Wednesday, January 29, 2014

End of January odds & ends

  • You know you're past your childbearing years when... the clerk at Baby Gap hands you a coupon for a new Gap Maternity store that's opening in the city... and suggests that you can pass it along to someone you know who's pregnant.
  • (Which is worse? -- the feeling that people are constantly looking at your midsection for a tell-tale bump and asking if you have any "news"? -- or feeling old & completely invisible?)
  • In fact, I did have someone to pass the coupon along to:  my next-door cubicle neighbour, who is in her mid-30s.  I recently overheard a few conversations about dr's appointments and bloodwork & then one about scheduling an ultrasound. I walked over & said, "Ummm, I don't want to be nosy but I couldn't help but hear..." and she flung her arms around me & squealed, "YES!!" "Oh, that's wonderful!" I told her as I hugged her. And I meant it. 
  • Of course, I am already worrying on her behalf. :p
  • So far, everyone's been too busy (and I guess it's still a bit early-- and not a lot of people know yet) for too much baby talk. But I know it's coming (especially with Grandma Coworker nearby, only too ready to offer advice). She is due in September.
  • It's been a cold January. Damned cold. And I know cold -- I grew up on the Canadian Prairies, after all.  ; )  (But it's a DRY cold there...!) ;)  (Seriously -- it does make a difference!) 
  • Normally, I don't start loathing winter until February. But I am seriously ready for this winter to be over, already. :p
  • Feb. 1st, it will be exactly two years until I can theoretically retire early at 55. We'll see how it all pans out (particularly once dh's severance runs out)... but at the moment, I am leaning towards retiring sooner than later. Life is just too damned short.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

"The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches" by Alan Bradley

If you're a longtime reader of my blog, you might remember that I'm a big fan of Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce mystery series. The previous (fifth) book in the series ended with a bit of a cliffhanger... so I was eagerly awaiting the latest/sixth installment in the series, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

It was also due to be released on Jan. 14th, right around my birthday. In fact, I was in our local mega-bookstore the day before my birthday & looked it up on the store computer. The computer said there were (already) 16 copies in stock. I scoured the store thoroughly, looking on the display tables, in the new release section at the front of the store, the fiction and mystery sections, but there were none to be found. I decided to nab one of the clerks and ask about it. I figured there must be some copies lurking in the back storage room, and I was willing to play the birthday card, if necessary. ; )

Now, every OTHER time I have visited that store, I haven't been able to walk two feet without someone asking if they could help me find something. I wandered up & down the aisles and stood on the steps to an elevated section for a good 20 minutes, looking for someone to help me in my elusive quest. Not a single clerk to be found anywhere, except for two behind the counter, ringing in sales for a long lineup of customers. Figures. :p I had to wait to get my copy on Jan. 14th, like everyone else. :(


It was worth the wait. :)

The book opens as the de Luce family -- and the entire village, as well as some special guests (Winston Churchill??!) -- await the train bearing the casket containing the body of Flavia's mother, Harriet, who went missing years earlier in the Himalayas under still-mysterious circumstances. A stranger whispers a cryptic message into Flavia's ear -- and then, moments later, lies dead on the tracks, pushed under the train by someone in the crowd.  Who killed him and why? And what connection might there be to Harriet's disappearance and death?

The book unfolds over the next few days leading up to the funeral, with Flavia, her father, sisters and others mourning Harriet and dealing with her loss in their own individual ways. This being 1951 Britain, they mostly do so with stiff upper lips firmly in place. Nevertheless, Flavia has some sharp observations to offer on the nature of grief, bereavement, loss and mourning that resonated only too well with me, and likely with others who have also experienced the loss of a loved one. 

If this book sounds interesting to you -- I would strongly recommend that you start with the first book in the series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and read all the books in order. You would probably still enjoy this book as a standalone, but it does build on & refer to characters and events from the past books, and I think you would appreciate it much more if you had ... in context.

I don't seem to have reviewed the initial book in the series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, on my blog, but here's where I've written about the others:

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag
A Red Herring Without Mustard
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
Speaking From Among the Bones

This was book #2 that I have read in 2014 to date.

"Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted" by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Entertainment Weekly (possibly my very favourite magazine) once called "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" the best TV show of all time... and I can't think of too many arguments to the contrary.

I was 9 years old when the MTM show made its debut (around the same time as such other classic series as "All in the Family," MASH" and "The Bob Newhart Show" -- boy, were we spoiled...!), and although I didn't LOVE it from the start, I soon became a faithful follower. It didn't hurt that the show was set in Minneapolis, where I have a lot of relatives. On one early 1970s visit, my uncle drove us by the house where Mary supposedly lived, and past the spot downtown where she threw her hat in the air on the show's opening credits every week. (There's now a statue of her there, capturing the iconic moment.) 

I also loved the MTM spinoff "Rhoda." Rhoda's wedding to her blue collar boyfriend Joe was one of the most-watched TV episodes of all time, and anyone who ever saw it will never forget the sight of Rhoda, running through the streets of Manhattan, trying to hail a cab and finally resorting to riding the subway in her wedding dress to make it to the ceremony on time after Phyllis forgot to pick her up. :)

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong (a former Entertainment Weekly writer) also grew up watching the show, and goes behind the scenes of this TV classic in this book.  Having read Mary Tyler Moore's memoir After All some years ago, I knew some of the stories.  What I like about this book is how it sets the show in the context of its times and explains why it was such a landmark, and how it's continued to influence our culture since then. (I do think the author doesn't give enough credit to earlier shows that paved the way for MTM -- particularly "That Girl" starring Marlo Thomas, which I adored.)

As a 9-year-old, I didn't realize or appreciate just how revolutionary this show was, not just in terms of subject matter, but how it was made. The producers, James Brooks and Allan Burns, made an effort to hire women writers to give Mary and Rhoda authentic female voices, which contributed so much to the show's success.  One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was reading about these women who worked behind the scenes -- their personal stories and the contributions they made to the show.

While the book makes much of Mary and Rhoda's status as single working women, it doesn't mention that they were also childless. I don't remember any discussion of children or wanting children on the show, although I do remember Phyllis's daughter Bess (who seemed to be about my age) making occasional appearances and calling them "Aunt Mary" and "Aunt Rhoda." Another reason why perhaps they have stuck in my mind as role models. :)

I feel so incredibly lucky to have grown up with smart, savvy, funny, independent women like Mary & Rhoda as role models, and I enjoyed this book. It made me want to run out & buy the DVDs to watch all over again. :) If you're a fan of the show too, or interested in the subject of how women are depicted in pop culture, as I am too, I think you will enjoy this book too.

I started this book over Christmas vacation but didn't finish it until early January, so I'll count this as book #1 read in 2014. :)

Monday, January 20, 2014

Loss & Llewyn Davis

Dh & I went to see the movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” on my recent birthday. It was getting rave reviews, it was about folk musicians (we both have some liking for some folk music) in Greenwich Village (which I drove through on a tour bus during my trip to New York this fall), & it was set in 1961, which seemed appropriate (cough cough) for my birthday. 
It was a good movie -- although neither of us felt it was quite as amazing as we had hoped it would be. (I think I liked it better than dh did.) 
I got thinking about the movie again today after reading this article from The Daily Beast, which laments how the movie was mostly shut out of the recently announced Oscar nominations, despite all the critical acclaim – and then hazards a guess at why:    
“This is a film about loss and grief, and not making it—themes that without a looping back narrative of success and transcendence do not resound with Academy members…
"Davis is not only rootless, he is lonely, without hope. Typically in films you root for the hero to overcome staggering odds, to pilot a plane to safety or endure cruelty on a horrific scale. During Inside Llewyn Davis you just wish Davis had a warm coat and that someone would answer when he rings on their doorbell…
"This isn't a film about conquering demons or surmounting impossible odds, it is a film about losing and losing more, the chipping away of character and of hope. It is about losing your dreams, not achieving them, life shrinking, hope diminishing, aspiration dissolving… Inside Llewyn Davis [is] a film of ghosts and disappointment; of a man not meeting the challenge of life.”
The movie WAS a bit of a downer -- a slice of life/week in the life of a would-be folksinger who is down on his luck, at least in part because of his own bad choices. He HAS had some very bad luck, though, including some sad losses we eventually learn about. (There was a point in the movie where I feared that Llewyn was about to follow in the footsteps of his former singing partner.) There's also an element of "Groundhog Day" here -- it seems like Llewyn is destined to keep repeating the same mistakes over & over again -- maybe until (like Bill Murray's weatherman) he learns his lesson?

