Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Birthday, Gary!

Today is Gary's birthday. The cats pooled their allowances to get him a set of cat yoga postcards, and I gave him chocolate, two calendars and a guide book about Oahu. Tonight we're going out for a nice dinner at a Chinese restaurant Gary likes.

Happy birthday, dearest hubby! I love you. And so do the beasts.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

More Matters Medical

We took Harley to the vet yesterday for bloodwork and urinalysis. He's been acting just fine, although he's lost a bit of weight (possibly because he's not entirely convinced about the new food, although he is eating it), but midway through his testing, the vet came back into the exam room and said gently, "I need to show you something." She held up a syringe full of his urine, which was dark red from blood. She said it had been a clean stick and his bladder looked normal on ultrasound, and that he didn't seem to be in any pain when she palpated him. The blood will interfere with the protein measurements they wanted to do, though, so he'll need another urinalysis when we've gotten this problem cleared up.

It's most likely a bladder or kidney infection, so I'm hoping it will resolve with antibiotics. We're waiting to hear back from her about test results and next steps.

Last night over dinner, Gary said, "No animals or humans are allowed to die around Christmas this year." Amen. I called his mom yesterday to acknowledge that it would have been my father-in-law's 83rd birthday, and she was grateful.

I'm having bloodwork today, too. I've been unaccountably exhausted in uncharacteristic ways (i.e. exercise makes me sleep more, not less), so my doctor wants to check hormone levels, among other things. The last time this happened, it was because of my sleep disorder, but that's being treated, so it's most likely something else. I've been doing things like sleeping through church, and even for someone who's admittedly not a morning person, that's a bit much!

Oh, I have a new favorite thing to do while I'm knitting (if we're not watching a DVD, that is): listen to audio books on my BlackBerry! I downloaded the BB software from Audible, and I've been having a great time. Their books are expensive, but they're having a Thanksgiving promotion where selected titles are free. Check it out! This will be a wonderful thing for plane trips, too.

So what am I listening to? First I checked out a History Channel program on combat medicine, and now I'm a few chapters into Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, about a deadly cholera epidemic in Victorian England. Fascinating stuff, but not for the squeamish!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Truth and Dare

Here's this morning's homily, and here's one of the photos Gary took at the Yale demonstration. During the peace at church today, one of our older parishioners walked up to me, shaking her head, and said, "New Haven! I lived for a few years on Orange Street."

"Really? I lived on Orange Street, too!"

She shuddered and said, "It was an . . . interesting place." And I suspect that she lived on a much better stretch of that road than I did. A friend who lived in a rather dodgy neighborhood in Manhattan, and who drove me back to New Haven one weekend, looked around my block and said, "Why aren't they giving you hazard pay for living here?"

When we first moved to Reno, I met someone who'd been at nursing school at Yale the precise three years I was in residence there. At the time, New Haven had one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country, and the nursing students helped turn this around by organizing post-partum home visits. The woman who told me this said, "I stopped doing it when we were caught in the middle of a drive-by shooting. My colleagues looked down on me for no longer supporting the cause, but I was too scared."

I should add that Yale grad students are, as far as I know, still trying to unionize, all these years later. I should also add, in the spirit of honesty, that several of my fellow GESO members accused me of rank cowardice and moral failure because, about a week before I turned in my dissertation, I wouldn't sign a letter censuring my dissertation advisor for blackballing activist students on the job market: my own sense of self-preservation took over (and as it turned out, the letter was never sent anyway).

Yale. The place was ugly all around, and brought out the worst in almost everybody. (For a wonderful anti-Yale rant that very much mirrors my own experience, check out pages 76 and 77 of Jane Tompkins' A Life in School.) The undergrads I knew were very happy there, but they lived in gated residential communities.

The Gospel is John 18:33-37.


On this, the last Sunday of the church year -- the last Sunday before Advent, when we prepare both for Jesus’s first coming and for his second -- we honor Christ the King. In this morning’s reading, though, we see Jesus side-stepping the question of whether he’s a king at all.

