Friday, December 10, 2010

Quick Update & Abstinent Cranberry Relish

Hi. Sorry I haven't posted in such a long time; I've been busy and my arms have been sore, so I've had to be choosy about how to spend their limited capital. Some great things have happened, like my disability status was approved by the Social Security Administration. That whole ordeal is worth a blog post in itself.

So, I need to post something short, so I want to share my abstinent cranberry relish recipe. By "abstinent," I don't mean a cranberry relish that is saving itself for marriage; I mean abstaining from compulsive eating, which for me means not eating foods with added sugar. Cranberry sauce is tough to make without sugar, but I've tweaked a recipe that turns out really well. I'm happy to share it; it's really tasty with turkey or even on yogurt.

Abstinent Cranberry Relish

1 bag of fresh cranberries (can substitute frozen)
1 sweet, red apple peeled, cored, and diced
1/2 can crushed pineapple in natural juice
1 small, very ripe banana, mashed
Optional: sweetener (sometimes, depending on the natural sweetness of the berries, I need to add some Truvia)

Cook the cranberries on the stove in a saucepan in 2 cups of water for about 10-15 minutes. Add apple and cook for 10 more minutes. Remove from heat and add 1/2 can of crushed pineapple and mashed banana. Sweeten if desired. Enjoy!

Friday, November 12, 2010


I was listening to the Nov. 7 Tranquility Du Jour podcast about creativity and the importance of creative expression in one's life. It really resonated with me, especially after my flight out to Phoenix two weeks ago. I sat next to a woman who was knitting a baby bonnet, who was kind enough to let me do some stitches. I had to give up knitting when my Lyme Disease (LD) struck, because my disability mostly manifests in my arms. I had very limited arm capacity, and it was more critical for me to save my arm strength for necessities instead of spending them knitting. It broke my heart, but I basically packed up that part of my life in a bag, stuck it in a closet, and tried to forget about it. I wasn't a good knitter, but I really enjoyed it and it relieved stress. Knitting those few stitches on the airplane really reminded me of how much I missed it.

As I've chronicled on this blog, my LD journey has been arduous and painful. At my worst, I was taking narcotics every six hours and it barely took the edge off my pain. I couldn't write, push a grocery cart, cut a vegetable, or even wash my own hair. But as painful as that was physically, it wasn't as awful as the heartache of not being able to express myself. I lost my ability to write, knit, and cook/entertain -- my three primary creative outlets. So in addition to losing my arms, my job, and my social life, I lost my voice. I felt powerless to create and share my experiences with others. It is part of what made 2007-2009 the darkest years of my life. Yes, I tried voice-activated software, but it really sucks unless you pay $2,000 for the software designed for quadriplegics. Example: I told the program to "scroll down," and instead it typed "scrotum." It takes many hours to train the voice-activated software to your voice and way of speaking, and it is so sensitive (it is based on software developed by the CIA), if you are tired, in pain, or otherwise off your game, it will impact you training the software. I was all three.

The podcast I heard reminded me how nurturing and important creativity is to my spirit, and that I need to make time for it the same way I prioritize taking care of my body, my 12-step program, and my marriage -- my top priorities at this stage in my life. Writing is my primary outlet for creativity, but -- you'll notice if you look at how often I post -- I fit it in around the edges. I'm also very wordy, so posting takes a very long time. I need to schedule 15 minutes a day to write, so I'll have my creative outlet and get a lot more writing done. I have tons of things to say! I am thrilled that I am starting to knit again -- I'm working on a scarf and I'm hoping to re-learn the things I've forgotten and pick up more advanced skills. I hope to chill out about it this time around and enjoy the journey instead of worrying about how to make the perfect X.

I encourage you to think about your creative expression and how you can build more of that into your life. We think of creativity as projects you have to take on, like scrapbooking; if that's your thing, go for it, but there are as many creative outlets as there are people. Music, decorating, making home-made cards and cooking are a few that come to mind. I like to make seasonal centerpieces for the dining room table, and arrange a little autumn tableau on our front stoop with gourds and other seasonal items. My husband teases me for this and finds it a little odd, but I think it's a nice creative activity that frankly doesn't take a real investment of time or money.

My recent thoughts about creativity came at the same time I'm learning another lesson from another area of my life I'm working on: the importance of play. When we're kids, it's natural, but we forget the importance of play as adults. It keeps our minds and souls young, and if anything, it probably becomes more important as we age and take on the burdens of adulthood. Play is also critical for a healthy sex life, but that is easily forgotten as our society becomes more and more obsessed with the state of the body. The connection, of course, is that many creative outlets also allow us opportunities to play. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What I Learned From Grandma

My husband David's grandmother, Maurine Brannigan, died last Friday. I felt closer to her than to my own grandparents as an adult, and I'm devastated. Death can be a great teacher, and naturally leads us to reflect on how the deceased lived his or her life. I don't have to think real hard about what Grandma taught me; the lesson is obvious.

For lack of a better term, I came from what I will call a "limited" family. There always seemed to be drama and strife among different branches of our very small clan. I had an extremely insular, stingy view of family. So what an eye-opening experience meeting David's family was! First of all, there are a lot of them. They are loud, but loyal and united. Above all, they are extremely inclusive. The most dramatic example of this the Brannigan's relationship to the adoptive parents of one of David's first cousins. The cousin, Jon, was given up for adoption as an infant and raised by a local family. His biological parents ended up marrying and having two other children. When Jon turned 18, he got back in touch with his biological family. There are many ways this could go, right, most of which is the stuff of talk shows, therapy, and advice columns, right? In the most stunning display of peace and generosity, the Brannigans have bonded tightly with Jon's adoptive parents. They are at every wedding, holiday, and other family celebration. At Jon's wedding, both his biological and adoptive parents were represented in the wedding party.

The Brannigans also easily adopt "strays"; people who don't have any family nearby who are absorbed as naturally as any blood relative. They, too, are invited to every single family gathering. I experienced this open generosity first-hand as an outsider. From the first time I met Grandma and the rest of the family, I felt totally welcome and accepted. This is all the more remarkable to me when I reflect on what a friggin' mess I was back then; angry, self-centered, judgmental, and wearing all of that for the world to see on my 250-pound body.  I feel like they accepted me even when I could not accept myself.

I see this welcoming family culture as Maurine's doing and family legacy. She was the matriarch of the family and set this open-hearted culture. I and many others are the lucky beneficiaries. Very importantly, my exposure to Maurine and the family she led truly changed me and helped me expand my own definition of family for the better. This was not a easy or quick transition; there was no come-to-Jesus moment. In fact, I was initially very overwhelmed and puzzled by the Brannigans' acceptance, openness, and love. I was baffled at how they could have normative relations with Jon's adoptive family. It just seemed, well, wrong. I can only shrug now and see how what I was exposed to in my own family, and what I thought was normal, was comfortable and fit into my little, tiny box labeled "Family: The Way Things Are." I am so grateful that Grandma showed me a more selfless, loving, and inclusive definition of family. It's one that David and I have tried hard to replicate in our own lives, viewing certain friends as "family-by-choice." They are closer than regular friends and no less important to us than blood kin.

I've found myself over the last few days surprised by my grief at Grandma's death, especially in light of the fact that she was not my blood relative. Then I quickly remember that that is exactly the lesson she taught me: blood is thicker than water, but love is thicker than blood.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Health Care Chills

I just got health care chills, and as a veteran consumer of health care, I don't GET health care chills. Nothing was shocking, until today.

I am in Phoenix, AZ to go to my father's first appointment with his oncologist. He was recently diagnosed with multiple myeloma (MM), a cancer of the plasma cells. Plasma cells are blood cells that make antibodies called immunoglobulin. I am a firm believer that you need lots of people paying attention to health care matters. I take advocates with me to important appointments and think everyone else should too. If you disagree, maybe this will change your mind. Too many cooks can spoil the broth, but not enough cooks can also be devastating. The doc we saw today will not be my dad's main doctor, but he was who was available for us to have a consultation before my dad is scheduled to begin chemotherapy next week. Let me say from the outset that this is no slacker practice; it's definitely a top oncology practice in the area.

For this instance, I had read up on MM to brush up for this consultation, and had read from two excellent sources that if a patient uses certain chemotherapy drugs, it rules out the option of the patient getting a bone marrow or stem cell transplant later. One of my questions for the doc today was, "Is my dad a candidate for a marrow or stem cell transplant?" I got a very non-committal, "We'll figure that out later as we see how things go" kind of response. I told the doctor, "I read in the book your office gave us and on the Mayo Clinic Web site that use of certain drugs rules out this option. Are you planning to use one of those drugs?" The doctor looked at the chemo order and said, "You're right. We are planning to use that drug and it would rule out the transplant option. Clearly we need to figure this out before we begin treatment." The doctor said he would consult with my dad's oncologist and their practice head and get back to him. He added, "If that delays therapy a week or two, it's worth it." We said goodbye and my dad and his wife said that they were really grateful that I was there and had brought that up.

