Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rage Against the Dying of the Light

-Do not go gentle into that good night
Dylan Thomas

In the past 4 months, there have been 3 deaths.  First my zaidy, then my father-in-law, and now a young man I used to know has passed away of a brain tumour.  I hadn't seen T in ten years, but I remember him well.  A good friend of mine was one of T's best friends right up until the end of T's life, and they worked together every day for the past many years, at least when T's health permitted him to work. 

T was a quiet, brilliant, creative fellow; a real still-waters-run-deep type.  Before he got sick, one year he travelled around the world and kept an online journal.  I remember crying with laughter as I read the perfectly-worded stories of his misadventures. 

T was a few years younger than me, in his mid-30's.  He was married.  I never met his wife, but she's out there somewhere, now a grieving widow.  It's beyond imagining.  And, of course, my good friend is bereft.

When my zaidy died, I was sad.  When I lost my father-in-law, I felt frightened, as if he had been a protective layer between Ken and Ken's mortality, and his death had made Ken less safe.  When I heard of T's death, I got mad.  I yelled and shook my fist at God.  Told Him I know I'm supposed accept His better judgement and all, but I've had enough.  This is not OK.  I am not feeling all zen and surrendered to this schedule of people I care about dying every few weeks.

I'm alright.  I'm at work this week, which is a good thing.  The routine is soothing and my mind is occupied with day-to-day distractions.  But when I find myself alone I feel the fury bubbling up.  Good thing God can take me being angry with Him.  There's nothing I can throw at Him that can hurt His feelings.  Even the closest relationships have conflict sometimes.  We'll kiss and make up - when I'm ready.

Sunday, December 25, 2011


My late father-in-law transformed the way I see leafless trees.  Before I met him, trees in wintertime seemed stark, depressing, cold, close to death.

My father-in-law loved to draw bare trees.  In careful, intricate detail, he traced them, from the massive trunk to the graceful, delicate shapes of every branch and twig.  Now when I go for a winter walk, as I did this morning, I am surrounded by beautiful, surprising sculptures, no two alike.  It's like wandering through an open-air art gallery, populated by squirrels.

"You don't run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets.  You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled."

Annie Dillard
Pilgrim At Tinker Creek

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happy Mallidays

On Saturday the 17th, I took my aunt shopping for clothes. My mother and her youngest sister are both, tragically, clothes-shopping-impaired.  They require a skilled facilitator in order to maintain their wardrobes.  I am happy to oblige. 

You may be asking yourself: "Is Sparkling Red insane? Why on earth would she schedule a clothes-shopping trip right at the peak of the Christmas rush?"  The answers are: 1) Yes, but you already knew that; and 2) because my aunt has been wearing the same two sweaters and three pairs of identical black pants to work every day for the past Lord-knows-how-many months. It was a fashion crisis!

How did we survive, and even enjoy our day?  I am about to share with you, the privileged few, my shopping secrets. I trust you to be discrete.

1) Use a granny buggy.
Worried about looking uncool? Forget about it. There will be plenty of time for posing later, when you're wearing your new outfits. Bring along a wheeled shopping buggy to carry your purse (that sucker sure gets heavy once you've been hauling it around for a couple of hours), your coat (no need to sweat while you shop), and your purchases.

2) Locate a source of water.
The price for a bottle of water varies widely among various retailers in the same mall.  The movie theatre will charge you $3.50, the upscale sandwich place in the food court asks for $2.25, but I've found two places in my local mall that only charge $1. Bingo!

3) Be willing to go out of your way for a clean washroom.
Mall washrooms by the food court or the main entrance are filthy, stinky, and distasteful.  However, if you do your research you can often find cleaner bathrooms hidden away in quiet corners.  The best bet in a multi-storey department store is to go up to the top floor, where they sell corduroy-covered recliners and washing machines.  The secret washrooms in my local mall are inside a sit-down restaurant, but accessible to the public via a pass-through next to their take-out counter.  Because there's no signage pointing out these facilities to passers-by, I often have the ladies room all to myself.  Luxury!

4) Shop for clothes on the Saturday before Christmas.
This only works if you're at a pokey little local mall, like we were.  If you try it at the big ones, like Yorkdale or the Eaton Centre, you deserve all the suffering in store for you. 
The key to this point is: on December 17th, almost no one is shopping for themselves.  Everyone is buying gifts.  Therefore: no lineups for the change-rooms!  It's grand!

