Saturday, September 26, 2009

My First Visit

I went to visit my first hospice patient today.

It was a beautiful day. After several days of rain that broke a months long drought and heat wave, the sun was out, the sky dotted with small clouds, the air was clear, clean and cool as I drove to the nursing home.

Mr. B. lives in a very upscale nursing home in the hills west of Austin. He is in his early eighties and has been diagnosed with a 'failure to thrive', which essentially means that he has no hope of recovery from his illness. I found out today that this is an infection deep in his back that has resisted all attempts to fight it off and has now taken over. He is bed-bound.

I learned this from his nephew, J., whom I recognized from another life, so to speak. Years ago--thirty to be exact--I worked at a private club downtown whose members were among Austin's elite,powerful and wealthy. J. was a young real estate developer back in the day, and we instantly recognized each other. It was one of those synchronistic moments; just meant to be.

J. agreed to intorduce me to Mr. B., so he and I and his attendant R. all went in and gathered round Mr. B's bed. J. told him I was a friend from thirty years ago, whihc seemed to have some resonance.

Mr. B. was clearly pleased to see someone new. He was also pleased to see someone older (or who at least appeared older--after all, J. is likely ten years my senior) because he looked right at me and said "You've got some years on you!" He stroked his chin with a smile.

"Indeed" I said, realizing that my white beard was valuable 'coin' in this realm, where so many caregivers seem like they are right out of high school.

I have to say that the staff I met today were young, of course, but the most professional and caring individuals I've encountered in this environment. Of course my experiences with Lynda were limited by finances. While I thought we did pretty good with what we had, it's clear that I could have done better for Lynda.

With three of us in the room it felt a little crowded, so I did not stay. I told Mr. B. that I'd come by just to introduce myself and schedule another time to come see him. He seemed quite pleased to hear that I would come back tomorrow at ten. He said he would be 'honored', but I am quite sure it's the other way round.

So I will go again tomorrow to find out more about him and see what, if anything, I can do for him. The nurse told me that he likes classical music, particularly opera, so the stacks of CD's that Lynda left me may be destined for him.

I have no real plan nor expectation other than being present tomorrow. We'll see what happens.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tree Tag

On my walk to work this morning, I found a small round aluminum tag on the ground next to the sidewalk. On it is stamped the number 187. Near the top is a tiny hole, through which a bent nail protrudes.

I have a habit of scanning for small bits of metal on the ground wherever I walk.

It's a habit left from childhood, when finding a penny actually meant something like two pieces of candy at the drugstore. I still pick up pennies. Coins of all size or nationality, actually, but no penny is not worth my time.

Nor are other bits of metal too useless to induce me to stoop for them, even enduring dirty fingers till I can clean my prize. I rarely pass up a whole assortment of detritus. Size matters though, since I don't fancy lugging around anything that is too big to fit in my shirt pocket.

Still I have quite a collection of bits of wire, sheet metal, washers, slugs, nuts, bolts, litlle once-molten drops of solder (a favorite), welding rod scraps, keys, rings and earrings.

In D.C. during the inauguration I collected at least a dozen earrings with the help of David and Valery, who are quite sharp-eyed. They had no interest in the other items on my list of acceptables, but suffice it to say that earrings were only a part of the trip's collection.

The 187 tag, while it may not have a significant cash value, turns out to be something of a special memento. It's unique.

It's a tree tag. So far as I know, the City of Austin has tagged every single tree of significant size in central Austin. It's easy to spot them. They are usually nailed in at about eye level and are stamped with a three digit number. I'm guessing that there is a database-imaybe just a simple spreadsheet--that coordinates these numbers with other information about the tree, like type, age, gps coordinates, etc.

So, when I picked up the tag and realized what it was, I began looking for the tree it had surely fallen from. I thought of vandals, wondering about the why of it all. I turned to the nearest tree, a foot away, to put it back. As to how I might do this I gave no thought; I don't carry a hammer in my bag.

But there was already a tag on the tree. Number 186.

