Forget First or Second, I Am Third

(You can also listen to this on Tri States Public Radio)  

I hear myself saying a little too often these days that I’m glad I grew up when I did, before cell phones and selfies. Before the internet became a runaway train of disinformation. Before being famous was valued more than being a good person. Before this current era of entitlement where the prevailing attitude is “It’s all about me.” Me first. America first. Look at me. Like me. Follow me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. 

https://happyhooligans.ca/gods-eye-craft-weaving-for-kids/

I’m starting to feel like my grandparents, when they expressed their disapproval of modern ways by starting sentences with, “In my day…” I get it now. It troubles me to see the Christian values I was taught when I was young devolve into the so-called Christian values demonstrated today.  

I grew up in Iowa in the 70s and spent my summers at Camp Abe Lincoln, a YMCA camp on the Mississippi River, just south of the Quad Cities. “The YMCA is a non-profit organization whose mission is to put Christian values into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.” This mission was incorporated into every camp activity. As we sat around the nightly campfire, the counselors told stories of peace and love, and led us in songs like “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” When we rode and groomed horses, we learned about respect and care for animals. Archery and riflery were a means to teach focus and hand-eye coordination, with an emphasis on safety and non-violence. And when we did crafts, braiding lanyards and weaving colorful yarn around popsicle sticks to create a “God’s Eye,” counselors artfully worked in messages of morality.

More than 40 years later, one of those messages still sticks with me. It was about humility and selflessness delivered in the form of a quote by Gayle Sayers, a Hall of Fame football player for the Chicago Bears. The quote was, “The lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third,” though I didn’t remember it in those exact words. I thought it was “God is first, others are second, and I am third.” I like to think my version is more all-encompassing, as every religion, not just Christianity, worships God, even if they call it by a different name. And by declaring “others are second,” it can include making an outsider feel welcome, helping people less fortunate than you, or simply being nice to strangers, like letting the person with only one item go ahead of you in the grocery line when you have a full cart. All of which leaves you open to making more friends. 

God is first, others are second, 

and I am third.”

Sayers lived his life by this credo, which you can learn more about in his autobiography titled “I Am Third: The Inspiration for Brian’s Song.” He passed away at the age of 77 this past September. If he were still alive, I would reach out to him to ask what he thought about the world today. 

What do you think about people hacking pipeline computers causing others to hoard gas in plastic bags? What about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how instead of sitting down to talk things through, they’re firing missiles at each other? How about antivaxxers refusing to wear a mask during a global public health crisis, claiming it infringes on their personal rights? What about mobs storming the Capitol because their candidate didn’t win? What do you think about the suppression of voting rights, the bullying on social media, and the proliferation of guns, as if we need to arm ourselves against our own neighbors? How about people—church-going, God-fearing Christians at that—closing borders in an outright refusal to aid poor and hungry immigrants, ignoring the fact that not only are these our brothers and our sisters but that we are all immigrants ourselves?

What happened to “I am third?” And how can we bring that message back? 

We can’t all go to a YMCA summer camp, and Gayle Sayers is no longer here to lead the charge, but ironically there is another football player, a coach actually, who is trying to help. His name is Ted Lasso. He’s not a real person; he’s the main character in the charming Apple TV series of the same name. Ted, played by Jason Sudeikis, is hired to coach a soccer team in England. But to everyone’s astonishment he doesn’t care about winning. What’s more important, he insists, is to be a unified team. The problem is, the star player is egocentric and refuses to pass the ball to his teammates; he makes all the goals himself so he can reap all the glory. His selfishness erodes the morale of the team, until Ted finally gets through to him, teaching him, like my camp counselors taught me, the most valuable lesson in the game of life: I am third. 

There is no “I” in team. For a safe and healthy planet, we need to work together. For a more unified world, we have to put others first. Life is better and less lonely when it’s not all about me, me, me. The solution is easy. All you have to do is pass the ball.

How to Help the World

Taking a walk on the wild side

Yesterday morning I wrote in my journal that I want to do more to help the world, but that I don’t know where to start. The world is so desperately in need of help just thinking about it made me feel bad that I’m not doing more. The feeling only became worse as the buffalo herd of “shoulds” charged at me in a stampede of shame. I should be involved with a cause. I should be volunteering for a homeless shelter, an immigration center, a women’s crisis hotline. I should be working with World Central Kitchen. No, I should have started World Central Kitchen. I should join the Peace Corps. I should be giving my time, my money, my plasma, my groceries, my winter coats, my life, to help others in need. It’s my civic duty as a human being to help others in need.

All this to say I made myself feel so overwhelmed, so unworthy of taking up space on this planet, I wanted to go back to bed. 

My casita (before I moved in)

Instead, I spent an hour cleaning the tiny house I’m renting for the winter on an Arizona horse ranch. My landlord is selling the property and informed me a photographer was coming at 5:30 to take photos for the real estate listing. All she requested is that I make my place tidy. Having spent a better part of the week looking at rentals and Airbnb listings in Los Angeles, where I’m heading next, I know what “sells” a place and that means no wet towels or sponges in the kitchen, no shampoo bottles in the shower, no pile of clutter on the desk, no ratty dog bed in the living room, no rumpled sheets on the bed. Luckily this place has ample storage space, so I hid my personal items in the cabinets and closets, down to the dwindling roll of paper towel, dish soap, reading glasses, and space heaters. I fluffed the pillows and smoothed out the duvet cover. I didn’t have to. But I know how important it is to her to find a buyer so I wanted do my small part to make it look enticing. By the time I was done it looked so immaculate and adorable even I would have wanted to buy the place!

Needing to be out of the house at 5:30 gave me a good excuse to take my niece, a sophomore at University of Arizona, out for an early dinner. We met at “our spot” in Tucson, Time Market, for pizza and kale salad. We talked about boys and school and careers, about family and dogs and dreams. It did both of us good to spend time together. 

On my way home I got a text from my landlord. “You get an A+ on the casita.” I wanted to text her back and tell her that I had been happy to do it, but I was driving, so I just smiled, glad that she appreciated my effort.

Later that evening, having just settled in on the couch to read, I heard yelling outside, not a normal occurrence on a ranch where approximately six people live within a six-mile radius. The only nighttime noise you hear is the coyotes howling and an occasional rooster crowing. I peeked past the curtains and saw the beam of a flashlight sweeping across the black desert landscape. There are a few RV parking spots about fifty yards away from my casita, one is occupied by a couple with a large motorhome and two dogs. It was the wife calling for one of their dogs, Buddy, a Jack Russell terrier. A small dog on the loose at night in this remote area is a death sentence. Even in daylight it can be dangerous as I know from losing my own Jack Russell mix, Daisy, six years ago. Predators don’t discriminate. 

I threw on my coat and boots, found my glasses, turned on my flashlight app, and went outside to see if I could help, grabbing a bag of dog treats on my way out the door. 

The ranch is surrounded by national forest and open range; it’s as wild as the Wild West gets. The only thing separating us from the wilderness is a saggy barbwire fence, and the woman (let’s call her Susan), as well as her wayward dog, were on the wild side of it. I crawled through the fence to join Susan, who was not wearing a coat, even though the temp was 40 degrees and dropping. 

