Thursday, July 30, 2009

And another!

I just had another poem accepted, this time by Cell2Soul. I'm told it will be published in September.

I guess now I have to write some more and get them out there.

Writing News

I've just had a poem accepted by Hospital Drive, the online journal of the University of Virginia School of Medicine. I'll post the link to the poem when it's up.

In fiction news, I now have over 100 pages of TSWP, but there's been no word yet on where it will find a home. Because I'd been invited to submit a proposal, I'd hoped that would have happened by now.

Ah, well. The wheels of publishing grind exceedingly slow.

Please keep your fingers crossed for me on this one!

You lookin' at ME?


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Red Jacket Lives On!

Today I got a lovely e-mail from my father's friend AJ, who bought Dad's boat, Red Jacket, when Dad could no longer live on her. I hadn't been able to call AJ because I couldn't find his phone number, and I felt awful about that, but he learned of Dad's death from a mutual friend. Here's part of his e-mail:
I searched the web and found your blog and read your beautiful account of your dad. It brought back some special, colorful memories. I read what you said about the boat and wanted you to know she safely survived Hurricane Katrina, a miracle in itself, and is waiting safely and patiently for our children to grow so we can baby her once again. We too dream of sailing her again one day.
Nothing would make Dad happier. Thanks so much, AJ!

Worshipping Bali

After all, everyone knows that the proper role of humans is to admire, worship and caress cats!


Plants in Motion

This week, my summer Tolkien class met the Ents. By coincidence -- or not -- last weekend my sister told me about a science exhibit she and her family had seen about Plants in Motion. Plants are alive, after all: they just move much more slowly than we do. But move they do, and these videos prove it.

My sister said that the SlowLife Exhibit she saw included a video illustrating that flowers keep moving after they're cut, and move most violently just before they die.

Oh, dear. When I told Gary about this, he said, "I'll never bring you flowers again."

My class loved these videos, and I hope all of you will, too.

Tread gently on the grass, and thank your salad for feeding you.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Chaplain Sighting!

My friend Arthur just sent me a message about a new BBC series called Being Human, about a twenty-something trio of supernatural beings -- a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost -- sharing a flat in London. Evidently the vampire and the werewolf both work in a hospital (an interesting premise in itself!), and in the first episode of the first season, a chaplain leads a service for a deceased coworker.

Arthur has no idea if the chaplain's a recurring character or not, and I can't tell from the website. Still, a chaplain appearing in a TV hospital, however briefly, is heartening news.

Gary and I, of course, will have to wait for the series to come out on Netflix.

Excessive Altruism

In my novel Shelter, I wrote somewhat satirically -- but only somewhat -- about a near future in which self-sacrifice has been pathologized, resulting in a psychiatric diagnosis known as "excessive altruism." The excessively altruistic, derisively nicknamed "the exalted," are people whose desire to help others outweighs their regard for their own safety, who provide help in ways that somehow seem, to outside observers, to hurt the helpers. In the world of the novel, this is considered a form of self-harm.

I came up with the idea after various conversations with people who seemed to view altruism as deeply suspect, surely only a cover for some mental ailment. Witness, for instance, the long-time friend who informed me sternly that I had a "neurotic need to be a good person." Witness the title of this bog and its derivation (explained in the sidebar).

One of the reasons I love the church is that no one there views trying to be a good person as a form of mental illness. Strangely enough, church folk seem to consider altriusm a good thing, and in fact try to cultivate it in themselves and encourage it in others. (But hey, everybody knows we're crazy.)

Still, most of us feel some need for limits. One can't be self-giving if there's no self left to give. Hence the emphasis, especially for clergy, on boundaries and self-care. And a few weeks ago, when I wrote about my sudden interest in being a living organ donor, I was suspicious of my own motivations, even though, by coincidence -- or not -- I learned shortly thereafter about an acquaintance who might one day need an organ.

A few days ago, the July 27 issue of The New Yorker arrived in our mailbox. Coincidentally -- or not -- it contains an article by Larissa MacFarquhar about people who donate their kidneys to strangers. The article talks at some length about how suspiciously these folks are viewed, both in the medical community and outside it. While acknowledging the many ethical and emotional dilemmas posed by the situation, MacFarquhar also discusses broader cultural unease with altruism:
Most people find it uncomplicatedly admirable when a person risks his life to save a stranger from fire, or from drowning. What, then, is it about saving a stranger by giving a kidney, a far lesser risk, that people find so odd? Do they feel there is something aggressive about the act, as though the donor were implicitly rebuking them for not doing it, too? (There is no rebuke in saving a stranger from drowning -- you weren't there, you couldn't have done it. And you can always imagine that you would have if you had been.) Or perhaps it's that organ donation, unlike rescue, is conceived in cold blood, and cold-blooded altruism seems nearly as sinister as cold-blooded malevolence. Perhaps only the hot-blooded, unthinking sort can now escape altruism's tainted reputation, captured in the suspicious terms for what people are really engaging in when they think they're helping (sublimation, colonialism, group selection, potlatch, socialism, co-dependency -- the list goes on).
In April 2004, The New Yorker ran another article about a man named Zell Kravinksy who donated a kidney to a stranger, to the rage and horror of his friends and family. I'd already come up with the idea of excessive altruism by then, but I did use the Kravinsky article in a homily. I recommend it, and the MacFarquar aticle, to all of you. (If you don't subscribe to The New Yorker, your friendly local library probably does.)

