Showing posts with label Project Happy Life. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Project Happy Life. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Struggling at the intersection of Happiness and Careers

Cindy and I call our project and this blog "Project Happy Life."  But this project has no deadline.  We have no schedule.  We have no specific picture of a happy life that we aren't already living; thus, no end goal.

We treat it like we treat yoga: willful determination with non-concern for results.

That's nice, but that's not entirely true.  It's only partly true.  It's a fact that we're generally happy, and we love our life.  We love our family and friends, and many of our friends are family enough.

But Cindy wants to be a full-time, paid actress (the difficulty there being that your ability to work is almost always in someone else's hands).  And I want to work for myself.

There, I've said it: I want to work for myself.

I just don't know what that means yet.  I think I could make furniture... sometimes.  I really love working on my green roof, and I would be happy to help with other green roofs.  I like teaching.  I am surprised by how much I like writing this blog.  Sometimes I like directing plays.  I like designing (the Lanikai Elementary School stage I designed is being built right now - I'll write a post about that when it's finished).  I would love to collaborate with someone on a book about native plant gardening for New York City.  (Any takers?)  The list goes on...

So many things to like.  So many possibilities.

The other thing is, as I said, I'm happy.  I have a great full-time job as the production stage manager for Blue Man Group in New York.  I work with people I genuinely love, and we have a lot of fun.  Sometimes the work can be tedious, and sometimes it can be hard, but I usually feel like I'm being helpful and productive, and that feels nice.

It's difficult to imagine changing your life when you're generally happy.

But, as I like to say, I carry the burden of too many ideas for projects I'd like to do and not enough time to do them.  I keep thinking, "If only I didn't need my 40-hour/week job!"  I do, though - I'm not asking Fate (or my boss, Colin) to fire me because I write this.  There is a growing tension between the stuff that I'm working on at home, and the stuff that I'm working on at work.

The tension increases because I'm not getting any younger.  I'm 43.  I can see how long it takes me to do my personal projects on weekends, and I can see quite clearly that my body will give out long before I've done and built a fraction of what I'd like to do.  Life is short.  Weekends are even shorter.

And then there's money.  That's always a thing, isn't it?  My first profession, theatre, isn't something one does if one is terribly focused on earning a steady paycheck.  But, I clutzed into a job at Blue Man Group when I was in Boston for college, and I've stuck with the company for 18 years now.  I've never experienced a prolonged period of freelance work in my life.  I was thinking about transitioning to the film industry back in 2008, but then the economy collapsed, and I decided it was too risky to switch careers at that time.  So, as I like to say, I've gratefully clung to my job and thought of our show as a little life raft in the big, blue sea of this economic storm.

This brings me back to Project Happy Life.  Cindy and I are in this project together - working to guide our lives in the direction we want them to go.  On the issue of our careers, there seem to be no easy answers.  I only know that writing about things as we make our way forward is helpful for me.  And I hope it's helpful for you to read.

Monday, April 14, 2014

What I told my mother about c. diff (clostridium difficile)

This is a public service announcement!

About a year and a half ago, my mother was in the hospital for some surgery and what was supposed to be a maximum stay of 7 days.  While there, she developed a terrible intestinal infection called clostridium difficile, otherwise known as "c. difficile", or "c. diff" (if you can't be bothered with syllables), which kept her in the hospital for 24 terrible days.  I was with her for the first 20.

By "terrible", I mean to say that she was in constant, tremendous pain, nauseous, could hardly move or walk, couldn't eat, was hypersensitive to changes in room temperature, was rapidly losing weight, desperate, and was told that if her infection got any worse, they would have to remove her colon.


When my mother was diagnosed, the hospital brought in the infectious disease doctor, who explained that sometimes a course of antibiotics (which is standard for surgery patients) will knock out all the good bacteria in your gut, and allow the bad c. diff bacteria to take over.  He prescribed the standard treatment: more antibiotics.  I asked him whether my mother should take probiotics, and he told us they would neither help nor hurt.  She could take them after she got home from the hospital if she wanted to, but he didn't offer to give her any while there.

I was pretty skeptical about his "neither help nor hurt" comment, but we like to assume the medical community (especially the lead infectious disease doctor of a large hospital) is smarter than we are, or at least well researched in their field.  I accepted what he said, but when I wasn't assisting my mother with one thing or another, I quietly went about trying to research that doctor, probiotics, and c. difficile on the iPad I had with me.  I didn't learn much more than the fact that I can't do real research on an iPad; it's too clumsy, and I couldn't focus enough to figure out how to read medical papers  (high school biology class was oh! so long ago...).

After days on the antibiotics (by then given intravenously along with Mom's food-stuff), my mother wasn't much better, and may have been slightly worse.  The doctors decided to put an intermittent suction tube through her nose and into her stomach to try to draw some of the infection out that way.  She was hooked up to that suction for nearly a week.  She was also given an intravenous immunoglobulin treatment... whatever the heck that was.  I have a hazy recollection of it seeming helpful.

This is what she looked like.  You can see the IV's on the left and the hose running to the vacuum canister on the wall to the right.

By the time they finally took out my mother's suction tube, the intravenous feeding had given her back some small amount of strength, and although she was still in considerable pain, the heavy antibiotics had slowly started to get the upper hand.   Comfortable that my mother was on the mend, and called back to New York by other obligations, Cindy and I flew home on Day 20.

But I couldn't stop thinking about how that doctor had poo-poo'ed probiotics (see what I did there?).  As soon as I got home, I spent every spare minute I had researching more about C. diff.  I wanted to know about drug therapies, I wanted to know about probiotic and homeopathic therapies, and I wanted to know how the bacteria interact with our moods.