I went to the bathroom, shaking. It is the most dramatic example I have of the need for patients to be their own advocates. Gone are the days where you can assume that doctors have your back and all you need to do is listen and trust. Sorry, hon, you need to take a crash course and become a bit of a doctor yourself, or you can be totally screwed. It is harrowing to think that if I hadn't read the info I had and challenged the doctor on it, my father could have had one dose of a drug next week that would completely rule out his options for treatment forever. Doctors are too stretched to give every patient the best care they can; I happen to think it's an effect of our insurance-driven health care system: docs have to see 35-50 patients a day just to earn enough to pay their bills and draw a decent salary. No doctor can keep great tabs on that many people a day; it would be super-human.

Another dramatic example of the need to be your own advocate from my own health care saga, is that I had to ask my doctor for IV antibiotics for my Lyme Disease. I had read that people with my degree of infection rarely, if ever, get well from just oral antibiotics alone. My doctor was about to discharge me from his care with just four weeks of oral doxycycline therapy, when I said, "I've heard from many sources that people with neurological damage from Lyme need the IV antibiotics, too. Is that right?" He said, "Oh, you want to try that? Sure." I saw a dramatic improvement after the IV treatments; until I had them I could not wash my own hair because I couldn't lift my hands to my head. I had and still have a long road to go in my healing, but there's no way I'd be where I am without those four weeks of IV Rocephin.

I am superbly grateful that I have the wherewithal to be this kind of advocate for myself and my loved ones, and that I have people in my life, like my husband, who do the same for me. I shudder to think about the people who don't have the resources, intelligence, or communications skills to do the same. It's scary to think that your entire quality of life -- or your life itself -- can hinge on the extent to which you do so effectively.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

My Celebrity Encounter

I recently got back from a whirl-wind trip to New York City, where I pushed myself entirely too hard, but had a great time. I love theater, especially musicals, so was glad to buy deeply discounted tickets for two shows through BroadwayBox. The first was Rock of Ages, a show with a weak plot that basically is an excuse to string together every hair metal and arena rock anthem from the '80s. Nothing could be more my cup of tea, so I was super-excited to see this show. Luck was on my side that night; I bought really cheap seats in the back, but the box office informed me that they were upgrading me to 8th row center. Whoo-hoo! My next lucky break was when I noticed the guys next to me were holding LED "lighters" to wave during the ballads. They were handing them out of the door, but I was oblivious to that. I got out of my seat to track one down, but the theater employee told me that they had run out. Oh well! I walked away, but the employee ran after me -- she had found a "lighter" on the floor.

I sat down to read my program, and saw Dee Snider listed in the cast. For the uninformed, Dee Snider is the awesome, awesome singer for 80s hair legends Twisted Sister. He is also the host of the hair metal radio show "House of Hair," and was one of the artist leading the fight against Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). My mom still teases me for having a hand-made "I hate the PMRC" sign on my bedroom door for much of my adolescence. Interestingly, Dee and Alice Cooper are heavy metal's family values guys, having been married and staying faithful to one woman for many years. That led to Dee Snider recently taking a great snap at Al and Tipper Gore when they announced their separation. So, back to me: when I see that Dee Snider is in this show's cast, I lose it; seriously, I get so excited that tears are leaking out of my eyes. This led me to text my sister and my husband the following message: "I am 8 rows away from Dee Snider. Give me one good reason I shouldn't shout, 'I love you, Dee!'" My sister replied, "Because I'd have to disown you as my sister ;)."

The plot for Rock of Ages is feeble, but I enjoyed it anyway. How can you not like a show that turns REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore" into a gay love anthem? I have to say that the audience sucked; they were not into it, and the show is meant to be a big old sing-along. On the plus side, Dee Snider looks amazing.

I have always wanted to hang out after concerts to meet stars, and the various people I attended with, usually rationalists like parents or husbands, always nixed my plans. Finding myself alone in NY with no one to nix my plans, I decided to try to make a go of meeting Dee. I sniffed around outside until I found the stage door exit, and watched various actors leave, including the lead, Joey Taranto (what a cutie!). I asked some of them to sign my program. A group of people were hanging around, prompting the security guard to ask who they were waiting for. I appointed myself the spokesperson of the group and said, "Dee." The guard replied, "You know, he's really new to the cast, and he has family in town and he's showing them around. He'll be at least an hour." This was met by a massive groan, and all but about six people left. "That's ok, I have nothing better to do," I lied. After the crowd dispersed, the guard looked at me and said, "You are a true fan. I was screwing with those people. Dee won't be an hour. If they were real fans, they would've stayed." Yeah!

Ten minutes later I was rewarded with Dee Snider. I said, "Dee, I have been a fan of yours for decades. I read your book when I was a kid, and it helped me." Yes, he wrote "Dee Snider's Teenage Survival Guide," and I am probably one of 50 people in the country who has read it. In fact, note that the first review of it on Amazon says that it was "published in one of the Russian teen magazines." At the news that I read his book, Dee gave a warm, huge laugh and said, "YOU DID?! That's awesome!" before taking me in his arms. He was really sweet, genuine, and kind, and it was a huge rush for me to meet him. Yes, he signed my program, but no, I don't have a photo, but that's ok. When I was hanging around the stage door, I was slightly nervous that I'd meet Dee and that he'd be an asshole; I specifically thought of the line from "Limelight," a Rush song : "I can't pretend this stranger is a long-awaited friend." So, I was relieved by Dee's friendliness.

In a tangentially related closing, I just became full of gratitude for my parents and their senses of humor. Between me buying books like Dee's survival guide and "The Satanic Bible", the anti-PMRC sticker on my door, and the six-foot posters of Motley Crue, Poison, and other guys who looked like chicks literally covering my wallpaper, I give my parents a lot of credit for tolerating that stuff and not laughing when I could hear them. I can't imagine what they were thinking, but I'm grateful because I really think I might have attempted suicide if not for the outlet I found in music. Junior high through high school was the worst time in my life, and rock music made it bearable.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Happy Weight

I heard a podcast today that featured an interview with Kathianne Sellers Williams, a registered dietitian, life coach, and artist. She made a comment about helping clients find their "happy weight." She defines this as a weight at which you feel comfortable and at which you don't have to do anything extreme to maintain it. The distinction is more holistic than the traditional mode of thinking about weight-loss goals: the ever-ambiguous, just-out-of-reach "healthy weight," which varies based on whatever chart you're using.

I've lost about 103 pounds but am still about 25 pounds overweight. For about a year, I have been trying to lose more weight, but in reality, I have gained and lost the same four or five pounds over and over again. I perked up when I heard Sellers Williams talk about the "happy weight," because I've felt very dejected by failing to get my body to release more weight by cutting down on my calories and increasing my exercise. I've tried, and it's not budging. I've worked with my registered dietitian to change my food plan, and I already weigh all my food, so I have exact portion control. I can't exercise any more than I am due to my physical limitations from Lyme Disease, so I'm really doing all I can. The truth is that my dietitian could cut more food from my food plan, but that leaves me hungry and unsatisfied, which then makes the temptation to binge quite unmanageable. I'm just not willing to walk around hungry and cranky all the time just to lose some more weight.

During this weight plateau, it also has occurred to me that I would mostly be satisfied at this weight if I didn't lose another pound. I can buy clothes off the rack, not in the plus size section. I no longer take up 1.5 seats on the bus, and people sharing an aisle with me in an airplane can have their full (albeit, tiny), seat to themselves. My weight doesn't limit any of the physical activities that I want to participate in. There was a time when I wouldn't ride a horse, or be able to walk to the movie theater close to my home, or feel comfortable swimming because someone would see me in a bathing suit. Thank God, that's not the case anymore. Do I love my body? Hell no! I wish. My body shows the scars of my eating disorder: stretch marks, cellulite, and hanging skin. It's not gorgeous, and as much as it pains me to say this, it probably never would be -- even if I lost these last 25 pounds. But by dressing semi-well and occasional judicious use of Spanx Higher Power Panties (they're the bomb!), I manage to look ok clothed.

When Sellers Williams works with clients to help them find their "happy weight," one way they arrive at that number is by looking at the client's weight history. I have had two nutritionists I've worked with tell me that given my weight history -- how obese I was and how young I was when I became obese -- that it would be extremely unlikely that I'd ever get to be an ideal weight on a chart. One of the nutritionists said, "If you ever made it below 150 pounds, that would be incredible. Much more than that is not realistic given your background." Happily, I am below 150! I've exceeded their expectations.

Although I find the concept of a "happy weight" quite freeing, there is still a piece of me that resists it. My rational brain says, "You need to be as healthy as possible, and it's not healthy to carry extra fat." True, but we can't say I haven't tried to lose it, and again, we have to acknowledge that my health history makes it unlikely that I'll ever be thin. More critically, we need to take a more holistic view of what health means; it certainly is more than a number on the scale. It includes data like blood chemistry, lung capacity, and endurance, but also sanity, balance, serenity, and other non-quantifiable markers of a quality, healthy life. For the record, with the notable exception of my Lyme Disease, I do seem to be quite healthy. I used to have elevated insulin levels and triglycerides, but those and other health markers normalized after I lost 40 pounds.

