Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pope Benedict, Beatrix Potter and the broken boiler

I had a really nice dream about Pope Benedict the other night. I thought I'd share, (since I'm nervous and babbling senselessly in front of the whole internet world is a good stress reliever).

I dreamed that he came over, in disguise wearing a grey suit and tie ... but of course, a really, really nice suit ... to help me fix my hot water heater.

This is the hot water heater that helps to remind me that I'm still living in Italy. I have a really nice apartment in which nearly everything works nearly all the time, the neighbours are very nice and hardly crazy at all, and it's close to the beach and the train. But the hot water heater is probably as old as I am and we have had the fixing guy in about seven times since I moved in last June.

It is a crucial piece of equipment since it not only provides hot water for showers and whatnot, but runs the heat for the apartment by some magic process involving steam and radiators. After I spent the first four months without hot showers (it was OK since it was June, July, August and September, months where no non-schizophrenic person takes a hot shower in Italy) it has worked most of the time. But it's touchy and takes practice and delicate handling to operate. Every now and then its pressure dial rockets way up into the red and it starts gouting steam and pouring water out its lower extremity.

At moments like this, I have learned not to panic. At first I would call the landlord who would call Giampietro the technico and I would spend a day at home dumping out buckets of water while Giampietro went out to buy a new valve. Nowadays, I know to just calmly shut the water off, dump the buckets and wait. It invariably starts feeling better after a day or so. This, I have learned is the Italian Way. "Don't Panic" should be written in large friendly letters up and down the length of the Boot.

Aaaaanyway, I had this dream where the boiler started getting its usual upset tummy and a bunch of friends were over and everyone was fussing over it. We couldn't reach either Luca or Giampietro and no one could shut off the water valve. Then the doorbell rings and it turns out to be Pope Benedict. Everyone is very pleased to see him and he offers to take a look at the boiler.

He peers into its depths and says in his nice German accent that it probably needs a new valve. I said that I knew where there was a good ferramenta but I didn't know enough Italian to ask for the right kind of valve. He says, "It's OK, I speak Italian, I'll go with you. And I've got my driver here so we can all go together, then we can get some lunch." Everyone thought this was a great idea and we all piled into our new friend's very large and fancy car.

We went to the ferramenta, but, it being Italy, when we got there although the doors were open it was pretty close to riposo time. We went in, and the pope asked for the valve and the guy went into the back to get it. But he never came back. It was riposo, you see, so, like the Coyote and the Sheepdog, when the riposo whistle blows, all work in Italy stops instantly, no matter what. Even if the pope is in your shop asking for a boiler valve.

We waited around for a while, but eventually it became clear that the guy had gone home for lunch. Pope Benedict, having lived in Italy for years, said not to worry, this was just how things are here. "We should go to lunch and come back later."

We got back into the car and went to Bettolino, our favourite seafood place in Santa Marinella. While in the car, I noticed that the pope was wearing very interesting glasses. They looked very expensive and seemed to be made of enamel with little tiny pictures on them. I complimented him on his glasses and I could see that the little pictures were all from Beatrix Potter stories, Peter Rabbit, Mrs. Tiggy Winkle, Jeremy Fisher et al.

The end.


Going to the Gemelli today

for sentencing.

They've taken all the tests, done all the scans, and now will tell me what they're going to do to me.

Another discovery I've made is that I really don't have as a big a problem with disease, per se, as I do with doctorin'. It's not really cancer so much, but all the medical stuff that goes along with cancer that scares the crap out of me.

But today, I'm going to try a new mental attitude. I'm going to try to think of the hospital as a place full of nice happy Italian people who want nothing more than to be nice to me and help me (instead of a place where hordes of scary, incomprehensible and loud strangers do unspeakable, humiliating and painful things to me). I'm going to tell my brain, with a smile, that the doctors are like your nice happy friends whom you hardly ever get to see...

I'll let y'all know how that works out.


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Women who don't like women

It's a funny quirk of a certain type of female character that possibly the one thing in life we can't stand is other women. The only women I've ever liked and got on with were women who also don't get on with women.

Kathy Shaidle is one of these, and is quite articulate about why:

We’re always scolded that we should be grateful to our “foremother” feminists who paved the way for us in the workplace, but all most of them did was turn offices into sucky boring swear-free non-stop birthday parties and gossip factories littered with cat pictures.

All they talk about is what they ate for breakfast and what they’re having for lunch and what they’re having for dinner and how fat they are.

Work is their hobby. They pick some crappy paying, easy “career” hoping that they’ll get married anyhow and some man will come along and look after them.

And that sounds good to me! Would it have broken my heart if Arnie was a millionaire and I knew I never had to work in some crappy office again and could just write books in between watching judge shows all day? Hell, no! Most women would love to be housewives. They just can’t admit it.

The ones I like are the ones who admit it.

Someone in the pro-life movement once asked me what I felt about some topic or other "as a woman".

"I don't understand the question."

She looked nonplussed: "Well, you know, this is a woman's issue..."

"It's a straightforward issue of moral law. I have no idea what it means to have an opinion on the moral law 'as a woman'. It's the same for everyone."

She went away after a few minutes, presumably to find someone who would commiserate with her pms or some damn stupid female thing.

A comment from the Forbes article Kathy linked to:

My first encounter with this attitude was when I was a bike messenger. I was making a delivery to an office suite at a prestigious teaching hospital in Philadelphia. Being a young guy at the time, I noticed that there was not a single man in an office of roughly a dozen women. As a (young) woman signed for her package, I asked her if any men worked in the office. She said no, then looked around, leaned in and whispered, “I hate it!”.

I have since worked several jobs in food service, publishing and advertising. Usually for female department heads. I found the experiences unremarkable for the most part, but the women who I worked with sometimes expressed different views. They had grievances ranging from disliking bosses who wanted to be friends as well as employers, (female) coworkers who were passive-aggressive and duplicitous and a general workplace where feelings had to constantly be taken into account, frequently before professional goals.


More Discoveries II

This is a really great show.

And there is a really good online link place to watch them.

Thanks for the tip, John B. (btw: come back, we miss you.)


More discoveries

4. I don't entirely understand it, but it seems as if getting cancer is a good cure for depression.

There's something funny going on, I'm sure, but I had a conversation with a friend last night who also suffers from depression (the formal, capital D, found-in-the-diagnostic-manuals kind) and she has been feeling much better lately too, so we were comparing notes. We discussed how having something real to do is a great cure for creeping depression.

She fell, quite understandably, into a depression after graduating from university and, as is the usual thing these days, was unable to find a job. She had done her studies the hard way, over a much longer than usual period by working part time and paying for it all herself. During this period, one of her closest friends (me) moved away (really, really far away, and it was before Facebook or iGoogle video calls or Skype), her mother's business that she was helping with went kablooey and she spent some years caring for an elderly relative all the while holding down jobs and doing her homework. (You can tell she's kind of a hero of mine; I wish I had half her courage and fortitude.) After years of all this, she finally got the parchment, and then found she was more or less adrift without something to focus on. I'd say that depression was a nearly inevitable outcome.

But recently, she's turning back to her first and most abiding interest and is taking hands-on film making and is already getting gigs working as a production assistant at small shoots around town. All this is happening in Vancouver where LOTS of films, TV shows and commercials are made, so it's a pretty good chance, coupled with what we have all known for years are her prodigious natural talents, of really going somewhere.

All kinds of things have been happening to me over the last few years (which, don't worry, I won't talk about here) that shrinks usually refer to blandly as "stressors". And I have been somewhat at sea since I have a preexisting condition that makes me contraindicated for almost all the usual anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs. And I don't trust headshrinkers anyway (Voodoo witchdoctors have more reliable peer review processes than the psychiatric profession). So there isn't a hope in hell of me going to any of those brain-butchers with my intimate secrets. So I figured I was stuck with will power, friendship support system, green vegetables and exercise. (And Italy, of course, where it takes extra effort to get and remain clinically depressed.) It wasn't working very well though.

