Sunday, September 30, 2012

But tell us what you *really* think

This hearkens back to spring, in honor of the just-passed autmun equinox and the winter solstice toward which time now seems to fly. And it sweetens the point of my beginning, lest you prefer to leave now and return to read on another topic. For while Eat Here Eatery is mostly content to leave matters of politics and public affairs to finer minds and more articulate voices, today's post will be a simple expression of the editor's view and yet likely to find a range of reception. So start off with a view of a spring birdbath, and finish with a bite of dessert. In the middle, with apologies to those who may be offended, here is this.

At the age of 45, Carrie O'Hare Hogan died of breast cancer. In her 50s, Helen Baker Christensen died of cancer. Vince Jeffs, far, far too young, died not long ago of cancer. You yourself almost certainly know someone whose potrait could be equally briefly sketched here. Even among our small circle of readers, surely the list would be too much for any of us to face without grief, and joy, memories and tales as plentiful and lovely as blades of grass. You will almost certainly remember the pain, from the smallest indignities to the agonies passing most human understanding. You will remember the bargains you would have been willing to make with God or the Goddess or the Universe or anyone to relieve the pain - some or all - or to take it onto yourself if even for a moment.

Perhaps you also know someone who lives or has lived, with a painful disorder for which there is a life sentence, no cure, and only a range of hopeful treatments. These can range from inconvenient side effects to horribly debilitating reactions. Perhaps fibromyalgia, MS, neuropathy...these and many other disorders or diseases may occur in the company of other troubles: diabetes, chemotherapy, organ failure; they may also occur on their own, idiopathically, as medical people say, meaning, We have no idea what causes this. And you will know that medical practitioners, bless their hearts, will try an endless list of possible remedies. They will combine and re-combine the best (and often breathtakingly expensive) offerings from pharmaceutical companies; they will fall back to older classes of drugs; they will try to get their hands on the newest things the FDA will let them use. (In our own family, we worked as advocates and partners with our dedicated family doctor to alleviate the symptoms of Alzheimers my father-in-law suffered. Because Medicare offered no prescription coverage at that time, our doctor often provided medications through the pharmaceutical companies themselves and for a time, there was some degree of relief.) In these situations, too, you may find yourself willing to make some of those same unthinkable bargains with the holy and the not-so-holy: couldn't I just be the one in pain for an hour, in her place? Could he have one day to run and work and laugh without the pain - I will take it for myself; please? Could she spend half her day without the sluggish fog this medication exacts in return for the relief of her pain? What if her illness were lifted for a day, an hour, a few moments? - to remove the heavy sadness and depression of this bleak prognosis? What if I might be able to prevent her temptation to consider suicide as she faces the rest of her life with this unalloyed pain? But the answer is always the same.

And now for the divisive opinion of which I warned at the beginning. If you've experienced any of those things, or if you've loved or cared about anyone who has, you must consider this. What if there were a way to make those little bargains of love? What if there were a way to, if not remove, at least relieve the feelings of pain, stress, anxiety and depression that accompany chronic illness and pain? What if the bargain was completely natural, simple, inexpensive and could be gathered as easily as the tomatoes and zinnias and nasturtiums you grow in your garden or on your deck to brighten summer tables? What it it could be ground finely and baked into zucchini chocolate cake to tempt even those appetites made reluctant by medication? What if it could be enjoyed with a cup of tea, and 45 minutes later followed an hour of peace, a smile blessedly untouched by lines of pain? You hear the expression "happy pill", as though your local pharmacist could just hand one over. There's no such thing, of course. But there is something that can bring such relief of symptoms and side effects that it might be called "happy", or called by any of a range of snide and silly other names, easy to tumble from the mouths of those who've never suffered hand-in-hand with a loved one. There is a simple, natural way to help. Why on earth would we withhold this? What puritanical ethos drives us to prevent or even temporarily relieve the suffering of our sisters and brothers?

Oversimplification? Deliberate blindness to the bafflingly complex legal ins and outs, the mafia, drug cartels, the regulation, the confusion, the taxation...all the things I'm pretending to be too obtuse to grasp? Maybe. But at every turn there's an obstacle. Don't ask, don't tell? In this state if you take legitimately prescribed narcotic medications, you're subject to testing. There's no possibility of "Don't ask, don't tell". There's hope in the voice of the people, as long as they speak. There's hope in the collective voice of the medical profession, should it continue to say, We have a medicine. It is not a drug. It is not the product of a laboratory. It can be grown in a corner of the herb garden, and it can be ingested as safely as the rows of lettuces and pots of tomatoes and nasturtium flowers you bring in from your own garden. It can. And for the life of me, I can't understand why we're not bringing it in from the garden.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thing One and Thing Two: A Brief Tale of Friendship and Math

Friendships are as different as leaves or snowflakes. Each has its own rhythm, its own balance, its own customs and rules, overtly or tacitly agreed to immediately or with the passage of time. Each is entered into differently, and each beginning is unique, even when familiar patterns provide framework.

None of these notions crossed my mind when I recently opened friendship negotiations with Amy.* We liked each other on sight. In fairness, I think Amy likes most people on sight; she is as bright and open and curious as anyone I know. Still, we did like each other right away. I could tell, because within a matter of an hour, she asked me one of those fundamental questions of friendship, "What's your favorite color?" Her tone was one of overture, of exploration. She was friendly, but not too friendly, you know? The way you are when you think you might like somebody, but are wary in case they turn out to be a complete nerd and you get stuck with them because you've been too nice. I should probably note here that Amy is not yet ten years old. I'm much older, of course, but this is one of those familiar framework things even I could see at a distance. I considered. "Hmm," I said, reflecting. "I love blues and purples; there are so many great colors, you know? But I probably have to say green. I think green's my favorite."

"Mine, too!" She nodded enthusiastically, her curly hair boucing on her shoulders, her hazel eyes wide and sparkly, her face lit by her smile. Some months prior I'd sent Amy's family a gift of a field guide to birds, and from her mother I knew that Amy's the family birder. So her next question seemed perfectly natural to me, though her tone told me it was a more significant question. She leaned forward. "What's your favorite bird?" This one, I thought, was a bit of a test. I considered again, struggling. "That's a hard one," I said. "I love all the songbirds, all the passerines. But I love the raptors, too...", and Amy came to the rescue, words tumbling out. "I love cardinals," she said, "And the owls and those big white water birds, and..." By now she was turning the pages of the book I'd sent to her family as well as amuch larger coffee table book filled with bird images. Her mother said, "Don't forget the penguins," and Amy said, "Oh, yes! I love penguins!" So we talked about penguins and puffins and the relative loveable merits of more birds than I can remember. Eventually we moved on, and Amy's serious, scientific mind brought her to a probing question about favorite insects (we both love dragonflies) and onward toward reptiles (mutual favorites include lizards, frogs and toads). And then, finally, the offhand question neither of us thought much about at the time. Amy's nonverbal cue was telegraphed by her and read by me in a millisecond. "Like math?" she asked. "Ewww," I said. And it was done. We were friends.

But it was wrong, of course. She's a girl. She's a smart girl. Her brain is wired for science; she wants to be an oceanographer, a marine biologist, a researcher, a solver of the problems of the natural world. Math is critical. And I'd dismissed it because I wanted her to like me. I was ashamed of myself. It kept me up nights. And then I knew what I needed to tell her: it was what I wished someone had told me - and made me wrap my head around - when I was ten years old, hated math, and couldn't for the LIFE of me figure out its value. Thing One? Math is a Language. Thing Two? Math is Good for Your Brain.

Thing One: Math is a language, as surely as English or French. But its building blocks come to us later than those of the native languages we speak; its alphabet is numbers. Its sophisticated sentences and paragraphs are dependent on things we must take on faith. Equations depend on memorized multiplication tables. Math depends on symbols that are quite distant from those of mother tongues. As a language it poses challenges like those encountered by linguistic students tackling a new alphabet, cuneiform or Cyrillic characters. Babies are sung to in their mother tongues before they're even born. Math? You have to learn the basics after you have command of that mother tongue. And yet math is the language of complete specificity. To be a scientist you have to be able to communicate with your colleagues in specific terms. If you're counting sea turtle nests, you must be able to say, There are 50 sea turtle nests here, and 50 more there, for a total of 100 sea turtle nests this year. I know you know this, dear and gentle reader. But did you know it when you were ten years old?

Thing Two: Math is like a discipline of physical exercise for your brain. The mere act of calculation, however simple or complex, works your brain so that it becomes nimble, supple, muscular; it becomes stronger and more fully developed. It develops capacity it wouldn't have had otherwise. It's like learning Latin. You don't do it because you have a burning need to be conversant in a dead language, but if you do it, you develop parts of your brain that might otherwise never be awakened. Math is good for your brain. Don't love it? That's okay. Do it anyway, for the same reason you eat an apple when you're thinking about a cookie; for the same reason you go for a walk when a nap might be nicer; for the same reason you read a book instead of watching videos on YouTube. It's GOOD for you. And here again, I know you know this. But if you didn't have a native facility for math when you were ten years old, would you have seen the benefits on your own? Yeah. Me neither.

We had dessert; we talked about it. I told Amy I'd thought about it, and sketched out my notions of Thing One and Thing Two. I told her I was sorry for not telling her the truth, and I told her I'd said it because I'd wanted to be her friend. And I told her that real friends tell each other the truth. Which matters. Because Amy's truth and her future are big stuff. She'll need all the languages she can learn, so she can open her big thoughts to the whole, wide world.

*Not her real name

Photo credit: Angela Christensen Cooking credit: Umm, that was me, too. Those are Cream Biscuits from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, by the late and very much lamented Marion Cunningham (by way of James Beard) with fresh strawberries and raspberries and homemade whipped cream. It sweetened the regrets considerably.

A tip of the hat to Dr. Seuss for the notions of Thing One and Thing Two.