Another thing that conspires to keep me from embracing the concept of a "happy weight" is some peer-pressure from inside OA rooms to be a good role model for the program and demonstrate three-fold recovery: emotional, spiritual, and physical. When people see me, they see an average-looking American woman, meaning someone who could stand to lose a few pounds. They don't know how much weight I've lost and how hard I've worked to facilitate that. I think I just have to let this one go: if some people in OA rooms judge me for still being somewhat overweight, oh well. I can't control what they think, and they have the right to their self-righteous judgment. Whatever. It also occurred to me that fighting this weight my body seems to have settled at (which, by the way, it is evolved to do -- if you lose enough body weight it triggers the "starvation" switch in your brain, at which point the body fights like hell to hold on to every last pound) is very antithetical to Step 3: became willing to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him. Step 3 is about surrender, not fighting. Isn't what I'm doing by trying to nudge the scale down -- and failing -- fighting? It sure feels that way, and I'm tired. And I think I'm done. If God, my body, or whatever sees fit to release more fat in the future, great, but I think I've given it a good go and now I need to let go, and enjoy my new, mostly healthy body.

Monday, August 30, 2010


About eight weeks ago I was longingly looking into the "Mind-Body" studio at my gym, wishing that one day my body would be up to taking a yoga class. Damara, the group fitness instructor, came up to me and said, "You should take that class." I replied, "I will, one day." "No, you should do it now," she said. I launched into my explanation that my Lyme Disease has left me so disabled that I couldn't possibly do yoga. Damara told me that the instructor is amazing, and that I should just pull her aside and tell her about my disability and that I'm a newbie. I went into it with a good attitude: that I would do only what I could, when I could, and that was fine. No hurting myself, no pushing myself into pain, no worries about not keeping up. I stuck to that, and found the class surprisingly enjoyable. It challenged me in a good way.

I went back to that class and another led by another instructor that Damara recommended, and now, I'm hooked. My body is getting stronger more rapidly than it has in years, and I'm seeing some surprising (and welcome) strength gains. Lifting free weights triggers the pain in my arms, but evidently my body can handle supporting its own weight most of the time. If this was all I got from yoga, it would be enough. In fact, watching my husband's face as I used my arms to lift myself to sit on the kitchen counter would've been enough. But I'm finding that the yoga practice I'm beginning is changing my life in profound, unexpected ways. It's thrilling. I am certainly becoming more mindful, and calmer -- yoga reboots my nervous system. I had a good example of this one recent weekend, when I was feeling very irritable and discontent for many reasons. Since it was my Sabbath, my usual options for blowing off steam for prohibited for me: I couldn't call a friend, write a journal entry, escape via TV. My husband was at synagogue, so I couldn't talk things out with him. I didn't have an immediate outlet for my restlessness, so I unrolled my yoga mat and started doing the little bit of yoga that I know. 35 minutes later, I felt significantly less tense.

Through yoga, my senses are deepening: I am acutely aware of how the breeze feels in my hair, or how the sun warms my skin. On the best days, everything feels more vivid, like when "The Wizard of Oz" movie changes from black and white to technicolor. My existence is becoming more colorful. I'm also definitely noticing differences in how I relate to other people. My compassion is growing. I get annoyed less often (but we don't talk about yesterday!) The other day a car cut me off when I was trying to cross the street in a pedestrian crosswalk. The driver accidentally sped through the intersection, realized it, and made some kind of "sorry" gesture. Instead of getting pissed and giving her stink-eye, I found myself waving and nodding "it's ok" to her. Whoa! What have you done with Sarah?

For all these reasons, I'm enthusiastically trying to practice yoga regularly and learn as much as I can about it, with all the zeal of the recently converted. It certainly is not just about the asanas (postures); yoga is geared to strengthen people in the areas where I'm personally weak: mindfulness, judgmentalism/criticism of self and others, contentment, being reactive, etc. This point about the holistic nature of yoga became very clear to me recently, when I hung out with a friend who is currently training to be a yoga teacher, but was acting distinctly non-yogic. Where I saw the improvement in myself is that I reacted to her harshness with compassion and sadness for her, instead of any feelings of judgment or superiority. We are all on a journey, and hers has been especially difficult lately. I was in one of the really shitty situations she's reacting to harshly, and I was able to explain how I've been able to approach the issue with more compassion to the offending person as I've grown older.

No authentic spiritual discipline is all pretty, in my opinion, and that includes yoga. My practice is bringing up all kinds of psychic sludge that I carry, and my little brain is looking for e-s-c-a-p-e. Illegal substances? I want them with an intensity I haven't had in years. Inappropriate actions? I want to indulge in them. I have spent more time thinking about foods I abstain from than I care to admit. Honestly, I feel like a petulant toddler, if toddlers had PMS. The cool part about all this craving is that I understand why it's coming up; uncomfortable things (the aforementioned psychic sludge) are coming up, and greeting them is unpleasant. My mind is trying to distract me, "Nothing to see here! Move along!" Very importantly, I'm acknowledging these things and working through them instead of numbing out. Pretty nifty!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Elvis Week

When I was 16, I started working at Graceland, the famed Memphis home of Elvis Aaron Presley. What began as kind of a joke ended up being by far the most rewarding and interesting job of my life. Back before the pre-recorded, stock tours visitors to the mansion listen to now, I was a tour guide at Graceland mansion and the accompanying attractions like Elvis's two airplanes, and the really awesome movie that plays in the plaza every 20 minutes. I've watched that movie around a thousand times, and I never got sick of it.

The biggest event of the year for Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE) is Elvis Week, the extravaganza that brings in thousands of Elvis fans around the world to celebrate and mourn The King of Rock n' Roll. Elvis Week culminates with the Candlelight Vigil on the night of August 15, the night before Elvis died at his home. Tens of thousands of Elvis fans walk up the long driveway to Graceland and around to the grave sites of Elvis and his family on the side of the estate. To say that I was snarky about Elvis's hard-core fans when I started at Graceland is understating it; I wondered what kind of losers flew from Asia and Australia to stand in line for hours to file past a grave at a very specific hour. My attitude would soon change.

I had my first unusual siting during Elvis Week as I was walking from the employee parking lot up to the ornate gates of the mansion with my coworker. In Memphis, there are not many homeless people on the streets, and they definitely don't hang out in Whitehaven, the neighborhood where Graceland is. "Oh, Mike," I said. "That's so sad! Look at those homeless people sleeping outside the gates." Mike, a seasoned veteran, chuckled. "They're not homeless -- they're fans!" When I looked again, I saw that the family had an extension cord plugged into an outlet they found somewhere, and they were watching TV on the sidewalk like it was the most normal thing to do. That family, and many others, were camping out to be among the first people to ascend the hill during the Candlelight Vigil. In case you're planning a trip to Elvis Week, please note that no matter how early you camp out, if you are not affiliated with a registered Elvis fan club, you will be behind the thousands of official fan club members, so wear really comfortable shoes. Additionally, book your hotel room really early, or you'll end up commuting in from far out in Mississippi and Arkansas since every hotel room in Memphis and its close environs will have been sold out for 11 months.

As Elvis Week progressed, the elaborate floral arrangements you see above start to roll in from the fan clubs. There are so many of them that few get displayed, and the ones that are displayed on the driveway and at the grave site are rotated frequently to showcase others. I was new to this whole Elvis Week culture, and was a little intimidated at first by the Fans. I mean Fans with a capital "F": the hard-core, Elvis fans. They are easy to spot, as they are usually clothed head to toe in Elvis paraphernalia. Some, but not all, are middle aged and they literally come from all over the world and will eagerly tell you that they saved their money for years to make the journey to Memphis. Some come every year, like the haj. I was afraid the Fans would be really hard on me as a tour guide, or try to usurp my role. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Fans are frikkin' awesome. They are the nicest, most genuine people. They love EPE employees whom they believe are carrying on the King's life's work, and they are eager to show their appreciation. Accepting tips was strictly forbidden, so the fans would bring us roses or get us tickets to exclusive Elvis Week events that their fan club was hosting. Cool stuff like that.

As Elvis Week went on, God softened my heart to the Fans. How could it not be softened? I had hundreds of conversations with the Fans, and a theme became very clear: Elvis made their lives better. They loved Elvis as much for his philanthropy as for his music, and they were totally committed to charitable works and service in the name of the King. I don't know of any other entertainer who has had a similar effect on his or her fans. People are fanatical about many musicians, but how many times have you heard people say, "I work at a soup kitchen because Michael Jackson influenced me to help people in my community" or "I raised $10,000 for a charity because Lady Gaga made me realize the importance of doing my part to make the world a better place"? The Fans truly look up to Elvis and try hard to impart his generosity and charity in the ways they can. How can you not respect that? People often ascribe a religious fervor to Elvis Fandom, but they don't get it: they think that the religious undertones are veneration for Elvis's music. It's not. It's that call to service, to making the world a better place, that illuminates the fans and bonds them together. The Fans love of all things Elvis is critical, of course, but secondary.

My first year at Graceland I was eager to experience the Vigil for myself, so I volunteered to work the night of Aug. 15. I am so glad I did. It was truly overwhelming to see tens of thousands of people holding candles, making their way up the driveway all night to pay their respects at Elvis' graves. They cry. Elvis music plays all night on speakers. I cried. I drove home the next morning after being awake and on my feet for about 14 hours.