But right in the middle of a fairly bad down-loop, I go to the doctor and eventually come out with a diagnosis of cervical cancer, and poof! Depression symptoms evaporate.

Being neurotic, I naturally have elevated levels of anxiety about cancer and am more than capable of recklessly diving right down head first into a spiral of freakoutishness over it if I don't do the things I need to do to avoid it. (Things like getting out of my pajamas before noon, going to the beach, going into the City to work in the office instead of the apartment...the usual.) But the actual symptoms of actual, clinical depression - night waking and other sleep disturbances, unpredictable crying bursts, nonspecific anxiety etc...- have almost completely vanished.

My theory, shared by my friend, is that depression is like Fantasy (we've talked about Fantasy a lot here, for those who are new), it's a kind of mental alternate reality created by your brain to avoid real life. Your brain gets into the habit of creating a completely different set of things to deal with in life, a totally different set of motivations, that have nothing to do with reality but are nearly completely believable. Cognitive therapy techniques (so far the only Brain-Butcher thing that makes a dent in depression) focus on re-teaching your brain to think in terms of The Real, and consciously rejecting as false and bad the constructed Evil Reality.

But I think that sometimes, for some people, a powerful dose of The Real can shock the brain into dropping the Evil Reality all at once. In my friend's case it is the concrete necessity of getting out of bed and going to a school to learn to do something concrete and real, something that she has known all her life she would be good at and would like. (Plus strong friend and family support, improved diet and fresh air and exercise.)

In my case, cancer has somehow made the false Evil Reality drop dramatically away. It has been like smoke clearing from my vision. The smoke has been there, on and off, for a long time, so a part of this interesting process is re-learning what The Real looks like. An analogy would be the man cured by Jesus of blindness. He had been blind all his life, so when he got his sight back, he had to go about feeling things and learning what these things looked like.

This process of re-learning and accepting The Real, let me tell you, is greatly facilitated by the pressing necessities of a medical crisis. You have to learn how to deal with The Real in a double-time hurry if you suddenly realise you have to go to the hospital at four in the morning.

It's an adjustment, but a good one, overall.


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Woe woe!

Not really, actually.

I'm happy to report that the First Stage is finished. I went to the Gemelli yesterday and spent the day getting into and out of my clothes, getting injected with radioactive substances and emitting photons and gamma rays. Had only one tiny little meltdownish moment that only Highly Trained Professionals saw. I've completed what one of the oncologists called the "mosaic" of information gathering. Now it is up to them to put all the information together and decide which bits of me they're going to chop out and which bits they're going to irradiate, and which they're going to poison with chemo. Test results will be available next week.

So, I've got a week to fret and obsess and imagine that the cancer has spread to every part of my body and that I'm going to die a horrible death twisting in agony get back to work.

In the meantime, I've learned a few unexpected things about getting cancer.

1. Cancer involves a lot more social obligations than one would have thought.

I've spent years and years honing my anti-sociability, bringing it to a fine point, insulting people on my blog, refusing dinner party invitations, ducking out of Mass at the postcommunion to avoid getting roped into the post-Mass lunch... This behaviour has helped me whittle down my social interaction to the people who really, actually, demonstrably like me enough to overlook/put up with it all. It's a self-correcting system that has worked well for me for many years.

One of the reasons I've developed this handy system is that I've always assumed that other people were, well, bad. Not necessarily that they mean to be bad, that they're wicked in their intentions, but - again this is probably a having-been-raised-by-hippies thing - that they're insincere, self-centred, indifferent and generally addicted to their personal fantasies.

Don't get me wrong, I do know this is actually true. But I think I'm learning that they are also, often, other much nicer things as well. All of a sudden, I've had all these people being unexpectedly nice to me all day long. Even going out of their way to do things to make my life easier and make all this medical stuff happen.

And, strangely, they seem to mean it. If I were a clever math-person I would come up with some kind of algorithm to work out how to explain it, but I'm stuck with making generalised observations: people are probably not so bad.

Naturally, I'm aware that this places an obligation on me to learn to be nice to them back, and I'd like to assure readers that I'm thinking about it. (This doesn't mean, I hasten to add, that the commbox rules are changing.) Fortunately, one of the people whom I haven't driven away, someone who has actual social skills, is teaching me. I'm learning to send thank you notes, to not treat people who smile at me with suspicion and, get this, to call people on. the. telephone.

2. Cancer (and possibly by extension other really important life-altering encounters with The Real) doesn't make you more annoyed with/alienated from God. I don't entirely have an explanation for this, but I do know that it is not completely dependent on the behaviour of other people I mentioned above.

One might have thought that a diagnosis like this would generate some amount of generalised resentment, but it seems to have had exactly the opposite effect. Maybe I'm just weird. All I know is that some kind of gulf I had previously been aware of but helpless to cross has been closed.

More later.



Just got the call. Going in for the consultation on Thursday. Am suddenly gripped by gut-wrenching, vertigo-inducing fear.


Update update:

3. I've discovered a few new things about myself. One of which is that I'm really not terribly brave when it comes to certain medical procedures. Specifically, that I can shrug with complete and unfeigned indifference at needles, IVs, blood tests and injections. I don't even get that old twinge of nerves at the sight of them. But even breathe the word 'catheter' and I have a full blown panic attack. Cry like a girl.

Sorry, sharing too much?

Get used to it.


Hitting a wall

I have written the next installment of the story of my little trip to the hospital earlier this month, but I'm debating whether to post it. It's the fun one about what happens to one's (ok my) brain when it meets an unexpected grizzly bear in an Italian hospital learns one has cancer in a foreign country. After that, there's only really the bit where I sat up on the gurney before going into the operating room and yelled at the anaesthetist. After that, life more or less got back to normal.

People don't like big walls of text on a blog. Like the Barbarian Hordes of old, they see a big wall of text and turn away on their short shaggy horses, saying, "Bag this. Let's go check out the latest funny list on".

I recently was on a conference call for LSN and the issue of long articles was brought up. There is some Clever Person who has pointed out that on average, people only read about the first 400 words of an article on the internet. And that's generous. My argument is that this is totally immaterial. No news service that does online news bothers its head about this rule. Even the egregiously populist outfits like the Daily Mail still do 1200 word articles as a regular thing. I said that this is a rule we just have to ignore.

(In fact, it's not a new internet thing at all. The old print papers knew that people only read the headline most of the time, and in rare cases, about the first two paragraphs of which ever article they're interested in. That's why they invented the "inverted pyramid" style that everyone who goes to J-School learns on their first day. It's where you put the first three most important things in the first paragraph, with the most sensationalist thing in the first sentence. Yes, it's true; journalism is totally focused on emotional manipulation of the readers.)

My big rule for blogging is simple: "Post short; post often." Other rules include, "Never reveal what's really going on in your life," and "Always be funny, even especially if its about death and mayhem."

Lately I've been breaking that rule by posting infrequently and putting up long things about my personal life, most of which aren't funny.

I also type too fast. The last time I bothered to clock myself, I came in at 85 words a minute when I'm typing straight out of my head. This means that I can get down nearly everything I'm thinking about, which isn't always a good thing.

So, I don't know, what do you think?

Actually, never mind. I don't care what you think. But I'll let you know that there are only a couple more of the long tedious posts about the hospital visit left to go, so suck it up.


I roll under six and pull out my large broadsword...

Item 1. The Mayo Clinic says that running away from the hospital is normal and natural and nothing to be ashamed of...
Some research suggests that your body's natural fight-or-flight response to danger is involved in panic attacks. For example, if a grizzly bear came after you, your body would react instinctively. Your heart rate and breathing would speed up as your body prepared itself for a life-threatening situation. Many of the same reactions occur in a panic attack. But it's not known why a panic attack occurs when there's no obvious danger present.

Wikipedia says that Literary Foreshadowing is

"a literary device in which an author suggests certain plot developments that might come later in the story."


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Yep, that was them...

I can't believe how SPOT on this is.

I write a lot here about how I was raised by a pack of weird hippies my mother got hooked up with in the 70s, but truthfully, I had more or less forgotten what they are really like.

