Can you see yourself…?

Today we will read from a very special Torah scroll. Our Torah (MST#357) is one of 1,564 from Czechoslovakia rescued by The Memorial Scrolls Trust in London, England. Our Torah is what is known as an “orphan” scroll, from an unknown town in the region of Bohemia~Moravia. However, we consider the Czech town of Teplice as its honourary home, in honour of Pepa Livingstone (z”l), a member of our community from Teplice who survived the Nazi atrocities. The Czech scrolls — held as a sacred responsibility by the Memorial Scrolls Trust — have been given a second life. Now, they can be found in over one thousand synagogues on five continents, bringing new Jewish life wherever they go. They have played a part in an estimated 100,000 Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations. We use it with great reverence for its history, and as a reminder of a community now destroyed, a moving testimony to Jewish resistance, and a remarkable tribute to the Jewish ability to revive and regenerate.

The above is from the programme for La Neige’s bat mitzvah.

In one of Douglas Rushkoff’s books–I think it’s Coercion–he tells the story of taking a car for a test drive with a car salesman. There’s a point where the salesman always asks the prospective buyer, “So, can you see yourself driving a car like this?”  That is when the buyer usually crashes the car.  There is something metaphysically strange about that moment, when you are doing a thing that you dream of doing, and asked to dream about it while you do it.  The Historian and I joke about that moment. Usually it is something mundane, like, “Can you see yourself eating a meatball like this someday?” As Proust and his madeleine point out, when you eat a meatball, you might be simultaneously eating every meatball you have ever had.  You might even be connecting with everyone who has ever eaten a meatball.  There’s something special about the way that past, present, and future can be connected through experience or words or objects or rituals.

Back when I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer I remember going to see a therapist and saying, “I’d better get my spiritual shit together because I’m going to need it!”  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I have my spiritual shit together now, but it’s certainly more together than it was.

At that moment, I was already on the path to getting more together. After La Neige was born, I started going to an adult class at the local reform synagogue, and then the new rabbi invited me to join the adult B’nei Mitzvah class in 2010.  I knew that I wanted my children to have the grounding and background that a religious upbringing would give them, so we joined. I didn’t so much need to have a bat mitzvah, nor did I even know what one was, as much as it seemed like the thing I needed to do before I asked my kids to do it.

Soon thereafter I remember going to a bat mitzvah and standing in the back, fortuitously next to a box of tissues. As the congregation went though the steps of a normal service, I remember crying the entire time. The girl at the front that day–we’ll call her S–was a cerebral petite blonde that I could easily see as a stand-in for La Neige. Knowing that I would be bat mitzvahed soon and my daughter would be someday, it was like we were all linked by an invisible chain. I was simultaneously watching my 5-year-old daughter, myself, and an amazing young woman. “Can you imagine yourself driving a car like this?” Yes! Yes, I can! [crash!]

There’s a lot to like about Reform Judaism, including the reverence for our connection to the past. The prayers that we say at every gathering contain a mixture of the profound in English and beautiful Hebrew.  As Rushkoff pointed out in Nothing Sacred, reading texts in Hebrew and in a group or minyan means that they are always open to critique. (And if you haven’t read Rushkoff, drop whatever you are doing and find yourself one of his books.)

In 2013, I had my own big, fat, 40-year-old bat mitzvah. Here’s something else I realized recently: religion is boring! The experience of the sacred comes from doing the same thing over and over again. Over time those profound experiences become mundane, and that means that you have really internalized them, I figure. That must be why we make the bat mitzvah such an onerous experience, so that we will not be overwhelmed by the sacredness of it all. At the same time as you are leading a service, you also have to worry about not tripping on your way to the bimah and whether there will be enough bagels for everyone.

Two weekends ago La Neige had her bat mitzvah. It was a beautiful, magical experience. And also pretty boring. She chanted a long, complicated portion from K’doshim, and a bit of haftarah. She worked hard on her reading, and her Hebrew tutor was both patient and demanding. Her voice was strong and delicate, as she read the complicated passages that she was so proud to have learned by heart.  Many important people who have known her all her life were there, including congregation members, friends, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The whole ceremony was a reminder about how the past, present, and future connect because you can’t have a future without a present spent connecting to the past. Plus, you have young adults in the present reading from the past–an act of giving in itself–so that they can carry their learning into the future. And when she read, she read from a Torah that was itself rescued from wartime Czechoslovokia. (To make things even more interesting, the family of one of my dearest friends is actually from Teplice.)

We read a bunch of different Torah portions to choose this one, and, can I just say, they don’t make any sense. I think it’s part of the wisdom of modern religion to say that a bit of interpretation is required when you read old texts. I know there are people in the world who think that ancient texts have inherent meaning, to which I say, WTF? I mean, yes, there are pieces of it that stand beautifully on their own, but don’t try to read it straight through and think it makes any sense. If you pull selectively from there, you can certainly find some great stuff.  La Neige’s portion included a reminder to honor one’s mother a father, always a good lesson; welcome the stranger, so relevant to today; when to eat sacrificed meat; just to name a few.