Today marks 33 years since Elvis died, and the fans are no less passionate now than they were in 1977 or in 1992-1994 when I worked at Graceland. In fact, 15,000 fans withstood Memphis's 118-degree heat index last night to walk up the driveway and pay their respects. Elvis, I was a doubter when I went to work at your house, but my admiration and respect for you grew during the two years I worked there. I came to revel in your entertainment and respect your commitment to your friends, to Memphis, and to the world at large. I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see. Rest in peace, Elvis.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Walking Away From Health Insurance

Given what I wrote in my last post about how many out-of-network health care practitioners I see, why do I bother having health insurance? I use it more than I let on: for every prescription drug that would be $270 without insurance coverage, I pay $40. My $1,200 lab bill ends up being $23. And God knows I couldn't afford hospitalization without health insurance.

I am supremely grateful that I have health insurance and that our premiums are very low in exchange for ridiculously high deductibles. However, I would really like to see the United States move away from this model of health insurance. Normal insurance is not for everyday things: it is meant to cover large costs when catastrophe hits. We don't get car insurance to cover oil changes, but car accidents. Health insurance as we know it is an anachronistic concept; it was born during World War II when companies had to freeze wages, but wanted to attract employees. Thus, health insurance was invented. It didn't cost the companies much since health care was so much simpler, and people were just more likely to die if they became seriously ill. Another reason to abandon our current ways is that insurance companies are for-profit entities that care above all about earning money. That's not necessarily evil, but when it comes to a contest between making shareholders happy or patients getting the care they need, insurance companies can't be expected to advocate for their customers. It's against their interests. The system is completely adversarial: I want my claims paid, my insurer has a strong incentive to dick around and deny it, or cover a paltry sum.

I would like to see health insurance function more like car, long-term care, and homeowners insurance: used to cover extraordinary, high-cost events. I would like to see all other health care priced for and offered on an open market. I'd like to be able to go to a web site for Radiology Clinic A and see how much they would charge me for an MRI of my cervical spine and compare it to the price of Clinic B. Cost is only one factor that I consider when choosing my health care, so that's not all the information I'd need. In this example, it would be helpful to know whether Clinic A or B has the most powerful magnets, and yes, they differ widely in the Washington area. One clinic in particular, owned by radiologists, has invested in higher-end MRI machines that yield clearer images. In this change that I'm proposing, clinics A and B -- and pharmacies and laboratories and every other player in the health delivery system -- would be competing for my business the same way every other part of the commercial sector does. I could use all of the resources at my disposal to compare the variables meaningful to me and make a choice about where I get my care. After all, we are not just patients: we are health care consumers, which is why drug marketing directed at the public is called direct-to-consumer advertising, not direct-to-patient advertising. Let us be educated consumers and consume!

I used to take a prescription vitamin for acne that was amazingly effective, but not covered by my health insurance. My jaw dropped when I inquired about the price at my local CVS pharmacy, and I thought, "I have to be able to do better than this." I found a pharmacy in upstate New York that sold me the same drug at a fraction of CVS's price. It was a much smaller business than the behemoth CVS, so theoretically CVS should be able to use its bargaining power to get the vitamin more cheaply; instead it imposed a higher markup, and I took my business to New York. Wal-Mart took this type of price discrepancy to heart and started manufacturing and selling its own brand of insulin several years ago to sell it at a much lower cost than even generic insulin already was retailing for.

I think the model that I'm advocating will allow the advantages of a free-market economy to prevail: health care providers who give the best service and who keep their prices competitive will be rewarded with business. It would also lift the ridiculous veil of secrecy around medical pricing. Once, I called the office of a neurologist who has opted out of insurance to ask how much a consultation with him cost. I was told between $400 and $900. That is a big, big difference. Doctors can't reasonably know everything that a new patient visit might entail, but they should be able to narrow the gap by more than $500.

Perhaps best of all, doctors would be freed up from the bureaucratic red tape of insurance companies that tie up their valuable time and resources. They would no longer be beholden to insurance companies' rules that they will not compensate doctors for visits longer than a set period of time, or bully doctors into changing their patients' medication for the convenience of the insurance companies. I'd like to think that removing the insurance barrier would make health care more accessible to all. Without our current system, don't you think it would allow clinics like CVS' Minute Clinic -- an in-store, walk-in clinic staffed by nurse practitioners (NP) or physicians' assistants (PA) who treat common illnesses -- to proliferate? Not everyone can afford health insurance premiums, but many more people can afford the $30 the Minute Clinic charges to test you for strep. I envision many stand-alone clinics staffed by PA's and NP's who have substantive medical education, are authorized to prescribe pharmaceuticals, and who are thoroughly trained to refer patients who need to see a doctor to an appropriate caregiver. Savvy operators of this type of practice would be open late into the night to accommodate people who find it tough to make it to appointments during business hours, and it's that kind of service that would make such outfits stand out from their 9-to-5 competition.

Obviously, in my proposal, insurance companies would shrink dramatically if they only covered catastrophic care, and I think that's a good thing.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sorry, We Don't Take Health Insurance

"Ok Sarah, that will be $1,576 for today's visit," the receptionist at the doctor's office said. That was for a new patient consultation including labs sent to a private laboratory (not Quest or Labcorp, the only ones that have contracts with major health insurers). Granted, the appointment was for a very, very specialized doctor who is one of only 30-40 practitioners of this kind in the United States. I look forward to sharing the details about this with you once the problem is, God willing, solved.

One of the harsh realities of living in the Washington, D.C., area is that fewer and fewer doctors and other health care practitioners take any health insurance. I first encountered this with my therapist, thinking it was an anomaly, but its not. There are whole medical practices here, including gastroenterology practices that charge $3,000 for a colonoscopy that have opted out of health insurance entirely and have no trouble attracting patients. One of my friends from a country with a robust government-run health care system paid $4,000 for all of her prenatal care (minus labs and sonograms, which she got from in-network facilities) from a local pair of obstetricians after being treated like a farm animal at a massive ob-gyn practice that did accept her insurance. She doesn't regret it.

That there are healers who have opted out of taking insurance used to offend me on a deep, guttural level, and frankly, for the therapist, it kinda still does. The main thing that helped me get over resenting doctors who opted out of the insurance system was experiencing the higher caliber of care that I receive from them. At this point, most of my health care practitioners do not take any health insurance. This isn't because I love spending $200 for a follow-up visit to my Lyme doctor when I could see an internist for $10; I need the complex care that these doctors and complementary medicine practitioners excel at providing. They schedule adequate time for appointments (45 minutes) that insurance companies would cap at 10 minutes. My calls get returned promptly, instead of my message languishing at the bottom of someone's in-box.

A good example of this is the time I had a tricky problem involving a drug contraindication. I needed to take an antifungal drug for a gastrointestinal yeast infection, but the drug my yeast was susceptible to impeded metabolization of another drug I take that could kill me if not metabolized prompty. I called my doctor who prescribed the drug I was on already and he told me it was a tricky situation that would take a few days to work out. When he called me back later in the week, he had formulated a plan for me with the National Institutes of Health's lead investigator in the clinical trials of that drug. I thought at the time, "This is why I pay you $500 an hour." In an ideal world I could expect the same degree of effort and resolution from my internist who does accept insurance, but let's get real!

Besides the noticeable increase in the quality of care, the other factor that softened me to seeing docs who don't take my insurance is that I feel like its the crappy policies of the insurance companies themselves that have led to this phenomenon. They pinch pennies so hard, they scream. They will not compensate doctors for appointments that last more than 10-15 minutes, and their reimbursement rates for docs are based on what a doctor's visit cost circa 1969. Most disturbingly, all of the insurance company policies actually put them in the position of practicing medicine without a license; how else can I explain the menacing letters my doctors get asking them if it's ok to switch a prescription drug of mine for another one that is better placed on their formulary? How else can we explain restrictions on the length of appointments they will compensate docs for? One of my doctors told me that he doesn't feel that he can ethically practice medicine within the restrictions set by the insurance companies, so he doesn't try anymore.

Then there's the good old principal of supply and demand: if people in D.C. have the money to pay out of pocket, would you rather make $35 or $200 for an appointment? I thought so. The one thing that sticks in my craw about this is that although medicine is a livelihood, I still harbor some idealism that it is a calling, and that doctors should want to maximize the people they can heal. Limiting their practice to a small subset of the population means that some of the people who most need their care can least afford it. I'm sympathetic to this: my husband David and I made the choice to completely go outside the system in 1999 when money was very tight for us. We just decided that my health care was a top priority, and that we were willing to go into debt to do so. That means that quite a few doctors visits were paid for on credit cards back then. Granted, you have to be at least basically financially stable to have this option open to you; if we were living on the streets, we couldn't have charged doctors visits to Visa. Interestingly, David has had a complete conversion on this issue; he initially went along with my out-of-network jaunts begrudgingly, and now has seen the difference in my care and has come to Jesus, as we say in the south.

Another interesting twist on this is the increase in concierge medicine, like MD-VIP. My old internist joined that program. He still accepts many insurance plans and you still pay for every visit, but in addition you fork out $1500 a year for the privilege of retaining him as your doctor. In return, you're promised good customer service and communication and same- or next-day appointments. It also includes a really thorough annual physical. Of that retainer, my physician gets $1000 per patient and MD-VIP gets $500. I was one of only a few patients who declined to follow him into this program, but he still is my pulmonologist and he's an amazing doctor. When I learned he was joining MD-VIP, I wasn't surprised; not any slouch can command a hefty retainer fee. I wish I had thought of concierge care first.