“The more I call him, the more he runs away,” she said. “The only one he listens to is my husband.”

“Where is he?” I asked.

“He’s asleep in the camper.”

“Well, let’s go wake him up.”

“No,” she said. “He’s been drinking. You know how that is.”

The way she said it broke my heart a little. 

We stood in silence for a moment, listening for a clue as to Buddy’s whereabouts. I dreaded the sound of coyotes yipping, the way they do when circling in for a kill, but the only sound was the wind blowing over the mountains, across the rolling grasslands, and through the dried scrub. And then . . . a faint bark. I rattled the bag of dog treats and instantly, appearing in the beam of the flashlight, was Buddy. White and brown, macho and all attitude, he looked up at me with his big brown eyes as if to ask, “What’s the problem?” As if he hadn’t caused the heart rates of not one, but two people to spike.

Susan grabbed hold of his collar while I doled out treats.

“I ran after him in such a hurry I’m just in my slippers,” she said as we walked back to her motorhome. I pointed my flashlight at her feet. These weren’t slippers; they were nylon footies no more protective than if she’d had bare feet!

“I’m sure the adrenaline is keeping you from feeling any thorns,” I said.

“I haven’t stepped on any,” she replied, “but I just got poked in the face by a branch.” 

“Be careful. These mesquite trees are evil and can take an eye out.”

We reached the RV, but between Buddy and her flashlight she didn’t have a free hand to unlatch the door. I opened it for her, careful not to let her other dog out—part black lab, part antelope, a sprinter who would have traveled farther and faster than Buddy, and not one to be bribed back by a measly little dog treat. Susan wedged her body inside, while I blocked the door to prevent the other dog’s escape.

“Thank you so much,” she said. “Now I know how to get him to come.”

“Here, keep the dog treats,” I said.

On my way back to my casita, I thought about what I had written in my journal that morning: “I want to help the world.” I had been thinking on a grand scale, too grand. Because what I realized is that helping the world starts with small acts close to home. Be it supporting my landlord’s efforts to sell her property, treating my niece to a meal while listening to her concerns about becoming an adult, and saving a reckless dog from becoming a coyote snack, helping the world is about making the effort—better yet, the extra effort. To hide all your clutter in your cupboards for the photoshoot when you were basically asked to just make your bed. To drive an hour each way, down the mountain and back up again, for a conversation and a slice of pizza with a family member. To head out into the dark and dangerous wilderness to find a neighbor’s dog when you could have just stayed in your warm house reading on the couch.

Small acts of kindness. Every day. That’s how we help the world. That’s where we begin.

*****

You might also like to read my other blog posts:

Finding Solace in Solitaire 

What to Do With All That Privilege

There is ALWAYS Hope, Bea

Is Social Media to Blame for Our Anxiety?

This post originally aired as a commentary on Tri States Public Radio. To listen instead of reading, go here.

So many things are making me anxious these days. I have fears about getting COVID-19, about the November elections, about the rise of white supremacy, about our divisions growing so deep we could end up in a civil war. I worry about how plants, animals, and common decency are on the verge of extinction. From the collapse of our democracy to grocery shopping during a pandemic, I’m afraid of just about everything.

I’ve never been scared like this before. The question is why? What has changed in our world that has made everything so wildly out of balance?

Some blame capitalism, with money driving a wedge between the haves and have-nots. Others blame our current President. One thing I see contributing to the downward spiral of polite society is social media, which is the subject of a new film on Netflix called The Social Dilemma. I watched it last night and at first it seemed like a dystopian horror movie, but instead of stoking more fear, the documentary gave me some reassurance that I am not alone in my concerns, and that, thankfully, there are people dedicated to turning things around. Ironically, some of those people are the ones who created the problems in the first place, like Aza Raskin who invented infinite scrolling, one of the features that makes social media so addictive—an invention he now regrets. And Justin Rosenstein, who co-created Facebook’s “like” button as a tool for spreading “positivity and love.” That it is used as a measure of self-esteem, and has led to depression and even suicide, was nowhere on his radar. 

A central figure in the film, Tristan Harris, the co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology, says, “It feels like the world is going crazy.” He poses the question, “Is this normal or have we all fallen under some kind of spell?” His answer is yes, addiction- and manipulation-based technology is designed to work like a spell, employing artificial intelligence that “uses your own psychology against you.” 

We are being baited with images and stories to ensure we spend more time online. We are being fed altered videos, misleading memes, and posts so inflammatory they end friendships. Our newsfeeds fill up with false rumors about voter fraud and dangerous claims about COVID cures that proliferate faster than the California wildfires. But do tech companies care about the effect this has on our civil society? No, they don’t, because they’re making huge profits. 

The rise of fake news and conspiracy theories is happening not because we are bad human beings who want to turn against each other; it’s because algorithms designed for ad revenue are leading us over the cliff. Lies spread faster than truth, thus producing higher earnings. Cable news, another rabid source of political polarization, is designed this way too. The more outrage, the more people watch, the more advertising dollars they make. Meanwhile we spend less time engaging with people in real life, which only makes us more isolated, disenfranchised and divided. 

But how do we stop this vicious cycle? 

The consensus of those interviewed in the film is that social media companies need congressional oversight. I agree. On an individual basis, we can hit the pause button. We don’t need to delete our social media accounts all together, but we can stop ourselves from sharing posts or making comments that provoke outrage, and verify that news stories are from legitimate sources. We can limit screen time, and dial down temptation by turning off notifications. And by all means, we should keep our phones out of our bedrooms at night. 

We have the power to change our behavior; man can prevail over machine. I have stopped checking my phone when I first wake up. And I am several months into an extended break from Facebook. It started with taking a stand against Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to stop the spread of disinformation and hate speech. But it made me realize how my anxiety was in direct proportion to the time I was spending on social media and news sites. If I wanted to feel better, it was up to me to take steps. I was still doomscrolling on Twitter and the New York Times, but after watching The Social Dilemma I deleted those and any other remaining apps that might elevate my blood pressure. The only ones left are DuoLingo and Solitaire.  

As for being disconnected from friends, when I want to know what’s going on with them I do something really outlandish; I pick up the phone and call. And then the most miraculous thing happens when having a real conversation—I feel a lot less anxious, and a lot more hopeful about the world.

* * * * * 

WHAT TO DO WITH ALL THAT TIME YOU SAVE BY NOT BEING ON SOCIAL MEDIA? How about making some pie?! Here are some free lessons. Yes, they’re on another social media platform of YouTube, but they are helpful, sometimes funny, and you can bake along with me. Stay Calm & Bake Pie

Here are more of my blog posts addressing social media.

Stay Calm and Bake Pie — Episode 5: Chicken Pot Pie

In episode 5 of “Stay Calm and Bake Pie,” Doug is back by popular demand, demonstrating his culinary skills. Not sure if it’s him or my improving editing skills, but damn if he doesn’t look like a professional chef in this episode.