That tension between the mundane and the profound is what makes religion interesting to me. Go to a service, in any tradition, and it is easy to think that there must be something more interesting and worthwhile to do than this. But is there, really?

[featured image is K’doshim, taken from from ]


It’s all there

[Edited to add the image of Erin Smith’s zine Teenage Gang Debs, found at ]

The New York Times just posted an article about Riot Grrrls, and it took me back.

It was probably November 1991, and my friend Erin was like, “You guys, my friends are playing a concert, and you have to come.” I had barely ever been to a concert before I saw Bikini Kill play that night, but for some reason I trekked into DC from the suburbs. The concert may have been in a church basement somewhere. I remember seeing it from the back of the room. I was like, “So this is a concert.”

I was probably standing by the door. Even then, I was medium in all things. Medium height at 5′ 5.5″, with medium brown hair of medium length. Probably wearing mom jeans waaaaaay before they were cool, a black sleeveless t-shirt, and an old pair of beat-up Keds. (Sadly, it was mostly downhill from there, as far as physical appearance goes.)

I remember that the music was loud. I also remember that in between two songs, the lead singer (Kathleen?), grabbed the microphone, and asked defiantly, “Does anyone have a tampon?” The crowd giggled. She asked more insistently, “I’m serious. DOES ANYONE HAVE A TAMPON?”

And that was feminism in 1991. I never imagined that a woman would ask a room full of strangers for a tampon, over a mike, no less. She was, like, admitting that she was a woman. With a body. Also, she danced around like she was enjoying dancing more than she wanted to be looked at. This meant that she was kind of hopping and jiggling at the same time. Just click on that link in the NYT article to get a better idea of what I’m talking about. Praise be that you could be a rock star in 1991 and not be an especially sexy dancer. She looked nothing like the Janet Jackson videos that I was used to seeing. Long before there was a “body-positive” movement, some women were celebrating their real bodies on stage.

Reading that article made me want to run down to the basement and find my original riot grrrl cds and cassettes. Back in the day, Erin (Smith, of Bratmobile) was all about riot grrrls. She was kind enough to try to teach me to play an instrument and was so encouraging that it seemed that I was more lacking confidence than talent. (Actually, it was both.) Thanks to Erin, somewhere I have a box of Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Shonen Knife cassettes.

Going to those concerts, I learned that how you look on the outside is your choice. You could wear tiny shorts or airy cotton dresses, it’s your choice. But that doesn’t say anything about who you are on the inside or what you aspire to be. As that NYT piece says of Bratmobile, “Here was someone who looked like a prim librarian spitting out acid-tongued harangues and taunts.”  The movement said that you could be so opposed to the patriarchy that you defied all of the tropes of the genre, writing a catchy song that has the words, “By the way” in the chorus. [Looking at you, Bratmobile]

Those cassettes have black-and-white covers that were obviously cut and pasted and then photocopied, just like the zines that spread the word about them and allowed anyone to tell their own stories. Those cassettes and zines were a part of a whole do-it-yourself, pre-digital aesthetic that may represent the riot grrrl movement. It’s a movement that taught me that the joys of creating and sharing are real, that no one exclusively owns judgement or the means of creative production. It’s the same aesthetic that has launched a thousand blogs, even this one.

You’re welcome!

That aesthetic has come to stand for the beauty of the imperfect if it is also authentic. I remember just a few years after I went to my first riot grrrl concert, I heard my first episode of This American Life  (TAL) on WBUR when I was unpacking my Somerville kitchen alone on a Saturday night. Because of TAL, I think I was secretly glad to stay in on Saturday nights. Like riot grrrl music, TAL was self-consciously vernacular, meaning that the journalists on the show talked like regular people that you might be having a conversation with. And they talked to regular people, to make you understand how their stories were connected to your stories and to “big” stories.  TAL has been credited with starting both the modern storytelling movement of the MOTH and all of podcasting.  In this sense, I believe that the earnest, authentic, imperfect aesthetic of my generation has made its mark on the culture at large.

And now the 90s are back, baby! Those riot grrrl cassettes are gathering dust in my basement. (In this case, that is not a metaphor, they really are gathering dust.) Enough time has passed that the 90s can be “back,” and the Times can announce that the music that I listened to as a young person “holds up” after all these years. Even though this whole movement is decades past, it is still in me, still a piece of my values and sensibility and commonsense.

One thing I always wondered was, did riot grrrls really think that they were girls? In my day, we unabashedly called ourselves women  when we came of age because there is no shame in being a woman. I assumed that the girl moniker was perhaps a tongue-in-cheek way to poke fun at the notion that there was anything inherently weak or inferior in the girly. It said, “Be as girly as you like. Be girly all day long, you can still be strong or whatever.”

Parenting is not easy

[image from

We are moving towards a new phase of parenting, and that is the adolescent phase. For fun I have been reading Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood by Lisa Damour. Seven? I’m supposed to make seven transitions? I’m pretty sure that most of the women that I know forgot one or two.  (Also, why is ‘through’ capitalized on Amazon? asks the woman who still has a copy of her high school grammar textbook upstairs on a shelf.)  If you want to earn even more gratitude from your adolscent girl, leave this book out. Hah! No, seriously, it’s good so far. I’ve learned a lot, which is helpful, since I knew nothing before.