After reading this, if you're asking, "Why does she still pay for health insurance?" I will tell you in my next post.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Columbine: Everything You Know is Wrong

I read Dave Cullen's book, "Columbine," months ago, but still feel passionately enough to write about it, and it seem appropriate for Tisha B'Av. "Columbine" is a remarkable, detailed account of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO. Cullen painstakingly combs through mountains of legal minutia, forensic reports, mass media, and personal accounts of the attack. He weaves a narrative of the events of April 20, 1999, that manages to be both riveting and respectful at the same time. Two factors kick "Columbine" up a few notches and set it apart from any other accounts you will read about this tragedy.

First, Cullen proves that everything you think you know about Columbine is -- beyond a shadow of a doubt -- wrong. For example, you probably think the perpetrators set out to stage a school shooting. You're wrong. High school murderers Eric Harris, the charismatic ringleader, and Dylan Klebold, his flunky, had meticulously planned for several large bombs to go off and cause mass fatalities at the school. Thank God, Harris was inept in his bomb-making and they failed to detonate; the killers' plans for destruction quickly were downgraded to a school shooting only at this time. That was why Harris and Klebold had only a couple of guns on them for self-defense and ran out of ammo; school shooters would have needed to pack way more guns and ammunition. The irony of this is stunning: Cullen, who read both shooters diaries (in which they foreshadowed their mayhem), illustrates that Harris had incredible contempt for school shooters, whom he thought of as wusses. These guys were planning Armaggedon, and had their plans come through, thousands, not 13 people, would have been murdered.

Cullen also sensitively debunks most of the Columbine mythology, like the myth that Harris shot Cassie Bernall after asking her if she believed in God. Cullen uses recordings from the school library (audio from the four hour ordeal was recorded in its entirety), forensics, and victim testimony to prove that this exchange never happened. In fact, we know that Harris bent down and said only "peek-a-boo" before murdering Bernall. I give Cullen huge credit for pointing out this and other myths in ways that are honest, but also show great respect for the survivors' families. Setting the record straight in the Bernall case was especially delicate because her parents chose to publish the inspirational book "She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall" even after Littleton police told the family that the encounter did not happen as reported.

This brings me to another point that makes "Columbine" amazing: Cullen's deconstruction of what factors collided that allowed myths to be created and perpetrated. Some of these were as innocuous as the fact that the emergency alarms beeped for all four hours, leaving people trapped in the school unable to hear and hampered by tinnitus and pain (oh yeah, and how about trauma?). Some of the myths were born out of the peculiar psychological quirks of the human brain that make eyewitness testimony so unreliable, like the brain's need to fill in gaps in information. Still other myths were born of police ineptitude -- the police were way out of their league and refused help from larger jurisdictions better able to handle an investigation of this magnitude. One of the biggest sources of false information was the role of the mass media during the shooting. Klebold and Harris had TVs on in the school during the attack and used information from newscasts to determine their actions. Simultaneously, students were calling in to the same TV programs on their cell phones giving real-time updates on the situation, only some of which were accurate. This dynamic set up many falsehoods that dominated the media for weeks.

The other thing that makes "Columbine" a stand-out book is Cullen's analysis of the root causes of the tragedy. He reveals the ugly truth that none of us wants to acknowledge: that this tragedy was not preventable. We can have our talk shows, cry, spend money on school security, blame Marilyn Manson (hey, because when is it not fashionable to blame musicians?), and even blame K-Mart and the NRA if you're Michael Moore, and it will not prevent another tragedy like Columbine from happening. I bought Cullen's conclusion entirely: Harris was an angry psychopath and magnetic leader. Contrary to what you heard, he had many friends and girlfriends. Harris found a co-conspirator in Klebold, a depressed, suicidal loser who followed Harris blindly and viewed him as his ticket out of a hellacious world. The combination of the two proved deadly. These boys were raised in good homes by loving, present parents. They wanted for nothing. On the contrary to having no self-esteem, Cullen makes a convincing case that Harris' narcissism was a major player in his psychopathy (it's worth it to look at David's post about the narcissism epidemic). Astoundingly, Cullen manages to pull all of this off without sounding patronizing or seeming like an armchair psychologist. This was a gripping, informative book that reads like fiction.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Time Stand Still

I am not a picture person. Other people snap photos of vacations and occasions to remember them, but when I take photos I am too focused on getting the shot instead of being in and savoring the moment I'm trying to capture. When I spend my time taking pictures -- which I'll never look at again -- I always regret it. My way of remembering is to form an imprint in my mind of the event I want to remember, and writing about it solidifies that memory. So, even though it happened a week ago, I need to write about last Thursday night. If anyone reads it, that's just gravy!

David and I went to pick up a Dustbuster that someone offered on Freecycle. I am trying to be more spontaneous and romantic, so I suggested that we visit a national monument since it was such a beautiful night. It was around 80 degrees and breezy following a day of brutal sun. We decided to head to the Jefferson Memorial, because neither of us had seen it in years and never together. And, let's just be honest, because Thomas Jefferson kicked serious ass.

Let me diverge for a second: I've never understood adults talking about summer unless they had kids or took regular summer vacations. The concept of "summer," as a season during which routines change, never made sense to me. I felt like I was missing something, at odds with a culture that reveres summer. Off the top of my head I can think of several songs that perpetuate this vision: "The Boys of Summer," "Summer Nights," "Summer Loving" from Grease, "Cruel Summer," and "Stone in Love," with its chorus, "Those summer nights are callin', stone in love, can't help myself I'm fallin' stone in love." When people asked me how my summer was going, I'd think, "The same as the other three seasons, only hotter." In fact, remember those magic pictures where you had to focus just right to see the hidden image? I feel like everyone else saw the image -- the iconic summer -- except me.

But there was something in the quality of last Thursday night, where I got it: a magical, balmy feeling, like we were living in an alternate reality. The reality of summer. The windows were down and we were headed down 16th Street, passing iconic D.C. architecture like the Mason's The House of the Temple. We heard one of the most beautiful modern songs that I've ever heard, Live's "Run to the Water." It has a melodic, flowing chorus and lyrics that can be interpreted as a profound religious experience or a profound relationship. Or more accurately, both, like the Song of Songs. If you are at all inclined to enjoy rock music, please do yourself a favor and spend 4 minutes listening to "Run to the Water" on YouTube or Grooveshark. Seriously, this song is so beautiful it makes me cry and get goosebumps.

So it was in this hazy, altered mood that we drove past the White House and toward the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial. It was a good 15 minute walk from the parking lot, and David and I enjoyed a conversation about what makes a monument work. At first I thought it was a "they just don't make 'em like they used to" kind of thing because I dislike the modern FDR Memorial so much, but David reminded me that the Air Force Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial are also modern, yet totally effective. We concluded that the single biggest predictor of whether a monument is effective is whether it picks a point of view and sticks with it. The FDR Memorial tries to be all things to all people, so it succeeds in touching no one (or more fairly, neither of us).

We got quiet as we walked up the steps to the memorial, stopping to turn around and have a clear view of the Washington Monument. My heart filled with gratitude and awe as I held hands with my beloved, and then looked at my beloved, adopted city -- the place I had planned to live (and be buried in) since I was 14 because it held such a magical sway over me. I looked across the Tidal Basin at the city and back up at the pantheon surrounding the bronze statue of Jefferson. At that moment I was completely in the moment and stupendously, ridiculously happy. I totally had a moment out of the iconic Rush song "Time Stand Still," a testament to mindfulness:

"Time stand still
I'm not looking back
But I want to look around me now
Time stand still
See more of the people and the places that surround me now
Freeze this moment a little bit longer
Make each sensation a little bit stronger
Experience slips away
Experience slips away"

David and I took our time at the memorial, exploring it from all angles, and listening to a tour by a Park Service ranger. Stealing a long kiss behind one of the columns seemed like the most natural thing to do, and a ranger even moved away to give us privacy after shooting me a "get a room" look. I assure you we were not inappropriate.

It was really late and we had to be up early the next morning, so we headed back to the car, but not before paying a visit to the George Mason memorial, which neither of us had ever heard of, let alone seen. We eased back into reality, laughingly, when an Iron Maiden song came on the radio. I don't know what made that summer night so remarkable and magical, but it was, and I loved it. I felt grateful to be alive, grateful to be with David, grateful to feel up to having that adventure that night, given the delicate nature of my health, and grateful to live in this remarkable city.

Bizarre Massage Triangle

I need a weekly massage to keep my neck and shoulders mobile; they and my arms are the primary places I still ache and have stiffness from my Lyme Disease. I have a fantastic massage therapist I see every Thursday, but circumstances conspired that made me miss two weeks of massage back to back, and I knew I couldn't go another week without body work. I decided to take a chance with a massage therapist I found on Yelp, my chief source of referrals. It's generally quite accurate, but fate had an adventure in mind.

