Friday, February 29, 2008

A Request to Readers (Triggers about Triggers)

So I was browsing on Technorati a few minutes ago, checking (as I periodically do) for links to the blog, and I came across this post complaining that the title of my previous post is, in effect, false advertising, and that I should have included a trigger warning about abuse issues.

I've now included the trigger warning. Truth to tell, I'm a little ambivalent about such things: they remind me too much of the woman I knew in grad school, a former anorexic, who sat me down and gave me a list of food-and-eating-related subjects I wasn't allowed to mention in front of her, because they'd upset her too much and/or trigger her illness.

But she was asking me to censor myself; this reader is asking only for informed consent, and that's different.

At any rate, I'm very sorry I upset a reader (although, on the other hand, if that post doesn't upset you, something's wrong). But here's the request: if I need a trigger warning, please tell me so directly! My e-mail address is in my profile, and anyone can leave a comment on the blog. I shouldn't have to learn that I retraumatized someone by stumbling across it on Technorati.

And, S.I., I hope you feel better.

I continue to wrestle with my own feelings about all of this, though. See, here's the thing: I'm not sure the rest of the world is responsible for protecting me from my traumatic memories. I think it's my own job to figure out how to deal with them, with whatever help is appropriate, of course. (Note: After my own colorful experience with DV in college, which included flying furniture aimed at my head -- and very clumsily thrown, thank God, so I managed to duck it -- I was for some months terrified of flying objects. It was spring semester, and my college campus was a maze of grassy quads, all full of people playing frisbee. The flying frisbees completely undid me. I knew even at the time that this was PTSD; I also knew that the frisbee-players weren't out to get me. I got into therapy and planned long, ornate routes to my classes, routes designed to avoid frisbee games. I never would have dreamed of telling people on campus that they couldn't play frisbee because I had trouble with flying objects, or even to ask them to post signs that said, "Warning: Frisbee game in progress." On the other hand, yeah, I know, it's a lot easier to spot a frisbee from a distance than it is to know what a mistitled post is about.)

*Sigh* I've now hit the depths of political incorrectness, haven't I? I dunno. What do other people think about this? I included the trigger warning, and will do so in the future if a post seems to warrant it; I'm just a little troubled by the concept. But maybe it's like restaurants that have spiciness ratings next to the food? I really appreciate those, because I hate hot stuff.

On the other hand, as Gary pointed out when we discussed this over dinner, where does it stop? Should restaurants also include warnings if food contains fat, salt, lactose, or artificial colors? Should writers include warnings about every possible subject that could upset someone in their work? My fiction contains so many possible triggers that each of my published volumes would be twice its current length were I to list them all. Do I need to warn blog readers who hate cats when I'll be talking about one of my pets?

I'd like to try to have a rational conversation about this, if possible. Dear Readers: what do you think? How should bloggers/writers handle this issue?

Please keep all comments polite. Remember that your audience here will inevitably include people who don't agree with you, and that insulting people rarely wins them over to your point of view. Please speak as you'd wish to be spoken to.


Chaplain Rambo: A Mary Sue Fantasy

Note: This post is about domestic violence and abuse. If you're sensitive to triggers, please be forewarned.

This week at the hospital, I learned that dying, or learning that you're going to die, isn't the saddest thing in the world. The people weeping around your bedside are devastated, but that's because you lived a full life, because you loved and were loved. Loving and being loved is cause for joy, even or especially in darkness.

The saddest thing in the world is the person who's never had a chance to live: the person who's been beaten down for so many decades that there's almost no self left, the person who's learned to live with being punched and kicked and insulted, because "that's all I have, and I'm too old, and where else can I go?"

The saddest thing in the world is when the ED staff says, with one voice, "We can send you to a shelter!" and you tell them, "I'm too scared, I'm too scared, I want to go home!" And when the ED staff says, "You can press charges," you say, "No, I can't. I'll be killed. I've been promised that." And when the chaplain asks the ED manager if there's any way for the staff to press charges, the manager says no, there isn't: not unless the injuries are life-threatening.

How much brutality does it take to threaten a life?

The saddest thing in the world is when the only home you know is one where you aren't allowed to have friends, because your partner's bigger than you are, and has forbidden it; where you aren't allowed to go to movies, because your partner has forbidden it; where it takes untold courage even to give your neighbors a Christmas card (sneaking, whispering, "you mustn't say I did this!"), because your partner has forbidden it.

The saddest thing in the world is defending a partner who's "nice sometimes," who occasionally buys you "oranges if they're cheap enough." The saddest thing in the world is having only ever had one person who loved you enough to defend you from swinging fists (but that was when you were a small child, and your defender's long dead).

The saddest thing in the world is when you have to tell the hospital chaplain, "I drink because then it doesn't hurt so much when I get hit."

The saddest thing in the world, for the chaplain, is watching you leave AMA, clutching the list of shelters the social workers have given you. You've told us you're going to stay with a kind relative. We all think you're lying. We all think you're going back to the partner who's killing you. There's nothing we can do about it.

And the chaplain, watching you leave, watches the doctor and nurses and social workers retreat into the brisk indifference they have to cultivate, the detachment that allows them to survive dealing with things like this day after day, hour after hour. The chaplain can't detach. The chaplain vents to various staff, seeing in their glazed eyes that she's making their own detachment more difficult, making their jobs harder.

The chaplain feels utterly miserable.

