Friday, December 01, 2006

Calm after the storm

From a friend:
I thought you looked well. I know you were troubled by a cough and the blankety blank lymph stuff but you seem to have a sort of peacefulness about you.

Dear you,

You're right. In most ways life seems really easy right now. Wertperch and the imp and I have gotten through the medical mess, and we are in a little calm spot. We moved this fall. The new house feels like a really good fit, and also a haven - we find that we don't want to leave on weekends, we just want to loll around and sit by the fireplace.

As much as I dislike that new-agey thing about cancer being a "growthful experience" (ACK! HAIRBALL!) it did give me a different perspective. (And isn't "growthful" a wonderfully awful word?) I think there's certain ways that I've let go of control - after being dragged arms first into the medical version of a brush shredder, I got to see how little control I really lots of things now just make me shrug and laugh, instead of fighting them. There are still small botherments (the lymph stuff, ongoing kerfluffles with the imp's dad, who is a wee bit narcissistic) but they do seem pretty small. Solveable.

I have to give wertperch a lot of credit, too. In some ways I think being the support person for someone with cancer is harder than being the patient - all I had to do was cope, and I managed to cope with grace most of the time, and cope pretty lousily once in a while. He and the imp had to take care of me, and worry about losing me, which I think is probably worse than being sick, AND forge their own relationship in the midst of all of it. Plus being both a caregiver AND a sweetheart at the same time is hard - there are times I think his compassion got pretty burned out, and with reason. Nobody loves chronic...But now that our stress numbers are not off the charts, we both get to enjoy the calm after the storm.

At one point we added up our numbers for one of those things that's supposed to measure your stress - so many points for divorce, illness, death in the family, etc. - over 150 and it can take a toll, over 300 and it can cause physical illness, over 450 and watch out! you are likely to get in a car wreck or some such...and we were both over 600 points for that year. Cancer, moving, job changes, immigration, death in the family, ill name it, we had it. AND there were stressors that weren't on the list - like the convolutions of going through the immigration process. I'm amazed our heads didn't explode.

We're also both meditating, in this weird little Davis Zen center, and that helps me to slow down to a more normal tempo. I always used to be going 90 miles an hour, rushing through everything. Now I manage to be a little more present for all the pleasant things as they go by. Now is really all we have, in the long run - better enjoy all of it.

Thank you for letting me know, it's fun to know that some of the change I've been feeling is noticeable. Grace is both an external and an internal thing. I just read that the Greek word for grace is charis - only one letter away from my name. Fancy that.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

water painting

Paint me a picture
of muddy ecru, cinnamon
of streets awash in mud
Pointillist sepia
glints of color
reflected from umbrellas and raincoats
flashes of christmas red and green

Of a warm pub
In early afternoon
Smoke and beer and wet wool
wrinkling your nose
but it is the best place to warm
and scribble notes of the afternoon
in nottingham.

I'll paint you a picture
of crystal clear washed air
and unreasonable movember sunshine
brightness that makes squints
Sweet gums every color from liquid green
through gold and orange magenta purple
the cancan girl of trees.

Despite the shardlike brilliance
the weather I feel is your smoky
English cold and drip

With you gone
I lose my words.
I cannot write
or barely
The writing turns primitive

a word

But my river of words
dries up to mere splashes
on the page

Small, disconnected
tea colored pools

No clear laughing
chattering, giggling stream.

How much of that creative
river we share
becomes inaccessible
when you're not here.

Monday, November 06, 2006

On parents, trust, guns and doublethink

I have been accused, in my time, of being overly romantic. Strangely enough, I have also been accused of being overly pragmatic. Even stranger, Both are true.


National Public Radio recently ran a story on Morning Edition about a father who installed a black box GPS in his teenage daughter's car. After listening to the story, I found myself ranting, out loud, to the father as I finished my commute to work.

Mark Pawlick, the father in the story, bought a black box that would track his daughter's location and speed.