At the same time, though, no matter how nasty and unlikeable he can sometimes be, Llewyn somehow manages to hang in there. Amazingly, the people he wrongs seem willing to forgive and forget. The couple he insulted at a dinner party he crashed (!) welcome him back to their apartment with hugs and even apologies (!!) and let him sleep on their couch for the umpteenth time. Fellow folksinger Jean, who despises him, nevertheless tips him off to a gig -- at a café where the owner welcomes him back, despite the fact that Llewyn punched him the last time they saw each other. Even the cat who is his companion for a good part of the film tries to follow him out of the apartment (again).  
Heck, I'll admit I have a soft spot for Llewyn myself.  And it's not hard to understand why, when you think about it. OK, maybe I'm stretching things a bit here -- but when I read that part of the article about loss & grief, about losing your dreams & not achieving them, the idea that the absence of “a narrative of success and transcendence” lacks resonance -- well, it all sounded pretty familiar to a childless-not-by choice woman. 
(There are even a few ALI angles in the movie. I'll share one:  At a critical point in the movie, Llewyn auditions for an important music businessman. His choice of material? A mournful ballad about "The Death of Queen Jane" -- King Henry VIII's Wife #3 of 6 -- who gives Henry the male heir he so desperately wants, but then dies from complications shortly afterward.)  
I know a little something about loss & grief, about not achieving your dreams. I know that my story doesn't exactly shout success and hope, at least in conventional story terms and triumph-over-infertility narratives. 
But that doesn't mean that I consider myself a loser, someone whose life is "shrinking, hope diminishing, aspiration dissolving… ghosts and disappointment... not meeting the challenge of life.” Maybe I might have used some of those words a dozen years ago, when I first abandoned infertility treatment. But things change -- or maybe I've changed -- maybe a bit of both. Time heals a lot of wounds and lends an entirely different perspective on things. My life may not be entirely conventional or successful in some people's eyes -- and I may never stop missing my daughter or wishing things had turned out differently. But all in all, I like my life today. I am far happier now than I was back then.  

Personally, I’d like to check back in with Llewyn Davis 10 years later & find out what happened to him, too.  Maybe he never got rich & famous, at folk singing or anything else. (Or, who knows? -- maybe the nasal-voiced guy who takes to the stage in half-shadows at the very end of the movie provides Llewyn with new musical inspiration, as he did for so many others.) But I like to think that, eventually, Llewyn managed to find his way in life.   
Have you seen the movie? What did you think?

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Tomato, tomahto....

Back in the summer of 2008, in the early days of this blog (relatively speaking), I had a weird reaction to something I ate. After much testing, further reactions and a great deal of anxiety and stress on my part :p we eventually pinpointed tomatos as the most likely culprit. You can read about some of the various reactions I went through over the next 2-3 years under the "allergies" category of this blog.

Eliminating tomatos from my diet -- particularly as someone married to an Italian (!!) -- has not been easy.  You don't realize until you can't eat them anymore just how ubiquitous tomatos are. (Sort of like when you're diagnosed as infertile and suddenly start seeing pregnant women & babies everywhere, lol.)  They're chopped in salads and sliced on sandwiches. They're grilled and served as a garnish at some restaurants. They're in salsas and dips, barbecue sauces used on meats. Tomatos and tomato sauce go hand in hand with pasta & pizza. I even had to stop eating plum sauce with my chicken fingers -- one brand that was in my refrigerator listed tomato paste as an ingredient, and who knows what's in the stuff they serve you in restaurants? I've started ordering pasta alfredo & caesar salads, which aren't as healthy as pomodoro sauce and garden salads.  I've learned to read labels, ask questions and straight out tell waiters at restaurants that I have a tomato allergy and would they please double-check with the kitchen. Most of them are happy to comply.