I'd love to hear people's thoughts about all of this. We're naturally suspicious of altruism that seems self-serving, but we also seem to be suspicious of altruism that's not self-serving, at least as we define the term. What's a poor altruist to do?

Saturday, July 25, 2009


During this week's hospital shift, I saw a truly terrifying medical issue, one that's made people I love miserable for months on end, a pestilence that's notoriously difficult to contain and eradicate.

I'm not talking about bubonic plague (which still exists, but can be knocked out by penicillin), leprosy (which is also treatable), HIV, HPV, H1N1, TB, SARS, MRSA, or the many varieties of Hepatitis. I'm not even talking about pink-eye.

No, dear reader, I'm talking about bedbugs.

As you may be aware, there was a serious bedbug epidemic in New York City and surrounding areas several years ago. Gary and I knew a number of people who were affected, all of whom spent many months and thousands of dollars trying to get rid of the pests. In most cases this meant disposing of beds, other furniture, carpeting, clothing, even books. In the meantime, there were itchy bites to deal with. The sufferers we knew -- who've survived all kinds of other emotional and physical crises, including cancer and 9/11 -- all talk about bedbugs with unparalleled heat and hatred.

Having bedbugs is extremely traumatic.

Listening to the long epics of Battles with Bedbugs, Gary and I were really grateful that we'd never heard of them in Reno. For a while, our trips back East were underlaid with anxiety about bringing unwanted guests home in our luggage, a disster we seem to have been spared. We've been living with the complacent, slightly self-congratulatory belief that bedbugs -- like mosquitos, cockroaches and deer ticks -- are primarily non-Nevadan (or at least non-Reno) critters. Aren't we smart to live here? Yes, we are!

And then I met a patient covered with bedbug bites. This person had moved to Nevada from a place that doesn't have bedbugs, and hadn't even heard of bedbugs before moving here.

Be very afraid.

When I came home and told Gary the story, he backed up several feet and said anxiously, "You didn't bring any home with you, did you?"

I don't believe so, no. I wasn't in direct contact with the patient or the patient's belongings. And if I did bring some home, it certainly wasn't deliberate.

But I really hope I didn't!

Bargain Hunting

I'm not someone who gets up early on weekend mornings to hunt out garage sales, but if I see one, sometimes I'll stop. Today there was one about a block from our house, so I pulled over to see what they had. I lucked out when I found this beautiful little teapot; I have a gorgeous larger one that was a wedding gift, but I've wanted a smaller one for a while, and this fit the bill.

The teapot came with four dainty cups, demitasse size, nad two saucers. I'm not likely to use these -- I prefer large mugs -- but I bought them for the sake of completeness. The set was $12, and although I probably could have talked the sellers down a bit, I was happy enough with the price and didn't want to go to the trouble.

The teapot belonged to a beloved grandmother, and the family was sad to see it go, but they simply have Too Much Stuff. I promised them I'll take good care of it.

As you can see, Harley had to inspect the new purchases very carefully to make sure they met his high standards. I'm delighted to report that the tea set received the Feline Seal of Approval.

I also got an oval stained-glass window hanging, a purple iris, for $4, which seemed reasonable. But my big score was a 48-inch wide entertainment center for $30. It's made of real wood and has glassed-in shelves, which is what initially drew me. I've been wanting something with glass doors in which to store my yarn -- I think all the colors will be pretty through the glass -- and this should fit the bill, although we'll have to build or replace some missing shelves.

Fitting this monster into the house is another matter, though. (We only got it home because someone else at the garage sale had a large truck and hauled it home for us; he wouldn't take any money for his trouble, either. Nice guy.) I want it in my study, but that's going to be a very tight fit -- if we can do it at all -- and will involve removing several pieces of smaller furniture. I think everything can fit into the new unit; Gary's skeptical. And he doesn't want me to put it anywhere else in the house because he likes things the way they are, which I understand. So I have to work on making sure the cabinet will fit in the only spot where it will go (a truly daunting task, since my study's a larger and even deadlier version of Fibber McGee's closet), and then we have to find people to help us haul it up the stairs. I can probably get some church friends to do that, though.

So the garage sale was a good stop. Later, Gary and I went to REI, where I got a new pair of slippers (actually shoes, but I'll be wearing them as slippers) and he got a new hiking pack.

We've been good consumers today. Hey, just doing our part for the economy . . . .

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Gary's Gorgeous Hike

One of the fabulous things about living in Reno is easy access to amazing hiking. Gary hikes for three or four hours every other day on Peavine, the mountain across the street, which is definitely a high-desert mountain with very few trees.

I used to do some hiking with Gary, but it was always problematic because he's much faster than I am. He'd get frustrated at having to go slowly, and I often wound up getting injured because I'd try to push myself and would fall. And these days, my knee simply isn't up to any steep trails. So I content myself with swimming and level walking, and let him be the mountain goat in the family.

