler. I felt shamed, isolated, miserable. When I finally opened my eyes, I discovered that I was surrounded by tissues: boxes of tissues, pocket packs of tissues, individual clumps of tissues. People had crept up during the service and put them next to me, as if I were some shrine.

After that, things got a little better, although it was months before I could look at photographs of the ruins without crying. Gary and I wound up being immensely glad that we didn't have TV: I'm not sure I'd have been able to turn it off, but looking at the endless-loop footage of the planes flying into the towers would have been more than I could bear.

Most of my friends in New York, meanwhile, told me that I had no right to my own grief. I wasn't there. They were there. It was their disaster, not mine. I couldn't possibly understand what it was like. (This is undoubtedly true, but they clearly couldn't understand what my experience was like, either.) I did my best to listen to them; they didn't want to listen to me. This makes perfect emotional sense, but it still hurt.

I kept hearing people talk about how much nicer people were to each other after 9/11, but that wasn't what I saw and felt. I saw people discounting other people's feelings, angrily dismissing any pain that wasn't theirs, scoffing at anything except scripted, hegemonic symbols. With some notable exceptions -- my mechanic, the priest who bearhugged me, the tissue donors during the church service, a friend from Canada who knew I was from New York and called to find out if Gary and I were okay, if we'd lost anyone we knew (we hadn't, thank God) -- I saw far more lashing out than reaching out, along with a terrifying insistence on conformity.

It was an ugly time, and it brought out a lot of ugliness. I know, and am immensely grateful, that there was love mixed in too, and kindness, and generosity. But on the level of national policy, the first prevailed, and we're going to be paying the price for that for a long, long time.

Let me be clear: I'm not trying to privilege my own 9/11 story over anyone else's. I'm trying to point out that all of us have 9/11 stories, even those of us who weren't near Ground Zero, and that all of them are compelling and important.

So what's yours?

Monday, September 10, 2007

An Innovative Grand Rounds!


This week's edition is up, with a theme of innovations and new technologies in healthcare, and I'm pleased to be included.

Happy reading!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Shadow Side of Progress


Here's something I've always wondered: How must it feel to be the last patient, or one of the last patients, to suffer from an illness before some amazing new treatment or cure comes along? How must it feel to be the friend or relative of one of the last people to die of a given condition before the advent of a life-saving therapy?

This photo shows two of the children who participated in the 1954 field trials of the Salk polio vaccine. It's from the archives of the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, and was displayed on a page celebrating the 50th anniversary of the vaccine. These kids look very happy, as well they should. Among other things, the Salk vaccine meant that they didn't have to be as worried about going swimming in the summer.

My sister was born in 1951, and my mother remembers worrying about polio. I was born in 1960, when we didn't worry about that anymore -- thanks to the vaccine -- although we still worried about other things. What a difference nine years makes!

If you or your child had polio before the Salk vaccine, how would it have felt to watch all those other kids getting their injections and knowing that they'd never have to suffer what you did? Surely you'd be happy for them, but wouldn't there be darker feelings, too: a shadow side of grief or regret, or even anger or envy? If only this had been available for us. A simple shot could have kept us from all that pain and agony. If only we'd had it when we needed it. If only we'd been born a year later, or it had been offered a year earlier. If only!

Here's another photo from the Bentley archives, this one from a page about polio survivor Andrea Lael Cappaert. Andrea was born in 1952 and contracted polio when she was three years old; here, clearly older than three, she's in an iron lung, being visited by her parents. Andrea's mother wrote a memoir of her daughter's illness. It's titled And God Said No.

Andrea was born in 1952 and became ill with polio in 1955. The Salk vaccine was in field trials in 1954, but according to this timeline, it was only tested on children ages six through nine. Infants and toddlers weren't yet being vaccinated, even though they were the most susceptible group. How must Andrea's parents have felt, knowing that a vaccine was available, when their daughter got sick, that could have spared her, if only she'd been considered a suitable candidate for it?

There must be many stories like this.

Think about all the people who suffered terrible infections before the discovery of penicillin.

