Friday, May 12, 2017

A Living Rose

These roses are my mom.

Summer 2014 - roses and bees
Not my actual, real life mother, of course.  But they are part of her.  They are, in my mind, a living breathing reminder that she spent time on this earth.  That she smiled.  That she loved me.  And that she is gone.

They were her roses – one of several bushes planted in my parents’ back yard in Omaha.  My dad was taking them out around 12 years ago and I carefully lugged one from Nebraska to Virginia, in the hopes that it would survive and I could plant it.  It worked.  And now, each spring it blossoms. 

This year's blooms
It doesn’t make the prettiest flowers – they are a bit scrawny and don’t have many leaves.  The roses do not have a scent, which always disappoints me.  Then stems are short so they are hard to cut and bring indoors.  And the they have some very wicked thorns – I have been cut by them many times. 

But for all of those shortcomings, I still look at the bush and smile every spring when ROSES APPEAR.  I am sure if my mom was still around she would have replaced this rather beat up rose bush years ago.  But she is gone, and the roses remain in my yard as a reminder of HER. 

I share this story to encourage you to keep a LIVING part of your loved ones when they are gone.  Instead of only holding onto remembrances like tea cups or photos, try and keep something that “breathes”, that lives.  Keep a plant, a tree, a rose bush…  I am inspired each spring when Mom’s roses bloom, and I imagine that you will get the same joy out of keeping a living thing from your loved one, too. 

Such beauty, and such a sweet reminder
Of course, this plan has a major pitfall:  at some point, the living remembrance item is going to die.  That’s inevitable and must be accepted.  I went through that a couple of years ago when a beautiful plant I kept from my mom’s funeral died.  I was quite upset, and when I tried to figure out why I realized that somehow I was trying to “keep my mom alive” by keeping that plant green.  And when the plant died, I felt like a failure, like I had failed my mom.  I was really depressed about it.  But, it did teach me a lesson, and I feel like now I can be happy and celebrate the last tiny living “piece of my mom”, the rose bush, while it is here, and am better ready to deal with the reality that someday it, too, will die.

So there you have it – Susan’s “helpful tip” for dealing with grief I guess:  keep some LIVING thing.  And when it blooms (or fruits or sheds or whatever it does), you will be reminded of your love, and you will smile.

(If you want to read the other piece I wrote about the plant from my mom’s funeral, you can see it here: Learning Acceptance (link)

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Elusive Search for Impossible Perfection

I think we all do it, really, in some form or the other.  We search for perfection.  Some people dream of a perfect BODY – curves in all the right places and nary a wrinkle.  Some people hunt for the perfect mate – someone who fits every idealized fantasy they can imagine. 

Me – sometimes I catch myself running after the perfect EXPERIENCE…

I did it tonight, and when I realized what was happening, I had to laugh.

Here’s the deal – perfection doesn’t EXIST.  There is no perfect body, no perfect mate, no perfect family, no perfect house, or perfect life.  And there is no perfect experience

Have you ever tried to do that – ensure that you will have the perfect experience??  If you can look at it from the outside, from a bird’s eye view, you will see how utterly ridiculous it is.  How about this one: trying to make the PERFECT HOLIDAY!!  You buy the biggest, fullest Christmas tree.  You decorate it with gorgeous ornaments.  You bake the fanciest of cookies. You buy the very best gifts and wrap them with the most beautiful paper.  But it will not be PERFECT.  Someone will end up with the flu and have to stay in bed instead of opening presents.  The sweater you give to your uncle will be the wrong size.  One of your guests will be allergic to nuts and unable to eat what you prepared.  IT WON’T BE PERFECT, trust me!  I think that is one reason people get so stressed around the holidays – they want, no, they EXPECT everything to be perfect, and it never is!

Here is what happened one year when my partner David and I tried to give his mother the PERFECT Christmas, the Christmas we knew would be her last one on earth:
Instead of the artificial Christmas tree his parents owned and always used, we went and got a “perfect” one.  A live one, so that the house would smell of pine.  We set it up in the living room as his parents watched, wondering why we had wasted money on a tree when there was a good plastic one in the basement.  When it was decorated, David and I stepped back and marveled at the beauty.  Then we all went to bed and in the middle of the night heard a very loud CRASH as the tree, which had been so large we had to TIE IT with string to a curtain rod to hold it up (cuz bigger is better, more PERFECT, right???) CRASHED TO THE FLOOR.  The water from the tree stand leaked all over the hardwood floor and even stained it a bit.

Not to be derailed in our goal of a perfect last Christmas, we got a bunch of little brown paper bags and secretly made luminaries by cutting pretty shapes into the bags, putting in a bit of sand for weight, and putting tea light candles in each one.  When the coast was clear, we snuck into the front yard, put all the luminaries out, lit each candle so they would glow, rang the doorbell, then quickly hid from view!!!  As David’s mom opened the door, we quietly sang a lovely Christmas carol.  WHAT AN EXPERIENCE, RIGHT???  The snow, the luminaries glowing, our melodic (if slightly out of tune) voices serenading her…  Ahhhhh…  Her response??  “E-gads!  It is freezing out there!  Come inside, you are gonna catch cold!”.

A blurry (far less than perfect) photo of our failed attempt at the perfect last Christmas
Perfect, right?

Another time I remember that we (I guess it is “I” really, and David is willing to race alongside me) believed that if we tried hard enough, we would have the PERFECT EXPERIENCE was a sunset in Key West, Florida.  Everyone in Key West told us that a person “needed” to see sunset at Mallory Square.  I mean, Mallory Square was the place to watch the sunset.  From the sound of things, if you didn’t witness the sun set from Mallory Square, why, you were nothing and had wasted every penny you spent coming to the southernmost point of the United States!!!  So, “sunset at Mallory Square” went on my to do list, of course!!!  We had a busy day of fun, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking about the end goal, the perfect sunset, and watching the clock.   So, when it was almost time, we drove to the much hyped location. 