We're also an hour from Lake Tahoe, and occasionally Gary gets to enjoy some of those trails, especially with visitors. On Monday, he and Jim and Ellen Meadors -- Katharine's friends from Boston, with whom we went to Kauai two years ago -- hiked up Mt. Rose, a popular skiing area which affords views both of the Truckee Meadows and of Tahoe. They report that there are also bountiful wildflowers right now, thanks to our very wet spring.

From the top of Mount Rose, you can also see Slide Mountain, a striking but more barren nearby peak. (By the way, the hike Gary and Jim and Ellen did starts at 8,900 feet and climbs to 10,000-something, so they didn't have to walk all the way up the mountain! Even so, it took them six hours roundtrip, although that included many stops to look at wildflowers.)

The good news for me is that two miles into the five-mile hike, where the trail's still level, there's a beautiful waterfall. Gary's suggested that we go there sometime, and that sounds like a walk I can manage. I've loved waterfalls ever since our first trip to Maui, although I probably won't be swimming in this one! I also won't have time for it anytime soon, but that's okay. It's something to look forward to.

As always, click on any thumbnail to enlarge.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Four Months

I haven't posted for a while because we've been so busy. On Saturday I did my four-hour hospital shift, and then drove down to Carson City for a lovely barbeque with our friends Arthur and Sherri. On Sunday I had church, and then Katharine picked us up to drive us up to Lake Tahoe for an exquisite concert given by her and her (and our) friend Jim Meadors. Yesterday I prepped class, swam for an hour, taught for two hours, and wrote in the evening.

This morning I woke up at ten, feeling like I'd been hit by a truck. I have no time (and possibly no energy) to exercise before going to school, and afterwards we're going to Katharine's for dinner, so this is perforce a rest day. And that's fine, given how I feel: very heavy and draggy.

At some point today I realized that it's the four-month anniversary of Dad's death, which may account for the heaviness. (And in my Tolkien class, we'll be discussing Gandalf's fall in Moria.) In any case, I'm going to go easy on myself today.

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

Friday, July 17, 2009

May I have some peeled grapes with that, please?

We haven't had a video in a while. For your midsummer kittyfest enjoyment, here's Bali fanning Harley with his tail.


Thursday, July 16, 2009



But check out those whiskers!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Temporary Insanity

During our visit in Philadelphia, Dr. Dino gave me a copy of a wonderful handout about mourner's rights from the American Academy of Family Physicians. Here's my favorite paragraph:
In some cultures, a mourner is considered legally insane for a year. The mourner is allowed to blaspheme, break promises, wake people up at night, change his or her mind repeatedly, and express emotions, including anger at the one who has died. While our culture may not provide as much grace to mourners, you should give yourself a break.
I absolutely love this. I wish I could say to all my friends, relatives, colleagues and students, "Okay, I'm going to be legally insane until next March: just deal with it." Alas, our culture indeed provides much less grace to mourners, although it does caution us not to make any important decisions for at least a year.

All of this was in the back of my mind when, several weeks ago, I suddenly became fascinated by the idea of being a living organ donor. I can't even remember what prompted this: some news story, probably, combined with the fact that Katharine's brother received a kidney from a co-worker last year. My interest struck me as bizarre even at the time. I'm very properly scared of surgery, hate pain, would have a very hard time dealing with any extended recuperation period preventing exercise -- even my measly gum graft was a challenge in that respect -- and, even if I were a perfect match for someone, would probably be ruled out for all kinds of reasons, including my age, my depression history, and prior abdominal surgeries (two laparoscopic procedures).

Nonetheless, I did enough research to learn that, for instance, while the surgical procedure for donating a kidney is slightly less strenuous than the one for donating part of a liver, the liver regenerates almost completely after the surgery, whereas once you've given up a kidney . . . well, you're down a kidney, which means you're in trouble if something happens to the one you have left. I found myself weighing these factors. I actually browsed a database of people with my blood type who need organs. I found one I'd really have been happy to donate to, and fretted about whether this person could wait until next summer, which is the soonest I could possibly have major surgery (and is, mind you, past the one-year barrier).

Am I temporarily insane yet? Yeah, I thought so too.

And then, the very next day, I learned that an acquaintance may need a new organ, and I heard myself saying, "If it comes to that, I'd be happy to be considered as a donor."

I don't think it will come to that. First of all, this person won't get to the stage of considering transplant for some time; secondly, I probably wouldn't even be a good match, and there are a lot of other people who'd no doubt volunteer, like this person's family; thirdly, I'm sure I'd ultimately be ruled out, for the reasons I've given above. (I don't even donate blood anymore, because my iron levels are too often borderline. It's not worth schlepping down there to be told I can't do it.)

I dutifully mentioned all this to my shrink, who blanched and looked very alarmed and said, "Susan! Don't do that! At least, don't do it right away. I don't think that's something you should jump into."

"They don't let you jump into it," I reminded her. (Being approved as a living donor is a very long, thorough process, and rightly so.) "Anyway, they'd probably say I couldn't do it just because I'm here in your office."

"I'd have to write a letter for you. I'd support you if you really wanted to do it. Just -- don't jump into it."

Don't worry: I wouldn't even if I could.

But isn't the timing really kinda freaky?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


The day went better than I feared. I got lots and lots of loving notes from folks at church, which helped, and was very busy prepping this afternoon's class, which also helped.