As a threat to the religious establishment of his day, and to the Roman occupation, Jesus knows that if he claims kingship, he will be condemned as a heretic and a traitor. His followers have betrayed and abandoned him. While he has foreseen that he must die, he is no more eager for that outcome than any of us would be. He has prayed in the garden of for that cup to pass from him. And so, when Pilate asks him bluntly, “So you are a king?” Jesus says, “You say that I am a king.” King is other people’s word for him, not his own.

He goes on, though, to say something just as threatening, if not more so. “For this I was born . . . to testify to the truth.” People who tell the truth are dangerous, because others might listen to them and decide to act on those truths. This is why those who speak truth to power are so often silenced by any means necessary. It’s why writers and intellectuals are so often imprisoned by dictators. It’s why prophets in every generation -- people as diverse as first-century apostle Saint Stephen, civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and openly gay politician Harvey Milk -- have so often been assassinated. Telling the truth about oppression, any oppression, is inherently activist, inherently radical.

In one of her books, writer Anne Lamott quotes a set of rules for life: 1. Show up. 2. Pay attention. 3. Tell the truth, and 4. Don’t be attached to the consequences. Not being attached to the consequences sometimes means being willing to pay a high price.

What does all of this have to do with kingship? After all, we don’t automatically, or even easily, associate monarchy with truth-telling. My husband and I have been watching the Showtime series The Tudors, and while historical accuracy isn’t the show’s strong suit, I suspect that Henry VIII was nearly as willing to deceive both others and himself in real life as he is in the show. This may give us pause, since our Episcopal Church is one of the indirect outcomes of his machinations. Nonetheless, while we don’t necessarily expect truth from kings and other earthly officials, we want it. We yearn for leaders who will both tell us bracing truths and take the risk of acting on them. And as a result, we recognize truth-tellers, and truth-doers, as kingly, even if the prevailing powers don’t recognize their royalty or, worse, punish them for it.

One of the messages of this morning’s Gospel is that Jesus is only our king, only our Lord, if we recognize and claim him as such. This goes along with the maxim that we can’t truly call ourselves Christians unless other people have called us Christian first, unless we have made our Christian beliefs so visible that other people naturally recognize whose truth we follow.

Of course, there are all kinds of definitions of Christianity, some of them directly at odds. Some versions of Christianity delight in welcome, while others insist on exclusion. This leaves non-Christian onlookers very understandably confused. All any of us can do is to show up, pay attention, act on the truth as we understand it, and not be attached to the consequences. Discipleship calls us to be both truth-tellers and truth-doers. Sometimes it demands a high price of us. And it calls us to honor those who have paid such prices themselves.

My first brush with genuine activism came when I was in graduate school at Yale. Yale is a rich, powerful, mostly white institution in the middle of New Haven, Connecticut: a poor, troubled, largely non-white city. The University has a long history of terrible labor relations. When I was there in the early nineties, the administration’s attitude to both students and workers seemed to be, “You should feel honored just to set foot here. You have no right to complain about anything.”

Yale teaching assistants –- the graduate students who did the bulk of undergraduate teaching -– were paid less than Yale’s own estimate of the cost of living for nine months for one person in New Haven. Yale’s housing was more expensive than city housing, although living in town literally involved taking your life in your hands whenever you went outside after dark. An undergraduate who’d ventured off-campus was fatally shot while I was there; a six-year-old girl was killed by a bullet going through the back of a schoolbus, and there were gang shootouts on the courthouse steps a block from my apartment. Meanwhile, Yale charged its grad students hefty fees for health insurance –- although university employees who worked the same number of hours got free insurance –- didn’t offer us a grievance procedure, and required us to complete our degrees on schedules often impossible for those who had to work extra jobs to make ends meet.

So we tried to form a union. Two existing unions, the ones for clerical workers and maintenance workers, teamed up with us to lend financial and practical support. Both unions had extensive experience with the Yale administration and had gone on strike many times. The clerical workers were mostly white. The maintenance workers mostly weren’t. Most of the clerical workers commuted in from the suburbs. Most of the maintenance workers were local.

One of our early attempts at activism involved a lunchtime walk-out. Grad students -– again, mostly white, and mostly middle class or better -- gathered on a sidewalk, chanting slogans and waving signs that said, “Prestige won’t pay my rent.” While our professors considered us ungrateful and rolled their eyes at our theatrics, none of us, at that point, were in danger of any reprisal. That changed several years later, when professors deliberately sabotaged the hiring prospects of activist students on the job market. Meanwhile, the Yale administration had warned the other two unions that if they joined the walk-out, if they showed solidarity with us, they would lose their jobs.