And the chaplain concocts a wish, a fantasy. The chaplain wishes that, when you were begging us not to let your partner into the ED, when you were asking frantically how many locked doors there were -- the chaplain wishes the partner had shown up. The chaplain thinks about how she would have blocked the doorway to your room, would have stood there with her hands braced against the doorframe. The chaplain thinks about how she would have told your partner, "If you so much as touch me, you're going to jail, and that's a guarantee." The hospital has very little tolerance for people who threaten staff, even volunteers.

The chaplain knows this is a dangerous, stupid fantasy, and knows further that if it came down to it, there's no guarantee that she wouldn't have buckled in terror. The chaplain knows that her supervisors would thoroughly disapprove of this plan, that it could even cost her the volunteer job she loves so much.

She nourishes the fantasy anyway.

And meanwhile, she prays for you, remembering the doctor who said -- with glazed eyes, sounding bored and detached and barely polite -- "Oh, well. I guess all you can do here is pray. That's something, right?"

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Shameless Plea for Votes

Hi, everybody! Both Shelter and The Fate of Mice are on this year's Locus Recommended Reading List, which means that they're also on the ballot for the annual Locus Awards. Jacob Weisman, my editor at Tachyon, reminded me of this today (when he called to tell me that someone's interested in the Korean rights to FoM -- woo-hoo!).

Jacob instructed me to tell all my friends, relations, and blog readers to vote for me. (I'd say, please vote for me only if you've actually read the books in question and liked them. If you haven't read them yet but think you might like them, you can order them from Amazon -- links above, as well as on my sidebar -- or look for them in your local library. Also, many people feel that it's not ethical to vote for an award if they haven't read all the nominees, and I absolutely respect that.) The ballot is here. You don't need to be a Locus subscriber to vote. Shelter's on the drop-down list for SF novels, and The Fate of Mice is on the list for single-author collection.

The voting deadline is April 15.

I know this is tacky, but it comes with the territory.

Thanks so much!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Why It's the First Rule of Fiction

Some of the commenters on yesterday's post seem to be bemoaning the cruelty of Kids These Days. For whatever it's worth, both the author and the reader are about my age, and the point's entirely legitimate (and, in this instance, very amusingly expressed, which is why I posted it).

If there's no conflict, there's no story.

If there is conflict, somebody's hurting.

Hence the necessity for writers to hurt their characters. And yes, sometimes this is difficult when you become too attached to them: that's one reason Mary Sue/Marty Stu fiction is often so deathly dull to read, because the author can't bear to harm one hair on the head of the all-too-perfect character who's the author's wish-fulfillment stand-in.

When I discuss point of view (POV) with my writing students, I always tell them that the POV character should be the one who's in the most pain.

Serene happiness is lovely in life, but really boring in fiction.

C'mon: have you ever read a story about someone who had no problems? And did you enjoy reading that story?

If we ever reach Utopia, it will be the end of a lot of art. But since we're nowhere close, I'm not worried on that score!

P.S. Anon., Tolkien's as popular as ever; I'm teaching a Tolkien course this very semester. As for Hemingway, my students refer to him often, although they -- and other people -- do tend to misspell his name. Thanks for not putting in an extra "m"!

Grand Rounds

This week's edition is up. Alas, I was too busy to submit something (and I had a post all planned, too . . . maybe next week!).

Happy reading!

Monday, February 25, 2008

The First Rule of Fiction

In one of my recent fiction workshops, one student gave another a story critique that began, "I get the impression that you don't want to hurt these people, which is problematic since the first rule of fiction is to do the worst possible thing to your characters and see how they handle it."

The critique continues, describing how things could be much worse for the particular characters in this story. The critic concludes with the memorable line, "Go ahead and hurt them -- that's what they're for."

Ah, writers. We're a bloodthirsty bunch!

(And yes, that really is the first rule of fiction, or at least in the top ten.)


Yesterday in church, one of our priests gave a lovely homily that was, in part, about mindfulness, about slowing down during Lent and paying attention.

Preachers talk about this all the time during Lent. I've talked about it myself.

And as it always does, even when I'm delivering it, the message strikes me as entirely wrong for this time of year. Slow down? In February and March? You've got to be kidding!

I'm under (and behind on) so many deadlines right now that I can hardly count them. I'm behind on grading. Everyone at work is stressed out and semi-crazed, not least because half the universe seems to be ill. Last night I thought I was getting sick, but threw it off; during my last class today, though, I started losing my voice, so I'm a little worried.

Slow down? Sorry: not until at least the last week in March, at least not in my world. There may be some profession where February and March are slow and soothing, but academia isn't it.

Can we move Lent to July? That would really make it much easier.

I was kvetching about this at work today to a colleague who's frazzled from caring for a sick child. (She's behind on her grading, too, although she has better reason than I do.) She laughed at the Lent bit even though she's Jewish, and then I said, "Oh, yeah, and that thing about the Sabbath? We're all supposed to take one day a week off? Yeah, right!"

My friend laughed even harder. I just don't have a day of the week that never has any commitments: I don't know anyone who does, including (or especially) clergy, and certainly not professors.

(Don't get me started on people who say things like, "Oh, you teach college. That's a cushy job: you're in class six hours a week and then you have summers off." These people have no clue about class prep, grading, committee work, or university/community service, let alone the research and publication we're all supposed to be doing. It's much more than a 9-5 job during the academic year; it slows down during the summer, but doesn't stop, even for those of us who don't teach then.)