Oh I thought, it's one down the other way. There were no other trees. I looked down and saw the fresh stump for the first time. My heart sank. Now how did I miss that?

I hope that all boys and girls who ever climbed a tree and really loved it will say a small mantra or prayer at the sight of a stump--especially a fresh one--for what we have been given by that tree. Even--perhaps especially--when it is not 'our' tree; one we've never had the honor to climb.

I collected the tag with an awkward bow to the absent tree and said silently, 'you'll be missed'.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

On the Appetite of the Aged

Of the many things we must abandon as we get older, one of the very last to go is appetite.

Even people who are terminally ill somehow manage to get hungry. And yet--despite adverse circumstances that are unrelated to their health--they still manage to eat.

What circumstances could be more adverse than a fatal illness, you ask?

Bad food.

While refusal to eat could be interpreted as a sign that a person is close to death, it might be more easily seen a sign that the food is so damn bad that even a dying man can't eat it.

That's pretty bad.

And yet, it seems to be the norm for most institutions. The excuse is often made that the ill and the elderly don't want food with too much flavor. That's just a cover-up for lazy thinking, and quite possibly, a lazy cook.

The lazy thinking comes from the notion that old people want bland food. No one ever asks the them if this is actually the case. It's taken as a given; using the lowest common denominator to define the entire class of 'diners' in a hospital or nursing home.

Now this doesn't--or shouldn't--come as a surprise. We already follow this formula in schools, to the detriment of the students' health and the school's budget. Kids don't eat the food. It goes in the wastebasket. The school lunch program ends up looking more like a make-work program for #10 can cooks than a health or income benefit for the students they are supposed to feed.

The question of appetite hasn't changed, however, from grade school to the nursing home.

Well, slightly. It is true, of course, that older people simply don't have the appetite that they once had. It is true that because they have so much less physical activity, the need to eat is greatly reduced. After all, recess no longer involves a long chase around the playground. Now it's a trip down the hall to physical therapy.

But just because the 'kids' are no longer 'starving' doesn't mean they aren't hungry.

And yet, when nursing home residents get to the table, they get wet warm salad, canned peaches with watered-down cottage cheese, stewed prunes, salisbury steak, rubbery skinless boneless chicken, fish sticks and chicken fingers. No salt, no pepper, paprika, no peppers of any kind. No salsa. No sabor.

We can do better. We don't have to be so damned lazy.

Now, I'm not saying that we need gourmet cuisine in nursing homes and hospitals. I certainly have no illusions about the poor eating habits and habitual preferences of most Americans. I do think, however, that we are underestimating most old and infirm people's desire for flavorful food. I also think we are underestimating their willingness to try new and interesting things, even at an advanced age.

Since 'quality of life' is such an admittedly important aspect of the whole aging and dying process, I think that improving the 'quality of food' might just be worth the effort. It might not save lives, but it would make what's left of them more enjoyable.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Circle Expands

We have, in our household, created a tradition of sorts. When we gather round the dinner table, no matter the number, before we begin eating, we form a circle. We always join hands for a moment and say 'thank you' for the blessings we feel have been bestowed upon us that day. It has become a standard line, one with which all diners at the Dubov's are familiar:

"Thank you, Lord, for bringing us all together, for one more day."

With hands still joined in a circle, each person says what they are thankful for, that day, that minute or just in general. We laugh. We roll our eyes. It's all good.

We began this little tradition when our children were very small. The thought is that while we are all inclined to say what we are thankful for on Thanksgiving, when such considerations are expected, it would be useful to remember what makes us grateful on each and every day.

In the early days, Lynda would often join us. Given her age, I was mindful of the day when we wouldn't be "all together". In a way, it was a hedge against the certain future. Then, when Lynda died it seemed ironic, after all this time. And when Pierre died it seemed tragic.

But we kept forming that circle, night after night, no matter how many--or few--hands actually joined together for that one more day. Some days, it seemed like we said it out of habit; other days it was especially meaningful.

Given the events of the past couple of years, it often felt more like the former than the latter.