And also my attention was brought to the Wells for Boys skit on SNL. This is genius. Genius. So I had to do a small but deep dive, which led me to this small thinkpiece about it. My favorite part?

I had this little Barbie wedding dress that I really liked, and because I used it so much, it was raggedy. I loved how torn it was, and I would put a Barbie with no shoes in it and have her wander about the garden, just thinking about what happened to her and how she got to this point.

Parenting a sensitive boy is funny because you want to love them just as they are, even when society doesn’t. I tried to encourage my kids to be athletes, but no matter how many natural gifts they may be blessed with, they will run away when I kick a soccer ball at them.

Another friend recently sent me this NYT article on telling kids about serious illness. I liked the article so much that I went and read the Lancet review that it is based on. The point of the article seems to match much of the advice that I’ve been given about parenting, which is to be open and honest with your children. This is extremely convenient because I am a terrible liar.

But if I can pick a bone here I will point out that reviews are not always great. The fact is, that much of this advice is based on studies of the families of HIV patients, as well as those with all kinds of cancer. The funny not-for-me line was the part that said that if you don’t tell your kids what is going on they may worry that it is actually something worse.  Hee hee hee, that was a howler.  I mean, what worse could I have to say that I haven’t already said to them?  Never mind, don’t answer that.

I dislike hierarchies of all kinds, and the review is at the top of the hierarchy of knowledge. Sometimes it’s presented as if we don’t know anything until we have a review of the research. That stinks. Also, reviews are inherently anti-feminist because they are arguing that we don’t know anything until we have a reduction of all of the knowledge available. And the marketplace will decide what knowledge goes into that reduction.

A particularly interesting line, I want to point out, is this one from the Times: “’I would always start the conversation by having the child say to me what they understand, so I understand how they have received information.”  As a patient, I feel like that has become a standard communication technique, asking patients what they know and believe. I think it is advocated as a way of establishing common ground with the patient. Unfortunately, it is often experienced as a way of finding out what the patient knows so that you can tell them why they are wrong.  I don’t have a better communication practice to suggest instead,* so it might be that the question is fine, but it matters what the intention is behind the question. Patients can sense the intention. The question saves the doctor time, so it’s asked for the benefit of the doctor. That’s fine. Just don’t pretend that it’s for the patient. Am I right, patients?

Lately, the media has blessed us with various examples of parenting with cancer. Julie Yip-Williams published a posthumous letter to her daughters. It is truly generous of her to let the world into the experience of facing death with two young daughters, and she is a beautiful writer. At the same time, her life might be not-so-relatable for those of us who are not racing death to finish renovating the Brooklyn condo.  [Actually, it was two condos.] Also, The Historian and I had a little giggle when we saw the line about needing to leave instructions for the private chef and the piano tuner. Now I know I can add “instructions for private chef and piano tuner” to my to do list.

One dad described what happened when his late wife chose not to tell their three daughters about her breast cancer. She went through chemo-related hair loss and still didn’t tell them, pretending that she was wearing a scarf over her head by choice. Again, not totally relatable. But the description was moving and is another reminder that there is no right way to face illness or death. We all do the best we can, even if it is leaving instructions for the piano tuner.

Not telling my children is not an option for someone who is as bad of a liar as I am. I even gave up trying to pretend to like superhero movies. And that was freeing as hell because I don’t like superhero movies, even if they are my children’s favourite thing right now.

They like Marvel movies even more than they like storytime, unfortunately. I wonder if it’s partially my fault because I insisted that we read Frankenstein. Or because I keep falling asleep in the stories. Then I surruptitiously reread the section the next day when I am awake, fooling no one. (Maybe “Fooling No One” should be the title for this post.)  At least we all agreed that Victor Frankenstein was a hopelessly self-deluded jerk, and the monster was a nice guy. (In keeping with the “fooling no one” theme!)

Now we are reading the edition of The Tales of Beedle the Bard that is illustrated by Chris Riddell. I am loving the stories, told with J.K. Rowling’s flair for magical storytelling. While I’ve always loved Riddell’s work, I wonder if the illustrations are not overkill when the language is so vivid. Maybe good readers aren’t supposed to be influenced by the llustrations in their books, but I remember being 9 years old and constantly referencing the illustrations in the thick, classic paperback of Little Women  that I was reading. The favored style was this delicate Victorian line that forever represented the March girls to me. Even before that I poured over Garth Williams’ illustrations in the Little House on the Prairie books. Whatever, we are almost done with Beedle the Bard with no plans for what to read next. Suggestions?

*edited to add: I may have thought of something! You could say something like, “When I think about your case, what I [think about/wonder about/worry about] is x and y. It would help me if you could tell me how you understand x and y. Then I could see if we are on the same page.”

Showing Up

Today I’m planning to go to a “play-in” at my kids’ school. What is a “play-in”? you ask. I’m not entirely sure, but we are demonstrating our objections to recently announced cuts in education along with new risk-averse policies being enforced.

