Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sweet Poison

"Other countries seem much more cautious about aspartame than we are," I spoke into the silence at the lunch table. Placing the napkin I plucked from the dispenser in my lap, I glanced at the trio of tense faces that had turned to me when I took my seat and spoke. "When I was in Canada," I continued, "there were warnings on the rim of the can. In red letters."

"Red," offered Sibling and I frowned at her for not being more helpful in my attempts to distract my lunch companions for whatever unpleasantness had come before I'd arrived.

"Red," I confirmed. "The color of warnings. And evil!"

"I read it is bad for you," PrettyHair offered. "There are warnings in Europe too."

"I heard somewhere that we didn't warn people because the FDA granted some sort of exception during a presidency in the past - I want to say FDR, but that could be very wrong - but other countries don't have the same affection for certain types of artificial sweeteners."

"You can drink diet soda in Europe," Adam noted and I nodded at him, blinking when PrettyHair swung around to glare at him.

"Only if you're dieting!" she exclaimed passionately and he scoffed before saying that nobody asks if you're on a diet before letting you buy soda.

"You can buy it," she agreed, "but people don't. Because it can cause cancer."

"It only caused cancer in mice at very large quantities," he replied with more anger than necessary as Sibling and I exchanged meaningful glances.

"What's the name of the new one?" Sibling asked and I cocked my head at her.

"Splenda?" I suggested and frowned when she shook her head.

"No," she confirmed. "Something like, 'it comes from a little green leaf,'" she sang.

"Truvia," Adam and I answered together. I grinned at PrettyHair and indicated we must watch more television that she does.

"I read," she said defensively and I patted her hand before sipping my Diet Pepsi. "And I think that can make you sick," she warned, pointing at the bottle I placed on the corner of my tray.

"Maybe," I replied. "My parents sent me an email forward - they do love email forwards - and said someone had recovered from MS or epilespy after not drinking diet soda. But I like it."

"Unless you're shoveling in sweetener from a 5 pound bag every day, I think you're fine," Adam offered in support.

"You don't know that," PrettyHair argued. "You don't know everything."

I shrugged when she looked at me for support. "I didn't read the actual study," I offered gently. "But nobody knows everything. You're right about that." I turned to face Adam and said very seriously, "You do not know everything." He winked at me and I smiled, waving when he finally left so we could talk about him.

"Are you OK?" I asked PrettyHair and made my most sympathetic face when she sighed. Sibling and I listened while she talked and offered some insight.

"It just sucks sometimes," she concluded and we nodded.

"And this is why we drink poison," I quipped before throwing away my trash and carrying what was left of my beverage back to my desk.


  • It is hot.
  • I do not like hot.
  • It is hot even at 6AM when I take Chienne for a walk.
  • Chienne rolled in something dead on our walk. In the hot. That did not improve my mood.
  • Post bath for her and shower for me, I am feeling a bit cooler and happier.
  • Still. Summer is not my season.
  • I did have a nice weekend! No travel.
  • I mowed my lawn.
  • And ran errands.
  • And made my way through an impressive stack of papers that I'd read but not summarized.
  • My process is that I take notes on the back of the first page of an article as I read. Then I type up paragraphs that I put online for reference. It works pretty well.
  • Then when people read my summaries, they correct points I may have misstated or missed completely. Then we all learn something! (And I'm a little embarrassed but I've long since stopped pretending I'm infallible.)
  • My dad sold the giant van. He was very proud but I was sad. I'm always sad when we sell or trade cars - I don't think I've ever not cried. I'm not sure why I get so attached to objects.
  • Lilacs are starting to bloom here! I love lilacs. But people tend to have them in backyards where I can't (or shouldn't) go to breathe them in and admire their delicate blossoms.
  • Then again, lilacs do belong in backyards - over sandboxes or forming a hedge around a child's secret fort.
  • Mom planted a starter from Grandma's lilac bush (that used to shade my sandbox) under my window when we moved into my parents' house long ago. It's very healthy.
  • We've tried twice to coax a starter to grow for me. Failed miserably both times.
  • I also love peonies from Grandma's garden, even if they did attract ants.
  • I have a peony bush in my back yard - Dad usually mows it down, but Mom saved it this year on a visit and it's starting to bud! I'm very excited about this and keep squinting off my back deck at it.
  • I've missed you - and tried to write something - but, as evidenced above - I don't have a lot that's interesting to say.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Travel

Growing up, I was fascinated by travel - reading of far-away places and fascinating people and wishing I was able to visit them. Given that we flew all of once as a family, that seemed a bit of an unlikely goal but I'm a homebody at heart so those places on the globe became fun fantasies.