Also, there’s some great music in this one.  The Mike and Amy Finders Band gave us permission to use their song, “Man in the Kitchen.” It’s a PERFECT fit for Doug’s segment!  And legendary musician, Eric Troyer, of The Orchestra featuring ELO former members, wrote a pie song JUST FOR ME! There’s a short version of it playing in the intro, and the full version for the ending.

This pie lesson project has turned into a joyful labor of love. I am enjoying the learning curve of the editing process (I’m shooting with an iPad, and only using iMovie to edit. I haven’t yet advanced to Premiere or Final Cut.) It keeps my creative juices overflowing, almost as much as my chicken pot pie filling.

I especially love all the positive feedback. I am hearing over and over again, “Thank you for these videos.” You. Are. So. Welcome. Thank you for watching them!

I continue to receive photos of your finished pies — “victory shots,” I call them. Sorry I have gotten behind on posting them all to the Facebook Victory Shot album, but I’m so focused on getting the next videos made I haven’t had the time to go back and collect all the pie photos. There are so many! But I do see all of your pics and every single one of them, along with the accompanying stories, makes me swell with happiness and pride.

As for this particular pie, I confess, I had not made a chicken pot pie in years, so my skills were rusty on this one. And because I was nervous, and thus rushing, I spilled milk all over my stove. But guess what? That pie turned out great. It was so effing delicious it went from being comfort food to un-comfortable food because we ate WAY TOO MUCH! I hesitate to mention that because I am sensitive to the fact that there are people going hungry out there due to job loss, homelessness, illness….I am aware of how privileged we are to have this abundance of food to eat. I am also aware that for all that I preach about how pie is meant to be shared I’m not giving away many pies these days. It’s not easy to get out of the house, and we live 25 minutes from town. Still….I want to be doing more to help others. I just hope that by sharing these lessons I am doing something to give back to the world.

So without further ado, here is the chicken pot pie lesson…

Next episode: GLUTEN FREE PIE!!!!

Previous episodes:  Here’s the playlist on YouTube

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And subscribe to my YouTube channel.

How I’m Dealing with the Pandemic (And Other Anxieties)

I want to get back to being a writer, to writing the book I started in early December, or to scrapping that and starting a new one, even just to blogging, but I’m too restless. Like most people, I am sitting in a prickly pear cactus field of fear and anxiety. With the world as we know it ending and the constant onslaught of news and noise, it feels as if there’s no room for my voice. And not just that, but knowing the kind of online mob mentality that exists, how people too often gang up on you in a dog pile of mean-spirited criticism, I feel too thin-skinned and too vulnerable to put myself out there, to share my personal stories and my heart.

I have people who write to me, not just friends but also people who have read my books and blog posts, who encourage me to keep going. They tell me they appreciate my openness and honesty, and that they like my writing. (Phew! Thank you!) They also say they want to know more about my life. About what happened after I moved out of the American Gothic House. About where I’m living now. If I am still on the farm (aka Camp Doug, and Camp Dough.)  If I am still with Doug. If I still teach pie classes. What my next book is going to be about.

But here I sit, in the face of a global pandemic, facing a blank page on a Word doc and asking myself What is the point of writing? What the hell even matters anymore?

Staying healthy. Staying sane. Staying alive. These are the first things that come to mind. But the one thought that keeps pushing its way past the others to the surface of the survival pool is this: Helping others.

My dad taught me to be of service to others. My husband Marcus’s death taught me that doing nice things for others (like sharing pie) eases the heartbreak of grief. And now, as we teeter on the brink of economic—and possibly societal—collapse, my conscience is telling me to stop worrying about writing and just get out there and help the world in physical ways. Be of service to others.

I’ve reached out to people to ask what I can do. Social media and newsletters have also been a good source of ideas.

Here are few things of the suggestions—some I’ve already done—and things you can do too:

Donate blood.
I stumbled upon the American Red Cross bus on Saturday afternoon parked outside a coffeehouse and saw a signboard outside it that said “Emergency Blood Drive.” I hadn’t given blood in 18 years (since I’m prone to anemia) but I went in, my iron count passed the test, and I donated a pint.  They are having a shortage due to the virus forcing blood drives to be canceled. Doug, my boyfriend, has been a longtime donor and has given a total of 24 gallons over the years! Got blood? Trust me, if I can spare a little so can you.  Go here to find out where to give.

Foster animals. 
I saw a post somewhere, maybe on my Nextdoor app, that said our local shelter was in need of fostering for dogs and cats. I lost my terrier, Jack, in September and I’m not ready to get another dog, but why not foster? My apartment building allows pets and because of the circumstances the landlord agreed to waive the monthly pet fee. So I stopped at the shelter—only to check it out—and came home with Peanut, a six-pound Chihuahua recovering from a prolapsed uterus. She requires medication, which I am an expert at administering after two years of Jack’s insulin shots and heart pills, which is why the shelter asked if I would take a dog with medical needs. Peanut is quiet, cuddly, and very appreciative of the down comforter and heating pad I’ve provided for her bed. And she is excellent company during this time of social distancing. If there was ever a win-win, this is it. This need is not only in Tucson, but everywhere right now.  Check with your local animal shelter.

Feed the needy.
Schools are closed for classes, but their kitchens are being put to good use preparing food for kids and others who might otherwise go hungry. I sent an email today to offer help preparing, handing out, and/or delivering meals. I haven’t gotten an assignment yet, but I have my rubber gloves ready and my car tank filled with gas. Schools are doing this nationwide, if not internationally, so check what’s happening in your area.

Restock grocery store shelves. 
One thing we all need to do no matter what is eat. But if you’ve been in a grocery story lately you’ll see that the shelves are bare. This highly unusual sight of scarcity is enough to send anyone into a full-blown panic. Honestly, it could turn any rational person into a toilet paper hoarder. Just today I got an email from Safeway (they had my email because I joined their club card program last week) which said they need people to work in their stores. Someone needs to unload those delivery trucks, unpack those boxes, and replenish those shelves. Sign me up! I clicked on the application form, but apparently so did everyone else who got the email, because the site was down. I’d be happy to do the work and the heavy lifting, but I know there are people in more urgent need of the income and I hope they get hired.

Buy groceries for those who can’t afford them. (If there are still groceries to buy.)
It’s been fun (is “fun” the right word at a time like this?) to spend time on Twitter. I find the clever quips to be a source of intelligent and informed humor. But it’s not all snarkiness over there. Someone (and given the quick-paced, fleeting nature of the Twitterverse, I’ll never be able to track down who it was) posted something about paying for groceries for the person in line behind them, or giving money to the person in front of them who didn’t have enough to pay for theirs. And then someone commented that their Aldi Nerds Facebook group…

Wait, what?? There’s are Aldi FB groups?? How did I not know this given my super fan status for all things Aldi (especially their low prices compared to Safeway)?

…The commenter said her Aldi Nerds FB group was buying gift cards to give to people who needed food. It’s gestures like this that restore my faith in humanity and, yes, I am going to join that FB group immediately.

