Saturday, May 31, 2008

Okay, Now I'm Tired

Today I woke up at five a.m., worked on the book for two and a half hours, got to the gym at eight and swam for forty minutes, went briefly to work to look for documents that weren't there, went shopping for an upcoming family birthday, came home and ate lunch, read, knitted, talked to my mother and sister on the phone, went grocery shopping, came home and ate dinner, read some more, and answered some e-mail (and fear that I may have permanently antagonized one correspondent, something I seem to be very good at).

I'm wiped.

Note to self: don't answer e-mail when tired. But then, when would I answer e-mail?

Anyway, I'm happy with the work on the book. A few more pieces fell into place today: one big piece (realizing that an entire chapter, much later on, needs to be from a different POV) and one smaller piece (figuring out how two different motivations of a main character are connected). This is all good. Whether the ensuing prose is any good remains to be seen, but that's what revision is for.

Good night! I hope I wake up really early tomorrow, too, so I can get some work in before church.

Friday, May 30, 2008

All's Well

The prep this morning went very easily, since I've eaten so little solid food this week, and the procedure went fine, once they managed to get a good IV (I suspect I may have been a bit dehydrated from the week's adventures). Evidently my stomach lining looked red -- no surprise! -- so they're biopsying both that and the one intestinal polyp they found. My doc wants to see me for a follow-up appointment at the end of June.

At least, this is all what I'm told, both by the paperwork I was given and by Sharon, who was with me when the doctor spoke to me. I have no memory of that conversation, and on the ride home, I kept forgetting what Sharon had told me and asking her the same questions. I've had amnesia after Versed before, but this was a bit extreme! I'm chalking it up to having had two procedures on the same day, plus general fatigue from the week.

I came home, ate a yummy lunch, and crashed. I lay down for a nap at 3:00 or so and slept until 7:30. Somewhere in there, my bishop called to make an appointment to talk to me in July. I think I remember that conversation, but I've e-mailed him just to make sure.

I've now had a yummy dinner and watched an episode of ER with Gary. (I read Lit&Med material during my prep this morning; you could say this has been Medicine Theme Day.) I've read and knitted today -- the body of my cousin's shawl is done -- but, alas, haven't written, although I did do some prep work to write tomorrow.

Speaking of my cousin, he e-mailed today to say that he's feeling a bit better after the latest chemo cycle. They swapped out the drug that was causing the most nerve damage for another he seems to be tolerating more easily. So that was good news!

And now, silly as it sounds, I'm going back to bed! And in the morning, I'll have more YUMMY FOOD! And coffee! And then I'll swim!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

WisCon Makes the Bigtime! And New Speakers!

Hey, check this out. The Wiscon Stomach Bug of 2008 has made the Chicago Tribune!

In other exciting news, today I indeed wrote, read, and knit -- despite the all-liquid-all-the-time diet -- so Day 2 of the new regime has been successful. Day 3 will no doubt be much less so, due to medical interruptions.

Oh . . . and my darling hubby bought me a present! New speakers for my computer! They're indeed much better than the old ones (which benefits him, too, since his study is only feet from mine, and he's far more sensitive about music quality than I am). Thanks, Gar!

Yesterday and This Morning

Yesterday turned out to be an amazingly good day. I felt well the entire time, although I'm still keeping myself quarantined from my beloved hubby because of alarming reports about delayed onset of this virus. I read about a day-and-a-half's worth of Lit&Med material -- fascinating stuff -- and knit. And (drumroll, please!) I got back to work on Driving to November! One thing that happened during the "Narrative and Politics" panel is that I got an idea of how to restructure the book, and that's made me excited about working on it for the first time in forever. We'll see how long this lasts, but in the meantime, I can't describe how relieved I am. Maybe I'm actually going to be a writer again?

In the meantime, Pat Murphy e-mailed me to ask for more info about narrative medicine (this link is outdated, but I can't seem to find a more current one), and Timmi Duchamp e-mailed everyone on the N&P panel to ask us to contribute essays to an anthology on the subject. She wants mine to be about narrative and healing. Hey, I can do that!

Because I felt so well, I decided to go ahead with my double procedure, which Josh Lukin has very amusingly dubbed a "both-ends-oscopy," complete with image of the two scopes meeting in the middle -- presumably somewhere in the region of my navel -- falling in love, and mating. Now there's an SF concept for you! Josh and I had an excellent e-conversation this morning about the N&P panel and disability studies. (Josh is a lecturer in English at Temple University and the editor of several volumes of literary criticism, but I can't seem to find a website for him, so I haven't provided a link. Sorry about that. Josh, if there's a link you want me to use, please let me know!)

Gary's fetched my prep kit from the drugstore; now I have to put up with today's dreaded all-liquid diet, not to mention tomorrow morning's 6 a.m. (because my procedure's after noon) prep. I expect yesterday's energy to flag considerably, but I'll keep plugging away on projects while I can!

One of yesterday's epiphanies was that writing, reading and knitting make for a pretty perfect day. But then, if I'd thought about it, I'd already have known that.

More later, if I have time and energy. Turns out an ugly situation arose at Wiscon this year, and I have thoughts about it. But I want to work on the book first, while I'm reasonably sure I can still form sentences.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Living in Bed

I've been keeping down bland solid food since midday yesterday, and my temp's lower, although still elevated. At this point, I'm inclined to go ahead with the procedures Friday, just to get them over with, although that would mean driving to the drugstore today to fill the script for the prep kit. We'll see if I'm up to that.

Sharon dropped off a gallon of Gatorade yesterday. Thanks, Sharon!

Also, my suitcase arrived yesterday.

Meanwhile, while I was gone a huge package arrived from the Maine Humanities Council: the syllabus and readings for the Literature & Medicine Institute in Chicago. The reading load's pretty heavy. I've already read (and in some cases taught) a few of the texts, but there are others I'd never heard of. So I'm passing the time in bed alternately napping and reading. Also, I knitted one row last night, just to maintain my knitting-every-day pattern.

The cats love it when someone's sick, especially with a fever: an extra-warm person to cuddle with! At times, I've had all three of them on my bed, althbough Figgy and Bali keep trying to eat my books. Harley's been the most solicitous of the beasts; he spends most of his time on the bed and checks in on me in the bathroom, too. This morning he curled up with his head on my shoulder, which is very unusual for him but was very sweet. So he's earned a new nickname, Healing Kitty, in addition to his old ones of Harley the Magnificent, Harley the Hilarious, and Rescue Kitty.

Thanks to the folks who sent me get-well wishes yesterday. To those of you who are also sick, I hope you get well soon, too!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Grand Rounds

This week's edition is up, and features a post by yours truly. In fact, I suspect this is the post that alarmed the NetNanny on the Concourse computers.

Happy reading!

And now I'm taking myself and my cranky guts back to bed.

About that WisCon Stomach Flu

I now have a raging case. Since last night, I've had chills, muscle aches, low-grade fever, and an inability to keep down solid food. I'm so weak that opening a Tupperware container this morning was a major challenge. There's also been one unfortunate sheet-soiling: Gary, God bless him, is being a saint about laundry, setting up a sickroom for me in my study, and bringing me liquids. (He's also washing his hands a lot!)


I called my GI doc to see if I should postpone Friday's procedure; the nurse said that if I don't turn around tomorrow, they can reschedule. She also said -- which I would have remembered had my brain been functioning better -- that among the liquids I should be pushing are electrolyte-rich drinks like Gatorade and SmartWater. Gary had already begun the walk to the grocery store to get me applesauce, bananas and Saltines, and I won't have the heart to send him out again when he gets back, but maybe I can ask a friend to do it for me.


Still no sign of my suitcase, but that's the last of my concerns right now. I'm just grateful this thing held off until I was done traveling!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Well, United's Nothing if Not Consistent

I'm now home, after two very smooth flights.

My luggage is still in Denver.

At least I'm in my own house, with extra clothing!

WisCon, Day the Last

It took me forever to get to sleep last night -- not surprising, after a late cup of coffee -- but I woke up on my own at 7:30 and immediately dove into the Packing Challenge. Amazingly, I ended up with the same number of pieces of luggage I started out with, although my carry-on rollercase contains more fragile electronics than it did. To make sure that I can get on the plane earlier, and therefore run less risk of being separated from carryon luggage, I sprang for United's Economy Plus extra leg-room upgrade. Not cheap, but worth it if the electronics don't get smashed by baggage handlers.