My shopping strategies proved themselves.  My aunt found 5 items of clothing and a sassy piece of costume jewellery to complete her outfits.  Another satisfied customer.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Life Goes On

I'm pleased to report that I am pretty much back to "normal" as of the last couple of weeks.  I am certainly experiencing life from a new perspective, post-nervous-breakdown, and still making internal adjustments to the epiphanies that assaulted me violently from all sides during the past few months, but to the casual observer I would appear to be going about my business successfully. 

Physically, I feel good.  I'm sleeping well, eating well, and my energy levels are grand.  I am still trying to gain back the weight that I lost - all my pants are at least one size too big for me around the waist now, except the really stretchy ones - but hopefully it will come back given enough time and snacks.  I'm not skeletal, but I would say that I'm down to my modeling weight, meaning the lower end of the acceptable range.  There's a fine line between being slim and looking like you just finished a brutal course of chemotherapy, and I am trying hard to avoid crossing that line.

I'm still dealing with some fears around food, some of which are well-founded and some of which are silly and irrational.  Anytime I have to eat something that I have not prepared myself, I feel worried.  I watch the clock for two hours from the time the last bite goes into my mouth, and only feel safe once that time has elapsed.  (It was two hours after my last wheat-poisoned meal that the Total Gastric Devastation kicked in.)  I'm probably being more careful than I need to be, considering that I'm not nearly as sensitive to traces of wheat as, say, someone with celiac disease, but I'm eating as though I am.  Better safe than sorry, especially when it comes to restaurants.  My worst nightmare would be for TGD to catch up with me when I'm halfway home on the subway. :-p

My new policy is that I will no longer eat any food that I have not prepared myself if I cannot easily see exactly what all the ingredients are.  Steamed veggies are fine, as are salads with no dressing.  I will consume baked or boiled potatoes.  Hunks of grilled meat without sauce are acceptable.  That just about sums it up.  I am no longer willing to risk soups (often thickened with wheat), sauces (ditto), casseroles, stews, and especially not any "gluten-free" substitute for regular bread or baked goods.  My step-mom told about one time she went to a restaurant with gluten-free options on the menu.  She ordered gluten-free pasta and what did they serve her?  Of course, regular wheat pasta.  She didn't notice until she was a few bites in.  Fortunately I don't think she gets super-sick from wheat, but still.  It's just too easy for a mistake to be made in a busy kitchen.

(Another case in point: at our office Christmas party just last week, an employee who has celiac disease was served a dessert which looked like a chocolate-and-vanilla double-layered mousse, but the bottom layer was, in fact, cake.  He realized after he had swallowed the first bite.  The consequences for him of eating gluten are so dire that he had to go straight to the men's room and stick his finger down his throat to make himself throw up.  That was preferable to a week of severe abdominal pain.  Fun times at the Christmas party!  When the manager of the banquet hall was informed, he was more interested in defending his staff than apologizing for the mistake.  I'm just lucky I'm dairy-free as well as wheat-free or I would have ended up eating the dessert too.  Yikes.)

Anyway, aside from obsessing about food, life is going well.  I have been seeing a lot of friends and family, and feeling more connected to people in general.   I wasn't sure that I was going to make it through to the end of this year, but I'm almost there!  I hope 2012 is somewhat less eventful.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


My mother prefers "mum" to "mom", because it's more British.  I call her mom, but when I'm writing a note or a card to her, I always address it "Dear Mum".  It makes her happy.

My mom has stricter dietary restrictions than I do, but it doesn't seem to bother her much.  She was diagnosed with celiac disease when she was very young, back before anyone had an understanding of what caused the disease.  For a long time her diet was restricted to plain white rice, skim milk, boiled beef, and mashed bananas.  She used to steal coins from her grandmother's changepurse and sneak off to the candy store after school to buy treats.  She would get so sick that sometimes she ended up in the hospital, but she still says that it was worth it.  Compared to that diet, the choices that she has now seem abundant.

My mom likes her tea STRONG.  There's so much tannic acid in the tea she brews that it'll make your tongue curl.  She also prefers it very hot, almost straight from the kettle.  She's hardcore like that.

Recently my mom and I went shopping at a housewares store that was having a clearance sale.  There was a table spread with discounted rubber mats for outside your front door.  She spotted one that she thought was cute.  It had the word "Hello" in various fonts and languages all over it in raised lettering.  She started regretting the fact that she had already bought a new rubber mat for her new house.  "Oh, this one is so much nicer!  I should have waited!  I wish I had this one instead!"  "Mom," I said, "check the price."  The mat was $13.  In my mother's budget $ 13 is not a big deal.  "Mom," I said, "just buy it.  Donate the other one to charity or just throw it in the garage."  She looked at me as though I had just revealed a brand new, shining truth to her.  "You know," she said, "if you hadn't said that I never would have thought to buy it.  I would have just assumed I had to live with the other mat forever."  She bought the mat and is happy with it now. 