Make pie. And share it.
Of course I have to include this one. But given that I’m always preaching that “pie is meant to be shared,” well, how does one safely share pies during a “shelter in place” mandate? Do you leave a pie outside of someone’s door, ring the doorbell, and run? Or are you limited to sharing pie in your own house? Then again, some people are confined to separate rooms in their own homes. I don’t know all the safety aspects of sharing pie right now, but I do know two things:  One, people need to eat. And two, people need comfort and love more than ever. Pie is comfort. Pie is love. Pie is baked in a hot oven and surely 425 degrees Fahrenheit is enough to kill that motherfucker of a virus. Even if you can’t share your pie, the act of baking one is good therapy for calming the nerves.

Make music.  And share it.
A new friend of mine in Tucson has kids in their twenties who are musicians. One lives in San Diego, the other lives in Nashville, but both are currently taking refuge in their parents’ home in Oro Valley. They aren’t “hunkering down” watching Netflix and scrolling through Instagram though, they are rehearsing for a Cul de Sac Concert! Like the Italians singing on their balconies, or the two kids playing cello for their housebound elderly neighbor, my friend’s kids are going to share the gift of their musical talents (and, boy, are they talented!) with the neighborhood, because sound waves don’t spread diseases.

Write letters to say “Thank you” and “I love you” and “I’m sorry.”
Yes, we are asked to maintain our physical distance for who knows how long. When will we get to see our parents and siblings and closest friends again? This uncertainty is what is driving so much of the anxiety. Thank goodness we can still communicate. I’ve been almost constantly on my phone or computer, texting, sending emails, sending photos, staying in touch with my people. But post offices are still open. We have stamps. And we can write letters in longhand, which has an added value. Dragging your pen across the page in curlicue lines or straight upright blocks slows you down causing you to be more thoughtful, which by the way, seems to be an overall theme, if not perhaps a “benefit,” of this virus. I wrote a few birthday cards yesterday. I wrote to my dad, who has been living on “the other side” for the past three years. (I’m convinced he can read my words.) I wrote a note of encouragement to a writer friend who was asking the same “why bother” questions as me (see first paragraph).  And you know what? I felt so much better after writing all this on paper. Not to mention, my eyes felt so much better being away from the screen. Handwriting is like pie in that it’s an endangered art form.  Let’s keep it alive. Next on the recipient list: letters to people I want to thank, just for being in my life, and a few to whom I want to say “I’m sorry.” More importantly, letters of thanks and encouragement to healthcare workers who are putting their lives on the line to help us through this crisis.

Be a pioneer.
Also over on Twitter (I have never spent so much time on Twitter!) I saw a tweet from author Celeste Ng. The same Celeste Ng who wrote “Little Fires Everywhere” which is now streaming as a hot new series on Hulu. She listed the things she was doing during the lockdown, shutdown, slowdown, meltdown, whatever you want to call it.

“I am cooking from scratch, schooling my child at home, knitting and baking and making stock. This pandemic is turning me into a pioneer.” 

Pioneers got shit done. They did manual labor outdoors in the fresh air (which was so much cleaner before the industrial age came along). Their hard work gave them a sense of purpose and accomplishment and toned muscles. And skin far rougher than our 20-second hand-washing sessions are causing us. Be it pie baking, music making, hand writing letters, planting a garden, making soup, or canning jam, now is a good opportunity to spend quality time at home, to work with your hands, and reacquaint yourself with an era before Alexa could do everything for you without having to get up off the couch. (Don’t get me started on that subject.)

Get outside. 
Speaking of getting off the couch…  Do not underestimate the toll that the stress we are currently under takes! I’m lucky to be in Tucson where there are hiking trails through wilderness areas that make it easy to be outdoors and maintain social distance. I’ve been taking regular soul-soothing, stress-reducing walks in the mountains. (Not just good for the lungs, legs, and buns, but for burning the extra calories from all that stress-eating!) I want so badly to be of service to others, but you know that thing about putting on your own oxygen mask first is true. You have to take care of yourself in order to take care of others. If you can’t get to a trail or a deserted beach to restock your inner grocery store shelves, maybe just step into the backyard and breathe in some of this rare, newly clean air. Seriously. Have you seen the articles going viral about how China’s sky is blue again, and dolphins are returning to the Venice canals? That should tell you just how badly we’ve been treating this planet! So turn off the TV, silence your phone, and pay your respects to nature. Which reminds me: my list of letters to write includes an apology note to Mother Earth!

⇹ ⇹ ⇹

This is only a short list of ways to be of service. There is always more we could be doing. The point is to just do it.  Don’t overthink it. Like bringing home a chihuahua when you have a preference for terriers, this is not the time for perfection. This is the time for taking action. So just jump in.

Of course, this is advice I could also apply to writing. Yes, I’m restless and anxious. But writing about that anxiety helps me feel less anxious. Yes, I am vulnerable, and not just to criticism and trolls but to the coronavirus. But I’m not going to let that stop me from living, from sharing my experiences, or from adding my voice to the crowded mix.

Because words do matter. Stories matter. And there can never be too many stories (or blog posts) because it’s our collective voice that tells the bigger tale. We don’t know where this current saga is going or how all it ends, but we are all part of it. We are in this together. We have to keep doing our best and help each through the confusion and struggle as it comes. Because when you strip everything else away, isn’t helping each other the true meaning of life?

As for all those questions about what I’m doing now, where I’m living, who I’m with or what pie classes I’m teaching, I’ll save that for another post.


You might also like these posts: 
Blogging in a Noisy World, and Why it Matters
What to Do With All That Privilege
There is Always Hope, Bea

Farewell, Our Fearless Little Warrior

Quality of life. Quality of life. Quality of life. This is your new mantra.  

Quality of life is what you have to determine when your pet gets old or sick, or both. How do you define quality of life, and how do you measure it? And when it’s an animal—a pet who is considered a family member—how do you determine that its life is no longer worth living?  

“Can he walk? Can he eat? Can he breathe? Can he glean any enjoyment whatsoever out of his days?” the online questionnaires ask when searching for the answer to the dreaded question: How do you know when it’s time to euthanize your pet?

You begin contemplating the end. You wonder how many more days you can eke out. How many more meals you can try to hand feed your furry friend. How many more sleepless nights you will have from taking him out to pee. How many mornings you will hold your own breath until you make sure your pet is still breathing.

One questionnaire asks, “Are you weary?” Yes, you are weary. You are so very, very weary you want to be euthanized yourself. 

“Who made you God?” you admonish yourself for even considering the lethal injection.

Of course, we would always prefer that end-of-life decisions were left up to nature. We want our pets to die peacefully, painlessly in their sleep. But nature doesn’t operate on our schedule. Nature pays no mind to our heartache—and healthcare costs—and the wish for a natural death as we watch in agony over their steady decline. To be fair, nature often does offer to take our loved ones before they grow too old to stand on their own legs or too confused to find their water dish. Out in the wild, the weak and injured become prey for the food chain. But we intervene with trips to the vet, with IVs and antibiotics, stitches and insulin, teeth cleaning and painkillers. We do whatever it takes to prolong the inevitable.