Only, everyone ELSE had gotten the memo, too, so parking was nowhere to be found…  We drove around and around and finally settled on a spot that was quite far away.  And you know what that means – A FOOT RACE TO GET TO SUNSET PERFECTION!!!!!  We took off (well, I took off, and David followed…).  I was not going to miss that sunset, damn it!!!  We raced down cute little streets, past adorable ice cream shops, with one goal in mind – P-E-R-F-E-C-T  S-U-N-S-E-T.  Of course, as we raced, the sun was doing its own racing… 

So, by the time we got to Mallory Square, there was only a tiny bit of sunset left. 

A tiny bit of SUNSET, but a LARGE MASS OF HUMANITY!  Everyone and their brother was there, making it impossible to see the sunset!!!


This is David.  At the legendary PERFECT SUNSET in Key West.  With every other tourist in the world.
Lucky for us, in situations like that we often see the humor instead of the sadness.  I mean, seriously, how many gorgeous sunsets have we seen in our lives already, what the hell made us think this one was going to be even more perfect than the others we had witnessed??? 

Sunset in Washington DC when the Washington Monument was covered in scaffolding - pretty!

Sunset in San Diego at Balboa Park - gorgeous!

Sunset in Tel Aviv - amazing!!!

Sunset at the Air Force Monument in DC - stunning
Sunset in KEY WEST, on the same vacation as the huge sunset failure described above:  beautiful,
but NOT in the PERFECT location of Mallory Park.  :) 
Anyway, I was reminded of this elusive search for impossible perfection on my walk tonight.  The reason I was reminded, not surprisingly, is that I had fallen into the trap again.  The last few years I have had a project to take one photograph of the same thing every day.  The first year I photographed my bed, whatever bed I woke up in, first thing in the morning*.  This year, I am shooting my HAND.  So, I brought my camera on a walk this evening to take today’s hand photo.  As soon as I stepped out the door I saw some gorgeous clouds with pink and orange light glowing behind them.  I knew I wanted THOSE to be the backdrop for my hand!!  Only, I wanted it to be perfect, see…  I didn’t want any roofs or electrical lines blocking the beauty…  So, I walked in the direction of the clouds.  I walked…  And walked…  All the while hunting for an unobstructed view to take this perfect hand photo with glowing clouds.

And, like in Key West, as I walked, the sun was setting, and the pink and orange colors were fading. 

There wouldn’t BE an unobstructed, perfect view.  Because this is REAL LIFE, and real life is not perfect

So, I stopped in the middle of the street.  I laughed out loud at this insane search for perfection.  And I put my dumb hand in the air and took a picture. 

There.  Photo for the day completed.  MY H AND.
I guess my point is – don’t waste your time trying to make things perfect.  In the end, the time will have been wasted and perfection will not have been found anyway.  ENJOY the pink clouds while they are there, because soon enough, the sun will set.  

(Link to the story and video of my first "Photo Everyday Project" - Bed a Day

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Change of Perspective

I got rear ended the other night.

I was driving home, through DC, and stopped at a red light.  The car behind me was also stopped.  Only, then it WASN’T stopped, and it bonked (quite hard) right into me. 

I was startled.  I jumped out to see what had happened, who had hit me.  The guy was still sitting in his car, so I walked up to his window, which he opened.  “What?”, was his response.  “What???  Umm, you just HIT ME, that’s what!”.  What followed was an exchange where he insisted it was “nothing” and I insisted that he had HIT MY CAR.  He got more and more irate, and I got more and more ticked off.  He said, “Yeah, I looked at my phone”. 

Look, I am no angel.  I look at my phone at red lights, too.  And I do not know why he decided to step on the gas, just because he was looking at his phone, but for some reason he must have (or perhaps taken his foot off the brake, but he hit me pretty hard so it felt like gas…). 

So there I stood, at 10:30 PM, in the dark, at the intersection of 18th and New Hampshire NW, staring at a guy who ran into me and was basically yelling at me from inside his vehicle.  When he saw I was not backing down he ordered me to, “Pull over there!!!  Pull over there!”.  But before I did that, I returned to my car, got my phone, and took a photo of his license plate.  “What are you doing?  I said PULL OVER THERE!” he man-hollered at me.  I looked him in the eye and said, in my meanest voice, “I AM GOING TO PULL OVER THERE.  BUT I AM NOT SURE IF YOU ARE GOING TO PULL OVER THERE.  AND SO I AM TAKING A PHOTO OF YOUR LICENSE PLATE…”. 

A car with 2 young guys pulled around us at that point with their windows open.  They heard me talk loudly to the man and saw me take the photo.  Part of me thought I should say to them, “Excuse me!  This man does not seem all that nice…  Do you mind pulling over and staying with me a minute or two while I get his insurance information, just in case he decides to beat me up or something???”.   But I didn’t say anything to them, and they kept driving.

So, I followed the guy’s instructions, I “pulled over there”.  He finally exited his vehicle and repeated his claims about it being “nothing”.  I asked for his insurance information, and this ticked him off more.  “IT IS NOTHING!!  What are you doing?  You are trying to take ADVANTAGE, aren’t you??  Aren’t you????” he quizzed me. 

I was nervous.  It was dark.  My car had been hit.  A stranger was yelling at me.  He had admitted it was his fault.  I was tired.  I took his insurance card that he handed me from his wallet and took a photo of it.  His name was Aldo.  His license plate was from Maryland.  He drove a 2015 Hyundai.  And then, as we both stood on the street, his demeanor got a little nicer.  He kept repeating it was no big deal, I was exaggerating, and asked to see my insurance card, too, but his tone changed.  He was less defensive, a bit more desperate.  Sure, he accused me of trying to blame him for old scratched on my bumper (I wasn’t – I was blaming him for the NEW SCRATCHES…).  But something about him seemed a bit different at this point of the interaction.

After we exchanged information we each got in our cars and pulled away. 