My friends and I marched up and down the sidewalk, waving our signs. My husband was there taking pictures. I felt more than a little ridiculous. I was acutely aware of how many onlookers thought we were preposterously privileged spoiled brats. Some undergrads walked past and jeered; professors hurried by, scowling, unwilling to meet our eyes.

And then, down the street, we heard the sound of many people walking in unison. Tramp tramp tramp. The steps sounded in time. Tramp tramp tramp. We gathered along the curb and peered down the road, only to see the maintenance workers -- mostly older black men who would be very hard put to find other legal jobs in New Haven -- marching to join us, proudly wearing their janitors’ uniforms and waving signs supporting our demands for fairer treatment.

They were witnessing to the truth as they understood it, and they were risking a very high price to do so. My eyes filled with tears when I saw them. I wanted to kneel. They were true kings. I saw Christ that day, long before I ever dreamed of attending church.

I believe they wound up keeping their jobs. They had marched out together, and Yale couldn’t afford to fire all of its janitors. The strategy of solidarity worked.

In this morning’s Gospel, though, Jesus is alone, in front of Pilate. His followers have fled, terrified, to save their own lives. Ultimately, Jesus forgives them, and us. But his story forces us to ask difficult questions. Who is our king? What truths do we speak and serve? Can those around us recognize our loyalties in our behavior? And if the prevailing powers try to silence those who speak the truths we cherish, what will we do? Will we run the other way, or will we march, regardless of the consequences, to join them?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Another Week, Another Blog Post

Remember when I used to post once a day, or sometimes even more than that? Yeah, so do I. I remember those days fondly, but don't know if I'll be getting back to them anytime soon. I'm just too busy in through here.

Various updates and bits o' news:

* I'm still fiddling and writing every day. I've now invested in a fancy Kun shoulder rest rather than my previous foam pad; the Kun's improved both my posture and my tone, although the second still has a long way to go. The sound's no longer muffled by the foam against the bottom of the instrument, though, so I'm getting more resonance. I also bought an inexpensive backpack case for the fiddle so traveling will be easier. I'm already wishing I'd spent a bit more, since this case has already developed zipper problems, but they won't endanger the instrument -- they're on the outside pouch -- so I'll use this one as long as I can.

* Harley's still letting me brush his teeth, but a few mornings ago he smelled alarmingly of urine, so on Monday we're taking him to the vet for his followup bloodwork and urinalysis. I haven't noticed the odor since then, so I hope it was just temporary.

* The book contracts came this week, and it turns out that I'll get half the advance on signing. I thought I wouldn't see any money until I delivered the manuscript, so this is good news. With that money, plus what we saved from my summer teaching gig, we're going to attempt to: 1) go to Honolulu for Spring Break, 2) get the ductwork redone in our house so we actually get some benefits from our furnace and AC, and 3) go on an Alaska cruise in May. This is both ambitious and decadent, but we're going to do our best anyway. It's been a tough year, and we're both acutely aware of having to have fun while we can.

* Monday would have been Gary's father's birthday; I'm going to try to call his mom that day. Today I got a sweet, wistful card from Fran, who often dreams about Dad and was writing to thank us for everything we did for her while she was here. I called -- I've been meaning to write her and hadn't, so I felt guilty -- and it turns out she's doing well: she has friends, is spending Thanksgiivng with family, and generally sounds more chipper than I've heard her for ages.

* Speaking of my father, the other day I got a call from the RN at his assisted-living facility. "I remember you told me after your Dad died that you'd found a place that would take partly used medications. Can you remind me where that was? I have a lot of stuff I want to donate." So I told her. I also told her that the phone call made me feel really good; Dad would thoroughly approve of medications going to the homeless-outreach clinic rather than being wasted, and her phone call made me feel as if something positive came from his death.

* Speaking of medicine, I learned this week that the Literature & Medicine program at our local VA is a go. I'm facilitating it, so I'm very happy and excited.