We love our pets so much. We want them to be with us forever. We cannot imagine life without them. We don’t want to let go. We refuse to let go.

You go back online and take another quiz. “Rate from 1 to 10 your pet’s hurt, hunger, hydration, hygiene, happiness, and mobility.” Your score is off the chart. He aches too much to walk. He won’t eat—even though you’ve offered him baked salmon, grilled steak, roasted chicken. He drinks water like he can’t get enough. His coat is dull and gray. His teeth, once so strong and white, have turned dark brown. He’s blind. He’s got diabetes, congestive heart failure, arthritis. 

You could call a friend, who just put down his 18-and-a-half-year-old dachshund, to ask what you should do. But you know that asking for opinions will just create more drama. It’s your decision. You want to keep it private. So you spend the day doing simple tasks that allow your mind to work it out. You sew—and break the needle. You bake—and burn the bread. 

Finally, you take your dog—your 15-and-a-half-year-old Jack Russell-Yorkshire terrier mix—for a ride on the side-by-side. You speed down the gravel roads as fast as the little off-road vehicle will go. Your dog puts his face into the wind, his hair blows back, his nose twitches with curiosity, he perks up like he’s his old self—the one you haven’t seen for months. Feeling the wind in his face is one of his favorite things, the only thing from which he can still derive pleasure. You’ve given him his last taste of what little quality of life he has left. 

The websites say pet owners often wait too long. Their animals suffer needlessly. But on this windy ride he’s so alert. Maybe he could live longer. Maybe today is not the day for the vet to come to the house. But you’ve already made the appointment. It was so painful to come to this decision that to reverse it now will only cause more confusion, more crying. You’ve cried enough. You’ve been crying for the past two years over his multiplying illnesses and his numerous brushes with death. You have your own quality of life to consider, and that quality has been diminishing along with your dog’s health. 

Like humans, animals have their good days and bad days. For a dog that has had an exceptionally good life, you acknowledge that it’s fitting for him to depart on one of his good days. Even though your heart is shattering into a million pieces and your chest feels like it’s going to implode. You repeat the mantra over and over: Quality of life. Quality of life. Quality of life. You remind yourself that quality of life also applies to quality of death. The word “euthanasia,” as you’ve learned through your exhaustive internet searches, is Greek for “good death.” 

You don’t believe it yet, but in the future you will realize that this “good death” is the greatest love you can show your pet. And love is the greatest, most enduring quality of all.

For Jack Howard-Iken
May 17, 2004 — September 10, 2019
“The Jack Russell Terrier is as stubborn as they come, which may be why this breed lives so long. Given proper care, the life expectancy of this fearless, energetic, vocal dog breed averages about 15 years, possibly even longer.”

Dear Jack, 

We never thought you’d live to see old age, but like with everything you did, you exceeded our expectations. Here’s to feeling the wind in your face on the other side. 

Love,Beth, Doug, and Mali

*You might also like to read Jack’s post from 2017 on life at Camp Doug*

Luke Perry, I Knew You When

Former “90210” Publicist Remembers the TV Star

Luke Perry, aka Dylan McKay, in 1990

When I heard Luke Perry had had a stroke, I expected him to live. That’s because a friend of mine recently had a stroke, his second one, at age 56 and he is recovering. My friend, like Luke, is fit and determined. He’s doing the rehab and regaining use of his left side. So after Luke’s stroke I figured he too would recover. A few days later, when I learned that he had passed away, my nonchalant “he’ll be fine” changed to “WTF?!” He was only 52.

I met Luke Perry—aka Dylan McKay—back in 1990, when I was a publicist for “Beverly Hills, 90210.” I worked for the venerable PR agency Rogers and Cowan in its television division. They hired me to help with the launch of Aaron Spelling’s new production (and Darren Star’s first series) despite the fact I didn’t watch TV, let alone own one.

My job was to get attention for the new show to increase its viewership by pitching story ideas around the show and its actors. This was before social media. Hell, it was before email. I had to call or fax—remember landlines and fax machines?—editors of publications like TV Guide and Tiger Beat, and talent bookers for shows like “Entertainment Tonight.” I had to write press releases and mail them—in envelopes, with stamps—a phenomenon now referred to as “snail mail.” Getting coverage was no easy task because even though it was Aaron Spelling’s baby, “ 90210” was brand new and the editors and talent bookers didn’t want to give it column space or run segments until they were sure the show would still be on the air after a few episodes.

They were so young then!

I managed to book a few interviews. I got one for Tory Spelling who was still too young to have a driver’s license. I had to pick her up at her family’s mansion and drive her to the meeting with the reporter. I got one for Jennie Garth and Shannon Doherty, to model second-hand clothes on ABC’s “The Home Show.” That one was a stretch but it’s the only show that said yes. And I booked one for Luke. I don’t remember who it was with, but I do know it was before he became the poster child for Teen Beat, a publication that at time was still reluctant to do anything.

He was meeting the journalist at the Hollywood Athletic Club, then a hip cafe and pool hall, and I was to accompany him—as if he needed a chaperone. As if the reporter were going to ask something so out of line I would be needed to run interference. But Luke had no scandals or skeletons. So all I did was sit there and listen, worrying the entire time about who was going to pick up the check. I wasn’t fully trained in publicity etiquette or PR budgets so when the bill was placed on the table I dared to ask Luke, “When your publicist from the network goes on interviews with you, who pays?” He replied, “Janine is pretty quick with the plastic.” I cannot count the times I’ve thought of that over the years in the face of a dining dilemma, and I have Luke to thank for the frequent use of my credit card.

I often hung around on the set, hoping to find some anecdote I could use for a story pitch—though it was also a ruse to get out of my windowless office. One day the cast was shooting a scene in the Peach Pit and the director had them repeat the scene eight times. I thought the first one was good enough, so was the second. By the third, I had the lines memorized and began to question what I perceived as a waste of both time and film. By the fourth, I would have stormed off the set in exasperation. I dare say Shannen would have too. But not Luke. He remained cool and calm, warm and friendly. In real life, he wasn’t a rich and troubled rebel; he was from the Midwest. He was humble and hardworking. He had done construction jobs before his big break and understood that if the show got canceled he might have to again.

“BH, 90210’s” Peach Pit was modeled after one of my favorite places
to eat pie, The Apple Pan in West Los Angeles.

A year later, he told “Entertainment Tonight,” “We start slapping each other when anyone gets too big headed. We made a promise going into this, ‘Look guys, no one expects we’re going to do anything beyond these 13 episodes, but if by chance we surprise the world and put out a quality program that people want to keep watching, let’s remember how we got there and what makes the show so good.’ The show is good…because it’s an ensemble piece. Everybody works and everybody brings something to it.”

Forget his good looks; Luke’s modesty is what made him so attractive.

 “Call us back when the ratings go up,” the editors and talent bookers had said.

The ratings did go up. And up. And up. But I left my job before the show became the sensation it went on to be.

The work of whoever became the publicist after me would end up being more reactive than proactive. Instead of begging the media for even just a mention, they would be turning down requests for cover shoots and guest appearances. Which probably only made the job harder.