I started by researching probiotics.  I read articles, research papers, and testimonials, and two days after returning home, I had the following text exchange with my mother:

Me: Mom, I have been doing some research, and I want you to request Dr. Elmortada start you on a probiotic named "saccheromyces boulardii" immediately, please. Lory 11:06 AM
Kathleen Henning: I gave it to staff and they will see if its ok for me 11:24 AM
Me: Thank you. I have read several academic reports and personal testimonials that indicate it makes all the difference. I love you. 11:25 AM
Kathleen Henning: Thanks 11:28 AM
Me: Just spoke to your nurse, Nancy. She said you walked a full lap around the floor and they started you on that probiotic. I'm so glad. 4:26 PM

Now, I'm not saying that in within 4 hours of requesting that probiotic my mother was able to walk again.  She had slowly been getting stronger and was out of danger of losing her colon.  But I don't think it's a coincidence that on the day she started taking probiotics, she was able to walk much farther than she had walked since coming out of surgery 22 days earlier.

The next day, my mother was released from the hospital and taken to her dear friend Annie's home to recover.

C. difficile infections have reached epidemic proportions in this country. 

To add insult to injury, they have a high instance of recurrence.  I have read that 20% of C. difficile patients go through a second bout with the infection.  And 40-60% of those who have had a second bout will have more - some even get it every few months for years.

I also read that in Japan and many European countries, probiotics are prescribed anytime someone is prescribed antibiotics.  And there is a growing wave of research that proves how important maintaining a balanced micro-biome (bacterial ecosystem) in our guts is.  

In other words, the infectious disease doctor at Mom's hospital was flat wrong about probiotics.

Here's a link to an article from Science Based Medicine (.com) that supports my claim of his wrongness!  It's called "I've been prescribed an antibiotic.  Should I take a probiotic?"

In a minor synchronistic miracle, I started writing this post yesterday morning.  And as I was biking to work afterwards, a podcast came up on my playlist that is all about bacteria, probiotics, your gut's micro-biome (which is like a little ecosystem in your intestines), the potential future of healthcare, childbirth by c-section, C. diff, and how all of it fits together. It even touches on the lower diversity of intestinal flora in modern Americans vs hunter-gatherers (hunter-gatherers in the Amazon, for example, have 50% higher rate of bacterial diversity in their guts than we do).  That part in particular has me wondering if our processed food and pesticides are partially responsible for that lack of bacterial diversity!  Anyway, I haven't told you everything, and you should listen to this podcast for yourself.

I give you the excellent "Science and the City" podcast episode from The New York Academy of Sciences:

And here's Mom on the mend. This was on the occasion of her first walk around her property - approximately 3 weeks after being released from the hospital.  She has been free of Clostridium difficile ever since.

If you've made it this far, you'll want to read the actual research I gave my mother on C. diff.  Just keep in mind that I am not a doctor, and you are responsible for your own damn self.

First, a bit about the diagnosis:

Clostridium difficile (c. diff) - a bacteria in the colon that is harmless when kept in check by the normal balance of flora in a healthy colon.  When that balance is thrown off (often by the use of general antibiotics - frequently with Clindamysin specifically), the C. diff spores can "hatch" and produce two types of toxins (cleverly called "Toxin A" and "Toxin B"), which cause inflammation and diarrhea.  There are different strains of C. diff, and I never found out which strain my mother had.  Some are more drug-resistant than others.

Pseudomembranous colitus - a condition caused by C. diff toxins A and B (they currently think B is worse than A, but they are both harmful).  It is characterized by a pseudomembrane in the colon along with inflammation in the colon and diarrhea.

Standard or FDA-Approved Treatments:

Metronidazole/Flagyl - this is typically the first antibiotic prescribed to treat C. diff.  We noticed Mom improve for the first few hours after the first couple of doses of this, and then it seemed that the C. diff would surge back and regain the upper hand.  This was administered by IV.

Vancomycin/Vancocin - this is another antibiotic and is prescribed for patients with moderate to severe cases of C. diff.  Mom took this orally, in an orange syringe she squeezed into her mouth (the orange syringe was not important; she could also have drunk the medicine from a cup or a clear syringe).  If she had ever developed an obstruction (like an abscess, for example), they might have given her the vancomycin rectally.  Luckily, both of her CT scans showed no obstructions, so we knew the Vancomycin was getting where it needed to go.

Cholestyramine (aka Questran, Questran Light, Cholybar) - This doesn't seem to be well known, so it is worth asking about.  It acts as a toxin binder against Toxin A and Toxin B, helping to relieve symptoms of C. diff.  When using Cholestyramine, one needs to be careful to use enough to bind the toxins in the colon but not so much that colon function is slowed (constipation).  Recommended dose is 4 grams twice daily (2 hours before or after other meals to ensure as much as possible makes it past the stomach juices and into the intestines/colon).

Pharmaceuticals Still In Trials at the Time of My Research:

Fidaxomicin/Dificid - as effective as vancomycin in stopping symptoms, but supposedly has a higher rate of cure (no recurrence).  It is still in trials and not yet available.

Rifaximin/Xifaxan - This is an antibiotic generally used to treat traveler's diarrhea.  It is generally not absorbed by the body, which allows it to get to the intestines and colon, which is where the C. diff bacteria reside.  Rifaximin is almost completely excreted in the feces in its original form, and it seems to have minimal impacts on the beneficial intestinal flora.  It has been shown in small human studies and some hamster studies to be as effective as Vancomycin in treating C. diff, but it has a better rate of preventing recurrence of C. diff. Because it is minimally absorbed by the body, it is thought to have minimal side effects.  It is still undergoing tests and is not yet used as the primary treatment for C. diff (although it is used for other things as initially stated), although I see a study out of Finland from October of 2012 that concludes Rifaximin is safe and "can be considered as an optional treatment for recurrent C. difficile infection."

Meredex's CDA-1 and CDA-2 (aka MDX-066/MDX-1388) - these are antibodies and have also shown great promise in mitigating the effects of Toxin A and Toxin B, and they also reduced the rate of c. diff recurrence.  It appears these antibodies do the same thing as Cholestyramine, but better.  They are also still in trials and are not yet available.

Probiotics and Homeopathic Treatments:

Saccharomyces boulardii - this is a probiotic strain of yeast (not bacteria, so it is not susceptible to antibiotics) originally found in the skin of lychee nuts and the mangosteen fruit (both of which are delicious, if you ask me).  I ordered Jarrow Formulas' Saccharomyces boulardii + MOS for my mother.  There are some risks of developing Fungemia in Intensive Care Unit, immunosuppressed, and tube-fed patients, but those risks are apparently negligable in other people suffering from C. diff.  I have been taking a probiotic that includes S. boulardii for more than a year.