It looks as if they're still out there.


Giant Forehead smack!

I TOTALLY forgot about Earth Hour.


I was all ready to douse a tree in gasoline and set it on fire and everything.

Italians don't really do environmentalism. It's kind of an Anglo obsession. Italians are too busy having a great time buying new cell phones to go along with the cynical, self-loathing luddism we so love to indulge in. Or maybe it's just that they aren't yet "sophisticated" enough to start feigning hatred for the wealth, comforts and conveniences we Anglos love to complain about. It's not that long since Italy was basically an agrarian peasant society, so, you know, they're still having fun with all this cool new digital stuff and aren't yet cool enough themselves to pretend they hate it.

Blazing Cat Fur reports that the PC festival of white/western self-loathing is starting to pale a bit, even close to its sources in Tranna.

I wonder how much "earth" was saved by Japan not having basically any electricity, indoor plumbing or infrastructure these days. Someone, maybe Obama, should send them a little thank you note for their contribution to saving the environment by sleeping outdoors in plastic shelters in March and eating tinned food scrounged from the wreckage of their homes, cooked over campfires made of the debris of civilisation.

A model for us all...

Update: Dang, I see Ezra has already made that point.

Mine was funnier though.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Holy crap!!

My first thought was, "Uhmm...buddy? I'm not sure that's a really good place to be standing..."

It gets really good about 2:27, then about 4:05 Nature cranks it up a few notches...then...well...




How to write a manifesto.



Friday, March 25, 2011


Just posted this to the LSN blog.

I am past due to send out a great heartfelt note of thanks to all the people out there in internet land, in Rome, in Europe, the US and elsewhere, who have written, emailed, texted, phoned and messaged me on facebook, the blog, here on LifeSite and even in the post, ever since I made it known publicly that I was recently diagnosed with cancer. As I said, it is only too easy for us cold, northern Anglo types, particularly those in this line of work, to forget that there really is such a thing as Christian charity, kindliness and good will.

I have really been overwhelmed by the generous and friendly notes and messages I have received. Prayer offers have come in ranging from daily family Rosaries to entire communities of nuns, praying for my health and recovery and general well being. I have had calls and messages and offers of help from journalists, friends, editors, colleagues, priests and pro-life campaigners from around the world, from friends in England, the States, Ireland, Australia and Europe, from nearly all the people I’ve worked with in the last ten years (and even from one member of the British Royal Family!).

I came into the office today and there was a large bouquet of flowers waiting for me on my desk sent from friends in Ireland, and the other day, a box arrived from North Carolina, via Poste Italia, containing a large tupperware container of homemade ginger cookies!

I have had people buy me things I need, bring me flowers, top up my cell phone credit, drive me 60 miles home from hospital, take me to doctors’ offices and hospital appointments, help me get the paperwork together for medical coverage and even get on flights to bring it to me from England via Germany. Today, an Italian friend took me round to all the necessary local offices to get signed up for an Italian GP and did all the necessary translating to get the proper prescriptions. People have grocery shopped for me when I was too tired and taken me out to eat when I was too out of sorts to be much fun. They’ve sent me funny videos on the internet and a stack as long as your arm of Russel Crowe and Ahnold action flicks on DVD. (Nothing like explosions and car chases to take your mind off your troubles, I’d definitely recommend it.)

I can’t tell y’all how much this has helped, and, at the risk of being accused of sharing too much, I thought I would spread a little good news.

I was told that after exploratory surgery, I would be undergoing a series of scans and exams to see if the cancer had spread to the surrounding tissues, and if so, how far. This would let them devise a treatment plan, to decide what sort of surgery would be required and whether they would do chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.

I had the first of these last week and the doctors have told us that it is showing the best possible scenario. From the dedicated ultrasound, the tumour looks to be small and localised. There is no sign of the cancer having spread to any of the surrounding tissues or organs or lymph nodes.

The doctor told us that, apart from having no cancer at all, this was the best possible situation. I will be going on Monday for the big fancy scans with MRI and PET machines and they will be able to tell me definitively whether there is any spreading or any cancer anywhere else, but for now, the prognosis looks very good. They told me there is a good chance that I will not need chemo and that the surgery will be very minor.

I have had a hard time keeping up with all the people who have been supporting me, with saying thank you properly and letting you all know just how much of a difference this has all made. It can be a bit scary living in a foreign country, but I would like to let you all know that I have never felt more loved or more safe.

Thank you.

And we'll let you

but only if you ask very, very nicely.

Intelligent Design person: "Oh yeah? Well how do you explain the platypus then?"

Darwinist: "Oh yeah? Well how do you explain the platypus then?"


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Thermopylae IV - Fight or Flight

All the time I was running away in a blind panic from the hospital on Ash Wednesday afternoon, a small but perfectly calm and reasonable voice in my head was saying it was probably a bad idea.

“You know, this isn’t going to make you not have cancer.

“And you’re going to have to go back. You’ll be all embarrassed and people will be mad at you.”

On the train on the way into the City that morning, Christopher had given me two presents. A little pink leather Agnus Dei, a tiny heart shaped votive object that I put into my wallet, and a rather precious thing, a first class relic of St. Thomas Aquinas in a little metal container. “I read yesterday that St. Thomas cured a woman who was suffering from an issue of blood.” I put it carefully into my purse, along with the documents that verified it.

It had fled my mind at that moment that that day was Ash Wednesday. It was the first time in many years that I had not got my ashes. Christopher said the same. One might have hoped that this important spiritual date would have inspired more confidence, perhaps that what was happening was at the very least being monitored by God or maybe one of His friends. But all of that would have required a functioning rational capacity.

I was standing in the car bay in front of the emergency room, on the phone telling my friend the art teacher about cancer when the ambulance driver came up to me. “Mrs. White? Are you Mrs. White?”

It amazes me that in a place as huge and apparently chaotic as a large urban hospital anyone knows what anyone else is doing. But after we had gone out for some air and sun, after I had ceased to be capable of helping myself or even of feeling the ground pushing up against the soles of my feet, someone in that dark jungle of bustling, chattering people had made a phone call and we were to be taken off to the next stage.

It appears that the Gemelli is made up of a main, monolithic terribly ugly, and incidentally cruciform, building and a number of smaller satellites. We climbed into the back seat of the ambulance, Christopher smiling hopefully at me. “Ambulance ride!” he said. I laughed with a sort of brief snort. He the one who, the few days before, had been trying to convince me to go to the emergency room with the promise that in hospitals they, after all, bring you breakfast in bed every day. And ice cream.

“Yes, when you’re six!”

The ambulance driver talked into his cell phone the whole five minute ride, leaving Christopher and me to the task of calming my now nearly hysterical brain. It had begun chanting the one word it remembered of the last hour, “Cancercancercancercancer…”.

We got out of the van in front of a more pleasant, somewhat less Stalinesque building. On one side of the driveway was a tall hill with a statue of the Sacred Heart. In front of the entrance, a little garden with a tulip magnolia in full bloom. Inside, more chaos chaos chaos. We followed the ambulance man to a hallway with chairs along one wall and were told, “Aspetta qui.” Wait here.

In a surprisingly short time, a middle aged nurse came and found us with a clipboard of forms in Italian to fill out. Being Anglos, we set about deciphering the code right away, with my aversion to government form-filling kicking my anxiety level up another ten notches.

“No, no. It’s ok. You wait. Do later. Tomorrow maybe.” The nurse gestured toward the elevators and we bundled up all the luggage and followed.

The ward was not unpleasant. It was clean, there was no one screaming. But to my horror the rooms, all double, had no curtains or screens around the beds. I had forgotten the differences between Italian and Anglo standards of privacy. I was going to have to watch procedures, cleanings. And be watched myself. There was a closet with a small safe, a lock on the door.

I knew that day that Christopher had to be on Vatican Radio and the time was getting close when he had to go there. All assurances that everything was going to be fine. The old lady in the next bed had her daughter visiting. Like a good Anglo, I tried to observe custody of the eyes.