The only con event I attended today was the Signout, where authors and artists sit and sign their work. I was at a table with Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler. Pat told me she thought I did fine on the panel yesterday, and when I went to Timmi Duchamp's table to say goodbye to her, she talked about what great feedback she's gotten and how she wants to do the same panel with the same people next year. So I guess I didn't do as badly as I thought. Another person who'd been there, though, came over and asked if I was feeling okay this morning, which I very much appreciated! I've also gotten several private e-mails of support from friends, in the SF community and elsewhere, who don't want to post public comments because they're afraid they'll be flamed (I'm still half expecting that to happen to yesterday's post, but at least I have the option of removing it if the situation becomes too stressful).

So, anyhow, the Signout was very nice, and they gave us good food and excellent goody bags. Afterwards, I ran some errands on State Street: had leverbacks instead of french wires put on my new earrings, bought souvenirs for Gary and our catsitters (although I couldn't buy them cheese because there's no room in my luggage and it's too hot to ship cheese now), bought luggage tags for everything I own just in case I do indeed get separated from carryon luggage, and had a large and delicious tempura shrimp Bento-box lunch, which with any luck will keep me going through an eternity of air travel. My flight's around 7:00, and if all goes well, I'll be back in Reno by 11:00 local time. I don't expect all to go well, but I'd be delighted to be wrong.

One funny note: I went back to the Concourse to try to blog on the public computers there, but the Concourse's Net Nanny program denied access because of adult content. However, my own hotel's public computers appear to be less squeamish.

And that's it for now. With any luck, the next time I post I'll be home with Gary and the beasts!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

WisCon, Day the Third

I woke up at nine this morning feeling very groggy, with only an hour to get to my 10:00 panel. It turns out that there's a nasty stomach virus going around WisCon -- there are warning signs everywhere instructing people to wash their hands -- and I suspect I had a touch of it yesterday, although I was better today.

So, when I got to the 10:00 panel on "Narrative and Politics," I was tired, still a bit under the weather, and was in the procss of gulping down a power bar and my first cup of coffee. I suspect that fatigue, blood sugar and any lingering virus account for my responses to what happened.

It was a very smart, lively panel, with very smart, lively, and intimidating panelists: Eileen Gunn, Caroline Ives Gilman, L. Timmel DuChamp, and Pat Murphy. I felt very outclassed by the company, who've all published more than I have and are far more famous, in addition to being hyper-articulate. (Many of my acquaintances consider me hyper-articulate, but these women leave me in the dirt.) At the beginning, I was fine; I thought I was holding my own reasonably well, and audience reaction supported this. But early on, Timmi read a statement by Chip Delany about narrative, and the ease of falling into certain oppressive narrative patterns (men = human, women = less-than-human, etc.). She asked for our reactions to it.

I've known Chip since 1984. I've hung out in his living room; he introduced me to one of the guys I dated before I met Gary. I consider him a friend, and I hope he considers me one as well. But I had a funny Chip story that I thought pertained to the topic, so I told it.

In 1994, when I was in grad school, I taught a personal-essay class. Chip had just been hired as a tenured professor at Amherst for big bucks. As a grad student, I wasn't making big bucks, and I was at an institution that treated grad students like cockroaches. At some point during or immediately after his visit to my class, Chip and I got onto the subject of identity politics, and he told me -- I believe in so many words, although I may well be misremembering this -- that he was more oppressed than I was, because he was black and gay while I was white and straight.

My reaction to this was more or less, "Um . . . I'm female. You're male. I'm making two cents an hour doing journeywoman work in a field where I have a good chance of never getting a job; you're tenured and making $70,000 a year." I don't think I had the courage to say any of that, or to add that Chip was hugely famous while I was hugely obscure. At least within the field where we were working, the academic study of English, he had immensely more privilege than I did. Context matters.

Okay, so that was the personal story I told. My analytical point, which I went on to explain, was that I don't think competitive oppression is helpful. I believe that everyone's both oppressed and oppressing: the challenge is to use our own experience of oppression, whatever that might be, as a way to feel compassion for the oppression of others, rather than to play the "more oppressed than thou" game. Chip and I, unfortunately, didn't do that; but to me, the anecdote illustrates the danger of totalizing identity categories rather than looking at individual lives. It seemed to me that Chip's critique of conventional narrative structures was doing exactly that: books that are oppressive in one sense can be liberating in another, and it's important, if possible, to pay attention to both those things instead of rejecting the text wholesale because of one problem (as the person on my previous panel had done with Tolkien). Although, of course, in another light, the anecdote supports his point: it is indeed easy to fall into oppressive patterns!

So far, so good. We chatted about many other things; I brought up the healing power of narrative in trauma, and although the other panelists brought us back to fiction, a woman in the audience raced up and gave several of us free copies of Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy's The Mind's Eye: Image and Memory in Writing about Trauma. How completely cool is that? I love WisCon!

The panel wound down: time for comments from the audience. At which point, a young woman of color stood up and absolutely blasted me for the Chip story. I'd responded to a piece of analysis with a personal story, and furthermore, I'd appropriated both Chip's narrative and the Obama-Clinton conflict we've been hearing about for the last year (white woman versus black man), and I was responding to theory with emotion, and . . . I don't remember what else. It went on for a while. My critic was obviously very intelligent and hyper-articulate, and also clearly loathed me on both a personal and political level.

In retrospect, I think she was probably projecting onto me problems she's had with other white women. I'm used to this kind of thing in the classroom, where teachers can become the symbol of every authority figure the student has ever hated, and normally I'd have handled it better. But my guard was down: I was at WisCon, which has always been reasonably safe, and I was physically vulnerable.

I replied by saying a) that I'd been telling my own story, which had happened to me in 1994 and wasn't connected to the current election, b) that I had in fact offered analysis too, c) that one problem with literary theory is that it's traditionally punished emotion, especially in women, and d) that criticizing women for being emotional is a classic anti-feminist strategy.

I offered this in small snippets, as most of the rest of the panelists tried to change the subject. In the meantime, I found myself on the verge of, and then in the middle of, helpless and humiliating tears, although I think I stayed coherent. Another audience member tried to respond and said to me, "I was going to start out by saying something really mean about you, but I won't." (What the f***?) He got cut off because there was no more time. Meanwhile, my critic had left, so I had no chance to talk to her to try to sort anything out (although it probably wouldn't have helped).

A few people, especially my friend Janice Mynchenberg, came up and said nice things to me, which helped. The guy who'd decided not to be mean to me came up and made several very useful points, the first of which was, "Parables are tricky. Need I say more?" He also pointed out that my critic had responded so emotionally to my personal narrative that she hadn't heard the analytical piece, and that she -- like Chip -- had focused on race and gender and completely dismissed class, which was, for me, the most important factor at that moment of my professional life. We also commented wryly on the fact that the panel had talked about whether conflict is necessary in narrative: evidently the answer is yes! ("Is violence necessary?")

I was still feeling very shaky, though. Inez, who'd heard the whole thing, swooped down and bore me off to her room, where she gave me tissues, a power bar and a glass of water, and sympathized with me. (When I pointed out that the critic had made some valid points, Inez said crossly, "My job right now isn't to be reasonable. My job right now is to be on your side. I'll be reasonable in a few minutes.")

I started feeling better. We went to lunch, which made me feel much better. We returned to the hotel and I attended Maureen McHugh's delightful GoH reading. I wasn't sure if I wanted to go to more panels, and Maureen's reading had ended early, so I did a circuit of the art show and saw Ellen Datlow. We had fun trying on hats; Ellen complimented me on my beautiful silver-gray hair. Yes! Cronehood has its advantages!

I also saw Eileen Gunn, and asked for her feedback on what had happened. She shrugged and said, "She was right. You should have said, 'Thank you, I didn't think of that,' and not gotten into a debate."

Oh, dear. Well, I still don't think that either of us was completely right. I also think that dismissing the critic would have been far less respectful to her than trying to engage in the conversation; I apparently merely came across as defensive, though. There are several fairly discouraging lessons here about what it's safe to talk about at WisCon -- especially when one's physically vulnerable -- but I was getting a headache and decided not to tax my brain further. The main lesson is probably simply that one must never dare say anything negative about an icon, especially one who belongs to multiple minority communities. I kept trying to emphasize how much I liked and respected Chip, but that probably didn't get through.


In any case, instead of going to afternoon panels, I went back to my hotel, read a bit, took a nice nap, and then called both of my parents, who love me even when I'm politically incorrect.

After the nap, I changed into dessert banquet clothing (the new shimmery shirt with black jeans), took myself out for sushi, and then headed back to the Concourse to meet Inez and Nita. They were the third and fourth people in the dessert line, and had saved a space for me. And then Inez handed me a little box and said, "You're going to be mad at me for doing this, but remember that I'm getting my economic incentive check and that my school is paying for this trip. You have to read the note before you open the box."