Lactobacillus paracasei, Lactobacillus plantarum, Lactobacillus acidophilus - These are probiotic strains of bacteria, and they are shown to be effective in fighting C. diff according to some studies.  In fact, since I've been researching all of this, I discovered that the probiotic Cindy and I take has all of these as well as the s. boulardii that I mentioned above.  Ours is by a company called Standard Process.  The specific pill is called ProSynbiotic.  I recommended my mother get something with more active cultures separate from the dose of s. boulardii + MOS until she had put this infection behind her.  After that, it seemed reasonable to me that she pare back to a single pill like ProSynbiotic for gut maintenance.

Mannan OligoSaccharide (MOS) - this is derived from the cell walls of the yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisia.  An oligosaccharide  is a carbohydrate made of simple sugars, and they tend to be indigestible - they belong to a broad category of fiber.  This means that they pass through the digestive system into the intestines and colon where they support the growth of beneficial bacteria and help prevent pathogenic bacteria from attaching to intestinal walls by essentially acting as a decoy.  MOS is most often currently used as an alternative to antibiotics in farm animals and pets.  It also appears to support the immune system, treat diarrhea, and allow the body to absorb more nutrients because of that reduction in pathogens.

Oregano - This is said by many to be a powerful, natural antibiotic, and I have seen patient testimonials referencing taking oregano pills or oil of oregano as part of their C. diff self-treatment regime.  There are also articles about farmers giving their livestock oregano as an alternative to antibiotics.  I have not yet seen any scientific papers on the subject, but it's worth keeping in mind in case more alternatives are needed.

Banana flakes or chips - These are noted as an alternative to Cholestyramine, although I can't find research on whether banana flakes help bind and reduce the virulence of Toxin A and Toxin B the way Cholestyramine does.  (NOTE: Mom ate banana chips and found them very helpful.)

Stool Transplant/Fecal Transplant - People are having some success in curing C. diff with this technique.  It's basically poop from a healthy person, cleaned up, and transplanted into the sick person, so the beneficial flora from the healthy person can colonize the sick person's colon.  It is not a commonly performed technique, but it is good to know about.  Dr. Brandt at Montefiore Medical Center in NYC and Physicians at St. Mary's/Duluth Clinical Heath System in Minnesota are both mentioned in an article to have very high success rates.  It's also discussed in the podcast mentioned earlier.

Final Notes:

If you have a C. diff infection, do not use drugs which slow the colon, such as narcotics and antidiarrheals.  It is thought that they prevent the body from passing the C. diff toxins as quickly as possible, and may extend toxin-associated damage within the colon.

Especially if you are trying to fight infection, probiotics should be taken two hours before or after other meals to ensure they get to the gut without being subjected to higher levels of stomach acid that are present when the stomach is digesting food.

Feelings of desperation, fear, hopelessness, and wishing for death are common among sufferers of C. diff.  Although I could find no specific studies related to C. diff, there are general studies that show bacterial infections can influence people's mental status and behavior.  If you have a C. diff infection and are having uncharacteristically negative emotions, please know it's not you, and you CAN get better.

UPDATE - An Incomplete List of Links:

On the sound advice of a good friend, I went back into my search history and culled some of the articles I read when doing my marathon C. diff research for my mom.  There are so many more articles these days, so I'm sure you can find much more that is worthy of your time if this issue is important to you.

General Web Sites: (this article states that studies on the use of probiotics are inconclusive) (let’s not forget Wikipedia!)

C. diff in the News: (shocking that this article, which is about the anticipated improvements in C. diff diagnosis and treatment, doesn’t mention probiotics)

C. diff and Probiotics: (an add for this specific probiotic to treat C. diff)

Testimonials: (a C. diff education and advocacy group with some amazing stories) (This woman’s story interested me the most) (in fact, this is a whole blog about a person’s experience with and after C. diff) (seems fishy, since they’re selling something, but it’s interesting anyway)

Research Papers: (This one focuses on Toxin A and B) (a general study of probiotics in medicine) (this is one of the ones about Rifaximin)

And, lastly, I just found this: (an article explaining that good old cups of tea might help prevent C. diff)

Friday, April 11, 2014

That Whole "Gay Marriage" Thing...

I'm not sure if you've noticed, but Cindy and I are both women... and we're gay... and we are married... to each other.

Let's establish an important distinction: There are weddings - that's the actual ceremony.  And there are marriages - that's everything that comes after a couple is pronounced married.  As a society, we talk a lot about "same-sex marriage", but when we hear that phrase, it's normally about the right for a same-sex couple to marry.  It isn't really about the actual marriage that follows.

If you were to google around the internet, you will find plenty of blogs and articles about the struggle for (and against) marriage equality.  You'll even easily find a handful of same-sex wedding blogs - with pictures of traditional and non traditional brides and grooms... and groom-ettes... and Mr. brides... and on and on.  But what I can't seem to find are articles or blogs about same-sex marriage.

I generally reject the whole "men are from mars, women are from venus" thing as issues related to upbringing and cultural influences on a person, rather than inherent differences between the sexes.  People like to perpetuate some notion of men being macho or women being shop-a-holics, because they think it's funny.  Personally, I think it's mostly inaccurate.

And from what I've seen, marriage is pretty much marriage.  Once you're in it, your problems and triumphs are probably similar to most everyone else's.  The only thing that makes my marriage different from my best friend's marriage is that she is married to a man, and I'm married to a woman.

Maybe that's why it isn't easy to find same-sex marriage blogs.

Or maybe we (as a whole) haven't gotten comfortable with the legal right vs. wedding vs. marriage distinction yet.  So maybe finding gay marriage blogs is a semantic/search-term issue.

Or maybe we (gays) are so focused on the big, bold, exciting fight for the right to marry that our quiet little married lives don't quite hold our attention.  So we don't write about that part.

Or maybe we're afraid to talk about marriage once we have it - fearing the haters will find a way to take it back.