The first doctor we saw came in and spoke to us in Italian. She paused, “You don’t speak Italian?” I shook my head, “Not enough.”

“It’s ok, we can speak English.”

She asked the questions, medical history, family history, allergies, date of birth. I perched on the edge of the bed answering. She was a young woman, perhaps in her thirties and smiled kindly at me, and said that things were going to be ok. I was to have a chest x-ray and an EKG as preparation for surgery later that day. These were being arranged.

She left us a few minutes later and then the form-nurse came back. I signed consent for treatment, consent for medical records, some other things. Then Christopher was talking and I was answering.

“Why don’t you lie down and pull the blankets up?”

“Because then I would really be here.”

“That’s silly. You should lie down. It’s going to be all right. At least take your shoes off.”

“Hospitals really scare me. They really scare me. The last time I was in a hospital no one there had my best interests at heart. Really bad things happened.”

“All these people want to help you. They’re going to be very nice to you. They’ve been really nice to you so far, haven’t they? The doctor in the emergency room was nice.”

“There are demons in hospitals. I’ve been reading and writing about medical things for a decade. Hospitals are full of monsters.”

“This is Italy. They don’t let demons into hospitals here. And it’s a Catholic hospital. I saw there’s a chapel on the top floor. They’ve probably got the Blessed Sacrament there. There’s a crucifix on the wall. Demons wouldn’t come here.”

As we were discussing diabolic infestations in North American hospitals, the chaplain came in. Late middle aged, dressed in a clerical collar and white doctor coat, he smiled at us.

“Catholics?” he asked, heavily accented.


That was all the invitation he required. In Italian he said, “Well, let’s say a little prayer.”

Prayer to the guardian angels, Hail Mary, a blessing, then he was off with a smile.

“See? The devil would never come near that guy.”

“Ok, I believe you.”

We checked that the lock on the closet worked, looked in the bathroom, put the forms I had signed and the St. Thomas relic into the bedside table drawer. I took off my shoes and Christopher cranked the head of the bed up and hung up my coat. I curled up and tucked my cold feet under me for protection and still refused to touch the blankets. The doctor came back once or twice and a nurse came in and took another blood sample from me. Another came in to look after my elderly roommate. She was cold and Christopher pulled her blankets up over her. We waited while I breathed and shook.

Christopher, who had been listening at the time, told me again everything the doctor had told us in emergency. That I was young. That there was no reason to think that I was going to die of this. That this was one of the best reseach hospitals in Europe. That there are a lot more things they can do now than they could do for my mum. That there was a chance they had caught things early. I wasn’t going to be alone. Everyone has said they want to help.

“Do you want me to organise a team so there’s always someone here?”

“Yes, please.”

Things became quiet in the ward. It was getting on for the afternoon riposo, and time for Christopher to go be on Vatican Radio. He had been invited to comment on the Papal Mass for Ash Wednesday. He really had to go and he’d come back later. Gregory was going to come later too. He was going to leave his computer with me. It had the full collection of Firefly and the Blues Brothers and Canadian Bacon and all sorts of funny videos. Here were the headphones. Here was the internet stick. Make sure that if you go out, you lock it in the closet.

He had to go talk about the pope, so I smiled and said, “Shoo.” Normal life. Things need to keep happening, people have to keep doing things.

“You’re going to be fine.”

“Yes. Go on. Go.”

Big mistake.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Because you guys have just been so great lately,

Another great Captain Kirk moment.

Kirk vs. the dumbest robots in the galaxy.

Norman, coordinate!


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

It's Shatner Day!

It's William Shatner's 80th birthday today.

Today is Talk Like William Shatner day. Everyone, put your hands out in front of you, put your elbows together, and make a speech about Humanity, while

Making. Every. Word. [pause] Sound. Like. Its. Own. [pause] Sentence.

Here's a helpful video by Canadian voice actor, Maurice Lamarche who's really good at it.

And a classic from the Master himself:

Happy Birthday Bill!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Science is cool: PET and MRI scans

So, just been idly surfing around doing important internet research, and reading all about MRI and PET scans, which I will be having next week, (...should we succeed in appeasing the capricious socialized medicine bureaucracy kami ...) and it is tremendously interesting.

I have been strictly forbidden by my team of bullies caregiving friends to read anything about cervical cancer, recurrence rates, survival rates or look at any scary pictures on Google Images (tends to make me freak out/have panic attacks/phone people in tears at three am... which I'm told is very annoying), but I have been reading all about MRI and PET technology.

Did you know that a PET involves you emitting gamma rays? Yeah! No kidding.

...a radiotracer is either injected into a vein, swallowed or inhaled as a gas and eventually accumulates in the organ or area of your body being examined, where it gives off energy in the form of gamma rays [Coo-Whul!]. This energy is detected by a device called a gamma camera, a (positron emission tomography) PET scanner and/or probe. These devices work together with a computer to measure the amount of radiotracer absorbed by your body and to produce special pictures offering details on both the structure and function of organs and tissues.

In some centers, nuclear medicine images can be superimposed with computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to produce special views, a practice known as image fusion or co-registration. These views allow the information from two different studies to be correlated and interpreted on one image, leading to more precise information and accurate diagnoses. In addition, manufacturers are now making single photon emission computed tomography/computed tomography (SPECT/CT) and positron emission tomography/computed tomography (PET/CT) units that are able to perform both imaging studies at the same time.

I don't know about you, but I'm still back there with "gamma rays" And yes, I thought exactly what you're thinking. "Hulk SMASH!"

Also, I see from around the medical net that people tend to do what I have been forbidden to do, and use the info online to diagnose themselves (or, according to my own more nuanced version, work themselves up into a screaming panic attack). This note was appended to the image I have linked to above:

"Note: Images are shown for illustrative purposes. Do not attempt to draw conclusions or make diagnoses by comparing these images to other medical images, particularly your own. Only qualified physicians should interpret images; the radiologist is the physician expert trained in medical imaging."

But really! a machine that reads your insides, down to the cellular level, by making you emit photons...

Science: it's really just AMAY-ZINGly cool!

BTW: want to know some statistics on MRIs? It will make good fuel for argument about that whole socialist medicine thing.

Number of MRI machines in Canada as of 2008: 222 (a increase of 28% since 2003)
Number per million Canadians: 6
Number of MRIs per million recommended by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD): 7

Italy ("two-tier" optional user-pay system) was in the top five in 2005 with 15 machines per million people, after Japan (40.1), US (26.6), Iceland (20.3) and Austria (16.3). Canada was 16th on the list with 6.1 and the UK was 18th with 5.4. A report compiled by the Canadian health department explained the disparity of MRI availability between countries thus:

A wide range of factors may explain the variations in the international supply pattern of medical imaging services and technologies. In the case of Japan, for example, the high rate of MRIs per million population (40.1) has been partly attributed to the market situation of the medical engineering industry, as well as socio-cultural factors such as a bias toward new technologies.

Does that mean that Canada's medical community has a bias against new technologies, or just that their government is incompetent and can't figure out that more MRIs (and consequently shorter wait lists) mean more people surviving things like cancer? Just askin'.

Furthermore, decisions by individual countries about which types of imaging technology to invest in, and how many machines to acquire, may depend on a variety of domestic factors, including the state of the assessment of the appropriateness of a particular technology’s use in different clinical situations and environments.
Because under socialist medicine, it's not the doctor that decides whether a particular diagnostic tool is "appropriate," it's the state.

Number of computed tomography (CT) scans per 1000
Canada: 103 (2007)
US: 207
Belgium: 138
England: 54
Denmark: 34

Number of MRI scans Canada: 31/1000
Number in US: 88.9/1000


Spazio! L'ultima frontiera

We interrupt our regularly scheduled litany of doom n' gloom to bring you...

Italian Star Trek Geeks!

Yes, the world is much, much weirder than you think.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Beat to quarters

Starting to feel the fightyness coming back...


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Thermopylae III

Now we go down into the dark

By ten past three on Wednesday morning, I knew that my time was up. I woke and knew that I was bleeding heavily. I had been dreaming of my grandparents’ house, a deep subconscious icon of family, safety and security, in which it was being washed away by a rising sea, a tide that was going to destroy it and its magical, semi-mythical gardens. I had fallen asleep with the bedside light on, like a child afraid of waking to an unknown dark.

A friend has said, “You have a fight ahead of you.” And I have objected that it is not me who will be doing the fighting but the doctors and all of their minions with their procedures, machines, drugs and voodoo ceremonies. Perhaps though, my friend is right. (He usually is.) Perhaps I have underestimated the role of the will in all this.

All my life I had ignored all medical threats and possible threats as a policy and avoided doctors, and now, today, I knew that all my previous habits of denial were done. The priorities of concrete physical reality would now have to be the ruling principle.

I got up and had a look. Saturated as on the heaviest day, and I could feel the blood pouring out of me. This time it was my own important vascular blood, the kind one needs to run the systems, the kind one needs to keep. The time was now upon me and the will took over.

Super Calm Girl got up at 4:15 and had a shower, set the kettle to boiling, and got out the overnight bag, started a good, protein-oriented breakfast in the fry pan, and sent a text message to Christopher at 5:30. “I’m going to the emergency room. When does the first train go?”

She was making the tea when the text came back: “Me too. We’ll do the 6:30 train, ok?”

Standing in front of the mirror, Super Calm Girl smiled briefly and thought of the Spartans as she carefully blowdried her hair. She put the dryer away and hestitated for a moment before pulling out the curling iron as well. On some lower plane of existence, my Xerxes, the spined and jagged demon, “Hospitalisation,” howled at the insult.

She marched back and forth, putting clean underwear, pajamas, slippers and socks into the kit and loading the wash bag with shampoo and toothbrush and the little comforting pot of Oil of Olay. Extra food into the cat’s dish, litter box cleaned, bed made and be sure to turn the heat off.

Got the passport, the extra set of keys, a zip-lock bag of Twinings tea, the name and phone numbers of doctors, a book to read, a little bit of drawing, pencil case, sketch book, cell phone, the warm wooly cardigan.

Passport in the handbag, phone in the pocket, Super Calm Girl looked around the flat for a moment then locked the door behind her. She marched me smartly past the beach, where the sun was just starting to lighten the sky. There was little wind and the sea was like moving silver, rippling discreetly up and caressing the sand. She allowed me to stop for a minute and look at it, with the clouds starting to show a little pink overhead. I noticed the Gigi Bar was already open and doing brisk morning business.

At ten past six, I looked out over the train tracks and up at the tops of the dying palm trees and paused, listening. The birds had begun and the sky was turning pink. I wondered how long things would be this first time.

“Here we go,” I thought. “Down into it.” All the dark and fearful things came forward: pain and drugs and manhandling by strangers, needles and tubes and catheters, gurneys, scans and huge clicking machines and helplessness. The gaunt spectres of surgery and chemotherapy grinning, and behind them, like a shadow of the others further off, gangling, coughing, shivering, hollow-eyed death.

The train pulled up: this is the start, I thought, and from here we have to just keep going forward, no matter what it is we’re going toward. Christopher took my arm and bundled my cold self and all my wars onto the train.

Super Calm Girl was still in charge as we arrived at the hospital at eight in the morning. The Gemelli is huge, and, I am told, is known to be one of the best research hospitals in Europe, offering the most comprehensive care and all in one place.

By the time she had called the doctor from the lobby and was sure that the emergency room was expecting me, Super Calm Girl was starting to falter. She began flickering, winking in and out of existence as the hospital, its busyness, its noise and size and cold, clean modernness intruded. The lobby looked like a set from Logan’s Run, with the added insult of a hideous, modern crucifix to remind everyone that the old, warm, wine-soaked, plaster statue Italian Catholic world was no longer welcome.

The lobby bar was crowded and noisy and Christopher thought better of having me fight my way through it to. He parked me and the luggage in a relatively calm corner and returned a few minutes later with a glass of fresh squeezed arrancia rossa that was bracing and brought my mind for a moment out of its dark corner.

This snapping back and forth from my closet of sour fears to the necessary realities has been the largest obstacle so far. Left alone for more than a few minutes, my brain will begin its spiral, a kind of panicked death leap off the safe ground of the practical and consequential into a black vortex where no sense or reason can claim any ground. This was going to cause a problem later.

A word to the wise, if you need to go to the emergency room, arrive before nine in the morning and call ahead. I was seen inside of ten minutes. Super Calm Girl was able to endure another humiliating gynecological examination and the doctor and single nurse present were kindly and gentle of hand. The bleeding was alarming, but a blood test showed that my hemoglobin had not yet dropped dangerously and I was packed tight with a mile of gauze and a coagulant, and given another dose of a coagulant drug, a little bitter draught in a plastic cup.

Super Calm Girl flickered and almost disappeared at the sight of a gurney and I was told to wait. The biopsy results were going to be made available and we would see whether I would be going home or staying. I was wheeled out into the small waiting lounge, the gurney loaded up with bags and books and computers, and Christopher and I watched the Simpsons, played computer chess, read books and speculated about the other patients.

A young woman was wheeled in on a gurney sobbing and writhing in pain. She lay for about 15 minutes weeping and I had the urge to get up and go over and hold her hand. After a while, someone gave her an injection and she quieted before she was taken away. A family came in with a pram and a child of maybe two with huge eyes and long black lashes and pink cheeks. Everyone made much of her and she looked as though she were used to it.

After an hour or two, I watched two doctors glance at me gravely as they passed by into the gynecology room. I was called in and the pretty young doctor was sitting at her desk.

“You can bring your ‘usband in, it’s ok…”

I declined to correct her and went back and waved Christopher into the room. We sat down and she picked up a piece of paper.

“I’m afraid I ‘ave some bad news. The growth is not a polyp.”

Super Calm Girl popped like a soap bubble and I could feel Christopher take my hand as a kind of roaring started to drown out what she was saying.

“The pathology report shows that the cells are malignant…” I looked down and saw my own lap getting far away and at the edges of my vision the room turning black. I may have made some kind of sound, but I can’t remember. I leaned in to Christopher’s shoulder and he put his other arm around me.

She kept talking, saying that there was much that could be done and that the most important thing now was to find out how far the cancer had developed, whether it was localised, whether there was any in the surrounding tissues. I tried to nod and look as though I were listening. Christopher took it all in.

She described a series of scans and exploratory surgery, a “visita,” that would start right away. I was to stay in the hospital while these were arranged, and had only to wait now while a room was found. She tried to tell me that my mother’s death from this disease did not mean I would die, that things could be done now that could not be done then, that the Gemelli was a leading hospital, that I was young and strong. I’m not sure if she knew that by now, I simply could not hear her.

After a few minutes, I said I was thirsty and Christopher said he would take me out into the sunshine and to find a glass of juice. The doctor nodded and said not to go too far, but that there was an exit with benches outside around the corner and a vending machine.

He led me through the halls and I was stiff and blank. I stood while he got a pineapple juice out of the machine and I think I remember looking around at the other people in the emergency room lobby. He led me outside and we found a bench and he gathered me up while I sobbed into the shoulder of his jacket. After a few minutes, the Italian sun had worked a bit of therapy on me and I could think again. We made some phone calls and then a smiling ambulance driver found us.


Monday, March 14, 2011

Thermopylae II

Train’s coming

A friend has suggested that I write down everything that has been happening step by step and in as much detail as I can remember. He thinks it might be useful for the record in case I get a miraculous cure. I will try to keep track of the different saints I have appealed to so we can know who gets credit.

I had known for months that something was wrong. A girl knows when those vital and delicate systems are not functioning as usual. I had spent a little time looking things up on the internet. But what I read and what was happening only confirmed what I had known in my gut.

I don’t know why, but I have always had a very deep intuition that I would get cancer, and still believe that I will die of it. Three years ago, when my mother died of metastasized cervical cancer, I had looked carefully at what she was going through, making notes on how I would handle it when my turn came. When the symptoms started appearing, I was unsurprised and thought, “That’s my train coming.”

So, I am now surprised at the incredible, mind-choking clench of terror that has closed around me now that the news is confirmed. Had I not had the Grandma training from early childhood never to show anyone what I am feeling, I would have simply got up and run in a blind panic from the little room where we were given the news.

A month or so ago I gave in and went to see the GP. I had a lump where I was fairly sure no lump ought to be. On February 7th, my nice German doctor gave me an ultrasound and said, “Fibroid”. But to be sure, he said to come back later that day to see the gynecologist who keeps office hours there twice a month. That afternoon, God and I became re-acquainted.

I had two hours to wait and instead of going back to the office, I took a walk in the cold sunny day. I wandered past the Bangladeshi statue hucksters, Romanian beggars and clusters of Africans selling faux Prada bags and over to the great Piazza, thinking I would walk through the Colonnade and maybe buy a bun to share with the pigeons.

The line was short and for once I decided not to take offense at the metal detectors. I stood on the cobbles with the sun on my back and the tourists chattering all their languages around me and thought, I might have cancer. I’m in this great place and standing yards away from the Pope’s office, and I might have cancer.

I marched past a group of people taking pictures of the Swiss Guardsmen at the Scala Regia, into the big vestibule and past the Pieta behind its bullet-proof screen, down the long row of Bernini’s great Roman saints, hardly glancing up at the dark Baldachino looming up towards the dome. To the right of the Pope’s altar, in the east transept, that is itself the size of a Canadian cathedral, confessions are heard every day in ten languages in a set of mismatched Baroque wooden closets.

I was late for the morning schedule, and the only Anglophone priest left was the Polish Franciscan who manned the gate to heaven closest to the tomb of St. Josephat. While I waited, a long time, for the Polish sinner in bright pink track pants to be finished, I knelt and prayed, for the first time in months, at the marble altar rail. Looking down at the saint’s silver death mask and embroidered vestments where he lay waiting for the King under his disused altar, I didn’t know what to ask. Except perhaps for mercy.

That priest heard all about my life that day, even though he clearly wanted his lunch. When I was done, he said, “Come ‘round to the front.” I got up and crouched down in front of his little wooden cubicle, folded my arms on the railing and put my chin on them. He said, “Don’t be afraid. Do everything the doctors tell you. And don’t listen to the people who tell you about their alternative therapies. All that stuff is rubbish. Absolute rubbish. And keep in mind, this is the time, when you feel at your lowest, that God is with you most closely.” He blessed me in his own words, and made the sign of the cross with his thumb on my forehead.

I went back to the doctor’s office. She confirmed with another ultrasound, “Fibroid”. But something was wrong. How long has it been since I have had a PAP test? Five years.

I was asked to come back in two weeks, on Wednesday the 23rd, for another examination. That was when we met the quiet, stealthy little lump. By then, I had started seeing the first faint traces of blood in the mornings. My doctor said that I must go to the Gemelli Policlinico on the following Tuesday, March 1st, to be seen by a gynecological surgeon, an expert, who would be able to confirm on sight whether the lump were a mere cervical polyp that could easily be removed or whether other, terrible things would start to happen.

I waited over that weekend and more blood came. During that examination, I started bleeding so much that the doctors could not see easily. The surgeon, with two other doctors, took a biopsy. I paid €18.10 for the biopsy and was told to go home and wait, rest and not do too much. In ten days, the pathology report would be available.

I was to go home to England that week for a while. No, I should not go. I should not fly. They had had a hard time stopping the bleeding and were worried that I might start to hemorrhage at any time and without warning and should stay close to emergency services. Did I know the number to call for an ambulance in Italy?

The bleeding did not stop in those few days and I started to feel tired nearly all the time. I stayed in Italy after contemplating the image of myself bleeding to death at 35 thousand feet, and all the fuss and alarm that would cause a flight crew. I imagined, not without a certain secret glee, an emergency landing in France somewhere, or on some tiny, inadequate airstrip on one of the valleys in the Alps.

On Friday, after interviewing an English lord, I begged off work and went home to bed. I stayed in bed on Saturday and the bleeding stopped briefly. I ventured out and bought groceries, had tea at a friend’s place and went home and boiled some veal knuckles for stock. I felt fine.

I took the non-bleeding as a good sign and got up on Sunday and went to the Big Mass downtown. A day out in the sun, after several weeks of rain, wind and overcast and, by Italian standards, bitter cold. We ate lunch at the German restaurant behind Castel Sant Angelo that was a favourite of the former Cardinal Ratzinger. Pope Benedict smiles out from a photo that hangs over the wall of his usual booth which was occupied that day by a large family. I made jokes about Star Wars with an American Dominican priest, a professor at the Angelicum, who had turned heads, even in the streets of Rome, with his full-sail religious habit.

On Monday, my mobile internet stick still not working, I went into the City to work, but could not focus my mind on the latest directives of the EU, or the latest legislative capitulations of the British parliament to Brussels, the protests against this or that. It all blurred together into a meaningless drone in my mind. I had started bleeding again, and this time it looked to mean it. I wrote one article, but hardly remember what it was about. Able to think about nothing but the train that was coming for me, I nearly missed the last one back to Santa Marinella that night.

On Tuesday, March 8, I spent the morning at home and went again into the city after stopping at the pharmacy and buying iron pills, thinking about the interview I still needed to transcribe. I sat at my desk with my head on my arms, the world buzzing and popping and crackling for my attention. I called the doctor and she said I should go to the emergency room. I said I would go home and lie down instead. That had worked before to stop the bleeding. She sounded worried, and tried to convince me.

“If you feel badly, or if the bleeding becomes very heavy, call me and I will call the emergency room at the Gemelli. They will take care of everything. They will give you a blood test and check your hemoglobin. If it is low they may keep you in the hospital.”

I knew what was happening. But the thought of hospitals and emergency rooms with their exhausting waits, and the faces of frightened people, of procedures, cold metal implements, plastic packages of sterile equipment, the smell of disinfectant and urine, people wailing on gurneys. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t want it all to begin.

I went home and was quiet. At ten, a text sent to Christopher was misspelled: “I’m sacred.” The return came, “Sacred or scared? It will be ok. Call in the morning and if you need to go in, I’ll go with you.”

I lay down and was calm, waiting.


Before the Battle of Thermopylae, the Spartans combed their hair

It has been suggested that I write about my experiences...

The morning after

6:38 am, Saturday, March 12, 2011
Day three of the first hospitalisation

There is an old woman shouting in a room down the hall. I think she must be senile, and she sounds terribly sad, as the old and mad often do. She shouts continually throughout the day and her calls have reminded me of birds; first, of the seagulls that fly like white ghosts over my home town at night and second, of the peacocks in Beacon Hill park, whose weird, otherworldly wails punctuate the day over the whole south end of the city.

Her rhythmic chanting has been in Italian and I am not sure if she has been calling for her daughter Maria to come take her home, or upon the Madonna. Sometimes it has sounded as though she is calling “Signora, Signora…” On my first day here, she was shouting throughout the day and without cease late into the night.

After I had come back to the world following surgery on the first night, I lay in my bed unable to move because of tubes and glutted with fear and I tried to be angry. I tried to think, “Why don’t they do something, she’s disturbing the whole ward…” but my habitually selfish thoughts would not stick. Perhaps I was too frightened to be unkind.

I also knew that there was probably nothing anyone could do. The poor old thing is senile and it was clear that they were helpless to do anything. Whenever anyone tried to intervene, her shouts would increase in volume and desperation and she would start weeping. One night nurse, clearly having had her fill, scolded her, “Basta!” Enough! and remonstrated with her firmly, saying, clearly enough for even my poor Italian to grasp, that she was safe and there was no need to be so loud. “Tranquilla, tranquilla!” But the old woman’s shouts never ceased and only increased in rasping desperation during this motherly correction, turning for a moment into weak screams.