Think about all the people who died of organ failure before transplants became possible.

Think about everyone unable to benefit from artificial joints, dialysis, or new regimens of AIDS drugs, for no reason other than a fluke of timing. It came too late for us.

Everyone I know who has a disease or chronic medical condition fervently wants biomedical researchers to find answers: treatments, cures, preventive measures. Many people in this category do whatever they to bring this about, raising money and awareness by walking, running, writing letters, starting foundations. Surely they'd rejoice if their dreams came true, even if they were unable to benefit from the new discoveries. Surely Andrea Cappaert's parents would not for a moment have begrudged any other child the protection of the vaccine.

But surely they also must have dreamed of what their own lives, what their daughter's life, would have been like if only the miracle had come in time.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Happy Birthday to Moi!


I'm forty-seven today, and as happens almost every year, my birthday coincides with the Great Reno Balloon Race. I can see dozens of hot-air balloons out my study window right now, although none of them are close enough for me to make out patterns and colors. Yesterday the prevailing winds blew them right over the house; Gary told me that we had a visitation from an extremely large frog, and that the cats were fascinated. I missed this, unfortunately, because I was at the gym.

Gary got me most excellent birthday gifts: Joan Osborne's new album, an album by the Celtic group Grada, a charming consolation lion from the NYPL, new computer speakers for my office at work, and -- the piece de resistance -- a stethoscope.

See, he's always maintained that the medical school should provide me with a stethoscope, but since they haven't, he decided to get me one himself.

The irony is that it doesn't seem to work. (Who knew they were that complicated?) At first, neither of us heard anything; Gary did some twisting and turning of the mechanism, and now he can hear his heartbeat through it, but I can't hear a thing. He read online that you need the right size of eartips for your stethoscope, so we think maybe these are too big for my teensy ears.

It's still a very funny gift, though.

Tonight we're having friends over to watch a movie. In the meantime, I have three (count 'em, three) English Department meetings today. However, the colleague chairing one of the meetings has promised to bring chocolate, which is exceptionally thoughtful of him. And he doesn't even know it's my birthday!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Rest in Peace, Pavarotti


I've never liked opera as much as Gary does; I admire the artistry tremendously, but the genre doesn't massage the pleasure center of my brain the way it does his. (The music that does that for me is Celtic folk.) Listening to opera's often a pleasant experience, even exhilerating, but rarely ecstatic.

But I was genuinely saddened to read about the death of Luciano Pavarotti. We'd heard him sing with Kathleen Battle at the Met in New York, and his voice was truly astounding.

I was even sadder when I read this passage from the AP story:
Pavarotti was preparing to leave New York in July 2006 to resume a farewell tour when doctors discovered a malignant pancreatic mass. He underwent surgery in a New York hospital, and all his remaining 2006 concerts were canceled.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most dangerous forms of the disease, though doctors said the surgery offered improved hopes for survival.

"I was a fortunate and happy man," Pavarotti told Italian daily Corriere della Sera in an interview published about a month after the surgery. "After that, this blow arrived."

"And now I am paying the penalty for this fortune and happiness," he told the newspaper.
In my chaplaincy training at the hospital, we were taught the "first in, last out" principle of pastoral care. In times of severe stress and illness, and especially at the end of life, people tend to revert to their first belief system, whatever they absorbed as small children. These theologies are often primitive and punitive, even if the believer has consciously adopted a more humane outlook for decades.

Pavarotti's poignant statement is a perfect example. Like so many other patients facing grave outcomes, he believed that his illness was a punishment. And in his case, wrenchingly, he believed that he was being punished for having been happy and successful and abundantly talented, for having brought joy to millions of people.

This reflects a sort of "first law of thermodynamics" view of the universe: there's no such thing as a free lunch, and if you prosper and flourish, you'll pay a correspondingly devastating price later on. According to this worldview, the happier you are now, the more fearful you need to be later.

I hope and pray that Pavarotti's end-of-life care included chaplaincy, that someone helped him work with, and revise, this outlook. And I find myself wondering what I might have said and done had I been his chaplain.