"The best I can do," I told my friend, "is take mini-Sabbaths every day. Half an hour of swimming. Forty minutes of knitting. A cup of tea. That gives me a few minutes to live in the moment, anyway."

She thought that made sense; she'd just confessed that lately, she's become obsessed with crossword puzzles, which serve much the same function.

Of course, I'd be less behind on everything else if I were taking fewer mini-Sabbaths. But one does have to remain sane.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Quick Updates

My cousin's home from the hospital.

Katharine fixed the Great Knitting Disasters. Yay, Katharine! You're my hero!

Today's mail brought the beaded stitch markers from my sister. I love them! I'll post pictures at some point.

We're having a big snowstorm.

I have lots and lots of grading to do. Right. Back to it!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Busy, Busier, Busiest

The ER was beyond crazed today: the staff was run ragged, and people in the waiting room were very cranky. It's peak cold/flu season, and we also had some desperately sick patients: someone who'd had a massive stroke and was on a vent, someone else who needed a central line and whose lung collapsed (both of those were critical-care admissions), a patient with dual tuberculosis and pneumonia, and lots and lots of seriously dehydrated babies and toddlers. I've learned that these are among nurses' least favorite patients: it's not at all easy to start an IV on a dehydrated kid, because their veins are hard to find, and the more often you stick them, the more they scream -- and nobody enjoys tormenting children even when it's medically necessary -- and the anxious parents are watching every move you make. And it can take a team of staff members to hold down a determined, indignant two year old.

So: busy shift. But for me, it was a good shift. The minute I walked into the department, one of my favorite nurses grabbed me, said, "I'm so glad you're here!" and sent me to talk to a relative of one of the critical-care admits. This person's courage in facing the situation moved and awed me. I spent time with a relative of the other critical-care admit, too. Lots of patients and families requested prayer, and nearly everybody, after I'd finished my standard prayer, told me it was "beautiful." One patient, when I gave him a warm blanket, went into such ecstasies of gratitude that I thought this must be the most fervant thanks he'd ever offered . . . but he managed even more fervant thanks when I gave him some tissues and, later, some ice chips.

In short, I felt both useful and appreciated, which was a great help in getting me over my snit with my father this morning, and in making me feel competent again after the Great Knitting Disasters of the last few days.

Oh, and I got a free t-shirt. And I've now volunteered over 600 hours. And I met one of our new social workers! Woo-hoo! Yay, social workers!

Now I'm off to Katharine's house, to see what she can do with the Great Knitting Disasters.

Annoyances, Various

To anyone who's wondering: Gary and I are 340 miles west of Elko and Wells, and haven't been affected by the earthquake at all.

This morning I spoke to my cousin, who sounds surprisingly cheerful, under the circumstances, and who seems more worried about his father and his wife than about himself. He may be able to go home tomorrow. The next step will be to see an oncologist, and then to start chemo.

After I spoke to him, my father called. He's never been close to this cousin or his siblings, and he's very sorry to hear the news, but he also took it -- somewhat gloatingly -- as an opportunity to try to shoot down my faith. "How can you believe in this fairy tale? How could a good God let people suffer? You know, somebody just wrote a book about how he stopped believing in God because the Bible doesn't tell us why we suffer. So how can you answer that?"

We've been through this ten million times. Whenever anything unpleasant happens in the world, my father calls me to crow about how there can't possibly be a God. I've had ten million conversations about theodicy with him, quoting Job and C.S. Lewis and anyone else I can think of, but of course it never works. I did not feel like another useless debate about theodicy this morning, so I'm afraid I cut him somewhat short. "Dad, we're not going to settle this, okay? I believe what I believe. You believe what you believe. We aren't going to change each other's minds."

In the meantime, I'd arranged to go to Katharine's house this evening for help with the knitting project I screwed up on the plane. On the phone with my Dad, I was carefully working on another project, in yarn that's notoriously difficult to frog. Suddenly I realized that the needle had become detached from the cable and a bunch of stitches had slid off: major crisis.

I tried to pick up the stitches again and, as usual, have wound up with a mess . . . so now Katharine will have to help me fix two projects.

Dang. Why am I ruining everything I touch right now?

I'm going to the hospital today. I hope that will go better!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Grand Rounds

Here's a belated link to this week's edition. I didn't get a chance to write something this week, but I'm looking forward to reading the posts!

Busy, Busier

My trip down to Vegas yesterday went very well. The medical students in the seminar were terrific, and did excellent work: they wrote very movingly in response to the prompt. I used the same case I did last time, about a pediatric death. I asked the students to write a letter from one character in the case to another, explaining how that person felt about what was happening. Then they traded letters with a partner, who wrote a response to the first letter.

It was a satisfying session, especially since after the class, one of the students came up to ask me a question and to tell me how much she'd gotten out of the exercise. It turns out that we share a passion for psychiatric and homeless patients, so we swapped stories about our favorite encounters. She's concerned about the fact that psychiatry has become mostly about medication management; psychiatrists don't spend much time talking to their patients anymore (that's the realm of psychologists). She's also interested in international medicine, and shares my admiration for Paul Farmer. I really enjoyed the conversation, and I think she's going to be a great doctor.

The only downsides of Vegas were a) the fact that I'd woken up at 4 a.m., which meant I was pretty wiggy by late afternoon, and b) the serious knitting error I made on the plane flight down, which means that I have to frog at least three rows. Ack!