Once I no longer worked on it, I never watched the show, even though it aired for an impressive 10 seasons. It set a new record as Aaron Spelling’s longest running series, surpassing his eighties hit, “Dynasty.”

I may act like I don’t care about the show, but I’ve always taken note whenever the “90210” cast appeared in the media. Like when Tori Spelling, all grown up, graced the cover of People magazine each time she married, divorced, or gave birth. Or when Shannen Doherty displayed herself on the pages of Playboy. When Jason Priestley grabbed headlines for crashing a racecar at 180 mph. And when Brian Austin Green, who was a pipsqueak of a kid when I met him, dominated the tabloids when he married that stunning thing of beauty, Megan Fox. When Luke Perry’s role as Archie’s dad in “Riverdale” was announced, it caught my attention mostly as I had read the comic books as a kid, but also—as with any “90210” news—I felt the remaining threads of a connection to the actors’ lives. After all, I had in my own small, short-lived way as a publicist, helped launch these youngsters into stardom, at least by making the initial introductions to the press.

The news of Luke’s death worked its way into my subconscious as I had a dream about him the night after he died. I was at his wake. Luke was sitting off to the side, looking relaxed and dapper in a suit and tie. I went over to talk to him, not sure if he would remember me. He said he did, and invited me to sit down at his table. I wanted to ask him for his parents’ address so that I could send them a condolence card, but I didn’t have the heart to be a buzzkill and tell him that his funeral was the next day.

Fox Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

I like to think that Luke really is sitting at that table, as relaxed and well mannered as ever. That maybe he’s still alive in a parallel universe, while being remembered and celebrated in this one as if he were still here. And he should be celebrated. He was one of the good guys. And god knows, we could sure use more like him.

The reprise of “Beverly Hills, 90210” was just announced, ironically on the same day as Luke’s death. As sure as the world keeps turning, the show will go on, but this time without Luke as Dylan McKay and without me as its publicist. They would never hire me back anyway, as three decades on I still don’t own a TV.

RIP, Luke.

Radio Commentary: An Outlet for Dealing with Overwhelming Issues

Over the past few years I have occasionally written commentaries for Tri States Public Radio, but only when an issue bothered me so badly I was compelled to weigh in on it.

Apparently listeners appreciate the positive messages I try to convey as I was invited to contribute more commentaries, but this time I was given scheduled dates for them. One of those dates is today. (LISTEN HERE)

I’ve had weeks to come up with a topic, but there are so many issues bothering me that I didn’t know which one to pick.

  • Immigration
  • The separation of families
  • The nominee to the Supreme Court
  • Gun violence
  • Climate change
  • Trade wars
  • Russian election interference
  • The Mueller investigation
  • An unstable president who is one tweet away from starting World War III
  • Abortion
  • Voting rights
  • Gay rights
  • Civil rights
  • Women’s rights
  • Human rights
  • The right to safe drinking water
  • Education
  • Affordable health care
  • Taking a knee
  • Racial profiling
  • Catholic priests
  • The #MeToo movement

Oh, and, here’s one that really gets my blood boiling: Western Illinois University’s withdrawal of funding for this radio station.

I do my best thinking while out riding my bike. I live on a farm and have miles of traffic-free country roads where my mind can work out ideas while I’m working out my body. So to home in on a topic for this commentary, I headed out on my bike.

Each time I settled on a single issue, crafting the story in my head as I pedaled, my outrage only grew—outrage over injustice, incivility, oppression, deprivation, divisiveness, and more. As I thought about each issue it became so complex it would require a podcast series worth of airtime. Worse, my ruminations exploded into a mushroom cloud of emotion—my anger turned to rage, my vocabulary filled with profanity, and my heart ached so badly over my impotence to fix all our broken systems—that I had to scrap every one of my ideas.

This happened three days in a row. But each day, half way through my ride, lulled by being in motion, I stopped thinking and started observing the things around me. Soybean fields turning from green to yellow. Butterflies fluttering above the roadside clover. Pristine red barns. A farmer on his combine harvesting his corn in artistic rows. Horses grazing in a pasture. A hawk silhouetted against the sun. Maple leaves rustling in the breeze.

There was so much beauty right in front of me! As I continued to focus on this pastoral beauty, my anger and despair softened into a state of near bliss.

This is what near-bliss looks like.

According to science, my lightened mood was no accident.

A number of studies, as outlined by Jill Suttie in Greater Good magazine, prove that being in nature decreases stress, makes you happier and less brooding, relieves attention fatigue, increases creativity, may help you to be kind and generous, and makes you feel more alive. Research also shows that spending time in nature lowers your blood pressure and heart rate, relieves muscle tension, and decreases stress hormones.

An article on the CRC Health website states that nature leads to a sense of spirituality and an appreciation for powers larger than oneself, reminding us that individuals are part of the larger whole. “In a world bogged down by social pressures, standards of conduct, and the demands of others, nature gives people a chance to appreciate a grander sense that the world is…meaningful.”

These are not new revelations. The importance of being in nature has long been documented.

Albert Einstein said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” 

Naturalist John Burroughs, wrote, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”

I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed by all the negativity out there.

There has been a huge uptick in anxiety and depression caused by the current state of political affairs. Recent statistics from the American Psychological Association show that 59% of Americans say that the United States is at the lowest point they can remember in its history, and 63% say the future of the nation is a significant source of stress.

It’s vital that we don’t allow ourselves to be consumed by this stress, so I would add to Burroughs’ message: We go to nature to restore our wellbeing, to have the ability, fortitude and clarity we need to put our country, our democracy, our whole messy world in order.

So take a break. Get outside. Exercise. Pay attention to the beauty around you. Spend time in nature. The benefits reaped are an important step toward tackling that long list of issues and finding the solutions we so desperately need.

Now if we can just find a solution to funding Tri States Public Radio.

TO DONATE TO TRI STATES PUBLIC RADIO, go to tspr.org or call 800-895-2912

My Next Book, HAUSFRAU HONEYMOON, is Coming Soon

In June, after logging several months of marathon hours at my computer, I finished my manuscript for my American Gothic House memoir. (It really was like running a marathon!) I submitted it to a big-five publisher who had asked to see it, which in itself was a kind of thrill. Once I hit the send button I looked around my office and asked myself, “Now what?”

I had read a few articles by other writers about what to do during the submission process, a period of waiting that can take several months. The answer was “Start your next book.”

What? No! I was still tired from crossing the 350-page finish line and couldn’t fathom starting that long journey again, and certainly not so soon. But then I remembered that I already have another book — one that’s already written!

Hello, Hausfrau Honeymoon: Love, Language, and Other Misadventures.

I wrote this memoir 12 years ago, when Marcus and I were first married and living in Germany. Writing the book was my way of coping with the difficulties of adjusting, both to a new culture and to marriage. I still don’t know which was harder! I had to learn the language. I had to learn new customs and rules. So. Many. Rules. I had to learn how to balance my previously independent life with supporting my husband in his career, as he was on track for a promotion. After he got his Golden Ticket, we would be free to choose another place to live where we could both be happy. So I thought. Instead, I signed up for more German classes, and the misadventures continued.