More news in . . . oh, in a week or so, if I run true to form. And there will be a homily tomorrow!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Good Shift

I had a long but very satisfying shift at the hospital today. It started off, I have to admit, with an act of cowardice: when I walked in, I saw a nurse trying to deal with an irate patient in the hallway. That's the kind of situation where I'm supposed to step in and calm everybody down, but I just wasn't up to it first thing in the morning. As I watched, the nurse managed to get the patient back into bed, and I thought, "I'll start with another room, and if this situation's still a problem after that, I'll step in."

I chose my other room randomly but well, since I wound up spending forty-five minutes with that patient, who responded to my introduction with, "I can't tell religious people about this."

"What is it that you can't tell religious people?"

And out came the entire story, a very sad tale of loss and family problems and self-blame. When the story was done, I said, "Why can't you talk to religious people about that?"

"Because religious people are too judgmental."

"Really? I'm religious and I try not to be judgmental --" although, of course, I'd just been judgmental, or at least cowardly, about the irate patient -- "and most of my religious friends are the same way."

"Hmmmph!" Turned out the patient has a close relative who's a hospital chaplain, "like you," but very judgmental. This relative had called the patient "a sinner" for not, in the relative's opinion, properly mourning a dead loved one.

Inwardly, I felt myself groaning. Terrific. That one must do wonderful hospital work. Just what we need: somebody else giving faith a bad name.

See what I mean when I say that I try not to be judgmental? I'm judgmental of people who are judgmental. I've been wondering how to solve that problem for years now.

Anyway, the patient kept talking about the situation, and it became clear that there was a lot of internalized guilt. I said, "You know, the problem with judgment is that it hurts. But you're judging yourself about this, aren't you? And that means you're hurting yourself."

The patient looked at me as if a lightbulb had just gone on. "Hey! You may have something there! Maybe that's part of why I hurt physically!"

Originally, the patient had said, "You can pray for me, but only when you're out of the room, not with me." But now the patient said, "I believe in God, and I know I help other people when I pray for them, but I can't pray for myself."

I said, "Well then, why don't I pray for you? May I do that?"

And I did, right there, holding the patient's hand, and afterwards the patient said, "That was nice. Thank you! That pretty much mirrored exactly what I was thinking."

If part of this patient's pain was guilt, another part was a chronic medical condition that hasn't been properly medicated or treated for the last year because of healthcare-coverage issues. So I collected a list of social agencies and clinics for the underserved and gave the list and relevant phone numbers to the patient, who happily began making plans of where to call first and even accepted a free rosary from me. "I'll treasure this because it came from you."

Talk about a feel-good visit! I love being able to combine spiritual care with connections to concrete local resources. Better yet, a few hours later the patient's nurse tracked me down and said, "Thanks so much for visiting that patient!" Evidently the patient had shown the nurse the list, talked again about the schedule for phone calls, and said what a help I'd been. This is the kind of feedback that will get me through many a quieter, or more difficult, stretch at the hospital.

Meanwhile, though, another nurse had glanced up from paperwork, seen me, and said, "Oh, there's one of you guys here today! We needed a chaplain before and I couldn't find anybody. I called the hospital operator and they had no idea who was around."

"I don't think the operators have access to the volunteer schedule. What did you need?"

"We had an irate patient who was giving a nurse a hard time."

"Oh," I said, stomach sinking. "Actually, I saw that happening, and I avoided it. I'm really sorry."

The nurse forgave me -- "it just would have kept the patient here longer and tied up your time" -- but we talked about how it would be nice if the staff had some idea who was on duty. When I first started volunteering, there was a space marked "Chaplain" on the white board where we put our names and the hours we'd be working. White boards have come and gone since then, and there hasn't been space for chaplains on them for several years now. But after my conversation with the nurse, I went up to the Case Manager and asked if we could bring back the Chaplain box, and the CM said, "Sure. I think that's a good idea. Go talk to the team leader about it."

So I did, and the team leader said, "Sure. You can put the Chaplain box right over here. This whole column is pretty much just junk notes." So we now have a Chaplain box. Hey, we're a visible part of the healthcare team again! Whaddya know!