In junior high, we could win a trip to the annual conference - in northern Illinois (not Chicago) - if we acquired the most points. So I babysat at PTA meetings. Sold soda and snacks at basketball games. Ran for (and won - I was super-cool) state representative. And was granted a spot in the rented van and a cheap hotel to learn about leadership. And it was awesome. And so that trend continued once in grad school - write abstracts and go places! My list in grad school - if memory serves - included Kyoto and Miami, Toronto and London. And I took So Many Pictures - the kind that were developed and printed on paper!

Since starting the blog, I've seen some places. Done some things. And thought I'd capture a list for easy (and alphabetical) reference.

Barcelona, uno
Barcelona, dos
Chicago, 2007
Chicago, 2010
Disney World
Florida, Atlantic Coast
Los Angeles, just north of
Manchester and points west, UK
New York City
North Shore
Paris (same trip but I so loved Paris)
San Diego
San Francisco, 1
San Francisco, 2
Smoky Mountains
Upper Midwest in Winter
Washington, DC
West, unspecified

Transit to Asia - Because I do get deliriously tired and found this memory to be amusing.
There's a person in a mask! He means to do me harm! I look closer and realize it's a woman with her hair in a barrette. I shiver, sigh and try to rest again.

There's a spider on me! A white spider! I look closely, in horror of course, and realize it's a spot on the carpet. Sigh again when I realize my vision is unreliable in my state of exhaustion.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Loss, Links & Long Days

"I need to take a walk," I announced after a deliciously indulgent Southern breakfast. Stuffed full of a fresh biscuit coated with gravy with a side of bacon and eggs, I wondered briefly if it would hurt when I had a heart attack or what region of my brain might suffer most during a stroke. Frowning when my hosts wanted to take teleconferences in the car, I abandoned them without regret to wander the pleasant neighborhood our diner inhabited.

I paused to take photos, charmed by the juxtaposition of new flowers against old brick buildings, overgrown bushes laden with pink blossoms next to shiny cars neatly aligned on blacktop surfaces. I lifted my face to the sun, paused to admire the clouds, and continued along the sidewalk, smiling at people who passed by.

Being in the South, even for less than 24 hours, elicits a bittersweet homesickness for a home I no longer have. Cheese biscuits and conversations with Friend. Matlab code and journal revisions and the cadence of Boss's voice when he'd offer advice. I nearly wept when I saw him, by the way, when we were both in the same place at the same time recently. He stood patiently while I finished a conversation, but as soon as I turned my head to see him, I smiled widely and blinked back tears.

"I have to go," I interrupted my colleague. "That's Boss and I love him." And so we hugged and talked and I basked in the sameness of him - of the constant kindness and gentle strength and aura of comfort. "I miss you," I told him and nodded when he said they missed me too. I sighed against the ache in my heart as I remembered it this morning and walked back to the car, waiting in the sunshine until their conversation ceased and we set off for our next meeting.

"Do you have a moment to talk?" I asked Advisor on the phone the other day, beginning the conversation with the man who led my graduate career in much the same way as two other women began conversations with me. "I have colleagues - friends, really - who have family members suffering from a disease of interest. And they're aware - primarily because I talk all the time - of new research and alternate therapies and want advice on who they can see and what they can do. And it's sweet - this urge to help someone they love - so who do you know that I can ask for favors?"

And because I do him favors - talk to students interested in Industry, offer feedback on papers in my area of expertise - he paused to think before rattling off names, ordering me to call him back if they were not properly responsive.

I called one friend back with a new name and Google search term before eating my seafood bisque with the colleague - not yet friend - across the table of the airport restaurant.

"I feel like an old woman sometimes," I admitted, pausing to poke at the lumps of crab in my bowl admiringly. "I'm tired."

"You got in late," he replied and I nodded, remembering the trudge through this same airport after midnight. Traveling for 8 hours after putting in 10 at the office. The emails unanswered (but read - I always read email promptly) and ever-growing lists of tasks. The meager hours I slept, interrupted by an alarm set for 5AM, and a burst of knowledge at 6:30 that I'd not completed my presentation.

"Tell Adam," I joked after said colleague noted my amazing performance this afternoon. I was charming and funny, smart and engaging. I shrugged at the quizzical look I received in response to my comment and noted that Adam wanted to travel with me as he was concerned at how I interacted with customers.

"You're perfect," he protested - my colleague and now friend - and I smiled at him sleepily before rising to give hugs, pressing my cheek to his for a moment in grateful affection for a much-needed compliment. Deciding said compliment, even paired with a new necklace and shiny shoes, was inadequate to coax myself through the trip home, I bought a book - a rather racy romance - and chocolate. And settled in to write a blog post at the gate before returning to rest and repeat the cycle of lengthy days.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Late Bloomer

I winced, both at the conversation I could overhear and the odor of burning electronics in the Physics lab. I huddled quietly in the basement of the science structure on my undergraduate campus, waving my hands and blowing frantically at the poor circuit board to dispel the wispy trails of smoke that wafted upward.