The note was a beautiful two-page letter about how much my friendship and mentorship have meant to Inez and how much she values me. It made me cry. (She told me she'd cried while she was writing it.) Hey, you know women: we're emotional.

The box contained a piece of jewelry from the art show, a gorgeous Celtic enamel cat brooch made by Catherine Crowe. I'd admired the pin but hadn't bought it, not least because of its price. It was a supremely generous gift. (Inez also bought herself some earrings that we'd both loved.)

The brooch also went beautifully with the shimmery shirt, as I hope you can see at least a little bit from this shot. I love it, and Inez loved the fact that I love it, and so we were both very happy.

The three of us pigged out on yummy dessert, listened to excellent GoH speeches, and networked. One of the women at our table is interested in my views on fanfic and wants to include me on a panel she's doing next year; another woman at our table works for a seminary and wondered if I might be interested in teaching a summer course for them about writing and healing. Yay!

So it turned into a good day after starting out as a difficult one. I've stayed up far too late, because I'm wired from coffee and too much chocolate and my afternoon nap. Tomorrow I'll go to the SignOut, but at some point I have to figure out how to pack everything. Eeeep!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

WisCon, Day the Second

It's been another busy day. I got up, ate breakfast, swam for half an hour in the lovely hotel pool, and then headed off to the Guest-of-Honor reading by L. Timmel du Champ. On the way, I browsed a little in the Farmer's Market, which includes craft booths, and congratulated myself on not buying anything.

After the reading, I had lunch with Alexis, who reads my blog and whom I met in person for the first time during last year's WisCon. We ate at a yummy Japanese place and talked about medicine and literature, her upcoming medical boards (good luck, Alexis!), and various ethical dilemmas raised by healthcare in minority communities. It was a great conversation.

Back to the convention, where I knit through two panels. The first was a very interesting discussion of Disability in SF/F. Alexis and I had wondered if the panelists would talk about "invisible disabilities" like chronic pain and depression. I got there a little late, but the panelists and audience were discussing depression when I arrived, and returned to it throughout the panel. One of the audience members was a rehab physician who offered some interesting viewpoints on disability and narrative. Very good panel.

Then, for something completely different and much lighter, I went to the "Captain Jack's Big Gay Torchwood" panel, where a rollicking good time was had by all (and where there was also a bit of more serious discussion about treatment of sexual orientation in TV shows).

Next up was "What We Can't Forgive," one of my two panels. During the pre-panel chat in the Green Room, one of my fellow panelists had said (if I understood him correctly) a) that he can't forgive stupidity and b) that anyone who doesn't see that Tolkien's a racist is stupid. He backed quickly and graciously away from quite that strong a position when I made it clear that I teach and love Tolkien and try to bring my students to a nuanced, rather than monolithic, understanding of racial issues in his work. The panel itself was very civilized, thank goodness, although that same panelist ended on a gleefully wicked note by saying that he doesn't read fantasy because he's never seen an interesting fantasy premise. (Fighting words! Fighting words!) I've been at conventions where this exchange would have ended in blows -- that actually happened, memorably, at a Lunacon panel entitled "Is Violence Necessary" -- but instead, after the panel, I asked my respected opponent if he'd read John Crowley. The only thing he'd read was "Great Work of Time," which he considered too imperialist. I like this person, who's extremely smart and articulate, but I suspect that he still thinks I'm stupid because I like Tolkien.

Oh well.

I was very ready for dinner by then. Inez treated me and Nita to an excellent meal, and on the way, we stopped at a bag shop and all bought new purses (mine was a new fanny pack, which is larger and more conveniently shaped than the one I had been using). Inez and I are very good at enabling each other at shopping.

After that, the three of us went to the first ninety minutes of the Tiptree Auction, where Ellen Klages was in her usual fine form as a hilarious auctioneer, aided by people in costumes who popped up every now and then to do skits. By the time we left, the auction had already raised at least a thousand dollars, and since it usually raises several thousand, I'm sure that happened this time, too.

We stopped briefly by the party floor. First stop: the Reno in 2011 Worldcon Bid Party. Yes, someone wants to have a Worldcon in Reno! Inez and I were, of course, very enthusiastic about this: I donated $20 to the cause and am now an Early Supporter or somesuch. I hope it happens. I usually don't get to go to Worldcon because it's held over Labor Day Weekend, smack in the middle of the start of school, but if it were in my hometown, I'd certainly attend at least some of it.

We then went to the Haiku Earring party, where one chooses a pair of handmade earrings, is given a title based on the earrings, writes a haiku based on the title, and (if the haiku is deemed acceptable) gets to take the earrings home. Great fun. Cool earrings.

Inez went back to her room at that point, and I said goodnight to Nita and stopped in briefly at the Tor Party before heading back to my own digs. My throat feels much better today, but my tummy's a bit rumbly, and sleep seems like a good idea.

And so, good night!

Friday, May 23, 2008

WisCon, Day the First (in Three Parts)

1. In Which We Do Excellent Shopping

When I woke up this morning, I had a power-bar-and-dried apricot breakfast and then went swimming. The hotel pool is lovely, and there was no one in it early in the morning. It felt good to stretch out after my time on the plane yesterday!

Then I hit State Street to shop. Since it's Memorial Day Weekend, there are always good sales. Sure enough, at WinterSilks I got a silk bathrobe lined with terrycloth for $20! It's very comfy: I'm wearing it now.

In the "slightly more of a splurge but still very reasonable" category, I got this completely cool bag, which is ideal for knitting and in fact holds just about everything else, too (and folds up to a small, neat packet). It's great for lugging stuff around at conventions; it holds far more than my backpack, although I do have to be careful about weight.

I also got a gorgeous two-CD set of Buddhist chants, which I'm listening to now, and a very small bottle of lavender lotion (since the hotel lotion refuses to come out of its stiff plastic bottles).

At the convention itself, I paid $2 for this totally cool Space Babe t-shirt from a long-ago WisCon. I also got a pretty, inexpensive pair of earrings which match the unusual celtic cross I bought here last year: they'll be ideal to wear to the hospital.

And for free at the clothing swap, which is really more of a clothing giveaway, I got this pretty, shimmery, faux-velvet shirt. I'm going to wear it to the dessert salon.

This all makes me sound like a horrible consumer, doesn't it? (And, of course, I am: mea culpa! What was that I was saying a few posts back about people who fritter away resources while others are starving?) But hey, I'm also a producer!

2. In Which Needlework Defeats the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Here was the set-up for the Fiber Guild at The Gathering. We had a big circle punctuated by small tables decorated with yarn, needles, and balloons (I did none of this, by the way; it was set up when I got there, although the other host, Joanna Lowenstein, might have planned it). This is what it looked like before the doors were opened.

If you're interested in the other activities at the Gathering, here's the list. Everyone got a "passport" which they could get stamped at each station; people with a certain number of stamps won prizes.

Here's the circle a few hours in, with the rest of The Gathering visible behind the crafters. We probably had twenty or thirty people show up to do needlework during the three-hour event; I took photos of everyone and their projects, but not all of them came out (plus, if I posted all of them, my photo allotment on Blogger would be gone!). It was great fun talking to folks about their projects, though. All of us were creating order from entropy, a worthy goal!

As you can see, we had knitters of all ages! There were women there -- everyone who stopped by with a project was female -- who'd learned to knit in kindergarten, and others who've only been knitting for a few weeks. And there was a huge range of projects: shawls, scarves, socks, sweaters, hats, and "I just need to do something to keep from biting my nails" freeform play.

Not everyone was a knitter. My friend Ann Smith stopped by with a lace runner she's crocheting with a very fine metal hook.

Here's someone with a needlepoint project. I'd expected more non-knitters, especially in terms of embroidery and cross-stitch, but this is the only needlepoint person I remember.

By far the most impressive and admired project was a wall-hanging of a river, created with knitting, crochet and embroidery, decorated with knit stuffed "rocks" and mother-of-pearl buttons. I think this piece humbled most of us! (And everyone loved the beanie-baby turtle!)

But the most important thing was that, whatever each woman was making, everyone was happy and had a good time. Check out these expressions of joy!

3. In Which I Achieve Cronehood

One of the great pleasures of this convention has been spending time with my dear friend and former student Inez, who's now a professor herself, and who brought one of her own students, Nita, to the convention. Suzy McKee Charnas took this photo of the three of us, and I love it even though it's a bit blurry. We'd been joking about representing three generations of writers, and Inez said, "Hey, Susan, that makes you the crone!" As soon as she'd said it, she immediately started apologizing, afraid she'd offended me (although she ought to know me better, after all these years!).