It was now near the end of my shift. I still hadn't seen one particular patient who'd come in near the beginning, but had been surrounded by medical staff every time I passed the room. I went out to see if anyone in the waiting room needed to talk (the answer was no, since no one was there), and the intake nurse said, "Hey, there's somebody who came in a while ago who'd love to talk to you, I think."

She gave me the room number. Sure enough, it was the room I hadn't been able to get into. But by now the medical staff had cleared out, so I went in and introduced myself to the patient -- who immediately began crying -- and to a family member.

Out poured another long tale of loss and family problems and stigma and self-blame, complicated by the fact that other relatives were dismissing the patient's feelings, and using very hurtful language to do so. "I'm so sorry to tell you this horrible story. I just can't get it out of my head!"

"This is what I'm here for," I said. I dispensed more prayer and another rosary, along with lots of reassurance about God's love, and then left the room to try to hunt down another, much more specialized, community resource. I needed to Google it, and I can't get on the internet at the hospital because I don't have a staff account, but one of my favorite nurses signed me on to his account so I could do the search. Turns out that this specialized community resource has one office in Nevada, and it's in Reno. Hurrah! So I went back to the patient with the agency name and phone number, dispensed more reassurance about God's love, and then went back out into the hall with the family member, who wanted to ask me a legal question.

I didn't know. We asked the nurse, who did know, and who happened to be the nurse who'd thanked me earlier. She said, "We're giving you a lot to do today, aren't we?"

This patient was being admitted, and I'd promised to write a note asking a staff chaplain to visit, so when I went upstairs to sign out, I did that -- including enough info about the family situation so they'd send someone who wouldn't be judgmental -- and also wrote a note to fellow ER Chaplains, asking them to start signing in on the white board again.

There were lots of other patients between those two (notably a very little girl who very politely and earnestly asked me to pray with her and her mother), but those are the two who stand out.

This is the kind of shift that reminds me why I'm there.

Belated-Birthday Kitty!

Last Wednesday, in addition to being our wedding anniversary, was an even more important occasion: Bali's birthday! He's now three years old. This is a file photo of him, as he wouldn't stay still today for the camera. He was punishing me, no doubt.

How could I have forgotten his birthday? I'm a bad cat mother! Bali, I hope you'll forgive me.

(Says Sir Balthazar: "Will forgive for food. Open can, foolish human!")

Speaking of the cats, I think Harley's beginning to actively enjoy getting his teeth brushed. He always acts a bit spooked when I come at him with the toothbrush, but then he opens his mouth and doesn't fight, and he's been known to eat the paste right off the brush.

Nice kitty! I thought I might emerge from this process minus several fingers, and I'm glad to be proven wrong about that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Happy Anniversary to Us!

Twenty years ago today, Gary and I met, and fourteen years ago today, we married.

We're both looking forward to the next twenty years. Go, us!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Progress and Decline

At this week's fiddle lesson I started learning Oh Those Britches Full of Stitches, here played much more ably by someone who's only had three lessons than I can play it yet. Oh well! This marks my first official foray onto the D string, although I've been playing it in secret almost since the beginning.

Charlene is also trying to teach me the correct bowing technique for "Egan's Polka," which right now is very difficult. I'm used to one bowstroke per note, so playing several notes on one stroke is new and confusing. I'm sure I'll get the hang of it after a few more days of practice, though.

In today's medical news, I went to see my pulmonologist for the sleep-study results from a few weeks ago. Gary and I had talked last night about how, although my mood's fine, I've been really tired lately and have been sleeping a ridiculously long time (like, ten or twelve hours) each night. Exercise makes me sleep more right now, whereas it usually helps me wake up earlier. The last time that happened was before I was diagnosed with my sleep disorder. Six years ago, they called it UARS -- Upper Airway Resistance Syndrome -- which meant that my blood oxygen levels weren't going down, as in true apnea, but that my airway was narrowing enough to tell my brain to wake up.

I only had the second sleep test because my insurance company required it, but after last night's conversation, I wondered if maybe my sleep disorder had gotten worse. And, lo and behold, indeed it has: I now have full-blown -- although mild -- apnea. Off the CPAP, my blood oxygen dipped to 79 percent and my sleep was very disturbed (I didn't actually stop breathing, but my breathing was very shallow). The second they put me on the CPAP, I plunged into REM sleep, which I hadn't reached until then. "You like CPAP," the pulmonologist told me.

