Smile Therapy

😊 I have long been a bottom-line kind of guy, a value instilled in me early and often by my mother. Among her favorite aphorisms was “the operation was a success but the patient died.” I interpreted this to mean “don’t sugarcoat your failures.” You either reach your goals or you don’t, and you’re fooling yourself if you think there’s any in between. This is the way the world works, and the seriousness of the situation warrants treatment of the pretty scenery along the way as a dangerous and unwelcome distraction that may lead to never reaching your destination.

😊 In my school days, this meant ignoring my friends (“They’re not your friends, they’re your playmates!”) and their fads and fashions, and going my own way. Who cares if they fail, my only concern should be my own success.

😊 This type of goal-oriented worldview makes it difficult to focus on the present. From what I’ve read, “living in the moment” is essential for good mental health even in the best of circumstances. As hard as this has always been for me, a cancer diagnosis has made it nigh well impossible.

😊 I seem to be confused as to which stage of grief I should be in. My natural tendencies are to skip over all the denial and bargaining malarkey in favor of going straight to acceptance. I am always saying “it is what it is.” Facts are good.

😊 Except that the experts say this cannot be done. You have to do the steps. I may be engaging in an effort as futile as riding a self-actualization catapult to the apex of Maslow’s pyramid while perishing of hunger and thirst.

😊 This in no way inhibits my “acceptance” stage pull toward making arrangements. My wife and I recently made wills. I found the cemetery where I wish to be buried and talked with them about a traditional burial and the costs involved. I just want to go down there, sign the contract and hand over the money. I want it done.

😊 My wife accuses me of having given up, and I see her point. While that is not my intent, I don’t want any truck with dishonesty games either. The problem is that not all the facts are in yet. I am still undergoing tests. I plan to do whatever treatment is recommended. And the thought of being a cancer survivor brings a smile to my face. Indeed, the very act of smiling has begun to take on meaning of its own for me. This is no small thing, as my natural disposition might best be described as “grumpy.” Insert ghosts of Lemmon and Matthau here.

😊 So, at least at this point, I cannot agree with my wife’s assessment that I have given up. I pray daily and have others pray for me. And I practice what I have dubbed “smile therapy.” Eye roll, I know. I smile at myself in the mirror every day, just to remind myself that I still can. That anything is possible. Smiling as an act of defiance.

😊 Smile therapy has become particularly important to me in light of my twin bogeymen, pain and the narcotic medication being used to relieve it. My continued ability to work from home has been essential as well. As I explained to my boss the other day, work takes my mind off things.

😊 I thank God for small blessings. And I try not to fixate on those aspects of self-care that I could recently handle and that have become extremely difficult for me in a matter of just a few weeks. I refer to basic tasks such as lifting my right leg to climb into the car or into bed. Some days I can do it, but on others, my muscles go on strike and adamantly refuse. I would be totally out of luck if not for the assistance of my patient and long-suffering wife.

😊 I am tired all the time. Granted, I was never a high-energy person, even in my younger days. Now, however, I am learning to accept a new normal in which taking a shower uses up about every ounce of energy I possess. We ordered a shower chair, and I eagerly anticipate its arrival. I am able to work a full eight-hour day at my computer while seated in my armchair, getting up only to use the rest room. When 5:00 rolls around, I have just enough left in the tank to undress, get in bed, and be out like a light.

😊 Most of the layers of my onion have been peeled away. It makes for a much smaller world. I can only imagine that this will be exacerbated once I begin chemotherapy. I’ll just have to laugh while singing the “It’s a Small World” song from Disneyland (perhaps vomiting in between the repetitive verses).

😊 I do not believe that acceptance of all I have described means that I have “given up.” As I recently explained in decidedly terse terms, “it sucks, but it is what it is.” Denial would be pointless, and I certainly don’t have the energy to bargain as if this were some type of contract negotiation. No rageatar, por favor. For me, acceptance is where it’s at.

😊 But you know me. I need to have a goal. And I do. I want that Cancer Survivor shirt, size 4XL.

😊 Until I get it, I’ll keep right on smiling in the mirror.

😊 Just don’t tell anyone, please. I wouldn’t want to ruin my reputation.


I Don’t Need to Be Reminded

Friday night.  Just chillin’.  I just made a fresh batch of guacamole, I’m flipping through blogs and a song in Japanese wafts through my headphones from my Spotify feed.  I don’t understand a thing the singer is telling me, but her plaintive voice is lovely and the horns, bells, flute and strings backing her up send me into a state of relaxation that seems perfect for the end of a busy week.

The Net is rife with stories about comedian Garry Shandling, who died this week of a heart attack at the age of 66.  For reasons not entirely clear to me, the coverage irks me beyond all reason.  My Zen-like state is gone.

I’ve never been much of a television watcher, so the first time I ever heard of Shandling was during a visit to the old NBC Studios in Burbank back in the 1980s.  (Side note:  I found it somewhat sad to learn, while performing research for this post, that NBC’s TV broadcast operations have since moved to the roller coaster, Harry Potter schmaltz of Universal Studios.  And today’s so-called studio tour?  Its “video host” in Hollywood is Jimmy Fallon, who actually records The Tonight Show a continent away at NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Center studios in New York).