"Crap, crap, crap," I muttered, glaring at my independent study workbook and wishing I was less of a 'guess and check' scientist. Feeling rather inadequate over my failure already, I cocked my head to listen as the president of our Physics Society spoke to the Department Chair.

"She just said she couldn't make it," the former told the latter. "No suggestions of another time. No plans for how she could be involved apart from the meetings. Just - no, but thanks. She doesn't fit in."

And I blinked back tears, feelings terribly hurt but knowing he was right. I didn't find Physics all that interesting, frankly, and if I couldn't follow step-by-step instructions within the detailed pages on the thick black table before me, how could I get excited about joining a group of boys who wanted to build robots and discuss advanced calculus? So while I wanted to be geeky and smart and belong, I did not. And the knowledge made me terribly sad.

Maybe it would happen later, I hoped as I returned to the cozy apartment with bright green carpet that I shared with 3 other young women.

"I think I caught the circuit board on fire," I told one roommate sadly and she put her shoulder against mine as we sat on the plaid couch and said that probably happened to a lot of people. And I was comforted by the gentle support, the uncompromising loyalty, the scoffing dismissal of the Silly Physics Society and it's president. And then it didn't hurt to breathe anymore. I had someone who loved me. Who wanted to spend time with me. Who thought I was special and smart and funny and worthwhile and...beautiful, somehow. Full of potential but also lovely the way I was. There was no need in that moment to grow my stem or spread my leaves or hope my petals were the proper color. I just rested my head on Anna's shoulder and soaked in the support like sunshine.

Conversely, I felt shrouded in darkness under a cloudless sky when I sat in the circle on the grass at the end of junior high. I had been the only one at leadership camp to indicate I'd rather spend time with family than friends. And I looked around at my fellow campers, all of us awkward and odd in various ways, and wondered what was so wrong with me. Why I didn't feel the same sense of unity with my peers and eschewed time with them for sharing conversations with Mom or reading books alone in my bedroom. There were no friends I trusted with secrets, having been crushed when people talked about me or judged my feelings or choices.

Better, I decided, to remain contained and a bit aloof. Less risky. And that trend held true as I finished 8th grade and moved to high school. I thought I found friends a couple times - felt this flutter of hope that someone knew and liked me - and was always proven wrong by giggles around corners or whispers in the back of the room.

It was likely a valuable, albeit painful, learning experience - predicting motives, reading facial expressions and body language, slowly understanding that unhappy people make others miserable, often inadvertently, and that a core of confidence and strength was necessary to withstand that and to find those people who could love me after I finished high school.

And find them I did, though the effort was more theirs than mine, as they nudged against barriers and coaxed me through conversations and tolerated my need for solitude. I still remember falling asleep in my dorm room and later in that 4-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartment just across the street from campus, and feeling blessed that I had friends. Eventually, I thought, colleagues would follow the same trend. I would find people at work - it would just take me more time than it did others.

Sure enough, it happened in grad school. Through classmates and my research group, I had people I loved as friends and respected as intellectuals. And I took to them like a duck to water, trained by my college roommates to believe that the right people would love and take care of me.

Upon arrival in Montreal, I shuddered as I sat in the taxi next to a scientist at work. "I despise that man," I told him and he looked at me in surprise.

"I couldn't tell," he finally replied, referring to my friendly greeting and polite conversation as we waited in line for our car.

"I tried very hard," I commented. "But that was Pete." And he shook his head as I told him the story and said derogatory things about Pete's character, with which I agreed. "Horrible man," I noted in conclusion. And I learned - admittedly late - that while there are people you can trust and adore, it does not apply to every person in my career. And while I'm not completely bitter anymore, I do still retrain that instinctive distrust of certain people. Which is likely healthy, I suppose.

I'll admit I assumed the trend would hold for falling in love as well. That - eventually - someone would come along who thought my flaws were charming and saw beauty and potential and something wonderful. And so my heart flutters when I feel I might be close - when I might have found someone I think is amazing who returns my smiles or tangles his fingers with mine. But those splashes of color are, for me, delicate. The petals droop and wither, stems bend against the pressure of wind and rain and I remain alone.

But wiser, I offer when in need of comfort. With a solid family who calls to tell me Chienne takes naps with Smallest One and ran around my parents' yard chasing tennis balls and frisbees while I'm traveling through next week. Friends who send email even after I've neglected them for months, making my heart happy even as I acknowledge how much I miss them. Colleagues who, for the most part, are supportive and friendly and brilliant - even as I figure out which to trust and how to hold people at a respectable distance. And maybe love will happen. Later.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

± 7

You know how some things just feel right? After you make a decision or submit a manuscript or accept a job offer and you have that happily peaceful feeling that you did something positive? You're on the right path? Then there are times I'm less certain. Where I'm torn between pros and cons and can't figure out if I'd be happier with or without. And then I struggle, my brain busily teasing out every detail, worrying about potential outcomes, hurt feelings, catastrophic harm.

