My Right Boob - A Body Part Story in Parts. Part 9

I Used to Be An Overachiever

Lately, as a “self-employed” artist, I feel that I have napped away my former title of Overachiever. Whereas Our Oncology Lab has consistently been underachieving by being late and unhelpful. Friday, mere moments away from my surgery (okay, five days away), The Lab finally released my Oncotype DX, which is not a new phone, but a crucial score that predicts cancer recurrence by grading all of one’s genetic information into a neat crystal-ball-style package.

Now, I can at least temporarily reclaim my title of overachiever by getting the clean, low score of 11. Like in golf, the low score wins. It means I have very few markers in my DNA that would lead one to think that breast cancer may crop up its crabby head again.

Although its unhelpful and unwise to try to lay blame for illness, Drew and I have mused about why I, with little genetic help, developed this cancer. There are a lot of risk factors for breast cancer, including ones that I am guilty of, such as alcohol use, being overweight, and getting old, there are also studies that show exposure to a wide range of chemicals can increase your risk of breast cancer. What sort of chemicals might I have been exposed to that might have switched a cell toward nefarious purposes? If I were a firefighter, this cancer would be considered eligible for full compensation as a work-related illness. As I am a firefighter’s wife, even though for years I was exposed to second-hand outgassing of my husband’s clothes, skin, hair and even his “turnouts,” brought home to be washed after fires, I do not have the same protections. Now, firefighters’ partners do not come into contact with such chemicals, as uniforms and turnouts are no longer even allowed in the fire station common areas after fires – they are removed and professionally cleaned – but our firefighting career started many years before the link between the chemicals coming off the smoke of a house filled with plastic and polyesters was understood. The smell of smoke was proof of accomplishment – not the proof of carcinogenic exposure that it is today. 

Still, such thoughts are unhelpful and hurtful towards the unblameable. Today, we fix it. Tomorrow, we live a life balanced as best we know how between fun and safety.

What I remember.

Pre-op “rooms” are the worst part about surgery at Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland. I remember this from my last surgery there in 2012. They are crowded and the curtains between patients are inadequate. But I suppose it’s convenient for the pre-op staff having everyone within arm’s reach. Then they gave me drugs.

What I don’t remember.

We were notified that the surgery would last eight long hours, but that the doctors would check in with Drew every two hours. Knowing now how attentive and awesome he has been as a post-surgery nurse does it bother me that he took some of that time to sneak out to the spring RV show at the Portland Expo? Maybe a little. I mean. CANCER. SURGERY. It just doesn’t fit in with how totally fantastic and helpful he has been every other moment of the ordeal. I mean. But he did bring me some awesome brochures.

Mic’ed Up.

I woke up in the Critical Care Center (the words “Intensive Care Unit” are so last week). People always tell you that you seem loopy after surgery but when I woke up in the CCC, I wouldn’t call myself so much loopy as sleepy. If you’re sleepy enough, you can sleep through the white noise that is actually the sound of venous flow through the teeny tiny microphone implanted in your own reconstructed breast. You can almost but not quite sleep through the nurse coming in every hour, spreading gel on tiny ultrasound wands, and listening to your own heart beat through the former abdominal arteries in your own new breast.

This is a prayer shawl my friend brought me from her church. Beautiful, isn’t it?

This is a prayer shawl my friend brought me from her church. Beautiful, isn’t it?

Mostly that night I watched the clock. As sleepy as I was, it was hard to continually go back to sleep after the hourly boob checks, while listening to your own venous flow which sounds like something between a baby ultrasound and a white noise machine turned up to eleven. It’s amazing how slow time goes by when you are waiting for morning. Drew will be coming back in the morning.

There’s not really any hospital food in the CCC. Most critical patients are too sick to think of something as prosaic as eating, but I was hungry by the next morning. I’m pretty sure the toast that my nurse brought me was from the toaster in the nurses’ station. It tasted good and buttery. If you meet a critical care nurse, shake their hand. They are a one-in-a-million kind of angel person.

I stayed in the CCC for about 24 hours. I was able to move to a regular oncology post-surgery room Thursday night, but I was not able to leave the hourly boob ultrasound checks behind. My new night nurse got frustrated by not being able to sneak in and perform her checks without waking me up. I don’t know what sort of patients she has had in the past who can sleep through someone poking them in the boob while they listen to a staticky noise machine.

New Normal

My new boob looks like a hard, quilted flesh brick. My nurses explain to each other at shift change that this is how it’s supposed to look. My tummy looks rather scooped out with a scar across the top of my pubic hair from hip to hip, and a scar around my belly button. It is apparent that the flesh has been cut in a football shape, some of which was used to cover skin loss from the mastectomy and the fluff of which has been borrowed to fashion into a boob, and the ends have been stretched together to cover the missing yardage. Since the skin over the belly button is now a different stretch of skin, a hole has been made and my belly button is peeking out through the new hole.