Then, when Nora was born, the circle expanded. Although she did not yet partake of Valery's fabulous cuisine, Nora came--with her parents in tow, of course--to Dine with the Dubovs.

Now, while I might have expected this--for Nora's birth came as no surprise--and I've had some time to consider how it might change our lives, the perfection of the circle came as revelation to me.

What circle is not perfect?

Unlike all other symbolic forms, the circle can contract or expand while losing nothing and gaining all. I see that death diminishes the circle not, for the absent, whether they be passed on, or merely in D.C., Michigan, California or across town, are always with us.

Those not or no longer in the circle are always there, in the hands held, the eyes met, the smiles mirrored. Birth, though it may not improve upon the perfection of the circle, expands it to encompass more hearts. The pulse of the family grows stronger.

The circle binds us by defining us. To be bound to anything is an curse to some; for me, the circle of hands around the table is life. Why shouldn't it be so?

I am bound so many things it seems pointless to rail against them all, or even one. I am bound by gravity to this sphere, by love to this woman, by honor to this family. Best of all to me is the fact that while so little of my life is actually of my making, I am undeniably made real and my life is given its value, by the bindings that are these relations.

Without that circle I would not wish to exist. That's easy enough to say, and may sound odd to others, as if spoken by the goldfish to the hungry housecat. Of course I like my little sphere. And my little rose. Is it merely because I know no different?

I know not.

What I know is this: When her soft cry mingled with the sound of clinking glasses, laughter and good conversation, Nora joined our circle. After but a few short weeks in this world, she's found her way to one of it's sweet spots.

Tout le monde! A table!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Micro-Markers

In re-reading Malcolm Gladwell's Blink recently, I was caught up by his account of the emperical evidence of what I call 'micro-markers'. These are tiny, almost imperceptible changes in physical behavior that confirm the old saw, 'Fake it till you make it.'

The evidence is that simply holding one's face muscles differently, ie smiling or frowning, can influence one's thoughts and emotions either positively or negatively

This made me think that facial muscles are only one of many ways that physical conditions will affect thoughts and emotions.  Obviously, posture has long been known as a 'marker' of this observation, but what about the hundreds is not thousands of 'mirco-markers' that our other muscle groups make on our minds?

It could be very interesting to develop a method for identifying key 'micro-markers' that are relatively easy to change in order to modify behavior.

Athletes, for example, could benefit from observing not just their form while in action, but also while supposedly inactive.  The golfer's stance while waiting for the tee; the baseball player while waiting on deck; the tennis player between points.

Other behaviors, rightly considered to be unwelcome ticks, or even unhealthy habits, could also be modified with careful observation and posture therapy. 

Of course, it would require intense and rigorous research that could take years, but the accumulation of data would distinguish it from more popular and less serious diet and 'holistic' based therapies.

Ok, so it won't cure schizophrenia, but it might cure that slice.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A New Adventure

Yesterday I began what I think will be an interesting experience, possibly even an adventure of sorts. I volunteered for Hospice Austin.

Actually, I began this process earlier this year by meeting with the volunteer coordinator for Hospice Austin. Our interview went well and I was accepted. Alas, I had just missed one of the training session that all volunteers are required to go through, so I had to wait till yesterday to finally get started.

About thirty of us gathered in a small windowless room on the second floor of the Hospice offices in northwest Austin. We were a diverse group. One of the first things we did was to go around the room, introduce ourselves and say why we were there.

Most of the people were women, though there was a good number of men. Most people were older, but there were a few young people as well. Most of people had recently lost someone they loved, and since Hospice had been there for them, they were there to give something back. One young woman admitted that she was not there to pay anything back, but to pay it forward. A young doctor had come to find a way to change the way she dealt with death. A middle aged chef with four children came to help others after his mother died. A middle aged woman who had recently lost her forty-four year old husband came to help others accept what they could not fight.