I have lately been a little lost. Questioning my career path and regretting some personal choices. Wanting to sleep more and work less. Cringing when my phone rings instead of answering with curiosity or confidence. I just haven't felt good - happily peaceful - about life in general for a while now.

And I miss it.

In 2004, I found myself in jolly old England, a place I'd wanted to visit since my literature class in high school and that I was constantly amazed to exist in once I arrived. I was nearly giddy with the old and interesting buildings! Charming accents! Shops and tea and cookies! Oops, biscuits! But still!!!

It was the first meeting I'd attended solo, Advisor and students in my group all having various conflicts. So I flew across the Atlantic with some trepidation but was so impossibly charmed when I arrived that I couldn't help but smile as I walked and looked and listened.

I got lost, of course, my poor sense of direction combined with my distracting curiosity and rampant photo-taking to leave me in a place and not knowing where I was or what direction to go. And so I would find a spot out of people's way and stare at the map in my guidebook. Look carefully at street signs and painstakingly orient myself before stepping (without much confidence) in the direction I thought might be right.

I forced myself to talk to people. To encourage questions at my poster presentation. To ask questions at other posters. (I still don't know if I could ask a question after a talk - it seems quite scary.) To ask strangers to dinner or coffee. To join other students for a drink in a pub just down the way.

And I was so proud of myself - I still remember puffing up with self-confidence when I mustered my courage and tried so hard and it went OK.

It frankly amazes me how extensive my network has become. How I've seen 3 people so far who I knew as academic and hundreds (literally) who know me from my current role. And while some of those relationships were carefully planned and executed and maintained, others just happened. Someone would remember that I laughed at his joke or said something charming in a meeting. I answered a student's question or took a phone call about a research submission or connected two colleagues working on similar projects.

And so even as I catch up with one collaborator, making notes and asking questions, I sometimes break eye contact to smile at a colleague, wink at a friend or reach to rub a shoulder of someone I think is wonderful. I chirp hellos on my way to buy water or find chamomile tea or reach a different meeting room.

And it's easy somehow - the idle chatting, the direct questions, even dealing with problems. I find I know what to say and when I flub it, I shrug it off far more quickly than I once did. I want to understand things, so sometimes I ask obvious questions or require additional detail. I want people to like me so I take extra meetings and make additional presentations and answer a few more questions. And I find it feels good - more toward the 'happily peaceful' state I like to inhabit.

I finally gave up on myself in London, accepting that I required a guide to at least glance at everything in this amazing city where I only had a day away from the conference where I had free time. So I got on a bus, taking a seat on the double of the deckers and rode around, listening to the British voice in my headphones tell me about Peter Pan in that park or the royal family who lived behind those gates or how that building there was like a wedding cake.

In truth, I don't mind being told what to do. I'm good at following directions and learning by example or trial and error. I don't like making mistakes but I will do and generally try to make it better somehow. So though London seemed to go by far too fast as I rode on that bus, I did feel safe and protected and productive. At least until I had to find my way through the tangle of streets and pretty things to see to arrive back at my hotel.

I feel a bit less lost having spent time here. I wandered around the old section of town this afternoon, needing some time in the sunshine and some photos for my blog. I made my way around with lazy confidence, not looking at my map or really caring what I saw or how I got there. I had some time and comfortable flats and while my dress was wispy, my tights and sweater kept me warm.

As I stepped carefully on the streets, uneven with stones that had shifted or cracked over time, I realized I'm finding a bit of balance again - I'm not positive this is exactly the right path, but I believe I'm directionally correct. I think there are some changes to be made - learn to breathe properly, listen to God, pay attention to my body, find my bliss at work once again - but I think I can find my way.

After many years of getting pretty lost, I should be good at it.

Monday, May 09, 2011

± 8

Perhaps it was because Suzy - who reminds me a bit of a younger Katie in only good ways - sent an email. As I wrote her back I was thinking of myself when I was finishing my Masters in 2003 and realized it was then that I attended my first first conference. And since I am returning to the friendly confines of Canada, albeit a different city, I thought an indulgently retrospective post would be a pleasant progress check.

I'd not been on a plane since a single ride when Brother was still in diapers, making me all of 5 or 6 years old. I was beyond terrified about air travel (at all of 24 years of age) and considered driving to Toronto. Which while not impossible, certainly did not match the plans of my peers. And I did want to fit in.

So I remember sitting in the small airport in my grad school city and trembling with nerves. A younger student in my group arrived just before boarding and took the window seat beside me once on the plane, burying his cute little nose in a magazine while I watched the flight attendant with utter focus, making my seatbelt painfully tight in an effort to become as safe as humanly possible.