It is all very surreal, and I prefer not to gaze too long at any of it. It will all look better in time. Apparently, quite a bit of time. I am required to lie on my back only, with my bed raised at a 35 to 45-degree angle. For now, yes, but also for the next six weeks at least. When I am able to walk, I must walk with a stooped back like an old lady with a hump until my stomach skin grows back enough to allow me to stand upright without pulling out stitches. This will get old. I know because I am writing this from the future.

Pooping as A Spectator Sport

Friday, my nurse is one of those highly experienced, no-nonsense late-career nurses with which you feel instantly comfortable. Let’s call her Ann. Her CNA today is Kevin (let’s call him that). Within minutes of meeting him, I learn that he is training for an ultramarathon run which will take him to each Legacy hospital within the Portland Metro area, he has already run an ultramarathon of his own design in which he ran 140 laps around this hospital to celebrate its 140thanniversary, he moved here from Ohio with nothing and no plans, and started at the hospital as a janitor and worked his way up to CNA. The Legacy Health organization is his family, mentor, and lifeline. You couldn’t find a more dedicated, enthusiastic worker. He goes about his job as he was trained, one step at a time, exactly as he was taught. 

Opiate pain relievers have one fantastic upside – they relieve pain. The downsides are worrisome, but there is only one downside that doctors and nurses have some power over: constipation. And they tackle that one like they Really Need A Win. In the first 48 hours, I was prescribed two separate laxatives AND a suppository for good measure. Luckily, my nurses allowed me to forego the suppository IF I could prove capable of producing a poo before they started to worry.

Today it is my duty to poop. Groggy from surgery and pain medication, with a Foley catheter in place, three drains emerging from my surgical wounds and unable to use my stomach muscles or right arm, I am in no shape to have a comfortable, private poo. I feel stirrings. With the warring opiates and laxatives on board, I am worried about missing an opportunity and allowing the poo to stay and bake too long, but also worried about missing a more urgent opportunity and allowing the poo to escape when I am not ready. This requires, um, surgical precision, timing-wise. I request a chance to make an attempt. That means mobilizing Ann and Kevin, lowering the bed, helping me turn on my side and flail my legs toward the ground, then propping me up, letting the initial wooziness run its course, then helping me to walk, NOT to the bathroom (too far) but the two or three steps to a commode plopped into the middle of the room. After the mobilization of the whole team, the effort fails and I am brought back to the bed in dishonor. Don’t worry, they say, we will try again later.

A few hours later, it becomes abundantly clear what urgency really feels like, and I assemble the team for one more try. Roll over, legs over, heft my upper body up, walk one, two steps, lower the bum, and wait. The ungodly smell of pooping into a bucket makes it obvious that I have succeeded and that everyone in the room with a nose has made an enormous error career-wise. I have never felt so relieved and undignified in my entire life. Pooping into a bucket in front of two other humans who are not so hygienically challenged as yourself is an experience I wish on no one, but when you need to poop, you must play the cards you are dealt.

The flashbacks of the humiliating moment of Nurse Ann cleaning my bottom like some kind of saint while she breathes in the fumes I just produced has me occasionally wiping tears off my face for the remainder of my stay. For days afterward, every single moment that hangs with the smallest amount of pathos makes me cry. This public poop has broken my emotional reserve like nothing ever has before and I don’t know if I will ever have trouble crying at a sad movie again. The experience may have permanently moved my tear ducts closer to my eyes.

Saturday, the Occupational Therapist showed me how to use a walker to lead my nursing crew carrying IV drips and Foley bags to the bathroom and back in order to be able to poop in water. Later, she thinks I am crying because she snapped at me for bringing a washcloth I used to wipe my arm too close to my chest (arm germs too close to chest surgical site!). No, although her snappy bark was a little unprofessional, I was just trying to recover from the most recent bathroom indignity. I don’t know how much of this I have left before I spontaneously combust from embarrassment. 

I have a new set of colored pencils that turn into watercolors when you add a little water. Easy to play with in a small 5” x 8” sketch pad while lounging in a recliner, which is my job for the next few weeks.

I have a new set of colored pencils that turn into watercolors when you add a little water. Easy to play with in a small 5” x 8” sketch pad while lounging in a recliner, which is my job for the next few weeks.

Planning My Escape

By Saturday I am campaigning hard to be released. I have already quit taking any narcotics and have switched to Tylenol only. I have for two days insisted on spending most of the day in a chair rather than in a bed. I am doing laps in the room and asking nurses to hold my IV while I tool around the unit with my walker. I just need to convince my doctor that I can go home without undoing all his handiwork by lifting a teakettle or pulling up my own pants. Saturday goes by without any promises, but I have hope that if my chart continues to show my active, pooping, non-opiate-taking lifestyle, I can get rid of these IV lines in my hand and slip the surly bonds of this hospital ID bracelet.  