Thirty years ago, I lived in New York and was visiting California for the first time.  I stayed over a few nights with cousins who lived in a gorgeous San Fernando Valley home that was destroyed by an earthquake just a few years later.  They even lent me one of their cars, which turned out to be a comical experience.  For one thing, this was my first time driving the LA freeways.  In the days before GPS and smart phones, I depended on a road map to navigate the labyrinth of freeways that seemed to weave in and out, over and under in a tangled web.  As if that weren’t enough, I quickly realized that my cousins’ speedometer was broken!  So there I was, whizzing along with the high-speed traffic, not really knowing where I was going and trying to drive fast enough to keep up with the flow but slow enough to avoid a speeding ticket.  Somehow, the parking lots that are the Long Island and Cross Bronx Expressways seemed tame by comparison.

I made it to Burbank and participated in the NBC studio tour.  Naïve yokel that I was, I found it thrilling to sit in Studio 1 where The Tonight Show was recorded, before the famous multicolored curtain and the star on the floor where Johnny Carson stood to deliver his monologue.  The group was told that we could return at 4:00 pm to be in the studio audience for the taping, but that Carson would not be there that day.  In his place, I learned, was someone named Garry Shandling (who?).  “He’s very funny,” the tour guide assured us.

Well, excuse me, I didn’t come here from New York to see some Garry Shindig or whatever the heck his name is!  I left extremely disappointed and did not return for the taping.  Today, of course, I would have checked online in advance and determined the proper day to go.  But back then, being a tourist was largely a hit or miss proposition.

While rabid Shandling fans would undoubtedly disagree with me, he will never be on the “A list” in my book.  Yeah, yeah, I know he had a couple of shows of his own.  Call me a meanie if you will, but to me he is not in the same league with comedians such as Carson, Leno, Fallon, Robin Williams and Jerry Seinfeld.

But I digress.  Depending on which website you visit, you’ll see that Shandling was in good health or that he had medical problems.  Pick one.

One of our local television station’s news programs used his death as an opportunity to educate viewers about the dangers of being out of shape as we age.  Obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure are killers, the anchor intoned solemnly, and the average age of fatal heart attacks has now lowered to 60.  The big mistake people make, he continued, is in thinking that controlling conditions with pills is the answer instead of exercising, eating right and losing weight.  So, I guess this means that I am going to die shortly and join Garry Shandling in that great beyond.

Thank you so much for reminding me.  I’d better get my affairs in order, call a lawyer and make out my last will and testament.  Time to buy that cemetery plot.  And, by the way, shame on those nasty doctors for making me take all those pills for nothing!

Apparently, the fact that a lot of us have been fighting (and losing) uphill battles against these conditions since the days of our youth isn’t sexy enough to make it onto TV.  Believe me, we are all aware that we are ticking time bombs and that our days are numbered.  We’ve been to a million doctors, had a million tests, taken oceans of pills.  Meanwhile, we try not to dwell upon our conditions so that we can live some semblance of a normal life in whatever time remains to us.

I’m just glad that I’m not a public figure.  This way, the media circus can’t make an example of me when I’m gone in a misguided effort to educate us regarding health conditions that we are either intimately familiar with or else don’t give a damn about.

Garry, you’ve really made my day.


Losing the Game of Body Poker

My aging body has upped the ante lately, and this is one pot that I may not be able to win. I like this metaphor because, some days, it really does feel like a high-stakes game of poker. I get the feeling that this time my body may not be bluffing.

I am hobbling around with a nasty infection in my foot, gobbling antibiotics like candy and praying this disgusting thing resolves itself sometime soon. I try to stay off the foot as much as possible, which has given me a new appreciation for the importance of being able to walk. Meanwhile, my nightmares are populated with scenes of losing the foot, dying during surgery, being relegated to life in a wheelchair, being fitted with a prosthesis.

I thank God that I have been blessed with a wonderful wife who puts up with me even in bad times. She runs around taking care of everything while I try not to act like a cripple (which I have not done very successfully).

I have lost trust in my new Kaiser doctor, as she diagnosed athlete’s foot when I first came in to the office with this problem. I tried to tell her that I’ve had plenty of athlete’s foot and this definitely is not it. She disagreed and prescribed some ointment that, of course, did nothing to help a bacterial problem. Two weeks later, I show up in her office again to demand answers. My foot looks like a picture in a medical textbook. I remember seeing a photo that looked just like this back in the days when I worked for a drug company. I recall being grossed out then, and now it is me! I cannot shake this dread feeling that I am going to end up in the hospital and that this will all come to a bad end.

As if that weren’t enough, the doctor looked at my blood tests and diagnosed me with celiac disease. This means I am now on a gluten-free diet. Okay, stop for a minute and imagine a vegan on a gluten-free diet. This is a disaster!

As it turns out, nearly all my vegan convenience food (Boca burgers, veggie dogs, bean burritos, “deli slices”) are full of wheat gluten. This pretty much limits my protein sources to tofu and beans.

I really don’t know that I can hack it. Sure, if you look around online, you can find gluten-free vegan recipes. I even found one for scrumptious looking cupcakes with chocolate ganache frosting. But the recipe requires me to start by roasting some beets!! Um, I don’t cook and I don’t plan to start now. This is not going to work for me.

So what are the alternatives? I can stick to mostly vegetables, supplementing them with tofu and canned beans. Or I can abandon veganism entirely and revert to my ovo-lacto vegetarian ways. As tempting as the latter course of action may be, I will start by trying the former. Like everything else in life, I will have to figure it out as I go along.

Now if only this damned foot would heal!

Type 2 Vegan

The Vegan Files

My octogenarian mother is appalled at my strange eating habits, which is how she characterizes my vegan diet.  More times than I can count she has asked me why I feel I have to “do this.”

“It can’t be for your health,” she’ll offer, a reference to the fact that I am obese and have been so since childhood.  The implication is that, if I wanted to improve my health, I’d lose weight, not go vegan.

The truth, however, is that my health has improved since I went vegan a bit over two years ago.  You see, like a few million of us out there, I have Type 2 diabetes.  While this is an equal opportunity malady, it hits particularly hard on those of us with major weight problems.

It has now been almost exactly 30 years since I was first diagnosed.  Initially, I ignored the problem and, surprise, surprise, it did not go away.  Eventually, I ended up with a nasty case of cellulitis in one of my gigantic legs.  As we’ve nothing better to do, let’s spend some time at the local hospital, shall we?

That’s when I was told “you’re in big trouble, buddy.”  I have been on a series of glucose lowering medications ever since, in addition to more pills to try to keep my blood pressure within reason.

My visit with the nutritionist at the hospital was not pretty.  If you want to see a grown man cry, just show him the proper portion size of, um, anything.

You mean I can only eat that tiny piece of cheese and that’s a serving of protein??!!  I blubbered like an infant.  This was truly the end of the world.

“How can this be happening to me?” I thought.  After all, my diet is nowhere near as bad as some people’s.  True, I have a penchant for ice cream and chocolate, but I don’t chow down on chips and pretzels and Ho-Hos in front of the computer.  Not only that, but I had been a pescatarian for the past seven years.  That means that I ate fish, but no meat or poultry.  So you can imagine how I felt when a doctor tried to make me feel better by telling me “Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean that you can’t go have a cheeseburger once in a while.”  It’s a good thing I’m not a violent person.

I started out counting my starches, my proteins, my fruit, my milk.  No more than six starches a day.  That was the hardest part of all.  Every morning, my first thought when I woke up was “What can I eat today?”

Vegetables were essentially “free” in that I could eat as many as I wanted, within reason.  Of course, starchy vegetables (the only kind I really liked) didn’t count.  I’d eat a few ounces of tuna and a slice of bread with a salad in the morning (I never cared for cereal and thought it was a waste of my starch allocation).  I’d take a sandwich and another salad to work along with a piece of fruit.  For a while, I was as good as gold, and I even lost a bit of weight.  But I didn’t like to exercise and I figured out creative ways of “cheating” on my prescribed diet and convincing myself that it was okay.

But it wasn’t okay, and my blood sugar got way out of control in just a few years.  The doctors started discussing having me inject insulin, but were afraid that I’d only end up gaining more weight.  I ended up taking more and more oral medication, felt depressed about it and used the only method I knew of making myself feel better — eating even more.

Then, at the age of ten, one of my nieces may have accidentally saved my life.  She asked me why I still ate fish if I truly believed that all animals had the same right to a full life that we humans do.  She had called my bluff.

I knew immediately that she was right, and all the more after I read about what the atrocities committed by commercial fishermen.  I knew I’d have to go vegan one way or other.  But it wasn’t the prospect of giving up my beloved fish that bothered me half as much as the thought of no longer having eggs, cheese and milk.  As I already did not eat meat, I indulged in a great deal of dairy products.

First, I tried going vegan for three days just to see what it would be like.  It was rough.  No cheese sticks.  No canned tuna.  No fried egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches.  When the three days were up, I knew I’d have to think about this some more.

A few months later, I decided to try again.  I had been reading about how dairy cows are kept pregnant for as many years as possible so that they continue to produce milk.  When they “go dry,” I learned, they are slaughtered.  What is wrong with this picture?  Such cruelty just for money?

This time, I went from three days all the way to three months.  The problem was that my blood sugar levels did not improve at all and I felt like crap much of the time.  The problem, I knew, was that without my fish, cheese and milk, I wasn’t getting much protein.  Instead, I was eating way, way more starch than I should.  As every Type 2 knows, A1C don’t lie.

I told myself that going back to eating fish and dairy was an act of self-preservation.  After all, I didn’t want to end up in the hospital or worse, did I?

After a few months, however, I tried being a bit more honest with myself.  I knew there are plenty of vegetable based protein sources, if only I’d avail myself of them.  I’d tried veggie burgers and soy-based deli slices many times, and found them to be decent.  So when I was laid off at work and we ended up moving 600 miles to the opposite end of California, I decided the time was right to do this once and for all.

I haven’t looked back since.

And a funny thing happened.  Without even trying, I lost 70 pounds.  Could this have something to do with all the milkfat I no longer consumed?  Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that I rarely ate anything fried anymore.  Could be related to the fact that I no longer went out for all-you-can-eat fish dinners on Friday nights and stacks of pancakes at Denny’s on Sunday mornings.  It may also have had something to do with the fact that I ate a lot more salads, rediscovered the joy of carrots and broccoli and stayed away from most of my favorite baked products because they contained dairy.