"So, Mark Pawlick bought what's called a black box and hid it in Jessica's car. By using global positioning system technology to fix its location every second or so, the device is essentially an electronic tattletale. It automatically e-mails or calls Pawlick every time Jessica drives too fast, or goes somewhere she isn't supposed to."

Interestingly, he failed to inform his daughter that he'd installed the black box in her car.

Later on in the story, the dad is quoted as saying "She violated our trust and we didn't violate hers. Trust is earned, not given out."

I beg your pardon. but I terribly sorry to inform you that you are full of shit. How on earth is installing a spy device NOT violating her trust? Excuse me, but I think your daughter is doing a fine job imitating the behavior that has been modeled for her; you do sneaky things behind her back, she does sneaky things behind yours. Like father, like daughter! I can give you a damned good idea of where she learned it from, too!


You'll probably be able to tell from the last paragraph that this article enraged me. What on earth was this man thinking? "Once she's an adult, she'll thank us for this. It's my job to keep her safe." Well no, frankly, it isn't. If she's already 16, you should have already taught her to keep herself safe. It's very clear that my idea of my role as a parent vastly differs from yours.

My role as a parent, in my view, is to provide Tess with exactly those two things I mentioned in the first paragraph. I want her to have both a romantic view of the world, along with a pragmatic view of the world. I want her to both hold high ideals for what the world can be - a place of trust, honor, intelligence and caring, where what she does and the choices she makes make a difference. I also want her to be pragmatic - to see the world as it IS. That it is in addition to all of the above, a place with risks, with contradictions, with dangers, and stupidity. She is reponsible for learning to keep herself safe. Now, this might be doublethink, but I think it's a practical and useful kind of doublethink.

As Laurel puts it so well - "I have spoken with several people
about the doublethink necessary for sanity in working
for a better world. The world, the suffering, has far too
much inertia for us to slow it no matter how hard we hurl our tiny bodies
at it. We have to know that in order to not give up upon continued failure.
But in order to continue, we also have to believe that we could be the one
to make a change. Despite the massive physics of it, the statistical surety
that I and you are absolutely unlikely to be unusual in any way, strange
things still happen."


This is why I come down exactly the opposite of where you might expect my groovy liberal self to land: let your children play with toy guns, and teach your children (if you are raising them in America) how to use a gun safely. I'm about as far from a gun nut as you can get - Quaker pacifism is about where I fall on the violence scale. I also wouldn't have one in my house. I have, however, used both a handgun and a rifle at a shooting range, and plan to have Tess do the same thing when she's a teenager.

The romantic view - wouldn't it be great to live in a world where there was no guns, or at least no gun violence? Especially not teenagers taking machine guns to their 14 year old classmates. And our innocent youth need to be protected from them! Well, yes. But the pragmatic view? People in the United States have guns, and sooner or later your child, no matter how groovy and TV free and non-violent your home is, will be exposed to them in some form. If he or she has no concept of the risks, isn't that far MORE dangerous than if they have a basic understanding of how the thing works?

This was brought home to me once while housesitting, in the hunt for a towel in a strange house. An enormous handgun fell off the shelf above my head and landed at my feet. I had never in my life handled a firearm. Was it safe to pick up? Had landing on the floor primed the thing somehow, and as soon as I touched it was I going to shoot myself in the foot?

But the caveat - it's very important for the doublethink to be clear - these are our ideals - we strive to act with integrity, honesty, authenticity. AND. In the real world, not everyone is like this. And you need to understand both of these, conceptually, to be safe in this modern world. As Lazarus would have it, trust your fellow man, but always cut the cards.

Doublethink or
Now HOW are you planning to string these all together?

The dangerous kind of doublethink that seems to be popular in our culture right now is demonstrated on a small scale by Mark the Nitwit - I can be dishonest to my daughter, and that's perfectly acceptable, but be shocked and angry when she's dishonest with me.

One a larger scale, there's our the political arena which lately has overshot the burlesque straight into theatre of the absurd.