Our plane back was delayed forty-five minutes. I got home at 8:00 and was in bed at 9:00. My alarm went off at 7:00. I turned off the alarm, intending to get up momentarily. At 8:00, Gary shook me and said, "Don't you have a meeting at 9:00?"

"Oh, #@&%!" I said, and raced into the shower, into my study to print out materials I needed for my 11:00 presentation, and into the car. I got to the med school a few minutes early for the meeting: turned out I was the first one there. Only two other people came, and they were both sick. (My partner for the 11:00 presentation had already canceled because she's sick, too.) We had a nice chat and ended early. I went to find my friend Marin, who photocopied the presentation stuff for me; then I checked my e-mail in the med-school library and went to give the presentation.

I was presenting under the aegis of a group with a grant to study spirituality and medicine. We've been finding that this subject is a somewhat tough sell to residents, who are working seventy hours a week and exhausted. My topic today was "Woundology, Or Why Patients Don't Heal," and my partner and I had put together a couple of real-life cases about patients who derived their meaning in life (and therefore, implicitly, their spirituality) from their illness. One of these cases was a man I met in the ER who'd developed a complicated cardiac history after the death of both of his daughters: his interpretation was that his physical pain was God's way of telling him that his daughters were better off dead than they would be on Earth, "where everything hurts."

The residents' first response to all of the cases was "call in a psychology consult." They don't have time to deal with these issues; they only get to see patients for fifteen minutes, which is really more like seven, and they don't get reimbursed for depression diagnoses, and this stuff isn't their area of expertise, anyway. I think they were sympathetic to the cases, but the urge to refer to another specialist was overwhelming (note: these are family practice residents).

So I felt like the presentation fell flat, although Marin thinks that it went well and that I gave them something new to think about. At any rate, after that session ended at 12:00, I raced down to lower campus to gobble lunch and teach my 1:00 fiction class. When I got back to my office at 2:15, I had e-mail from my mother saying that one of my cousins was in the hospital after having an intestinal tumor removed, and was waiting for biopsy results.

Oh, #@(&#.

A graduate student whose MA committee I'm chairing came to talk to me about her thesis plans. While we were talking, the phone rang. It was Gary. "Your mother just called. They got the biopsy results. It's malignant, and two lymph nodes were involved."

"Oh, #(@&!" I said. "#@(#&, #@&*#(O, @#*#%&!"

When I got off the phone, I apologized to my student for cursing. She was very sympathetic and supportive. I had about half an hour to collect myself before my 5:30 Tolkien class; luckily, my lesson plan involved a fairly extended small-group exercise for the students, which gave me a long stretch when I didn't have to be coherent.

I also got my first batch of papers in the Tolkien class, and because of various scheduling issues, I have more grading than usual for my fiction workshop, too. So it's going to be an extremely busy weekend. I hope I manage to regenerate some brain cells over the next few days!

Please pray for my cousin and his wife in Arizona, and for my uncle in New Jersey, who lost his wife not long ago and is now facing the serious illness of a child. And for my cousin's two brothers and their families.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Busy, Busy!

I haven't posted for a few days because I've been frantically preparing for the coming week. Today I'm flying down to Vegas to teach a narrative-medicine seminar; tomorrow I'm co-presenting at the medical school up here, and then teaching. I'll get my first batch of Tolkien papers tomorrow, and will also have more workshop grading than usual.

So that's why I've been quiet! Yesterday I got all of Wednesday's class prep done, since I won't have time today. I was so busy that I only knitted four rows, rather than my usual twelve (not knitting at all was inconceivable).

I hope my flights are smooth today: Vegas and Reno both provide infamously bumpy landings.

Gotta run. Be good and do well, everybody.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Losing Brianna

As many of you have probably seen on the news -- and certainly know if you live in Reno -- the woman who was abducted from a house near UNR on January 20 was discovered strangled in a field on Friday (athough the body was only identified today, Saturday).

This means, among many other things, that our UNR-area serial rapist is now also a killer, which has ratcheted up the fear level considerably.

And, on a completely selfish level, the news created a classic preaching nightmare. I'd gotten a very different homily almost completely written before going to the hospital, where I had a fairly tough shift (partly due to a verbally unpleasant patient). The nurses there were speculating that the body must be Brianna's, but no one knew for sure yet.

When I got home, I saw that the body had been identified. If something like this happens in a community on Saturday afternoon, you have to preach about it on Sunday morning. So, already worn out from my shift, I tossed out my first homily and wrote this one. Gary tells me it hangs together: I hope my congregation thinks so! At least I know that every preacher in Reno, and maybe in Nevada, is in the same position.

You can read exhaustive coverage of the Denison case here. I've pulled quotations from a number of articles, but haven't linked to them individually.

The Scripture readings are here.

Although I say this in the homily itself, it goes without saying that all of us should pray for everyone concerned.


Our Scripture readings today begin with a long, arduous journey. God tells Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Abram’s travels will include famine in Egypt, the terrifying destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the heartbreaking test of being commanded to sacrifice Isaac. Through many of these trials, he must have wondered if he wouldn’t have been better off just staying home. He had only his faith to assure him that he was indeed moving towards a better place. Although God had promised him a great name, he could not have foreseen that, under his new name of Abraham, he would become the forefather of three of the world’s most enduring and influential faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

This morning’s Gospel also describes the beginning of a journey. Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, has come to Jesus at night to attest to his faith. “Rabbi, we know that you are a great teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus’ response is more than a little puzzling, and Nicodemus proceeds to ask a series of questions. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? How can these things be?” Nicodemus’ bewilderment about the spiritual birth of baptism reminds us of the literal, astonishing births granted to Abraham and Sarah, who were given children in their old age.