I could tell right away that Katherine, the new massage therapist, was a little flaky. She handed me an intake form asking about basic health history. As I took it I said, "The primary information you need to know is that I have Lyme Disease." About seven feet away she started to look up Lyme on Wikipedia. "There's nothing in that entry that will help you with the work that we're about to do. I get a massage weekly, and I'm happy to tell you exactly how Lyme affects my bodywork and how we can make it a good session for both of us," I said. Katherine sat down to review the intake form and asked me where the car accident that I had a decade ago took place. Here's how the rest of that conversation went:

Me: "D.C."
Katherine: "Where in D.C.?"
Me: "Northwest."
Katherine: "What intersection?"
Me: "Why do you want to know?"
Katherine: "Because I like to ask my clients questions."

This struck me as very odd and unprofessional, but she topped the weird factor by asking me who hit me in the accident. "I think that's irrelevant and it was a long time ago," I said. By this point, I was definitely not feeling the love toward Katherine, but I was thinking, "I need the massage badly. I'll roll with it and not come back to this weirdo."

So it was a huge shock to me when she shook her head and declared, "You know, I don't think you're a good candidate for massage. There are other healing things you should be doing, but not this." Incredulous, I replied, "Massage is an essential part of my care plan. Like I said, I get one every week. In fact, I have a prescription from my pain doctor for massage so I get the expense reimbursed from my flexible spending account." I was dumbfounded. Katherine answered, "You also need to change your diet. Honey will help you."

Cue Alice Cooper's "No More Mr Nice Guy." I was astounded and thinking, "Do you know to whom you speak?" But what I said was: "Ok, Katherine. That is completely inappropriate. You know so little about Lyme that you were looking it up on Wikipedia five minutes ago, but now you know enough about it -- and about me -- to give me unsolicited nutritional advice? I don't see an R.D., L.N.D., M.D., N.D., or CHC after your name that would make you qualified to give such advice. And by the way, I've lost 109 pounds, largely because I don't eat sugar or honey. This is way over the line. Give me that intake form back; I don't trust you with my personal information." To my great credit, I said this without yelling, cussing, threatening, or calling Katherine any of the adjectives and nouns I was thinking about her. I wish I had remembered to tell her that the bacteria that causes Lyme actually thrives in sugar.

"Fuck," I thought as I left. "I really need a massage. What am I going to do?" I cursed that I didn't have an iPhone for Internet access, and called the only place in the area that I knew had a massage therapist, NustaSpa. I asked if they could take a walk-in, and they could. It wasn't ideal, because I need a therapeutic massage more than a spa-like massage, but it was better than nothing. NustaSpa was gorgeous and I decided that since I was paying a fortune for a sub-par massage, I would eat it up and enjoy the spa experience. My mindfulness practice became very helpful because every time my brain slipped back into "#@#! Katherine," I could say, "Ok, focus on what Ileyna is doing to you now, in this moment." Rinse and repeat about 10 times.

The massage saga had an interesting end: I was going to call Katherine's boss the next day, but she beat me to it and called me back the night of the breakdown. She was extremely apologetic and mortified, and offered me a complementary session with her head massage therapist. I saw him Monday and he was pretty good and very pleasant, but I can't wait to get back to see Gail, my massage therapist today. I usually hug her when I leave her office, but today I think I'll hug her when I see her.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Book Review: "And Falling, Fly"

And Falling, Fly And Falling, Fly by Skyler White

My rating: 2 of 5 stars I have very mixed feelings about this book that I randomly picked up in the library. On the one hand, it explored some interesting questions about mental health and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. On the other hand, it is very pretentious and preachy. The pinnacle of this is a conversation in the Garden of Eden between the snake and the lead male character, Dominic. The snake says that he has already had an apple before tossing one to hungry Dominic. "But I have seen people chewing different fruit from the same damn branch fly planes into buildings secure in what they ingested here." Oh, puleeeze! Seriously? White takes several other thinly-veiled shots at religion and believers throughout the novel.

Another strike against "And Falling, Fly" is that it is quite confusing; I'm still not entirely sure what the precise connection is between Olivia, the main female character --  literally the fallen angel of desire and a vampire -- and the godchild of philanthropist Madeline Wright. Likewise, the book hints that Gaehod, who runs the L'Otel Matillde in what is supposed to be hell, is Satan, but we never really find out.

The book has lots of explicit sex, but none of it is titillating, in part because the entire book is so cheesy and over-the-top. For example, we learn that Olivia's vagina, once stone, magically becomes fully functional with the right partner. Author Skyler White also frequently refers to this organ as "her sex," which I find pretty distasteful. Seriously, there are a few slang words that come to mind that I think are a lot better than "sex" used in this context. This is a big pet peeve of mine.

I rolled my eyes through the whole book, but it must be a success to some degree since I felt compelled to keep reading. Dominic's neuropsychology work held my interest most closely, and I was curious if Olivia would find "her loophole," the thing that might end her torment and allow her to escape the unsatisfying life of a fallen angel.

This is White's debut novel, and I'd urge her to tone down the preaching in her next endeavor.

View all my reviews >>

Monday, July 5, 2010

Team Jacob

If there was any doubt about my loyalties, I am Team Jacob all the way. I finally made it to "Eclipse" last night with my sister-in-law, Jannie. Many film critics have declared it the best of the Twilight Saga movies so far, and I think I agree: it didn't change Bella's sulky character, but did a better job balancing it with other more interesting, animated characters. Like Jacob. And Jacob. Jasper's character got a lot more developed as he trained the Cullen clan to fight the newborn vampire army, and at moments, he even lost that deer-in-the-headlights look. Dakota Fanning was great as creepy Jane.

To me, the case for Jacob is very clear: Bella wouldn't have to undergo an excruciating process to become immortal that will isolate her from her family for decades [disclosure: Edward discourages Bella's desire to be turned vampire, but that clearly is a condition of their relationship on her part because she doesn't want to age while Edward stays perfect at 18. I guess plastic surgery, laser and Botox won't cut it]. Jacob is warm-blooded, not frigid; Jacob can make love to Bella with abandon without having to worry about literally tearing her apart; and Jacob is far more industrious and way less creepy. And let's not forget that Jacob is way hotter than Edward, who looks like Cedric Diggory who smoked some skanky weed.

I understand that there would not be a Twilight phenom if Bella chose Edward over Jacob, and it would dramatically change an important part of the last book and last two movies, but I can't help but sit there and think, "Go for Jacob!" I realized for the first time last night that Edward v. Jacob is really the fight between the privileged upper class and the salt-of-the-earth working man. Looking at the Cullen's ultra-sleek house and luxury cars, they're a stark contrast to Jacob's exposed studs on his bedroom walls and refurbished motorcycles.

Another thing that struck me last night: Stephenie Meyer, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which is vested in a very traditional family structure, makes one of the best cases for polyamorism that I've seen in mass media. This comes through in the "Eclipse" novel, but is particularly glaring in the film, where Bella clearly has romantic love for both Jacob and Edward. She admits to herself and to the guys. "Nu? Go for it!" I thought. Unfortunately, our culture makes her choose, when -- assuming Edward and Jacob didn't otherwise detest each other -- they could've lived as a happy poly family. Of course, one reason that monogamy has won out in most circumstances is that it rarely does end up being a happy family; it's one of those ideas that sounds better than it actually is, according to reliable sources. Ah, but that's another blog post. I wonder how many other people thought of the "Eclipse" poly angle. Then again, I am the girl who thought of sending an email to True Blood's producers begging for a Sookie, Eric, and Bill three-way. When I thought through the plot ramifications, I ditched the idea.

Friday, July 2, 2010


Sorry I haven't been blogging. My arms have hurt substantially lately, albeit for reasons that make perfect sense. I haven't had enough juice to type.

Last weekend, David and I accidentally ended up watching an indie movie called "The Timer" that really struck me. The story takes place in the near-future, but half the population has a timer device implanted on the inside of their wrists that starts counting down to the days when they're going to meet "The One" -- Mr. or Ms. Right, soulmate, beshert (Hebrew word referring to your intended -- your One), whatever you want to call it. In the make-believe science of the film, the timer works by reading levels of oxytocin output. When you and your intended make eye contact for the first time, your timer beeps, so you know your match.

"The Timer" follows 30-something year-old Oona in her desperate quest to meet her One. Along the way, she ends up falling for a grocery clerk. What ensues leads to a movie that is original, entertaining, and yet, profound. The film explores the societal consequences of the device, including:

*What happens when a 13 year-old (the youngest age at which you can get a timer implanted) meets his One when he is that young? How does it impact the families of both kids?
* Is being alone worse than being with the "wrong" person?
* Can we ever be sure about love? What do we do when our hearts and our heads conflict?
* What do you do when you're waiting for your One? Enjoy random hook-ups at will? Stop hooking up? Hook up, but only a couple of times, since you know it's a dead end?

About 10 minutes into "The Timer," I couldn't help but notice the parallels between Oona's desperation and the straits that many Orthodox Jewish singles find themselves in. I don't think this is a phenomenon unique to Judaism, but I think it is very pronounced in the Jewish community, where family is given the highest priority and young people worry about meeting quality Jewish singles past their mid-twenties. In this paradigm, people lose themselves in their quests to find another. They mistakenly think life will begin or that problems will disappear when they meet their partner. Instead of looking inward, they look to external sources like Rabbis, educators, or shadchanim (matchmakers) to validate that another person is their beshert.