What kind of doublethink does it take to be Ted Haggard, a preacher expounding against gay marriage and for family values, while simultaneously paying someone for gay sex, not to mention a little methamphetamine on the side? This might come as a surprise to you, but last time I checked, buggery and meth were not on the Republican list of "family values".

So having talked myself almost full circle, the doublethink of being a parent and the doublethink of our current politicos have this difference - I know the difference between the vision, the ideal of the world as we imagine it, and as we work towards - and the pragmatic reality of keeping yourself safe. George "when we talk about war, we're really talking about peace" Dubya? I'm not so sure.

Y'all are going to have to model trust to gain trust. You are going to have to model peace to get peace. Model terrorism, or a reasonable facimile thereof, and what are you likely to get?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Club moss

Club mosses consist of four genera, worldwide. Three of these occur within North America - Lycopodium, Selaginella and Isoetes. They used to be grouped taxonomically with ferns and horsetails as vascular plants that reproduce by spores rather than seeds. Now it's recognized that they represent three completely separate lines of evolution, and were genetically distinct 350 million years ago.

There has always been a magical world inside mosses for me. When I was relatively small, my grandfather, a bonsai fanatic and grower, befriended another bonsai grower in upstate New York. Family legend has it that they met when my grandfather wrote a letter to the local bonsai newsletter contradicting the purists who recommended that only certain plants were appropriate for bonsai. My grandfather wrote that he could make a bonsai out of pigweed, if he wanted to, and in fact had done.

I don't know who got in touch with whom initially, but Bernie apparently agreed about the pigweed, and a fast friendship was made over it.

All club mosses have small leaves with single veins that are more or less spirally arranged or in opposite pairs. The spores are either in cones, or in the base of the leaves - the leaf axil.

My parents also became fast friends with Bernie and his family - and any time my mother went to visit, I wanted to go along. Often I was the only kid there - my sister was far more engrossed in her book.

My game was to wander among Bernie's bonsais. His were much larger and more complicated than my grandparents. The pots were often two or three feet across, and the trees as tall. There were rocks, pools, and elaborate mosses - every bonsai was an entire forest. In my over-fertile imagination, I shrank down, and lived with gnomes and fairies within this magical miniature world. I could keep myself entertained within the bonsais for hours on end.

Lycopodium obscurum, or ground pine, is my most familiar club moss. It grows abundantly in the northeast, and is all over Northern Ontario. It's found in moist, acidic woodlands. The branching is tree-like, with the main divisions having both large and small branches.

I spent a good portion of my childhood in the mixed pine forest of North Ontario. A significant amount of it was spent crawling around in the woods hunting down my cousins in games of hand grenade or kick the can, so I often had a rodent's eye view of the undergrowth. I remember studying the ground pine, miniature pine trees, at the scale of a Thumbelina sized girl - three inches tall.

Spores from one of the Lycopodia were apparently used to produce a flame in Victorian theater. A cloud of the spores produced a bright, rapid flame, but with little heat. This flash, among other things, was used to imitate lightning.

The Lycopodia are also used medicinally. They vary in use, medicinal qualities including diuretic, purgative, aphrodisiac, emetic and cathartic.

I probably don't lie on the ground studying mosses often enough these days, but I do own a book, Mosses, Lichens and Ferns of Northeast North America. I'm as likely to carry this book along into the woods as any, which probably makes me a nerd. One sign of the true plant geek is the patience to memorize names like Lycopodium obscurum, polystichum munitum, Blechnum spicant, Tayloria lingulata. Digging far enough down into plant taxonomy, you start to recogize the Greek and Latin words that are hidden within the plant names.

The name of the Lycopodium comes from Greek lukos, for wolf, and podos, foot. The branch tip apparently resembles a wolf's foot to the somewhat fanciful imagination of a taxonomist. Obscura if from Latin, dark, shady or obscured.