When it was my turn, I wish I'd been more articulate, but the essence of what I said was this:

'Like others, I came because I want to give back, certainly. I lost my mother about two years ago and honestly, Hospice did very little for her. But it is what they did for me that I remember. That's what I want to pass on. I am also a bit selfish. I am a writer and I want to write about it.'

Naturally, when I got back home and was talking with my family, I thought of other, equally important reasons for doing this. Someone said that it would be too hard for them; they'd been too sad all the time. I can see how that would be a natural reaction for some, perhaps even many. Death and dying is still a very difficult 'place' for people to 'go', so to speak precisely because it is associated with so much sadness and guilt.

What I learned from Lynda's death, however, is that it was the illness, not the death that made me feel so sad and guilty. It was the loss of dignity and the quality of life that I came to regret, not the passing of my Mother. In fact, her passing was the moment of release, the lifting of the burden that illness and pain had placed upon us all at her end. Death itself was a great relief.

That this sentiment is shared by so many after the passing of a loved one is testament to it's validity. We want to feel bad, or even worse than we felt while they were dying, but we can't. The obviousness of the change is too great, and the freedom is too keenly felt to deny. Many will, however, but only to their detriment. Far better is to admit that we've been longing for this moment, craving the release for our loved ones as much as for ourselves.

So, that here the message that I hope to bring to others--especially the caregivers--as part of this process: 'I have come from the 'other side' to tell you that you will survive, you will get stronger. Although you are powerless to change the circumstances of their death, you will not regret the passing of your loved one. Death is freedom.'

Training will last two weeks, after which I will get my first assignment. At this point I have no idea how it will actually work out. I was concerned about having enough time to serve meaningfully, but I was assured that a few hours a week will be sufficient. Volunteers, after all, are not really on the front lines, but they are a vital part of the Hospice effort.

So begins the adventure.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Authonomy

Both readers of this journal know that as part of my effort to practice this craft, I have here posted now six chapters of a long-overdue novel I've taken to calling 'Fire & Ice'.

It's long overdue because I actually wrote it nearly twenty years ago. To be fair, I didn't actually write the novel, but while working a perfectly boring job as a receptionist while starting my 'career' at the University, I had enough free time between answering the phones and opening the mail to bang out an outline for twenty four chapters. I called it a 'step-sheet' for lack of a better term. To me it was not a simple outline, but a step-by-step telling of the plot. All that was missing, I felt, was a bit of narration, some description, some dialog and voila! Novel!

Right? Right.

Well, twenty years later, with the burst of hypergraphia brought on by Pierre's death, after about a year of nightly scratching in my journal and practicing short prose and silly rhymes on Facebook, I felt it was about time to really roll up my sleeves and see if I couldn't just make it happen. After all, it was--is--all worked out. Just have to fill in the gaps.

Right? Right.

To do this I set up a project. I made a plan. I decided to write a chapter a week for six months. If my math is right, that would be all twenty four chapters. I'd have a fully written novel. Well, fully written except for editing. But one step at a time. Write first, then edit. If I start thinking about the whole thing, I won't get anything done.

Right? Write!

To be honest, I haven't actually kept to the schedule, since I think it's been about twelve weeks since I started and I only have six chapters written, but I think that it's better than no writing at all for twenty years.

All that writing, even if it was only a small piece of the imagined whole, began to add up. Soon I had more than twelve thousand words. Both readers know this, yes? Yes.

That's actually a significant number, as it turn out, for last week I encountered something that has changed the way I look at writing and perhaps the way I actually get published.

Readers may know that the process to get a book published is a closed one. Publishers do not look at what they call 'unsolicited' manuscripts. In order for a manuscript to make it into print, it has to be brought to the editor's desk by an agent. Publishing houses make use of many agents, relying on the pile of manuscripts they bring in to provide the list of titles that will make money for them in the coming months and years. They call it the 'slush pile'.

Harper Collins, which is a UK-based publishing house, has decided to make use of the internet and the whole social networking 'phenomenon' to provide a way for authors--new and old, published or unpublished--to, as they say, "Beat the slush pile." It's a web site, called Authonomy.