You see, Ontario has elected a conservative government headed by our very own Trump-wannabe. Recently the government has announced that it will make cuts to education that will raise class size and eliminate various supports.  But the final straw came when the school VP announced that kindergarteners and students in grades 7-8 were no longer allowed to play on the playground because it was only approved for ages 5-12. That’s when the play-in was organized, to which I’m going today.

A closer look at the play equipment regulatory body’s mandate suggests that 13-14-year-olds are actually fine to go on the play equipment, it’s just that the CSA isn’t responsible for anyone over age 12. Also, did I mention that obesity is on the rise here, like everywhere else? And we’re trying to get everyone to be more active? But nevertheless, our school board’s insurance lawyers apparently decided that the policy only covers kids ages 5-12.

As you can imagine, this was no small deal to La Neige. We are going to the play in, goshdarnit. This occassioned one of the many interesting conversations I’ve had with The Historian about protest. You see, I can get worked up about playgrounds, like everyone else. But what I really care about is cuts to education. But sometimes the protest that you want is not the one that is organized. So my request is SHOW UP TO THE DAMNED PROTEST, people.

Maybe it’s not the demonstration you wanted? Maybe the stated rationale is not exactly your position? Listen, why do you think that liberal snowflakes have trouble getting things done? Stop overthinking it, and SHOW UP TO THE PROTEST.

Perhaps your candidate was not nominated? Yeah, that must really stink. But you know what? You still need to SHOW UP at the polls.

Another example is that I recently went to a vigil in support of the victims of the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was a wonderful event, and I was so glad that I went, but I didn’t know that would happen in advance. The truth is that as much as I hate Islamaphobia, it’s not as important to me as other things. It doesn’t affect me in the same way as anti-semitism does. (I’m not proud of this, nor should I be.) Nevertheless, I showed up, and I hope that my family’s presence in some small way communicated that we cared, and we are grateful for our wonderful local Muslim community. SHOW UP.

Wow, this is really excellent advice.

I can even extend it to other things that involve me. For example, I have cancer, and it sucks. A big problem that people with cancer often have is that there friends don’t say anything about it or are afraid of saying the wrong thing or are afraid of seeing them. My advice here would be: just SHOW UP.

This advice is good for any issue at all–chronic illness, grief, you name it. You can send a card, you can bring brownies, or just bring yourself. You will not fix the underlying problem, but showing up will help. They will feel better, you will feel better.

Our culture sometime suggests that you shouldn’t do anything unless you fix the problem. But some problems have no fixes, or we don’t know what they are, or they are hard to accomplish. In truth, we are social creatures, and sometimes what we want is not to be alone, to have someone bear witness to what we’re experiencing or to validate our response. Sometimes you can’t fix the problem, but you can make someone feel less alone when you show up.

Heard around my house lately

“[The Prophet] is making an animation with Google Slides! [cackle!]”

“It’s not fair! If I were a centaur I’d be dressed by now. Because I’d have more limbs.”

Howl’s Moving Castle doesn’t ‘make sense’ make sense, but it kind of makes sense in a Japanese way.”

“One Dutch baby to go, please!”

“Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics are not consistent with second wave feminism, but they sure are hard to shake.”

“No, Mommy, leave me alone. OH MY GOD, leave me alone!”

“I just crossed something off of my boring to do list.”


Meanwhile, in Canada . . .

As predicted, winter has been long and bleak. My lovely neighbour put out her recycling (above), and it is more organized than anything in my house. Yikes, you don’t even want to see her bathroom.

It turns out that Canadians are troopers when it comes to snow, but freezing rain is another story entirely. We have now had two days of school cancellations because the roads and sidewalks were frozen. One day was so bad that we couldn’t even go for a walk. This makes for a very stir crazy winter. I am looking forward to a big thaw.icy

I try not to share stories that make the wonderful Canadian healthcare system look bad, on the one hand. But on the other, my personal and professional experience suggest that it is as prone to human error as any other system. For example, one can go to one’s local emergency department and be placed in a room and forgotten for 7 hours. And then when a resident comes to examine one, he might announce loudly, “I’m looking for Lisa? She has a pericardial effusion?” before introducing himself to the patient in the next room. Don’t worry, I’m fine. Seriously, my heart is functioning normally, and I was just dehydrated.  But that really sucked for my husband and the lovely friend R who sat with me in emerg.

One thing that I have collected is interesting stories about how people have handled grief. I really appreciated this story from Liz Gilbert about her partner’s death from cancer. Also, if there is one thing that I dislike, it’s stage theories that tell you that there is one right way to go about something. Therefore, this essay was right up my alley. The five stages of grief? They are not intended to go in order, according to their author Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. A friend suggested reading her, and I was a bit concerned that having a book about grief out in the open would freak my family out, so I ordered it from Amazon. Turns out that the answer is to leave it on the stairs, and they will just ignore it like any other piece of mail that I put there.

One thing that I have been meaning to write about for a long time is my relationship with religion. I am currently reading Why Religion? by Elaine Pagels and will report back. For me, and for most people, religion is less about what you believe and more about what you do.

Every Friday we observe the shabbat with the lighting of the candles and a few short blessings of the children, wine or grape juice, and challah. Our prayer book reminds us, “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Sitting together around candles has come to be a touchstone, it’s something that reminds us that the week is over. It’s a chance to look at each other in candlelight, literally shake off the week, and give thanks that we are together. At some point in the past I tried to implement a longer, more faithful and less abbreviated blessing, but no one else was having it.

