Monday, April 30, 2012

Carrot tan

The face in the middle shows the woman's natural colour. The face on the left shows the effect of sun tanning, while the face on the right shows the effect of eating more carotenoids. Participants thought the carotenoid colour looked healthier. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Nottingham)

To say that my skin is on the lighter end of the light-dark scale is like saying that albinos are a little pale. My whole life I have never tanned. Not even after a summer at cadet camp when I was 14, and outdoors in the Yukon mid-summer sunshine all day for three weeks. I burnt a lot as a kid, which at that time was normal and no one thought a thing about it.

It wasn't until I was in my 20s that we started learning that sun = death, and most especially for very fair skinned people, and especially especially for light-skinned people who burned a lot as kids. I got into the habit of using sunscreen, 20-30 spf in the spring and summer when I was still in Toronto. I always hated it, because it turns you into human fly paper, and all the black particulate matter in the big horrible city, congeals on your skin, burrows into your pores, combines with your own err... materials, and becomes a horrifying greasy sludge that you have to scrape off with a mason's trowel every day. This combined with Toronto's 30 degree average summer temperatures and the 110 % average humidity, and you can see why I wasn't too keen on living in Canada's financial capital. (Did I ever mention how much I hated Toronto?)

Of course, I mostly got out of the habit in England; as you might guess, there seemed less urgency somehow.

Then came Italy. And Italy, if it means nothing else, means sun. And it is the kind of sun our friend Dorothy quite accurately described as "carnivorous". Italian woman think that roasting themselves like a Thanksgiving turkey in the sun is going to make them beautiful. Indeed, they look great until they're about 30. And then it's over. Most Italian women in their forties look sixty, which is not helped by the fact that they all smoke. Seriously, "old saddle leather" is descriptive.

I went to the train station bar one time to buy some water and bus tickets, and the guys at the bar were kidding me a little about my white, white skin. I smiled and asked them how old they thought I was. 24? 26? When I told them, they nearly dropped their tiny coffees. "Io non sono amici con il sole," I said, smiling.

These days, even in winter, I go out with 50 spf sunblock which I mix with a little Oil of Olay day cream. The really ghostly effect is helped by powdering down the sticky with talcum powder. This keeps me from being all shiny, and keeps things comfortably unsticky. It also makes me nearly glow in the dark.

After chemo, the doctors told me very sternly that I absolutely must stay out of the sun. I was to keep up with the 50 spf, wear a hat and long sleeved blouses, sunglasses and even carry an umbrella. I was told simply not to go out between 11 in the morning and 5 in the afternoon. I had read that chemo would make me very sensitive to a lot of things, all sorts of chemicals, detergents, and the sun. I was very assiduous about this, with one exception.

One day, a couple of friends came over and we decided to go out to a nice fish and seafood place for lunch. That day, I decided to forego the sunblock, being already tired of being sticky and hot and uncomfortable, I relied on the long sleeved shirt, hat and umbrella. By the time we got to the restaurant, about a 20 minute walk from my place, and were waiting for our lunch, I noticed that I had suddenly come out in a terrible rash on my face. This stayed for a few days and had to be treated with some kind of cortisone cream or something. And there had not been a moment in the walk when I was directly in the sun. I had kept my hat on, stayed in the shade, but just the ambient light at midday bouncing off the white garden walls in the Italian summer was enough. Lesson learned.

But even before chemo, being sticky and glowing a lurid white all summer is kind of par for my course all my adult life. I just don't change colour in the summer and whenever I have been silly enough to try, the results have been less than positive. But recently, I've been getting a lot of rather interesting compliments, and much of it involves comments like "are you getting a tan?". As I said below, people at the party the other night, and at other times, have been telling me very loudly how healthy and glowy I look. Smiley and happy too. Comments like "You're kind of throwing off sparks," have been heard at parties.

And, although I do feel much better post-sugar, the comments about my looks were a bit puzzling until I read this:

"Switching to a healthier diet can have visible effect on the complexion in as little as a month."

According to Ian Stephen, an experimental psychologist at Bristol University, the secret to the perfect skin tone is found in naturally occuring chemicals called carotenoids. These are a group of some 600 organic pigments found in many plants. Stephen examined the role of beta-carotene in green and orange fruit and vegetables in changing skin tone.
He asked volunteers to compare 'before and after' photographs of Caucasian people who had been asked to start a five-a-day diet.

 Stephen explained that in humans there were two pigments which had a major affect on the yellowness of fair skin: melanin and carotenoids.

The former is associated with UV exposure, the latter with certain fruits and vegetables.
He told The Sunday Times: "We found people always preferred the golden effect from diet to the darker effect from the sun."

...they are "powerful antioxidants that soak up dangerous compounds produced when the body combats diseases", according to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), which part-funded the project.

Here's another one about the same research:

New research suggests eating vegetables gives you a healthy tan. The study, led by Dr Ian Stephen at The University of Nottingham, showed that eating a healthy diet rich in fruit and vegetables gives you a more healthy golden glow than the sun.

The research, which showed that instead of heading for the sun the best way to look good is to munch on carrots and tomatoes, has been published in the Journal Evolution and Human Behaviour.

...people who eat more portions of fruit and vegetables per day have a more golden skin colour, thanks to substances called carotenoids. Carotenoids are antioxidants that help soak up damaging compounds produced by the stresses and strains of everyday living, especially when the body is combating disease. Responsible for the red colouring in fruit and vegetables such as carrots and tomatoes, carotenoids are important for our immune and reproductive systems.

Dr. Stephen said: "We found that, given the choice between skin colour caused by suntan and skin colour caused by carotenoids, people preferred the carotenoid skin colour, so if you want a healthier and more attractive skin colour, you are better off eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables than lying in the sun."

Dr. Stephen suggests that the study is important because evolution would favour individuals who choose to form alliances or mate with healthier individuals over unhealthy individuals.

Professor David Perrett, who heads the Perception Lab, said: "This is something we share with many other species. For example, the bright yellow beaks and feathers of many birds can be thought of as adverts showing how healthy a male bird is. What's more, females of these species prefer to mate with brighter, more coloured males. But this is the first study in which this has been demonstrated in humans."

Eating carrots, red and yellow peppers, tomatoes, pumpkin and other orange fruits and veg gives you a golden glow, particularly if you have very fair skin. Imagine, then, what drinking a gallon a week of juice made from liquified beta carotene can do!

 Who needs to tan?


Sunday, April 29, 2012

Gluttony of Delicacy

I'm ever so slightly worried that my new health-kick is bound to deteriorate into what Thomas called the "gluttony of delicacy". You see it all the time with the lefties, and nowadays, in some fashionable Christian back-to-the-land types. "Whole foods," locally grown, organic, pesticide-free, free range, grass-fed, wild-caught, seasonal, slow food, etc. I've written about this food-worship that is common among liberals/lefties/southpaws/hippies, and how it's a substitution for having something Real to think about.

Been talking a good deal about it with a couple of people who hang out here. We have talked about the evil Food Corp that is patenting the genetic modifications of seeds used by farmers in an attempt to get a monopoly on all food. We talk about seasonal vs. the fake, forced, year-round tomatoes thing. Italy doesn't do a lot of that. You can get tomatoes out of season here, but no one buys them. And when the season is over, which will be very soon, you can't get a carciofo for love or money.

This sort of picky-sticky, I-only-eat-the-whites-of-the-egg, kind of food obsessiveness, the sort that produces all that "vegan" nonsense, is certainly a decidedly 1st Worldian phenomenon. The other day, I felt a twinge of weirdness when I got all enthusiastic about having found a source of un-pasteurised milk in the City and bought two litres with the intention of making my own yogurt. What's next? Am I going to start seeing French films? If I start talking about my "wellness," please shoot me.

Food-obsession is also, I'm told, a common hold-over for people who have had troubles in the past with eating disorders and depression. It's only too easy to slide back into it, hardly noticing, using the excuse "It's about my health". I remember only too well the little tendrils of temptation, the little semi-conscious suggestions my Evil Brain starts making when I latch on to some food-related thought process.

Anyway, I'm making the yogurt tonight and if it works, I'll give a recipe.

I've also been having a great time lately with an electric vegetable juicer. It's like a kind of super-blender, that shreds the veg into a fine pulp and centrifuges out the juice. I've been experimenting with carrots, oranges and strawberries, all of which are abundant right now at the farmers' markets. A pair of friends of mine got one for their wedding and the other day I went over for a visit, and was given a glass of this utterly heavenly elixir, carrot/orange/strawb. and I knew I HAD to have one.

Fortunately, there is quite a good little kitchen appliance store in S. Mar. that is very well priced. So, for two weeks or so, I've been nearly living on the COS juice and yogurt, since I don't have much time to cook, and I'm practically glowing. I certainly think I'm getting way more vitamins and things this way than I would otherwise, and completely unadulterated. I juiced 25 carrots and about ten of the really huge oranges that are out there, and then stuck the results into the blender with about 600g of fresh strawberries.

It made about a gallon of juice, which I froze in yogurt tubs and have been drinking all week. Actually I think a better word would be "guzzling," if it didn't sound unladylike. The juicer leaves a LOT of pulp, and I felt bad about throwing out all that food, so I started straining it through cheesecloth and got at least a few more cups of juice out of it. The freezing tends to make the pulp separate, so when you take it out of the tub, just run it for a few seconds in the blender in "high" and it's all frothy and lovely again. I'm thinking of trying to use the carrot pulp for carrot soup; I still hate to throw it out.

The juice is actually quite filling too, and if I'm not careful a few glasses of it in the morning will leave me with no room for the yogurt. The lift it gives me lasts well into the day and I'm not getting hungry until one or two pm, from starting the days at 6:30.

I went to a little do on Friday night here in town, was a bit late because of work, but when I got there, everyone said they have never seen me looking so well. One said I looked like I was sort of sparking. I don't know whether to put it down to the vitamins, the nixing of sugar and grains from my diet, the juice, or prayer, or maybe a combination of the lot, but I was told I was kind of glowing in the dark. I thanked my two friends for introducing me to the magic juice machine.

I don't really understand entirely what's going on, in fact. I was told many times that it would be at least six months after The Surgery that I would start feeling better. I shouldn't expect to be back to full functioning, feeling entirely myself, for as much as a year. Well, it's been four months now, and though I get suddenly very tired about 8 pm most nights, too tired to function or think, the rest of the time I feel wonderful.

Anyway, get a juicer. It's amazing.

And stop eating sugar.


Wow, a grown-up in politics!


Saturday, April 28, 2012

Kevin Murphy

Nova Scotian ex-pat. He and his lovely wife Eleonora, own and operate the Najadi hotel, about 300 yards from where I live, right on the water. Last night was the unoffical launch of their summers-only restaurant, Molo 21.

(All pics H/T to Fr. Athanasius)


I wasn't there that day

But I do spend a lot of time on this Belvedere terrace at the Villa Borruso.

(I've mentioned it's nice here, hey? Once or twice?)


Yep, this is our life

here in Santa Marinella,

Drinks before dinner on the terrace at the Ex-Pat Party at Molo 21, around the corner from my place last night.

That's the Mediterranean behind us, and an evening of oysters and prosecco ahead.

Be jealous; be very, very jealous.


Friday, April 27, 2012

This is my parish

And this is my parish priest, Fr. Kramer.

It's every bit as awe-inspiring as it looks.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Still banging the old drum

"So we have to humanely and as rapidly as possible move to population shrinkage."

"Humanely"... is that like, disintegration chambers, or what? 

I always say the same thing to these people,

"You go first, Indie."


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Posting thin lately

Sorry about the dearth of posts lately. As I've said, I've been doing nothing but dashing like a mad thing from house to studio to office, working until bed time and flopping down to start all over again at six the next day. I completely flop on the weekends, not exhausted, exactly, but mentally drained from all the focused activity.

I've taken a bunch of pics of the latest drawing classes. The cast drawing exercise went really well, and portrait is turning out to be a blast. I told Andrea today that I spent the whole class thinking that drawing from the model is making me inexplicably happy. I don't remember when or what has been better. Maybe fencing was this much fun, but only maybe.

I've just really had absolutely no time to do anything but write and draw, and run from home to train to studio to office back to train. I like being busy, and having loads of fun, but I haven't even been able to sweep up the cat hair off the carpet in two weeks. I really think that life would be so much easier with a husband or roommate or something. It would be so great not to have to worry that I forgot to feed the cat and won't be home for 12 hours. I just don't have time to do things like laundry or dusting lately. Awful.

And I've just noticed today that I've been missing the second season of Game of Thrones!

This living alone thing bites. 


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Good to know...

I have been wondering, considering how well I've been feeling, whether I should ask the doctor to pull back on the meds. It just can't be good for you to take such huge whacks of narcotic painkillers for such a long time. It's been nine months, so I thought maybe things were getting better. I was going to ask the doctor to reduce the dose so we could see how things were progressing.

The trouble with the meds is that they work really well, masking nearly all the neuropathy symptoms so I can't tell if I'm getting better on my own. But it's OK, because it turns out I'm not, which is good to know. Everything else is great, better than it's been in ages, but the peripheral neuropathy is still there, reminding me that no, Dorothy, it really wasn't all a dream. Oh, and we've learned something new: neuropathy can totally aggravate menopause symptoms.

How do I know? Well, it helps to be really dumb. 

The other day, I ran dry, and it wasn't convenient to get to the doc's office. The office is first-come, first-served and the only day I had free to go when I wasn't either working or in class was last Tuesday, and by the time I got in there, five minutes after opening, there were already 15 people ahead of me, which meant over two hours waiting.

So I thought, Meh, bag this; and went home thinking I would go later... or call ... or... something. So yesterday morning, I took my last dose, and was going to call the doc later that day to ask for him to fill the prescription form, so I could pick it up on the way home and have the evening dose on time. It was a great plan that completely failed to take into account how incredibly stupid I am.

So, this morning, having forgotten to call the doctor the day before, I realised I had missed last night's dose, and had none this morning. What was even more fun, was that tomorrow is a public holiday, and the doctor isn't around today. Then, and of course only then, I remembered that if I let the level get too low, the drug has to build up in my system for about 12 hours to get to the point where it actually works. I wasn't able to fill the prescription until five this evening, and I've got about 10 hours now to wait until the pain subsides and I can think straight again. I started feeling it about mid-way through my class this morning, reminding me that yes, I had cancer treatments last year and yes, I'm still dealing with it, and yes, I am still stupid.

So, I called, and he said, go to the farmacia and they will call me and give you enough for a few days until you come to see me on Thursday, and next time, please be less dumb. So I get the stuff, go home and take the pill, and remember that now I have to wait. During which, I get to remember exactly what neuropathy is like: the paresthesia in the fingers and toes, the pain on touching anything hard (like the keyboard) the aching legs and, my very favourite, the unexpected little rockets of pain that shoot through like I've stepped on a nail.

The lack of coordination is fun too. Typing words backwards is something I normally can't do even if I concentrate.

So, now I know. Chemo wasn't just surreal, it was actually real. I really had it. And it's still sort of happening.

Good to know.


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Of course,

all of this doesn't mean I'm going to have an easy time every time someone says, "Hey Hilary, want some pie?"

Wait. What? You said pie, right? Pie. Like that wonderful crunchy stuff with all the sweet stuff in the middle?

Like, pie, right?



More on sugar badness

There is a direct link between mood and blood sugar balance. All carbohydrate foods are broken down into glucose and your brain runs on glucose. The more uneven your blood sugar supply the more uneven your mood. In fact, our experience at the Brain Bio Centre is that poor blood sugar balance is often the single-biggest factor in mood disorders amongst the people that seek our advice. 
Eating lots of sugar is going to give you sudden peaks and troughs in the amount of glucose in your blood; symptoms that this is going on include fatigue, irritability, dizziness, insomnia, excessive sweating (especially at night), poor concentration and forgetfulness, excessive thirst, depression and crying spells, digestive disturbances and blurred vision. Since the brain depends on an even supply of glucose it is no surprise to find that sugar has been implicated in aggressive behaviour, anxiety, and depression,  and fatigue . 
Lots of refined sugar and refined carbohydrates (meaning white bread, pasta, rice and most processed foods,) is also linked with depression because these foods not only supply very little in the way of nutrients but they also use up the mood enhancing B vitamins; turning each teaspoon of sugar into energy needs B vitamins. In fact, a study of 3,456 middle-aged civil servants, published in British Journal of Psychiatry found that those who had a diet which contained a lot of processed foods had a 58% increased risk for depression, whereas those whose diet could be described as containing more whole foods had a 26% reduced risk for depression. 
Sugar also diverts the supply of another nutrient involved in mood – chromium. This mineral is vital for keeping your blood sugar level stable because insulin, which clears glucose from the blood, can’t work properly without it. There is more on chromium below.
The best way to keep your blood sugar level even is to eat what is called a low Glycemic Load (GL) diet and avoid, as much as you can, refined sugar and refined foods, eating instead whole foods, fruits, vegetables, and regular meals. The book, the Holford Low GL Diet Bible, explains exactly how to do this so this is a great resource if you really want to improve your blood sugar balance. Caffeine also has a direct effect on your blood sugar and your mood and is best kept to a minimum, as is alcohol. 
Where’s the evidence? Click here for a list of scientific studies on sugar, caffeine and depression.