My blood sugar level miraculously went right back down to where it was supposed to be.  And I was able to feel good about what I knew was the right thing to save our planet and care for our fellow creatures.

It may not have been my initial intention, but yes, Mom, you would be correct to say that I “do this” for my health.



When I arrived home from work on Friday evening, my wife, Pastor Mom and I relaxed by watching the indie film Vegucated on Netflix (click here to see it on YouTube).  This documentary follows the journey of three meat-eaters who volunteer to go vegan for three weeks.  They learn about the factory farms where most of our meat comes from, the horrific cruelty inflicted upon the birds, cows and pigs that become our food, and the epidemic of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer that could be greatly reduced by eliminating animal products from our diets and embracing the eating of vegetables, legumes, fruit and other plant-based food.

I was delighted by the film’s opening sequence, taken from what appears to be a 1950s-era newsreel for school children, featuring Bossie, the happy cow giving us milk and kids petting the cute baby chicks on the farm.  The pneumatic bolt guns used to drive steel through the brains of cattle prior to slitting their throats is discussed later in the film, but not shown.

I had to laugh at the interviews conducted on location in what looks to me like Times Square in Manhattan, particularly the guy who refuses offers to go vegan first for $10,000 and then for $100,000.  The point that Americans love their hamburger was well illustrated.

I highly recommend taking a look at this film and learning what happens to the California dude, the young Latina and the hipster psychiatrist/stand-up comic.  Along the way, you’ll learn about what vegans eat and some of the motivations for adopting this type of diet.

Although this film is about five years old now, I learned about it at a propitious time.  That’s because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a vegan and what responsibilities I have to share my experiences with others.  One hears the phrase “change the world” quite a bit in vegan circles, yet I feel confident that the practice of killing and eating animals will always be with us.  I can’t say that I truly feel that what I’ve been doing for the past year and a half will change the world.  I have long believed that we have no control of what others do; we only have control over our own actions.  This, however, may be enough, as being a living example of right actions remains the most powerful way to influence others.

I have never been one to proselytize or in any way push my beliefs on others.  Still, I often find myself having to rein in my disgust with what others put in their mouths and bellies.  Ultimately, each person has to do what he or she thinks is right.  The prevailing notion among Americans seems to be “if it tastes good, eat it.”  Just where that food came from doesn’t seem to factor into the equation.  Yet I am somewhat reluctant to educate others on this subject, particularly since it seems that many would prefer not to know.  Perhaps ignorance really is bliss.

Some see vegans as ascetics, crazy (a little creepy, even) hippie throwbacks who foolishly choose to deprive themselves of the finer things in life.  I try not to point out that I don’t deprive myself of eggplant, chick peas and cashews, which I happen to view as some of the finer things in life.

It’s interesting to hear the questions I’m asked when folks learn that I follow a vegan diet.  Aside from the usual “Goodness, you can’t eat anything!  How do you survive?” I typically get questions such as “Why on earth would anyone want to do such a thing?” and, of course, “Don’t you ever miss having a hamburger?” Uh, no, actually I don’t.  Although I must admit that I’ve become rather fond of my vegan Boca patties.

Many view a vegan diet as something that one can try for a while as an experiment, but certainly not as something sustainable for a lifetime.  They might be surprised to learn how many of us have been vegans for decades.  A vegan diet has been shown to lower blood pressure, cholesterol and weight.  Although I haven’t eaten meat in about a quarter of a century, ditching the dairy products allowed me to lose about 70 pounds in the first year alone.

A big temptation for new vegans is to get through the meat and dairy withdrawals by relying heavily on refined carbohydrates — lots of potatoes, chips, pretzels and cookies.  Indeed, after all this time, potatoes remain my downfall.  As a Type II diabetic, I have to keep reminding myself that our bodies turn those carbs straight into sugar.  I have been working on this particular problem by making sure to consume less starchy vegetables such as carrots, spinach and tomatoes along with my spuds.  And I’ve been substituting some of my potato-based meals with garbanzo beans.  They also contain some starch, but at least they are high in protein.

To say that tofu is my friend isn’t too much of an exaggeration.  Because this pure soy protein is essentially flavorless, it can be added to anything and spiced up at will.  Then there is the “soy meat” like my favorite Gardein and Tofurky products.  There is fake chicken, fake beef, fake fish, fake cheese, fake hot dogs, you name it.  Most of it is made from flavored soy and textured vegetable protein (TVP).  I can’t begin to describe how delicious this stuff is.  You’ll just have to take my word for it.  Or better yet, try it for yourself and be surprised.


My dinner this evening:  Baked yam, Boca patty, rice and garbanzos (seasoned with soy sauce and garlic powder).

The Measles Comes to California

My mother called a few days ago to warn me that measles is going around.  Although I initially cocked my head and squinted an eye at this information, it turns out that she’s right.  An email notice sent out to state government employees yesterday stated that there are now 75 confirmed cases of measles in California.

At least to me, measles seems terribly old-fashioned, a disease that, like polio, should long ago have been vanquished by the miracles of modern medicine.  When I was a kid, the childhood diseases were measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox (before it became fashionable to refer to it as “varicella”).  I managed to contract the last three, but certainly not the first.  Before parents could register a child in the public schools, they had to provide immunization records showing that their kid had been vaccinated against such dread diseases as smallpox, polio, diphtheria, tetanus and, yes, measles.

I imagine that measles must continue to be a vast public health threat in underdeveloped nations in which immunization is not widespread.  But here in the United States?  I think of Cheaper by the Dozen, in which the twelve Gilbreth children all came down with measles in the 1920s after they moved from Providence, Rhode Island to Essex County, New Jersey.  But that was a good ninety years ago.  Ancient history.

Mom listens to talk radio as she putters about the kitchen, and she told me about a local talk jock who characterized measles as a thing of the past only to have a middle age listener call in to say he had it as a kid.  Mom says it’s obvious that he doesn’t know the difference between “German” measles (rubella) and the real deal.

I suppose my mother has the right to be suspicious, considering that she really did have measles as a child.  She proceeded to tell me the story of how she was eight years old when she became sick with a high fever and then the famous spots.  Her mother never allowed her to stay home from school just because she didn’t feel well, but this was different.  It was one of the very rare times in her elementary school days that she couldn’t possibly go to school.  My grandmother was working behind a sewing machine in her brother’s factory at the time, and she felt that she could not stay home from work.  Thus, my mother had to stay home in bed alone.

Remember, this was about 75 years ago.  The really scary thing about measles back then was the high fever, from which kids died or were left deaf or blind.  Fearing for my mother’s eyes, my grandmother closed all the blinds, leaving my mother in a darkened room.  After a few days of this, my grandmother told her daughter that Aunt Rose, wife of the factory owner, would be coming to visit her during the day.  Now, Aunt Rose had a reputation as a nasty, vindictive person.  As evidence of this, my mother points to the time that she fell and scraped up her knee.  Aunt Rose tended to it by pouring boric acid on the wound.  My mother claims to remember to horrible pain still.  Well, on the day that Aunt Rose came to visit her little niece with the measles, she immediately pulled opened all the blinds and curtains to fill the room with light.  Then she said she would fix my mother some soup, if only she could find a match to light the stove.  Unfortunately, my grandmother had hidden all the matches for fear that her daughter, left alone and to her own devices, would burn down the entire apartment building.  So Aunt Rose ordered my mom out of bed, measles or no, to crawl on the floor on her hands and knees to look for a match under the stove and the refrigerator.  Of course, my grandmother had hidden the matches much better than that, and, oh well, there would be no soup after all.  Aunt Rose waltzed off on her merry way, and my grandmother was livid when she returned home in the late afternoon to find light streaming into the small New York City apartment.

I only hope that the measles does not turn into an epidemic in California, instead disappearing as quickly as it arrived.  Health officials are saying that it was introduced by a sick child visiting Disneyland during Christmas week.  I can see what a public health nightmare can develop in the blink of an eye by something as virulent as the measles.  I think about my own workplace, where more than two thousand of us are packed like sardines into 34 floors of tiny cubicles.  As it is, bronchitis went around recently and every single member of my team, including their fearless leader (moi), came down with it.  It took nearly a month and two courses of antibiotics for me to get rid of that nasty bug, and now a lot of us are coming down with colds again.  And it’s just barely February.  Clearly, winter is not going to go out with a whimper.

With a little luck, we may be fortunate enough to escape a plague of measles here in California.  For the time being, however, I am glad to have had two hour-long phone conversations with my mother this week, and particularly that she was in the mood to share some of her childhood stories with me.


Pastor Mom’s 70th Birthday

70th cake

The past week or so has been an emotional minefield for me.  The witch’s brew of unemployment and family problems is a bitter potion that goes down hard.

I survived six job interviews in nine days, spending three of those days on the road tracing the map of California for which this blog was named.  I have already received a rejection notice from one of those employers.  Of the five remaining, two were in-person interviews and three were phone interviews.  I will undoubtedly be waiting for weeks to hear about callbacks for the in-person interviews.  As for the phone interviews, those employers say they are sufficiently open-minded to hire a manager sight unseen.  Theoretically, that means I could receive a “When can you start?” phone call at any time.  Realistically, however, I’m not likely to hear from them for months, if at all.  You might be surprised at how many employers never even bother to extend unsuccessful applicants the basic courtesy of a rejection email.

But it has been busy on the home front, too.  We have spent weeks planning and preparing for a celebration in honor of Pastor Mom’s 70th birthday.  Somehow, we managed to pick one of the hottest days of the year for the event.


Most of Pastor Mom’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren were in attendance and a good time was had by all, despite the many challenges we faced in our efforts to pull it off.  The plan was to serve spaghetti, salad and garlic bread in the church social hall, washed down with lemonade and sweet tea and followed by birthday cake and cookies.  About 60 guests RSVP’d that they would be in attendance.

For starters, we were unable to cook the spaghetti and sauce in the social hall’s kitchen due to problems with our gas line.  We’ve known about this issue for some time, but expected it to be resolved well in advance of the party.  This did not happen; when the county inspector came out to approve the work that was done, he found leaks in the gas line.  That meant that the gas could not be turned on and sent us straight to Plan B:  Cooking the food in the parsonage, hauling it over to the social hall, and keeping everything warm in a series of crock pots.  Thanks to an enormous amount of labor by my sister-in-law, my niece, my wife and Pastor Mom herself, we were able to make it work.  Imagine working in a small kitchen without air conditioning on a 100°F+ day, with all the stove’s gas jets blasting under stewpots and the oven cranking away.  Even the social hall was warm.  We have a brand new air conditioner out there, but when the weather is this hot and the place is full of people, much sweating is bound to ensue.

As it turned out, we didn’t have nearly as many guests as expected.  Only about 35 people showed up following a morning full of calls and texts from those who had to beg off at the last minute.  We’re talking about people who woke up this morning to find their entire family ill with the flu.  People whose vehicles broke down on the way here.


My wife and I headed up the freeway this morning to pick up the cake and cookies at Sam’s Club, located two towns away.  We arrived past the appointed time, but the cake still wasn’t ready.  The guy at the bakery department suggested that we finish our shopping, as the cake should be done in about five minutes.  When we returned to the bakery, still no cake.  We ended up waiting nearly 40 minutes for a cake we had ordered a month ago. Happily, Sam’s Club agreed to give us the cake for free.  We checked out at the register and were heading for the car when my wife examined the receipt and noticed that we had been charged for the cake after all.  We couldn’t understand how this happened when the bakery department had written NO CHARGE in large letters on the box.  Back we went to demand a refund.  “Oh, the clerk gets in trouble if he doesn’t scan the box,” was the explanation we were provided.  “Bakery should have covered over the bar code.”  Don’t you just love it when a store’s idea of customer service consists of making excuses?

no charge

We rushed home to get the cake in the refrigerator.  The guests would begin arriving soon.  Among those guests were my parents, who drove up from the Central Valley.  They had initially made a hotel reservation, but then decided to just stay for an hour or two and head home.  That meant more than seven hours of driving for them today.

Truthfully, we weren’t sure whether my parents would actually show up.  Last week, we stayed over with them at their home for two nights on our way to southern California and back again.  The problem is that my mother is highly opinionated and does not hesitate to say exactly what she thinks even when it is extremely rude to others.  Let’s just say that she has made more than a few uncalled for remarks regarding my wife’s family.  My wife, God bless her, held her tongue for as long as she could.  Just before we left my parents’ house on Thursday, however, my mother started in again.  My wife just couldn’t take it anymore and let my mother know how she feels about it.  I believe that my wife was totally justified and I don’t blame her an iota.  After all, we’ve been married for 16 years, and my wife has been heroically putting up with my mother’s sharp tongue for all that time.  Sooner or later, things have to come to a head.

So I was a little surprised when one of my nephews informed me that my parents had arrived.  And that’s when things turned rather sad for me.  First, my wife’s great-aunt came over to our table to tell me that she had just received a call informing her that her son-in-law had been found dead on the floor.  He was only 58 years old.  I asked if he had been ill and she said yes, he had diabetes and one of his legs had already been amputated below the knee and he had heart problems and wore a pacemaker.  I have always had a strong sense of empathy that makes me say “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”  But in this case, the similarities to my own health situation (heart problems, leg problems, diabetes) made me feel as if I were looking in the mirror two or three years from now.

And, well, this was a seventieth birthday party.  When you’re a kid, a birthday is exciting not only because of the gifts and all the attention fawned upon you, but also because a birthday means you’re one year closer to being able to do all the adult things you want to do.  As the decades go by, however, birthdays begin to represent something entirely different:  They mean you’re one year closer to the finish line.  And the feeling is never stronger than when it’s a seventieth or eightieth birthday party.

My parents, who are both 80 years old, sat across from me at one of the long tables in the social hall.  My father won’t admit it, but he is almost certainly in the early phases of Parkinson’s disease.  His hands shake so badly and he has trouble keeping food in his mouth and off his face.  My mother, who told me the heat was making her ill, didn’t want any food other than lemonade and a slice of birthday cake.

Then my father mentioned that at Pastor Mom’s 80th birthday party, ten years from now, he would be 90 years old and probably would be unable to drive.  “You’ll have to come pick us up and bring us to the party,” he said.

“You mean you’ll have to dig us up,” my mother added.

“You may have to dig me up to drive you,” I responded.

“Nobody’s doing any digging,” my wife wisely added.

“I can dig it,” I retorted, smartass that I am, hoping to lighten the mood a little.

But the death in the family of my wife’s great-aunt, combined with the gallows humor at my parents’ table, had descended heavily upon me.  I remembered what a wonderful time we all had at the eightieth birthday party for my wife’s grandmother.  We had planned on doing it again for her ninetieth.  She almost made it, too.  She passed away just a few months shy.

I remember the times that my wife and I visited her grandma in the nursing home, how the staff would force her to get out of bed, how she would sit in a wheelchair in the hallway with nothing to do, how half the time she barely recognized us when we came in, how she begged and pleaded to get out of there and come home, and how near the end, Pastor Mom finally did take her home.  And I wonder what will happen in the next ten years, whether my elderly parents aren’t already heading down that very same road, whether I will end up visiting them in a nursing home as well.  I watch my father’s hands shake as I tell him about the rejection letter I received this morning, and I notice the black spots on his head where cancerous growths were recently removed for the third or fourth time.  I wonder how long I will have him here and what will happen to my mother who can’t control her tongue after he’s not around anymore.  Lord, you’ve got to help me, because I don’t know how to do this.

And, who knows?  Maybe I won’t have to deal with any of this after all.  Maybe my health problems will get the best of me and I’ll end up the same way as the son-in-law of my wife’s great-aunt.  Maybe I’ll never get to find out how this story ends.  And maybe that’s for the best.  Because I don’t know that I have the emotional strength to bear it.

Because this is one movie in which there is never a happily-ever-after before the final credits roll.

Fecal Fried Fish

Warning:  This post is rated D, for Disgusting!

I have a complicated relationship with my mother.

This is a statement that I would expect a teenage girl to express in confidence to her high school BFF.  I, however, am 55 years old.  I suppose this means that I ought to do some hard time in psychotherapy.  When I ring up the mother, however, I tend to feel more inclined to a cheaper and speedier solution, such as breaking the top off a bottle of whiskey with my teeth and flinging the cap across the room as a prelude to shoving the contents of the bottle down my gullet.

Lest you peg me for a hopeless exaggerator or prevaricator, allow me to present an illustrative example.

On the phone with the mother last week, I was treated to an expository essay on why, healthwise, the most dangerous time of life is within the two-hour window immediately following the consumption of a large and enjoyable meal.

Exhibit A, I discovered, is the mother’s late Uncle Aimel.  Apparently, he was an insurance adjuster for Prudential until the fateful evening that he met his untimely demise at a company banquet.  After eating, drinking and listening to umpteen speakers, the poor man stood up, stepped out into the corridor and promptly dropped dead.

Although the mother insists that the body is simply unable to process the large quantity of food in which a person might be expected to indulge at, say, Thanksgiving dinner or a well-catered shiva, I am of the opinion that Uncle Aimel died of boredom brought on by exposure to two hours of dull, droning rhetoric marked by weak attempts at misplaced wit.  The only thing we know for sure is that if Uncle Aimel had begged off the festivities and instead made an early evening of it, he might well still be alive today.

As a glutton for punishment with an overactive sense of filial guilt, I again rang up the mother today.  I swear to you, I will never learn.  Apparently I am an incurable masochist who is unable to resist the opportunity to keep coming back for more punishment.

Today I had the distinct pleasure of being regaled with the story of the mother’s recent abortive fish dinner.  As I understand it, she had purchased a package of flounder fillets at a well-known chain outfit and, back in her kitchen, began preparations for a fish fry.  Upon removing the wrapper from the package, however, the mother could not help but notice the wafting of the distinct odor of — well, poop.  This wasn’t a fishy odor, she clarified, but the pure essence of E. coli.

One might think that a reasonable course of action in such circumstance would be to rewrap the package and return it to the vendor from whence it came at the earliest possible opportunity.  But, no, the mother doubted her initial impression and proceeded to wash the fillets under running water to see whether the vile odor would dissipate.

It didn’t.

So the mother did the natural thing that anyone would do when finding one’s self in possession of a packet of fish fillets exuding the odor of feces.

She squeezed some lemon on it.

Alas, even the lovely odor of cut lemon did little to improve the essence of shit that continued to permeate the now thoroughly clean fillets.  I don’t know about you, but I believe I’d be two miles down the road to the store bearing receipt in hand by this point.  But then again, that’s just me.

So what did the mother do with her stinking fish fillets?  She breaded and fried them.

Personally, I cannot imagine going through all that labor of beating the egg, preparing the bread crumbs (matzo meal, in this case), dredging the horrible-smelling fillets, heating up a pan coated with oil and then actually setting the bacteria-laden mess upon the stove and turning it at intervals so that it browns evenly on both sides.

When the fecal fish was done and piled high upon a platter, the mother continued to detect the distinct odor of putrefaction emanating therefrom.  Fearing that actually eating it could potentially make her and the father ill (ya think?), the mother wasn’t yet ready to actually sit down and make a meal of the fried fish poop.

So she fed some of it to the cat.

Now, the mother has a lovely cat by the name of Taffy who is about sixteen or seventeen years old and has more sense than most people I know.  Miss Taffy, who has never been known to turn down a choice bit of fish, took one sniff of the fecal dish and walked away in disgust.  Even a cat knows that we do not eat anything that smells like the stuff that comes out of the body from beneath the tail.  Okay, I know some dogs that are into eating poop.  But a cat?  Never.

Finally, the mother was convinced that this particular fish fry could only have the effect of sending her and the father to the hospital.  So she threw the whole mess in the trash.  (And the angels sang Hallelujah!)

I am told that the parents plan to return to the supermarket with receipt in their hands and a complaint on their lips.  They won’t have the evidence with them, however.  I am certain that it is currently rotting in the landfill (known to them as “the hole”) that they have created at the rear of their property as an alternative to paying a monthly trash removal bill.

I’d like to say that I was gobsmacked by this story, but really, it’s not atypical.  Which is not to say that the mother is always wrong.  Recently, for example, I was convinced that she was wrong in her assertion that we would qualify for Food Stamps even though we still own an old car and aren’t yet totally destitute.  When we received our EBT card, I was forced to eat crow, a tough dish for a vegan to handle.