I printed out my old manuscript and read it again after not having looked at it for 10 years. I had fun turning the pages, laughing a little, wincing a little, crying a little, as I relived the experiences, the excitement, the frustrations, the determination, the love. It made me miss Marcus. It made me remember why I loved him. It even made me want to go back to Germany! (But just to visit.)

Given that I dusted this off to fill the time during the submission process, the thought of submitting this to a publisher only to endure another waiting period did not appeal to me. Which is why I decided to self-publish Hausfrau Honeymoon.

Here is what I’ve learned so far:

1.  You will love having creative control.
I get to choose my own cover, choose my own interior font, decide on the styles for chapter headings and section breaks. I even get to choose the paper and the book’s dimensions. I get to own the whole look and feel. This is important to me because a book is more than just the words. This book in its entirely represents me and my personal story. If you have a traditional publisher, you have to be really famous or a NYT-bestselling author to have any say in the creative process, and even then you have to have it spelled out in your contract. And even then you may have to fight for creative control.

2.  The learning process is laborious but fun and fascinating.
I’ve spent hours and hours reading articles about self-publishing: the dos, the don’ts, the pros, the cons, the timelines, the checklists, the most common mistakes to avoid, which indie publishing companies to use, and more. There’s a lot of information out there, and thanks to the Internet most of it is free. I highly recommend Jane Friedman’s blog. (Her blog links to many other great resources.) If Hausfrau Honeymoon succeeds as a self-published title, I will have Jane to thank. (That said, I’m not even sure how I would define “succeeds.” Selling 10,000? 100,000? Holding just one printed copy in my hand will be enough!)

3.  You can’t do this alone.  
Having already been through the publishing process the traditional way twice, I understand and appreciate just how much work goes into getting a book into print. Publishing houses have teams of people for each stage of a book: the editor, copy editor, proofreader, sales and marketing, designers, distributors, publicists, etc. When you self-publish, you will need each of these, and while you may have the superhuman powers to do all of these jobs yourself, you will want to hire some outside help. So far I’ve been working with a book designer and a copy editor — and a slew of writer friends who are giving me feedback, guidance, and support.

4.  Amazon isn’t the only place to self-publish.
Where and how do you get your book out there? Again, I have Jane Friedman to thank for her advice.  She suggests publishing on two platforms. One is Amazon, which covers all sales for Kindle ebooks and all print sales on Amazon only. Amazon is a closed system, much the way Apple’s Mac and iPhones talk to each other but not to PCs or Androids, so you need to have a second supplier to cover book sales to the rest of the non-Amazon world. (Yes, a world beyond Amazon still exists!) Jane recommends IngramSpark to make your ebook available on Nook, Kobo, iBook, and all the other versions of ebook reader devices — also so your print book can be distributed to book stores and libraries. (As you can imagine, Amazon would rather you didn’t buy your books from other stores.) So I am using both Amazon and IngramSpark to give my book a bigger life — and give you, the reader, broader access ensuring you will be able to find it in the vast and growing sea of indie titles.

5.  You can save trees.
In traditional publishing, thousands of books are printed at once. When self-publishing, if you have the funds, the fan base, what have you, you can choose this option. Or you can have books printed on demand (POD). I like the idea of POD, creating books only on an as-needed basis. That means less paper wasted (more trees saved!) and no need for a warehouse or a garage (or in my case here on the farm, a grain bin) for storing books that may or may not ever get sold. I remember seeing a bookstore in New York City where they had a POD printer right in the store. I’d like to think we will see more of an in-store POD business model in the future — and that there will still be bookstores to accommodate this!

6.  You will be terrified. (I am anyway!)
The one thing I did not expect in this exciting, entrepreneurial endeavor is how terrified I would be to put my work out there. I have never been this scared to expose myself! By self-publishing I don’t have an agent or publishing company to blame if my book doesn’t sell, and I don’t have them to hide behind when the criticism comes pouring in. And it will.

Hausfrau Honeymoon isn’t exactly a love letter to Germany. This book likely won’t be well received by Germans at all. They might not even let me back into their country! Out of the 10 readers I’ve had, half of them loved it. The other half have given me notes that start off with “I don’t want to offend you, but…” before launching into their one- or two-star reviews. But it’s my story, my own personal and unique experience, my own perspective, and in spite of knowing the risks, I still have a desire to share it. Because… to quote Sean Thomas Dougherty’s poem: “Because right now, there is someone out there with a wound in the exact shape of your words.”

When I tried to get Hausfrau Honeymoon published right after I wrote it 12 years ago, publishers said, “If it were about France or Italy, we would buy it. But Germany isn’t romantic enough.” I know! That is EXACTLY the point of my story! In fact, the title could have been Why Couldn’t I have Fallen in Love with a Frenchman or an Italian?

Germany may not be “romantic enough,” but my book is full of romance. And though it may not make you want to move to Germany, you will learn a lot about the country, both the good and the frustrating parts. Hopefully the story will make you want to at least visit. As I said above, even after reliving the hard stuff, it had that effect on me. And if the ultimate outcome of my marriage to Marcus is already known to readers, I hope the story will still resonate as it is ultimately a love story about two people and their dogged determination to merge their disparate lives. Love may not conquer all, but there is nobility in the effort. I’d like to think that is worth something — at least the $14.99 cover price.

Hausfrau Honeymoon: Love, Language, and Other Misadventures will be launched into the world on October 1st.  Pre-order for Kindle now.  Print and other ebook formats ordering info coming soon.

Related Posts:

The Book That Doesn’t Want to be Born Yet

The Birthing Process of a Book

The Day I Thought I Had Cancer

The night before my annual mammogram I was thinking about canceling my appointment. Did I want to be bothered with a trip to the hospital—50 minutes away—to have my boobs squished between two plates and hit with a dose of radiation? No. Did I have any history of breast cancer in my family? No. My mammogram last year was fine. So why go?

The commercials may be more
important than you know.

Just as I was lamenting this to my boyfriend, Doug, who was listening to the Cardinals baseball game on the radio, a PSA came on. “About one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime,” it began. “If you are 40 or older, get a mammogram every year to avoid cancer—or death.”

Why was this airing during a major league baseball game? It didn’t seem like the right demographic for this. Or…was this message meant just for me? I took it as a sign and went to my appointment the next day.

Two days later I got a call from my doctor. “Your right breast shows no sign of malignancy,” she said, “but…”

But what? I suddenly realized this was not going to be a call to tell me everything looked normal.

“But there is a focal asymmetry on the left. We’ve scheduled an ultrasound for you for at one o’clock tomorrow.”

That they didn’t even ask if the appointment time worked for me made me think they considered my case urgent…as if it were a life—or death—emergency.

After we hung up I sprinted to Dr. Google to figure out what focal asymmetry meant. Did it mean…cancer? I learned that it could—and that was all it took for me to spend the next 24 hours considering the possibility of having The Big C, and all that a diagnosis might imply. A friend of mine had breast cancer and it spread. I went to her funeral a few months ago. (Read the story here.) So to say my imagination went wild would be an understatement.