My mom subscribes to two newspapers and can't stand to recycle them until she's at least flipped through every page of her favourite sections.  If she's been busy the newspapers stack up on the counter until the piles are intimidating.  She listens to CBC radio all day long, which has constant news updates and talk shows about current events and culture, which are the subjects she's interested in.  I have tried to convince her that she doesn't need to read every newspaper in order to keep adequately up to date, but to no avail.

My mom loves her cats so much that she heats up their soft cat food on the stove in the morning.  It smells terrible.  If I complain she asks me "Would you like to eat an ice cold breakfast on a cold winter morning?" 

I was over at my mom's house on Tuesday night.  She pulled out a giftwrapped box and said "I found this.  I think it's for you."  I thought she meant it was a gift from someone for my most recent birthday.  It took me a few questions to realize that she found it at the back of a closet when she was packing for her move.  She thinks that it's a baby gift for me, from when I was born in 1972.  I tear it open and sure enough, she's right.  It's a brand-new, never worn onesie, meant for me 39 years ago.  As you can see, everyone expected me to be a boy:

Friday, December 2, 2011

Food or Poison?

This afternoon I watched a colleague of mine assemble a cheese sandwich.  In my world, a cheese sandwich is the gastronomic equivalent of a slice of solidified road tar in between two stinky old insoles.  It's not in the category of "food".

It's a surprise to me how many people have little to no allergy awareness.  In fact, I was pretty ignorant myself at this time last year.  I fancied that I knew a fair bit about allergies, having had a good friend who would go into anaphylaxis when exposed to any type of nut or seafood, even trace amounts.  To this day I never use the same knife in the jam jar and the nut butter jar, just in case a nut-allergic person should happen to show up at my house demanding jam.

Still, I didn't realize how toxic peanut butter is to some people.  I didn't know if I ate a peanut butter sandwich on the subway I could transfer peanut oil to one of those poles standing passengers hang onto, and that tiny amount of peanut oil could potentially kill someone.  For example, my friend's seven-year-old son.  I no longer eat peanut products in public.

I also didn't realize how sensitive people with celiac disease are to gluten.  Over a year ago I organized a lunch meeting for work.  I knew one of the attendees couldn't have gluten, so I simply avoided ordering sandwiches, wraps and pasta.  I didn't realize that the BBQ chicken sauce might have gluten in it, or if there was preservative spray on the tossed salad it might have gluten in it.  This fellow came to me to double-check that I had been diligent, and only then did I find out that it wasn't enough not to have wheat as an obvious ingredient.  He told me, pardon my French here, that if he ate even a trace of gluten he would "shit blood for a week". 

This is one area in which ignorance is very dangerous.  For example, a friend of a friend is extremely allergic to all forms of onions and garlic.  If there is so much as a trace of these in anything he eats his tongue swells up and he will have acute stomach pains that keep him bedridden for days.  My friend was out at a restaurant with this unfortunate guy, and they checked very carefully with the server about the dish he was going to order.  He was assured that it was all clear.  When the food came, it was liberally sprinkled with green onion.  Green ONION. 

It doesn't matter how clearly you communicate.  In the end you have to trust other people - the server, the manager, the kitchen staff...  And who are they anyway?  A bunch of strangers.

The Total Gastric Devastation I experienced a few weeks ago has now been conclusively blamed on wheat.  Ken didn't realize that gnocchi contains wheat flour as well as potato flour.  My symptoms were wheat poisoning.  My body completely rejected it. 

I now feel very nervous eating out, especially in places where there are gluten-free options that look just like the regular food.  How do you know that the server didn't accidentally swap your plate with someone else's?  How do I know that this is a gluten-free waffle if I didn't open the package myself?  Am I willing to risk being extremely ill on the say-so of a stranger who has six other tables to wait on, might be a little high or hung over, and just doesn't care all that much? 

I have eaten out in a few restaurants where I felt comfortable, for example one place where  my mom goes regularly (she's a gluten-free gal), and another (a Montana's) where the manager has celiac disease.  Still, right now I feel infinitely more comfortable eating my own food at or from home.  At least I'll be saving lots of money.