Or maybe (and this is the most personally frightening of all), if we write about our marriages, some ill-intentioned, anti-gay person will find us in our homes, or recognize us on the street, and physically come to attack us.

Whatever the reason behind the blog scarcity, there's this hole in the blog-o-sphere, and it's vacuum forces are drawing me into it.

So here we are!  Not ignoring the extraordinary work so many people have done to afford every couple the right to marry in 17 states (and Washington D.C.), as well as the work they continue to do for the rest of the country, these are the early days of life on the other side.  It's like marriage equality is the big bang, and we're still feeling the effects of the cosmic background radiation as its ramifications ripple outward, but those effects will normalize and decay over time, to the eventual point of hardly being noticed anymore.

Or, on a personal level, having marriage equality is like attaining enlightenment.  Paraphrasing Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield: first enlightenment, then the laundry.  This giant and important, life-altering thing happens.  And then you carry that thing back to your work-a-day life.  Project Happy Life - a little blog about a little married couple, living their little lives.  And we happen to be gay.

On the occasion of receiving our marriage license from the State of New York.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Green Roof and Garden Update. Early April 2014

Hi Everybody!  It's time for an update on the Green Roof, but stuff is starting to happen in the terrestrial gardens too, so you get 3 for the price of one.  Here's Cindy in her down jacket and flip-flops (that's "slippahz" to you Hawaiians).  In one hand, she's holding a jar of dried rosemary that we pulled off last year's plant, and she's pointing out the new greenery in the sedum with the other!

On the advice of my cousin-in-law, Michelle, and because I don't have enough time to build all the planter boxes I hope to have in the future, I'm experimenting with fabric pots this year.  I got the cheap, biodegradable kind.  They're supposedly only good for 3-5 years, so I'm considering it built-in "inspiration" to force me to make the permanent planters before too many years pass me by.

I've got 4 of the big ones lain out along the sitting area.  I have to go to the nursery and get some potting soil to round out the left over "engineered growing medium" I put in the bottoms of the pots to keep them from blowing away.

 Here's a shot of how the strawberries in the Woolly Pocket have survived the Winter.  Not bad, I'd say!  There was a mishap with the automatic drip timer and some of the related fittings (I didn't bring them indoors before the frost came), so I'm replacing the broken stuff and making some improvements.  I'll write about that when I have it connected, the errant leaks stopped, and the timer programed and working.  Anyway, you can see the ½" main water line and the ¼" drip feeder lines on the right of the Woolly Pocket.

Cindy's favorite: the creepy owl.  I only wish it scared the squirrels as much as it does me.

Speaking of squirrels, I think I'm going to have a lot of work to do this year to keep them out of my crops.  They seem to have undergone a population explosion.  The garlic I planted last Fall hasn't sprouted much (if at all), and I found one dried and chewed clove on the top of the soil.  I wonder if they all got pulled.  It was too disappointing to photograph.

Instead, here's the greening sedum with the little stone path.  You can see more fabric pots lined up on the parapet wall in the background. 

Now, downstairs in the front yard, things are starting to look like Spring.  We've got purple crocuses popping up.  Or is it "croci"?

Don't you just love how the crocus leaves sometimes spear straight through the dead tree leaves?

And then there are these things.  If you look carefully, you can see the left one has a dingy little white flower dangling above the leaves.  I think they're a native ephemeral plant, but I'm not sure what kind.    Solomon's Something-OIf you know for sure, please leave me a comment.

By the way, are you impressed that I know the horticultural term "ephemeral"?  I learned it last weekend in my two gardening classes from The Brooklyn Botanic Garden: Growing Food in the Shade; and Native Trees for Small Spaces.  It was a great way to spend the day.

One more Crocus glamour shot:

As for the back yard, I turned the compost today.  I'm eager to get as much finished compost out of the bin as possible, so I can take it up to the roof and put it in the fabric pots.  But it's too moist and not quite ready.  The good news is that it won't take long, because the worms have been more prolific than I have ever seen them!  Crocuses and red wigglers.  It's a yin/yang sort of thing, don't you think? 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Three Fathers. One Me.

If there is a person born on this earth who doesn't have a biological father, I've never heard of them.  Everyone has a father.  The thing is, I didn't know that I had one until I was four or five years old.  On a typical, sunny afternoon in Phoenix, Arizona, my mother took me into one of the bedrooms of the small, 3-bedroom ranch-style house we shared with my grandparents and cousin, Samantha, and she showed me a picture of herself in a wedding dress with a man whom I didn't know.

It says on the back of this photo that my mother was 23 years old, so she would have been around 28 at the time she first showed it to me.  Charles (Charlie) Skouson was his name.  And, she explained that I was born with the name "Lory Anne Henning Skouson".  They were divorced before I was born, so alone in the hospital, my mother had written "Lory Anne" as my first name, "Henning" my middle, and "Skouson" my last name on my birth certificate, figuring I could make my own decision later about what last name I wanted to use.  In that small act of my mother's, I see now a well of generosity to my father and bravery for herself.  It was April 1st, 1971 - no joke.

My four year old self, I must admit, found this whole thing exhilarating yet slightly confusing.  As far as I was concerned, the men in my life were my Grandpa Dave (with whom, as I said, we lived - so much as he was home), and Daron Dustin.  

Daron was my mother's second husband, and I learned later that he had been a friend of the family for many years.  During their short marriage, we lived at his house in California City, CA.  Although I was only 2 or 3 years old at the time, I remember my room there, and I have some faded memories of Daron's dogs, a tortoise I named "Mama Tortoise", a stuffed orangutan, a flowery orange suitcase-style phonograph, my friends Too Sweet and Sweet Pea (actual girls' actual names), an incident involving me not wanting to eat green beans, and the long, hot drive in the middle of the night from California City to Phoenix when my mother left Daron.

Even though I never called him anything but "Daron", Daron was as close to a father as I had known.  I loved (and continue to love) him dearly.  He is something of a delightful, maniacal genius.  I remember one story in particular about how he blew a huge pothole in the street in front of his house when he lit half a stick of dynamite off to celebrate the 4th of July.  In fact, I can't publicly discuss Daron without posting this excellent illustration of the kind of man he was/is.  Here we are in his motorized bathtub:

However, divorce always comes with a story - usually complicated - and my young self was not burdened by the details of why we suddenly lived with my grandparents.