"We're not going fast enough," I whispered to 1stYear and he turned to look at me quizzically.

"We're taxiing, Katie," he replied before flipping a page and returning to his reading. I clenched every muscle in my body and stared in horror out the window as we made a turn then picked up speed. As the wheels left the ground, I nearly hyperventilated, so consuming was my panic.

I could have reached for 1stYear's hand - he wasn't a bad guy and would have offered comfort had he known I needed it - but I remembered that he disclosed that many girls had crushes on him. And there's nothing that takes a boy - then or now - from 'ooh' to 'ew' faster than knowing he thinks he's pretty. So I panted and prayed and panicked on my own.

"I can't do this but I can't avoid it!" I remember thinking, wondering how the hell I was going to make it through the short flight and then force myself onto a connecting flight to get to Toronto.

"Hey, Katie," a colleague greeted me. I glanced up and smiled, a mere 10 pages into the book I'd just purchased and tucked my boarding pass between the pages before tossing it in my bag and giving my attention to him.

We chatted pleasantly - of inconsequential things - until it was time to board. I wandered down the jetway and stuffed my duffel into the overhead bin before tucking my laptop away in front of me. I read a magazine on the short flight, burying my own cute little nose in the pages and ignoring my surroundings until we reached the connecting airport.

I boarded the next flight just as easily, mostly relaxed due to extensive experience being up in the air. I read the papers I brought along, underlining words and phrases and making notes in the margins so I could write my own summaries. I mapped out questions and looked over my plans for the week, tapped the screen in front of me to watch news and a comedy before landing and clearing customs. (How much do I love personalized in-flight entertainment? So Much!)

I couldn't remember the exact date so I guessed as I filled in my card. And some of my letters extended outside their allocated boxes. But I'll admit I remain fairly careful, always eager to earn approval by following rules.

I was wired upon arrival, having sipped every last drop of my water and crunched on the ice cubes on both flights. On our last one, I filled out my immigration card with complete attention and care, clutching it and my brand-new passport in trembling hands as I wondered whether the Canadians would be so cruel as to deny me entry and force me back on a dreaded plane before I'd mustered my courage over the coming week.

They did let us in, of course, and we took a cab (I paid as 1stYear's ATM card didn't work and my careful planning left me with some $300 Canadian in cash) to the hotel.

"Wow," I murmured when we entered the lobby, a bellman taking our suitcases and walking them up the steps. My family was firmly middle class and while we vacationed every year, we often stayed at motels on the beach or reasonably-priced Holiday Inns or Marriotts. The Fairmont had just taken ownership of the Royal York in Toronto and it sparkled with grandeur. I remember thinking it was the most wonderful hotel I'd ever seen inside and peered up at the architectural details in the lobby and grinned giddily when they offered me a key to a room.

I so desperately wanted to take off my flip flops. It generally seems endless to me - that journey from the plane to immigration - especially after long flights (which this one was not, but bear with me while I whine). So I flipped and flopped my way along long corridors and past many doorways until I reached the border agent.

I laughed when he asked why I'd want to go to a conference. "It's for business," I replied, "though there are great people and interesting science too."

We sped away from the airport in a cab, reaching downtown when I waved to my colleague as he went to another hotel, leaving me at the Fairmont once again. While it's not the nicest hotel I've ever visited, the rooms are generously sized and the service is excellent.

"I'm so sick," I told reception at 5AM today, having been up since 4 and throwing up since 4:15. "I need Tylenol PM - it's the only thing that works when I'm vomiting and have a migraine."

"The convenience store is closed in the hotel," she replied regretfully. "But we can go across town to get some from the pharmacy."

"Yes. Please. Hurry," I replied, hanging up the bathroom phone to heave painfully once again.

"The bellman is on his way up," she reported after an excruciating 30 minutes when I sat up from my nest of towels on the bathroom floor, her voice gentle. I thanked her and slipped into a robe, having thrown up on my only pair of sleepy pants, and shuffled to the door to take the bag and swallow 2 Tylenol and a Unisom (apparently Canada doesn't believe in Tylenol PM).

Prayer answered, it stayed down and I was soon asleep with a last grateful thought to some lovely people who work at the Fairmont.

I moved into the room, unpacked, and stared out the window at the building across the street. Carrie arrived and I tried to mimic her nonplussed attitude about our surroundings, blinking when she immediate called for more hangers and extra pillows and asking if I wanted room service. We giggled and talked and arranged our various things and she frowned at the sound of the elevator dinging when it reached our floor - our room was not far from the bank of lifts. I, however, remained positively charmed, eager to walk the city and attend the conference and learn wonderful things.

I learned so much at that meeting. Watched in awe as people whose papers I read walked by as if they weren't spectacularly brilliant and famous. Presented my poster with nervous terror, praying nobody would ask me a difficult question as I fussed with my 3rd nice outfit so carefully selected from a closet full of jeans and sweatshirts. Carrie and I took a boat ride on the lake. I went drinking with the boys one night and felt so terribly grown up and worldly as we walked/stumbled down the streets of Tornoto toward our gorgeous hotel.

I walked home from a late dinner last night - pre-horrible-sickness - with colleagues I like and respect. I greeted collaborators and hugged coworkers throughout the day, accepting their offers to fetch me water or pills or told me to sit down. I listened to requests and offered explanations. I answered questions and took notes on emails to send or presentations to make. I was busy and productive and happy, even as my hands shook and I winced against the lingering headache.

I watched the young ones walk around, look at posters, peer into meeting rooms. I honestly don't envy them for it's not an easy road to get from there to here - to lose some of that naive confidence and build some with a more solid foundation. To realize there's no shame in asking questions or admitting ignorance because it allows for growth and knowledge. To find your balance - at least sometimes - professionally and personally. And while I wouldn't do it over, I also wouldn't give it up - that path I've taken. I've loved people and learned things and gone places. And it's fun to dig out pictures and recall those trips, even as they differ from this one.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Belly Breathing

"Well," he said, leaning into me and keeping pressure on my back with his forearm, "you get a gold star. I've done this for 20 years and don't remember the last time I felt anyone this tight." I laughed for a moment, breathing and trying to relax as I pressed my face into the cradle and wanted to purr with pleasure.

"Are you familiar with the concept of body armoring?" he asked, pressing and kneading and coaxing muscles to release their tension. When I said I had not, he explained that there are some theories that indicate muscles retain memory of trauma and cause chronic pain or discomfort.

"Like," he explained, "when a lion attacks a zebra. The zebra can fight, flee or freeze." Sure he was going to say 'fornicate' I scolded myself before continuing to listen. "And if the lion decides he's not hungry after all and releases the zebra, it plays dead. And after the lion leaves, it shakes itself off and goes on about its life. But we're not as good as shaking it off - we remember those times we were afraid and embarrassed or angry and our body absorbs that and can't seem to release it. Are you anxious?"

"Always," I replied, whimpering when he worked on my neck, calling a muscle 'squirrelly' when it refused to smooth into its friends, twanging like a giant band against the strokes and pressure. "And sad. I take pills."

"Does it feel like a constant conversation in your head?" he asked and I thought about it while he worked at my shoulder.

"It's not as bad as it was," I told him. "During my post-doc, I was very depressed and the sadness just drowned everything else. The anxiety and depression aren't nearly as bad as they were now that I'm medicated. So it's more like a low-level hum in the background."

"That's as much as I can get this time," he decided and had me turn over. He started on my shoulders again as I listened to the soothing music he played and the playing children at the playground outside. "Your body remembers all that pain," he said. "You want to let that go and wear your body more comfortably."

"My body just carries around my brain," I told him.

"So you don't like it," he clarified.

"Not really, I guess," I replied. "I remember I used to get terrible cramps growing up - stomach pain - and so I dissociated from it. It was happening to my body but not really connected to me. And now I just ignore it mostly - I don't like headaches or shoulder problems because they're close to my brain. But the farther the pain is from my head, the better I feel about it."

He made a sound of understanding.

"Plus, if you're talking about therapy, I was bad at it. It just hurt - I cried and ached and it didn't really change much. I like the drugs. Prozac, some anti-anxiety pill I take when I need it. Advil for headaches, Tylenol for other pain. Melatonin to sleep. Nyquil when I'm stuffy or coughing. Chemicals are awesome."

He warned me about Advil on an empty stomach, making me frown with stories of a friend who threw up blood. I sighed when he finished his story and he placed a hand on my collarbone.

"Do you feel how your chest moves when you sigh?" he asked and I blinked my eyes open to look at him.

"I guess," I replied, having never thought about it.

"Good, soothing breaths come from here," he instructed, touching my tummy. "Try to move my hand." After focusing as hard as I could, I was unable to breathe with my belly so I shrugged and nudged at his hand with mine. He grinned at me and demonstrated a proper breath, nodding encouragingly when I tried to mimic the inhale and longer exhale through the nose.

"Now try again - not from your chest but from your diaphragm."

"Ow," I protested for the first time in our session when he pressed gently below my breasts. I rubbed at the spot - it was viciously sore - and he looked at me calmly. "I put all the pressure I could on your back and you didn't make a peep. And you can't tolerate any pressure at all there?"

"Is that not normal?" I asked. "I always assumed everyone hurt there - like when my cat steps on me and it's a sharp, stabbing pain. Not everyone does that?"

"No," he replied simply. "Your system is all kinds of knotted up. This will be a craniosacral pressure. Breathe," he instructed and with a hand behind my back, gently nudged at my diaphragm with two fingers while I made faces at the ceiling.

"When you breathe properly, it's like a massage for your organs. They shift and nudge against each other and everything is flexible and fluid."

"OK," I said, wincing, "well, they appear to be scraping against each other now because this is unpleasant."

"We're done for now," he said and left the room so I could dress. I emerged a moment later, still rubbing just above my tummy and cocking my head at him.

"I'd like to come back," I said, feeling somehow peaceful and hopeful that he might be able to quiet my mind and ease the constant pressure and pain in my body. "What would you recommend?"

"For you? Right now? Every week," he offered. "And you need to breathe - lie down on your back and put a small weight on your belly and try to move the book. 10 minutes a day. And be aware of your body - just in small ways. Sit up straight so your shoulders don't ache. Drink more water. Take more walks. Something small so that you can begin your healing journey."

And while I normally eschew woo-woo approaches for chemicals in candy-coatings, I'm clear that my current operating mechanisms are ineffective. So let's try deep breathing and craniosacral massage and blending mental and physical therapy from a holistic center. I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Happy Heart

I do not enjoy talking to Dad on the phone. He tells the same stories. And they're not interesting. And sometimes they're judgmental and mean. They're often boring. So I admit to sighing when he calls to check in since he does like to use his cell. It makes him feel important.

I find it lovely how happy I've been to speak to him this week. How closely I listen to the tone of his voice and pace of his words. So whether we discuss cardiac rehabilitation or Seal Team 6 or how Smallest wants him to come home right now, my heart feels happy when I get to hear his voice and know what he's thinking.

He has been thinking - mostly - that he wants to go home. As does Mom, who has been sleeping on a roll-away bed with a bad pillow and thin blanket. But it makes my heart happy to hear how grateful she is that he's OK. To know she wants him around, even though he's sometimes frustrating and annoying and tiresome. It's just very sweet.

So I call. On my way to work at 7AM. Again after a meeting ends at 10:55. On my way home after work. And before 9PM so I can make sure all is well before they go to sleep. And my 'way home' call was preempted by news that they were home. And happy. And healthy for now.

The hell of chronic diseases - and so many of ours are, living as we do in developed societies - is that they're coming back. You can battle and manage symptoms and prevent the worst of episodes, but, if you live long enough, the likelihood increases that the same old problems will reappear.

So I'm sure I'll eventually return to wincing when Dad calls and I'd rather be doing something else. But for now, I smile at the sound of his voice.

Sunday, May 01, 2011


The windows creaked against the whoosh of the wind inside my pretty, old church. I sat one pew from the back and greeted the pastor with a weak smile.

"I've been a little lost for a while," I confessed and watched him frown with concern. "But I'd like you to pray. For my dad. He's having an emergency heart procedure done now."

I nodded when he confirmed that it was happening as we read bulletins and listened to the prelude and told him Dad's name. He patted my hand in comfort and I watched the sun stream through the eastern windows and sparkle on the blue and yellow glass. I watched the lilies as they perched elegantly around the sanctuary and kept my thumb on the 'answer' button of my Blackberry throughout the service.

"He's going in now," Mom had said, her voice quivering, at 9:30AM.

"I'm going to church," I told her. "I'll pray and keep my phone on - call me when you know something."

And when Pastor was still talking about doubting Thomas at 10:25, I felt my hands tremble as they clutched my phone. Placing stents is common and not all that difficult (I've heard) - it should not have taken an hour. I had comforted myself that we'd be fine when I thought of the Smallest One and my heart ached. "Please don't take him," I asked God silently. "Not now. Not yet." And blessed Pastor for praying for Dad first when it was time for concerns of the congregation.

I left my phone on the pew when we approached the altar for communion. I needed it - the sense of renewal, connection, tradition, comfort. And that was when I missed the call.

Taste of wine lingering on my tongue, I scampered outside as I dialed my family. The wind blew hair around face and skirt around legs as exited the side door and heard Brother say that Dad was fine. I sat on the front steps made of stone, between two patches of happy daffodils, when he said one artery had closed completely once again. So he had, in fact, been having mild heart attacks for at least a couple of days.

"But they put a new stent above the old one," Brother said. "And said he'd take blood thinners for another day or two and then go back on the typical dose."

I nodded, grateful and overwhelmed and relieved. And I wept when Brother handed off the phone.

"Hi, Daddy," I said, hoping the wind would sweep away any quivers in my voice. "You're all fixed up now?"

"Yeah," he replied, voice sounding higher than normal - tired and fragile and beloved. "My artery was blocked again."

"I heard," I replied, wishing I could squeeze his hand. "But they fixed it."

"Yeah," he agreed. "I can't sit up for 3 hours," he parroted his instructions. "But I'm going to be fine."