This means that every Friday, I frantically try to find challah in our small, non-Jewish city. I can tell you that there are three bakeries that reliably have challot on Fridays. (For those of you keeping score, they are Remark, Angelo’s, and the International Bakery at Covent Market, and any or all of these may sell out.) Only one of these is within walking distance, which matters because my radiation oncologist said I cannot drive, and if they have any at all they will get 4 loaves in on Friday. If I call before they sell out, they will hold a loaf for me, and they know me by name. Susan at the bakery will worry if I don’t come in on Friday to buy my egg bread. Also, I have to request “egg bread,” because if I call it “challah,” they don’t know what I am talking about.

But the loaves are braided and faintly sweet and large enough to make awesome French toast over the weekend. Years ago I observed that if I gave French toast to the kids, they would experience a blood sugar crash in about two hours that resulted in tantrums, so now I give it to them right before Sunday school. Kind of like pouring the gasoline, lighting the match, and then walking away.

I also try to have some kind of nice dessert available on Friday. Last week I tried a chocolate olive oil cake from Smitten Kitchen. It was okay, but my sloppiness meant that there were streaks of chocolate in our sour cream that confused everyone on Taco Tuesday. It did not come out as well as the date squares that I also made, but that probably has more to do with me as a cook than with the recipe itself.

When it comes to recipes, I like simple and easy. For some reason, I often fail at supposedly no-fail food. Cases in point, most recipes for rice pudding and macaroni and cheese fail me.  This week La Neige’s friend’s dad was kind enough to send me his mac n cheese recipe. The secret ingredient is cream cheese. You can’t just make a roux and add milk and fancy cheese and call it a day. Also, I’m going to stop messing around with rice pudding recipes and just make this one, which comes out great but makes more rice pudding than I should have around. I suspect that there is no great dairy-free rice pudding recipe for me, so I’ll just have to take a Kirkland lactaid and maybe eat less of it. Sigh.

This week I ran out of cooking inspiration, so I requested Chrissy Teigen’s cookbooks from the library after reading about them in a Food52 essay. OMG, her writing is hysterical.  Here is a random sample:

Despite never knowing they’re “BrusselSSSSS” sprouts, I have been a lover of them since I grew teeth. And John is one Brussels sprouts-loving SOB. So in order to keep our Brussels sprouts sex life spicy, I am constantly trying to find new ways to doll them up. But sometimes things are just easy. He loves salad. He loves sprouts. He loves grapes. He loves nuts. So he loves this salad. Men. Don’t overthink it.

The book is full of pictures of her and her husband enjoying food and vamping it up. Do yourself a favour and read this book.

I don’t speak Canadian

Did you know that if you go to Ikea’s website, you can find out what is in stock where, as well as where in the store to find it? Look, I’m not the only person to feel bloated with stuff by the end of the holidays. When I dragged The Historian to Ikea last Saturday, it was full of people who were, presumably, looking for better ways to store their stuff.

One of the times that I came home from the hospital I had a deep urge to purge unwanted things from my life. A friend of mine who works in psychotherapy described this as “important identity work.” No doubt, D, no doubt.

It turns out, I was not alone. By the end of our 2-week break, I was at Ikea looking for things to organize the home. Strolling through the bedlinens section I heard one woman say to the man she was with, “Can’t we just try this for a little while, and if you don’t like it we can go back to the way it was?” And I turned around 360 degrees and realized that I was surrounded by couples at odds with each other, as far as the eye could see.

I came to Ikea armed with a list of stuff to buy, especially for the formerly-flooded basement. But you cannot get organized simply by moving around the stuff that you have. Eventually, you have to purge.  You can NOT buy a string of holiday lights shaped like squirrels (for just $12.99!) and just assume that you will find a place to put them. If you are lucky, your husband will restrain you from buying more than one set of squirrel lights and numerous lamps.

And that’s where Marie Kondo comes in. You can sit down and turn on Netflix and watch her wrangle a parade of familiar-looking houses into shape. Mind you, I have both of her books, and I believe in her deeply, but I hate this show. For one thing, the families are excessively attractive, especially that dumb bitch in the first episode who doesn’t even know how to do laundry or put stuff away in the kitchen. But you better believe that her mascara is PERFECTION. For another, I simply don’t believe that that interpreter is doing a decent job. If they were willing to hire a decent interpreter, they might not have so many of those stupid white subtitles that Netflix seems to favor.

Then there’s the cultural aspect. I watched the beginning with my friend S from Germany, and, let me tell you, Americans, the world is delighted to watch you choke on your own stuff. Not that S said as much, that is my own value-added analysis, she merely said, “I think it’s weird to watch an Asian woman tell Americans how to live their lives.” If you even cared a little about culture, you might explain the role that animism plays in Kondo’s worldview, Netflix.

