Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Saying farewell.

This time my absence was less about living my life and more about observing the ending of another. My mother-in-law died a couple of weeks ago and my husband has spent a fair amount of time helping his siblings make arrangements. I went back to Kentucky with him last Thursday for the funeral. We got there before most of the family and went to a place that has a really great bourbon tasting bar. Because it's Kentucky. We started with a shot of the Weller 12-year, a favorite of mine but one we've not ever managed to find for sale in liquor stores. And then the bartender recommended another wheated bourbon, the Old Fitzgerald 13 year, which is basically Larceny’s grandpa. And then, a shot of Pappy Van Winkle 20 year. Incidentally, I read an article that said the Weller 12 year is as close to tasting a Pappy Van Winkle as most people will get.

Unless the funeral is happening under tragic circumstances (when my brother drowned at age 23, for instance), there is a lot of celebrating to go along with the mourning. In this case, I got to spend time with sibs and their spouses I care about and also got to meet a crop of cousins who I also really liked. We spent a lot of time over the three days hanging out at my MIL's house, eating and talking. There was only one truly discordant note, which happened Friday at the visitation. But first a little backstory: My husband's ex-wife has a hatred of him which is inexplicable in its intensity. Never mind that she moved in a new husband almost immediately after moving him out. That fury has grown over the last few years and she has waged a campaign of brainwashing which has resulted in both daughters refusing to see or speak to us since January of 2018. It's particularly perplexing with the younger daughter, who used to spend time every single weekend crying on my shoulder about how her mother was mean to her, didn't pay attention to her, was always on her phone, and so on. I was sympathetic and let her talk, but never chimed in with anything negative because I believe that's damaging to the kids. And except in cases of abuse, I think it's best for kids to have both parents in their lives.  So guess who waltzes in during visitation? She had brought the daughters, which is fair enough, but she had no business being there herself. The older one is 18, she could have brought herself and her sister. And, the ex even had her parents with her. And let me be clear, they weren't close to my husband's mother. Unfortunately, funerals are considered public events and you aren't allowed to throw anyone out. But what sort of sociopath comes to her ex-MIL's funeral under those circumstances? We were both livid. When I encountered her, she plastered a big fake smile on her face and greeted me. My one small consolation was the look of shock on her face when I gave her a dead-eyed stare and shook my head before walking away. We still had an hour of the visitation ahead of us so we slipped out and across the field to the tasting bar to regroup. This time we tried the Pappy 23 year. It's pricey, but seemed like the right occasion, and we were back in plenty of time for the service. As we listened to the show tunes that were included to honor her role in community theater, I like to think my mother-in-law would have understood our need to step out for a few minutes and would have appreciated that we toasted her memory. In fact, I know she'd have happily joined us if she could have!
I brought the book I'm currently reading, Independent People, but didn't need it that whole weekend. It's by Iceland's only Nobel Laureate, Halldór Laxness. It's set in the early 20th century leading up to World War I, and things are pretty grim. Most of the people who work the farms are malnourished, and freezing to death is not uncommon. Weight, then, is a sign of prestige. He says of one character, "He had also developed the corpulence that is so necessary to anyone who wishes his words to carry conviction in an assembly." It took me a full 67 pages of slogging before the book caught fire with me. I rarely give a book that long, but for some reason I stuck with it. And I'm glad I did. Laxness has a way of conveying scenes that I find really engaging. Like this description of Bjartur, the insanely stubborn crofter, welcoming guests to his squalid turf home after his wife has died in childbirth: "'I was thinking, Gunsa lass, that maybe you’d like to mix a batch of Christmas cakes for the feast. You’d be welcome to spice! Raisins, and even those big black things that look like horse’s dottles, prunes I think you call them. Don’t consider the expense; I’ll pay. And, of course, as many pancakes as everybody can hold. And strong coffee, woman; coffee strong enough to tar a tup with; I won’t stand for people drinking any old dish-wash at the funeral of a wife of mine.’" He doesn't give a damn about his dead wife, just that he look magnanimous to others. The grieving father of the dead woman offers up this morosely disjointed version of the Lord's Prayer for the funeral: "‘Our Father, which art in heaven, yes, so infinitely far away that no one knows where You are, almost nowhere, give us this day just a few crumbs eat in the name of Thy Glory, and forgive us if we can’t pay the dealer and our creditors and let us not, above all, be tempted to be happy, for Thine is the Kingdom.’"