And then there is the matter of my upcoming job interview.  I actually have several in the works, including a couple of truly long-distance ones for which the employers have kindly accommodated me by conducting the interview via telephone.  I do have this one in-person interview on Thursday, however, and it is more than 800 miles away, at the northern edge of Washington State, close to the Canadian border.

I initially informed the mother that we are not going due to the expense of such a trip.  This would be one job prospect that I would just have to turn away.  The mother vehemently disagreed with our decision.  “But what if this is the one?” she whined.  Then she rang up my sister, who proceeded to rave and rant about how could we turn down the possibility of a job in as beautiful an area as the coastal Northwest.

After going over the issue with my wife about fourteen times over the last few days, we ultimately decided to bite the bullet and travel to the interview.  After all, it’s nearly 110 degrees here and barely 70 degrees there.  If nothing else, we will cool off, enjoy some lovely scenery and take a break from standing in food distribution lines.

So once again today, I found myself on the phone with the mother, tearing into my favorite meal of crow and humble pie.  I’ll try not to indulge in too much of it, Mom, as I’d hate to fall over dead like Uncle Aimel.  I mean, since I have an interview to prepare for and all.

As I said, I have a complicated relationship with my mother.


The Magnificent Seven

scale 1

So my employer has decided to up the ante on its wellness program by holding an eleven-week weight loss contest this summer.

Now, when I hear the term “weight loss,” I generally run the other way.  Well, maybe not run.  I am far too out of shape for that.  Turn my back and shamble away would be more like it.

I am what the doctors refer to as “morbidly obese,” as well as a couch potato and more than a bit of a food snob.  So a weight loss contest is way out of my league, to say the least.

I think about all the food programs my mother tried to put me on when I was growing up.  “I’m gonna put you on a starvation diet!” my mother would yell when we returned home from an appointment with the pediatrician, appalled and embarrassed at the numbers that appeared on the scale.  He had handed us a printed diet that included caloric values for foods with strange sounding names like kale and kohlrabi.  The sole item listed under “desserts” was 5-calorie gelatin.

I thought “diet” was merely a variant of the word “die” and that “exercise” was a dirtier word than the things my classmates scratched into the stall walls in the boys’ bathroom.  I wanted nothing to do with physical activity; I wanted to curl up in a corner with a book.  Nevertheless, I would be sent outside with a handball to bat against the garage doors.  Then there was the time with the punching bag and the time with the set of barbells and dumbells and the time my mother browbeat my father into hitting tennis balls with me.

My religious elementary school sent us out to play but really didn’t care whether I ran the baseball diamond or just sat under the apple tree.  Guess which one I did?  Junior high and high school phys ed was pure misery that I’d prefer not to relive by detailed description.  Being forced to assist my father with the yardwork was one of the low points of my life.  I got good at hiding and devised all types of devious methods of sneaking ice cream and cookies.  I blush to admit that at least one of those involved outright stealing.  Sigh.

Perhaps I can convey a bit of the idea of how prominent a role food played in my early life by pointing out that the gift I most begged my parents for at the age of six was a soda machine.

Considering the above, it should be no surprise to anyone that I’ve been massively overweight from toddlerhood until today, as I stand on the brink of senior citizenship.  Now, everyone knows how dangerous extra weight is to one’s health.  Obesity brings on a litany of diseases and drugs, most of which have come a-callin’ and then decided to take up residence like so many houseguests of questionable character who I cannot bear to throw out into the street despite the fact they have long since overstayed their welcomes.

Just take this weight-loss contest as an opportunity and a blessing, I tell myself, while in my heart I convinced that the whole thing is nothing more than an insufferable pain in the ass.

The Human Resources Department is calling the contest “The Biggest Loser,” named after the TV show.  Although we must have weekly weigh-ins like on the show (hopefully without the corny beep-beep-beep sound effects), I am happy to say that there are no five-mile jogs, treadmills or stationary bicycles involved.

Interested employees are to form teams of three to ten.  Success is judged not by the number of pounds lost, but by the percentage of body weight lost.  This means that I will need to lose somewhere between ten and twenty pounds for every pound that some of my already skinny coworkers lose.  Just when I curse the unfairness of it all, I am reminded that it will probably be more difficult for them to lose one pound than it will be for me to lose twenty.  Okay, point taken.

My employer has more than a dozen locations, so there are bound to be a lot of teams.  This means there will be a lot of competition.  I started asking around as to which of my nine team members wish to participate.  Seven of them said yes.  Seven!  Well, six plus me.  The rules say that now we have to come up with a team name.  I vote that we dub ourselves The Magnificent Seven.

I got the group together informally on Friday afternoon and promised them that I would not let them down.  I gave them the rah-rah talk about how we’re already good at teamwork and how this going to be a piece of cake.  Er, a celery stick and a carrot, I mean.  We might have to compete with ten or twenty other teams, but with a little determination, I think we have a very good shot at beating them all.

I still can’t believe I agreed to do this.  The easy way out would have been to just ignore this contest and smile weakly when I walk by coworkers’ desks and hear them regaling each other with stories of their successes.

There is something about being a supervisor, however.  You can’t just say “you do your thing, I’ll do mine.”  You have to be a leader, even (especially) when it’s not too convenient to do so.

And who knows?  Maybe this time I’ll finally keep the weight off and turn my life around.