Anyway, the point of the show is that we have too much stuff, and there I was at Ikea, which is Stuff Central, and I got to say to The Historian, “Look! There’s a lamp you don’t want! And there’s another one!” Since I checked the website ahead of time, I came with a good list that only required 4 trips through the check-out, where the checkers-out seemed unaware that they were in a Worker’s Paradise with free wi-fi.

Now, please excuse me. I have to go assemble a plant stand.

One of the strangest things about moving from the U.S. to Canada is how subtle the differences are, but they are there. For example, it might take you days to get snow tires on your car because we have a pseudo-British approach to customer service, even at the American-owned Costco. My mom was good enough to call and ask if they could put tires on our car, and the guy who answered the phone at the Tire Centre was like, “Maybe.” Mind you, he only answered the phone because I complained when they did not.

Overall, I’m happy to go on and on about how wonderful the heatlh care is here. However, sometimes I find communication to be difficult for one as literal-minded as me. I regularly get asked, “How have you been feeling lately?” Look, this is just too open-ended of a question. Lately I’ve been nauseated, but when I report this, I find nurses or doctors are likely to say, “Hmm, have you taken anything for that?” The truth is that there are wonderful anti-nausea drugs out there, but they all make me a bit tired or dopey, so I have to be pretty nauseous before I’ll choose to be dopey.

I’m pretty sure that when someone says, “Have you tried . . . ?” that is Canadian for, “I won’t help you at all until you take what I have already prescribed you.” Fair enough. However, do you really expect me to follow all of that? The other issue is that when you are a doctor or nurse, you are socialized totalkextremelyfast. I only half realized this until I brought S to an appointment, and she was like, “Did you get all of that?” Now, I understand that the short appointments are the doings of insurance companies, OHIP, and the payers in general, but that does not change the fact that ordinary people–not to mention those of us with compromised brains–do not get what you are saying.

Is that plant stand still not assembled?



Happy New Year!

There is a program that actually exists called “Look Good Feel Better,” and it teaches women with cancer how best to wear wigs and put on make-up when they have cancer. I thought this was ridiculous when I first heard about it because, if you are dealing with cancer, why should you have to work on looking “good” too? The cynic in me would also point out that if you go to one of these workshops you will walk away with free make-up that contains actual known carcinogens. Turns out, I was wrong about this—sometimes working on how you look is a way of feeling “normal” when things are crazy and out of control.

One day I was meeting a friend for coffee, and I was coming from the gym, so I put a little blush on to feel like I made an effort. Then when I got there, she said, “Oh my god, what’s wrong with your face? [pause] Do you have cancer of the face now?” Now, there is nothing funny about “cancer of the face,” so you can stop laughing right now. But it is a little funny if that is someone’s response to your attempt to try to look good.

Newsflash: I look good! That’s what I hear when I go to any oncologist or to the local cancer centre. It appeals to my ego to be told that I look good, even if I suspect that I am being compared to the 70- and 80-something patients whom they usually see. Having been diagnosed with cancer before I was 45, that makes me young, in this context. One day when I went to the Emergency Room for a broken bone in my foot, I found myself consoling the nurse who was triaging me and told me, “But you’re so young!” She had just lost her father to cancer, and it was her first day back.  This is the type of strange conversation that you might have on any given day when you have cancer.

Anyway, Happy New Year! Every year the holidays are a blessed event in our family in which we argue about how to properly celebrate the holidays.

I grew up in a non-observant Jewish household in which the one thing that we knew was that we did not have a Christmas tree. My mother grew up in a Christmas-tree-having non-observant Japanese Buddhist household. So our tradition was that every year my parents would argue about a tree until Christmas Eve, when my mom would go out–sometimes my sister or I came with her–and get the saddest-looking tree still on the lot. Of course, she talked them down in price to like $15. Then one year the tree fell over, spilling tree-water and pine needles everywhere. Good times.

So I decided to be a bit more clear, and I simply decided that we don’t have a Christmas tree. We have a Christmas wreath, white lights in the window, and stockings hanging from the mantle, but no tree.

Then one day I went to my beloved Farmer’s Market, and they had mini-trees for sale. I was already feeling a little guilty after the dentist said something like, “You never know what’s going to happen, you have to make every holiday count.” (WTF is up with our dentist’s office? Make it count, indeed.)  Anyway, I had somehow decided that a tree might be kosher if it was less than 2 feet tall. No one bought this argument. Anyway, I came home with an adorable 2-foot tree. Mind you, I am a fan of the history of religion, and I have been explaining for years that the symbols of Christmas are actually pagan symbols stolen from the pagan druids.

Mind you, it was a toss-up as to who would give me the most flak for this particular dubious decision. Nonetheless, I was not expecting it to be my normally-accepting husband. I think it went something like this:

H: What’s that?

Me: It’s a pagan tree! For us! Isn’t it cute? We can decorate it with the silver and gold balls that I got on sale at the grocery store last year!

H: Looks like your love of buying things at the market won the fight with your hatred of Christmas trees.

Me: It’s not a Christmas tree!

La Neige: Yeah! It’s a pagan tree. Obviously!

The Prophet: Can I decorate it?

Me: Yes! We can get ribbon from our Christian friends.

La Neige: Can we put presents under it? Apparently, people put Christmas presents under the tree. I don’t think there is room for presents under that tree.