Few people stop to consider the implications of the term beshert anyway. It implies that there is just one other person on this planet, which I just don't believe. I think it's more like there's Mr./Ms. Right Now instead of Mr./Ms. Right. If there is only one person for everyone, how do we explain happily married divorcees and widows? I saw how much this beshert concept falls short when I introduced my husband to a childhood BFF of mine. They were so alike (same geeky, obscure books on the shelf and everything), and got along so well, I sat there and thought, "If I weren't married to David, I'd set these two up!" It was a little surreal.

Back to "The Timer." The movie was a good reminder that many paths lead to happiness; there is not one way to travel life any more than there is one beshert for you in life. Different paths lead to different outcomes, but they can all be happy outcomes. I find that both liberating and scary, and I hope I can recall this when I am trying hard to make the "right" choice in a situation, fearful of choosing the wrong path.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Turning Tide

I'm sorry I haven't posted in a while; I felt really crummy all last week, and I had a lot to catch up on before I could blog, like finishing my second application for disability through Social Security (that's a whole other post). I have a third segment to write about my emotional recovery in OA-H.O.W., but I feel like there's a more timely and urgent matter that I want to write about: what I see as a gradual increase in socially acceptable anti-Semitism. 

I grew up in Memphis, Tenn. -- not the most progressive city on the continent -- but felt quite sheltered from any anti-Semitism. I heard of the yeshiva bochurs [male students at a Jewish school] on their way home from synagogue one Friday night being beaten by a gang of thugs just because they were Jewish. The worst thing I ever experienced was some redneck yelling something derogatory out his truck window when I was walking to synagogue. Thankfully, I considered myself very sheltered from anti-Semitism. I'm not one to see things in that light, anyway. Whenever I encountered some difficult person, my great aunt Bettye would say, "Maybe s/he is anti-Semitic," as if this was the most rational explanation for their behavior, as opposed to having a bad day, not liking me because I was a twit, etc. I found her response slightly amusing, a holdover from the unenlightened World War II era she grew up in.

Two big news events this week have put chinks in my armor that lets me rest safely in the delusion that anti-Semitism is uncommon and certainly not socially acceptable. Most recently, the Helen Thomas incident, in which the White House correspondent said that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and go "home" to Germany and Poland. Right, cuz that worked so well after WWII when Jews were greeted with pogroms and mobs to celebrate their homecoming to those countries. Apparently, Thomas' feelings about Israel were well known to conservatives reading different media than I do; I had never encountered this side of her personality, partly because she's been pretty irrelevant as a news correspondent for the past decade or so, and partly because the Liberal media I consume never said a word against her. In fact, Thomas' remarks cited above only garnered mainstream attention when she resigned as a result of the reaction to her comments. I dreaded the inevitable apologist letters that were printed in "The Washington Post." 

This would be a good place to state that I have no illusions that Israel is saintly or blameless when it comes to handling Palestinians or anything else. It's tough to be civil to a population that considers your destruction a religious mandate, and there are many situations where I think, "That was crummy; the Israeli government could've handled that better."

The second thing that has raised my anti-Semitism antennae, is, of course, the flotilla fiasco [If you'd like to see a video summarizing the event, click here. Disclaimer: the music on this clip sucks beyond belief, so mute your speakers.] It has been painful to watch the public and the media buy this charade hook, line, and sinker. The flotilla organizers (a radical Islamist group suspected of terrorist activity and known to fund Hamas) staged this to deliberately provoke and antagonize Israel. When the media descriptions of this vessel said things like it was "carrying humanitarian aid," I knew it was bad; I watched a video depicting the content of the flotilla, and last I heard, bombs, knives, sharpened sticks, and TNT were not humanitarian aid. Granted, there were humanitarian items on the boat, which Israel astoundingly still delivered to Gaza. This blows my mind. I can't spend all night debunking the numerous pieces of misleading propaganda about the flotilla that dominate the mainstream media, but you should educate yourself, perhaps starting with the links above. Seeing the jaded, misinformed descriptions what happened on the flotilla is depressing, and definitely contribute to my feelings that anti-Semitism is on the rise in mainstream America. And then I read Charles Krauthammer's column last week, "Those Troublesome Jews," and it hit me hard.

As if I needed any more ammunition, I found the unedited version of an intro to the "I.S.R.A.E.L. Attack" video game on the Comedy Central Web site, which began, "You lied to me, Jew producer!" The acronym stands for Intelligent Smart Robot Animation Eraser Lady. And this from the network that pussed out over depictions of Muhammad. The fact that Comedy Central incessantly pisses on Christians is the only thing that makes me think that the video game is part of their general irreverence as opposed to a specific attack on Jews or Judaism.

I can definitely get scared and paranoid, so I asked two very optimistic, rational, grounded people if my instincts about the upswing in anti-Semitism were off-base, and both confirmed what I've been feeling. I see a situation developing in which anyone who defends Israel's right to exist and right to protect and defend itself (which includes things like enforcing blockades, which are totally legal, btw), will soon be branded intolerant and ass-backwards. We've definitely seen this in the Washington, D.C., area, where anyone who objects to gay marriage is automatically labeled a "homophobe" or "hate-monger." As enthused as I am personally about the recent legalization of gay unions here, I still understand some people's objections to it, and I think they have the right to feel that way and civilly express their opinions without others assuming hateful things, or calling them names. 

I had a friend who believed that Jews needed to always keep updated passports close at hand so they could flee America when its good graces ran out. I found that shocking then, and I don't want to believe it now, but I can see that he's onto something. One important lesson that I've taken from the last couple of weeks is that I need to make a serious effort to vary my media. Getting all of my news from "The Washington Post," is very limiting. I don't need to read conservative or libertarian blogs every day, but I need to check in a few times a week to keep some perspective, and check some facts. 

It took me two days to write this post. 

Monday, May 31, 2010

Reflections on Three Years in H.O.W.: Physical

There's a saying in 12 step rooms: "First things first." So, first things first, on this Memorial Day, I want to publicly express my humblest gratitude for the men and women who have given service to our country in the military. Thank you.

There's another saying in OA, "Came for the vanity, stayed for the sanity." I can't say I was vain, but I am extremely happy that I have lost 103 pounds sensibly and safely -- without surgery and mostly without exercise. I love exercise, but due to a very serious ankle sprain and two subsequent surgeries, I was unable to really move around too much. Consequently, my weight reduction was mostly caused by my dramatic change in eating habits. This entailed giving up all trigger foods, and retraining my palate to like foods I previously eschewed, like whole wheat bread instead of white bread, and natural peanut butter instead of the sugary junk that passes as peanut butter.

When I came back to OA in June 2004, I was a size 22-24; my jeans were bigger. My hips were so wide, I would sometimes activate the emergency break in the car when my extra fat spilled out of the front seat and into the middle console in the car, actually raising the emergency break unintentionally. I took up 1.5 seats on the bus, and was so easily fatigued. I look back in amazement that I wouldn’t walk to the movie theater that’s just a 15 minute walk from my house, or to the dog’s obedience class only about 5 blocks away, because it was so hard for me to move. Now I’m a size 10-12, and though I still have about 25 pounds to lose, I’m working on it, and I’m mostly happy with my body (except when I see something like Scarlet Johansson in a cat suit. Then I compare and despair). 

The truth is, if I never lose another pound, I'll be ok with that. I feel like I pass for normal in society, even in the fittest city in America, meaning, that my weight is no longer so high that it attracts public attention. I'm glad I'm mostly accepting of my body, because I've had two excellent registered dietitians tell me that because of how much weight I gained at the particular time in my life I gained it (mostly in high school), I am unlikely to ever be a "healthy"weight, as defined by height-weight charts. Hey, I'm glad to move brackets from "morbidly obese" down to just "overweight." That's great! At my current weight I have much more energy, except as compromised significantly by my Lyme Disease. I walked to the movie theater today, and I don’t take up 1.5 seats on the bus.

I've had another miracle of physical recovery in OA: my life is no longer dominated by food cravings and my attempts to fulfill them. Those cravings used to control me, as I described in detail in my last post. Because I've eliminated all trigger foods from my food plan, and because I don't allow myself the option of volume eating because I weigh all my food, I am mostly craving free. This is as miraculous as the weight loss itself. Now, when I occasionally have cravings, I can usually pinpoint the source to PMS or emotional turmoil. Most importantly, I understand that just because I have cravings doesn't mean I have to heed them, and I choose to use an OA tool instead.

One last thought: I told a friend that I hated myself at my old size. That comment alarmed her because she was afraid that if I gained all my weight back, I would hate myself. Don't get me wrong, I felt terrible about myself when I was so obese. However, what was really behind my comment was that I can't like myself when I am practicing the behaviors that got me to 250 pounds. Its hard to respect the self-centered, conniving, dishonest woman I have to be to reach that weight. We're not talking a slightly unbalanced diet -- it was an addictive feeding frenzy. 

So I'll end this post where I began it: with gratitude. I am grateful to be in recovery now, and very thankful to has a husband who totally supports me in this. A few minutes ago he asked, "How is your program?" So sweet.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Reflections on Three Years in H.O.W.: Spiritual

This is the first part of a three-part post discussing the spiritual, emotional, and physical facets of my recovery from an eating disorder.