Finally, that awful first night, the old lady subsided and we all slept as well as our various afflictions would allow. At five twenty-four, precisely, the blonde and somewhat brutish night nurse came in for her last, clanging visit to finish her shift by changing IV drip bags, leaving fluorescent lights glaring behind her. I did not have the energy to push the button to ask that she come back and turn them off. By five twenty-six, she had done the same thing in the Shouting Lady’s room and the chants resumed their gloomy monotony. I don’t remember a worse awakening.

Today I am sitting up, with the pillow end of the bed cranked up high, and typing on my Mac on the roll-y tray table. I slept from eight to six and am de-tubed. I have had a shower and a glass of frizzante water and I know that in a few minutes, the trays will be pushed down the hall and there will be tea. I have had a full day of rest and quite jolly visits from friends who brought me amusing books and little canolis, on a gold paper tray wrapped in silvery mylar and a red curly ribbon. I slept fairly soundly through the night, hardly noticing the interruptions from nurses attending to my roommate’s needs. But at five-thirty Friday morning, I felt close to God; abandoned, in other words, and close to death.

An IV saline drip into the back of my left hand had replenished fluids after a 26-hour fast but my mouth was dry and thick and still tasted of anesthetic and I had no way of getting anything to drink. I lay on my side, hurting from the metal pin stuck in my flesh and immobilised by the catheter tube that humiliatingly drained my private fluids into a plastic bag on the floor. It was painful to lie on my side and I had slept on my back, which strains my lumbar causing excruciating pain after a short time, and compresses my breathing, giving me nightmares. My legs and hips and shoulders ached and I was shivering, not with cold but with the simple fright and horror of cancer. My jaw and upper throat ached and hurt when I swallowed, the after effect from the tubes during surgery.

It was too early to call anyone and the friendly Italian sun had not yet appeared. I could just hear the birds starting through the closed windows. I thought of the little blob of cancer growing on me like a rebuke, a punishment for past sins. A deadly disease that starts small and unnoticed and could end by eating me alive from the inside.

“Maria! Maria! Maria! Maria!...” the old lady cawed.

To my shame, I started to weep helplessly, waves of terror making my heart race and closing my throat. After a few minutes of this, the nurse came in looking concerned. Very kindly she said, “Why you cry? … depression?” I nodded, trying to smile. She patted my feet and said, “Can I ‘ave your blood?”

“Non tutto,” I said. Not all of it. I was so distracted, and the nurse so skilled, I hardly noticed.

“Maria! Maria! MARIIIAAA!!! Maria!...”


Wednesday, March 09, 2011

I have cancer

so, now that the whole world knows, it may officially go away and stop bothering me.


Hey everybody. I thought I'd put up a note to say that I'm OK. Had the exploratory surgery last night and it was very brief. I'm going to be staying in the hospital one more night to rest and recover and will be having more tests throughout the week on an outpatient basis. But I'm doing ok and am still maintaining the black sense of humour; the irony shielding is also holding up well. I'll give more news later and really, (yes, really) thank you all for your thoughts and messages and prayers. I can't tell you how much it has meant to me to know that y'all are out there.

Probably not a whole lot of internet things for the next little while.

More news as it comes.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011


Warren is being clever again...

"...what makes our own society unique, is not its freedom from religion but rather the peculiar nature of the religion upon which our theocracy rests. That is to say, we have an upside-down religion, in which there is no God, but that "Not God" commands an obedience more absolute than God ever required, stipulating everything from the sanctity of antinomian sexual behaviour, down to how we should sort our garbage.

Things I know II: How to make soup

Everyone ought to know how to do this. Real soup, made from meat bones and vegetables, is like bread, one of those foods that forms one of the most ancient foundations of communal human life. It predates civilisation. We humans started making soup immediately after we learned to cook food over a fire. It's what to do with the leftover mammoth once you've eaten everything else. Making real soup creates a kind of temporal connective tissue to the lives of our remotest ancestors, to the deepest realms of human antiquity. Soup is a piece of the Ancient Real.

You start by making stock. Making soup is a long process and cannot be rushed. You make the stock one day, and the soup the next.

In a large pressure cooker place

4 knuckles of veal or beef
1 whole carrot, sliced in half lengthwise
1 whole onion, with the paper still on, cut in half
a handful of leek greens
a couple of sticks of celery
mushroom stems and asparagus ends
sprig of fresh thyme
4 bay leaves
1 whole clove (and only one!)
4 or five whole cloves of garlic
a few whole peppercorns
1/2 a large apple, unpeeled
water from the filter jug to the top of the pot

Bring it all to a boil and cook with the lid and the valve on at high pressure for at least one or two hours.

For some years when I was learning to do this, I would make the soup from the turkey carcass and the stock never turned out as nice as I'd hoped. This was because I was not leaving it to boil long enough. A good turkey broth can take as much as five hours of boiling. Beef or veal even longer. This is why you need to get a pressure cooker. It cuts the cooking time in half. Since my pressure cooker is very old (1950s, I think) and the seal ring is old, I have to periodically add more water. Don't let it boil dry, but don't be too eager to add water. A big part of the goal here is to get a very concentrated meat essence, so you want it to cook down quite a bit.

The "meat" of a good broth is the marrow contained in the cell structure of the bones. This substance is a pure form of animal protein that, by the time the broth is finished, is almost totally fat-free. The marrow is water soluble and the long boiling time is requuired to draw out all of it from the cell structure. Soup stock is not, therefore, merely meat juice and a soup made from real stock does not need any extra meat added to make it nutritious. It is, essentially, liquified meat protein. Soup made from meat without bone marrow is what the Victorians called "beef tea," a hot drink given to invalids, but having only a fraction of the nutritional value. (No one makes beef tea any more since someone invented Bovril.)

Once the marrow has been boiled completely out of the bones, and the veg is boiled to a paste, allow the stock to cool and strain it through a colander and discard the bones. You can either discard the veg or put it through a food mill or blender and return it to the soup later.

Place the stock in the fridge over night. The fat will rise to the top and solidify as the meat gels. The goal is a jellied stock. The more jellified, the better the stock.

In the morning, just lift the big white hockey puck of fat off the jellied stock. You can either discard this or keep it for "dripping" (later we'll talk about an English delicacy called "fried bread").

To make the soup, heat the stock. If you want it more clear, strain it once it has warmed through cheesecloth.

Bring it up slowly to a low simmer, and do not allow it to boil. An English housewife's maxim is "A soup boiled is a soup spoiled".

Add to the simmering stock

1 or two beef cubes
shot or two of ketchup
Lea n' Perrin's
a teaspoon or so of brown sugar + a little red wine vinegar
dried shitaake mushrooms, broken into small pieces
chopped onion
chopped carrot
diced beef or veal
2 or 3 handfuls of pearl barley
basil, marjoram, red wine

or whatever nice soup-like thing you happen to like. Simmer all together until the barley is chewy and/or the meat is tender. The soup process takes about an hour. All of the above in the second half is optional. Soup depends entirely on what you like and takes practice and commitment.

Make a habit of collecting vegetable left-overs and keeping them marked "for stock" in the freezer. I save the tough green tops of leeks, celery tops and leaves, the stems left over from making stuffed mushroom caps for parties, and the tough ends of asparagus. (These, btw, are not very good to puree and add back into the soup, since they are very fibrous and don't break down sufficiently, even after several hours of boiling.) Avoid anything starchy like legumes or potatoes, since the idea of stock is to go for highly flavoured things. But avoid brassicas (cabbage, brussel's sprouts, broccoli) since their flavour will overpower everything else. Hard fruit, like apple, is often a very nice addition. So is a piece of salt pork or bacon, but remember that these will significantly increase the salt, so adjust for it.

Soup bones can be had in most meat sections and butcher shops on request. In Italy, people still seem to know how to cook, so they are regularly available in the supermarket meat counter. They are incredibly cheap. The last ones I bought were in cello packages and were less than 1 Euro. I used to get beef bones from Gerry the Butcher in Tattenhall for nothing, since he said that no one in England does this any more. (He also used to save me lamb's kidneys and hearts too... the English have forgotten how to cook their own food.) I boiled stock on Saturday night, using veal knuckles and frozen veg-ends, and the whole thing cost me no more than 2 Euros. I expect to get at least two very nice and healthy meals out of it.