My sister called and said her husband had made brownies in Dad's honor; he loved chocolate. I wore a bright red scarf in his honor.

I was more tired today than I've been since starting the five-meals-a-day plan (which has had a wonderfully steadying effect on my energy level), but that's probably some combination of grief and the aquacise class I took this morning. Today's class featured barbells instead of noodles. I much prefer the barbells. I could handle them fine, and felt like I got a great workout. I hate weight/resistance training on land, but in the water, I loved it. So that was a nice discovery. And I could mostly follow all the moves today, primarily because they were simpler than last time.

After aquacise I went to work, prepped and taught my class, came home, ate dinner, did the reading for tomorrow's class, and wrote three pages of TSWP. So I was reasonably productive despite my fatigue.

Today's coolest event, though, happened during dinner. I was watching the finch feeder, where a number of very pretty little birds had congregated, when suddenly I saw a small, blurry whirring off to the right. "Omigod!" I said to Gary. "Look! It's a hummingbird! Look at that!" It zipped away again very quickly, once it realized that our finch feeder didn't contain nectar, but we both saw it.

We've never seen a hummingbird here. I saw one at my friend Ellen's house once, when I was laid up on her couch after spraining my ankle and was feeling very sorry for myself. Actually, right before the hummingbird showed up at dinner, I'd been missing Dad. So maybe they're a special "cheer up" message of some sort.

Whatever else they are, they're sure pretty!

Happy Birthday, Dad

My father would have been eighty-seven today. My sister took this photo on his birthday four years ago, when he was still living in Ocean Springs MS. I don't think I was there then; I'd gone to see him that Christmas, and I don't think I went out during the summer, too. I was there for some of his other birthdays, though.

(Have I posted this photo before? If so, please forgive me.)

Behind Dad, you can see a small portion of his beloved music collection, which was color-coded by genre and alphabetized by artist. Note the birthday candles in the cans of Ensure, a joke Dad would have appreciated, and also the plaid shirts. He loved plaids, the louder the better. Just last night, going through a bag of his things, I found his all-time favorite plaid shirt, which had once been very loud indeed but became more and more faded as the fabric grew thinner. He must have had that shirt for well over twenty years. I folded it and put it carefully in my closet.

Here's my favorite recent picture of him, taken October 18 of last year, the night he arrived in Sacramento. That was the last night of his life he wasn't on oxygen (although, in retrospect, he should have been even then). We stayed at a hotel in Sacramento that evening and drove home to Reno the next morning. As we crossed a particularly scenic section of the Sierras, Dad said happily, "Oh, I'm going to love living in the West!"

But as soon as he got out of the car in my garage, he collapsed, and Gary and I called 911, and Dad went to the hospital. Between then and March 21, when he died, he only spent two months in any space he could call his own: one month in an apartment and one in an assisted-living facility. The rest of the time, he was in hospitals or nursing homes. He always told his nurses and doctors -- in Reno, San Francisco, and Palo Alto -- "I started moving to Reno on October 18, and I'm still moving."

He routinely nagged me about my writing. "Have you finished your book yet?" Almost four months after his death, I still haven't been able to bring myself to write his obituary.

In my Tolkien class this afternoon, we'll be talking about the first two chapters of The Lord of the Rings, including the famous birthday party when Bilbo vanishes. That seems very apt, today (or, as Tolkien would put it, applicable). "I regret to announce that -- though, as I said, eleventy-one years is far too short a time to spend among you -- this is the END. I am going. I am leaving NOW. GOOD-BYE!"

Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you. I'm sorry you never fully arrived here, and I hope that wherever you are now, you're at peace.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Pushes and Pulls

Longtime readers of this blog will recall that perhaps the biggest factor in my decision to withdraw from ordination to the diaconate -- aside from lack of time, changing requirements, and several lively episodes of church trauma -- was my unease with some of the promises people have to make when they're ordained, specifically the vow to "obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work." (My, that was a long sentence. Sorry.) I like my current bishop a lot, but bishops are as varied a bunch as anyone else, and I didn't want to take a binding oath to obey anyone who might wind up that office in the future.

That particular ordination promise was very specifically what I had in mind when I wrote all the stuff about oaths as "blank checks" in yesterday's homily. (What if some future bishop asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter?) But a few minutes after I delivered yesterday's homily, our current -- and desperate to retire -- deacon announced that the parish will be starting a new calling process for deacons, and I felt an undeniable pang: sorrow, yearning, envy of whomever will get to be ordained.

I wrestled with this mish-mash for most of the rest of the service. Again: I can't in good conscience take that oath. I also don't want to have to take the eight-hours-a-day-for-four-days General Ordination Exam or memorize liturgical trivia, and the most important aspects of the diaconate -- bringing the church into the world and reminding the church what the world needs -- are things I think I'm already doing just fine.

Then why was I still feeling the pang?

After the service, I talked to one of our priests, who said brightly, "You might be called again!"

And I said, "But nothing's changed. The requirements keep getting tougher, and that oath's not going away."

"Probably not," she agreed.


I may just still be in the process of grieving what didn't happen, along with all the things that did. I'm sure my sadness over Dad is bringing up all kinds of other sadnesses, the stuff I didn't have time to think about while he lived here. But the issue doesn't feel put to rest, and that annoys and troubles me. Can I please be done with this, already? Or get a clearer sense of what I'm supposed to do?