I said, "No, I'm happy! I want to be a crone! I taught myself to knit because I thought it would help me be a graceful crone."

So here we are: Maiden Nita, Mother Inez, and Crone Susan. The three of us had dinner together, and there was a lot of joking about Mom and Grandma. (I paid for dinner, but said, "You two had better send me Mother's Day cards!") When I dropped my chopsticks, Inez sighed and said, "There goes Grandma being clumsy again." It was all great fun.

Over dinner, I critiqued a very promising story Nita had sent me (I don't usually critique the work of anyone but current students, but I made an exception because Inez asked). To thank me, Inez -- who's also a knitter -- gave me four skeins of gorgeous Noro Silk Garden yarn. I can't wait to work with it.

There were only two downsides to today: first, I'm fighting off a cold and have had a sore throat all day, and secondly, poor Gary wound up getting stranded in Denver last night and only got home to Reno a little while ago. But he's home and safe, and I've been pushing liquids, so all should be well.

Tomorrow, I hope to have lunch with Alexis, whom I met for the first time at last year's WisCon.

And so to bed!

The Luggage Has Landed!

My bags arrived about 2:00 this morning, and a bellhop delivered them to my room about half an hour ago. Everything was intact: a huge relief, since the camera was in the carryon rollerbag.

I am much cheered, and look forward to wearing clean clothing.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Adventures in Air Travel

The short version: I'm in Madison. My luggage is still in Chicago.

The long version: I'd checked one bag, and had a small rollerbag and a backpack as carryon luggage. The backpack holds the computer, reading supplies and knitting; the rollerbag holds the CPAP, a change of clothing in case I get stranded somewhere, and meds.

My Newark flight was so crowded that by the time I got on (I was boarding group 4 because I had an aisle seat), there was no space in the overhead racks. So the flight attendants told me I had to check the rollerbag.

"Oh," I said. "You mean a gate check?"

"No," they said as they pulled the bag away from me, "we have to check it through to Madison."

"But there's medical equipment in there! It's fragile!" This is true; I've had CPAPs break when I checked them. They let me remove the main unit of the CPAP, which I cradled on my lap like a baby, and I also managed to grab about half my meds, including the antidepressants. But the change of clothing, and the hoses and such for the CPAP, all got checked.

Meanwhile, we left Newark an hour late. I only had an hour to make my connection in Chicago, so I was sure I'd miss it. When we got to Chicago, the Madison flight had been delayed, so I had fifteen minutes to get from the very end of Terminal A to Terminal F. O'Hare doesn't have any shuttle trains or moving walkways: you have to hoof the whole way. I hoofed it, but I didn't run. I figured there was no way I'd make it.

I got to the Madison gate, and the flight was boarding! So I got on. "Do you think there's any chance my luggage made it?" I asked an attendant.

"Of course. You walk. Your luggage drives."

But my luggage didn't show up in Madison: not on that flight and not on the next flight from Chicago, either. The very nice baggage person looked up my suitcases on the computer, discovered that they were still in Chicago, and told me that they'd get to Wisconsin either around 10:30 tonight or sometime tomorrow morning. They'll be delivered to my hotel. So, still cradling my main CPAP unit, I got my hotel shuttle and checked in. I'm not at the main convention hotel, where I always stay, but which sold out this year; I'm up the street. So after I checked in, I went to the Concourse to register.

I got my registration packet and went back down to the lobby, wondering where I was going to eat. There are tons of restaurants here, but I didn't feel like walking anyplace. Because I usually stay at the Concourse, I belong to their Rewards program, so I decided to see if I had enough points for a dinner in the hotel restaurant.

It turned out I had enough points for a dinner for two, but I only wanted dinner for one. This was a very complicated twist, evidently, and while the desk clerk was talking to coworkers to figure out how to handle it, Inez and her student Nita came up, and we had a lovely conversation until the desk clerk finally decided just to give me a gift certificate for $50 for the hotel restaurant, which would be worth half my points.

In the restaurant, I saw Alma Alexander and her husband, who were finishing their own dinner but invited me to join them, and stayed until I'd finished mine. We had a lovely chat about Star Trek, fantasy and trauma, Shakespeare, and various TV shows, and I had an amazing dinner. Really, I think it's the best meal I've ever eaten. I had edemame beans as an appetizer, followed by juicy, perfectly prepared swordfish with soba noodles and veggies, followed by a chocolate caramel tart that was, well, orgasmic. Gary and I once had an astonishing chocolate caramel dessert in San Francisco, and this one was every bit as good.

Final bill with tip: $43 and change. My server told me apologetically that they couldn't give me change on a gift certificate. "But you'll still get the tip?" I asked, and she assured me that she would. "Okay," I said, "so just take the balance as your tip."

It was a feel-good experience for everybody.

After dinner, I ran into Jacob and Rina from Tachyon. Oh, and I'd run into Suzy McKee Charnas at the airport. I told everybody the luggage story, and everybody commiserated and asked me if I needed toiletries or a nightshirt. I had toiletries from the hotel; what I really need is clean underwear, but nobody else can help with that. I guess I'll wash what I'm wearing in the sink, in case my suitcases don't arrive tonight.

Hey, at least I'm here instead of stranded in Chicago. Things could be worse!

The Next Leg

In about an hour, we'll be heading to the airport for the next leg of the trip. Gary's flying home to Reno, and I'm headed to WisCon.

Of course, since there are evidently thunderstorms across the entire country, we'll see if either of us get to our destinations today (not to mention whether our luggage arrives when we do).

Wish us luck!

Praying About Sex

People have weird ideas about chaplains. I've had patients scold me for admiring their tattoos: "Chaplains aren't supposed to do that!" Some folks seem to think that we aren't allowed to have senses of humor; others believe that we're all required to be male. And, of course, everyone knows that we're all prudes. I knew that I'd been more-or-less accepted by the staff of the ED where I volunteer when they stopped apologizing for cursing in front of me. "If God cared about bad language," I always tell them, "we'd all be charcoal briquettes. God has more important things to worry about." Nurses and techs still sometimes try to shield me from particularly unpleasant medical details, to which my response is always, "Y'know, if I didn't have a reasonably strong stomach, I couldn't work here in the first place."

And then there's sex, of which, apparently, all Christians disapprove.

I know that some Christians disapprove of any sex that isn't marital and procreative. I'm not one of them. The Bible suggests that God is far more concerned about what we do with our money than about what we do with our genitals. Jesus mentioned poverty countless times, but homosexuality not once. The Hebrew Bible, although it contains a purity code, is still more concerned with economic inequality than with what people do in bed.

Does that mean that I think anything goes? No. I abhor any act that violates consent (rape, incest, child abuse). I disapprove of adultery because it involves a broken promise to a marriage partner: trust is the issue, not sex. But basically, if you and your partner(s) are consenting, fully informed adults who are taking any necessary health precautions, I think that what you do with your genitals is your own business. If your sexual practices turn out to be unhealthy for you, you need to address them. But that would also be true if you were having trouble with food, alcohol, or work.

Enter the ED patient I saw recently, a chatty woman who, midway through a prayer about her health, opened her eyes and added, "Oh, and please pray that I don't go to hell."

"Why do you think you're going to hell?" I asked her.

"Fornication. I've slept with my boyfriend."

My husband and I shared a bed for years before we got married, and both of us had had active dating lives before we met. I don't believe that was a sin; furthermore, I don't believe in hellfire-and-brimstone damnation. (There are multiple forms of hell here on earth, but that's another story.) In contrast, I become very judgmental indeed about certain uses of money. But, oddly, no one has ever said, "Please pray that I won't go to hell because I've been living above my means when millions of people in the world are starving."

In chaplaincy training, we were warned that it's important to honor our own beliefs even as we respect those of our patients. So I said to the patient, "Dear Lord, help this woman know that you love her and will welcome her with open arms."

Her eyes flew open again. "No, no, that's not what we believe." Her tone was that of an adult scolding a small child. "God makes people wait in Purgatory until they've worked off their sins."

"Okay," I said, somewhat weakly. "Dear Lord, Help this woman overcome her distance from you." That seemed to be acceptable. But I left the room knowing that if she'd known my own history, she'd have thrown me out of the building.

Later during the same shift, I prayed about more conventional issues with another patient. A few minutes later, I was standing in the hall chatting with a nurse when a tech who'd overheard the prayer walked up to me and said, with a smirk, "Hey, while you're at it, would you pray that I have success with the ladies?"