We don’t know if Nicodemus was satisfied with the answers Jesus gave him, but we do know that his faith remained firm. This first journey, to visit Jesus at night, ultimately led him to the Cross, for Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea prepare Jesus’ body for burial. And the Cross leads to the glorious rebirth of the Resurrection, the birth that undoes death forever. No one who journeyed with Jesus could have foreseen that outcome. They didn’t believe it even when he told them it would happen; they couldn’t imagine it. But they believed in him, and they stayed with him. On Good Friday, they must have wondered if they wouldn’t have been better off staying home, working as fishermen and tax collectors. Easter swept all of that away. Once they had witnessed Jesus’ rebirth, once he had broken bread with them and fried them fish for breakfast, they knew the journey had been worth it.

Every year, Lent asks us to set out a hard journey through difficult terrain. Unlike Abraham and Nicodemus, we already know our ultimate destination, and yet we may still find ourselves beset by questions. Isn’t life already hard enough? Does it really need to be harder during Lent? Can’t we just skip to the good part, to Easter?

One answer to these questions, of course, is that since Jesus couldn’t skip the hard parts, we can’t, either: if we truly want to be his followers, we have to follow him all the way, even into deserts and darkness. Perhaps the most fundamental truth of Lent, the paradox at the heart of Christianity, is that we can’t reach Easter without first enduring Good Friday. And that is ultimately a promise, a reminder during all of our personal Good Fridays, whether they occur during Lent or not. Where there is death, God promises resurrection. Our job is to have faith in it, to look for it, and not to succumb to despair or turn away before it arrives.

This is an especially important discipline for everyone in Reno right now. As all of you probably know, the body discovered in a field in south Reno on Friday was identified yesterday as Brianna Denison, the young woman abducted from a friend’s home on January 20. Brianna’s family and friends are certainly going through an agonizing Good Friday right now, and so are many others who’ve been helping with the search, attending vigils, or simply following the story on the news. As a community, we’ve traveled from frantic hope that Brianna would return safely home to the sickening knowledge of her death. This isn’t a journey any of us wanted to take, and it’s led us through terrifying terrain: fear for our own safety and the safety of those we love, the horrible awareness that the killer -- responsible for at least two previous sexual assaults -- lives or lived here and knows this area well, the grim knowledge of how physically vulnerable we are.

The tragedy has created questions we will probably never be able to answer in this life, the kinds of questions humans have asked for millenia when faced with evil. How can a loving God permit such suffering? How could anyone become so damaged, become able to do what was done to Brianna? What can we do to protect ourselves against such violence? And -- perhaps the most important question -- how can we respond to this tragedy in a way that honors Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies? How can Jesus ask us to love Brianna’s killer, the man UNR police chief Adam Garcia has called “an animal”? Our natural human response is to love Brianna’s bereaved relatives and friends, and each other. Surely the mere idea of loving the murderer is impossible, a Lenten discipline even Jesus would never require of us.

And yet we have not been offered exceptions or loopholes. Jesus certainly loved his own enemies: he fed Judas during the Last Supper even though he knew that Judas had betrayed him, and he said of his own murderers, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It’s tempting to retort that Brianna’s killer knew exactly what he was doing, but I suspect that Jesus’ friends and family felt the same way about the soldiers who carried out the crucifixion.

We must pray for comfort for everyone who is grieving Brianna’s death, and we must pray that the killer is caught and prevented from acting again. But while we yearn for justice, we are also called to model Christ’s compassion. The killer has family and friends too. Please pray for them; and if you can possibly find it in your heart, please pray for him.

In the meantime, as we travel through this ghastly Good Friday, we are called to have faith that rebirth and resurrection lie on the other side, that tragedy can be redeemed, somehow turned to good. Brianna’s life witnesses to that truth; she majored in psychology because she wanted to counsel children, as she had been counseled after her father died when she was six. Brianna’s aunt, Lauren Denison, said, “I never want Bri’s name to die in vain. I want what happened to be able to help people and cause change.” And Stephen Arvin, a Reno Fire Department chaplain who was ministering to the search parties looking for Brianna, said, “Bri’s life has changed this community. There can be something good that comes out of everything.”

We can see that change in the way our community has drawn together, in the poignant reminder we have been given to cherish those we love, in our new awareness of our need to protect ourselves and each other. I teach at UNR, and since one of my classes runs until after dark, getting safely back to my car has become a concern. I tried using the Escort Service, but they were so swamped with calls that I had long and frustrating waits. Once I called the campus police for a ride, but the officer put me in the locked, cramped back seat, where the felons normally sit. Finally I asked my evening class if any of them were parked near me, so we could walk together. One of my students, an older woman, said, “I park near here, but you can walk me to my car, and then I’ll drive you to yours. We have to stick together.”

Lent is often considered a time of solitary contemplation, but Jesus himself, after his forty days in the desert, collected a community. Our task now is to stick together and to stick to Jesus: to be careful, to be loving, to have faith that our anguished, bewildered questions confirm our humanity, and always to remain open to hope and alert to rebirth.