Shady wolf's foot. Who knew those miniature worlds I spent so much time exploring, contained in addition so much poetry?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

In case you ever wondered about the reality of modern cancer treatment:

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Much less an entire day of Monty Python-esque absurdity.

I'm behind on the "Write every day in November" challenge - but because of an exception that I would never have called ahead of time.

I found a lump in the area of my cancer surgery this morning.

It was, oh, I don't know, approximately 7:14. Roughly. I don't remember. But immediately my brain went into overdrive.

"Kevin, do you feel this bump?"

"Yup. Feels like a gribly." (That's our household word for dust bunnies, or fuzzy sweater pills. I don't know if this is a Britishism, or peculiar to wertperch. Ask him.)

Okay, Doctor's offices open at 9 am, I'll call both, and see who can get me in first. Of course, I'm commuting to work at 9 am, so I'm driving and listening to the heinous elevator music version of "Girl from Ipanema" while on hold. Endlessly.

I finally get through, and get an appointment to see my primary care doc at 1:30. Oncologist is out of the office, since its Friday. Grumble. I leave several (many) messages for his nurse, and she gets back to me after, oh, about 4 hours. N.b. Once you've been a cancer patient, you don't have "a" doctor. You have a "team". Mine consists of the primary care doc, fist of all. We adore her, and recommend her to everyone we know. Also add in a surgeon, an oncologist, and a radiation oncologist, who Kevin and I refer to as Dr. Vulcan. It's both a play on his name and commentary on what a true geek he is.

I pretend to work, but in the back of my mind I'm making plans. Recurrence is a reality that I don't' dwell on all that much, but it is there in the back of my mind once in a while. I'm the sort of patient who wants to know everything I possibly can - I wade through papers that are written in Doctorese, because I want to know the original sources rather than the way the medical system interprets things. Medicine is far less cut and dried than they would like us to believe.

So I've read about what would happen next if I had a recurrence. More chemotherapy, but different drugs than the last time. Possibly a clinical trial. No more radiation unless it's a distant recurrence, because I've already maxed out the amount of radiation I can have locally. (We prefer not to give you skin cancer or lung cancer in the process of trying to cure your breast cancer.)

But I was surprisingly un-emotional. The only good thing to say about having been through the most brutal regiment of cancer treatment is that I got through it. (Second only to "I'm not dead yet!") I've done it once, I know can do it again if I have to.

So I head back the Davis at 1 pm, heading to see the doctor. She talks to me for about five minutes.

Her: "Can you go the Breast Imaging Center today?"

Me: "Well, I just came from there, but I can drive back."

She goes out of the room.

She comes back in, says, "Why don't you go ahead down there. I have them on the phone, I'm making the appointment right now."

Me: "Uhm, okay. But I still need the referral information for lymphedema."

Her: "No, just go now, you can call me for that later."

I'm starting to get the impression she thinks this is even more urgent than I do.

She heads back out the door, I call after her: "Should I be panicking now?"

She shouts over her shoulder as she disappears down the hallway, "No, not at all." Why am I not flooded with reassurance?

So, sigh, I hop BACK in the car to drive BACK to Sacramento. Of course, they are squeezing me in, so I get to sit around. For quite some time. The entire room full of people waiting gets treated to one side of a conversation - gotta love those cell phones. A young woman in a wheelchair is loudly telling someone about a cruise she is about to go on, they way her boyfriend talks to her and her companion dog, and whether or not she's going to sleep with him on the cruise. Loudly. I don't know whether to laugh, vomit, or take notes. Finally I can't stand it, and I interrupt her, and state that there is a sign on the door requesting that people not use cell phones in the waiting room. She gets pretty huffy, and then says, "Well, THEN I'll GO outside." First, does she not know everyone in the room was following the blow-by-blow, and second, am I to understand that I'm a philistine, because the rules don't apply to people in wheelchairs?

Anyway, in some bizarre fashion, she made my day, because the whole thing was so weird. Does she really not care that a roomful of strangers know about her to sleep with/not to sleep with dilemma?