After learning about Charlie Skouson's existence, I became confused - what was a dad?  And was I supposed to take his name?  Upon entering Kindergarden, I was almost proud to have "a father", but I suspect I was even prouder to be unique among my classmates due to my confusing little father situation.  I remember proudly trying to explain to a teacher that my last name was Henning, but it could have also been Skouson.  I'm sure she was flummoxed.

Time passed, and thoughts of Charlie Skouson and the wedding photograph faded from prevalence in my life.  Daron drove up from Cal City (usually in a fantastic old Jeep) to see me when we visited my great grandmother (Nana) in Salinas on holiday's.  My cousin Samantha (by then my grandparents' legally adopted daughter) was, at the time, as good as a sister to me.  And, after my grandfather decided to divorce my grandmother so he could live full-time in Santa Ana where he had a produce business (and continue his tryst with a nice lady he met in Japan), my mother and grandmother were my only true, daily parents.  We were a foursome: Grandma, Mom, Sam, and me.

Until, that is, Grandma and Samantha moved to Salinas to care for my great grandmother, leaving my mother and me in Phoenix to sort ourselves out.  It was the summer before my 3rd Grade school year, and the breakup of our little family left me (and my mother, I suppose) deeply traumatized.

I'll gloss over the intervening years for now.  They, too, were complicated.  Suffice it to say, without consciously knowing what was happening to me at the time (I now know I was consumed with grief for the loss of the little foursome we were, and for the "normal" family I'd never had), I watched Eight Is Enough to the point of obsession - wanting to have that sort of life so badly, I consumed - practically ate - that TV show.  Now that I mention it, as I've written in an earlier post, it was at that time, watching those TV shows after school, that I learned the problematic habit of emotional eating.  But that's neither here nor there.

Since my mother was single and working, and I was a latch-key kid, I spent my Summers with my great-grandmother, grandmother, and cousin Samantha in Salinas.  When I was 15, in the Summer before my Sophomore year of high school, I decided I wasn't going to go back to Phoenix for the school year any more.  I decided to stay and finish high school in Salinas.  And, still glossing over the fraught details of that transition, my move to Salinas is what lined me up to land at Monterey Peninsula College, where I met my third father:

My Chosen Father.

Dan Beck
Dan is the technical director for Monterey Peninsula College's Theatre Department.  He, Patrick McEvoy, Edmund Row Reed, Craig Dunbar, and Steve Retsky took my love of theatre and my need to belong, and they shepherded me into becoming a confident theatre artisan.  But Dan, in particular, took the time to teach me any skill I wanted to learn.  And it was that gentle, guiding attention and confidence that drew me to him.  

In thinking back about it now, Dan was 39 years old when we met.  And having a 19 year old female student slowly latching on to him and wanting to make him proud of her might have been... awkward.  Good thing I'm tremendously gay.

In the 24 years since I fell in paternal love with Dan, he has patiently, quietly allowed me to maintain my adoption of him.  And he has reciprocated in kind.  I tell my mother nearly everything.  We have an excellent telephone relationship, and in my adult years, we've learned how to have wonderful in-person visits with each other too.  By contrast, Dan and I rarely speak on the phone.  But when we're together (as we were for nearly a week solid back in January), we easily chat a lot.  And we are easily quiet a lot.  I tell him everything I can think of that might interest him, and I gently grill him about his life and how he feels about this and that (as is my habit).  He tells me things he knows - how things work, what he's building and doing, and we see the sights.  And sometimes, I hardly know what to do with myself - feeling overwhelmed with love and at a loss for how to express what a gift Dan has given me by allowing me to choose him.

In case you had any doubt, fathers are important.

Charlie Skouson died in 2000.  I spoke to him a handful of times on the phone, but never met him in person.  Daron continues to write to me every year for my birthday without fail, as he has done my entire life, and we visit each other whenever we are within reasonable driving distance of one another.   I see Dan whenever I can - usually at least once a year.

I continue to learn about fathers and what they mean to this day.  Cindy's love of her father (even though he passed away a few years ago) is palpable.  The Spencer Family is like my second family.  Michael is the father of that clan.  And I find myself paying attention to our friend, Arsenio - watching him parent his son (our godson), Axel.  I sometimes babysit Axel, and Arsenio teaches me a lot about how to do it.  I'm not jealous of Cindy or Axel.  I feel rich!  You see, I have three fathers of my own.  And there are all these other gorgeous ones around to see.

Arsenio and Axel Castro

Friday, March 21, 2014

PHL Update Soup! March 2014

It's time for an update on how Cindy's and my Project Happy Life is going.

First, we've made two pacts:
1. No more watching videos during dinner!  We weren't quite prepared to give up watching news and political talk shows over breakfast, but making sure we're giving each other our full attention over dinner was an easy choice that is totally contributing to our happiness.

2. No more eating after 11pm.  As I wrote in my 40 Paleo Days and Nights post, Cindy and I have been eating according to Mark Sisson's Primal Blueprint Paleo diet (we're up over 50 days now).  While we feel great - clearer heads, clearer skin, no more blood sugar spikes and crashes, etc - we weren't really losing any weight, which we'd both like to do.  I've been a little anxious about this pact - fearing that if I ate my dinner too early, I would end up going to bed hungry, which would make me miserable all night.  However, something about eliminating processed food and foods that are high on the glycemic index has really muted my hunger.  If anything, I've felt slightly empty when going to bed (rather than stuffed full, which was my habit), but not at all uncomfortable.  After instituting this rule over a week ago, and without changing anything else, our weight has started going down.

And now, here's a braggy photo of how well the orchid I found on top of a trash pile outside a hotel in Manhattan is doing.  Four blossoms, and 3 buds.  I think it likes this window.

Beyond the two pacts, we've really been working on The Spring Purge.  Getting rid of excess stuff is a key component in our Project Happy Life.  We have so much work that needs to be done on this house, so being able to see it more clearly (without the bones of the place being obscured by a bunch of clutter) helps us make design choices for furniture, kitchen cabinets, etc.  Also, it's easier to focus on finishing all the projects I have in process (aka started, but not finished) when the place isn't full of all this stuff in my way.  Re-wiring the house is a good example of this.  I'll have to make a post about that in the future.  But I'm also working on stripping the paint off the woodwork, the plaster needs to be repaired in many places, and the whole house needs a proper paint job... I could go on and on.

But, one loooooong project with which I'm almost finished is digitizing all of our tapes.  A few years ago, my mom finally forced me to take back all my cassette tapes from high school, which have been in big cassette drawers (remember those things?  With fake wood veneer?  You'd get them at the music store in the mall).  Those things take up a whole lot more physical space than they do computer space.

SO, in case you're interested, I'm finding great success with a nice used tape deck (bought from a street vendor in Brooklyn for $11).  I plugged it into the computer through a thing called iMic (which offers a line-in jack and theoretically provides a cleaner sound than the computer's built in line-in jack), and I captured the sound with the included Final Vinyl software.  Final Vinyl records each tape as one long track.  It has the ability to separate the track into individual songs, but I've found greater success doing that through Audacity (free audio editing software), and then exporting the music to iTunes.

Tape deck.  Remember these?

Meanwhile, Cindy is still hard at work at putting piles of DVD's we inherited into big binders in alphabetical order.  We're freeing up a lot of space by getting rid of the DVD cases, but doing so was a hard decision for us.  Those cases are designed to make the movies look good, and, well, they work!  Plain old disks simply don't look as interesting as big fancy boxes with pictures and quotes all over them.  So, we made a judgement call.  We're parting with the pretty boxes in favor of having more space in which to live our lives.

You might wonder what we're doing with those tape cassettes and empty DVD cases when we're done with them.  

Putting all of our stuff in the trash is not an option.

The DVD boxes are easy.  The ones that have printed cardboard covers get separated into the plastic and cardboard recycling bins for city pick-up.  The all-plastic DVD cases get given to a guy around the corner who uses them to sell other DVD's in.

The tape cassettes are easy, too, but we have to pay a little money to have them properly recycled.  A few years ago, I used for recycling a bunch of CD's and our old VHS collection (after I finished digitizing that too).  We'll use their service again.  The research I've done on Greendisk leads me to believe they are legitimately environmentally responsible in their recycling practices.  That's important, because there are a lot of charlatans out there who send their stuff overseas where there are no protections for the recycling workers or the local environment.

On this first day of Spring, I've probably said almost enough about The Spring Purge.  Here's a giant balloon bunny sculpture.  Enjoy.

In the lobby of the new building at Astor Place, NYC

P.S. Special thanks goes to our friends, Dave and Stephanie, for helping us haul a bunch of stuff into the city for give-away and recycling this morning.  They have a car.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Arnold Cabin Project Part 1: Love Letter to My Monterey Ancestors

I don't mean to brag, but my people come from Monterey County in California.  I may have been physically born in Phoenix, Arizona, but I really come from Monterey County too.  My mother, Kathleen Henning, and my Grandmother, Winifred Kincannon, were born in Salinas, CA.  My Great Grandmother, Anne Arnold, was born in Jamesburg, CA (which is more of a crossroads than a town now.  They don't even have a post office, but I know they once did).  I'm told my Great Grandmother's father, Henry Arnold, was the orphan son of a soldier in the Prussian Army.  He grew up to be a sailor, then a farmer, a stone mason... I suppose he could do whatever was needed.  He spent some time in San Francisco, where he met, wrote poetry to, and married the woman he loved, Sarah Church.  She had come to California with her parents and family by covered wagon.  

To my heart, no other genealogy matters.  

Beyond that, there is only need of the coffee-dark soil of Salinas, and the sun-dappled leaf-litter of Carmel Valley.  There is the sand of the beaches along Cannery Row at low tide.  There is the water in Carmel River.  There is the wind through the Live Oaks.  The screech of the blue jays. The smell of the Sycamore trees in the valley, the Chaparral sagebrush on the hills, and the flower-smoke-and-salt scented air by the ocean.

If this sounds hokey to you, you've never loved a place the way my heart loves Monterey.

And, so, I must admit, that one day, while taking a break at work, I got a tad wistful about the place.  Lamenting the fact that I never asked her, I decided to see if I could figure out where my Great Grandmother went to grammar school.  As I began poking around in image searches, I stumbled upon a Facebook page for The Hastings Natural History Reserve.  On it, there was a post about "The Arnold Cabin" with a few pictures and a mention that it needs a new roof.  

This was the cabin that Henry and Sarah Arnold built and raised their children in (one of them, my Great Grandmother).  And, like most everything else, it was on Facebook!  I could hardly contain my excitement.  

I reached out to the Reserve Director, Vincent, and he accepted my offer to repair the cabin roof!
Cindy and I made a trip out to California last year, and we arranged a day to go and see, photograph, and measure the cabin with Vincent.  I went back a second time with my dear friend, Dan, several weeks ago.

Now, I live in New York City.  Millions of other people live here, and I suppose a billion people have ever lived or passed through here... right?  Wouldn't you say a billion?  I don't know, it's just a guess.  Anyway, you can walk down almost any sidewalk, ride in nearly any subway car... you may know the history of this place or that, but most of the physical evidence of the minutia of our lives has been wiped away.  You can see no shadow of the place where a certain married couple first met on the corner.  The subway car carries no echo of the sound of the guys who came through and sang last night, let alone 20 years ago.  You may have the layers of 100 years of paint jobs on your moldings (which drive you mad with the need to strip them all off and start clean.  Well, maybe not you, but me.  Ahem.).  But you can not picture the people who put those layers of paint on the walls.  Those people are far removed from the marrow of your own life now...

However, this!  This is a rare opportunity to walk where my Great Grandmother walked as a child.  I have Christmas ornaments from her.  They were originally hung on a tree in this cabin!  I have her father's dictionary - the one from which he learned to speak English.  It used to be kept in this house.  The smells and sounds in the air here might have been the same as the ones my ancestors had experienced as they made the walk from the cabin to, say, the out house, for example.  These exact large trees might have been saplings as they witnessed my Nana playing nearby as a girl.  And they would have stood watching as she came and left that cabin for the last time - whether she knew it was her last or not.

I am a pig, and this is my sentimental, ancestral shit.

The Arnold Cabin. 
The living room.
Lory Henning - Generation Five

Friday, March 14, 2014

PHL Work Session: The Spring Purge

It's been a long winter, and like nearly everyone else in this big city, we've been busy.  I'm pretty opinionated about over-consumption, and we don't tend to buy a lot of stuff we don't need.  But we are a bit slow with getting rid of stuff when it is worn out or no longer necessary.

When a thing is going down hill, my first approach is always to try to fix it.  I sew patches on holes in my pants, I've taken apart and tinkered with almost every electronic device I've ever owned, I've re-caned chairs, and bought or made replacement parts for many of my power tools (which are almost all hand-me-downs).  For me, making attempts to repair things is a fun (and sometimes frustrating) challenge.  It gives me a way to learn how things work, it keeps things out of landfills, and it helps me treat my possessions with respect and care.

But, I've have a hard time learning when to give up and let go.  I suspect it's that little hitch in one's mind that turns into hoarding if you let yourself get carried away.  I shan't.  The older I get, the more I realize that life is short, and you don't want to spend time bogged down with things that don't make your life better.  Letting go of my emotional attachment to things (and learning how to avoid seeing my identity as interwoven with my possessions) is something I focus on in my Buddhist practice.  Whoops!  There's the tip of a whole different iceberg: Buddhism.

Let's go back to getting rid of surplus stuff.

Once I have determined to let something go, there's the question of what's the most responsible method of disposal?  I'm a reduce, reuse, recycle girl.  Cindy will tell you that I've got her thinking about that stuff now too.  A convert!

Anyway, if a thing still has some life left in it, and we've determined we simply don't need it, the best thing to do is to pass it along to someone else.  In the past, I've sold some things on ebay.  But that's a bit of a hassle for me (making the listings, tracking bids, answering questions, taking care of shipping... none of these things make my life better).  These days, I'm thinking I shouldn't be so keen to sell stuff.  The thought of going through the ebay process is so tedious in my mind's eye, I get lazy, and the get-rid-of pile starts growing.  Besides, shouldn't we give things away when we can afford to?

So this morning, Cindy and I had a PHL work session to purge our closets.  We're also getting rid of the vast majority of our reusable bags that seem to effortlessly pile up.  Does this happen to everyone, or just us enviro-hippie people?  It seems like someone is giving me or Cindy a new reusable bag almost every month.

Here's our pile of stuff to give away from this morning.

Don't be alarmed, I'm not giving away my bike panniers.  I've decided to take as much as I can carry to Housing Works in Manhattan on my way to work each day until I'm done, so those two bags are already packed for today.  Actually, to be more specific, the clothes are going to Housing Works, and the bags are going to the theatre where I work.  Our theatre's Green Team just hung some hooks by the door so that people can snag and return bags when they go out for lunch, etc.

While I'm on the subject of work and saving the environment, here's an article I wrote on the topic for  the New York Innovative Theatre Foundation's focus on Green Resources for Theatre Artist.  It has a lot of my thoughts on where things can be recycled when they're unfit for donation.

Getting rid of unnecessary things that are cluttering up our house is liberating.  After all, there's too much stuff in the world.  Cindy and I want to spend our time cooking and eating good food, doing our projects, and horsing around together.  We don't want to spend our time managing our stuff - cleaning it, organizing it, storing it...

Speaking of storage, it's amazing to me that so many of us spend so much money to keep a bunch of stuff we don't need in self-storage facilities.  Of course, some short-term stints in storage are useful and legitimate.  But so many people just leave their stuff there and pay their storage bill for months or years because they are either emotionally attached to owning that stuff, they're too lazy/busy to deal with their stuff, or both.  My personal recommendation is we should all get rid of that excess stuff and spend our money on things that make our lives better.  Don't you agree?

Check out this excellent New York Times article for all the gory details on the self-storage industry.

And if you need any more inspiration to do your own Project Happy Life Spring Purge, have a look at this fine video called The Story of Stuff.

Monday, March 10, 2014

40 Paleo Days and Nights

Yesterday marks Cindy's and my 40th day eating according to the Paleo Diet.  

Cindy's long-time friend, Beth, gave us this book after we'd joined her and another good friend, Jill, for dinner and breakfast.  Beth (and Jill, for that matter) is slender and apparently in good health, and she enthusiastically attributed both her health and weight to having cut grains out of her diet.  She'd read several books on the idea, and she gave us the one she thought was the best.  It's Mark Sisson's The Primal Blueprint.  You can see it there in this picture from our visit!

Beth, Jill, and Cindy

I tend to be pretty skeptical, and I'm not naturally quick to jump on the band wagon for things.  But, Cindy read the book, and she was keen to try its diet plan.  Everyone knows that if you're going to change the way you eat, it's miserable if your family doesn't change with you.  Besides, my weight slowly fluctuates by 10 or 15 pounds, and I can almost always stand to trim down a bit.  So I read the book next, and here we are.

I was sort of confused at first, because Mark (Cindy calls him by his first name, and she's got me doing it too - as if we're all friends!) doesn't just talk about diet.  He talks about 10 "Primal Blueprint Laws" that are supposed to at least point you in the direction of a healthier, happier  life than you might already have.  
Those laws are:
1. Eat Lots of Plants and Animals
2. Avoid Poisonous Things
3. Move Frequently at a Slow Pace
4. Lift Heavy Things
5. Sprint Once in a While
6. Get Adequate Sleep
7. Play
8. Get Adequate Sunlight
9. Avoid Stupid Mistakes
10. Use Your Brain

Mark goes into detail with at least one chapter per law.  I think the majority of them will be fairly obvious to most people.  But there are a couple of things that require further explanation for the purposes of this post.  #1 is obvious.  But #2 is slightly more nuanced.  It's obvious we should avoid things like poisonous snakes or, frankly, toxic people.  However, Mark makes the case that grains, processed foods, sugar, and legumes are also poisonous.  More on that in a minute.

Numbers 3, 4, and 5 all deal with exercise.  Personally, I can't stand working out for the sake of working out.  I'm happy to work.  I'm happy to ride my bike or run to get from one place to the other.  But Cindy, on the other hand, LOVES to work out.  She runs circles around Prospect Park, she happily takes 90 minute Bikram Yoga classes  several times each week, and she lifts weights for hours in the gym.

Mark's assertion is that we get ourselves trapped in insulin surge/crash cycles and weight gain with our high-carb, processed food-based diets.  So we either slow down and get far less exercise than we need (me), or we work out so much that we get more carb cravings, only to eat more high-carb food (Cindy).

The "primal" or "paleo" approach to this problem is to eliminate (or greatly reduce) foods that would not have been available to our Paleolithic, pre-agriculture ancestors.  The thinking is that our bodies have not evolved to handle the type and quantity of carbohydrates and chemicals we consume in the typical Western (a.k.a. American) diet.  So we will do much better by eating foods that are closer to what our ancestors ate.

The Primal Blueprint recommends turning the US FDA food pyramid on it's head (that thing is a joke, anyway), cutting way back on carbohydrates (but NOT eliminating them!), and adding more healthy fats into your diet.

Mark Sisson's Primal Blueprint Food Pyramid

Essentially, what Cindy and I have been doing is trying to keep our carbohydrate counts to between 50 and 100 grams per day, protein between 70 and 85 grams per day, and fill in any additional calories we need (whenever we're hungry) with fats like avocados, nuts, full-fat yogurt, etc.

For me, I've made no change to the amount of protein I eat from when I was on the Zone Diet years ago, but in the past year or so, I have cut back on soy significantly.  I mostly get my protein from eggs, yogurt, fish, and foul.  I've even discovered some delicious ostrich and pheasant at the farmer's market.  The only 4-legged animal I eat is the venison my mother gives us every year (Cindy adores pointing out,  "She shoots it with a bow and arrow!").  Cindy also eats pork, bison, and beef occasionally.

We'd previously been in the habit of eating very little processed food, and we've nearly eliminated it all now.  The only thing I can think of that I would consider processed is some frozen yogurt popsicles that Cindy likes.  I suppose you could make an argument that the dark chocolate we eat is also processed.  But that's not going to stop us from eating it, so you might as well shut your pie hole.

We're 40 days in, and you might be wondering how do we feel!?  Well, we feel great.  I notice that my neuropathy symptoms are basically non-existent.  I'm not getting energy slumps in the afternoon, and I'm not stressing about when the next time I'm going to eat will be, because the type of hungry I get doesn't make me crazy or hangry or desperate.  In fact, it feels like the kind of hungry I got when I was a kid, when I could ignore it or not, depending on how interesting things were at the moment.  This, for me, is a revelation.

That said, I do have a couple of things to which I haven't fully cottoned.  First, no legumes?!  The reason why Mark advises against them is because our Paleo ancestors wouldn't have been able to collect as many in the wild to make up a significant part of their diet, and because they are higher on the glycemic index.  I don't know how much I buy that.  I've never been a big bean-eater (they had the texture of tiny bags of chalk to me as a child), but they look so cute and harmless...  Besides, who can really say what our Paleolithic ancestors ate or didn't eat?  I'm sure they ate a lot of things; they lived in a lot of places in a lot of seasons, after all.

Second, bread.  Now bread is a slippery slope for me, because I love bread.  If I allow myself to eat as much bread as I want to, I find myself right back in the throws of my sugar addiction, and that's never a good thing.  After all, given my health history, if I don't play my cards right, there will be one piece of bread in my future that is the one piece of bread that finally turns me into a diabetic.  I would like to play my cards right.

But, Michael Pollan, food guru for us enviro-hippie liberals (and hopefully everyone else, too), made news by taking issue with Paleo. And, while I quibble with a couple of things he's quoted as saying in this article (the Paleo diet doesn't mean you have to eat your food raw, nor is it the Atkins Diet), I think his other points are valid and applicable to the conversation Cindy and I have about how we want to eat - particularly what he says about microbes.  

Although the fact that a person could live on bread alone does prove that there is nutritional value in grains, Cindy and I haven't stopped reading and investigating after The Primal Blueprint.  We're now on to a new book called Grain Brain, by Dr. David Perlmutter.

We're taking turns reading a few sections at a time to each other, and I love it.  We're about half-way though, and he has a lot to say about adding fat to your diet that jives well with Paleo.  I know confirmation bias is probably at work here, but I think there is a lot of value in knowing about the research described in this book.

One of the main things that hits home for me is the idea that the low-fat/high-carb American diet is not only contributing to (causing?) the huge rates of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and cancer in this country, but it is also contributing to or causing strokes (one of which a dear friend recently suffered) and Alzheimer's Disease (which killed my beloved grandmother).  As we read our book together, I can't help thinking of all the people we may have lost due to misguided dietary choices.

Winifred Henning (1918-2005) and Lory Henning (1971-)
We're only half-way through the book, and according to this review, some of what I suspect are going to be Dr. Perlmutter's dietary restrictions in the second half of the book (including largely eliminating fruit from our diet) aren't appropriate for us.  I'll update you when we get to the end and discover how it turns out.

I'm also reading (not out loud) a really fascinating book by Jared Diamond called, The World Until Yesterday.  It's a comparison of tribal, hunter-gatherer and early agricultural societies with modern state societies from all sorts of perspectives (such as war, religion, language, conflict resolution, etc).  The next chapter is going to be about diet and nutrition, and I can't wait to see what this guy has to say about tribal societies' diets!

In the meanwhile, I sure hope Cindy and I are on the right path with our diet and education; I want to live to be 100 years old, so we've got to last for another 58 years at least.   

Oh, and one last thing.  If you're interested in learning more about Mark Sisson's Primal Blueprint, you don't have to buy the book.  You can find everything you need to know on his excellent website.