Later in the book, Bjartur has remarried and is raising his new wife's sons along with the daughter who is not actually his. That wife, too, dies in despair after he kills her cow for no good reason, and one of the sons later wanders off and is found frozen the next spring. They all work 16 hours a day in miserable weather, ekeing out a barely adequate existence. Good times. At some point, Bjartur leaves the young teenaged daughter and the sons alone for the winter and sends a teacher to prepare them for confirmation into the Church. The teacher is wholly unsuitable - a consumptive alcoholic with a passle of children at home who seduces and impregnates the daughter. The passages where the kids are first encountering the Bible are entertaining: "The story of how He created the world aroused their interest immediately, even though they received no answer to the question of why He had had to do it; but they found it difficult to understand sin, or the manner of its entry into the world, for it was a complete mystery to them why the woman should have had such a passionate desire for an apple when they had no idea of the seductive properties of apples and thought they were some sort of potatoes. But less intelligible still was the flood that was caused by forty days’ rain, and forty nights’. For here on the moors there were some years when it rained for two hundred days and two hundred nights, almost without fairing; but there was never any Flood. When they begin to question their teacher more closely about this riddle, he replied, perhaps not without a trace of irritation: ‘Well, I don’t vouch for it in any case.’"

The daughter was enamored of the teacher and struggled to understand the Catechism:
"‘It says that God is infinitely good. Is He infinitely good too when someone is in trouble?’
The teacher: ‘Surely.’
Ásta Sóllilja: ‘Then He can’t very well be infinitely happy.’
He: ‘I know that, my dear’ - and suddenly losing his patience: ‘There’s not a word of it true. It’s utter rubbish. It’s meant for soft, neurotic people.’"

So that's where I am - sorrow for my husband's loss, outrage at his ex-wife's appalling behavior, and immersed in the dark world of poverty-stricken Iceland in the early 1900's. I'll end with this bit of wisdom from Bjartur to his youngest son:
"‘It’s a useful habit never to believe more than half of what people tell you, and not to concern yourself with the rest. Rather keep your mind free and your path your own.’"


Sunday, July 28, 2019

Reading goal met (and passed)!

First, an update. The day after the dick across the street backed up without looking and crashed into my son's car, he parked one of their vehicles directly across from our driveway, and then moved the other out there, too. To "make a point," he said. The point being, presumably, that he's a dick. Interestingly, both members of that couple openly admit to various dodgy behaviors, including the husband trying to skirt city regulations in his business and the wife pocketing money from their joint business and hiding it from her husband. Just, you know, upstanding folks all around. But the good news is the insurance investigation placed him at fault and the guy's insurance is now paying for my son to get his car repaired and a rental car while that is happening. Sweet justice.
After much of last year spent reading while recovering from surgery and chemo, I definitely have re-caught the reading bug. I decided to up my usual Good Reads goal this year from 52 books to 60. But I'm a bit ahead of schedule again. The Hobbit was my 60th book, finished last week. This is the actual copy I read back in 5th or 6th grade, and the the Lord of the Rings trilogy after that. It launched me into a fantasy and sci fi phase of reading through high school. But I tell you, my feelings about it have changed in the past 45 or so years since I last read it. I decided to re-read this one after discovering that Tolkien was smitten with the Norse Sagas and based much of this work on Icelandic Vikings and Norse mythology. And indeed, now that I know that, the parallels are very striking. For instance, the charcter Beorn who shape-shifts into a fierce bear is just Björn (Icelandic for bear) and is clearly meant to be a berserker - the wild viking warriors who wore bearskins and fought like madmen. Even Gandalf is a name pulled directly from the sagas. But I don’t actually enjoy reading the sagas because they are insanely violent, and I didn’t really enjoy re-reading the Hobbit. It might be because the narrative style feels so dated. I think of it as a “intrusive narrator.“ The sort of book where the narrator announces that he won’t go into something until later in the book or makes some other comment about the characters separate from the story. And this may be entirely MY problem. I don’t like storytelling festivals, either. What I want is to be able to immerse myself fully in the story without the overt presence of a narrator. There was some nostalgia value for me, but I got bored with all the stabby bits and the song lyrics.