(There was one downtown Toronto restaurant where, four years ago this spring (FOUR YEARS??!), we took my retiring senior manager for a farewell lunch. I ordered veal limone, after asking the waitress and being reassured that it did not contain tomatos. When a plate of veal -- with a suspicious pink glaze -- landed in front of me, I immediately blurted out, "Oh no no -- I can't have tomatos!"  The waitress again assured me that there weren't any tomatos in the dish. I shrugged, took one bite -- and in front of my stunned colleagues, IMMEDIATELY broke out in red blotches. At that moment, the waitress appeared at my elbow with an apology -- she was so sorry, but she had just found out, there WAS tomato paste in the sauce. Despite her reassurances, she hadn't actually checked with the chef before this. Gee, thanks for telling me, lady, after I asked you three times. :p I popped a few Benadryl and one of my colleagues went with me outside to sit on the steps & get some fresh air, before heading back to the office.  For days afterward, I received calls from the restaurant owner, apologizing and asking me to call him, inviting me to return to be his guest, etc. It finally dawned on me that he probably wanted some reassurance that I wasn't going to sue his ass. I called & left a message on his voice mail thanking him for his concern, saying I was all right now, but I'm sure he understood I was not particularly anxious to return to his restaurant anytime soon. And I haven't been back to this day. Do you blame me??)

I do carry Benadryl (which has always worked for me) & an Epi-pen (which I have thankfully never had reason to use) in my purse, and I am happy to say (as I vigorously knock wood) that, thanks to careful avoidance and vigilance, I have not had an episode in more than three years now. 

In fact, the scratch tests done at my last two visits to the allergist showed no major food reactions -- including to tomatos. Go figure?? My former allergist retired a year ago, and in January 2013, I had an appointment with a new one -- a young woman I immediately liked. She did both scratch and blood tests for tomatos and a couple of other foods. Absolutely nothing registered as a problem.

She cautioned me that I should not run out & start eating tomatos willy-nilly. (Not that I was inclined to do so anyway.) She recommended that if I would like to reintroduce tomatos into my diet, I should bring a tomato to her office and eat it in front of her. Even then, she would recommend that I continue to carry the Benadryl and Epi-pen for at least a year.

I told her I would think about it. I was in no rush.

I went back again today for a checkup. Unfortunately, Young Dr. Allergist turned out to be on maternity leave (figures...). Her mat leave replacement was another young woman who noted my lack of reactions over the past few visits, and urged me to give the oral challenge test a try.

I'll admit, the very idea still scares me. But I decided to give it a try.

My appointment is next month. I'm going to book a personal day at work, and dh is going to come with me. We have the first appointment of the day, and we'll bring a couple of fresh tomatos (and a couple of books to help pass the time). She'll do a skin scratch test using juice from one of the tomatos. If I don't get a reaction to that, she'll ask me to eat a small piece of tomato and we'll see what happens.  If nothing happens after that, I'll eat a larger piece. And so on. Not sure how many times we'll repeat the process, but she warned me it will take a few hours. If all goes well, dh & I will celebrate with lunch & a trip to one of the mega-bookstores downtown. If not -- well, I'll be in a safe place with my Benadryl & my epi-pen and my dr, and dh will be with me.

Wish me luck!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Dealing with painful subjects

It's human to shy away from unpleasantness. We all do it from time to time. But when you yourself become the unwelcome reminder that bad things happen to good people -- that some people have difficulty getting pregnant, that some babies die, that not everyone who wants to be a mother gets to be one -- you gain an entirely new perspective on the matter. 

Yesterday's New York Times "Room For Debate" feature highlighted different opinions on and aspects of the subject of"Turning Away From Painful Chapters."

"What happens when we ignore ugly truths about the past -- when families bury their dark secrets, and nations try to forget their sins?" the summary asks. Well, that sure piqued my interest. ; )

The discussion is mostly related to political themes -- the Spanish Civil War, apartheid in South Africa, domestic violence, Jim Crow in the American South -- but I still found that it resonated with my own personal feelings of having my experiences of infertility and miscarriage, my reality as childless woman in a world where moms and babies reign supreme (in popular culture, if not in terms of power and policy...), minimized and ignored. 