"Sure," I said. The tech looked mildly shocked, and the nurse and some other witnesses laughed.

"You would? You'd pray for that?"

"Why not?" I said. "I want people to be happy."

The tech rolled his eyes. A male nurse standing across the hall piped in. "So would you pray for the same thing for me?"

"Absolutely," I told him. I've never been able to figure out why this particular nurse is single: he's proof that not all the good ones are taken.

Of course, my version of "success with the ladies" may not be the same as the tech's, and I'd have been happier if he'd said, "Please pray that I do the best for my patients." But I pray that for all the staff, anyway. It's covered.

After this exchange, though, I got the distinct impression that the other staff who'd overheard the conversation were disappointed in me, as if I wasn't acting like a proper chaplain.

Oh well. Watch those stereotypes crash and burn.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Another Reunion!

Tonight Gary and I had dinner with my cousin Jim and his daughter Maggie. Here Maggie's looking happy and Jim's looking mock-stern. We had a good conversation about bugs and snakes -- Maggie just finished her first year at Mt. Holyoke, where she plans to major in biology; she's particularly interested in entomology and herpetology -- and about medical humanities. Jim's decidedly skeptical about the latter, and particularly about narrative medicine: he doesn't think most doctors will ever be won over to a more humanistic approach. It seems to me that quite a few already have been, but maybe those are just the circles in which I travel!

Here's Jim looking less stern. He's an engineer at IBM, and was sporting an impressive bandage on one hand. Apparently he had a little accident with liquid nitrogen last week, resulting in two of his fingers getting frostbitten.

It was really fun to see them. I wish I could have seen my uncle, too, but he'd just gotten off the plane, so the timing wasn't right. My uncle and Maggie go to Arizona every summer to study bees; I hope they'll stop by Reno sometime!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Lots of Reunions

On Sunday night, we had a delicious and lively sushi dinner with old friends. A waiter took this photo of the group. I'm the strange person in the celtic t-shirt (I wish I photographed better!). The woman to my left is our friend Ruth, whom I've known since 1978; she and I were in the same freshman dorm in college. Gary's on my right, and next to him is our friend Ken, who threw the 1989 party at which Gary and I met. Ken's wife Shira, across the table, was one of my fellow New York Review of Science Fiction staffers; I believe that I was the person who suggested to Ken that he join the magazine, which means that I'm indirectly responsible for his meeting Shira. (Ken, please correct me if I'm wrong on that!) Cuddling against Shira's left side is their gorgeous little girl Valerie; on her right is their equally gorgeous, but less visible in this photo, little girl Rosie.

There was a lot of history at that table!

Yesterday, Gary and I had lunch with John Shorb, my editor for a new faith-and-health newsletter project. (I'll post links to that when it goes live.) John and I had communicated by phone and e-mail, and I liked him just as much in person as I'd expected.

Yesterday evening, Gary and I took his parents out for a Mother's Day/Father's Day dinner. We all had a great time and ate lots of good food.

Today, Gary and I went into Manhattan to have lunch with Kay, my literary agent. I hadn't seen her for several years, and it was wonderful to get together. (The meal was great, too!) Afterwards, Gary and I visited my friend Roger, whom I've known since 1983. He was my boss when I was supporting myself doing part-time word-processing, and we've stayed friends ever since. He's retired now and has multiple health issues, so I'm always glad to have the chance to see him. We had fun catching up.

After we left Roger's, Gary and I had dinner at Dallas BBQ, one of our favorite old hangouts. Good, simple grub, inexpensive and well-cooked. Food's been a major theme of this trip, as you can tell!

Tomorrow we're getting together with my cousin Jim and his daughter Maggie; we also hope to see Jim's father, my mom's brother, who'll have just arrived back home from Egypt (he's an entomologist and flies all over the world studying bees). I also need to do laundry at Gary's parents' place tomorrow, if I'm going to have anything to wear at WisCon!

So we've had a busy but very social and pleasant time. I'm really looking forward to WisCon; I think Gary's looking forward to getting home and seeing the cats again. And we're both looking forward to being in places with better weather. We love New York, but it's poured on and off since we've been here.

Grand Rounds Goes Biblical!

This week's edition is up, with a very clever Genesis theme. I'm delighted, not only to be included, but to be the first post.

Great job, #1 Dinosaur!

Monday, May 19, 2008

My Grandfather's House

Yesterday we went to a post-wedding brunch at Luke's parents' house in Leonia, which is the next town over from Englewood. (It turns out that the Bonanomis and my family went to the same primary-care physician.) After we left, I asked Gary's dad if we could cruise around Englewood a bit so I could see my old haunts. We drove past my mother's old apartment, past the cemetery where I used to play with friends -- explains a lot, doesn't it? -- past the office building which was once the middle school I attended. Those were all on the same main drag, but then I decided that it would be nice to go see my grandfather's house.

This is the house my mother's parents bought for $6,000 in 1931. It's where my mother and uncle grew up (although they spent a while living with their aunt and uncle on Long Island after their mother was killed in a car accident, which also put my grandfather in the hospital for six months). When my parents split up, my mother moved back to Englewood to be near her father, and we spent a lot of time at his house. I slept over there fairly regularly, and loved the attic, which was full of mysterious boxes and parcels, including props he'd used in his painting. I hadn't been inside the house since 1987, when my grandfather died. His second wife moved away, and my mother and uncle sold the house, which they had inherited. (Wife #2, who was a truly miserable person and who was as happy to be rid of us as we were to be rid of her, got everything else, including my grandfather's artwork.)

Yesterday, as we approached the house, I saw that it was for sale. And then I saw that there was an open house.

So Gary and his mother and I went inside. We were the only people there other than the realtor, who was delighted to show us around once I told him the story. He even took a photo of me and Gary in the house, although somehow it got lost when he tried to e-mail it to me. I didn't have my camera with me, or I'd have taken dozens of photos.

The house has had at least two owners since I was last inside, and it showed. The kitchen had been renovated, and a half-bath added downstairs. The musty old attic is now fully finished, with a full bathroom, and the house now has central air conditioning. But it was still recognizably the same place, and each room brought back memories. That was especially true when I started descending the stairs into the basement, which my grandfather had used as a workshop and which the other owners have kept for the same purpose. It smelled exactly the same as when I was a little girl, and the odor brought a rush of particularly strong memories. I expected to see Jerome (I never called him Grandpa) tinkering with trays of parts, bits of metal I loved to play with.

At some point, I called my mother in Philly and said, "Guess where I am now?" When I told her, she got choked up. I wish she'd been able to be with me. She was also quite bemused when I told her that the listing price is $679,000 (although the realtor told me he expects to get a bit less than that).

I'm so happy that I decided to take the detour to Jerome's house, and that my timing was so good! I suspect that being back inside the house will be the highlight of this trip.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Erika's Wedding

Allow me to introduce Mr. and Mrs. Luke Bonanomi, only moments after they were married. Erika decided to change her name; the new one has a lot more syllables, so we'll all be tripping over it for a while! (As always, click on any thumbnails to enlarge.)

Here's a shot I took of Erika by herself, looking supremely happy. We all really loved the red-trimmed veil. The wedding party was dressed in red and black, and the bridesmaids' dresses were actually nice enough to wear to other occasions: very classy!

It rained on and off yesterday, but the rain held off during the outdoor ceremony, so relief reigned. Erika was delighted that Gary and I were there; I think we won the award for "traveled the farthest to be at the wedding."

Gary's parents, Doris and Adrian, drove us to the wedding. Through a bizarre series of highway mishaps -- none of which were our fault -- we wound up getting funneled onto the George Washington Bridge and having to turn around, and then when we got off the highway in New Jersey, we got lost again and had to ask directions at a gas station. It was quite nerve-wracking! But we'd left three hours early, so we still got there forty-five minutes before the ceremony started.

Here's my darling hubby, looking dapper. I, unfortunately, wasn't looking dapper: I'd brought a pretty but, in retrospect, much too informal cotton dress, and was the most underdressed person at the wedding. However, Gary and my in-laws still consented to be seen with me. It's just as well there are no photos of me, though!

The table centerpieces were glass bowls filled with water, in which floated either a gigantic rose or a candle. They were really beautiful, although this photo doesn't do them justice. I took a ton of other pictures -- of the lovely room where we ate, decorated with lights, of Erika's parents and brother, of the bride and groom seated at their dinner table -- but unfortunately, none of them came out.