But I digress.

So I switch from sitting in the public waiting room to the private waiting room, with all those poor nervous women getting mammograms. No one is cheerful. The Ellen (de Generis) Show was on, and again, I see so little TV that it also seems truly bizarre to me. Why is she making Sandra Bullock eat a habanero pepper? What deeper meaning does this have to an audience full of American Womanhood? My culture mystifies me.

So they FINALLY call my name. Being of course that this has all translated through several layers of medical beaurocracy, Things have gotting a wee bit scrambled. She tells me she's supposed to take a mammogram of my right breast. Having a strong grasp of the obvious, I explain that I don't HAVE a right breast. I thought they would just go ahead and do an ultrasound. She looks at me, looks at the order, goes out of the room. She comes back. Apparently she is supposed to go ahead and do the mammogram on whatever is left of my poor flesh. I then proceed to get the giggles as she attempts to do this. Imagine getting the flesh over your ribs caught in an elevator door. Several times. Now you have a decent idea of how it progressed.

Twenty minute wait. Yes, they still need to do an ultrasound. After a bit more poking and prodding, the tech finds something called a seroma - a little pocket of fluid that often happens in or near scar tissue. Nothing else. Nothing suspicious.

Now, this may not seem like a big deal to you, but remember that during the first round, every single test revealed more bad news. Not one tumor, but two. Not two lymph nodes, but several, we don't know how many. Et cetera, et cetera.

I hadn't realized how much I was assuming the worst and rolling with it, until they said, nope, nothing suspicious. That has never happened before.

So I went staggering home. I'm not dead yet!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Five seasons

Dear you,

The rain has finally begun, here in central cally. I am incredibly relieved, and I want to run out and lie in the wet grass and let it soak through me into the earth. Once again, by folding over from harvest season into monsoon, this place reminds me that it has five seasons, not four.

The central valley of California does not have the typical four seasons that you get in picture postcards and advertising. Instead of snow, we have pouring rain, monsoons, for winter, which lasts more or less from the beginning of November to early February. Spring is long and green and gorgeous, everything budding far earlier than my youthful yankee reptile brain thinks it should, and lasting longer. Summer is shimmering, baking, hot, parched ground and frying eggs on the sidewalk and ceiling fans hot.

Siestas would be the sensible way to live, but we're far too Calvinistic to indulge in that sort of equitorial sin. The heat usually breaks around the middle or the end of August, and suddenly you have harvest season. So many tomatoes that you think they will never end. I won't even mention zucchinis, the mutant pod people of the vegetable world. Feasting and going back to school and leaves falling, and here the peak of fire season. This differs from high summer in that it is no longer too hot to be outside for much of the day. Still hot, but not sweltering.

Then there's autumn, when the leaves are really falling, and we start having fires in the fireplace, and everything is going back underground. Some rain, but not pouring.

These are more subtle than the four seasons I grew up with -
spring = flowers, summer = no school, fall = red leaves, winter = snow.

So it turns out elephants, along with most primates and bottlenose dolphins, are self aware. They can recognize themselves in a mirror, and they do not greet the elephant they see reflected - thus, they recognize a reflection.

Would someone please make me a mirror big enough for whales?

This seems like a scarily limited definition of self-awareness. Elephants seem to have a pretty sensitive sense of touch - and the difference between the texture of another elephant, and the slick glassness of a mirror seems pretty marked. Does the recognition of the difference between these define self-awareness? It defines, I suspect, elephantness and not-elephantness, but a sense of self? I hope so, but the anthropomorphic nature of the test doesn't tell us this.

I hope elephants ponder the nature of their being, and trade koans about suffering, the dharma, tonglan. I suspect elephants are buddhists, and ponder on their elephant nature. All religions are the same, especially Buddhism. What about elephanty buddhism?