May 25 marks three years of back-to-back abstinence (which is equivalent to sobriety in AA) in O.A.-H.O.W. HOW is one just one way of working the Overeaters Anonymous program, but it is a very structured approach. It is the reason that I do things like a daily writing assignment, making at least three calls to other people in OA, and committing and weighing all my food (yes, even my vegetables).

I chose to work the HOW concept because I was attracted to the spiritual, emotional and physical recovery that I saw in HOW meetings. I first began attending HOW meetings because I was desperate to see living examples of people who had as much weight to lose as I did, who did it safely and without surgery. I couldn't find examples in my local, traditional OA meetings, so I started hanging out in HOW circles. At the time, I thought people in HOW went overboard, and I found their approach quite threatening. Thankfully, I was able to find abstinence in traditional OA, albeit still with a strict sponsor. A sponsor is your guide in a 12-step program; people work with sponsors in a variety of ways, but at the very least, your sponsor is usually the main person who helps you work the 12 steps and holds you accountable.

I had my right ankle ligaments reconstructed in June 2006. It was very hard for me to leave the house, so I started doing OA phone meetings at that time in lieu of face-to-face meetings. The very first HOW phone meeting had just started on Wednesday nights, and I called in every week. In HOW meetings, we read a lot from primary 12-step texts. Anyone can do those readings. We also read summaries of the eight tools of recovery, and then HOW sponsors (and only HOW sponsors) share their personal experience with using those tools for up to three minutes. At meetings, only I grew frustrated being on the sidelines, and not being able to fully participate in the meeting since I was not a HOW sponsor. At the same time, I became willing to do the two things that up to that point had kept me from jumping into HOW with both feet: weigh my food in public, and give up alcohol.

At the time, I thought it was slightly amusing that I was taking all this on. After all, I was at my sickest with my Lyme Disease: I couldn't write, type, or cut vegetables, among many other things. I can see clearly now how much the HOW concept has saved my butt over the course of my extended illness. The reality of having to talk to three other people in program and my sponsor every day means I can't isolate. The emphasis on service both in and out of the program has really allowed me to get out of my head and think about how I can help others, which is especially useful when I'm full of self-pity about having been so sick for so long. The fact that I sponsor two amazing women who need to speak to me six days a week before they start their busy days means that I have to wake up by 7 a.m. instead of sleeping until noon like I would otherwise.

A major thing HOW has done for me is really spur my spiritual growth. The most poignant example of this is my change in my observance of kashrut [the practice of keeping kosher aka adhering to Jewish dietary laws]. One of the most painful and shameful parts of my food addiction was the discrepancy between my public face of being an Orthodox Jew, and my private hell of binging five days a week on McDonalds, Burger King, etc. I felt like a fraud. Oh yeah, that's because I was a fraud. I prayed and prayed to God to keep me from sinning in this way; I knew it was wrong, but I couldn't stop. Now I know that as long as I was putting addictive foods in my body that triggered my compulsive eating, and as long as I engaged in compulsive eating behaviors, there was no way in hell I could have stopped. When I am eating sugar, my compulsion is off to the races, religion be damned. This is really like the alcoholic who has only one drink, but soon is blacking out. For an addict, one is too many and a million never enough.

The feeling of sneaking all of this treif [non-kosher] food was one of humiliation, fear, disgust, and exhaustion. It took a lot of planning to procure the cash to binge, because I wouldn't use a debit or credit card at a restaurant that would allow my husband to see how I was drawing down our bank account. He used to wonder why I was regularly withdrawing $60-100 in cash a week that mysteriously disappeared. When I ran down our bank account, I would go to a drug store and buy junk food there, since that was a "legitimate" looking charge on our statement. Then there was the whole element of how I would avoid seeing Jewish friends when going on my daily sprees; I had ready-made excuses about why I was buying such-and-such thing. I was always looking over my shoulder.

Thanks to recovery, that dark time of sneaking around fast food joints is long passed. It feels so light, clean, and honest to be able to look in the mirror and have my outward appearance and behavior match my inner faith and values. Please don't think I'm never tempted: the other day I walked by an Italian restaurant and could feel the texture and taste the mozzarella sticks and tomato sauce in my mouth. I'm thankful that I can have cravings today and know that they're just cravings -- I don't have to give in to them, and they will pass. Now, when I go into a McDonalds, it really is just for a diet coke or bottle of water!

Thanks to the work I've done in the HOW concept, I feel closer to God now than I ever have. I have true joy in celebrating my faith, and have made it a priority to engage in regular, formal prayer, in addition to my freestyle prayer in the mornings. I'm even becoming one of those people I've wanted to be for so long: the type who regularly checks in with God, not only at set times of the day or when I need something, but just to check in. More and more, when I have to make a decision, I try to discern God's will for me instead of making it all about me. It's good.

Insurance company readers: this post took me two days.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Very Un-American Wedding

"Have you ever been to American wedding?
Where is the vodka, where's marinated herring?
Nothing gets these people going, not even Gypsy Kings
Nobody talks about my Supertheory
of Supereverythings!

So be you Donald Trump
Or be an anarchist
Make sure that your wedding
Doesn't end up like this.

I understand the cultures
Of a different kind
But here word 'celebration'
Just doesn't come to mind."

-- "American Wedding," Gogol Bordello

I am spoiled by Orthodox Jewish weddings, which are marked by copious celebration, complete with skits, costumes, and tricks. The bride and groom -- who are likened to a king and queen for a week after their nuptials -- are seated together on the dance floor, and their wedding guests entertain and delight the couple. Collectively, this is all called "shtick." For example, people dress up in wigs and costumes and write messages on poster boards to the couple, or do magic tricks or gymnastics. My husband and a friend always find empty wine bottles, fill them up with water, clink bottles, and down the "wine" while the couple looks on. Occasionally, some dumb yeshiva [Jewish institution of learning] student will coat his black hat in lighter fluid and set it on fire. That one is not one of my favorite pieces of shtick.

Ironically, I used to dislike shtick: I found it annoying and less-than-classy. I thought that weddings should be tightly-scripted, formal affairs, and that anything with that level of spontaneity was untoward. It took going to several lackluster American-style weddings for me to see the error of my ways. Now matter how joyous, without the shtick, I found them boring, and somewhat soul-less compared to what I'm used to. Gogol Bordello's song "American Wedding," quoted above, captures this perfectly and is worth Googling and listening to if there's a remote chance you'll like a song in the genre Gypsy Punk.

With this in mind, I was pleasantly surprised by my dad's wedding this weekend in Phoenix. My dad loosely affiliates Jewishly, and his wife Maria is a Mexican Catholic, so I was expecting a yawner of a wedding. Luckily for David & me, this was most definitely not an American Wedding, but a Mexican wedding! The ceremony was short and sweet, and took place outside at a beautiful resort in Tempe. We had dinner inside, and then the crowd quickly segregated: Caucasians sitting around drinking, and Latinos on the dance floor. I knew which of these looked more fun, and I was completely determined to enjoy myself. One of the blessings of being so sick is that it has made me want to embrace all of life that I can, and participate fully whenever my body allows it (this is why I went down the water slide -- twice -- at the pool even though it scared me). So I hung out with the Mexicans, who quickly took me on as a protege, showing me how to do the dances, patiently encouraging me when I felt like I had three left feet. Forget pilates, by the way; meringue dancing makes pilates look like a vacation for your core!

The Mexican dances were really cool and most were choreographed group dancing, similar to the Israeli dances I see at Jewish weddings. One of the funniest moments was David and me doing the group dance to "Achy Breaky Heart" in Spanish! I was surprised to see three massive cardboard boxes full of shtick. There were masks, Elvis-style glasses, glow-in-the-dark rods, pulsating rings, Mardi Gras beads, crowns that have jewels that light up, and all matter of maracas (neon and plain)! One of the neatest things about this, and a way that it differs from Jewish weddings, is that much of the shtick was dance specific. For example, in one dance describing the bride/groom as kings and queens, the women put on the tiara-type crown, while the guys wore a more basic one. In one of David's and my favorites, a singer croons that you shouldn't call someone "dear," because of the association between deer and cuckolding. We all wore dear hats for that one (see above; thank you to David, my photographer).

I was grateful that I was able to get David into this, because we ended up both having a fabulous time. Neither of us knows how to dance all that well, but at some point in my adulthood I decided, "F-it. I'm just going to go for it and move to the music, and I don't care how dumb I look." Let's be honest: most amateur dancers look goofy anyway, so I might as well join them and have fun. We had to wake up at 5:30 a.m. to make our flight, and planned to stay until 10:00 or 10:30 p.m. Every time we tried to leave, people started chanting "Stay, stay!" in Spanish. How can you leave with that fanfare? We partied until about 12:15 a.m. They went on until 2 a.m., and the partying continues tonight and for a few more days. This is another similarity to Judaism, where couples have seven days of parties thrown for them after their weddings.

So everyone won: the Mexicans were glad that David and I were interested in their culture, my sister laughed so hard she nearly peed herself, and we had a great time and killer workout. In fact, I got the greatest compliment: someone asked Maria, my dad's wife, who the white girl was dancing with the Latin contingent. She said, "Mike's daughter." They said, "Really? She looks like she belongs with you." Awesome.