While I was at it, I read a compilation of Icelandic short stories from the 19th and 20th centuries that was a pretty comprehensive collection with an overwhelmingly grim vibe. In one, the subject was suicide: “When I was a young girl people often hanged themselves down there simply out of bad temper.” She goes on to say of her grandparents, “They were constantly scaring each other by threatening to commit suicide. Probably they didn’t know of any other way to get each other’s sympathy and to keep their love alive, and it lasted them all their lives long. I never noticed any other sign of affection between them than this.” Yeesh. The majority of the stories seem to have the following plot: The main character is either a desperately poor person or a well-regarded person in the village. Bad things happen to them, including being mocked or tormented by other villagers. Often there is violence done to them. The story ends either with the person dead or weeping on the side of the road. Feel-good stories, basically.
And in unrelated news, I made paella last night. Just look at all that oceanic goodness. I think we irritated the seafood store guy by requesting 8 mussels and 8 clams. This morning my husband took some of the leftovers and made them into cakes and served them with poached eggs.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Sunday funnies.

I have a fondness for the weird little coincidences in life. Like the day I was reading this book at work and a patient brought me a cupcake that almost exactly matched the one on the cover.
Or the day I bought this eggplant to make ratatouille and found a card from my sister waiting for me in the mailbox with an eggplant on it.
And not a synchronicity, but I was struck by the amazing savings advertised - from 4 for $4 to 4 for $3.99! I considered buying some just so I could invest the savings.
A package store nearby has had this sign posted since 2014, after Russia's invasion of Crimea. Apparently he pulled about five thousand bucks worth of Russian liquor off the shelves because he feels like they are bullies. I wonder how he feels about the Russian meddling that helped put Trump in power?
I was driving somewhere with my son, who is part of what he describes as the not-straight community, when we saw this sign. He laughed and said, "The Queer Agenda."
And there's apparently a magazine for everything. But did you know that women's marijuana is pink? We are too girly for the green stuff.
And finally,  just a thing that made me giggle - this guy's pants. I can't even imagine having a day when I thought, "I know! I'll buy pants with peacock feathers on them!"

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Integrated care.

The first person I met with following my diagnosis last summer was my breast surgeon. She said, during that initial discussion, that cancer has physical, emotional and spiritual repercussions. She stressed the importance of tackling all aspects of care. Cut to a couple months post-chemo, and I was sitting in this soothing office, meeting with the integrated care doctor. I went in knowing he was vegetarian and encourages a plant-based diet. I was pretty stoked to tell him about my changed diet and he was really pleased with it. But the tweaks he urged on me were surprising. Eat more fat. Increase the amount of fatty fish I'm eating. Lay off the raw vegetables and salads. When I do eat salads, load them up with fats like avocados, nuts and fish.
Him: "And you need to eat more than you probably think you do."
Me: "I already eat more than my husband."
Him: "That's good, keep doing that. If he ate as much as you need to, he'd gain weight. You're a hummingbird."​

So there you have it, my diagnosis is "hummingbird."
My personalized wellness plan started with "Great job on your super healthy pescatarian diet." Based on my Aryuvedic body type, he wants me to eat a "vata pacifying diet," which means eating and drinking things hot or warm as much as possible. I'm supposed to eat warm, moist, heavy, nourishing meals. Even water should be no colder than room temperature. Obviously I will make an exception for beer. Veggies and greens should all be cooked. Will that make a difference? I'm skeptical. But it turns out I actually like having a cup of warm water in the afternoons at work and I figure it can't hurt to try it.