Then there's another question of self-awareness. I've been having an elaborate on-going discussion with my favorite sister about the nature of authenticity. It's a sub-topic of Jung and Jungian analysis, and our experience of personas, and the discomfort some people feel if you see their inner self and react to it rather than their persona. If I am being my authentic self, why do people's reaction to me sometimes not match up to how I see myself? Does the elephant wonder about it's anima?

Perhaps it is that capacity for contentment that makes me discount it's importance. Comfort is easy. I've been comfortable at the top of Mt.Rainier, in the middle of many wildernesses, in a tent in the pouring rain. Comfort, like happiness, is overrated.

I don't know how all of these things tie together for you, dear. Today is a series of discrete events, rather than a package I can tie up neatly for you. rain. elephants. self-awareness. club moss. comfort. tea cups.

Welcome back, monsoons.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Butterfly Soup

Dear you,

This is the first post I'm putting up on Butterfly Soup that's not originally from Everything2. It seems easier, dearly beloved, to write this as a letter than in another format.

It's been funny the last few days to talk to wertperch about our shared goal of writing daily throughout November. Same idea, but the difference in the way we execute it reveals quite a bit about our characters. He sets himself a goal - 750 words a day, and immediately starts...three days before November has actually begun. (What? Are you nuts? We don't HAVE to start until November 1....) Me, I plan to write every day in November, but without a specific word count, subject, and truthfully with a thoroughly modified definition of "every day". Five days a week, maybe, but I get weekends off if I want. And if I'm sick, I don't have to write. And exception, exception, exception. Wertperch is all about the rules, I'm already developing the exceptions. Wertperch is very concrete. My goal is far more loose.

But anyway, I want to tell you why I finally started to attempt to put my thoughts into this bloggish format. The inspirations behind this are the helf dozen or so weblogs that I read whenever they post - and it's an odd collection. One food blog, one combination food and art blog, one letter-writing, one that is pure whatever-she-wants-to-write-about-today blog....and then one that is no longer posted to, but that I go back and read and re-read when I'm feeling adrift in my own life.

The blog that I most covet, as it were, is Julie's old weblog, which I think of as the grandmother of all blogs. It's no longer available with that url, and I'll challenge you, beloved reader to either hunt it down or to hunt me down via e-mail to ask where it's hidden now. Julie wrote about a series of spiritual questions and transformations that she was experiencing, in a most amazingly personal way. I love both the way she wrote, and also what she wrote about. She was incredibly willing to post her innermost thoughts onto the ether, (or at least what seemed to me to be innermost thoughts) and to let the world at large into them. I'm far more stingy with my thoughts, especially when we start using the world spiritual. Oooorgh. I can feel myself squirm just slightly to admit that that is the heart of this blog.

One reason I hadn't started sooner was that there was not one coherent theme that I consistently want to write about. Brendon has cooking, jessica has her quirky and wonderful self, Melody has music - and I feel like a complete dilettante in comparison. I write, I cook, I spin and knit, I make costumes....I make landscapes, also. I write about parenting, cancer, whatever is either tickling my fancy or taking up all my attention at any particular time. But not one of these is the dominating theme from which I frame everything everything else. I'm not an artist who cooks, a cook who paints, a writer who spins....

But the a few weeks ago I went back, and again read through Julie's entire web site. I pondered why it appeals to me so much that I wish I'd written it myself. Much as I love reading all the other blogs and E2 postings, hers is the only one that I covet to that extent.

And here's the snag. The theme that keeps drawing me back, is her exploration of herself and her spiritual path. Yikes, there's that word again. I find myself going all aw shucks and toe in the dirt - first of all, I could have nothing remotely interesting to say about my own spirituality, and second, how embarassing. My physical reaction is that of coming out of the women's room with my skirt accidentally tucked into the back of my tights - my spiritual slip is showing.

So with that now said, there's the challenge. I'm going write about all the things I'm writing about - parenting and art and cancer survival and writing and cooking and spirit and how they are all tied together, and try to look a little more deeply at the well-hidden spiritual path that ties them all together.

With all my love,