But I kept thinking about him… 

And in the end, I think I could kind of see things from his eyes.  Maybe they are not even HIS EYES, I mean, I totally made “these eyes” up.  But maybe, just maybe, he is an immigrant.  He had a heavy accent.  He had a name (first and last) that sounded foreign.  And maybe, just maybe, if he was not a citizen or does not hold a green card, then something like innocently rear ending a lady on a DC street and getting the cops called on you could mean something very dire… 

Look, I would never have even thought of this scenario 6 months ago.  But with the whole travel ban and immigration mess our country is in right now, I really stopped to think it through. 

This fender bender, which resulted only in new scratches on my 13 year old Prius that has over 175,000 miles on it, was certainly not worth the risk of some old man getting deported.   Yes, it was his fault.  And yes, he was rude to me.  But maybe he had reason to be rude…  Maybe he thought if he was angry enough, yelled loud enough, I would scamper back to my vehicle and give up.

I didn’t scamper, and I am sort of proud of that.  And I didn’t give up.  But what I also didn’t do is call his insurance company.  Heck, it is only more scratches, right?

As much as I despise the current political climate, I am glad that it made me stop and think and see this man, or who this man might be, in a different light. 

This is the United States of America.  All are welcome here.  (Just keep your foot on the brake at red lights, please.)

Friday, February 24, 2017



My teeny tiny “cancer journey” * is finished.

Got the stitches out today at the ocular plastic surgeon, have to go back and have a quick follow-up in 4 weeks, but for all intents and purposes my “little ride on the cancer train” * is over.

I am hesitant to include this photo, but in the spirit of honesty, here you go.  Nurse David captured not only my recently removed stitch area, but also every clogged pore on my face and my very unplucked eyebrows.  Here you go, world!  
And I realize how LUCKY that makes me. 

Starting out with this form of cancer, basal cell carcinoma, has been a primer for me.  It’s the most common type of cancer.  It very rarely metastasizes (spreads to other areas).  If detected early, it can be removed.  I was one of 4 million people in the United States alone to deal with it this year (I was in great company!).  (You can learn more about basal cell carcinoma and other skin cancers here:  Skin Cancer link here )

I say this was a primer, because I am a realist and know that almost certainly another form of cancer will come my way at some point in life.  Honestly, most of us will have the bad fortune of getting cancer at some point in our lives, right?  Think about it:  how many friends and family members do you know who have/have had cancer?  I know loads: my maternal grandma, my sister, my mother, my dad, my paternal grandpa, friends….  So, I guess my point is, if I had to get any type of cancer at age 50, I am glad it was THIS kind.  They cut it out, they close me up, they take out the stitches, and voila, done.  No chemo, no radiation.  In the cancer department, this was like pre-school stuff.

My sister Sherry - dealt with breast cancer

My mom and dad - mom had colon cancer (this photo was from our family cruise for her last Christmas)
and dad has prostate cancer and skin cancer
Even so, I have learned quite a bit in the short 5 months I have been thinking about this!  May I share??

·         When you see a spot that you feel is suspicious, don’t trick yourself into thinking it isn’t.  For a while I pretended to myself that mine was a “dry spot”.  After a while I knew it was probably cancer, I honestly knew.  But I thought it was “too close to my eye” and I figured “there is nothing they could ever DO for it in that location anyway…”.  So, I put off going to the dermatologist.  My bad.  My very bad.  By the time MOHS was done and I showed up for the close, the ocular plastic surgeon (who I had met a week earlier and seen the pre-surgery spot) had a hard time not showing his deep concern when he took the bandage off, looked at the big chunk of my face missing, and said, “Oh.  That.  Is.  Bigger.  Than.  I.  Expected…”  He reminded me again today – I need to get checked at a dermatologist every 6 months.  If these spots are caught early they are manageable.  (And he mentioned again today how surprised he was by the size the original surgeon had to remove and left him to close…)  So, the point of this bullet is:  IF SOMETHING LOOKS SUSPICIOUS, JUST GO GET IT CHECKED.  It doesn’t hurt!  The doctor just looks at your skin.  If she/he says “false alarm”, cool!  If not, you get it dealt with.
·         Facebook friends, phone friends, card sending (and flower and cookie sending) friends and text friends are awesome.  Having people cheering you on makes it all seem doable.

·         Trust your instincts and take control of your medical care if you have the opportunity to do so.  The only other time in my life I was seriously ill, I was too sick to really be involved in the decision making.  But this time I was awake, alert, and involved.  I can sometimes have a tendency to “be nice” and not want to “hurt people’s feelings” or maybe to doubt that I could know better for myself than a professional might know.  But in this case, I didn’t feel the first ocular plastic surgeon was a good fit, and I decided to say something.  It caused a bit of a mess in the scheduling and it meant postponing everything a bit, but it was well worth it because in the end I had a doctor who literally said he “enjoys the challenge of skin cancer” cases and it turns out that is what I needed cuz mine was, ummm, a bit challenging to close up…  So, trust your gut.  It is your body, your time, your money, and your life!  Be comfortable with your medical professionals and find ones that are good fits for you.  (Note to self: use this new empowered Susan to start hunting for a really good dermatologist, cuz the one who found this originally was sort of cranky and not my style…)

Dr. Cytryn removing my sutures today.
We wore matching masks - his cuz he is a doctor, mine cuz I have the flu.

·         Anesthesia is awesome (and hard to spell).  Last night when I should have been sleeping but wasn’t, one thing I was thinking about was, “I do not remember getting DRESSED after my close surgery…  I know I didn’t ride home naked…  Did David dress me??”  So, today I was sitting in the chair at the surgical center waiting for the doctor to pop in to remove the sutures between other surgeries.  A nurse kept walking by, waiting for his next case.  He smiled and we ended up talking to him.  He was really sweet, and I finally asked, “Is your accent Russian?  It is really a pretty accent!” and he said yes, then he and David both smiled.  Turned out I had the SAME CONVERSATION with him LAST WEEK, asked him the same damn thing – he was my post-op nurse.  He said we had a good talk last week, none of which I remember!!!  So yeah, anesthesia is a good invention. 