Trust me, though: it was a gala occasion, and Erika and Luke are obviously and radiantly ecstatic. We wish them more of the same for many, many years!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Rain, Rain, Go Away

It's been raining all day. This is really unnerving for people from Nevada, where we average seven inches of precipitation a year. We hope the weather's getting this rain out of its system before tomorrow's wedding, which is supposed to take place outside. Also, since I'll be wearing a summer dress, I'd like slightly higher temperatures.

On the other hand, it's good knitting weather.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Blast from the Past

Our trip to NJ went very smoothly, and featured cute animals. We shared our flight to Denver with a sweet avalanche-rescue dog -- although we weren't sitting near her -- and a funny little bird was hopping around our gate area in Denver. Our flight from Denver to LaGuardia (where we went because it was cheaper than flying into Newark) was crowded, but Gary and I actually had an empty seat between us! That made us very happy. Our in-laws had sent a car service to LaGuardia to pick us up; we found the driver right away, and got to our hotel (which is top-flight and very comfortable) in record time.

Today we had fun hanging out with Gary's folks. We've seen very little of the bride, who's running around making final arrangements, but we've had good visits with everyone else. Gary's mom took us out to lunch today, and said, "Oh, we should go to Baumgart's!"

There was a restaurant called Baumgart's in Englewood, where I grew up (and where, improbably enough, the wedding will be). It was an Englewood institution: when my mother was growing up in the thirties, all the kids went there for ice cream after school, and my mother and sister and I used to go there for ice cream when I was growing up.

Yes, my mother and I grew up in the same town. She moved back to live near her father after my parents split up. We even went to the same high school -- where my aunt and uncle met and fell in love -- and were both valedectorian of our graduating class. Pretty weird, huh?

So when I heard "Baumgart's," my ears perked up. But surely this couldn't be the same restaurant, especially since we were in Livingston now?

Turns out that it is the same Baumgart's! They're in four locations now, and these days they're a Chinese-American restaurant as well as an ice-cream place. I was tickled. Tonight I called my mother and said, "You'll never guess where I ate lunch today!" She was tickled, too.

Meanwhile, it's unnerving to be back in New Jersey. There's too much moisture in the atmosphere, and strange green growths run rampant everywhere, and the flatness of the terrain is extremely disorienting. Aren't there any mountains on this planet? We're overcoming our instinctive fear of this alien habitat, however, and having a very pleasant time.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Blogging from the Airport

We got here at the absolutely horrible hour of 4:15 a.m. -- after waking up at 3:00 -- and are now trying to stay awake until our flight boards. Gary's waiting on line to buy coffee. I, obviously, am blogging.

I love free wifi.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Neither Ill Nor Nuts

I had a doubly reassuring doctor's visit yesterday.

To understand the emotional background here, you have to know that I have a long history of vague-but-mildly-alarming-symptoms that persist despite batteries of expensive tests showing that nothing's wrong. As a result, several of my doctors have, I believe, come to the conclusion either that I'm a hypochondriac or that all of my symptoms can be chalked up to my depression. This history has made me a little reluctant to go to the doctor (although I'm also, certainly, very glad that I keep getting excellent bills of health).

The most recent such fiasco was my second stress-echo test in three years: as longtime readers will recall, the tech was very unnerved by my EKG and said I might have to go straight upstairs for an angiogram, but the echo was normal and my exercise tolerance was great, so the cardiologist dismissed the EKG results as a false positive without even seeing me. (The same thing had happened during my first stress-echo, although I gather that the EKG results there were a little less dramatic.) My primary-care doc sided with the cardiologist and seemed somewhat less than sympathetic to my anxiety. Rightly or wrongly, I read into her response an eye-rolling "oh, here she goes again" reaction.

We'd been having other communication problems, and I finally realized that I was no longer very comfortable talking to her about symptoms, so I decided to switch primaries. I went back to the doctor Gary and I had seen before the most recent primary; he'd left that medical group to start his own practice.

I saw him last Wednesday. I'd asked for a physical but got a very perfunctory exam without even bloodwork; now I think this may have been because he thought the appointment was simply an establish-new-patient visit, not an actual exam. I asked him about the stress-echo situation -- he was the doctor who'd sent me for the first one -- and got a brisk, "Chalk it up to individual variation."

Thursday I started having mild fluttery heart symptoms for a few seconds every hour or so. I tried to ignore this: I had no shortness of breath or dizziness, and the end of the semester is stressful, and the last thing I wanted to do was go right back to my doctor with new heart symptoms and then be told they were nothing, thereby further eroding my credibility. So I waited it out. The palpitations kept on through the weekend, brief and sporadic but stubbornly persistent. Yesterday, during my final workshop party, I had one during which I got very dizzy and also started sweating a lot, although these symptoms didn't last long either.

Still no shortness of breath, and negative for nausea, chest pain, or radiating pain to the neck, shoulder or arm. But it was a little worrisome, and Gary and I are leaving on a long trip tomorrow, and the last thing I wanted was to be sitting on an airplane fretting about my heart.

So at 4:00 yesterday, I decided to go to Urgent Care. That way, I'd be seeing a new doc, who'd give me an EKG and undoubtedly tell me everything was fine; word of this would only get back to my new primary if something needed follow-up. It seemed like a reasonable compromise.

I went to Urgent Care armed with my knitting, two books, a bottle of water and a power bar. I expected to have to wait for hours. Amazingly, I was the only person in the waiting room, and I got taken back to an exam room immediately. I talked to a very nice nurse and then to a very nice doctor, who took an admirably thorough history and did a careful exam, and then sent me to another room for an EKG.

Which was, of course, absolutely normal. Both the nurse and the doctor had told me that they wouldn't be able to figure anything out unless I had an episode while I was hooked up to the leads. Naturally, that didn't happen. "This is the opposite of white-coat syndrome," I said glumly to the nurse, who laughed and agreed. But the minute she unhooked the leads, I felt the flutter again.

"There. I just felt one."

"Hmmmm. Let's hook you up to a monitor and see if one shows up, okay? I'll be right outside. Call me if something happens."

She hooked me up to the monitor and left. Nothing happened. I lay there feeling foolish. The doctor came in and told me that my EKG was "splendidly normal," and began explaining that my palpitations were probably -- although he couldn't know for sure without seeing something on a test -- premature atrial contractions, which are common, benign, and nothing to worry about. He told me that he's had them since he was sixteen. He carefully described how these happen, what they feel like, and under what conditions one should worry about them, and then told me that he suspected I was absolutely safe to travel, although it would be a good idea to follow up with my primary and have bloodwork done to make sure nothing's going on with my thyroid.

As I was lying on the table listening to him, I felt a flutter. "There!" I said.

"I saw it! I saw it!" He sounded like a birdwatcher who'd just spotted a particularly rare and handsome specimen. "Let's see if I can get it on a printout."

"It was a PAC?"

"Yes, it was definitely a PAC."

As it turned out, he didn't get it on the printout from the monitor, but at least I had official confirmation that my symptoms were legit. "I'm not crazy!" I told the nurse when she came back in to unhook me.

She gave me an odd look. "I never thought you were."

That's because you haven't seen me often enough, I thought. I got dressed, thanked her and the doctor copiously, and went back home, feeling much relieved. I'm not really sick, but I also wasn't hallucinating my symptoms. Given my state of mind when I went to Urgent Care, that's the equivalent of having my cake and eating it too.

And now I'm going to call my new primary and see if I can get the thyroid workup today.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Back to Grand Rounds!

This week's edition is up, and I'm delighted to be included after too many weeks of not even submitting.

Thanks for hosting, David, and for the kind words about my post!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Two Moments of Grace

As a volunteer chaplain, I'm always supposed to remember that I'm not the one doing the real work: God is. In training we learned the mantra, "God is in the room before you enter, and God will be in the room after you leave." This is a comforting thought, especially since my ED visits are so often fragmentary, cut short by tests, procedures, and the arrival of medical staff. (I've learned to wrap up prayers very quickly when the ED doc shows up.) But after three and a half years of volunteering, I take a certain pride in what I've learned and in my accumulated experience, and I tend to forget that God can work through me even when I have no idea what I'm doing.

A recent shift reminded me of that. Twice.

Scenario #1: I enter a room containing two parents and a child. The child is asleep; the parents look exhausted. When I introduce myself and ask if they need to talk, one of the parents lets loose a slow, methodical, furious tirade. They've been here for twelve hours. The kid's fine, but they can't go home yet, and they were subjected to the indignity of having to talk to Social Services because someone was alarmed about something that, it turned out, wasn't a problem. They've never gotten good service at this hospital; they should have gone to The Other Hospital, the one where they always get excellent care. They'll never come to this hospital again. This hospital sucks. The child hasn't been able to get a decent meal and neither have the parents, who also haven't slept in God knows how long, and did they mention that ridiculous visit with Social Services? Over nothing? Have they mentioned that they've been here for twelve hours?