Aaaargh. Yeah, I know. In God's time (the kind where a thousand years count as a day).

On a brighter note, after church Gary and I went to Trader Joe's, and I stopped in at the bead store next door to get beads for my KangaTek zipper pulls. I'd brought four silver charms I'm especially fond of from home, and I bought four gorgeous turquoise beads to go with them, and the lady in the store assembled them into zipper pulls for me. These pics are blurry, but will give you the general idea.

I bought the fish charm during one of my summer courses in Berkeley; I'm fond of it because, even though it doesn't look like a bumper-sticker Jesus fish, it still works as a religious symbol for me. And anything acquired in Berkeley brings back happy memories.

My mother gave me this charm, which is smooth and heavy and vaguely acorn-like. I like it just because it feels good, and because it came from Mom. One advantage of these zipper pulls is that they also function as worry beads.

I bought the Celtic-cross charm in Mississippi when Dad lived there, so it always reminds me of happy times with him. I also like the cross shape, although in Reno, it tends to be mistaken as a Basque symbol. I get tired of telling people that no, I'm not Basque -- I used to wear this cross to the hospital, and had to have that conversation constantly -- but I still like the charm.

I love turtles, which are my totem animals in many ways, especially since I've always been very physically slow. (Have I told you the story of my brief ski-racing career when I was seven or eight? Terrified, I inched down a hill by planting my skis in the widest snowplow in the history of skiing -- when I wasn't falling down and getting back up, that is -- while sympathetic adults at the bottom of the hill cheered me on. I came in dead last, about an hour after the penultimate finisher. The judges gave me a consolation prize, a Canadian maple-leaf pin, which I still have somewhere. Yeah, it's a lot like the aquacise story. No coincidence!) Sea turtles are of course very fast, but I like them too. Anyway, this turtle was half of a pair of earrings I bought in Reno. The other one got lost.

So that was yesterday. Experiencing spiritual confusion and existential angst? Distract yourself with bright shiny things! Yay!

Today I start teaching my summer Tolkien course. Yay!

Tomorrow would have been Dad's eighty-seventh birthday. I know I've mentioned that before, but it's weighing on me, and on other members of the family. Please keep us in your thoughts.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Divided Loyalties

Here's this morning's homily, which required a hefty amount of historical exposition. Gary said that he couldn't make any sense of the readings until he read the homily, which means, I hope, that it works.

None of our other preachers relished the task of tackling the beheading of John the Baptist, but hey, I always love a challenge. The Gospel turned out to be the easy part, actually; figuring out Michal, poor woman, took more digging.

Luckily, the Gospel also has all kinds of current political applicability (not the beheading part, I hope, but other bits!). Gary thinks I should have mentioned Nevada's Very Own Disgraced Republican Senator, but I decided to trust my audience to figure out the subtext.

The bewildering readings are 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 and Mark 6:14-29.


This morning’s lessons plunge us into very complicated ancient history. In the reading from 2 Samuel, David is bringing the Ark of the Covenant in triumph to Jerusalem. It’s a joyful procession, with dancing and trumpets. There’s a sour note, though: “As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.”

In case your memory’s a bit hazy on the subject -– mine was -– Saul is the previous king. He and David began as fast friends but ended as bitter enemies. Saul’s daughter Michal fell in love with David, and Saul gave her to David as a bride, supposedly as a reward for David’s success in battle, but actually as part of a complicated scheme to have him killed. In due course, Michal found herself at the center of this conflict. Saul tried to kill David directly. Forced to choose between her father and her husband, Michal helped David escape. David vanished for years, and married other women. Michal married again, too, but then David demanded her as his wife: not out of love, but as a symbol of his political victory. The Bible tells us that her second husband followed her, weeping, until he was ordered to return home.

This very quick summary actually over-simplifies the story. If the tale hasn’t yet been made into a miniseries, I’m sure HBO is working on it. I hope the bit of background I’ve given, though, explains why Michal despised David. He was the agent of her family’s downfall. He destroyed her marriage to someone she loved, and who loved her. When she rejoined him, she discovered that she held no special place in his heart, that he had only married her out of political considerations, and that she was only one of many wives.

I’d be angry, too. The worst of it is that she once really had loved him, which must have made the betrayals all the harder to bear. In the passage after the one we heard this morning, Michal mocks David, and is mocked by him in return. The text tells us that she had no children. We don’t know if this is because she was barren or because David neglected her in favor of his other wives. We do know that she must have led a lonely life.

Michal had very little choice or power in any of this. Her great act of heroism was her private, individual decision to save David’s life, but by the time of today’s passage, any gratitude he felt for her appears to have vanished. To the men around her, in a culture that sees women primarily as property, she is an object, a pawn. She is a stark reminder that God’s purposes always play out through, and among, messy human politics, and that even at the height of joyful celebration, there will always be someone who feels left out and embittered.

Who are the Michals in our midst? People horrified by election results that have overjoyed us? People destroyed by the economic and military strategies we support? People displaced when inner-city tenements are replaced with townhomes and good schools? What is our duty to these left-out neighbors? How can we make our victory a victory for them, too?