I'd told him I wasn't interested in taking a bunch of supplements, so he suggested I add a teaspoon of spirulina 3-4 times a week. I struggled with how to take that with something warm. I'm here to tell you that you do NOT want to mix spirulina into oatmeal. That's just nasty. Finally, after some experimentation, I discovered that if I dissolve a little miso in hot water and mix in the spirulina, it makes a tasty broth. Spirulina is blue-green algae and jam-packed with nutrients, apparently. And also, I'm to eat a sheet of nori seaweed every day, to help lower estrogen. No problem there, I love seaweed. And for lifestyle, he gave me a handout and then wrote in my plan to also "Continue your awesome PMA (Positive Mental Attitude)" and "Keep Living out your Mantra :)" I'd shown him my appointment book where I'd written this years mantra for me: "I am fierce. I am strong. I am healing. I am grateful for this day." He LOVED that. And at our second and final visit, he hugged me, and said he loved me. He has a real young hippy vibe but you know what? It's sweet and you definitely leave feeling cared about.
As I was researching something for a friend, I read a huge NCBI meta-analysis about environmental links to breast cancer. When I was first diagnosed, I used to joke that maybe it was caused by running in the mist of the DDT truck spraying our neighborhood when I was a kid in Boston in the '60's. According to the article, DDT exposure has been definitively linked to breast cancer. Oh. It got me thinking about other carcinogens I might be exposing myself to. In particular, I was taken aback by the research about phthalates and parabens in many cosmetic products. I went through everything I owned. See the little set with three items? That's what passed. Everything else got tossed, along with a bunch of shampoos, conditioners, lotions, sunscreens, and anti-perspirants, It was a little sobering. Now I use coconut oil and olive oil as moisturizers, baby shampoo, and zinc-based sunblocks. I have very limited cosmetics, all of which got safe ratings from the Environmental Working group. It's exhausting being careful about what you are exposed to! Of course, I can't control the environment, but since the effects of carcinogens are cumulative, I will control what I can.
I think community is also vital for recovery and well-being, and I've taken advantage of two groups in town. One is the Cancer Support Community where I attend various programs. In one, we made gorgeous silk scarves. I picked out sea-like colors and a wave pattern for mine. And best of all, every program is free to people with cancer and their families/support people.
Pretty cool, huh? My husband and I have also gone to a cooking demonstration, live music, and various talks. The informative programs count as continuing ed credits for me, which is a sweet bonus.
Additionally, I go to survivor hangouts with Breast Connect, a local breast cancer group. They provide dinner and a speaker at get-togethers every couple of months. In the last one, we heard about breast cancer research and had wine and appetizers (really good bread with hummus and salmon spread). The dinner was chicken so I took the option of requesting their vegetarian meal. I had a really great salad when I waited for it, and then was thrilled when they brought me roasted butternut squash with caramelized onions and spinach. It was so good that I came home a re-created it for my husband a few days later.
It's not that I'm focused on cancer all the time, but I figure I might as well do what I can to minimize my risks. Or at least, to stay as healthy as I can for as long as I can. And it's hard not to think about it.  For one thing, my crazy hair is a daily reminder. Lately, my husband has been calling me Mrs. Heat Miser.
And he has a point. I know it will go back to being straight eventually, but for right now, my hair just gets wilder by the day. Rather than fighting it, I've decided I'm just going to ride this train wherever it takes me.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

I know, I keep disappearing.