Indeed I do. I asked him what would make a sleep disorder get worse, and he pointed out gently that I've gained twenty pounds in those six years. Some of this is due to menopausal metabolism changes and some of it's probably due to my meds (I lost twenty pounds after going off my first round of meds about ten years ago). I'm not technically overweight, but I'm at the border.

Gahhhhh. I'd love to get off the meds, but my shrink thinks that's a really, really bad idea. She thinks I have to be on something the rest of my life. Pfui!

In the meantime, they'll be dialing my CPAP up a notch, from 6 to 7. I'll be curious to see if that makes a difference.

The good news here is that insurance will definitely pay for the sleep study and the CPAP. The bad news is that I have to keep hauling the CPAP around when I travel. I wish they could make one the size of an iPod, but that doesn't seem to have happened yet.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Coupla Anniversaries

Today is, of course, the twentieth anniversary of when the Berlin Wall fell. Talking to my fiction workshop this afternoon, I realized that it's also the twenty-fifth anniversary of my first fiction sale, of a story called "The Woman Who Saved the World," to Shawna McCarthy at Asimov's.

I was still living at home then, since my mother was very supportive of my working part-time so I could spend more time on writing. She was the one who'd proposed the arrangement, in fact, after my first full-time job after college reduced me to tears every night. That was only partly because of the lack of writing time -- my boss was very, very difficult, and according to coworkers, the nine months I spent as his assistant was a record -- but whatever the factors, I gratefully accepted Mom's suggestion.

So I was working part-time in NYC and writing and submitting stories the rest of the time. On the days I worked, Mom always got home before I did; we lived in New Jersey and she worked a few towns over, whereas I had to take a bus home from Manhattan. She'd learned to recognize that stamped self-addressed envelopes contained rejections, and, as I went up the private stairs to our second-story apartment, would often be standing at the top, holding up an envelope and saying sadly, "I'm sorry, honey; your thing came back."

Because I'd sold a few poems, she'd also learned to recognize the business-size, window envelopes that contained contracts. On the evening of November 9, 1984, as I walked from the busstop into the courtyard of the garden apartments where we lived, I saw her standing in our lit window. When she spotted me, she started jumping up and down, holding up a business-size envelope. Then she opened the window and called out, "Susan! You sold a story! The Woman Who Saved the World!"

She'd held the envelope up to a lightbulb so she could make out the title on the contract. (I'm surprised she didn't steam open the envelope!) We spent the rest of the night on the phone, announcing the news to friends and relatives, although I also spent quite a bit of time dancing ecstatically around the apartment.

Going to my part-time job the next day, I kept saying to myself, "I'm a writer! I'm a real writer! Now I'll always be a real writer!" Of course, that wore off pretty quickly. These days I only feel like a real writer if I've written that day or have something fairly major forthcoming in a national publication. But I remember that evening very fondly.

The part-time job was in a Word Processing Department where almost everyone was working to make rent money while also trying to make it in the arts. We had one other writer, a painter, and several singers -- one of whom was in the City Opera Chorus -- and our boss had a PhD in French Literature from Brown. So they knew what my sale meant, and all congratulated me very warmly.

It was actually a great work environment. Most of the rest of the company (this was a snooty exective-search firm) looked down on us because we were only menial word-processors, but we had wonderful conversations when we weren't busy, and some of the people whose work we typed up realized that we were all really smart and asked us for writing help. I still remember a senior vice president sidling up to my desk, asking shyly, "Can you help me with this sentence?" That's when I started to think that I might enjoy being a writing teacher.

Also, since the higher-ups depended on us for their documents, we made out like bandits at Christmas: huge boxes of Godiva chocolates, silk scarves, and other high-class treats. The life of the starving artist wasn't so bad, at that place. Years later, right before I went to grad school, I wound up in their Corporate Communications Department as an in-house writer. The job wasn't nearly as much fun as working in Word Processing, although it certainly paid better!