Friday, February 15, 2008

Adventures with Buffy

Remember the darling puppy who visited my fiction workshop last spring? As you may recall, my posting about her on my blog led to her being adopted by a fellow chaplain and her husband. Today I had lunch with Nancy, Buffy's new mom, and then visited Buffy at home. Here she is looking alert and watchful. (Click on any of the thumbnails to enlarge.)

Here she is cuddling with Nancy. She's an incredibly sweet dog and she's found two very loving and devoted people, so it's a success story all around. They have her very well trained: she stays with her people when she's off-leash (although she thoroughly enjoys romping with other dogs) and she doesn't jump. She's still a little shy around strangers, so they aren't sure if she'll make a good therapy dog, but that may still happen, since she's still under a year old.

Nancy took some pictures of me with Buffy, but I look like a deranged hunchback, so I decided not to post them.

Of course I wanted to bring Buffy a toy. A few months ago, I saw a Dracula dog toy at PetSmart, and I went there this morning hoping to find one so I could give it to her and get photos of her emulating her namesake (she's named after Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of course). But it turned out that the vampire dolls are seasonal, and there weren't any left, so I had to settle for this giant snake. That's okay, though, because -- as all Buffy fans know -- this snake just has to be the Mayor at the end of Season 3.

As you can tell, Buffy copped to his sinister nature immediately, and dragged him out of his comfy lair -- the dog bed -- and away from her red plush bone. One must protect the homestead.

The Mayor tried to double back around to attack her with his second set of fangs (I don't believe the Mayor on the show sported this feature, but this Mayor's even scarier). Our noble Buffy, however, was too tough for him.

Here she is, triumphant!

If I were more technically savvy, I'd have taken a video of her playing with the snake, used the Buffy theme as a soundtrack, and posted it on YouTube. But since I'm not technically savvy, you'll all just have to hum the theme to yourselves.

(Does anybody remember when NPR covered the end of the show and played the theme on the air? I teared up, I swear.)

A Slayer's work is never done! Not an hour after her victory over the Mayor, Buffy was in combat again, this time with the dreaded Stick Demon.

She won that contest too, natch.

What a good Slayer! Of course Nancy and I gave her lots of treats and pats.

It's been a very doggy week for me. On Sunday, I visited Sharon and walked her dog Misty, a teacup-sized Ratchau: a cross between a rat terrier and a chihuahua. Misty led me on a forty-minute romp through mud and snow. Oh, the bushes to sniff! The mailbox posts to investigate! The smells to inspect!

Meanwhile, Figaro and Harley are blissfully asleep on my study couch. Mayors and Stick Demons don't bother them. They just yawn, eat some catfood, and go back to sleep.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Best. Card. Ever.

Gary always does a really clever job of personalizing birthday and Valentine's Day cards, and I especially liked the captions he added to this one.

Yay! My sweetie loves me! And I love him!

Happy Valentine's Day to all of you! And if this is a lonely day for you -- as it is for so many people -- curl up with something warm (a pet, a blanket, a bath, a cup of tea) and let that warmth become your hug from the universe.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Convoluted Cat

I took this photo; Gary downloaded and titled it. Harley and Figaro both love to curl up among the stuffed critters on the couch in my study, and Harley in particular tends to get into positions where it's impossible to tell which end is which.

I love this shot because you can see the tufts between his toes. He always looks to me like he's wearing little snowshoes.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Here's more of the new shawl; I have ten inches now, although I'll have to take a break from it this weekend to finish Alex's shawl. I love this so much that I can't resist showing it off, and Gary encouraged me by saying this evening, "You should post another picture, now that you have more of it."

One of my students says that I've inspired her to learn how to knit. World domination through knitting! Bwah-hah-hah!

Speaking of which, several people -- my friend Jen at work, and my friend Dorothy back in NYC -- have encouraged me to join Ravelry, a knitting/crocheting site that's so popular that there's a waiting list to get on. I sent in my e-mail address about a month ago and got my invitation to join yesterday, so I've checked it out a little bit. It's pretty overwhelming, and I don't think I'll be able to spend any time there until this summer. Among other things, the site includes every special-interest group you could think of, and some you couldn't. I've joined a group for Episcopalian knitters, a group for Joss Whedon fans who knit, a group for BSG fans who knit, and a group called "Christian Geeks" that tickled my fancy. I've had no time to read posts yet, but I love all these knitting niches!

Yesterday at work I got an excellent annual evaluation, which should translate at some point (God willing and the Nevada state budget crisis doesn't worsen) into a pleasant raise. Gary tells me that I'm hereby authorized to buy more yarn.

Yesterday at work I also got a wonderful package, a signed copy of my friend Peter Schakel's book, Is Your Lord Large Enough?: How C.S. Lewis Expands Our View of God. I met Peter when I interviewed for a position at Hope College, where he teaches, in 1994-95; I didn't get the job, but we've stayed in touch since then. He's one of the kindest, most thoughtful and most generous people I know (as evidenced by the fact that he sent me a personally inscribed copy of his book when I owe him roughly 5,000 e-mails), and he's also a leading Lewis scholar, so I can't wait to read his book! I think it will be my plane-reading treat to and from Kaua'i.

Elsewhere in publishing news, my friend, former star student and fellow knitter Inez just made her first professional story sale. Yay, Inez! You go, girl! I hope one day I'll have personally inscribed copies of your books, too!