Spring has morphed into summer and still I feel an overwhelming compulsion to work in the yard. I have spent more hours than I should probably admit pulling ground ivy (AKA creeping charlie) out of the back yard, in an effort to allow grass, clover and other weeds I like to grow. I want my yard as bee-, butterfly- and bird-friendly as possible. And besides, there is something wildly satisfying about systematically purging something invasive and damaging. Cue the "oh, it's a metaphor" music.
In other news, we are embroiled in a surprising dispute with a neighbor who is the epitome of an entitled, rich, white guy. Last weekend, my younger son was at our house using his forge to do a little blacksmithing. He'd wrapped up and was having dinner with us on the back deck when we heard a crash. Turns out the neighbor across the street had backed out of his driveway without looking and bashed into my son's car. That's my son walking back to our driveway after getting a photo of the damage, and the neighbors' driveway is across from us, on the left side of the photo. See how very far away my son's car is? First the neighbor said my son's car was "so small" he couldn't see it. It's a standard four-door sedan, but the neighbor and his wife both drive what my husband calls "urban assault vehicles." And neither of them are good drivers - she's knocked over our trash bins a number of times. It was bad enough that he couldn't be bothered to apologize, but worse that he called the police hoping to prove it was my son's fault for being parked on the street. Which, for the record, is NOT illegal as he is claiming. The guy's just being a dick because he said his rates will skyrocket if the claim goes on his insurance. Right - that makes it okay to try to screw over the neighbors' kid. He's like a spoiled child who breaks another child's toy and then blames the other child for having a shoddy, breakable toy. At any rate, we're not rolling over on this one and the neighbor is mightily pissed. He's started doing things like parking their behemoth vehicles directly across from our driveway to make it difficult for us to get out. And yet somehow, we're able to do it without crashing into them. Why? Because we freaking watch where we're going.
Deep breath. In happier news, the 4th of July is also our engagement anniversary. So rather than doing the standard patriotic thing of barbecues and so on, we stayed in and cooked. Let me tell you, I make a mean seafood risotto. This one had Argentine red shrimp and crab and it was the kind of dish that makes you saying things like, "Holy fuck, that's good." Seriously. I'd also made a loaf of sourdough bread that day and my husband put together the salads and served as my sous chef for the risotto.
And the previous day I'd soaked strawberries in bourbon and then coated them in dark chocolate. We sat out on the deck eating them and drinking prosecco, and watched the fireflies emerge from the ground while the bats swooped above our heads. As it got darker, we could see fireworks set off is several directions around us. And felt lucky. I'll be popping in and out through the summer, but I am enjoying having my life be too full to spend much time in front of a computer.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

One Year NED.

So a funny thing about invasive breast cancer - there is, at this time, no actual cure. Instead, there is the designation NED - No Evidence of Disease. Sort of like "You're in remission as far as we know." In my case, chemotherapy was indicated because the biology of my tumor showed it to be very aggressive. "A wolf in sheep's clothing," as my breast surgeon put it. There was no sign of cancer in my sentinel lymph nodes, but there was no way of knowing if cells had slipped out in my bloodstream. The chemo was for those cells. And maybe it worked, maybe it didn't, we just don't know. Still, all the cancer we definitely knew to exist was removed in my mastectomy, a year ago today.
And now I take my tamoxifen, try to eat a healthy diet and minimize exposure to carcinogens, and wait. The most common sites for breast cancer to metastasize are to the bones, lungs, liver and brain. The other day, I went to see my new optometrist to get an eye exam and make sure I had no lasting damage from the chemo. I still have perfect distant vision and very mild presbyopia for my age. He took this cool photo of my eyes and walked me through all the positives: no macular degeneration, no glaucoma, no cataracts, no chemo-induced retinopathy, no ocular metastasis. Hold up, no what? He told me that metastasis to the eye was most common in breast and lung cancer. Eyeball mets! I didn't even know that was a possibility. I'll just add that to the nightmare rotation.

Eye exams notwithstanding, there aren't regular tests or scans to see if the surgeries or chemo or any other treatments worked. You just wait for symptoms of metastasis. It's kind of like getting your house treated for termites and then after that, the exterminator just parks, looks at your house from the street, and says, "Nope, don't see any termites from here so we're going to call that 'termite-free.' But call if your house starts to fall down!"
My husband and I spent some time last night remembering the day of the mastectomy and the difficult period following. I was frankly terrified of the surgery. It seemed so primitive. Barbaric, even. And such a long recovery for both of us to deal with. And yet, we got through it. So tonight, rather than focusing on the losses and scary uncertainty of what might lie ahead, we went out to celebrate me being a year NED. We got four kinds of tacos - fried avocado and salmon tacos for me and curried tofu and blackened flounder for him.
And then, because I noticed they had one of my very favorite bourbons for a ridiculously good price, we had the Weller Special Reserve and toasted our health in every language we knew, including à votre santé, sláinte mhaith, skál! For however long we have, to our health and to life.
"I didn't battle cancer, 
Yeah, you know it battled me.
But it did not win,
I'm still standing, don't you see?"