"I think so," he said after a moment when I asked if the pain was gone. "I let them give me the sissy medicine - the stuff that relaxes me."

"Good," I praised, not even rolling my eyes at the drug identification. "We prayed for you at church. You were first."

"That's good," he said. "I'm just tired now. And I can't sit up for 3 hours. But I'm going to be fine." After agreeing that we were both glad he was OK and loved each other a lot, we bid farewell and I sobbed when hearing him ask who wanted to talk next. Because that happens every time - short calls or long, when I'm at work or home or abroad. He never hangs up without making sure there's not someone else waiting their turn. And it's the little things that sometimes capture my emotional balance.

"Do you want me to come home?" I asked Brother when I heard his voice.

"You can," he said, "but I got this." And so, after talking with Mom a bit later, I've decided that they're OK without me for now. Dad has "a few days" to stay at the hospital - nobody's able to tell me what they're planning to monitor, but everyone sounds relieved. So Dad will rest - no ventilator, just rest - and Mom will fuss and make phone calls and Brother will - hopefully - be the good child who helps and solves problems and calls doctors mediocre if need be.

But we're fine.

Thank you.

Sunday in Spring

"Let's go see the flowers," I told my hound after I'd had coffee, taken a shower and emptied the dishwasher and the new email from my inbox. There are a bright bunch of daffodils sunning themselves at the entry of our subdivision. And I wanted to take a photo of the flowers.

The sun shined. There was a cool breeze. And I felt peaceful as we moved briskly through the morning. I scolded Chienne when she stepped in people's lawns - I have a rule against such things and she tests me some mornings, tossing a one-eyed glare over her shoulder when I object and tug on her leash.

Still, it was - it is - springtime. Hopeful and quiet and pretty.

I returned to the house and grabbed a bottle of water to sip after blowing my nose. The wind has quieted from its gusts of yesterday but still blows the freshly-cut grass and wisps of pollen, making my eyes itch and nose run. It's a price I'm happy to pay for opening the house, letting the fresh air in.

"Hello," I answered the phone cheerfully, seeing my father's full name appear on the corner of my television screen. Tired of the news, I switched to reruns of Law & Order. I smiled upon hearing Mom's voice - I'd complained bitterly yesterday of how pointless my job was, how I wasn't sure how to be happier. But prayer and exercise and a beautiful day had raised my spirits - I felt more stable and capable today.

"We're at the hospital," she told me gently and I blinked, smile falling from my face as I stared at the television without seeing it. "Your dad was having pain last night - back pain - so we came in at 1:30 this morning."

She paused because I always have questions - specific requests for information delivered in order of importance - but I couldn't think. Images - emotions - flashed quickly. Sobbing in Uncle's arms outside the waiting room of the cath lab my last year of college. Having Brother insist that we call Dad's brother to tell him. Mom asking bad questions when I wanted our liason to return to the procedure - to return if there was more urgent news than which area was blocked or where the stents were going.

"His EKGs are mostly normal," Mom continued when I didn't speak. "And his enzymes were just a little off when they last checked. So they're not sure if it's his heart or just back pain. We're waiting for the cardiologist now, but they are planning to admit him. The girl just came in and said so."

I shook my head, trying to jostle my brain into processing the information. "I," I paused, still trying to think, "Should I come home?" I asked my mother.

"I don't think so," she replied thoughtfully. "It's all pretty routine - not like last time."

"Do you have a private room?" I asked, wincing while I wondered what the hell difference it made. And nodding when she said they were still in the ER. That Dad had been in too much pain to rest and that she'd used her sweatshirt as a pillow.

"Brother is going to work," she told me and I nodded - my younger sibling is not good at hospitals. "But we expect we won't be here more than a day - we'll figure out what this is and they'll go in and fix it."

"Of course," I agreed. "Will you tell him I love him?"

"You can talk to him," she said and handed the phone to my father.

"Hi," I echoed and sat silently, picturing him in bed with the wires and tubes and remembering timing by breath to his on the ventilator years ago.

"I'm fine," I replied when he asked. "We took a walk. To look at the flowers. Chienne was a bad dog. But I'm fine. How are you?"

"I hurt," he admitted and I asked why the morphine hadn't worked. "I don't know," he sighed and I heard him shift positions. "They said it was a mild dose - I guess they didn't give me enough."

"Oh," I murmured softly. "That surprises me. But maybe they need to know about the pain so they can fix it."

"Yeah, maybe." His voice was quiet. Tired. Docile. "They're just going to bleed the insurance company for a while and then I'll get to go home."

I huffed a false chuckle and said that was OK. He agreed and echoed my I love you. And so I keep my cell phone on and still plan to attend church in search of peace and prayers. I sent a note to a colleague requesting the latter and felt tears well. But I blinked them back - am blinking them back now - because we'll be OK.

Still. Please pray.