·         Another note for good medications J (no I am not a pharmaceutical rep, but this is something I learned from a friend when I started this whole experience): do not be afraid to ask for meds.  My friend told me that she had eye surgery and asked for a prescription to calm her nerves beforehand.  I took that advice and asked the MOHS surgeon for something (because I knew patients are awake for MOHS).  She gave me a small prescription of Ativan, and I took one before MOHS.  It was exactly what I needed.  I was awake, alert, could talk and function, but was not overly nervous about her coming at my eyeball with sharp instruments. 

·         Fun cool thing – I have one little red mark RIIIIGHT by my tear duct.  At first I thought it was a scab from the surgery, then as the week with stitches progressed and the swelling went down, I began to dread it was a STITCH.  A BIG, THICK STITCH right by my tear duct.  That was gonna need to be CUT OUT…  Yes, that was another thing I was thinking about all night last night when I should have been sleeping…  But it turns out it is what my plastic surgeon called a “pie cut” (he might’ve called it a pie slice?  We have been calling it my pie hole today)!!!  It is a little slice he made to let blood come out (I think that is how he explained it?  Or maybe to reduce pressure?) like you make little cuts in the top of your pie crust when you bake!  Isn’t that excellent??  I have a PIE CUT by my tear duct!  Whew, not a stitch, just a scab, will heal.  (Also, speaking of tear ducts, he was happy mine had not been involved (there was a fear it would be) and told me today he “irrigated the tear duct” to check it.  Who would imagine?  Coolness. 

·         And finally, I know we have all heard this a zillion times and I don’t need to repeat it, but:  wear sunscreen.  I always do at the beach, but I need to be more diligent about it while out gardening and things like that.  And when I asked about it today, the doctor said, “Yeah, the spot you got it in is easy to miss with sunscreen!  That’s why you wear SUNGLASSES and a HAT, too”.  Touché, doc, point taken. 

NOT taken today, and we WERE wearing sunscreen.  I am not going to stop going to the beach
(even though I know I will be a little nervous at first...) just because of this little run in with skin cancer!
So there you have it.  thanks to everyone who has been so supportive while I have been figuring this out.  Oh, and I had graaaand plans for today; was going to get the stitches removed, take a jumping photo with the surgeon, go buy fancy ass cupcakes for the doctors and deliver them with thanks, go to a new exhibit at the Hirshorn Gallery, and spend glorious time in the sunshine.  But alas, it was all I could do to keep from throwing up my Tamiflu pill and ride lying down in the car to the doctor.  As soon as sutures were out I retreated to bed to let this dumb flu play out.  Looking forward to delivering cupcakes, jumping, and gallery hopping in the coming days/weeks. 

HUGS (but don’t hug me til this flu is gone…). 

*I say the phrases “cancer journey” and “cancer train” tongue in cheek…  I recently bought a greeting card that says “I promise never to refer to your illness as a journey (unless someone takes you on a cruise)”.  I dislike that phrase “cancer journey” and feel it makes light of people’s real experiences with serious illness.  It is a euphemism.  If you feel the same way, you need to check out the greeting cards (and other merch) at Emily McDowell website here  .  Frickin’ brilliant I tell you.  

Friday, February 3, 2017

Starbucks January Tumbler - A Different Location EVERY SINGLE DAY IN JANUARY

I DID IT!!!!  I tackled a BIG new project, and I succeeded!!!!

This is the WINNER POSE at our house.  All big accomplishments are celebrated with a WINNER POSE!
Those of you who know me know that I always have a project, okay, SEVERAL PROJECTS, happening simultaneously…  There was the huge Trader Joe’s project in 2014 – I reviewed a Trader Joe’s product every single day of the year (I still add to that blog periodically by reviewing more).*  In 2016 I started Kindness Activist – where I write about kind things people do in the hopes of inspiring more kindness…**  I often have “Project Warmth” going on our front gate – giving away warm clothing to passersby.***  And I always have a “Photo A Day” project going, though 2014 is the only one that I have taken the time to compile and complete so far.****

So, given my love of projects (and apparent OCD-like nature in terms of said projects…) it should come as no surprise to you that when I got a Starbucks “January Tumbler” for Christmas, instead of simply receiving it as a lovely GIFT, I also took it as a CHALLENGE…  You see, every holiday Starbucks sells special cups that you can bring in each day of January and get a free coffee or tea.  Yes, FREE.  Not any fancy schmancy coffee, mind you, but regular coffee or hot tea.  If you want something fancier you can pay the difference.

So when I opened my gift from nephews Jordan and Zach, I hatched a project plan:  I WOULD FILL THAT CUP EVERY SINGLE DAY WITH A FREE DRINK.  They quietly told me that, despite the fine print on the cup limiting the free fills to once a day, “everybody” actually gets multiple fills per day to get the most mileage out of their special cup.  NOT.  THIS.  GAL.  No siree!  Instead of cheating the system, I set out to EXPLORE IT!  When I opened my cup during our family’s belated Christmas celebration (the evening on January 1st) I decided that I would fill it every day of January in a DIFFERENT STARBUCKS.  And that I would take photos to document the project and make a video when I was done!!  LINK TO VIDEO HERE - ENJOY (but remember to come back and read about the rest of the project after you watch!  Starbucks January Tumbler Video

This Starbucks has a great wooden wall, eh?  It is the store at 1101 South Joyce Road in Pentagon Row (Arlington, VA).
 I thought a Starbucks near the Pentagon would be good for Inauguration Day (January 20th, day 19 of this project).
I filled my cup that day with  Casi Cielo coffee (I know these facts from my copious notes!)
Since I got the cup the evening of January 1st, I missed that day of free coffee, drat.  But I was off and running starting the morning of January 2nd!!!  Each day I filled up in a different Starbucks, and each time I took a photo of myself with my cup, using sign language to tell which “fill” I was on.  (Note:  it got a bit tricky when I hit number 16…  Some numbers 16 and higher use movement, and movement cannot be captured in a still photograph.  So, you may notice that some of the numbers look similar, but trust me, I made the real number, the camera just captured part of it!)