Thursday, June 6, 2019

On the Bourbon Trail.

This past weekend, we made a quick trip up to Kentucky for the weekend. Saturday morning included a tour of the Buffalo Trace Distillery. I love touring wineries and breweries, too, but distilleries win hands down for the smell. It's heavenly.
We just missed the cut-off for the 9 am tour, and were shunted into the 9:15 group. This gave us a little time to wander around on our own, looking at some of the stone and brick warehouses (you can see the barrels of whiskey stacked up through the window).
It turned out to be a good thing we were in that group - there were only 10 of us, compared to the much larger 9:00 and 9:30 groups of a couple dozen. This distillery occupies land that used to have a river crossing for the herds of buffalo in the area. Whiskey began being distilled on that site in 1775, and the distillery inteslf was built in 1812. It's been in continuous operation since, even through Prohibition. At that time, when other distilleries were shut down, it was allowed to produce whiskey for medicinal purposes, requiring a doctor's prescription.
In the 1886, a steam heating system was added to regulate the temperatures in the warehouses. See the wooden flower pots? They have ornamental corn that I've never seen before.
Complete with tiny ears of corn and variegated purple leaves. I'd love to have that planted in my garden.
We watched a video about the history of the distillery and our guide answered questions. This display shows how bourbon evaporates as it ages, with the oldest bourbons being reduced to just a small bit. The part that is lost is called the angel's share. (Incidentally, one of my very favorite bourbons is Angel's Envy.)
Warehouse V, a single barrel warehouse, was originally built to store their two millionth barrel of whiskey. It now houses, I believe, their 7 millionth.
We toured inside one of the warehouses. Did I mention how heavenly the whole place smelled?
Wellers are another favorite of mine, also a wheated bourbon. We have bottles at home of both the Old Weller Antique 107 and the W. L. Weller Special Reserve, but have yet to track down a bottle of the W.L. Weller 12-year. Some day! I did, however, have a couple of glasses of it at the family gathering after my father's funeral. It was as good as I'd imagined.
Wellers are one of the brands of bourbons bottled by hand at this distillery. I like their slogan "We make fine bourbon at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon."
We toured the hand-bottling building, which isn't in operation on weekends. They have a display case a variety of their bourbons. That top shelf has some rare bourbons included.
The barrels are uncorked and rolled to empty into this trough. Our guide scooped out a handful of char from the inside of the barrel for us to smell. I wished I could take a bag of it home to keep out in a bowl.
The guide demonstrated how bottles of Blanton's single-barrel are filled and then capped with one of a series of distinctive metal racehorses. Each is marked with one of the letters in Blanton's, and some collectors try to amass all the letters. Which seems a little nutty to me. It's another bourbon that can be really difficult to find in stores, so when we saw one a year or so ago, we nabbed it.
The barrels get transported through a series of sloping tracks, so gravity can do the work of moving them along.
And then the tasting. Sadly, none of my favorites were on offer. Not the Wellers and certainly not anything from the Van Winkle family (made from the same mash bill as the wheated Wellers, using wheat with the corn and barley instead of the standard rye). And there was most definitely no sign of the absurdly elusive Pappy Van Winkle. It's the holy grail for whiskey drinkers and is sold by lottery each year.
Instead we tasted their vodka (I'm not really a vodka drinker except for an occasional vodka tonic), and the White Dog Mash, the unaged spirits that go into making their bourbons and rye. I don't know why anyone would drink the stuff - it tastes a lot like moonshine. And then tastes of Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare, which are just okay in my book. And some bourbon cream. And of course, chocolate covered bourbon balls, which I could eat until I died.
Our guide was a curmudgeonly sort who picked on one poor guy in our group. Until, that is, he turned his attention to me. I think he felt badly about it afterwards, though, because he gave me one of the Blanton bottle toppers to make up for it. I showed it to the guy he'd originally tormented and he called me the teacher's pet.
Eventually we'll probably visit all the distilleries on Kentucky's bourbon trail. It's a very pleasant way to spend a couple of hours on a beautiful morning.