My second med-school seminar today didn't go as well as the first, probably because I was trying to cover too much material, but I'll try to get it right again next Tuesday, when I'll be teaching it down in Vegas.

And that's the news. Must sleep now!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Valentine's Day at Grand Rounds

This week's edition is up, with a very entertaining Valentine's Day theme. I'm delighted to be included!

Happy reading!

Sunday, February 10, 2008


During my shift this week, I saw a patient staring at the screen while he was having an echocardiogram. I've had a few myself, and have always found them fascinating; human insides fill me with wonder, as does medical imaging technology. I love looking at x-rays at the hospital; I think they're beautiful, quite apart from what alarming news they may have for a radiologist.

Anyway, here's a very rough draft of a poem sparked by my glimpse of that patient.

Supine in darkness,
he stares, transfixed.
That’s his heart on the screen,
his own. Its thumping gurgle echoes other songs:
the ocean sucked through sand, wind rattling leaves,
some stubborn, sticky creature caught
in quicksand, thrashing to break free.

He sees
the muscle throb:
expand, contract. Distractions fade:
the IV in his arm, the tugging leads
glued to his chest. Techs, doctors, nurses
grow invisible. The world becomes
this dear, insistent heart,
its promises:
I’ll stay with you forever, fierce
and proud, no lover half
as loyal. No spouse makes
a vow so literal:
in sickness and
in health, for only death
ends my devotion.

He weeps
in gratitude. Whatever happens now --
cath lab or stent or bypass, lasix, doom --
he’ll know himself adored.

Saturday, February 09, 2008


My hospital shift is normally midweek, but I had conflicting meetings at work this week, so I went to the hospital today instead. It started out really slow and got very busy: I talked to 115 people, which tops my previous record of 97 by a fair bit. A lot of that came from large family groups and a crowded waiting room (and much more traffic than usual in the fast-track area); I only had one really significant visit. So it was a very odd shift, because I felt like I wasn't doing much, but when I looked at my census sheet at the end of the afternoon, the numbers had really added up.

The medical staff were looking more than a little crazed by the time I left. I hope they all make it through the evening!


Last night I started the feather and fan shawl in James Brett Marble (known as Kertzer in the U.S.) for my cousin Val. I'm delighted with it so far: I love the pattern, the yarn texture -- even though it's 100% acrylic! -- and the colors, and I'm proud of my first venture into lace. Thanks, as always, to Gary for help downloading the photos.

As you can see, I'm using safety pins as stitch markers. They work just fine, but after my ill-advised snarkiness towards people who use fancy stitch markers, I've now decided -- of course -- that I want some myself. My sister's an accomplished beader, so I've commissioned her to make some for me. It will be fun to see what she comes up with!

Also, my friend Katharine, operatic soprano extraordinaire, is kicking around the germs of an idea for a performance piece which would feature me knitting onstage while she sings.

Also, our friends who came over to watch DVDs last night read the poem I just sent out, and agreed -- looking somewhat green about the gills -- that it's very powerful, albeit depressing. But I sent it to a journal that's doing a special issue about mental illness, so I think the tone's appropriate.

Also, Bishop Dan was very gracious about rescheduling our meeting: "Why tempt the stars?" he said. And he e-mailed me nice news: As of yesterday, he and his wife are the proud grandparents of a ten-pound baby boy. Yay, babies!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Tiny Steps

My Lenten discipline is to get back into writing (and specifically to try to get the ED sonnets revised and given to the hospital for vetting by Easter). Today I fixed up an old poem -- not a sonnet -- and sent it out to a journal. It feels good to get something out there again, whatever the outcome is.

After Easter, I'll get back to the novel, but it makes sense to finish up smaller projects first.

I have tentative ideas for two more novels after November; if this actually happens, the three will be linked thematically, although they won't share the same characters or settings. But having ideas for future projects gives me more motivation to finish the current one.

We'll see if any of this happens. It's very, very early days yet. But having a plan helps, right?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


Well, I overslept, so I'm not at Ash Wednesday services.

But I am feeling penitent about it. Does that count?

At least this solves the problem of whether to wear the ashes all day! Also, I'll now have time to go to the gym, and since I woke up feeling very sore in my right leg (the one with the arthritic knee and the aching hip nobody's ever been able to diagnose), a swim is probably an excellent idea.

Mea culpa, etc. and so forth.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Happy Mardi Gras!

I hope everyone's having a fabulous Fat Tuesday (and does anyone else find it striking that today's also Super Tuesday?).

In preparation for Lent, I got my hair cut really, really short: I'm giving up blow-drying for Lent. Today's a traditional time to consume lotsa treats before the Lenten fast, but I'm already mostly off sugar, which is my main vice. Pancake suppers are big in the Anglican tradition, but Gary and I aren't huge pancake fans, so instead I went to one of the few stores in town that sells Real Bagels (as opposed to round bread with a hole in the middle), and bought two sesame bagels for us to have as our bread with dinner tonight. Ah, decadence!

Tomorrow's Ash Wednesday services are at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m, but since tomorrow's a late teaching day, I'll have to go to the morning service. Gahhhh! And then I'll have the annual debate about whether to wear my ashes proudly -- to a talk by a job candidate in our department, and to classes -- or whether to conform to the workplace and remove them. The danger is that if I wear them, people may just think my forehead's dirty.