We're trained to ask questions, so I probably would have said something like this. "Why do you believe that people have to pay a price for being happy? What has happened in your life to convince you of that? Do you feel guilty about your success? Why? If a friend of yours, another successful singer, got sick and said the same thing, how would you respond?"

This last one is one of my tried-and-true strategies; usually the patient says something like, "Oh, of course I'd try to tell my friend that having been happy doesn't mean we deserve to suffer!"

To which I respond, "Can you tell yourself the same thing?" Patients often find this difficult, even when they clearly see the logic. Emotion supersedes reason, and guilt is one of the most toxic and tenacious emotions in the human repertoire.

Chaplains are trained not to talk at patients, not to impose our own belief systems on them (although sometimes this is difficult!). And so, had I been Pavarotti's chaplain, I would have had to bite my lip to keep from sharing my own opinion:

Death is the price we all pay, whether we have been talented and successful or not. We pay it in more or less painful ways, but it is always a loss to us and those we love, whatever beliefs we may have about what comes next. The more we have loved and achieved and shared with others, the more acutely we and others feel that loss. (And is that, after all, all he meant?) If we felt no loss, that would mean there had been no love, and that's no way to live.

Because we will all pay this price, we all try to leave something behind, to ensure that death will have not claimed everything we are and everything we have done. All of us want something we love to live on in the world. Many people leave behind a legacy of family, children and grandchildren; others work in their communities or in other countries to help those in need; still others bless us with their talent in the arts, producing work that will not fade even when those who have created it are no longer visible.

Luciano Pavarotti, you have left us all a dazzling legacy. Your memory will not fade as long as anyone listens to your music, and we will be listening to your music as long as we have ears. And because you were fortunate and happy, you have taught us that it is not necessary to suffer to produce great art, that art can also bloom from love and joy.

And so we mourn you, and grieve with your friends and family; but as much as your death is a loss, we do not believe that it is a penalty. Your life is a gift that remains with us; you have gained immortality here, whatever comes after death. You have shown us the power of living well and fully, which is the charge laid on all of us by our mortality.

We would have spared you pain and illness if we could, and we know no more than you did why pain and illness come to so many. But we do know that however we die -- peacefully in our sleep, or after the shock and agony of illness or accident -- we will want our lives to be as cherished as yours.

Death is not the penalty for a good life. A good life, if we can achieve it, is our reward for facing our inevitable death, and for making our mark on the world in its shadow.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Lulu Update


Inez asked how Lulu's doing. Short answer: she's no better, but seems no worse. I think the shadier location is better for her; thanks for that tip, Beach Bum! (And happy belated birthday, Inez!)

Lulu was very dry this morning, so I watered her again. A sprig of flowers had fallen off; I carried it into the house and put it on the kitchen counter. All three cats immediately surrounded it, sniffing and chewing. This confirms my instinct that Lulu should stay outside!

And in other medical news, this week's Grand Rounds is up. I'm delighted to be included, especially in a fairly prominent spot, although I do wish Doc Emer had included an actual link to my post! But I've e-mailed him about this, and trust that the oversight will be corrected shortly.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Birthday Gifts from Mom


For quite a few years, my friend Ellen from San Francisco and I had a Labor Day tradition of meeting up in Auburn, roughly halfway between Reno and the Bay Area, for an art-gallery-and-jewelry shopping spree. We haven't been able to do that for a few years now, since she adopted her little boy Paul. But today the Labor Day shopping tradition took a new form, when my friend Marin and I went to the Wildflower Village Gallery on Fourth Street in Reno.

Wildflower Village used to be -- and still is, in part -- a hotel, and it's the first place I stayed when I moved to Reno ten years ago. Gary was still in New York, and I stayed at the hotel until our apartment became available. The hotel was a little funky (this was well before the era of cell phones, and I had to use a pay phone outside because there were no phones in the rooms), but there were beautiful views of the mountains. A local shopkeeper recently told me that there's a gallery there now, and a few weeks ago I visited and fell in love with the place, which has room after room of lovely work by local artisans.