Some days were hard to do – I was sick with “the crud” the majority of the month (still on meds even as we “speak”) and did not have much energy.  But heading to Starbucks every day became a highlight and something I always looked forward to!!  There was only one day that I could not get out, I was just tooooo sick and stuck in bed the entire day (and night).  But I sent my trusty nurse, Nurse David, out to grab a refill for me and he delivered it to me in bed!  Now that is service. 

Day 21, too sick to get out of bed but did not mess up the project!  Thanks for the tea refill nurse David!
In the end, I filled up my cup in SEVEN STATES (North Carolina, Virginia, Washington DC, Nebraska, Iowa, Connecticut, and Maryland).  And I visited Starbucks in 16 different cities for this project (that includes the duddy Starbucks in Simsbury, Connecticut where the doors were locked 3 minutes before closing time and even though 2 baristas were inside, smiling at us, and waving, they refused to even come to the door to hear my plea of, “I just want TEA – it’s hot water and 2 tea bags!  Please don’t mess up this epic project!”.  Oh yeah, I am calling you out on your duddiness, Simsbury.  You have a cute little location but your employees get 2 thumbs down from me.). 

BOO to this crappy Starbucks in Simsbury, Connecticut who ALMOST caused me to miss a day of refills!
Oh, that wasn’t the only bump in the road on this project!  I also learned about “Fakebucks”.  Those are Starbucks that you assume are genuine, only they are not, they are FAKE!  The one in the Barnes and Noble in Alexandria, Virginia is the one that punked me!  But luckily, there was another REAL Starbucks in the same parking lot and they happily filled my tumbler.  J   And the Midwest got slammed with a huge ice storm while we were in Omaha, so one day’s fill was made more treacherous by black ice and the police asking everyone to please stay home (SORRY officers, but I couldn’t miss a day…).  The first Starbucks we made it to that night in Council Bluffs, Iowa had a handwritten sign on the door saying they were closed due to weather, but the location in the Target across the way was still serving!!

I met some fun baristas along the way:
·         I filled out a form to nominate Barista Aaron as the best employee in the whole St. Louis Airport
·         I wrote about the kindness of Barista Messy for my Kindness Activist Project
·         And I marveled at Datrina, a great barista at the Baker’s grocery store in Omaha, Nebraska who knew the customers by name and very genuinely asked how their families were doing

Aaron and I in the St Louis Airport Starbucks
Whew.  The Starbucks January Tumbler Project is over!  It is a relief to not have to worry about messing up the project every day by accidentally not fulfilling my “mission”, but secretly I also miss “having” to do it.  It is time to dig into another project I guess!
Here are some stats from this epic project:

1       1.    North Carolina
   2.    Virginia
   3.     Connecticut
   4.     Washington DC (technically a District, not a state...)
   5.     Maryland
   6.     Nebraska
   7.     Iowa

         1.  Alexandria
   2.  Arlington
   3.  Farmingham
   4.  Roslyn
   5.  West Hartford
   6.  Simsbury
   7.  Bethesda
   8.  Great Falls
   9.  Council Bluffs
  10. Omaha
  11.  Bellevue
  12.  St Louis
  13.  Falls Church
  14.  Potomac
  15.  Avon
  16.  Lumberton

Special thanks to:  David Gaines (for driving me on black ice just to get a cup of tea, for putting up with my insanity every day, for snapping some of the photos, and for being the best nurse around), Michelle Vicino (for sweetly driving me to multiple Starbucks in Connecticut even though she would have rather been in bed…), Jordan Harrold and Zach Wheeler (for gifting me this amazing cup!!), and the Starbucks baristas who took a moment to stop and (at least feign) be interested. 

Here are links to other projects mentioned in this piece:
·         Trader Joe’s 365 - Trader Joe's 365 link
·         Kindness Activist - Kindness Activist link
·         Project Warmth - Project Warmth Story Link
·         Photo a Day 2014 (Bed a Day) - Bed a Day Link with video
·         Bonus!  A Starbucks song!  “Taylor the Latte Boy”, a classic about a barista, by Kristin Chenoweth (I met ONE barista named Taylor while on this adventure, and it was a female who had never heard of this song…)  Taylor the Latte Boy Link

·         Another link to the video of the January Tumbler project:  Starbucks Every Day Link

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Damn Skin

I honestly don’t know how long it has been there.  David and I both have this sort of weird disassociation with time – him much worse than me.  But both of us really don’t have a handle on how long things are, how far in the past they were, etc.  It is like time blurs or something (which is why neither of us can ever, for the life of us, remember what anniversary we are on until we count back).

So, filling out the blank on the processing questionnaire that asks “How long has this issue been there” is sort of impossible.  But how do you explain to medical professionals that you DON’T KNOW?  So I lie.  “Around a year, maybe a year and a half…”.  I could just write “Your guess is as good as mine”, but that would be even less helpful and harder to explain, so I assign a number. 

So yeah, I have this “bump”.  That’s what I called it.  A “bump” on the right side of the bridge of my nose, very near my eye.  It has been there “for quite a while” – it would come, get dry, peel off, stay gone a while, then return.  After a few cycles of that I suspected it might be something fishy (ok deep down I probably knew it was…) but I didn’t ask a doctor.  But on my 2016 annual physical the doctor asked ME about it, which led to me seeing a dermatologist, which meant a biopsy, which revealed the obvious result: basal cell carcinoma (EDIT - I had the WRONG diagnosis in here before and I APOLOGIZE for the fear that caused!).  The dermatologist said that because it was so close to my eye, he would not be the one removing it (like the one he unceremoniously zapped off my arm (is that heat??  Cold???) ).  He was referring me to a skin cancer surgeon, a specialist in MOHS procedures, to get it taken care of. 