I stood and listened to this litany with an increasing sense of dread. The parents seemed past enraged, locked into their own fatigue and indignation. They'd already washed their hands of this hospital, and I doubted very much that anything I could say would make them feel better.

"I'm sorry you've had such a difficult time," I told them. "Can I get you some water?"

It felt like a really lame offer. They'd been here for twelve hours: surely someone had brought them water, and anyway, there was a sink in the room. I expected one of the glaring parents to dropkick me through the door.

But instead, their faces softened. "Oh, that's so nice! Thank you! No one else has offered us anything. Yes, we'd love some water!"

I still don't believe that no one else had offered them water, but I got it for them anyway. In the process, I found a stuffed toy for the kid. When I went back into the room, the parents beamed and thanked me.

And suddenly everything turned around. They told me how much their kid, still asleep, loved stuffed animals, and then we got onto living pets, and they told me long, funny stories about their wonderful dog. They were laughing and relaxed; their sense of perspective had come back. They remembered now that they'd gotten very prompt service when the medical team thought something serious might be wrong with their child: things had only slowed down when the condition turned out to be more minor, a case in which sicker patients would take priority. They even had good things to say about Social Services. "You know, maybe it was okay that they talked to us, because they gave us the phone number of a resource we might be able to use."

All because a volunteer offered them some water.

Actually, this is probably one of those cases that illustrates how important it is simply to listen to families, a task for which the medical staff all too often has no time. This is part of why I think all EDs need 24/7 dedicated chaplaincy coverage, not that I expect that to happen anytime remotely soon.

Scenario #2: The patient has a minor injury, but wants prayer. When I ask what we're praying for -- "your medical complaint, obviously, but is there anything else or anything more specific?" -- I get a very long answer. There are family issues, money issues, and job and housing issues. This is one of those cases where most of the medical staff would never consider calling a chaplain, because the medical condition isn't complicated. But it's the only thing about this woman's life that isn't.

During our conversation, she tells me that she was sexually abused as a child. We talk about the research showing that writing about trauma can help people overcome their painful experiences, and I give her some tips about how to write down her story without retraumatizing herself. "You could write at the top of the paper, 'I'm in control of this story now.' You could write letters to the child you were, telling her that she didn't deserve that."

The patient's face lights up. "Oh, those are good ideas! I'm going to try those!"

So far, so good. But when I start praying with her, I find myself fumbling. What were all those issues again? Have I forgotten anything? And what should I say about the abuse? I can't not mention it, but how does one talk in a prayer about something so hideous that it's made a lot of people stop believing in a loving God?

I find myself offering a few trite, awkward sentences about how we don't always understand why bad things happen, and they make us angry, and all we can do is get through them the best we can and trust that God's there with us during them. The sentences feel lame.

The whole prayer feels lame. I'm a lot better at extemporaneous prayer than I used to be, but this isn't one of my better moments.

We say "Amen." She opens her eyes. I'm sure she's going to thank me politely and send me away.

Instead, she says, "That was beautiful. Thank you. You covered everything! You even covered my second marriage to an abusive husband."

I blink. "You didn't tell me about that."

"No, I didn't. But your prayer covered it anyway."

"We call that grace," I tell her. Among preachers, it's axiomatic that every time you step into the pulpit, someone in the congregation will hear your homily as a personal message, even if you thought you were talking about something completely different. People hear what they need to hear.

"That was so wonderful," the parishioner will say. "I felt like you were talking directly to me! I really needed that story about aardvarks today!"

You learn to say, "Thank you. I'm so glad it was helpful." You learn not to say, "But I wasn't talking about aardvarks. I was talking about geckos. The homily had nothing to do with aardvarks!"

Apparently the same principle holds for prayers at hospital bedsides.

Mother Spirit

Here's my "Mother's Day on Pentecost" homily. There are no cats in this one, which is a break from tradition, but it's hard to fit them in with tongues of fire and rushing wind. Those weather conditions would terrify the poor beasts.

Pentecost eight years ago, in addition to being my own baptism, was also the first time I preached (at the invitation of one of our regional vicars, a job that, sadly, doesn't exist in the diocesan hierarchy anymore). That first homily wasn't quite as bad as "Bloop the Retarted [sic] Prairie Dog," but I've definitely improved since then.

And yes, I know that the title of that early story was terribly politically incorrect, but hey: I was only, like, eight or something.

In case you don't already know the Pentecost story, here it is.


Good morning, and happy Mother’s Day!

Today, the Feast of Pentecost, is the birthday of the church. Before Pentecost, the disciples were a ragtag and unruly group. They loved and followed Jesus, but often misunderstood what he told them; and they were often in turmoil. They were devastated by his death, terrified and awe-struck by his resurrection, and bereft after his ascension. The flesh-and-blood Jesus who had led them was really gone this time. What were they going to do?

Jesus himself had told them that he would send the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to protect and guide them, but we have to wonder if they had any idea what that meant. How could they? When the rushing wind and tongues of flame showed up, they must have been as frightened and on edge as we in Reno have been these last few weeks, dealing with earthquakes.

The disciples quickly realized that they had nothing to fear. The Spirit allowed them to do wonderful things: to speak and understand any language and to act on their own inner gifts, the ones that would allow them to continue Jesus’ work. Empowered by the Spirit, the ragtag, disorganized disciples transformed themselves into the early church. They baptized, healed, taught, and cared for the sick and lonely. They loved each other and the people around them, sharing everything they had.

It’s fitting for Pentecost to fall on Mother’s Day, because the Holy Spirit is often considered the divine feminine, the Mother Spirit who balances God the Father and Christ the Son. Some of us, when we recite the Nicene Creed after the homily, refer to the Holy Spirit as “she,” although the baptismal covenant we’ll be using this morning won’t give us that chance. Honoring Mother God, though, we might want to begin the Lord’s Prayer with, “Our Mother, Who Art in Heaven.” After all, this is the day when we honor all our mothers: the ones who gave birth to us, the ones who raised us, and the ones who have helped us develop our gifts.

For some of us, all those mothers are the same person; others, whose mothers have died or who have suffered estrangement from biological family, have been nurtured by people, both women and men, who are not blood relatives. But all of us, to quote the motherly Mr. Rogers in his blue cardigan, have someone “who has loved us into being.” God, both Mother and Father, is the first and earliest source of that love, the One who loved the whole creation into being. None of us would be here this morning, though, if our fellow humans hadn’t shared the task.

I invite you, then, to think about mothering. How has God mothered you? How have other people mothered you? What gifts have God and the people who love you encouraged you to develop, and how have you used those gifts to mother the world?

As some of you know, I’m very close to my own mother. She was, and is, fiercely devoted to me and to my older sister. I needed that devotion. Although some members of my family disagree, I remember myself as an awkward, skinny, painfully self-conscious kid. I got frightened easily, cried even more easily, was absolutely terrible at sports or anything else involving physical coordination -- a trait that has persisted to this day -- and spent a lot of time being bullied and teased. Through it all, though, I knew how much my mother loved me.

Somewhere along the way, I discovered a source of exhilarating joy: books. Although I’d come to reading late, I more than made up for lost time. I read constantly. The day I got my first library card was a gala occasion, and my mother told me solemnly that I could go to the library all by myself, even though I had to be very, very careful when I crossed the street. I made the trip every day or two, staggering under armfuls of books in both directions, and soon I discovered that I not only wanted to read stories, but wanted to write them. When I got an idea for a story, it felt like a rushing wind, bringing a beam of light and energy flooding into my head. I couldn’t wait to get all those dancing, sparkly words on the page. Writing felt wonderful.

My moments of inspiration are still like that; now, I recognize them as visits from the Holy Spirit, and I’ve come to believe that writing is my way of speaking in tongues. But as a child in a non-religious and unchurched family, I didn’t understand any of that. All I knew was that my stories somehow came from outside me, and that when I was writing, I felt valuable. When I was writing, it didn’t matter that I couldn’t hit a softball, that other kids laughed at me, and that I’d never quite gotten the knack of making friends. Telling stories made me feel whole. I didn’t know to call my hobby “healing” when I was a child, but it was.