On that first visit, in anticipation of my annual birthday check from Mom, I bought this ring, an oval green turquoise. I couldn't quite get it in focus with our camera, but I hope this photo gives you some idea of what it looks like. (I wear two other, much smaller rings on that hand, one silver and one gold: they act as guard rings, and you can see a bit of them in this photo.) The stone matches some green turquoise earrings Mom bought me while she was here, and it reminds me of the colors of the Nevada desert. The ring was made by a local Native American woman and I bought it in the first place I stayed in Reno, so all of that felt nicely symbolic.

Last week, I got Mom's check, which was more than the amount of the ring, so when Marin and I went to the gallery, I knew I wanted something else. I used to spend birthday checks on sensible things like clothing, but now I'm far more apt to buy small or not-so-small luxuries!

I adore art glass, and on the previous visit, I'd been quite smitten with a blue-and-yellow glass vase I'd remembered as being just the right amount of money. Today, I went to look at it right away. I'd been wrong; it cost more than the remaining amount of the check, although not scandalously more.

So I wandered around and kept looking at other stuff -- including much more expensive art glass I never would have dreamed of buying, but that Marin kept trying to entice me to put on layaway -- but I kept coming back to this vase, partly because it "felt like" Mom to me. Her bedroom's always been blue, but I wondered why the yellow resonated too, aside from just being pretty.

And then I figured it out.

My mother visited here during the summer of 2002, when I was in the final days of writing The Necessary Beggar, and she read the book in manuscript. She loves it so much that I dedicated it to her. For quite a while after I finished the book, she and my sister both kept giving me various beetle objects, in honor of the beetle in the book. For my birthday that year, Mom -- who's always been very handy at needlework -- commissioned an artist to design a cross-stitch pattern of a beetle. She did the embroidery and put it in a blue frame, to symbolize the blue door at the end of the novel. As you can see, the beetle's orange-yellow, and it matches my new vase. My subconscious connected the two before my rational mind had figured out the link.

So, of course (with helpful urging from Marin), I bought the vase. Here it is on our deck, with the sunlight streaming through it and making a pattern that looks like water on the wooden table. I love it!

Oddly enough, I'm not worried about the cats hurting it; they haven't harmed any of my other art glass, and I don't know why they'd start now.

Thanks for the great birthday gifts, Mom! And thanks for the shopping encouragement, Marin!

The Thoughtful Thief


Our preacher at church yesterday told a startling story. Her house was burglarized last week: the thief climbed up on a wheelbarrow in the backyard, gained access through an unlocked window, and left through the back door in the kitchen, after having loaded a briefcase on the kitchen table with a laptop computer, jewelry, and coins.

But first, the thief carefully removed from the briefcase the Mother's Day card our preacher's young daughter had given her, and left it on the kitchen table.

That almost sounds like a parable, doesn't it?

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Any Emergency Plant Doctors Out There?


Help! Lulu's leaves are weirdly limp and curled, although the soil's still moist. She was fine at lunchtime today!

Don't tell me I killed her in only one day! Aaaaagh!

Meet Lulu Lavender


We have a new member of the family.

Gary and I both have black thumbs. I've always killed any houseplant I owned, usually by anxious parenting in the form of too much water, and we haven't had any luck with our yards, either. We had grass in our tiny front yard for a while, but despite Gary's best efforts, it kept going patchy and brown, so we finally replaced it with rock (which makes more sense in this arid climate anyway). Our back yard was a wilderness of weeds when we bought the house, and right now, it's just dirt. Gary tears up all the cheatgrass every spring to create a fire-defense zone around the house, and we haven't tried to plant anything else. Conventional lawns take too much water, and we don't have the money for xeriscaping.

Various plants on our property are thriving: Lars, the giant juniper in the front yard; Sven, the pine tree on the other side of the driveway (which was waist high when we moved in nine years ago, and now towers well over our heads); a few stubborn tulips out back; a scraggly peavine in one corner of the backyard. But they do so well because we resolutely ignore them.