I debated the timing of the surgery – I had a family wedding to attend and didn’t really want to show up with a huge scab or bandages.  So, I booked the surgery for the morning after we returned from the wedding.  Only, when we were out of town I started to get NERVOUS.  I hadn’t really thought much about it, but the more I did, the more frightened I became.  I mean, it is RIGHT NEXT TO MY EYEBALL…  Would I lose some vision??  Would it mess up my tear duct?  Would the procedure make my eye a totally different shape???  Would I have a huge scar?  Someone suggested that I ask the doctor for medicine to help me relax before the procedure so I called and asked the receptionist if the doctor might prescribe a Xanex or something for me to take beforehand.  That message got sent to the doctor (Dr. Liu), who then called me and we had a nice talk, which basically began with, “Why are you so nervous about this procedure?”.  I explained my fear because of the close proximity to my eye, fear of my vision being impacted, and finally, what boils down to VANITY.  She was super sweet and prescribed the meds and also said that she really wanted to consult with me before surgery now that she knew it was so near my eye, and that she might not do the procedure on the date planned.  She wanted to check it all out out and then decide if SHE could close up the wound, or if she would rather an ocular plastic surgeon do the closure.

My eye last night - full of worry, fear, and tears.
That was this morning’s appointment.  Dr. Liu was very professional, kind, and thorough.  I feel like I can trust her, and agree with her decision that an ocular plastic surgeon should do a consult before she cuts the cancer out.  The plan is to have Dr. Liu do the MOHS procedure (which is a process of cutting away pieces of the cancer, then bandaging me up a bit to wait while that cut-off bit is tested to see if they got it all; if they did not get it all (it often takes more than one go at it…) I go back under the knife and they slice away more, re-bandage, re-test, repeat, repeat).  The patient is awake for MOHS.  Anyway, Dr. Liu will do the MOHS and the ocular plastic surgeon will do the closing, which might happen the same afternoon (in a different facility) or the next day.  the idea of going home with a gaping hole near my eyeball is a bit freaky, but it actually seems like doing it in two days might be better because it means Dr. Liu’s office is not rushed to test the pieces and trying to meet my “close up” appointment time.  I am not sure yet if I will be awake or asleep for the closing, I think it depends if they are going to graft skin from somewhere else.  I should learn more about that tomorrow morning at the consult.

My eye today, with the melanoma circled in marker.  
GET OUT.  As I was writing this my cell phone rang (it is 7:30 PM) and it was DR. LIU!  She just wanted to check in and see if David or I had any more questions after the appointment today!  She said that I could call her on her cell number any time if a question came up.  What a sweetheart.

I am not sure why I am sharing all of this.  I guess because it is something I have been thinking a lot about.  A really surprising aspect to me is my lack of feeling GUILTY about it.  Seriously, you would think I was Catholic or Jewish by the amount of GUILT I have in my life, and the “usual Susan” would feel extreme guilt over “allowing herself” to get skin cancer.  But in this case, I am happy to say that I do not feel guilty!  I don’t feel like I could have/should have worn more suntan lotion – the lotion that I wear every single day has an SPF of 15 and I usually have foundation over that that also has an SPF of something or other.  And when I go to the beach, I wear heavy sunscreen.  I don’t think I did something to “deserve” this – I think it is just a crappy thing I have been dealt at the moment that I have to go through. 

The other surprising thing to me was how concerned I have been about how it will LOOK after the surgery.  I am really nervous about that.  I don’t think of myself as a vain person – I don’t wear lots of make-up, don’t have trendy clothes, have a bit of a pot belly, and heaven knows my hair is never “on point”.  But when the thought of having a deformed eye came up, it made me so sad.  I rather LIKE my eyes – their shape and their color.  I think they are PRETTY, and I don’t want one to be messed up.  (Note – this fear may be because David’s dad (Mr. Gaines) had MOHS done on skin cancer on his head.  David watched the procedure and has told me the story many times since then of how HORRIBLE it was to see – his dad’s HEAD was like a FOOTBALL with leather being rippppped away….  Now, years later, I regret listening to those stories…  And I think I can say honestly that Mr. Gaines’ RESULT after MOHS is not what I am hoping for cosmetically speaking…  Here is a photo.  And you should know that pre-MOHS both of his eyebrows were horizontal…. )

This is Mr. Gaines after his MOHS procedure.  LOOK at his bandages!  I remember we giggled and called it his "football helmet bandage".  It is not so funny now thinking of that on my EYE AND NOSE....
Sure, his vertical eyebrow was a CONVERSATION PIECE, but it is not really the look I am hoping for post-MOHS...
 And the last thing I have been thinking about on this topic are people’s reactions.  I am not telling you all of this seeking your reassurance that “All will be fine”.  All probably will be fine, but then again it may not, and I have to be ok with either of those.  And I am not looking for stories of how “Great Aunt Betty had a melanoma removed off her back with MOHS and it was a piece of cake”.  If mine was on my back and not right next to my eye I would have had it done today and be recuperating right now.  I guess I just wanted to SHARE what I am thinking/feeling/experiencing.  Take it for what you will.  And if you want to wish on a star, keep me in your thoughts for the next few days, or do whatever special thing you do I wouldn’t mind the extra juju.

Thanks friends.  

My eyeball circa 2014.  I sure hope it still looks (and functions) something like this after surgery.  

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Mysterious, Colorful, Religious India

RELIGION was something I hadn’t expected in India.  I mean, I know every country has religion, but I wasn’t prepared for the PERVASIVENESS of it in India.  Religion is EVERYWHERE there – it is in the way people dress, the way they eat, the way they relate to one another, the way they worship, the way they celebrate, it is even in their politics.  Religion is an integral part of life there in a much more “real” sense than I see in America.

And religion in India is SO DIVERSE.  There are many, many different faiths represented throughout the country – Hindu (the majority religion of the country), Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Bahai, Christian, Catholic, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Parsi…  And it seems, at least to this outside observer, that the different religions coexist in harmony.  There do not appear to be overt attempts at convincing others that one religion is “right” and therefore “better” and others should convert to it.  It seems to be accepted that Indians have an ingrained religion, practice it faithfully, and respect other people’s right to do the same. 

I don’t normally discuss this, but I guess I need to explain here that David and I do not practice a religion.  He has never been involved with a formal religion, and I grew away from the one I was raised in.  I do consider myself a spiritual person, but I do not conform to a prescribed religious belief.  I guess these days I would say that KINDNESS is my religion.  I take time daily to pause and pray – mostly to reflect on all that I have to be THANKFUL for.  Oh sure, I throw in an “ask” every now and then, even though I am not directing the prayer to anyone in particular.  So it is from that “outside formal religion” view that we could examine the religious practices shown to us in India.  It was LOVELY.