Here's my favorite Ash Wednesday story, which I've told here before but love repeating: My editor at Tor Books, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, returned to the Catholic Church as an adult. One Ash Wednesday he went to work after receiving the imposition of ashes, and was stopped in the hall by another editor, who exclaimed incredulously, "Patrick! Don't tell me those are ashes on your forehead!"

Whereupon the ever-witty Patrick shot back, "No, it was a tragic photocopier accident," and continued down the hall.

Ba-dum-dum. Thank you, we'll be here all Lent. Try the lamb.

Just Because You're Superstitious, That Doesn't Mean Something Freaky Isn't Going On

Longtime blog readers may recall that I've had, for many years now, a pattern of awful stuff happening on and around the Spring Equinox. (I talked about that pattern in my Easter Vigil homily last year.) Our Spring Break trips to Hawai'i have been, in part, an attempt to break that pattern, and they've been partly successful. But I'm still leery of that time of year.

Bishop Dan and I had a short e-mail conversation the other day about which of us will be preaching on Maundy Thursday. He'll be doing a lot of preaching at other parishes during Holy Week, and he said it would be a favor to him if I'd preach, so of course I said I would.

He also asked if we could talk about my discernment process; he said he didn't want to push, but he thought I was working with an interpretation of the vow of obedience that isn't actually in our church tradition, and that a conversation might be helpful. So we made an appointment for that afternoon.

And then I went to write it in my calandar, and, lo and behold, Maundy Thursday is the Spring Equinox this year. My stomach immediately knotted: it will be a difficult conversation anyway (for me, not for him), but having it fall on that day seemed like a bad omen.

I thought I was just being silly and superstitious. But today I mentioned the situation to my psychiatrist, who immediately looked alarmed and said, "Do you have to talk to him then? Can't you reschedule it? I think you should reschedule it."

"Really?" I'd expected her to pooh-pooh me.

"Yes, really. If things don't go well with him, I don't want that pattern reinforced for you."

So I've now, somewhat sheepishly, e-mailed him to ask if we can reschedule. (I also explained that I was acting on doctor's orders!) If nothing else, I'll be calmer and more articulate if the Equinox has safely passed.

I'm still planning to preach, though. Because I prepare homilies ahead of time, that shouldn't be a problem.

Grand Rounds

This week's edition is up, and I'm delighted to be included.

Happy reading!

Monday, February 04, 2008

Shawl Success

I just got home from work, and Gary said that his mom had called to thank me for the shawl. Evidently she just loves it, and is impressed that I taught myself to knit. I'm really delighted that she's so happy with it!

I wore my own shawl at work today, and a knitting colleague commented approvingly on how even my stitches are. That felt good.

I have four more shawls to go -- and the way these things work, new recipients will undoubtedly pop up -- and then I'm going to start Christmas knitting. That should keep me busy this summer!

I'd love to be able to get ahead a bit: to have some shawls in reserve, say. But I suspect that starting Christmas knitting in May or June will have to suffice!

Saturday, February 02, 2008

New Cat Picture

This shot courtesy of Gary, who took it while I was at the gym. Thanks, Gar!

Friday, February 01, 2008

A Moment of Peace

My hospital shift this week was bracketed by two very sad cases: 1) a homeless patient with dual addiction/psych issues, yearning for lost connection with family, and 2) a victim of domestic violence. The staff seemed fairly sympathetic to the homeless patient (asking me to visit rather than telling me not to visit, as they sometimes do), but I found the responses to the DV victim a bit discouraging. There was quite a bit of that "well, why don't you just leave" attitude, communicated a bit too openly to the patient, who was doing the right thing in pressing charges and surely didn't need a guilt trip on top of physical injuries.

I'll try not to go into a full-fledged rant about this, but look: if leaving were easy, it would already have happened. There are reasons (economic, emotional, psychological) why people stay, and the trick is to figure out what those are and work with them. Every relationship is more complicated than it looks from the outside.

Also, one of the classic abuser tactics is making the victim feel responsible. "If you didn't do X, I wouldn't have to hit you," or whatever. "This is your fault." So if the powers-that-be compound that by saying, "It's your fault because you didn't leave," or send a message that sounds anything like that, they're inadvertently reinforcing the abuser's line.

(Note: When I was nineteen, I was on the receiving end of a domestic assault from someone with whom I had a long and very complicated relationship. I was ideally positioned not to go back there, and didn't, but it was still one of the hardest things I'd ever had to do, partly because I genuinely cared about this person -- who'd become violent in an alcoholic blackout, didn't remember anything the next morning, and was truly appalled -- and partly because I knew I wasn't the innocent angel many of my indignant friends were trying to convince me I was. The message I needed to hear, and finally did hear from an excellent therapist, was, "It's okay not to go back even if you've done things wrong, including not heeding earlier warning signs. This isn't about whether you're blameless. It's about the fact that domestic violence is always wrong, whether the other party is a saint or not.")

I ranted anyway, didn't I? End of rant! Anyway, in the middle of the shift, which was also full of squalling kids, I glanced into a room and saw a rare scenario of peace. A young couple had come in some hours earlier; spouse1 had been up all night vomiting, and spouse2 was anxious and worn. When I glanced toward their bedside, spouse1 was peacefully asleep under a warm blanket; spouse2, sitting on a stool, had lowered the bedrail and leaned over to take a nap too. There were two heads on the pillow, side by side. It was a beautiful portrait of love and connection, a reminder that in a world with too much pain, there are still healthy and nurturing relationships.