Thursday, November 05, 2009


I figured out the other day that one of the happy, and unexpected, side-effects of fiddle lessons is that they're helping my writing. See, I don't expect to be any good at the fiddle. I just do it because it's fun, and if I mess up -- which is more the rule than the exception -- well, I try again. It's fun even though I'm not good at it, which means that so far, I haven't had any problem practicing every day. Practice is playtime, and I actively enjoy it even when I'm doing something fairly boring and screechy, like practicing cross-string polka bowing and sending the cats howling to the far corners of the house.

Because I'm a Professional Writer (TM), though, my writing's surrounded by all kinds of expectations: mine, my publisher's, my readers'. This creates performance anxiety, which is the mortal enemy of fun, not to mention creativity. I always tell my students that writing has to feel like playtime, but I haven't been able to follow that advice myself for quite a while. Writing's become a job.

But if I write immediately after practicing the fiddle, I'm still in "I'm doing this because it's fun, and who cares if it sucks?" space, and I can stay there for my quota of two pages a day.

This makes me very happy. The fiddle lessons have already paid for themselves!

Yesterday, Gary and I went to a noontime concert series curated by our friend Stephanie Sant'Ambrogio, who also performed in yesterday's concert. She's a world-renowned violinist, an amazing musician. Afterwards, we were chatting about my fiddle lessons, and she said that for Christmas, she'll give me a half-hour lesson.

I said, "Stephanie, I'm terrible!"

She pooh-poohed me. She's taught little kids; she's used to beginners. Of course, her Suzuki students are probably much better than I am. But she also pointed out that it can be helpful to have a lesson with a different teacher, who can phrase the same points made by your regular teacher in different ways. Since I'm still having trouble with posture and left-hand position (not to mention polka bowing!), that makes sense.

This is incredibly generous of her, and I'm very touched. I just hope that my true terribleness won't make her think worse of me.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Second Opinion

Yesterday we met with our regular vet to discuss Harley's diagnosis and treatment plan. She said that while a biopsy may make sense at some point, we're not there yet. First she wants, in a few weeks, to repeat the bloodwork -- since his results could have been due to anesthesia, which the other vet didn't tell us -- and to do a special urine test. Based on those, she'll be able to get a sense of whether a biopsy would be a good idea.

In the meantime, she recommended that we start feeding him a prescription kidney diet (which means feeding it to the other cats, too, since we always have food out). We were pretty apprehensive, since we've had bad luck trying to put cats on special diets, but -- amazingly! -- all three of them like the new stuff. We're delighted. The new food's expensive, but it's worth it to me if it helps protect Harley's health. The vet said it won't hurt the others, and since all cats tend to develop kidney problems, I'm actually happy they'll be on it.

The other thing we've done, a suggestion of mine based on internet research, was to get one of those fountain water bowls where the water's always circulating and is also filtered. That way the water stays fresher, and the cats tend to drink more, which is important for kidney issues. We have the fountain in addition to the old, regular water bowl. So far, Bali and Figgy adore the fountain; we haven't seen Harley use it yet, but I'm sure he'll get around to it at some point.

The third prong of the new treatment plan is for me to brush Harley's teeth with special kitty toothpaste (malt flavored) and a special mini kitty toothbrush. This was resoundingly unsuccessful last night, but I managed to smear a little of the cream on his mouth, so if he gets used to the taste, I'm hoping he'll gradually become more amenable to the procedure.

Wish us luck!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Episcopal Life Column

I have a column in Episcopal Life this month. I'd originally submitted it to Hope and Healing; my editor there decided it wasn't quite right for the site but forwarded it to EL, who accepted it.

Anyway, I hope y'all enjoy it.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Dream Come True

For the past week or so, I've been having academic anxiety dreams every night. They're always the kind where I have to teach but can't find my classroom, and as I wander a maze of halls and stairways, I know that if I ever do find the room, the students will all have left. They fall into the general category of "can't get there from here" dreams, and have much in common with, say, dreams where I'm rushing to catch a plane flight but can't seem to get to the gate.

This morning, I had to be at a master's oral defense in the nursing program at 9 a.m. I'm not a morning person, and sure enough, I overslept, leaving myself only time for a quick shower before I had to race out of the house. I hadn't had coffee or breakfast, and hadn't even fed the cats. I wasn't sure if I'd have time to buy coffee on campus, but it was my only option.