But I love lavender in almost any form. About the only non-bargain-basement bodycare product I use is a delicious (and expensive) body-butter cream from Ali'i Kula Lavender in Maui, and I'm always jealous of friends who have lavender growing on their property.

So yesterday, we went to Trader Joe's. They were selling potted lavender.

I smelled the lavender. I swooned. I dithered. It would be ridiculous for me to buy a plant; I'd just kill it. I smelled the lavender again, dithered some more, spoke to a helpful sales clerk who explained that I'd have to put the plant in the ground, or in a bigger pot -- oh, yikes! -- spoke to Gary, who said, "It's your responsibility; I'm not having anything to do with it" ("If you bring that puppy home from the pound, you have to walk it, do you hear me? Puppies are a lot of responsibility!" "But Daaa-aaad, it's so cute!"), and finally bought the lavender plant, whom I christened Lulu.

The clerk at Trader Joe's said that in-ground lavender doesn't always survive our winters, so when we got home, I found a helpful website on Growing Lavender in Containers and then dashed off to Home Depot to buy supplies.

According to the website, I shouldn't get Lulu too much larger a pot than she was already in, because lavender actually likes tight root spaces. Once I found the right size pot, though, I faced my next challenge: terra cotta? Plastic? One of the gorgeous ceramic pots?

I finally decided on plastic, because it had the most drainage holes, which the website said was important. If I bought Lulu a fancy pot and then she died, I'd feel extra awful. So this is Lulu's training pot, and I'll get her a nicer one next year, if she lasts that long.

Next: soil. Oy! Home Depot sells fifty million kinds of soil, and they all seem to come in forty-pound bags. Plus the website said that lavender likes "fluffy" soil, and I couldn't find any with that consistency on the label. I finally stumbled onto a side aisle with bags of organic potting soil I wouldn't need a forklift to move, and got one of those.

But the bag said that the soil already included plantfood, and the website had said that plantfood should be mixed with the soil during repotting. What to do? What to do? I couldn't find a clerk, but I found a kind fellow customer who told me that she always uses plantfood, but only half the manufacturer's recommendation.

So that solved that problem. The only thing left on the list was gravel for the bottom of the pot, to provide extra drainage. But gravel at Home Depot comes in forty-ton bags. The sales staff swore there were smaller ones, but couldn't find any; finally they just let me scoop up some loose gravel, for free, from a bag that had broken.

Home with my purchases, I set about repotting Lulu, a task I think I completed successfully, although I made a bit of a mess in the process. The plantfood directions said to put it on top of the soil, rather than mixing it in, but once Lulu was repotted, there wasn't much room to spread plant food. I got some in around the edges, though.

So we'll see how she does. The website said that lavender shouldn't be watered every day: "not too wet, but not too dried out, either." Oh, that's helpful. Could you be a little more imprecise? I'm going to aim for every third day, to try to avoid my usual overwatering trap.

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to drinking my morning coffee out on the deck in the glorious smell of lavender. I'm not sure what I'll do with Lulu in the winter, especially if it snows; put her out on the covered front porch, probably, since if she were inside, she'd definitely meet speedy death-by-cat.

So wish me luck, everybody. I told Gary I felt like I'd brought home a new kitten; he rolled his eyes and said, "Well, at least you won't have to rush it down to Animal Emergency if it gets sick."

Hmmmm. I wonder if there are emergency plant doctors?

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Rocketing up the Food Chain!


As of this morning, TTLB informs me that I've made the leap from Flippery Fish to Crawly Amphibian. Gosh!

The Crawly Amphibian shown here is a Sierra Nevada Newt, which seems appropriate. Given the fact that hit stats always plummet on weekends -- especially holiday weekends -- I expect to be devolving very quickly, but I thought I'd celebrate my taxonomic accomplishment while I could.

I hope you all have a splendid Labor Day!

And while I'm on the subject, happy September. I'll be forty-seven on Friday; Figaro has a birthday on the third or fourth, but neither Gary nor I can remember how old he is. Three, I think.