Soup-making is an art and requires practice. The precise balance of flavourings, bringing out your favourite nuances, is tricky and depends on your taste, (so the second instructions above are nearly all optional.) I always use ketchup, since there is a chemical in tomatoes that enhances other flavours. I have been using shitaake mushrooms lately, that you can buy from the Korean grocery downstairs from the office in Rome, but watch out; they have a very strong flavour and you have to really like them. Barley will make a soup quite thick and too much will turn it into barley stew. (No bad thing.) A little brown sugar will also take off the edge in case you have gone too acidic, or have overdone any hot spices.

Go very easy on each thing you use, especially at first. The idea is to get a blend that is even and very rich.


Monday, March 07, 2011

Things I know

OK. I’ll let y’all in on the secret. A few weeks ago, I started to see various doctors because of a set of somewhat ambiguous symptoms that, as with many of these things, could turn out to be nothing of great import, or could as easily turn out to be something potentially life-threatening. I’ve known since January that something is up and I’m “that age,” as my doctors have repeatedly reminded me, where things start spontaneously going wrong.

Now, before everyone starts having fits (or starts sending out invitations to the celebration) the answer is that I still don’t know. There have been “tests” the results of which should be available at the end of this week. After that, awful things might begin to happen which may end up complicating my life to the point where nearly all internet activity gets suspended. So, in case you were wondering why things have been a little thin here, and with my offerings on LifeSite, now you know.

(That, and the rather mundane technical difficulty with my mobile internet stick… the Italian company I have an account with keeps saying the problem, that is interrupting mobile internet service all over the country, will be “cleared up soon.” Thanks guys…)

Enough people in my private life know about all this now that I thought I might as well come clean to readers as well. Y’all have been so great over the years, I thought I owed it to you.

I am also turning 45 next week, and am having the thoughts one tends to have when in the middle, looking toward the second half.

Of course all of this has been putting a little bit of a strain on my black-sense-of-humour resources but it has also made me do some pretty big thinking lately, as you may imagine. Not much of the results of these thinks have been suitable for publication, but I’ll share a bit, if you can stand it.

Remember that fad in the 1970s for the Elizabeth Kubler Ross “Five Stages of Grief” thing? She identified a psychological process people often go through who have a terminal disease: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Well, in contemplating my mortality in the last few months, I seem to be working through the Hilary Stages of Grief that seem, so far to include, in order of appearance:

Rejoicing - “Yay! I’ll finally be quit of this horrible planet! Woo-hoo!”
Annoyance - “I’m busy. This is interrupting what I’m doing.”
Perspective - “I just can’t seem to make myself care about politics any more.”
Worry - “What? I can’t go to heaven like this! I’ll be all cross and I won’t be able to enjoy it properly.”

One thing has popped repeatedly into my mind. When I die (if it’s tomorrow or in 40 years) who is going to get the things I have? I don’t mean the material things. I mean all the incredible riches I have been given by the people who have taught me things. These are things that I have been given by others. I can’t claim they were mine, except for the time I had them, but I have finally come to understand why I was given them. I was supposed to give them to someone else.

As you know, I have no children, never having figured out until much too late how life was supposed to work and what it was supposed to be for. That window is now closing, one way or another.

And I have few other relatives. I am an only child; my father, also an only child and my mother divorced when I was very small, (back before it was what all the cool kids were doing) and while she had close relatives, she had nothing to do with them most of her life. So I have no siblings, nieces, nephews or cousins, no posterity to pass anything on to. This may be where the urge to write has come from most of my adult life. I don’t know. That and a large dollop of egotism, I suppose.

I was discussing this the other day. It seems a waste. Everything I know, all my experiences, all the things I’ve learned how to do, are going to pop out of existence and will never become the rightful property of anyone else.

All my life, I have been filled to the top with interesting information, background, culture and whatnot. When I was in school, my report cards always said that I had a simply astonishing quantity of “general knowldege”… in other words, I was thoroughly “acculturated” from a very early age. Through my early life, I always assumed that everyone knew the things I knew, came from the same deep cultural roots, and when I was growing up, with the friends I had in school, this was more or less true. But as I went out into the world, I was more and more astonished at the incredible trove of ordinary things, the cultural background of our daily lives, that many, if not most people know nothing about. People are poor, and I was rich. It didn’t seem fair.

And the horrible thing is that we have done this deliberately to ourselves, as a society.

A long time ago, I had a good friend, an atheist, who was raised in the fashionable ways of the 1960s. His parents decided that they would not “indoctrinate” their sons into any particular religion, saying that they should be “allowed to decide for themselves” when they were old enough. So they gave their sons no information whatever about religious things. Well, the result was that my friend, who was brilliant and ended up as a robotics engineer, and his brother were total religious ignorami as young men. But more than this, because our culture is founded upon a particular religious heritage, they knew nothing whatever of the cultural foundations of the society they lived in.

My friend, as he got older and further away from the cultural bubble of his childhood, has learned more, but I remember a conversation I had with him once that shocked me. I can’t remember what we were talking about specifically, but at one point I mentioned Moses and the parting of the Red Sea.

“Who?” he said.

“What?” I said, not quite understanding his question.

“Who’s that?”

“What do you mean, ‘who’s that’?”

“Who you just mentioned. And what’s the ‘parting of the Red Sea?’”

“You’re kidding right?”

“Are you trying to make me feel dumb?”

“You really don’t know who Moses is…”


“You’ve never seen the movie?”

“What movie?”

“Chuck Heston… ‘Let my people go’….? Nothing?”

I explained and he thanked me, but it was an interesting and educational moment for me too. I had assumed for years that my friend was a great deal ahead of me in education, and in math and science this was (and remains) true. But the world of cultural knowledge I was rasied in, that I had assumed was common to everyone, has become, I realised then, a rare and precious thing.

As I have gone along learning more and more stuff, I have come to understand better what happened to our society and why smart people are so ignorant, and how much damage this withholding of cultural knowledge has done to them. In some cases I think it has been a primary contributor to the development of what I have called “nice evil,” the general moral malaise that is so common among otherwise ordinary people. I have observed that this moral malaise is often founded in a particularly iron-clad cultural ignorance, one that quickly becomes willful.

Why was I able to figure out all this stuff about the value of human life? Why was I able to reason my way into the Faith? (And back into it again and again, despite a multitude of sins and failures?) How was it that I’ve been given this treasure? And what was I supposed to do with it? How am I going to make it increase in whatever time I have left?

This little episode of medical distress has reminded me that I had duties in life. And has made me wish I had fulfilled them better.

(Oh, and a warning. Anyone who starts getting "sympathetic," lugubrious or in any way nauseating in the commbox will quickly be getting the business end of my Smite button. Please carefully re-read the commbox rules posted to the sidebar and be assured that the rules against annoying me are, as ever, in full operation.)


What, already?

So, it's Lent again this week. As we all know, my birthday is always in Lent, no matter when it starts, so I am offering my annual Birthday Dispensation. Anyone who comes to my birthday party, Saturday, March 19, and maintains proximity to me within 50 yards, will be included in the annual Hilary's Birthday Dispensation Bubble.

We're also going to start festivitating after 3 pm, so it's after Vespers and is therefore liturgical Sunday...

("Festivitating" - I just made that up. Good isn't it?)

Email me to find out whether you are invited and how to get there. There will be barbequed meats, wine and lots of lovely things. I'm going to make soup.

(To all our Eastern Rite friends, have a nice happy penitential Lent, and I hope you enjoy your daily handful of gravel.)


Saturday, March 05, 2011

Your brain is not your friend

One of my helpful little mottoes...


Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Off tomorrow

home to England for a bit, thanks to the kind intervention of a friend.

Some family-oriented R&R and long wet country walks, as well as a full sweep of all the Chester charity shops.

And black pudding!