Meanwhile, today’s Gospel features another HBO-worthy story, and also requires a history lesson. Today’s King Herod is the son of the Herod who tried to have the infant Jesus killed. This Herod has married his brother’s widow, Herodias, who has a daughter also named Herodias but better known by the name Salome, which is what the Jewish historian Josephus called her.

John the Baptist, that inconvenient prophet, tells Herod that it isn’t right for him to marry his brother’s wife. Herodias the elder doesn’t like this, and wants Herod to kill John. Herod, somewhat kinder and gentler than his father, refuses. He’s afraid of John. He knows that John is “a righteous and holy man.” Furthermore, he likes listening to John, although he has a hard time following what the guy’s saying. Prophets can be like that. Just look at how much time we spend, all these years later, trying to figure out Jesus’ parables.

Herod, however, has one great weakness: an overfondness for dancing girls. He’s hardly the first or last man of power with this particular fault, but in this case, it spells disaster. At Herod’s birthday, his stepdaughter dances for him, and for his powerful guests. He is so delighted by her performance that he solemnly swears, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it . . . even half my kingdom.” Unfortunately for John, the young woman hasn’t been yearning for a pony, shiny jewelry, or world peace. Either she genuinely doesn’t want anything for herself or she’s a crafty child of the court; in any case, she asks her mother what to ask for, and Herod finds himself, to his distress, bound by oath to deliver the head of John on a platter.

Herod, like Michal, finds himself pulled by divided loyalties. On the one hand, he’s “deeply grieved” at the idea of John’s death. But he’s also made a promise in front of his guests, including the leaders of Galilee, and he can’t go back on his word in front of them. He’s backed himself into a corner, and it’s entirely his own fault. His step-daughter would have been as powerless as Michal, if he hadn’t granted her power with his solemn, but inappropriate, oath. This is a cautionary tale about the danger of writing blank checks.

And so, when another prophet shows up, casting out demons and performing miraculous cures, Herod is stricken with guilt, and assumes that his sins have come to haunt him. “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” Notice that, whatever his other faults, he takes responsibility for his actions. He doesn’t blame his wife or his step-daughter. He knows that John’s death was his doing.

Aside from the fact that it’s a great opera plot, what are we to make of this story? I take away three lessons. The first is that, as in the story of David and Michal, salvation history cannot be untangled from human passions and politics. God’s history is also ours, and it’s often both messy and melodramatic. Whenever we find ourselves shocked by some church scandal, despairing over schisms, or embroiled in unpleasant parish politics –- not, of course, that such a thing would ever happen at St. Stephen’s –- we need to remember David and Michal, John and Herod and Herodias. If they’re all part of God’s story, we are too, even at our least saintly.

The second lesson John’s beheading teaches us is the futility of trying to silence prophets. Throughout recorded history, prophets have been stoned, beheaded, crucified, burned, hung, shot, and otherwise assassinated. Whenever one prophet goes away, another –- usually louder than the first -– rises up. God’s Word is both powerful and stubborn. Killing the Johns and the Martin Luther King Jr’s of the world only makes their message more meaningful.

And the third, and perhaps most important, lesson is the danger of divided loyalties. Jesus tells us that we cannot serve two masters. He was talking about God and money, but the principle applies in many other situations. Michal couldn’t serve both her father and her husband, not while they hated each other. Herod couldn’t keep both a clean conscience and an unwise oath. We must be very careful what promises we make, and to whom.

Today’s Epistle reminds us that we are marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. We received this seal at Baptism, when we, or our sponsors, swore solemn oaths to God. We promised to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to strive for justice and peace. But we’ve also made other promises: to our families, our employers, in some cases to our country.

If our families, employers and country ever demand of us acts that conflict with our promises to God, what will we do? If we find ourselves in a position of divided loyalties, which promise will we keep? What would we do if feeding our family required us to steal another family’s food? What would we do if keeping our job required us to defraud others of their retirements? What would we do if our country asked us to kill or torture other people, people in whom we’ve also promised to seek and serve Christ?

In our messy, muddled world, such grim tensions may be inevitable. But we can try to make sure that none of our promises automatically conflict with one another, and we can refrain from making unwise oaths, from signing those risky blank checks. We can pray, as we pray every Sunday, to be delivered from temptation, by dancing girls or anything else. And we can remember always the One to whom we belong, and order our priorities accordingly.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

KangaTek Go

Ever on the lookout for lightweight, ergonomic, and secure bags, I recently purchased a
KangaTek Go, basically a wide strap with four pockets that you wear across your body. Mine's black with a red interior, but they come in other colors.

The bag looks either really dorky or very cool, depending on your tastes. Katharine calls it my "Queen for a Day" sash, and Gary says it's feminist because it allows women to have pockets. Whatever the aesthetics, I love the thing. Like the review says, it keeps everything readily accessible -- unlike a backpack, which you have to take off to open -- and it allows me to carry more weight than I usually can in a purse without bothering my shoulders. And for me, at least, it's less of a hassle to get on and off than a fannypack would be. Oh, and it's reversible: very useful for left-handed folk.