And here is a list of 147 reasons to give up sugar.

Stop eating sugar

You don't have to be told, again, that sugar is really bad for you. You've been hearing it since you were five. In my time it was, it will rot your teeth/spoil your dinner. Today's enlightened parents know it will send kids into a frenzy and probably turn them into werewolves, before they flop down on the floor semi-conscious.

In fact, we've all heard it so long that we don't really believe it. I mean, each and every time you've eaten anything with sugar in it, grabbed a Coke out of the machine on your way to the train-o, picked up a KitKat while you're waiting for the guy in the tabacchi to ricarica your phone, stopped by the Frigidarium* for one little gelato after the Sunday post-Mass lunch - you've known. And the thought process for every one of those times is the same: "Just this one isn't going to kill me; it's not like I make a huge habit out of it; and besides, I eat pretty well most of the time anyway, you know, chicken and green veg...I deserve a little treat now and then..."

Here is what I have found after entirely giving up processed sugar for nearly two months now: even a little affects my brain, and there is no way to stop or even mitigate the chemical processes - read 'avalanche' - sugar sets in motion.

Basically, it's this. Only for 24 hours.
The only thing to do is ride it out and renew my vows to give it up entirely. The only things I get out of these occasional lapses are about 90 seconds of pleasure, immediately followed by 24 hours of discomfort followed by a renewed determination to stop eating sugar.

Since early March, and in much more earnest since April 1st, I've been conducting a meticulously recorded experiment using myself as the guinea pig. I wanted to know if I could, essentially, 'cure' chronic depression and anxiety using basically what my friend Tony has always called the "green vegetables and exercise cure". I wanted to see what effects a very carefully controlled diet has on mood, affect and will and recovery time from cancer treatment.

To do this, I've been tediously tracking the nutrition, carb and calories content of every single thing I put in my mouth, restricting myself to about 1200 - 1500 calories a day and entirely eliminating processed sugars as well as those foods that get turned quickly into glucose in the blood stream, breads and pasta, anything made with grains and potatoes. I've been adding regular exercise as my strength comes back, first just doing a few girly wall pushups, jumpies, and minimal weights (actually my two-volume Shorter Oxford Dictionary in shopping bags) in the mornings, combined in the last two weeks with about an hour of brisk walking five days a week.

The results have been nothing short of astounding. Of course, I don't have a control group, so I'm making guesses about how this programme is affecting me. And as scientific experiments go, you can't make any sort of conclusions without a control and without repeating the process several times, which because it would involve getting cancer and taking the same kind of chemo and removing the same organs that I've already had removed, is something I don't think I can manage. But I've been able to glean an idea about the "standard" recovery time from the internet where there are lots of support websites for people who have undergone more or less the same treatment, and the indications are that I'm at least four months ahead of the normal recovery time.

(This by the way, is the reason that all research into cancer treatments and recovery/remission/recurrence rates are at best only close guesses. Even the fancy scientists with degrees and lab coats can only study the results of volunteer subjects and draw very tentative conclusions from the statistics, which is one of the things that makes cancer treatment so difficult and so scary. There is no way medical science can predict, even vaguely, whether this particular treatment will cure this particular patient.)

The hysterectomy alone, combined with the artificially induced menopause, was supposed to leave me totally flattened. And it did for a while. It was just six weeks ago that I needed an escort if I was going to go into the City for Mass on Sundays, and the one time I tried to go to a museum exhibit with friends after lunch left me unable to walk and in bed for three days. I couldn't walk up a flight of stairs without someone's arm to lean on and had to take a rest between each step. I had to limit myself to doing one thing a day, which was mostly work. If I wanted to go visit friends down the street, about a ten minute walk away, I had to have someone come with me and bring the wheelchair in case I couldn't make it home. 

I wasn't too put out by all this because I'd been warned and had read that it was totally normal. And it was sort of comforting to let myself off the hook. I didn't have to run around doing Important Things because I was just too sick. And I was confident that things were fine. I was seeing my local GP regularly and had been tested by oncologists and gynecologists and was told that I was just fine, and coming along nicely. And it was really nice to have people helping me, honestly.

(I really can't see the reasoning behind the argument that we need to euthanise dependent people because being dependent on other people helping is so humiliating that it makes life not worth living. I like being independent too, but I don't remember the last time I felt so safe and loved as I have after being looked after so well by my friends over the last year. It's really gone a long way to reversing a bunch of long-term head-shrinky problems.)

Of course, the insidious Sugar Logic that I've nutshelled above is actually true. One little bit now and then isn't going to kill you...right now. But a steady intake of even a little sugar, a habit of buying a KitKat on the way home from work a couple of days a week, a teaspoon in your three cups of tea every day, a gelato after a hard hot day wandering around Roman ruins, adds up to a steady and dramatically increased blood sugar level that certainly will give you serious health repercussions, some of which might very well kill you.

But apart from the long-term effects, sugar does things to your body instantly and once you've got it in your bloodstream, there's not a thing you can do about it. Within five minutes of sugar intake, the chemical processes, none of them good, are irreversible. It has to be just endured. 

Here are some of the things I've learned from the internet about sugar:
  • it has no nutrients. None. Nada. It is good for absolutely nothing in your body and you are losing absolutely nothing valuable by not eating it... ever.
  • it suppresses the immune system, and does this immediately after you eat it. This is officially called neutrophilic phagocytosis, which means the white blood cells that are supposed to eat pathogens before they hurt you, die or stop working
  • it produces an instant insulin spike, which, if it happens a lot, can lead to insulin resistance, making your pancreas produce more and more and that leads to... guess what...
  • it makes you fat by lowering your metabolism, which means the rate at which your body absorbs nutrients and turns food into energy, leading you to store more food energy as fat and making it harder to lose the fat
  • it can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • it aggravates cellular inflammation, which is related to a snarling host of orcish diseases; the kind we fear like rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, heart disease and yes, cancer 
  • it aggravates, or even causes clinical depression and anxiety disorders. This comes largely from what it does to your insulin levels, with the mood swings directly related to the spike-and-trough results of sending processed sugar through your liver and pancreas, but it also plays havoc with your neurons and the ability of your brain cells to uptake serotonin
  • it counteracts a bunch of the chemicals - the ones we usually call vitamins - that make your brain and body function properly, including things like your endocrine system which is incredibly complex and delicate and which you need to work properly for nearly all aspects of your health 
  • and perhaps most terrifyingly for me, it is the favourite food of cancer cells 

So, when people tell you that sugar will kill you, they're right. And you are right in thinking that it won't do it right now. But the time in between it starting to kill you and being actually dead will be filled with misery, pain, disease and awfulness, which seems to me a lot worse than being actually dead. And no, a little bit of sugar now and then isn't OK. It's this line of thinking that will result in long-term awfulness leading to permanent death. Just stop eating it. Stop drinking it. Ever. At all.

I've been learning a lot about the relationship between health and nutrition, and am amazed that medical science is only now figuring out that what kinds of fuels you put into the machine directly affects all of its systems. I've never been a chronically unhealthy eater, as are many, if not most, North Americans. It's a hold over from my hippie upbringing that I was raised on fresh fruit, veg, fish, chicken and meat, have never been all that interested in processed foods and have always known how to cook well enough to keep myself going. But sugar has always been my downfall.

I had always assumed, however, that my general good habits more or less counteracted the sugar habit, and it is true that the doctors said they were so positive about the outcome of cancer treatments because of how good my health was in general. (I've also never smoked, which they said was the most important contraindicator for chemo... in other words, they won't give you the thing that will save your life because smoking makes it too toxic. This is true even if you only used to smoke a lot and now don't.) But eating sugar a lot, and there were times when the habit blossomed into full blown addiction, is like eating a good healthy diet with only a minor problem with arsenic. Adding a teeny bit of poison to your food won't necessarily kill you, at least right away, but will certainly make you regret being alive.

Until this experiment, I have never, in my whole life, entirely gone without it, and to say that I've noticed the difference would be quite an understatement. Depression and anxiety used to rule my life. I would wake up every morning and have to convince myself that there were good reasons to get up and do things and carry on my life, that the vaguely imagined Scary Badness was not coming for me to ruin my life. Now I wake up every morning with an almost miraculous feeling of happiness and well being. My whole life, I've been used to waking up in the night with nightmares at least two or three times a week. Night-waking is a common symptom of clinical depression and the sleep interruption makes you miserable. But it's not happening now. Even if I'm waking up in the night, I just turn over and go back to sleep.

Lifting depression is often described as the difference between a sunny day and a day of heavy overcast, it's the same world, but everything is darker, gloomier and harder to deal with. I won't say that sugar was causing it; I know too well where the depression comes from in my past, but I'm pretty convinced now that bad nutrition was making it actually impossible to beat it.

And as for physical abilities, it's absolutely amazing. Starting April 9th, I've been back to art classes five days a week, as I think I mentioned. The whole point of changing diet and exercise was to be ready to go to class and keep up my full work schedule. I had April 9th as the Officially Back to Life date.

Since then, I've been getting up at six, getting the 8:09 train into the City, walking across the Centro to the studio, standing through a three-hour class, walking back to the bus and spending most of the afternoon and part of the evening working. And doing all this five days a week. The first week was quite difficult because I failed to change my sleep-schedule to accommodate a six am alarm. But I could do it, and function at an amazingly high level. After that, I've been conking out decisively by ten every night, and when I wake up, I feel not only physically refreshed and ready to do things, but happy and eager to do them.

I realised I had made a dramatic turn-around the other day when I was a couple of minutes late for the 7:47 train. I was at the bottom of the little road behind the copshop next to the train station that has a sharp hill at the end of it leading up to the station parking lot. I heard the train coming when I was about 300 yards, one steep hill, and two staircases away, and I made the train. Admittedly, I nearly threw up after the sprint up those stairs, but I actually ran up the hill, and up the stairs in the sottopasaggio. Remember when I had to take one step at a time two months ago?

The treatment I've had takes at least a year to recover from. That is what everyone says. And it's true that there is still the neuropathy to deal with, for which I'm still on very stiff painkillers and will be for a long time, and I do have limits in the day. I can't write coherently after eight o'clock and this means that my days are very rigidly scheduled to get all the work and study time I need to get in. But I can do it. I am back in life, and back in it to a degree I don't think I've been in since childhood.
Try quitting sugar for a month and see what happens. You'll be amazed.

Also, am I turning into one of those annoying health-nut people who survived a disease and forever pesters people about it?

Why yes. Yes I am.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I'm so confused!

OK, I've watched almost all the way to the end of Fringe, and I have to say that I suspect it may be one of those shows that everyone thinks is way more complicated than it is. BSG was like that too, there were so many little bits of the puzzle that all the fans meticulously recorded and endlessly debated, but in the end, it turned out the writers had no clew at all what they were doing. There was no plan.

I think that Season 4 of Fringe is going to turn out to be like that. Peter comes back from non-existence after the Observers decide that he has served his purpose and erase him from history. How does he come back? At the end of the Short Story About Love episode, September tells Peter it's because the people who loved him couldn't let him go... uhmmm... ok. I spose. But doesn't that mean that the whole "erased from time" thing wasn't actually true, because if he had actually been erased, if September had allowed him to drown in Reiden Lake in 1985 (and rescued Walter, but no one mentions that) then none of them would have any Peter to have loved and to whom their ... um... souls, I guess, cling. So their love, for someone they've never met, dragged him back from the oblivion of non-existence, or death, or something, even though they'd never known him. OK. I got it. If that's all there is to it, sure, I'll bite.

September tells Peter also that he has been "back" in his normal timeline/universe the whole time since swimming to the surface of Reiden Lake. This means that (as I had suspected) these weren't actually new people or a new universe or timeline at all, they were the same people in the same universe and same timeline, but just without having had Peter's influence. Like Mary never having got married and Harry never rescuing the crew of the aircraft carrier during the war because George Bailey had "never been born" after he met Clarence. So that's fine, I guess. And it's nice to see someone helping Walter get out of the lab now and then.

But they're starting to leave me behind now that Olivia is remembering things about her relationship with Peter, and her life as it was affected by him. (How Peter never having been there means that Rachel is still married to the awful whatsisface I don't quite get.) Now Olivia is remembering the other life and forgetting the stuff in her life-without-Peter, like having been raised by Nina Sharpe and about Rachel's second child. And the whole thing about the Cortexiphan trials being sort of muddled up now - after the show spent a year explaining it all... so people who have been watching this for three years must be annoyed. So, how is that happening? Is it Peter's pheromones or something that is making her forget her new existence and remember her old with-Peter existence?

I could buy that Peter popping back into reality would eventually (if not instantly) shift everyone back to the way it was, but then that would seem like a bit of a waste, dramatically. If that was all they were going to do, then why bother having Peter be "erased" to start with? Did they really hate the ratings that much? But if it was just Peter's re-existence making her switch naturally back to her old memories, then why isn't it happening to everyone? Why only Olivia? Why not Walter, who certainly loved Peter as much as she did, and for a lot longer?

Anyway, I think that if you haven't seen the show, my little puzzling over it will give you the idea. It's absolutely jammed with interesting stuff to make you think about. And they have a good time playing around with some good old fashioned sci-fi tropes, like time travel paradoxes and parallel universes. Some pretty imaginative stuff for their stand-alone episode ideas too. All very X-Filesey and fun. Plus, there's a cow. So that's good.

But now that I'm almost at the end, and people say that the series is going to be cancelled (a whole season doing the It's a Wonderful Life with Peter hasn't helped the fans stay loyal), I am wondering if I should just do the whole thing again, so I can figure out the plot, or just leave it. I don't trust TV writers ever since the ending of BSG. What if they haven't got a plan for this one either?

But at least now that I know to look for them, I can amuse myself by going through and finding all the foreshadowing, piecing together all the little hints and clews, spot all the places where the Observers are standing around in the background. Like all the other rabid fans are doing.

If only I had more time to waste!


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Good one

I watch these regularly, and when he got started, put LSN onto Michael Voris. When he started showing up in Rome, I introduced him around to the gang. As you might guess, I think Michael's a blast, and whenever he's here, he's always up for some fun. He and his faithful cameraman, Charlie, came to my birthday party last year, and we had a blast. (I taught Charlie that there is nothing to fear from grappa...that'll teach him to trust a woman!)

Michael's style suits me to a T, and I'm not offended by his hyper-American, game-show-host style mannerisms. I think people who are, are just plain being snobs. And boring, anti-American snobs at that. Michael gives me a laugh, regularly, and that's something I really appreciate.

There are some who don't like him, but is it possible to "not like" someone whom you've never met? This is one of the big problems with the media in general, and the New Media in particular. The latter is a lot more "interactive" but even with this backing and forthing, I think there isn't a lot of real communication. There have been plenty of people I've only "known" online whom I haven't liked < cough>Shea< /cough>, but because I admit that even in the worst cases, I've only ever known the small portion of what these people think from what they've produced on their websites or blogs.

In my better moments, I have to admit that I don't hate certain people... can't hate them because I've never met them. I may hate everything they write, everything they think that has been made public, and everything they believe, but I've come to see that there is a vast difference between even these important and intimate things and the person himself.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm all for making snap judgments about people, particularly based on things like their obnoxious style, annoying mannerisms, weird clothes, or even bad hair (for Pete sake, Michael, get a fricken grown-up haircut!) so naturally I've got absolutely nothing against judging people according to the stupid and/or evil things they believe. But honestly, I've found it possible to like and appreciate people whose ideas I radically disagree with. And given what I do for a living, and the fact that I fundamentally disagree with nearly every person on earth, that's a pretty good thing.

People are the thing that makes the world interesting to live in. I used to think I was actually a misanthrope. But I think now that I was just trying to put a respectable name on being just plain grouchy.


When the house you're standing in has disappeared

can you really be said to be "leaving" it?
"We saw where the church was going and decided we could no longer stay in the Church of England and it was about the same sort of time the Pope made the offer of the Ordinariate," he said.

"My wife and I decided the Church of England was no longer where we wanted to be and we joined the Ordinariate for a number of reasons.