And Mom encouraged me. My handwriting and spelling were both terrible, but she still has my first effort, a two-page epic called “Bloop the Retarted [sic] Prairie Dog,” complete with illustrations of an animal that looks like a lima bean with fangs. With practice, my stories got better, although my handwriting never did. When I was in college, Mom supported my choice to major in English, although she was afraid I’d never get a job. After college, she saw how miserable I was in a full-time office job and offered to let me live at home and work part-time so I’d have more time to write. One birthday, she and my sister gave me a bright red filing cabinet, with other brightly wrapped gifts inside. Mom read and critiqued my manuscripts and, when I started submitting my work for publication, learned to recognize the stamped, self-addressed envelopes that contained rejections. On November 9, 1984, I was coming home from a temp job when I saw her standing in our living room window, holding up an envelope and jumping up and down. “Susan,” she yelled out the window, “you sold a story!” When the business-sized, windowed envelope had arrived in the mail, she’d held it up to the light and figured out that there was a contract inside, although she’d resisted the urge to open it.

Since then, I’ve published three novels and enough stories to fill a slim collection. I know now what to call the rushing wind that brings me my ideas, the wind I can neither control nor predict. I thank Mother Spirit for these gifts whenever I receive them, just as I thank my human mother for her steadfast faith in her ungainly, socially challenged child; and just as I thank the many other people, relatives and otherwise, who’ve believed in my gift even when I haven’t.

I’ve learned that our gifts have effects we could never have planned, and that God sometimes uses us as instruments of grace. I’ve often had the experience, as I’m sure all of you have too, of being moved or inspired or heartened by something a stranger has said or done or made. Whenever someone else’s work gives us new insight or energy, the Holy Spirit is on the move. And if we’re very lucky, we may sometimes catch glimpses of how our own work has touched others. I have a small collection of letters from readers telling me how my writing has helped them, always in ways I never could have predicted or planned. We do not create our gifts ourselves; they have been bestowed by the Giver, and their full workings are always a mystery.

Because of my experiences with the Holy Spirit, Pentecost is my favorite feast of the church year. It’s the day I chose for my own baptism, eight years ago, and I’m delighted that we’re baptizing a baby this morning. As we do so, let us pray that Mother Spirit will visit him often, bearing wonderful gifts, and that his human parents -- and his wider family and community, meaning all of us -- will help nurture those gifts. And let us pray that he will use those gifts wisely, to the glory of God and to the enrichment of God’s good creation.


Saturday, May 10, 2008

Another Prayer Shawl

Today I called my cousin, the one who has colon cancer. He's about a quarter of the way through his chemo regime, which I believe ends in September, and which leaves him feeling wretched and basically unable to eat for six days out of every fourteen. He's lost twenty pounds. On the bad days, his wife tries to coax him with cheesecake, and on the good days, he eats as much as he can to store up energy.

I caught him on one of the good days at the end of the cycle; next week, he'll go in for another treatment, and the whole thing will start over again. Today he and his wife went out and had a nice lunch, and he did some yardwork. He goes to work when he can, and says that his employer has been very sympathetic and helpful.

He seems to have a great attitude. His type and stage of cancer has a 65% five-year survival rate, but he said that most of the time, he doesn't think about the odds. He just gets on with living when he feels strong enough. I said that all of us are living with an unknown five-year survival rate, and that cancer patients are just a lot more aware of it than the rest of us, and he laughed and agreed with me. He repeated a joke he'd heard on Prairie Home Companion, about the truck driver who looks in his rearview mirror and sees, right above the lettering that says, "Objects in mirror are closer than they appear," the face of the Grim Reaper. And then he talked about how paying attention to the rearview mirror has made him examine his priorities. He's a very talented painter -- he inherited that from our grandfather -- and he'll be able to retire with a good pension in a year or two. He'd like to retire and spend more time on his painting and other creative projects.

I told both him and his wife that I wished I could do something, and that while I've been making a lot of prayer shawls lately, that seemed a bit silly in this case, since they lives in a very hot section of the Southwest. But evidently the chemo treatments leave him feeling chilly, and the manufacturer even provides "chemo kits" that include blankets, so I'm going to make a shawl for him after all. I'm making it from washable acrylic in a loose, airy basketweave, and because scents can be overpowering to people undergoing chemo, I won't include my usual lavendar sachet.

He and his wife aren't at all religious. I told him that he could think of it as a comfort shawl if that made more sense to him, and it did.

So tonight I interrupted my birthday-and-Christmas knitting to start his shawl. I really hope that for the rest of the year, I'll be able to concentrate on knitting for happier occasions.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Book Pigout, With Knitting

I'm currently indulging in a medical non-fiction orgy, which I figure I can justify because of my med-school work. Yesterday I finished devouring Pauline Chen's Final Exam, an uncommonly moving exploration of physicians' difficult relationship to death. During my Tolkien exam this afternoon, I inhaled half of Atul Gawande's Better, a wide-ranging collection of essays about improvements in medical performance, and then promptly came home and ordered his first book, Complications. While I was at it, I also bought Jerome Groopman's How Doctors Think, recommended both by Gary's mom and by med-school colleagues, along with my college classmate Lisa Belkin's book about medical ethics, First, Do No Harm.

And then I looked at all of the books by one of my favorite medical writers, Perri Klass, to see if I'd missed any . . . and discovered that she's published a collection of knitting columns! So of course I had to order that, too, even though it's not related to med-school work.

Perri Klass knits! Squeeeee! (I gather that if I read Knitter's Magazine, where she's a columnist, I'd already have known this, but I don't and I didn't.)

I'm already thinking of other books I wish I'd ordered, but they'll have to wait! Anyway, if anyone out there has recommendations for great medical nonfiction, please let me know.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

More Little Earthquakes

We're still having them, although most are too small to feel. The activity's certainly died down, but hasn't stopped; but then, I guess it never does really stop here. We just usually aren't aware of it.

Last night there was a 3-something jolt around 11:00. I'd been reading in bed, and Harley was lying on my chest. When the quake hit, he leaped into the air and onto the floor, using me as a springboard. Fortunately, I wasn't badly scratched!

My WisCon Schedule

I'm on fewer panels than I wanted to be -- somehow I missed the preliminary sign-up and had to be squeezed in at the last minute -- but these look like they'll be interesting, and I'll be talking with some very accomplished people!

Title: What Can't We Forgive?

" SF/F fans can be forgiving sorts; we'll let violations of physical laws go by without too much notice, permit battles with armies too large to be supported by their populations, and so on. What won't we forgive and read on? Some people won't forgive Orson Scott his personal politics, while some won't forgive the moral worldview of his fiction. Some won't forgive Anne McCaffrey her tent-peg hypothesis, while others won't let Heinlein get away with any of a wide variety of sins. Some people can't forgive China Mieville's preaching, or Samuel R. Delany's depictions of underage sex. Where do people draw the line, either with regards to an author's work or their personal behavior, and what does it mean when we can't forgive? "
Saturday, 4:00-5:15 P.M.
Capitol A

M: Steven Schwartz
Susan Palwick
Judith Moffett
Ian Hagemann
Vylar Kaftan

Title: Narrative and Politics

"A group of writers discuss the politics of narrative. How does narrative reinforce traditional notions of power and identity? How does it challenge them? If you don't want to tell the same story as before, how do you need to change the structure of what you write?"
Sunday, 10:00-11:15 A.M.

M: L. Timmel Duchamp
Susan Palwick
Carolyn Gilman
Pat Murphy
Eileen Gunn

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Chicago, Here I Come! With a Rare Family Find!

In June, I'll be going to Chicago for a training institute in the Literature & Medicine program, which a med-school colleague and I will be trying to start here within the next year. It's an exciting idea, and I really hope we can get it off the ground.

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to the conference. I have to say that part of the draw is that the conference accomodations are less than a mile from The Art Institute of Chicago. My grandfather, Jerome Rozen, and his twin brother George were both students there, and later taught there. The school's where they met their wives, who were also both artists. So it's a big piece of family history, but I've never been. I can't wait to go!

Doing a search on Jerome, I just found this picture of him, taken in 1985, two years before he died. He and George painted a lot of covers for magazines like The Shadow; late in life, he was commissioned to recreate some of his and George's covers by Anthony Tollin, who took this photo. In the picture, Jerome's holding up a Shadow cover painting and another for Doc Savage.

I'd never seen this photo before, and it moves me very much. I remember watching Jerome painting the recreations in his garage, and I remember meeting the Tollins at his funeral. I miss Jerome, as I suspect everyone does who knew him. He was an incredibly sweet and generous man, and very much the patriarch of our extended family.

Wow. What a wonderful find!