When I'm carrying bigger stuff (netbook, books, notebooks), I use a backpack too. They work fine together, but this is the essential grab-it-and-run-out-the-door purse. I won't be wearing it to formal occasions, but it's great for everything else.

I agree with the review that the neoprene smell is annoying, but that will wear off. I plan to accessorize mine with beaded zipper-pulls, but I won't have time to do that for a while, probably.

Highly recommended, especially if you don't mind the dork factor.

Rickety Milestone

I've now volunteered 750 hours at the hospital. I can't believe it will be five years in October that I've been doing this (although of course I took a long break to take care of Dad).

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Sock that Ate Reno

I finished it last night. It's huge on me, but only a little big on Gary, and should fit our friend Stuart quite well.

I'll start the second one today.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Pop Goes the Noodle

I took my first aquacise class today. See the graceful, serene person in the photograph, in perfect harmony with the water and her buoyant foam noodle?

I am not in this picture.

To be fair, I was in trouble even before we got to the noodles. The class -- an instructor somewhat younger than I am and a group of hardcore students, all quite a bit older -- were very welcoming, but I'm really uncoordinated, especially when I'm trying anything new. So the instructor would show off maneuvers which involved things like touching the right palm to the left heel while kicking out with the right heel and spinning like a cork (there actually wasn't anything that complicated, but it all felt that complicated), and I'd be touching the right palm to the right heel while trying to kick with the left foot, and instead falling over.

The instructor was on solid ground at poolside, wearing a headset. Periodically, she'd stand in front of me and offer encouragement. "No, use the other foot, Sue. Left. Your other left. There, you got it! Ooops. No, honey, kick out and not back," and so forth. I was definitely the aquacise poster child.

After a while, the other students got into the act. "Susan, it will be easier if the water's only chest-high: you're too deep." "Lower. Get lower in the water. Squat." "No, honey, you're swimming now. You aren't supposed to be swimming." And so forth.

And then we started with the noodles.

The noodles are long, cylindrical foam floaty things with which one is supposed to perform fun tricks. Sit on your noodle like a swing and use your arms to propel yourself around the pool! Rest your ankle on your noodle to do a stretch! Put your noodle between your legs and ride it like a seahorse! My problem was that I couldn't find the proper center of gravity, so whenever the noodle was in the proper position, I couldn't stay upright, and when I arranged the noodle so I could stay upright, people started telling me it was in the wrong position.

Also, someone told me later that these were new noodles. When they're broken in, there's traction. These were very slippery, so I got most of my exercise during the noodle portion of the program by wrestling with a buoyant eel-like object which kept trying to get away from me, and which, in one instance, indeed flew out of my hands, shot up out of the water, and described a graceful arc as it came down on the head of the lady to my left.

She laughed, thank goodness. Noodles don't weigh much.

It was all very, very silly. It was a lot more bearable than seventh-grade gym class -- although that's not saying much -- because everyone was so nice. I can't say it felt like much of a workout, either, although maybe it would have if I'd been doing it right, and it was at least a light workout, which is nice some days.

So I'll try it again. But I'm looking forward to plain old swimming tomorrow!

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

My First Diet

Yesterday I went to the gym and had them calculate my body fat and BMI with a nifty little electronic device they use. I was hoping they'd come up with better figures than I had, or that my added heft was somehow all muscle, but no such luck. Both numbers are indeed too high, but I can get back into a good range if I lose ten pounds.

(And before someone comments on this: yes, I know all the reasons why BMI's bunk, and the gym folks know them too, but the fact is that I've been steadily gaining weight and am no longer comfortable with how I feel, even though I'm not quite technically "overweight." And the gym folks and I all know that I may not be able to do anything about it, given perimenopause and so forth. Can't hurt to try, though, right?)

So I sat down with a trainer and came up with a plan. The diet part of it mainly consists of watching portion sizes and spreading calories over five small meals a day, rather than three bigger ones, to ramp up my metabolism. That would probably be a good idea even if I weren't trying to lose weight, since my energy level tends to see-saw and I'll like to stabilize it.

The exercise part consists of exercise every day (preferably more than half an hour, since thirty minutes a day is the CDC recommendation for maintaining current weight). They strongly recommend water aerobics, which will be easy on my knee while providing lots of benefits. If I indeed lose some weight, that will make life easier on my knee, too.

Sunday I swam for an hour. Yesterday I did thirty minutes on the elliptical -- which bothered my knee a bit -- and another thirty on the recumbant bike, which didn't seem to bother my knee at all. Today I swam for forty-five minutes. Tomorrow I'll try an aquasize class, Thursday I'll swim, Friday I'll do machines again (or maybe go for a walk if the weather's good), and so forth.

I already sort of flubbed the diet part today by combining the five meals into four, but my energy level has been noticeably better anyhow, so that's good.

I'm not going to beat myself up if I can't stick with this, but doing something makes me feel better. Oh, and in case you wondered, weights are not part of this plan. I know all the benefits of weights. I hate weights. If I have to do weights, I won't do anything. The aquasize includes some light weightwork and resistance training, though, so that's a plus.

And now I'm off to knit with Katharine. I may finish the Sock that Ate Reno tonight. If not tonight, soon.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Two Eyes, Two Paws

Two Eyes, One Paw

Happy Birthday, Mom!