First, I thought of all the reasons this (cancer) might have happened, and caused my cells to mutate:

Could it be from carrying my cell phone around in the front pocket of my bib overalls—right on top of my left breast?
Could it be from living on the farm, breathing in the pesticides?
Could it be from eating too much meat? (Said farm raises cattle and hogs.)
Could it be from The Great Hormonal Shift known as menopause?
Could it be from the increased stress I’ve had over the last year and a half, the combo of my dad dying (from cancer) and my dog Jack almost dying several times (from diabetes)?
Could it be Karma, that I should have treated people better, done more to help the homeless and the poor?

Next, I thought of all the people (and pets) who would outlive me—the ones I had expected to pass on years ahead of me. I thought of all the crap I would have to get rid of so it wouldn’t be left behind for someone else to deal with. I thought of the old journals I’ve been meaning to burn, the clothes I’ve been meaning to take to Goodwill, the piles on my desk I’ve been meaning to file.

I thought of the things I would do with whatever time I have left:
– Go on more bike rides.
– Eat whatever the hell I want! Especially ice cream.
– Take Doug to Africa on a safari, and to Italy to indulge in the food. (See above: eat whatever the hell I want!)

I thought of all the things I would miss:
– Swimming
– My dog, my goats, my boyfriend, my family
– Cocktail hour on the porch swing
– Feeling the wind in my face
– Peach crumble pie

And all the things I would NOT miss:
– Mean, abusive people
– Guns and violence
– Divisive politics
– Toxic masculinity
– Seeing the demise of our planet

I thought of all the things I’m grateful for:
– Modern medicine and mammograms—and Obamacare
– The love of Doug, my family and friends, all my pets
– The privilege I was born into
– The education I’ve had
– The means to travel the world
– My health (up to now)

I thought of how I would tackle the cancer Angelia Jolie-style—aggressively, by cutting off both breasts. I thought of how I would look with a flat chest and of what I would wear when I no longer needed a bra. I thought of how my hair would grow back, maybe coarse, maybe all gray.

The following day as I drove to the hospital, I saw the familiar scenery in a different way. The sky, the clouds, the blackbirds on the fence posts, the red barns, the white dotted line on the highway, every single detail appeared more vivid, sharper, more meaningful, knowing I might not be on this beautiful earth much longer.

In the Diagnostic Imaging ward, I was ushered to a dark room, disrobed from the waist up, and lay on a bed while a technician moved her wand across my chest. She kept her eyes focused on the black and white monitor—and I kept my eyes focused on her, looking for any trace of concern, any hint of news.

“It’s inconclusive,” she said. “I need to show it to the doctor and see what he says.”

I waited on the table, half naked. To keep myself calm I did some yoga stretches and leg lifts, hoping there was no hidden camera.

When the technician came back, she said, “The doctor wants you to have another mammogram. I’ll walk you over there right now.” She handed me a hospital-issue top. “You don’t need to get dressed. Just put this on.”

She ushered me into the mammogram room, the same room I had (begrudgingly) been in four days earlier. The technician was, as the others had been, friendly, speaking in gentle tones, and going about her business as usual, tasks that she and her coworkers do daily for hundreds, nay thousands, of other women: Placing sticker with a tiny metal ball on nipples. Positioning body and arms against X-ray machine. Giving instructions to hold breath. Pressing button to take picture.

This is what it’s like, in case you’ve never seen what women go through to get tested. 

She showed me the image, black and white and blurry and, to the untrained eye, hard to comprehend. She pointed out the fibrous tissue, the ducts, the adipose fat, the muscle—the unknown parts of me hidden under the skin.

“This is the area where the doctor saw the spot,” she said. “Where there was a change from last year’s image.”

It was no bigger than a pea. But a pea-size mass is still a mass.

While the doctor was summoned to analyze my mammogram, I sat in the waiting room—in my pink hospital top that didn’t stay closed because of the worn-out Velcro closures. The TV was tuned into a soap opera, “Days of Our Lives,” the one my sister had been on 25 years earlier. The drama was still the same, so were some of the actors, as I recognized a few. As for my sister, she had either been carted off to a mental institution or killed by an ex-lover, or…maybe she died from breast cancer—I don’t remember how her role ended, but seeing the soap made me think back on the last 25 years (actually, all 56 years of my life) and how I had packed a lot of experiences into those years. Maybe I had lived so fiercely because somewhere in my intuition I knew my time would be cut short. Nowadays, it seems like it’s not a matter of if you get cancer (or shot in a school or hit by a distracted driver), but when.

I waited. And waited. It wasn’t long in the scheme of hospital visits, but 20 minutes feels like 20 hours when you are waiting to hear if your life is going to be fine—or if it’s going to hell.

Finally, the technician came back out, took me into the dressing room, and shut the door. Here we go. Here comes the news. I braced myself.

“It’s nothing,” she said. “You have dense tissue so next time get a 3D mammogram. You won’t need to come back for another year.”

When I went outside into the sunlight, I had to blink to fend off the brightness—and the tears. “It’s nothing.” It was not cancer. I was fine.

Let’s do away with these ribbons
and find a cure already! 

I was fine, but as I walked out to the parking lot, passing other people walking in, I wondered about all the others who were not fine. The other women whose ultrasounds showed malignant tumors or whose mammograms sent them on to the next stage for a biopsy, and the many (too many) others who were at this moment tethered to chemo drips or confined to hospital beds or taking their last breaths as I walked out with my health—and my freedom.

I sat down by the outdoor fountain at the hospital entrance to collect myself. Relief washed over me like the water cascading down the fountain’s pyramid of gold shingles. And then came the tears, the release of the terror I had been harboring for 24 hours. Soothed by the moving water, I took a few minutes to transition from “this might be the end” to “life goes on.”

In our house we have an expression we have been using since my dog was diagnosed with diabetes last year. “Every day is a bonus,” we say. As we ride the waves of my dog’s good days and bad days, Doug and I remind each other that every day he is still with us is a bonus. As a 56-year-old woman who has had a lifetime of good health, I’ve had no reason for counting each day as a bonus for myself. It even seemed a bit paranoid, fatalistic to count the days that way. But this “little scare” is a reminder of just how quickly things could change.

In a way, I’m glad I went through this as it forced me to consider what’s important to me, and reminded me not to put things off. I now have a list of Things I’d Miss and Things I Want to Do Before I Die that I can consult for those times I relapse into taking life for granted.

Me. Celebrating. Life.

With my list in mind, I left the hospital and drove—with my windows down—straight to Dairy Queen. I went home and hugged my dog and my goats, went for a swim, and joined my boyfriend for a gin and tonic on the porch swing.

I also put a reminder on my calendar to schedule next year’s mammogram. And guaranteed, when that day comes around, it won’t take a Cardinals baseball game to convince me to keep the appointment. ⧫

Some breast cancer resources:

https://ww5.komen.org
https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org
https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/mammograms-fact-sheet

Well, what are you waiting for? Go get your mammogram screening. Do it.