The way it works is pretty simple. In order to register for the site--and make your book available for reading and comments--you have to have written at least ten thousand words. While this sounds like a lot, it's just about a third or even a quarter of a 'regular' book, so it means that while you don't necessarily need to have a finished work, you must have enough written to qualify you as a 'legitimate' writer.

By that I mean that one simply has enough accumulated words to
a) consider oneself a 'writer' and
b) have enough written enough to appreciate the effort required to call oneself the same.

Writers are also readers on the site, and books are ranked according to their popularity, or the number of people who have 'backed' the book. It's sort of like the star rating system used for music or food, except that the ratings are also tied to what they call 'talent spotters' or people who have the knack for picking the best authors early.

Then, at the end of each calendar month, the top five books are submitted to the actual publisher's desk at Harper Collins (UK) for consideration alongside all the others in their current 'slush pile'.

Of course, it's not a promise to publish, any more than having an agent get your work in the pile is a promise to publish. It is one more path up the mountain, so to speak. It is a very big mountain, on that we are all agreed.

On the downside, it can be argued successfully that this sort of handicapping system--that is meant to vaguely resemble the algorithms that Google uses to determine page rank and relevance--results in comments and recommendations that trend toward the positive.

In other words, the whole effort can be perceived as little more than a beauty contest.

In large part, on this site, how one's book ranks depends on how much 'networking' one does with the other authors. And since there is very little serious criticism from 'fellow' writers, many works get a lot of attention even though they are not really quality writing, or even publishable.

My own work, Fire & Ice, falls into this category. Because the subject has already been covered in the current best seller list, there is no real likelihood that it will actually get published. But that hasn't stopped it from becoming fairly popular on Authonomy.

When I put it up on the site, Fire & Ice ranked at the very bottom, of course, somewhere around 3,500. But within a week, it had already rising 2000 spots, and in two weeks, it's gone to number 467.

For the two weeks that it has been on the site, Fire & Ice has gone to number 15 on the weekly list, and if you sort by thriller, currently it is number five. Yesterday it made it all the way to number one in it's genre! It's back down to five today because as more books enter the system and their ratings rise, other ratings (mine) will fall.

Right now, though, on Authonomy, Fire & Ice is rising, and fast!

Keep in mind, though, that was just for the week. In in order to make it to the 'Editor's Desk' as they call it, my book must be one of the top five for the month.

With that caveat in mind, I have been enjoying the 'success'. Here are a couple of the things that people have said, for example:

One of the most polished pieces of writing i have seen on here for a long while. I was sucked into the story without being aware of an author! Only the characters. I love your description.

Just loved what I read of Fire and Ice. Superb prologue and smooth prose. Unlike some books on here, I was straight into yours without even thinking. The contrast between the prologue and ch 1 is marked and engrossing; the tense, acrimonious exchanges between Glen and Hyde make great reading. Your descriptions of Hyde eating were totally gross!
I love mystery tales like this, and Fire and Ice feels like it will be up there with the best.

So you can see that there is a trend toward cream-puff reviews. I have nonetheless gotten some very valuable advice and specific points to edit. the result has been a re-write of the first six chapters that has not only improved the work itself, but the quality of my writing as a whole.

So, even though this is mostly just an exercise at the moment, I am profiting by it. My second novel, tentatively called "Eighty-Sixed" is already on the drawing board.

In case you missed it above, here is the link:Fire & Ice

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Of Hot Sauce and Peppercicles

This was the weekend for food contests. Valery entered not one but two contests this week, and both came to a climax on Sunday.

One of these events was the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival. Readers will recall that Valery's already won this event, as well as having placed second a couple of times. This means that her hot sauce is good, Damn good, if you ask me.

The reason it is so good is because it's made fresh. So many people either cook or puree their sauces to the point where little is recognizable other than the red color. Technically, I guess that Valery's sauce is a 'pico' rather than an actual salsa, but what makes it so good, what sets it apart from all the others, is the freshness.