I called this morning to wish my mother a happy 84th birthday, and I got to stay on the phone with her while she opened the package I'd sent: a funny photobook of wet cats, and two small pairs of earrings (she still loves jewelry, even though she doesn't get out much). She had a lot of trouble with packaging and wrapping, and my sister had to help her with that. In the future, I'll remember to simplify wrapping as much as possible.

At the end of the call, I said, "Happy Birthday, Mom," and she said, "And to you, when it comes around."

My stomach immediately congealed into a lump. "I hope you'll get to wish me happy birthday in person when it comes around," I said. My birthday's in September, but I wonder if she'll still be here then, and I wondered if she wonders if she'll still be here then (or has a premonition that she won't be), and if that's why she phrased it that way.

I'm glad I saw her recently. I hope I'll get to see her again.

My father would have been 87 next Tuesday. That's going to be a hard day.

Sunday, July 05, 2009


And how was your Fourth?

Ours was quiet and pleasant, thank you. I went back to the hospital in the morning, for what turned out to be a fairly non-taxing shift, and in the evening we went to our friend Katharine's house to watch what fireworks we could see (not many, since Reno canceled the big ones near her house, and we all conked out before the other, newer big ones).

Today I went to church for the first time in weeks and weeks, since before I left for the East Coast. It was a nice service, although too many people I care about are having an awfully tought time in through here.

This afternoon I swam for an hour. Yay!

In knitting news, Katharine guided me safely through the heel of The Sock That Ate Reno -- although I don't yet understand the logic of the heel turn, and thus couldn't reproduce it without instructions -- and I'm now knitting the cuff. One of her friends wears a size 13-14 shoe, so I'm hoping the socks will fit him. If not, I'll try to give them to someone at church.

Mom's birthday is tomorrow. She'll be 84. Liz and family celebrated with her today, but she won't get my package until tomorrow.

I know I've been a dull blogger lately, but considering the nature of the "exciting" events over the last year, I think that's actually a Good Thing.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


In no particular order:

* Today's another anniversary! Harley came home with me from the pound ten years ago today, and a mighty cute kitten he was, too. And now he's a mighty handsome senior cat. (I tried to take his picture today, but he wasn't having any.)

* The rheumatologist called. I don't have Sjogren's antibodies and, this time, my ANA was negative. Go figure. So, anyway, I'm fine, except that I still have all the symptoms that Sjogren's would have tied up into a neat little package. Oh well. Better to be ruled healthy, I guess!

* I paid some of Dad's bills this morning. Just in case you wanted to know, a four-mile ambulance ride in Reno costs $891. An ambulance ride of the same distance in Palo Alto costs $1,727.10. Fortunately, Dad had enough money left to cover these expenses, although his balance is dwindling fast.

* Along the same lines, an emergency admission to a Philadelphia hospital in which the patient stays one night (this happened the night before Dad moved West), costs more than $11,000, although it turns out that the VA's paying that one. Thank God!

* Today I was going back to my car, which was parked near a large medical building, and I saw a woman about to put a folding wheelchair in her trunk. A much older woman, I'm guessing her mom, sat in the car. I walked over and asked the younger woman if she needed help, explaining that when I was taking care of my Dad, I could get the wheelchair out of the trunk easily, but had a devil of a time getting it in. She thanked me profusely, almost weeping, and said that she didn't need help with the wheelchair, but was so grateful to me for noticing her and speaking up. She'd had a hard time in the medical building, where she'd been struggling with doors and where people had been very rude. I made sympathetic noises about how difficult caregiving is, and she thanked me again, even more fervently this time, for knowing that. "People can't know who haven't done it." I told her that there are caregiver support groups, although I didn't have specific information to offer. She seemed very fragile. I hope she'll be okay.

* That incident occured after lunch with a med-school colleague, who told me a story about a friend of hers who was so stressed out and isolated after years of caring for a dying brother that his entire personality changed. Moral of these two stories: If you know somebody who's taking care of an ailing loved one, please offer whatever help you can!

* Last night, Katharine coached me through the beginning of my first sock, using a toe-up pattern with such a complicated beginning that I'll never get through the second one without her guidance. Because worsted yarn and size 5 DPNs were the only materials I had with me, I'm now knitting the Sock that Ate Reno. This sock looks more like a hat. Gary thinks it will fit him; if not, I'll have to donate the pair to Bigfoot, or possibly knit just one sock and use it as a smallish Christmas stocking. This will also be one warm pair of socks, let me tell you. When I was in graduate school, my mother gave me a thick, handknit woolen sweater from South America. This sweater was rated down to minus-50 Fahrenheit. Gary and I called it the Bulletproof Sweater. Now I'm making Bulletproof Socks.

Enjoy the holiday weekend, everybody!

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Anniversaries Again

Today is the eleventh anniversary of our moving into our house, and the twentieth anniversary of my woo-woo self-marriage ceremony. Huzzah!

I was very bad today and didn't exercise, at least in part because I slept ridiculously late. But I have gotten some writing done -- although I'm not satisfied with it -- and in a few minutes, I'll be headed over to my friend Katharine's house to knit.

Liz and I are both getting bombarded with huge bills for Dad, for things we thought the VA had already handled. I have to make a bunch of phone calls tomorrow.