And then I came upon on the segment titled "As a Child, I Wanted the Truth." After talking about his childhood experience as the son of Holocaust survivors who refused to discuss their experience, he writes:
Without truth, children have only two sources with which to understand. The first are the myths which can grow like fungi when sunlight is blocked and the dead matter is not cleared. The second are their imaginations. What either one creates is often more terrible than the truth.
Professionally, I am a neonatologist, taking care of sick newborn infants and their families. Much has improved over my 25 years of practice, including a complete reversal on how we help parents talk to their older children when Mom goes to the hospital to have a baby but doesn’t come home with one. Now, we encourage parents to speak honestly with their children about what is happening, at an age-appropriate level. Unlike in years past, children are welcome to visit the neonatal intensive care unit. The concerns we once had were misplaced; it is actually best for them to see their brother or sister, even looking so different from how babies look on TV. Kept ignorant, children imagine monsters far worse than the reality. Knowing what is going on is, almost always, more reassuring. Knowing helps them to understand what the parents are going through and defuses any existential threat that might be provoked in their minds by parental silence, anger or upset. Studies have shown, and my experience confirms, that it is even easier for a child to accept if the worst happens than if they were kept in the dark about how serious it was.
Tragedies like these inevitably shape our personal histories, and when they occur to a large group, they can become part of our national identities. It is far better to be open and honest about them from the start. Otherwise, if those who had direct knowledge stay silent and take the information to their graves, all that is left for the children is the dragons they think they remember. [emphasis mine]
It was so great to see pregnancy loss addressed as part of this discussion! 

I have to admit I am guilty of staying silent far too often. It's hard to talk openly about what happened to me -- partly because it WAS painful. But also because the whole crappy experience is made even more painful by other people's reactions -- and their reluctance to deal with what happened to me -- with what might happen to them, or someone else that they love. 

I guess one of my new year's resolutions might be to do my part, swallow my natural inhibitions, and try to break the silence -- at least a little more often.

Friday, January 3, 2014

"Rocking the Life Unexpected" by Jody Day

As someone who has been blogging about life without children for six (!) years now -- and living the life for 12 (!!) -- I often get comments and questions from women whose fertility journeys have likewise ended without a baby:  How, HOW, they ask, do you "get over" the disappointment of never having children (when you really did want and hope for and plan for them), and move on with your life?  (DO you ever "get over it"?) 

Jody Day, founder of Gateway Women, a fabulous resource for women like us, not only answers "yes" in her wonderful new book, Rocking the Life Unexpected, but outlines a clearly marked route you can follow down this road less travelled.  

The book's description on Amazon calls it "a mixture of autobiography, social history and self-help... a book that blends the personal, the political and the practical to support childless-by-circumstance women to move forward with their lives."

Like the award-winning "Silent Sorority" by fellow blogger Pamela Tsigdinos of Coming2Terms and A Fresh Start, and "I'm Taking My Eggs and Going Home" by Lisa Manterfield, who has created the Life Without Baby blog and online community (both books that I love and recommend highly), Jody tells her personal story in this book -- and no doubt you will find much to relate to there. 

Beyond her personal story, though, Jody analyzes the role of childless women in our world, today and in the past -- how we got here -- and the implications for a society that seems besotted with motherhood at the same time that more and more women are remaining childless. She brings up a lot of great points that I didn't know about or hadn't considered before, and I hope that marketers, policymakers and politicians are paying attention to what she has to say.

Finally, Jody, who is working to become a psychotherapist, walks readers through the construction of a concrete plan for a satisfying life without children -- including creative exercises designed to help you to work through your grief, envision what a good life without children might look like (to you), and how you can create that life for yourself. The exercises were developed as part of the workshops Jody has developed & delivered to childless women in the U.K., and can be used in a group setting or privately, at your own pace.

This is a landmark book, and I can't recommend it highly enough. : ) While you might have difficulty finding it in your local bookstore, it's available online in both electronic and paperback formats.

(This was book #25 that I read in 2013.)