Man dressed to enter the Sanctum Sanctorum - traditional dhoti (long) and no shirt
First, the observations here are mine alone and not meant to judge or offend.  But let me say that IF I were going to choose an Indian religion to jump into, it would hands down be Hinduism!  It is amazing in its colorfulness!!!  Not only are the TEMPLES full of bright paint and wonder, but the CHARACTERS and the TALES are soooo vibrant!!!  Oh, and the CUSTOMS!!!!  We saw our first Hindu temple on the night we arrived in Delhi and were on our own exploring.  We had wandered through a small market (wide eyed since we had just arrived in the country and everything was brand spanking new to us…) and as we walked through the market it became clear that there was a queue of people heading toward something.  Shoes were strewn in piles and people walked barefoot.  One woman repeatedly laid completely face down on the (dirty) street, placing her entire body and face on the ground, one body length at a time.  She was prostrating herself reapeatedly, heading to the temple.  When we reached the end of the queue we understood – they were all lining up to go into the temple.  We did not feel like we could join them (as total outsiders) so we did not get to see inside the temple.  I did not expect that we would be allowed in any temples – they seem so sacred.  So I was amazed, delighted, and in awe when a guide took us into our first temple.  It was wonderful!!!  The artwork was so intricate, telling the stories of some of the many gods of the religion.  And the BELL, oh the BELL is quite fabulous!!  There is a bell in the center of the space which Hindus ring as they enter.  The ringing clears the mind and brings a focus to believers.  But because there is no “set time” for services, people come and go and ring the bell at will.  This makes for a musical delight!  The BEST was watching little kids ring it!  Most were lifted up by their parents to ring the bell with huge smiles, but we particularly liked watching the chubby kid (universal, isn’t it?) jump, jump, and jump some more, trying with all his might to RING THAT BELL on his own.  We ended up seeing the inside of a few temples and they were all so colorful and celebratory.

If THIS was in your place of worship, wouldn't you just be EXCITED?  I would.
In the Varkala Temple

Most temples have flower stalls near them - people buy and bring flowers to leave at the temple. 
Lots of bright orange marigolds!

Hindus have SO MANY traditions, all of which are NEW to us.  First off, the belief in so many gods, each of which appear to have “sub-gods”…  There are some “main gods” but if you take them ALL into account, there are thousands (is what they told us J ).  Each of the gods is represented in different manners in different places, so “who is who” can be confusing to outsiders like us!  But when we asked, someone was always happy to explain, “Oh!  That is VISHNU!” or “Oh, that’s Shiva!” or, my particular favorite, “That is Hanuman, the MONKEY GOD!”.  Yes, there is a MONKEY GOD!  And, go figure, part of his trait is that he LIKES BUTTER!!!  So in one temple the carving of Hanuman was SMEARED WITH LOADS OF BUTTER, which apparently some people take a finger full of and lick as they pass by.  J  (I personally expected a Monkey God to be a fan of bananas, but I guess that is far too obvious, isn’t it?)


And another Hanuman, this time smeared with butter
Hindus have priests in the temples.  People bring things (fruit, flowers, nuts, etc) and give them to the priests, and the priests apply marks to the foreheads of followers.  Because we are so sensitive in America to not appropriating other people’s cultures, I in no way expected to get a marking.  However, Indian people do not seem to be at all offended by Westerners or other outsiders taking part, so without hesitation our guide pulled us up to the front of the temple and we were greeted by the priest and given a marking! 

David's mark

Varkala Temple - isn't it amazing??
My mark

Hindu people seem to have many, many traditions, most of which were incredibly wonderful to an outsider like me to witness!!!  Several people (Hindu themselves) told us that Hindus are “superstitious” and that does seem to be the case J.  They have these great necklaces that they give to children to keep them safe – the metal part is a locking tube that contains a little scroll that a priest writes on, which is then sealed away, the necklace is put on, and it is not taken off.  Children and some adults wear what appears to be a string around their bellies to ward off evil.  the number 9 is very revered, so important things use that number or add up to that number.  For example, if you pray and are granted what you asked for, you sometimes go to the temple and SMASH open 108 COCONUTS to give, because 1+0+8 = 9!!!  We saw a woman smashing coconuts and I was in awe!!  Let’s just say, there was nothing that dramatic in the Midwestern church that I grew up attending!

One morning in Varkala, we turned a corner and were greeted by this ELEPHANT getting her morning BATH!
She belongs to the Janardhanaswami Temple.  Yes, some temples own ELEPHANTS.

Isn't she MAJESTIC?
It seemed funny to me (again, I was a complete outsider taking a peek in, so I am not trying to be judgmental here) that there was a PRICE LIST in some temples.  Many of the rituals require a small payment – a priest feeding an infant their first solid food, a marriage, in one temple our guide paid a musician to sing us a song!!  (Side note:  the instrument the guy used had ONE STRING on it, and though the guide told him our names, we never once heard “David” or “Susan” in his melody…  Also, after the guide paid him, the guy appeared to balk and ask for more money…  We were giggling later, imaging what the conversation must have been (if we had been able to understand it): Musician: “Yo, dude, I sang them a WHOLE SONG under this Barbie tree!  I mean really, you are gonna give me 5 rupees for that???”  Guide: “I told you their NAMES, man, and you didn’t even include them.  C’mon, that instrument only has ONE STRING and you just sort of yammered on.  5 rupees is more than you deserve.  Let’s not make a scene in front of these tourists, alright???”. 

The man who serenaded us

The tree at the temple decorated in Barbies...  Lots and lots of BARBIES.
We didn't fully understand this one, it was something to do with fertility.
We also got to go inside the Lotus Bahai Temple in Delhi.  It was beautiful!!  It is a huge, open space and, though full of visitors, completely SILENT.  Well, it is supposed to be completely silent, but 2 birds had decided to come in and sing up a storm.  The acoustics in that big space were PERFECT for those bird songs – it was as if nature wrote hymns and they were belting them out.   

One of our guides, Gary (you may remember him from the BIG REVEAL at the Taj Mahal!) was Sikh.  I do not know much about that religion, but I know from what Gary told us that Sikhs are warriors.  They keep their hair and facial hair unshorn, wear a turban, and carry a kirpan – which is a small SWORD!  (Though Gary told us that, as a tour guide, he enters places where weapons are not allowed so while working does not carry his.)  One thing I loved was when Gary was having an argument with an old man at one of the forts we visited.  Gary, the Sikh, and the old man in charge of the place, a Muslim.  They were arguing over Gary being charged a fee he should not have been, and the old man was sticking to his guns.  Gary (in Hindi) fired back something like, “OK, fine then, if you want to charge me that fee, you can bloody well hand carry my receipt for it out here to me, then walk around in this scorching sun with me and these tourists!!”.  The argument continued (in Hindi), UNTIL the old man told Gary that it was his time for PRAYER, and if he indeed followed us around like Gary was requiring, he would miss his prayers.  Well, that stopped the argument right then and there.  Gary would not interfere with the old man’s religion.  It was a beautiful moment. 

There are also many Muslim people in India.  You can hear the “call to prayer” often from different mosques, and the sound is entrancing.  Muslim attire is, of course, different than that of the Hindus.  Many Muslim women keep their heads covered, and even while swimming some of the women kept their bodies covered.  We were so honored (and delighted!) when a Muslim family invited us to join them in a game of “water soccer” in the rooftop hotel pool in Mumbai.  It was a blast!  Another Muslim family swam with us in Varkala and they were adorable.  Only the daughter, around age 12, spoke English.  She was studying in an international school where her courses were all taught in English, so she was quite fluent.  The problem was, she talked very FAST, so with the speed and her accent, even though she was speaking “our language” we still had to say, “HUH?” a lot.  J

Me in my borrowed garb - had to cover up to go into a mosque. 
My outfit was a bit LARGE for me.... 

Man resting inside the Might of Islam Mosque (Delhi)

Religious sites always have piles of SHOES outside them, since
you have to take your shoes off to go inside

Woman at Might of Islam Mosque
I want to mention one more thing here about religion.  Have you heard of Amma, the “hugging saint”?  I had, and when we ended up traveling to the south of India, we knew we would be near her Ashram.  I looked online before we left for vacation and from what I saw it would take HOURS to get to actually see Amma, the site said that people wait in line ALL NIGHT LONG to get a “token” to get a hug from her.  Well, we didn’t have that much time, so I had resigned myself to a “drive by hug of David in front of Amma’s Ashram”.  However, little did I know that more was in store for me…  Remember the couple I wrote about who invited us into their home, served us tea, and gave us black pepper??  Well, they are Amma devotees and when I was shown their prayer room, I saw a huge portrait of Amma.  They were so pleased that I knew of her and set about making plans with our driver for us to work actual, real life AMMA HUGS into our schedule!  And wouldn’t you know it, everything worked out.  It is amazing really – Amma is frequently on tour in other countries, and even when she is in town she does not see the public and have a “darshan” (meeting of the people and hugging) every day.  But the ONE DAY we were in town near her ashram, she was holding a darshan, so off we went!!  I mean, how often does the timing work out that well, right??

Shhhh!  No photos are allowed in Amma's Ashram.  This is our only one, and it was
taken with our camera IN OUR BACKPACK.  We did not mean to be sacrilegious,
but we NEEDED a photo of this occasion. This was during our long wait.
Our driver, Prabeesh, was so thrilled to be able to take us to Amma’s.  He had been to see her one other time and is a believer.  So the three of us journeyed to the ashram, got ourselves a token, and waited around 3 hours to get our HUGS!  During the wait, we watched other people line up and get their hugs and listened to chanted songs (one of which had 1,008 verses extolling Amma’s virtues, because, again, 1+0+0+8 = 9, the revered number!!).  I won’t go into detail here (this entry is long enough!) but we left with our hugs, little bags of scented material (some of which Amma applied to our foreheads), Amma candies, and a tiny Amma token and plastic red Amma ring I bought at the gift shop.  J

Our stuff from Amma's.  I WISH you could smell the little tan colored
packet - it contains what she put on our forehead and smells wonderful.
The thing about religion in India is – the different religions seem to GET ALONG.  They seem to coexist peacefully.  Yes, I know that is not always the case, but from what I experienced, individual religions were very RESPECTED.  Indians can tell at a glance what someone else’s religion is.  The way the person is dressed, how their forehead markings are, etc are all signs to which religion they practice.  Religion is not something kept quiet in India – it is pervasive in the entire culture.  The majority of the country does not eat beef (save for Kerala, the state in the south we visited).  The “no beef” is because some of the religions, but not ALL, believe that cows are sacred.  Even POLITICS in India is religious.  I asked about some of the logos used by the parties in the recent elections, and at least 2 of them were related to religion (though the guide told us that “technically” religion and politics are separate, in actuality they are very much combined)! 

We thought we were heading to India to see the sights – the Taj Mahal, the tigers, etc.  We hadn’t foreseen we would also see the RELIGIONS – the gods, the coconuts, the chants, the incense…  I am grateful for the opportunity to peek into another world.  I never imagined that this “girl” from the heartland of America would land smack dab in the middle of an ashram being hugged, or gazing in awe at devoted men dressed in dhotis and no shirts entering the sacred part of a temple.  Color me happy.  I have an extra thing to say “thanks” for in my daily prayers now. 

More amazing art from the Varkala Temple

Look!!  3 heads, and he/she is doing the ASL sign for the number 3!
 For more about Amma, see this site:

BONUS photo!  Here is a little friend I met at the Sivagiri Mutt in Varkala.  You can tell we
are at a religious place because we are barefoot (which is rare for me if I am not on a beach).
His mom wanted him to get his photo with the "exotic white woman".  :)