"Their [the Church of England's] attitude towards homosexuality and in light of the possible ordination of women as bishops, neither of us can accept that. If it hadn't been for the Catholic church, we would possibly have considered the Orthodox church."

A spokesman for the Diocese of Southwark, said: "Father Minchew and some members of his congregation felt it was right for them to continue their Christian life within the Ordinariate.

"Whilst we regret that we are losing them as Anglicans, we wish them well for their future Christian journey."

I think the last line is sufficient evidence to show that there is nothing left to leave.


Friday, April 13, 2012

They don't make 'em like they used to

Most priests used to be like this:

"Kids. Can’t stand ‘em. Monsters of ego, every one. You know how you can tell a kid from a leech? That’s a trick question: you can’t. Well, actually, you can. If a leech gets hold of you, you can burn it off with a Bic lighter. Try that with a kid, and sure as you’re born, the little bastard will scream and cry like a Templar at the stake. Then he’ll tell his parents and you’ll get a nasty letter from your vicar general.

Small wonder nobody wants to have ‘em anymore. They’re plumb useless. In the old days, you could put ‘em to work — small hands were made for cleaning out machinery. You could send one off to the army, to be a drummer, or to the navy, to be a powder monkey. If the kid was a girl, you could marry it off, although I’m sure those dowries tended to eat into the old retirement fund. I’m not sure I completely hold with that dothead practice of eighty-sixing girl children, but then, every man of affairs has to cut down on his overhead somehow. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

So, I take it upon myself, as a pastor and catechist, to strip these little maggots of any illusions about the world, specifically, about their own significance in it. Whenever one tells me, “Good morning, Father,” I’ll ask, “What have you done for me lately?” Or I’ll say, “You want it to be a good morning? Wash my car. That’d be good.” And then, to drive home the point — because, God knows, this is an ignorant generation — I’ll flip the bird.

I think it’s a shame that bullying’s gotten such a bad name lately. It’s a useful practice. First, it serves as a sop for kids’ ambient annoyingness; every hour that kids spend picking on each other is an hour they don’t spend bothering me. Second, it teaches kids deference to people bigger than themselves, which may be the only hedge against complete anarchy. Finally, it inculcates values. If there were no bullies, how would kids know that being ugly or fat or a homo is a bad thing? If you just said, “From their parents,” then by all means, let’s check your credit so we can get you into that beachfront condo in Yuma, Arizona with all deliberate speed.

Blessing kids in the Communion line? I found a way to put an end to that particular brand of post-Conciliar idiocy. My friend Dave, a Navigator in the K of C who sings tenor in the choir, picks off the grubs with a wrist rocket. Nothing makes for good catechesis like a stainless-steel ball-bearing in the face. How the Council Fathers at Trent failed to come up with that one I’ll never know — they must have been having an off day.

Every now and then, some hand-wringing liberal sob sister will try to argue that Jesus loved kids. I always tell ‘em the same thing: “Screw you, buddy, and the hybrid car you rode in on. Did Jesus pick any kids to be His Apostles? I don’t think so. When He raised that kid from the dead, did He mollycoddle her with a lot of baby talk? Hell, no; He told her, “GET UP!”, plain and ugly. I’m sure his next words were, “Make yourself useful — set the damn table, or I’ll take the skin off your ass.” If the Son of Man was Mr. Rogers, then how come you never see him in a cardigan sweater? Riddle me that, Batman."

I hear the guy's a Jesuit. Time was, all Jesuits were like this. Just picture him saying it with a cigar in the corner of his mouth and you'll get it.


It's not that I think you're stupid

if you don't know how to use an apostrophe, it's just that I think your mother didn't love you, you have no legitimate right to call yourself an adult and you are incapable of ever contributing anything useful to humanity.

I'm sure it's not your fault. 


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Art class update

"One painter ought never to imitate the manner of any other;  because in that case he cannot be called a child of Nature, but the grandchild.  It is always best to have recourse to Nature, which is replete with such abundance of objects, than to production of other masters, who learnt everything from her."
Leonardo da Vinci

I've been madly busy in the last few days, but I wanted to just drop a quick note about class. Thanks to the amazing help of you all, most especially the anonymous donor of $2500, I am able at last to study as close to full time at the studio as my work commitments will allow. I can't tell you how grateful I am for this help. I know I go on and on about it, but it really is making all the difference in the world.

As of Monday, I have started a rather hectic schedule of shooting off to class in the City in the mornings, followed by work in the afternoons, with Mondays being a whole day of studio time, which I make up by working Saturdays. This will go on until the beginning of June, when the studio goes on a short break. I am hoping to be able to continue in July, and then everything in Italy shuts down for August. That's more or less a whole semester, and I'm very excited about the progress.

I'm down for the cast drawing programme that goes until April 20, then portrait drawing followed by still life. In amongst these are the continuing Bargue exercises on Monday afternoons. It is unlikely that I will be able to move on to painting in this session, but at least now that day is finally looking like it will actually come. It's a great feeling, after so much delay and uncertainty about the future.

It has been made possible not only by the generosity of the readers but by the astonishing feeling of having been given a renewed life. When I was diagnosed in March last year, I was told that the cancer had been present for at least 3 to 5 years without me knowing. I have just recently started to feel better than I have in years. I don't know if this is because of simply being more confident that I'm not going to die (soon) and it's just relief, or if I had been for years unknowingly run down and physically diminished by the cancer. In the last few days, I've slept better, eaten better and bounced out of bed in the morning more excited about being alive than I have been since leaving Vancouver to see the world 15 years ago.

But this week, I have felt more energetic, more hopeful and more eager to get on with things than I remember having felt in a decade. Probably fulfilling the dream of (almost) full time classes has a lot to do with it. It was a big part of what kept me going through All That last year.

So, I'm going to bore you all again by thanking you for your help and  prayers. I know that there are probably hundreds of people out there around the world who were praying for me, as well as many who donated cash, sent books to amuse and distract me, who sent me funny videos when I was in hospital and recovering and were generally there for me in a way that I had not expected.

I hate to sound too pollyana about it, but the whole experience has turned out to have been a positive one in the end. I wouldn't recommend it as a method of overcoming depression and a lifetime of cynicism, but I do admit that I'm not feeling my old cranky self. I apologise to those who look forward to that when they come here.

It was a good thing I kept up the drawing practice at home in the meantime, because now that I'm doing the much more difficult 3-D drawings, it is much easier than I had anticipated. The first class, Cast Drawing, is only two weeks, five days a week, so I have only a total of 30 hours to get the thing finished, and I think I can make it, given the progress so far.

And yes, I'm preparing another step-by-step of the projects I'm working on in class. As usual, as you can see above, in the early stages there isn't much to look at, but the fun is seeing it develop from a few rather abstract and herky-jerky marks to a fully realised drawing.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The case for dystopia

One of my favourite genres of film is the post-apocalyptic dystopia. I probably like them for all the wrong reasons. I'm pretty sure that they resonate with an empty, hollow ring in the large, cold, dark, stony space in my soul where the words, "It doesn't effing matter" are carved into the bedrock in letters the depth of a spear.

The bleaker the better.

But, being an all-round media genius, I think I've figured out why most of these films fail to really scare us. They all start with the audience on the outside looking in. We are introduced to these horrible scenarios of statism gone mad, as though we are watching from the moral vantage point of people living in a society that isn't, yet, quite that bad. We get the moral pleasure of shaking our heads and tut-tutting at the wickedness of (other) men. We watch the film thinking, "I'd be on the good guy's side. I'd be in the resistance and I'd blow things up real good."

But I've noticed that the thing we most fear, some of us anyway, our worst nightmares, are always the ones in which we ourselves are the bad guys. When are movie makers going to involve the audience in the crimes of the characters? When are we going to be shown a truly morally ambiguous dystopia whose allure is greatly attractive to us? One that we half wish we could go and live. When are we going to be challenged by filmmakers confronting us with our own temptation to rule and crush the spirit of others?

I want to see a dystopian film that shows a green and pleasant land, a society in which everyone more or less gets what they want and the price of freedom seems cheap. One in which I would be tempted to collaborate. (Oh, right. More like the one we already live in... but I digress.)

The other night, I was re-watching a good one. Equilibrium starred the magnificent Christian Bale at his icy, reptilian best, but sadly missed any kind of public attention. I admit that the critics were mostly right when they accused it of being derivative. Certainly all the now-standard dystopian tropes were present: monumental oppressively stalinist/nazi, brutalist architecture (it was filmed in Berlin), the monotone grey clothes, the hopeless zombie-like stomping of the inexpressive masses, etcetera. And watching it with an eye open for inconsistencies, I also admit that I went through it thinking of ways I would have made the grey inhuman society of Libria more in keeping with its own rules.

Why, after all, do they need all this scary, oppressive brutalist architecture if they have already suppressed all human emotion? Wouldn't the effect be more or less lost on the helpless slaves of Libria? If there were really a way of completely suppressing emotions without compromising cognition, the people would anyway be immune to the psychological effects, the kind of visual tricks so beloved of Nazi and Communist leaders.

Of course, I realise that the current audience of us Emos are the ones the director is trying to oppress with all this set dressing, but what if the director and screenwriters had trusted their material more? I think the writers would have made a better and much scarier film if they had presented us with the no-emotion pill as something genuinely desirable, if they had shown us a real almost-utopia where everyone is happy not to be happy.

As I was watching it, I was thinking, "Contentment, freedom from my most punishing, exhausting and wasteful emotions, the ability to not be fazed by tragedy and loss, death and abandonment. Really, it sounds pretty good. Where do I sign up?"

If they had been thinking, they could have made the leaders' rhetoric pretty convincing, showing a world where everyone is productive, where science and human achievement are no longer hampered by bitterness, fear, political maneuvering, greed or selfishness. And all for the low, low price of your individual initiative, something we hardly ever use or think about anyway.

There certainly wouldn't be any need for this (admittedly pretty cool and scary) elite police force going around shooting the Emo kids and burning the Mona Lisa. No one would be Emo, and no one would care one way or another about the Mona Lisa. Frankly, I might almost be tempted to give up the Mona Lisa for a world without Emo. Don't you think it would be a really scary movie that played on that temptation, the one that makes me want to play along?

Would it be possible to write a film that invites the audience to join the Dark Side? To seduce them into agreeing that the real solution to all mankind's problems is to be found in this one little pill, and really, the last thing anyone really wants is the freedom to be miserable. Just eliminate free will and initiative, and all will be well.

Isn't that what we all want anyway?


Thanks a Christopher

A kind regular reader has restored our commboxes.

It seems I had taken them out of the html version of the template before I saved it, and they got lost forever.

So, we're back.


Sunday, April 08, 2012

Melanzane alla Parmigiana, Hilary style

Meanwhile, back here on the ground, I invented my own melanzane parmigiano recipe tonight.

 I've also been very carefully tracking my intake of various nutrients, carbs and calories, to figure out how to bring my weight down a bit, while keeping up optimum levels of protein and whatnots and cutting out the really damaging stuff, grains and sugar that play havok with my blood sugar. So heavy on the green veg, meat, fish, chicken, cheese, plain yogurt, slightly less fruit... more or less the way I've been eating all my life, but without the sugar. At the moment, I'm not worried too much about fats.

Since the end of surgery, I'm hovering very close to what the websites all agree is the "optimum" weight for my age, height and build, which is fine, but I'm still feeling bulbous and slightly blobby. Flabby and out of shape mostly, from a year of lying around moaning and complaining.

Of course, all the numbers here are mostly approximate. I've learned that there really is no way to precisely calculate exactly how much of anything is in the food I'm eating. But at least this gives me an idea of what effects my favourite foods are having. It's helped to sort out what I can have lots of and what I could stand to be more circumspect about, where I was well balanced, and where I was going to heavy or light on various things.

Try this. No idea if this is the way the Italians make it, but I had it tonight for dinner. It was great.

350 g melanzane                               35g carb / 171.5 cal
1 tbs butter                                          0g / 100
1 cup whole milk                               13g / 146
1 tbs olive oil (optional)                     0g / 110
1 oz parmesan cheese                         1g / 121
1 tbsp rice flour                                22g / 102
125g. mozzarella                           1.25g / 292.5
400g tinned tomatoes                       12g / 68
1 oz tomato paste                               5g / 23
2 cloves garlic, minced  
1-2 pinches dried basil  
1 tbsp chicken powder 
shot of Worcestershire

One portion = divide by 4          22.31g carb / 283.5 cal

Preheat oven to 175.

Prepare the cream sauce. Melt the butter in a heavy bottom enamel pot, taking care not to let it burn. Dust with the rice flour, and stir until it's all damp and sizzling. Stir in the milk a bit at a time with a wire whisk over a low heat until all the milk is used. Keep stirring as the sauce thickens and stir in the parmesan until it's melted and smooth. Set aside to cool.

To prepare the tomato sauce, pour the tin of peeled plum/roma tomatoes into a stainless steel bowl. Add the basil, minced garlic, chicken powder and tomato paste and Worcestershire. Crush the tomatoes with your hands, mixing the ingredients together until it's all an even paste.

Take a 9x9 square cake tin, spread the olive oil over the bottom then line with prepared eggplant slices. (If you want to drop 110 calories, skip the olive oil, it doesn't make too much difference except for taste.)

Spread a layer of tomato sauce with a spatula, covering the melanzane. Take a ball of (Italian style) mozzarella, slice into ten or more pieces and layer them over the melanzane. Add another layer. Spread the parmesan/cream sauce to entirely cover. Repeat with more melanzane, making sure you end up with tomato sauce on top. Grate a layer of cheese on top, pecorino is nice.

Bake for 30 minutes or so.

Using the amounts I gave above, and the 9x9 cake tin, allow to cool then cut into four even pieces. One portion should come out to about:

22.31g carb / 283.5 cal

Nice with a leg of chicken on the side.

Lately I've been saving myself a lot of trouble by buying the frozen melanzane already prepared and grilled. I don't know if you can easily get them outside Italy, but if you can, they're in the frozen veg section. Pretty cheap too.

Chicken powder comes here in tins, not so much pressed in cubes. I have been using it instead of salt. It's less salty and adds a lot of nice flavour.

I've entirely given up wheat products, along with barley and rye, but am allowing myself to use a bit of rice now and then when nothing else will do, so this uses a tablespoon of white rice flour to substitute for wheat flour in making a cream sauce. It tastes a bit different from making it with wheat flour, but not bad and you soon get used to it. The rice flour doesn't give you the insulin spike or have the nasty chemicals that are in wheat. Wheat wants to kill you.

Of course, it goes without saying, or should, that the mozzarella I'm talking about is the heavenly Italian kind that is an unripened soft cheese, a formaggio fresca. It isn't the horrid blocks of tasteless rubbery stuff you buy in North America. That stuff is good, perhaps, for caulking the bathtub, but I hesitate to call it food.


In all thy works be mindful of thy last end

Tomorrow is a big day. Big changes are afoot.

Andrea has been away for four months in Australia, visiting family and running painting workshops. This time exactly coincided with the end of cancer for me. I had surgery at the end of December and have been convalescing since then.

A few weeks ago, I started a deliberate diet and exercise programme that I put together with the explicit purpose of building up my strength as quickly as possible to be ready for the next stage. Some time in February, I got back to work, more or less on the full pre-cancer schedule - albeit almost completely from home, with very little goings-out - and that has been going very well. I've been able to keep up well with what needs to be done, adding a little more every week. But now I need to move on, start getting more back into life in the outside world. The time has come for phase two.

And tomorrow is the day.

When I was diagnosed, one of the things that most filled me with fear was the idea that if I died, I would have left so many things undone, and so many necessary changes un-accomplished. Like everyone else, I suppose, I had a long list of "some-days". Some day, I would get around to doing my art classes more seriously, practicing every day. Some day, I would start picking up my Breviary and taking my prayer life more seriously. Some day, I would start taking my language study more seriously. Some day, any day now, I would get serious about my health and pay more careful attention to what I ate, and how much exercise I got. Some day I would go back to making all the clothes I've had swimming around in my head. Some day I would start taking advantage of living in Italy and go see stuff more often, get to know more people, get more into living here.

Some day I would do as much as I could, rather than as little as I could get away with.

Like everyone, I figured I could leave all this to some indefinite point in the future. I assumed that I would be living, if not forever, then very nearly so; at least, indefinitely and for a really long time. So the list languished, and there it might have remained if not for cancer, when suddenly it started to dawn on me that I might never get to do any of it. And if nothing else, there was going to be a long time when none of it was possible. It's one thing to procrastinate; entirely another to live with restrictions and disability.

The one thing that the last year has successfully drilled into my lazy head is that I'm not going to live forever. I don't have any idea if I will live a long or a short time, but either way, I know without a doubt that there is now a finite amount of time in which to accomplish the things I hope to accomplish, large and small.

It came home to me that if cancer was going to take me, there were a whole passel of things that absolutely had to be done, and a much larger list of things I really want to get done, none of which were now going to happen. I was weighted down with a terrible sense of failure and dread that this was all my life was going to amount to.

Now of course, I realise that a good part of this was the result of depressive thought patterns. I'm a big believer in the cognitive behaviour model of depression, that we have a set of habitual thoughts that drive down our mood and self-image. These thoughts are not an accurate reflection of The Real, and I have worked for many years, with admittedly limited success, to adjust my thinking, to force myself to accept what is actually real, and not the skewed ideas my Evil Brain comes up with to make me miserable.

But of course, the sense that I had not done enough with myself, had not accomplished a number of specific tasks, was real. There are certainly a lot of things I want to do, and one of the gifts that has come from the cancer experience is that I've learned what things are and are not important to me.

In all of this, it came clear to me how important the art is. I started taking lessons two years ago, and in the first year, I wasted much time. I didn't practice as much as I could have, and did not keep my class schedule steady. Took lots of breaks, skipped portions of time. I had started when I was going through a difficult period, and I did it mostly because it made me feel better. Those three-hour sessions of quiet and peace in the studio calmed and focused me like nothing else ever has. The lesssons made it possible to keep working steadily, even under terrible emotional and mental stress, and kept my life pointed forward and outward, away from myself and my unhappiness, in a way that I think nothing else could have.

But it was not until the diagnosis that I realised I very much wanted a future in painting. It was not until that possible future looked as though it might be closed that I started understanding how much I wanted it. I don't know how long it will take. I don't have any idea at this stage whether I will be able to succeed as an artist, even if I do have the time. But the idea that I could have the chance to try taken away filled me with grief. Much more than I had expected.

When you're having terrifying and debilitating medical treatments, with an uncertain outcome and when your life is in the balance, you tend to think a lot of Big Thoughts. And one of the biggest was what I was going to do if the treatment was successful. I was aware all along that even if the cancer was defeated this time, there was always a chance that it would return. So when it was finally over, when I got the call in January, and the confirmation in March, that there was no more cancer, I was still acutely aware that the clock is ticking.

One of the big things in Catholic spiritual writing is the notion of the Memento Mori. The words the priest says (or used to say) over you when you are getting ashed on Ash Wednessay: "Remember man that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return." The great spiritual writers of the Church have always known that it is very harmful to forget that time is limited. There really isn't a Some Day. There's only a This Day.

A few weeks before the diagnosis, way back in January 2011 while I was starting to have truly alarming symptoms but before I had said anything to anyone, I drew a little sketch of a skull, the skull that appears in Caravaggio's painting of St. Jerome that hangs in the Borghese Palace. And as I was drawing it, the thought came to me, "Stay alive until you die. Don't die until you're dead."

These thoughts coalesced into a plan. Everyone with a serious illness does this. We make a Big Plan for what we're going to do, the way we are going to live after successful treatment. When health returns, we are going to live the way we were always supposed to, not looking back, but making as much as possible of the here and now. I suppose, though absolutely everyone goes through some variation on this theme, that a lot of people let it slide. They go back to the patterns that have governed them their whole lives. It's human nature.

But I'm a Catholic, and I have aspirations to be a serious one, and one of the big things that Catholicism teaches is that with a combination of will and grace, fallen human nature can be overcome. We can rise above our previous selves.

I worked on my plan for months. All through chemo and surgery. All through the arduous recovery periods. And through all the time when we didn't know what the outcome of it all was going to be. In fact, I made two plans. Plan A for a successful outcome, and Plan B for continued cancer. There were times, funnily enough more often after I knew it was over, when I looked upon Plan A with a certain amount of dread. I know myself only too well and I know what the obstacles are that I now am obliged by being alive to overcome. Still, those obstacles were there all along, and there is not now anything more to do than there was before cancer. It's just that now, I feel much more keenly that I want to try.

Phase one of Plan A was simple recovery. Eating and sleeping and taking tests to see how my body was going to be after treatment, to get an idea how long it was going to take, how much energy I could expend each day, what tasks were possible, and how much they were going to cost the next day. Judging limits and building up as much as possible within those limits, then setting the goal posts a little further back. I gave myself until Easter, because Andrea was coming back then.

I'm keeping careful track of what food I eat. After several years of fiddling about, I've finally become serious about entirely cutting out sugar and grains (insulin and blood sugar problems galore all my adult life, but did I think I needed to do something right now? Noooo!) and starting an exercise regimen designed to ward off osteoporosis, the dreaded side effect of surgical menopause.

Phase two starts tomorrow. A reorganisation of my days to take the best possible advantage of time every day. Andrea has agreed to let me start taking classes every day, five days a week. Mondays I'm booked for a full day, two classes with a one hour break for lunch, from ten am to five pm. Tuesday to Friday, I'm in class in the mornings and working in the afternoon, either at home or at the office, and then working an extra day on Saturday. Work has kindly allowed me to shift my work week over one day, to go Tuesday to Saturday. We've been needing someone to monitor the world on Saturdays, so this will work out well for LSN too.

Rest and recovery time is over. Time to get back into life, full time. It's like a scientific experiment. Can I use my will and intellect, and the grace available to me in my current state in life, to put myself back together and live a complete, completely human, life?

We'll see.


Saturday, April 07, 2012

Don't ring that bell!

This is mostly a post for Gregory, who isn't watching Fringe yet.

In the last few weeks, I've become hooked on another sci-fi TV show, Fringe. It was Vicky's fault. We had finished Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones and were looking for something new to amuse and distract us. I started watching it after she went home to Vancouver and she's been too busy to tag along.

But I'm really enjoying its wackyness, particularly the character played by John Noble, the wild and funny Walter Bishop, mad scientist, destroyer of worlds and pizza-pop addict.

The show is kind of the new X-Files, with a love interest for the girls, including a handsome Canadian actor, and even a special appearance by Leonard Nimoy as... well, another mad scientist. It's great fun, and there are all sorts of interesting literary references. The first season was a bit of a slog, to be honest, but things really picked up later. Now we've got a war between dimensions, an ancient doomsday device, mysterious enigmatic guys in dark suits "observing" and Walter's cow.

I've been trying to convince Gregory to get off Mad Men (a wicked and degenerate programme that will rot his soul) and get into Fringe, so I can have someone to discuss the plot with.

To that end, and knowing what a Narnia fanatic Greg is, I thought I would post this:

[Spoiler Alert! If you're only on Season 1 or 2, go no further]

in the episode "Os" Walter has been trying to figure out how his former lab partner, the multi-billionaire genius William Bell, founder of Massive Dynamic, would have healed the interdimensional chaos that Walter started when he opened the door to the other universe and kidnapped the other Peter Bishop as a boy in order to save him from an unspecified genetic illness. When William Bell died, he left Nina Sharpe, his true love and the director of Massive Dynamic, one significant gift as a memento. A bell.

Walter has just burst into Nina's office, announcing that he has figured out how to get William back from the dead (or from the disintegration of his atoms that happened when he gave his electromagnetic energy to save Olivia, Peter and Walter when the three of them were trapped in the other universe... not sure it's the same thing...). He grabs the bell and the little hammer William gave Nina, and...


Why? The Bell and the Hammer are an ancient memory, an archetype. There was an identical bell in the dead city of Charn, in the Hall of Images. It's a test. A trap.

Digory Kirke also found himself in another world, and was taken with the exact same urge to ring the magic bell, to see what would happen. Even though he knew it was probably dangerous.
Make your choice adventurous Stranger; 
Strike the bell and bide the danger, 
Or wonder, till it drives you mad, 
What would have happened if you had.

It's the same urge his wicked Uncle Andrew has to find out what happens when you send guinea pigs to the Wood Between the Worlds. And it's a test. You are faced with the choice, to be driven by your own passions, to ring the bell and take the risk of hurting others... of destroying a whole world.

I know that Gregory knows those books as well as I do. As soon as I saw Walter grabbing the bell and hammer, it set off all my Narnia-trained alarms. Ring the bell and risk loosing the Deplorable Word.

As we who have read the right sort of books know, a bell and a hammer are dangerous; magic stuff is dangerous. What happens when you ring the magic bell?

Nothing good.

I do so love it when TV people read the same books as me.


Let's review

I thought since we've finished the long break that it might be a good time to review the commbox rules.

I realise that since most of the superfluous, unimportant people have probably gone away (yay!) that most of you are the regular readers who have remained loyal through all my years of whimsical abuse, who know all about the Rules and have never given anyone cause for ... shall we say... disappointment.

Still, you never know. There might be a few left of the New People who might have decided they want to join our club, and of course, like all successful Evil Overlords, I know the value of a firm hand.

The main rule (apart from the first one, "I am the god of this blog, you shall have no other blog-god before me) is that we insist on the use of real names. Pseudonyms or anonymous posts are not allowed. For some reason, this seems difficult for some people to accept. Or, more precisely, it seems some people find it difficult to believe that I really mean it.

Be assured, I really mean it.

Whenever someone comes into the commbox sporting some kind of obviously false name, the routine is mostly the same. If they have left a note that is worthy of interest, I will post a reply saying thankyou, but you must respect the rules, primary among which is that we use real names. I invite the poster to read the commbox rules posted to the sidebar on the left and to use a real name the next time.

If he has left a post of no value, if it is rude or stupid, there is no warning and no appeal. Smite.

It's funny, but I've found that this one little thing, leaving a real name, really makes people behave. I've found that when one is wearing the internet equivalent of a costume, one is more than usually tempted to playact a role. Posting under an assumed name seems to make people think they can behave in a way they never would when meeting someone in real life. I established this rule of real (or plausible-sounding) names to force the commenter to own manfully up to his statements.

If you are tempted to adopt an alter ego, I can assure you that you will meet no new friends here.

Think of this blog as a salon - run by Ming the Merciless - a private living room where a select group of guests are welcomed to entertain each other with interesting news and oddments of information, amusing anecdotes and funny stories. It is a polite and lively group of well-read and well-mannered people. New people are welcome if they want to join in. But imagine the reaction in such company if someone new comes in wearing a mask, and starts insulting the other guests, making sharp remarks about the colour of the carpets, and using the wrong fork at lunch. What sort of a hostess would I be if I did not see such a boor off at the nearest opportunity?

As you will see below, disagreement is not only welcome, it is almost mandatory. We have all read Aristotle; we are all aware of the necessity of conflict to create drama. Rudeness, stupidity, boorishness, and bad language, however, are a quick ticket to the smite button.

The Rules:

Rule one: "God-like powers"
I'm the boss.

That means I'm the absolute ruler. The person with my finger over the Smite button. And I'm not that nice, warm, friendly, forgiving Christian God we're all used to. I'm more like the evil, unpredictable, unreasonable, vengeful gods of the pagan world. This means that I apply the rules with a capricious and whimsical arbitrariness according to my mood, the weather or how many cups of tea I've had.

No rules apply, either democratic or otherwise, to my blog other than my own. Those who complain are encouraged to be men and not whiney crybabies. If you keep a civil tone, own manfully up to your statements and say intelligent things related to the posts, the odds are about even that you will not incur my Smite button.

We do not believe in "freedom of speech" here. Disagree, by all means, but if you can't do it politely, you're not the sort of person we want to hear from anyway.

There is no appeal process.

Rule two: "Pseudonyms"
Posters have to use a real or plausible-sounding name. We use real names here. The kind used on driving licenses and birth certificates. We do not use pseudonyms or monikers. If you sign in as "Sage Mossyrock", (and no, I don't care, actually, how many years you have been using it on the 'net) you will be asked to show proof that this is indeed the name your mother gave you. If you cannot provide convincing proof, and if I'm feeling particularly magnanimous, you will be asked politely but firmly to change it to something less obviously made up or to leave.

If you cannot resist the temptation to hide your identity, you may call yourself something like "Ian" or "George" or "Janet" or "Mary". This will serve to keep your Big Important Identity a secret whilst avoiding the tiresome implication that you and your insufferable ego have a Big Important Identity to keep secret.

If you really are a Person of Consequence who would be sacked or kicked out of the seminary for posting a comment here, you may email me and convince me that your case merits an exception and I will assign you an acceptable pseudonym from my long and growing list of obscure early Anglo-Saxon saints. Being named Aethelfridwich will be a suitably humbling experience for the person so afflicted and a salutary warning to others.

It is to be remembered that one of the great criticisms of the internet and its residents is that we forget that it is another human being on the other end of the line, and do not know the difference between reality and our own egos.

These policies are in place to help our readers maintain a healthy perspective and have stood me very well in eight years of blogging.

Rule three: "Nasty"
Anyone posting Nasty under an obviously assumed name or anonymously has no reason to expect not to be deleted; we don't do nasty here. Cowards hide behind false names or no name. We don't do cowardice here either.

The only person at this site who is allowed to be unpleasant is me. (cf. Rule One, above)

People making unpleasant comments or using an incivil tone will not be asked to leave; they will be deleted without comment.

I do not feed trolls.

And a "troll" is defined, according to my own entirely arbitrary criteria, as anyone I don't like or whose tone offends me personally.

Remember Rule one: my blog is my universe.

Rule four: "Favouritism"
If you're Billy HW, you may post anything you like, all the time. You've earned it. Others with special privileges include Tom of New York, Mark S. Abeln, Karen, Jon, Keith, Louise, Steve S., Dale, Gregory, Johannescarlos, Steve T., Andrew C., Andrew M., California John, Birmingham Bernadette, Fr. T., Fr. PJM, Robert, DF, JTCB, Nick T., Felicity, Dorothy and Mary A. Also, anyone who has donated to the cancer fund or sent me books.

Rule five: "Crazy"
No paranoid nutbars.

Rule Six: "Do not be a bore."
Posts that say nothing more than "Great post! I loved it!" which fail to contribute meaningfully to the conversation, which make me in any other way bored or annoyed,

will also get the Smite button.

And now... 

Rule Seven:
Spelling counts.


Thursday, April 05, 2012

I'm absolutely floored!

A few days ago, a friend emailed me to say that someone she had just met wanted to give her a whack of money to give to me, a donation to help with cancer expenses. I was grateful, but told her to tell this person that for the moment, anyway, expenses for medical bills are covered, by the generosity of you lot in fact, and that I am supposedly more or less finished with cancer. I asked her to relay, however, the fact that I would be very grateful for help in covering the cost of ongoing art classes, if this person were determined to give his money away.

I had expected it to be a few hundred dollars maybe.

My friend was to put it into her bank account and then transfer it into my Paypal.

I heard from my friend today, who did indeed tell the kind donor the good news that as far as cancer goes, I'm out of the woods. The donor said that using the money for art training is just fine.

She asked me to guess how much it was.

"Guess! Guess!"

"A million dollars."

"Nope. Not a million dollars."

"Oh boo. Well then, a jillion dollars."

"Nope, not a jillion either."


"It is 2,500."

"Holy crap on a stick!!!"

"I know. Imagine my face when I opened the envelope.  My hands were shaking.
The first thing I did when I recovered consciousness was stuff it in a bank."

"That's my art classes covered for the rest of the season!"

"Heck yeah!"

"Jumpin jimminy! Who is this person?"

"I can't tell you who she/he is that was the whole reason he/she gave me the $$$."

"Well, it certainly puts an obligation on me. Not to screw up and to keep getting better at drawing and everything."

"Well, that's good. And meanwhile they store up treasure in heaven, so it's all good. I am not sure, but I think this person is so obsessed with anonymity because person really wants every cent to go into that treasure in heaven."

"Well, that I get. Very sensible...but you'd tell me if it were a handsome boy with a big house and lots of money who has a crush on me, right?"

So, whoever you are. Please accept my heartfelt though astonished thanks, and I will pray that God gives you all the treasure in heaven you can carry. 


My Hair: Chemo-curls!!

Took this this afternoon. It's come along much more than I thought.


Cain't hardly believe it! I've had ruler straight hair all my life, and now curls, curls curls!!!
It won't last forever, but it's a pretty nice consolation prize. The pics don't quite show it, but there are actually little soft ringlets forming behind my ears.

For a long time I was fighting the curlyness by plastering it down with gel and "product". Yesterday I finally gave in and just started fluffing it out.

You'd almost think it was on purpose. 

Come a long ways since it started coming back in in October.

Yep. This was October 5th.

But it's still incredibly slow. My hair used to grow really fast. This was two months growth since the above. Pic taken December 2th.

The trouble is I can't dye it for a year or so. They say not to chemically treat your post-chemo hair for a whole year. 
I never realised how grey it had become. 
Oh well, maybe now people will believe me when I tell them I'm 46.