H: Wait a second, what’s going on here? I’ve been wanting a Christmas tree forever, but I understood that that was the trade-off I made in having an interfaith household.

Me: It’s a pagan tree! We can put presents next to it.

H: Why would your people choose the one cool aspect of the holiday to ban?

What was I supposed to say? My people like suffering (which is true)? I leave this to smarter people than I to answer. I told my kids to enjoy the heck out of their cousins’ and grandparents’ trees.

Anyway, it’s been a nice holiday. I’ve enjoyed time with family and friends. I love this op-ed piece, which led me to this beautiful podcast, which actually made me cry in like every episode.

In cancer news, I’ve been going to the hospital for once a week for echocardiograms because in the endless game of Whack-a-mole, it’s currently my heart that we worry about. Mind you, cardio complications are a regular thing for cancer patients because cancer meds are–surprise!–not easy on the heart. I also started a new chemotherapy drug, Kadcyla, which is my second line of treatment, over the holidays.  The news about my heart is . . . it is beating! I know this because I saw it beating on a screen. It looks a little like a baby, which is a great way to remember to treat myself with kindness. If I were carrying a baby, then I would be gentle with myself.

When I go in for my echocardiograms, sometimes the technician who performs them is a male and sometimes it’s a female. One thing that I have noticed, is that I am more easily annoyed by the female caregivers than the male ones. I first noticed this when a female CT technician was trying (and failing) to put an IV in my left arm immediately after her trainee failed to put one in my right arm. I really did not like the feeling of having her dig around in my veins with that needle. It was worse than when her trainee did the same thing. It reminded me of the time about a year ago that a female neurosurgery fellow put a stitch in my lower back, and it hurt like hell. I think that she eventually gave up, telling the nurse, “I don’t want to put the patient through any more than she has been through already.” This was after the brain surgery and the spinal tap, both painful experiences administered by male doctors. But I was more annoyed by the painful stitches from the resident than the others, and I was like, “WHERE IS YOUR COMPASSION, GODDAMMIT?” Similarly, the male technician, whom I have come to know better than I would wish, is not gentle when he jabs me with the ultrasound transducer. In fact, at one point I had a bruise on my side where he jabbed me.

People, I may be a raging feminist, but I never said that I was immune to unconscious bias. I imagine that it must be annoying to be a female caregiver who has to be nicer to every single patient than her male colleagues.

Okay, I have no fantastic recipes, but I recently asked friends on FaceBook for meatball recipes, and you came through with so many. Ultimate comfort food.

Walking and chewing gum

Ever since my brain decided to go a little haywire, it has been my aspiration to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Well, yesterday I did it! I didn’t even mean to, but I had a regular dental appointment, and afterwards they gave me some sugar free gum to chew, and before I knew it, I was walking and chewing gum at the same time!

Why is this a big deal? For starters, in the hospital I was told that I was not able to swallow properly. A speech language pathologist came to my home to watch me eat–that was awkward–after I got out of the hospital. She pronounced my swallowing improved enough that I could eat and drink and even take pills without restriction. Since I love to eat, that was a great day. She also told me that swallowing requires the coordination of hundreds of muscles and nerves, which makes it one of the most complicated things that a body does. And the stakes are high because if you don’t swallow properly, food can go into your lungs, cause pneumonia, and kill you. Fun fact, as La Neige would say.

(So when I say that I inhaled a piece of Mexican chocolate cake at my favorite restorant, I may not be speaking metaphorically.)

I love food, I love the way that it sustains us, I love it as an outlet of creativity. For the past several years, I have been following the blog Smitten Kitchen because

  1. I like her chatty style
  2. She shows that you can cook anything in a tiny, unglamorous, urban kitchen.
  3. She is a former vegetarian and is vegetable-forward
  4. You can find a recipe for pretty much everything on her site, including great brisket and my go-to latke recipe, which has a little too much  salt, FYI

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I took a hard look at my diet and gave up alcohol and also went mostly-vegan. That was not hard. My deal with myself was that I was going to eat healthy, but if things went badly, I was allowed to eat whatever I wanted. Because, really, no one has eaten more raw kale in their lives than me, so I feel that I deserve any chocolate that comes my way.

But then I had to think about what I wanted to eat. Turns out, I don’t care about alcohol much, but I have a very sweet tooth, and I looove fruit.

So if I’m craving carrot cake, I’m going to make the carrot cake. What is not a good idea is eating a slice of carrot cake, having your husband say, “Is this carrot cake cooked all the way through?” then putting the carrot cake back in the oven and forgetting about it for two hours. If you do this, you will not have edible carrot cake.

But there’s more! When I was up at 5:00 (because steroids) I had time to make an apple/pear/cherry crisp that was still warm for breakfast. This recipe is a keeper. You might think that you don’t need a whole stick of butter for breakfast, but you would be wrong. Also, you can make it with any kind of fruit you like. I used Cortland apples and bosc pears and some frozen cherries that I had on hand.