Valery shops for the ingredients at the Farmer's market the day before, then gets up and makes the salsa from scratch on the morning of the competition. There is no cooking involved, but a lot of chopping, dicing, mincing, grating, and, of course, tasting. The texture's important, but we all know that it's all in the taste. Valery's got that wired.

Alas, she didn't win this year.

She says, 'been there, done that' but I know it's a disappointment. The only consolation is the fact that it always feels good to compete, to do something, even if you don't win, or even place. It's a tired cliche, but the reward's in the doing, not in the winning. Ok, so that's not going to satisfy Valery's competitive nature, but it will keep her going, trying it again.

She's not been satisfied with trying the same thing, however. This past week, she also entered Central Market's Hatch Chile recipe contest, with not just one, but two very inventive and interesting ideas.

The first was Hatched Chile Soup. The idea here was very simple and the presentation very clever.

The soup consisted of roasted hatch chiles, vegetable stock, egg yolks and a bit of cream. After a brief bit of heat to cook the eggs and warm the stock, the ingredients are blended until creamy.

Then came the clever bit. The presentation was in a 'hatched' egg shell. She poured a bit of the soup into the cleaned out eggshell, then topped it with a generous dollop of creme fraiche. The finishing touch was the hatch chile stem garnish, emerging from the hatched egg soup.

Clever and delicious! I tasted it and can testify. I thought she had a lock with this one

But Valery wasn't done yet. Now that she was going full steam, so to speak, she came up with another great idea at literally the last minute.

In a span of about twenty minutes before the deadline, she came up with her second recipe, Watermelon Hatch Chili Peppercicles. Again, it had both the flavor and the cleverness a recipe needs to be considered. But she didn't have time to test it out, so she just typed up the recipe and entered it in the contest.

Oh, and there was one catch. She couldn't enter twice. Only one entry per household.

Now, Henry was staying with us that day and had already helped Valery write up the recipe for her Hatched Chili Soup, so he suggested that Valery enter the Peppercicle recipe under his name.

You see where this is going. Henry got the call back from the coordinator, who told him that out of the several thousand recipes submitted to Central Market, they picked seven. The Watermelon Peppercicles was one of them.

Needless to say, this was both a delight for Valery and a bit of chagrin as well. After all, not only were the Peppercicles a last-minute thought, they weren't even tested.

The next step was to actually make the Peppercicles for the judges.

Since Henry lives in Nacodoches, he couldn't come to the judging, but he called the coordinator for the event and they agreed to let him send Valery as his proxy.

Meanwhile, Valery was quickly assembling the ingredients and testing it out. She only had a day to prepare, and this at the same time she was preparing for the Hot Sauce Festival.

Sunday morning, after she finished her hot sauce entry and delivered it to Waterloo Park, she came back home to knock out the Peppercicles. In just a couple of hours, they were in the freezer, waiting for the trip to the judges.

I went to get some dry ice and a little cooler to transport them in, and this proved to be fortuitous because when they came out of the freezer, the Peppercicles weren't completely frozen. Packed next to the dry ice, however, by the time she arrived at the store, they were frozen solid.

Judging took place at Central Market South, right in next to the potatoes and onions.

Valery and the other seven participants brought their dishes up to the judges one at a time. Valery went second, finishing each Peppercicle with a bit of shaved pink Hawaiian sea salt to bring out the sweet and hot flavor of the frozen treat.

The judges seemed to like them, and finished them all off in just a few bites. Then, the wait began while they tallied up the results.

Sadly, Valery's wonderful little treat was beat out by a pizza!

Can you believe it? I am not sure what the criteria were exactly, but I can't imagine that a pizza is any more flavorful than then Peppercicle and not even nearly as clever. In fact, I'd say it was a downright disappointment that the judges went with such a mundane selection. Bleh!

What's encouraging here is the fact that Valery is not just competing, but she's doing well at it. While I am not surprised, because I know how creative and talented she is in the realm of food, I am delighted because I think this will lead to bigger and better things.

Look out Pillsbury Bake Off! Valery is in the house!