I knew that our street was being refinished tomorrow, but all the sawhorses had gone up today. A lot of the street was closed. I wound around sawhorses, cones, construction equipment, and other cars, and managed to get to school only a few minutes later than I would have otherwise. So far, so good.

But my parking garage is at the north end of campus, and the nursing building is on the south end, at least half a mile away. When I got out of the car and looked at my watch, it was suddenly later than I'd thought. Whoops! No time to buy coffee!

Then I decided to take a shortcut through a part of campus I don't know very well. What was I thinking?

Sure enough, I found my way blocked by construction. It was now 8:55. I could see the nursing building, but couldn't get there: the sidewalk was sealed off by chainlink fences. I ducked into the building behind me to try to find an exit past the construction site, and instead wound up wandering through unfamiliar hallways which eventually led me back to the door I'd just come in. I went back outside, walked a little farther, and went into another door, from which -- at last! -- I found an exit that was past the construction. Yay!

But then I realized that I'd overshot the nursing building, and had to go backwards and up some stairs, and when I was inside I had trouble finding the room and had to ask my way.

I arrived sweaty and breathless, convinced that I was late. Luckily, the student had been having some trouble with her AV equipment, so I was actually there on time. Even more luckily, she'd brought in large cups of Starbucks coffee for everyone on the committee. Yes! And I thoroughly enjoyed the two hours we spent discussing her project, so the race was worth it.

I'm happy to report that this nightmare is much scarier when you're asleep than when you're awake. But I still hope to avoid it in the future!

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Airport Chaplains!

I don't know how many of you have access to AOL -- can anyone access it these days? -- but check out this story about airport chaplains.

How totally cool! I can think of some trips when I could have used them. I'll have to remember that they're there the next time I fly!

All Saints

Happy November! We observed All Saints' Day in church today, with a table set up for photos and mementos of loved ones. I'd brought two photos of Dad in a plastic sleeve, and one of our priests prayed with me before the service. After the service, I went around showing the pictures to various friends, since only one person there had actually met Dad while he was alive.

They all listened very patiently to my stories about Dad. They asked questions and told me how handsome he was and said I look like him, and one person said I should write a book about him. I've been told that before, most memorably by the head of a search committee who was far more interested in learning about Dad than in hearing about my fiction, which this professor would have been hiring me to write if I'd gotten the job. For that and other reasons, the suggestion rankles a bit, but I may still do it sometime.

Someone else said kindly, after I'd been rattling on for a while, "How lucky you've been to have a parent who created such good memories."

Earlier in my life -- during the decades when Dad's drinking caused no end of worry and drama -- I felt distant from him, and very resentful. For that and many other reasons, I'm glad he lived long enough for us to develop a close and loving relationship, even if he drove me crazy sometimes. He drove everybody crazy sometimes, but then, so do I.

Another church friend asked this morning, "What of him do you see in yourself?"

"I'm stubborn and argumentative," I said immediately, "and I drive people nuts."

"I thought you were just thorough," said my friend, deadpan.

I laughed. "That's a kind way of putting it!"

(Someone else I know from church informed me several years ago that he could no longer have a close friendship with me because I remind him too much of his mother, who's stubborn and argumentative. I've often wished that his mother could have met my father!)

I'm grateful that Dad passed his sense of wonder on to me, along with his depressive tendencies. And we're both bright -- actually, Dad was brilliant in many ways, and my intelligence is a dim echo of his -- but I get that from my mother, too. I wish I'd inherited a greater percentage of both of their looks, but if I had to choose between that and brains, I'd definitely stick with what I have.

Anyway, my friends at church were very tolerant this morning, since many of them have heard these stories before. I felt a pressing urge to tell them, almost as if it were Dad's funeral. At this point, I don't know when we'll be scattering his ashes. I'd thought that my sister and I would go down to the Gulf this summer, but the other day she pointed out that she can't take any vacations while my mother's living with her. So unless Mom winds up in a nursing home again -- which no one wants -- it feels like we won't have physical closure on Dad until Mom dies. Kinda morbid, but that's the situation.

In the meantime, Dad's hanging out in his little white box on his red bookshelf, all quiet and peaceful-like. Quite a change from when he was alive!