So there I was in the dental chair yesterday, and the dental hygenist said to me, “So what’s your prognosis?” OMG. I have tried to be grateful for anyone who is brave enough to engage with me around a difficult subject. But don’t do this. Don’t ask anyone what their prognosis is unless you are prepared for the answer that you don’t want to hear. I was not in the mood to make the nice dental hygenist feel better about my cancer prognosis. I think I said something like, “It’s not good.” And I managed to say this while she cleaned my teeth, with poor speech and swallowing.

THEN she said, “Did you catch it early?”  OMG, OMG. Don’t do this. “Catching it early” is part of the narrative around cancer that I hate more than anything. And there’s a lot to hate about cancer. So let me just put it in writing–it seems when someone says, “Did you catch it early,” they’re really saying

  • It’s okay, because you caught it early!
  • Did you do what you were supposed to do? Because you’re supposed to be vigilant enough to catch cancer early. And if you don’t, it’s your fault, so I don’t have to feel bad for you. After all, notice that I asked if you caught it early!
  • Did you exercise control where you could? Because I cannot deal with the fact that illness strikes randomly.
  • Were you paying attention to your family history, like you were supposed to? (Fun fact, I have no family history of breast cancer.)

In fairness, we are trained to ask this question, so there should be no shame around asking the question that we are trained to ask. Lately there is a small literature that has arisen around training people to ask new questions. But that seems exhausting–not everyone has the wherewithal to figure out what the right thing to say is. Honestly, there is no right thing to say.

What I have noticed is that there are two groups of people who seem to understand the cancer experience, and they are 1) people who have experienced chronic illness and 2) people who are inherently religious and whose religious traditions tell them to provide for the sick. I am grateful to these people and to the traditions that guide them.  (Edited to add: I could also include the wonderful mental health professionals in my life, but they understand chronic illness very well and are maybe even in the first category.)

Or, as I recently heard in a brilliant On Beingpodcast:

But, this is — it sounds funny — one of the great joys of working with people on the edge of life. The view from the edge of life is so much clearer than the view that most of us have, that what seems to be important is much more simple and accessible for everybody, which is who you’ve touched on your way through life, who’s touched you. 

From my recent walk around London. Have you had poutine? IMG_0818[1]



It’s Taco Tuesday, y’all. Also, the Instant Pot

The vicissitudes of life are many and are unpredictable. But one constant is that Tuesday is Taco Tuesday. Unless it’s Taco Tuesday on a Wednesday, which happens. And for Hanukkah, I even got metal taco holders, thanks to one LL.  This party is going to be off the hook, to quote Arrested Development.

If we’re honest, no one is sorry that Hanukkah is over because the work involved is not proportional to its spiritual import. I’m busy tapering off of dexamethasone, so I may have been up in the early hours gloating over my Hanukkah haul of chocolate, metal taco holders, a new Canadian wallet, twee movies, a fashion memoir, a Happy Lite.

The kids are now past the toy stage, and I’m pretty sure that all they want for the holidays is a fluffy hoodie and all the books that they can read. The fluffy hoodie is the big item this holiday season, it seems.

I also got organic cotton pjs for both kids and accessories, with an owl and narwhals, respectively. The Prophet got Star Wars underwear so that I don’t feel like I have to wash the same pair over and over. A few months ago I was like, “I like the tie-fighters on your underwear,” and he said, “Those aren’t tie-fighters. They’re x-wings and Millennium Falcons, Mommy.”  I guess he told me. Obviously, I have fully embraced my status as the annoying/awkward mom who bothers you while you are getting dressed.

In important family news, we have started Frankenstein. Much as it is a brilliant novel, Mary Shelley had a vision that she then subjected to the byzantine requirements of Victorian fiction. So we’re reading, like, letters-within-letters, in order to get to the bottom of the hubris of modern science.

This weekend I broke up with my Instant Pot. That was the worst thing that happened.

It was a Saturday like any other. I got up early, made breakfast, and went to the market. I made a lovely breakfast for myself and The Prophet of corn tortillas, sharp cheddar, cannellini beans, cilantro, and salsa, which might be much better than it sounds.

(A little digression: cannellini beans are THE BEST. They are creamy and flavorful, and you can add them to anything.)

When I got back from the market I put chicken wings in the Instant Pot Mini to make bone broth. A few minutes later I heard a “woosh” from the kitchen, and that was the sound of the Instant Pot overloading the fuse and then releasing all of its pressure and my broth in a hurry. Annoyed, I wiped everything up with a mop, refilled the pot with water and apple cider vinegar, unplugged it, and plugged it back in again.

Then it happened again!

The fuse, the pressure release, all the liquid everywhere. I went downstairs and got all the rags I could find, wiped and mopped, put the broth ingredients on a pot on the stove, and swore to myself over and over. The Historian then mopped and wiped down the inside of nearby kitchen drawers because they had broth in them.

The Instant Pot is about a year old, and I like it so much that I have given it as a gift. But no more. Annoyed as The Historian was to find the kitchen covered in chicken broth, he did not want me to have to give up a beloved appliance, but there is nothing that thing can do that a pot won’t do. It seems like nothing lasts much more than a year these days. Consider yourself warned.

So my brain is still a bit fuzzy. I can read for short periods of time, but I have been listening to a lot of podcasts. Here are my podcast recommendations: