View From The Sane Seats

My neighbor, or at least fellow Snohomish County resident, Dr. Sid Schwab, went to the rally this weekend in D.C. and gives a first-person account, even though it sounds as if he were far enough away to change the narrative voice a bit. Worth the read, as always (and it always is, actually; you should read Sid):


I think they hit the right notes in the show: fun, satirical, a little serious. No doubt many will declare Jon Stewart’s speech at the end was too self-important, crossed some sort of line, whatever. But gimme a break. Was he wrong in anything he said? It’s the whole point, I’d say. And one of mine, too: the media are letting us all down. By what a couple of them do, and by what the rest of them fail to do. In more or less equal measure they’re responsible for giving so much voice to so much crazy.

Am I, with this blog, among the bad guys, the screamers, the polemicists, the dichotomists? Maybe. But what I rant about is the ranting itself, and the piss-poor (to take it down a notch) journalism that has all but completely replaced the idea of an inquisitive and skeptical press whose job it is to question and to educate. And I reject the phony nationalism that fails to understand, at best, and hates, at worst, the real implications of democracy. On the rare occasions when I receive thoughtful disagreement (strange, isn’t it, how devoid of usefulness are most of the comments from the disagreeable?), I respond in kind. And, like Jon Stewart (no equivalence implied) I’ve taken on both sides when they go over the top. And I document what I claim, believing, as I still do, that facts and reality are reasonable bases for opinion.


(Note: The link to his blog is for the blog itself, not this specific post, because, again, I think you need to read him anyway, and also to avoid having the comments automatically post for you. One of his frequent commenters is a 12-year-old masquerading as an adult, someone whose grasp of American history is on par with Glenn Beck’s, and my eyes get tired from rolling. Just fair warning.)

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The Leavening Life

So, there’s been some bread here. My experiment in home chemistry was a qualified success, resulting in some really extraordinary loaves, although not yet the flavor I was looking for. So I’m backing off for a moment, letting the bugs bake a little.

My sourdough quest (and a little angst regarding how slowly my culture was responding) led to a little flurry of baking last weekend, lots of chocolate. I spent a couple of days covered with flour and cocoa dust, but it kept me busy.


On the home front, the MRI yesterday showed a residual tumor of approximately 60% of the original, more than we thought but perspective is important here. A meningioma can grow very slowly and cause absolutely no problems at all, maybe an odd unexplained headache from time to time. It can also, as in Julie’s case, creep into sensitive territory and start to do damage. So if you take the top 40% off, the part that was wrapping around the optic nerve and getting way too familiar with the vasculature, you’re left with tumor that’s annoying to know about but not really doing any damage. This is where radiation comes in, and for that we wait another week to set up, and maybe another week after that to begin. All in all, smooth sailing, enough said.


We are coming into a cold winter, or that’s the scoop anyway. A La Nina year, colder than normal, maybe a higher percentage of snow days and such. This all is qualified by the Pacific Northwest and in particular western Washington, which is generally pretty mild in terms of temperature and only gets into spectacular territory usually with wind storms and earthquakes. Wind in particular is what most people seem to not know; high winds are bad wherever they happen, but gusts over 100 MPH are not unusual at all here. Again, perspective.

Which is why having some bread in the oven is maybe not a bad idea. It’s cheap, it’s easy, it’s warm and it smells good while it bakes, while the wind roars, while we wait for winter and what’s next.

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Basking In Bacteria

UPDATE, OCT 22: It passes the smell test, very sourdoughy, but then I’ve been here before. Must…resist…baking…yet.

My Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis arrived yesterday via UPS, dehydrated and making me a little tingly. It sometimes doesn’t take much.

And this isn’t much, a tiny envelope’s worth, which cost me about 10 bucks. Here’s to hoping money well spent, and sour goodness in a few days.

You have to like sourdough bread, right? Maybe not love, but like? OK, well, people are different. I don’t like potato salad.

I’ve made bread for 15 years or so now, always enjoyed it. I don’t eat much bread anymore, but it’s fun to make. Or at least pizza dough. Takes the edge off, feels a little creative or at least functional. Mix it up, let it rise, shove it in a hot oven and wait for magic. Fun.

I just can’t do sourdough, or haven’t so far. Sourdough (for you nonbread bakers, real quick here) is essentially wild yeast, captured from the atmosphere and nurtured, allowed to ferment and bubble naturally. It becomes a starter; you scoop some out, mix it with flour and water and stuff, and go on from there. And you keep it alive as long as you want; some sourdough starters supposedly have been around since the mid-19th century, although each strain has a distinctive (if subtly so) flavor. Yum yum.

(It gets its tang from the lactobacilli, which produce lactic acid; this is combined with more cultured yeasts from the addition of flour. Because I know you were curious.)

You can make your own, too, which is what I did last winter. I had a great sourdough starter, always bubbly and alive, which when left in the refrigerator for a while produced a fermented liquid on top that smelled exactly like whiskey (which it sort of was). I prepared it properly (secret ingredient: Pineapple juice) and fed it regularly, and watched it do exactly what it was supposed to do. I got great bread out of this, amazing rises and texture.

Just not sour. Never got that to happen. Maybe we don’t have tangy yeasties in the Northwest.

So I eventually tossed it, and the other day it was on my mind, as cold weather approaches and chowder season is upon us, so I bought the mail order variety from the (other) City by the Bay. In case sanfranciscensis up there was throwing you.

We shall see, then. It’ll take a few days, maybe, to rehydrate this baby and get it ready, then another day to prepare the first loaf. Patience is not a problem. Some sourdough anxiety is; I mean, I can’t exactly return it if it doesn’t work.

I’ll keep you posted. Here’s to pursed lips and crunchy bread.

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Looking Back Through A Madison Ave. Lens

New column:

I’ve written on this subject so many times I’m actually boring myself now, but once again for the record: I don’t believe in “the good old days.” I’m at war, in fact, with people who think this way, who coat the past with sunny colors and paper-doll people who always did the right thing. There were plenty of wrong things.

But that doesn’t make me immune to nostalgia, or from a sense of loss, probably inevitable given my age and AARP membership. I probably wouldn’t want to drink one, but I still miss soda in glass bottles and made with real sugar. I miss Top 40 radio stations that provided soundtracks to everyday life. I miss news that came on paper or was read by an anchor with years of experience, summed up in 30 minutes and then it could wait until the next day, we’re covered.

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My wife drove herself to work today, five weeks after surgery. She had a short trial on Sunday and longer runs yesterday, both with me in the car, and feels comfortable and secure. She’s had some return of vision on the left, vision of the count-fingers variety and still with a visual field cut, but then she was driving with worse for months before the operation; people adjust.

And now the doctors are saying that with some return of vision, more is likely. It might take a year or two, but this problem, actually the least of our concerns with all of this, might have been fixed. Take a little tumor, do a little dance…

A nice but long day yesterday, talking with the radiation oncologist. Next week, assuming the insurance people get the paperwork done, she has another MRI and then we look at this residual tumor, see what’s hanging around and what it’s hanging on, and determine how effective a little pinpoint radiation will be. This is CyberKnife, technology less than a decade old, same old radiation but with a robotic twist, allowing for a focused field on a moving target (the human body is always moving; when it stops moving you don’t need radiation, just a funeral). So, less radiation spill, fewer side effects, a fraction of the time. All sounding very good.

My turn, then.

Meaning, time for me to find my level again. I don’t need attention or special care or kid gloves; what I need is a spinal column, in a way. I need my own focused beam. I need to become a moving target.

Starting with a haircut. And since Julie has the car, and I haven’t started our van in a couple of months, and the brakes were toast anyway, I guess I walk. A couple of miles to get there, a couple of miles back, it adds up to a decent walk, and it’s been forever.

Maybe four times since early September have I taken off for a walk, a solid routine for three years, disrupted for good reasons and vague ones. There’s no weight issue; my clothes are starting to hang on me, but then I’ve always noted that even a hard 5-mile walk can be nullified by a few well-placed chocolate chip cookies. It’s a mental health thing, a psychological and emotional and spiritual thing, and I’ve neglected it.

Talk about a diffuse radiation field – my energy has been scattered in all sorts of directions, and fading fast. A day like yesterday can wipe me out; a few hours on the road and in the bowels of a medical center, and I’m done. No grass will be harmed during a day like that; it was all I could do to manage some grocery shopping.

So today I’m looking for my energy, and I have a good idea I’ll find it outside. The weather is cooperating; it’s cool but sunny, a nice autumn day. I’ll tackle the lawn when I get back, chase some spiders, disengage some morning glory from the siding. I’ll get the mail, bring in the trash cans, talk to my neighbor, laugh with my son, groan about the dog, and maybe clean the kitchen.

I will start over, in other words. I’ve gotten pretty good at that.

My friend Sue commented the other day that she hates the phrase, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Me too. Lots of stuff doesn’t kill us and doesn’t do anything else, either. It’s one of those things to say, prompted by good intentions and very little thought, like, “God will not give you more than you can handle,” what a crazy piece of shit to say, a good way to make somebody feel bad when events get overwhelming.

But what doesn’t kill us reminds us that we’re not dead yet, and I don’t seem to be. Got some sun, got some time, got an appointment, got some chores to do, got a new day, which I intend to fill and enjoy, while I appreciate where we’ve been, and wait for my wife to come home.

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So, Here We Are

Julie snapped this picture of Lake Union, Queen Anne and the Space Needle from the passenger seat as we headed toward a doctor’s appointment today, southbound I-5. It was a perfect fall afternoon, mid-60s and cloudless.

It occurred to me, taking the dog out tonight, that I’d miscalculated his age the other day. He was born in 1997, making him 13, not 14. He’s still an elder dog, this makes absolutely no difference to him or you or anyone else but me, and only then because it’s one of those simple errors I’ve gotten used to over the past month. It’s been strange.

We went in today, 4 weeks to the day after Julie’s surgery, for a followup appointment with the neurosurgeons. From the first questions from the medical assistant, just updating the chart, I knew it would be interesting.

“Are you still taking the pain medication?” she asked.

“Oh, no,” Julie answered, “not since I came home.”

Aack. For nearly 10 days I sweated out the narcotics, worried that she was taking too many, taking too few, taking them and forgetting and forgetting she forgot. She had somehow picked medication to argue with me about, to swear she was still supposed to be taking the Decadron or was supposed to be done taking the Dilantin, didn’t understand the fiber supplement, didn’t grasp the as-needed nature of narcotics and swore she had to take them every 4 hours on the hour, or every 2, or every 6, something. For nearly 10 days this was my nightmare, as I watched her slide in and out of coherence, sometimes talking nonstop with nonsense words, arguing with me, being silly, taking endless pictures of her incision site with her cellphone and sending them to friends, doing crosswords puzzles and sometimes, for a period, forgetting how to read. Not since I came home

She lost two weeks of her life, more or less, not a bad bargain for a brain tumor. As time goes on, I’m sure we’ll laugh and talk about those days, focus on the goofy things and let the fear fade away, where it belongs. But oh boy. I was there.

And then one day she decided she’d see how long she could go without pain medication, and she never took another pill. That most definitely wasn’t the whole cause of her confusion, etc., and she’s had bad days since, but things began to improve after that. I am witness, then.

So this was a clean bill of health, today. She’s doing remarkably well, rarely has confusion anymore and is slowly returning to work. It will probably be six months, we were told, before she’s 100%, but she will get there.

She can try driving a little even now, with me in the car, but can’t solo for another week or so until she’s weaned off her seizure meds. Washington State doesn’t have a law against driving following a craniotomy, but the medication can mess with you.

She’s had a little return of her lost vision on the left side, and this is probably a sign more will return, all good news.

And we’ll start the radiation process next week with an initial appointment. At some point in a few weeks, she’ll start multiple sessions with the Cyber Knife, pinpoint radiation to nick away the rest of the tumor, 30 minutes a session, probably 5 sessions in a row, no side effects expected, simple and easy.

At some point next year, God willing, our dog will actually turn 14. He’ll still be old. I’ll still be here. We’ll be so far past this, I know, that it will almost never come up. It will just be another adventure we went through, a lot of it chronicled here and other places online, a lot of it stored in what passes for my brain. I’ll still be grateful that it went the way it did, that we were lucky ones, that we survived and stayed, that friends and family kept us strong, that sleep eventually returned and routines came back and life went on.

This was a good day, then, today. Maybe the last time I feel the need or urge to update the situation in this space, or any space. Now we have the mundane stuff, the bills to pay, and so on. What she doesn’t remember will not matter, and what I do won’t really, either. Fall is here, the leaves are changing, it’s getting brisker, and holidays are on their way, along with family, which, in fact, inspired the very last question.

“My daughter wants to know if I can drink wine at Thanksgiving,” Julie asked the surgeon.

Big smile.

“We encourage it,” he said.

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I’m getting a little weary of driving, if you’ll let me a whine for a second and then stop. After all these years at home, commuting isn’t just strange, it feels unnatural, and an odd way to spend time. You can’t do anything.

On the other hand, there’s much to be grateful for. This morning my wife looked perky and cute and sassy and lovely, which is of course the way she always looks when she’s not having brain surgery or recovering from same. It’s been 4 weeks (tomorrow) and I do believe we’re establishing a baseline. She raised her left eyebrow the other day and got very excited. Me too.

I’ve been thrown for a loop, though, or a couple of loops. I’m philosophically in favor of this kind of disruption; practically, it has a downside. Days that used to be open for exercise, contemplating, yardwork, maintenance and maybe even some fun are now scheduled, with pickups and drop-offs and monitoring and whatnot. I spent a couple of days in the pits, one of those black holes that make no sense and all you can do is believe it will get better, and keep moving. I did and it did, no surprises really. All in all, this has been about recovery for everyone.

This is how you measure things, or at least how I measure things. Look back and then look up. It’s not just Julie; I was reminded today just how far my son has come in these past two years. I was reminded a couple of weeks ago that it’s been 3 years since I decided to try once again to lose weight. For nearly 20 years I was well into the obese category; for the 10 years prior to 2007, I hung mostly around 265. Today I generally stay in the 178-180 range and have been there for what feels like a long time. This is sort of a small picture item but again, this is how I measure.

Not to mention the 4 years and 2 months since I put down my glass, so to speak.

There have been other changes lately, some of them uncomfortable. Everything feels so fragile lately, in this world, this country and community. People are sick. Jobs are lost. Roofs leak, weeds grow, politicians lie, doctors make mistakes, milk spoils, neighbors make too much noise. My dog is 14-1/2 years old.

But my wife raised her eyebrow the other day, some residual stiffness from the surgery loosening up, and she was damn sexy this morning, all glowing and energetic, and I’m thinking I don’t mind the commute so much, I always get to come home.

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For Reals


Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.
–Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

This is the kind of October weather we pretend to remember to believe to know in our hearts is always the way it is, when sometimes it’s not. It wasn’t last year, for example.

Never mind, though, this is nice, brisk, sunny, every mountain apparent, and we have lots. It’s a nice time for hot drinks and sweatshirts, but you can still sweat. I mowed the lawn yesterday and I may mow it again today, who knows? Gather ye rosebuds, and we still have rosebuds, too.

It was like this in October 1983, when we moved to the Northwest, a rotten trick to play on Sunbelters who were scared and disoriented. We can live with this, we thought, not knowing that October likes to play pranks, mess with you a bit, all the while loading up November, just waiting.

This is why, I think, I’m getting waves of nostalgia. We’ve lived in this house for 22 years; I have pictures of me, wandering through the basement, wearing a red jacket and followed by a red-haired girl who barely came up to my hip. I was 29 years old, talk about pranks.

The grocery stores are still here, remodeled a million times, the pharmacy playing musical chairs, first in that corner, now in this, but still here. And I remembered the other day going there once with Beth, when she was at hip level, maybe 3 or 4. Waiting in line, she saw a package of balloons conveniently placed at little girl eye level.

“Balloons!” she said, and I redirected her like a good dad, not today. An old guy, who knows, old, maybe even 50, leaned forward and stuck his nose in our business.

“What do you want, honey?” he said, and I could smell booze on his breath. God knows what kind of person he was. “I’ll buy you balloons.”

I was sort of overwhelmed by anger and politeness at the same time, and he smiled at me, still reeking.

“They grow up so fast,” he said, “these girls, and then they don’t want anything to do with you.” I was not mollified, but I stayed quiet and Beth got her balloons.

And now I stand in those same lines in that same store, no longer 29. I see dads and little girls all the time. I stay quiet.

This is not about little girls. Stop thinking that.

This is about where this sort of idle nostalgia on sunny October days has led me, along with all my other Octobers. I am 52, my breath is free of booze, my hair is thinning and my skin is sagging. I’m missing some molars and I have to keep moving my shoulders or they’ll get stiff. My voice is hoarse more often than it used to be, I’m more susceptible to cold, I sometimes can’t see a damn thing, and please talk to me on my right side, not the left.

I am Real, then. Why it took this long and this much entropy to make me realize that, dunno. Maybe it’s just sentiment, egged on by October, or our little adventures with hospitals, or sunshine, or nothing.

But I feel Real, today, and pretty alive, and grateful. My shoes are green from the grass. My sweatshirt has a little salsa stain. My mood is even, my daughter is grown, my wife is doing OK, my son is at work, my dog is barking, I am glad to be here, this October, where I’ve been for so long. If I run my fingers along the basement walls, little ghosts will come out and dance for me, show me where I’ve been and what I’ve seen, and this comforts me, this realness.

I will buy balloons for anyone who asks.

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Sauce Talk

As hard as I’ve tried to keep our supplies stocked in this household, I somehow forgot to pick up adrenaline at the store, dumb me. We’re all out.

We still have coffee, it’s OK.

In addition to the lack of energy, though, we’ve noticed that my wife has been having some appetite issues. This is cyclical, as is everything else these days, but she needs to eat, so I decided to get proactive.

She likes chicken enchiladas. When we go to our favorite Mexican restaurant, which also doubles as our favorite restaurant, she always orders the chicken enchiladas. She means to try something else, but they own her, these enchiladas, and she doesn’t fight.

I’ve actually never made enchiladas, although Mexican food was the first cooking I ever did, and I’ve got a few specialties. I have no idea why I never went the enchilada route, although now I suspect it’s because maybe my mom used to make them with olives. I have a thing about olives, don’t know why, just don’t care for them.

Here’s the thing about chicken enchiladas: It’s just Jack cheese, shredded chicken and corn tortillas, which is also the definition of a taco if you’re so inclined, minus beans. Even a nonenchilada person like me knows that it all comes down to the sauce.

I held all the cards here. My wife needed to eat. I needed to cook. My son-in-law had the recipe. It was like free money.

This was an act of love on his part, since his chicken enchiladas are a signature dish. I’ve seen him prepare them, and I’ve eaten them, and I will not get there, not in this life. I just wanted an approximation, a hint, a half-assed version of Cameron’s enchilada sauce, and the man came through. Gracias.

I couldn’t find poblanos (sometimes we gringos call them pasillas, which is totally wrong) in the Albertson’s, but I was willing to branch out and found something that looked quite a lot like poblanos, which I called the California Mystery Pepper. Really, if you know something about chiles you would swear this was the real thing. Green and waxy, and it roasted perfectly. Yay California pepper growers.

The enchiladas were fine, too. The sauce was a little tart in a way I couldn’t quite identify and certainly didn’t remember from Cameron’s last batch, but this could have been because I left some faux poblano seeds in there; seeding a chile pepper to me is like drinking decaf or eating sugarless brownies; it’s unnatural and maybe a venal sin.

At any rate, she stuffed herself with enchiladas and I was happy, thanks to Cam. I made a lot of sauce, which was fine except I woke up this morning to see the pot full of it sitting on the stove, an oversight and a waste, sorry. Some cilantro grower somewhere died a little bit.

Mostly, though, this all made me think of something that happened a few years ago. Cameron and Beth were visiting, I decided to make ice cream, and we got into a discussion about chocolate sauce. I didn’t have any, and Cameron reached into his wallet and pulled out a piece of paper with his grandmother’s chocolate sauce recipe on it. This was fabulous, by the way, but I remember thinking that a guy who keeps his grandmother’s recipe in his wallet was probably the man who needed to marry my daughter, which is how it all worked out. I am grateful, and also for his sauce recipe.

He will have to get up early in the morning to beat my chocolate chip cookies, though. Game on. Thanksgiving is coming.

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