Sunday is the day. Doctor Cruise is skeptical of my choice to go fully non-opiate, worrying that the pain will raise my blood pressure, which will put an undue burden on his beautiful stitches. He gave us one last lesson (with charts and diagrams on the white board) about the (a) the lengths he went to in order to provide me with the best ab-breast, and (b) where I currently am on the risk curve that starts very high in the hours after surgery and curves down to out-of-the-woods in the weeks after (hint: I’m somewhere in the middle). He also reiterated his requirement that I must bend at the waist whenever I walk to keep the strain off my abdominal stitches – hence the walker. But in the end, he gave me his blessing and soon after the tubes started to disappear. First the Foley (good riddance), then the IV lines in my hand (what a relief). Then all that was left was to pack up our old stuff and our new stuff (my brand-new walker and tub full of wound and drain dressings) and vamoose. 

More color for the sake of color. I feel like a kid with a brand-new box of crayons.

More color for the sake of color. I feel like a kid with a brand-new box of crayons.

We vamoose. Drew is thrilled. I am thrilled. I am also scared that the thing on my chest will never really look like a breast. It certainly doesn’t right now. I also don’t really trust my cat to not jump on my chest while I’m asleep, nor do I trust my pup not to do something reckless and stupid. (So far, with a few threats, they have obeyed).

Now, one week later, the drains have been removed from both wounds, but my chest is still swollen and lumpy. My doctors have all checked it this week and assured me that it is healing correctly, but I must take their word for it. Days are filled with ambitious intentions disintegrating into naps and backaches from walking around stooped.

Time stretches into space for the impatient.

Someday soon I will frolic like a greyhound again. Soon.

Someday soon I will frolic like a greyhound again. Soon.

My Right Boob - A Body Part Story in Parts. Part 8

I’m a Variant, Not a Mutant

When the lab guys were good and ready, they released my genetic test results. Although I haven’t seen them for myself (maybe they are too blindingly scientific for the layman’s naked eye), my oncologist called me to assure me that there are no heavy-duty bad news mutations in them. There is one Variant of Unknown Significance in the ATM gene (that’s VUS, not RUS), which is less bad than a mutation in that gene. She considers it not necessarily a misspelling of the gene, but just an alternate spelling. Like Olde English or something. I am a little skeptical about just how alternate, as my wiki-reading tells me that (a) a properly functioning ATM gene is important in regulating the growth rate of cells and (b) certain mutations in the ATM gene are clinically significant in both breast (got it) and melanoma (had it) cancers. Still, the doctor says not to worry, so that’s what I’m not doing.

rus1.gif

The Sick Room is Coming Together

Drew is adamant that my post-surgical right arm shall not be used for lifting of even the featheriest things as he is already envisioning those half-a-hair-width sutures snapping in the muscular wind caused by my flailing right arm. I didn’t quite hear the doctor say that my right arm must stay so straight-jackety, but I do what my nurse says (mostly), so we are switching sides of the bed to put me and my bedside table on the left where my good arm will be. We have also purchased a big U-shaped bolster pillow, a lap desk, and a new fluffy mattress topper. Sure, I will be in pain, but it will be really comfortable pain. 

princes.gif

For the next week, I will be cleaning, tidying and shopping. Today I bought $65 worth of trash cans with lids to replace the open trash cans in the bedroom, studio and laundry room as the puppy has learned what treasures they contained and could not leave them alone. Even as a youngster, our old collie would have never stuck his nose in a trash can looking for chewables. This one is a handful. Luckily for him, he looks like a teddy bear with floppy ears, so we just work around his faults. Tonight we go to puppy class to continue sanding down those edges. Drew has promised to continue the classes with him after my surgery. It will be good for them both.

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Hospital check-in is 5:30am on Wednesday, March 6th. See you on the other side of the fire swamp.

fire swamp.jpg

My Right Boob - A Body Part Story in Parts. Part 7

Where’s My Damn DNA?

My oncologist visit on Monday was scheduled to discuss the results of my genetic testing. We thought we gave them plenty of time to swish it around, stain it colors, scan it with lasers, play it music, whatever it is they do to it to make it talk. But apparently we did not. Faced with the choice of either going ahead with our plan with the knowledge that there is a chance that the genetic test results might derail them or waiting longer for all the tests to come through, we decided to go full steam ahead with our plan of mastectomy of the right breast and simultaneous reconstruction using autologous (tummy) tissue. I am aware that if my genes reveal one of several mutations, that best practices (and thus our plan) would instead require a double mastectomy and the reconstruction could not be attempted as planned due to a lack of enough tummy fat with which to fashion two new boobs. I am banking on the relatively few incidences of breast cancer in my family, which make me think that the likelihood of genetic doom is small. Like my tummy fat.

Whatever it takes - just finish my damn DNA.

Whatever it takes - just finish my damn DNA.

After synchronizing our plans, we spent the rest of the visit asking and answering questions. (In case you were unclear, I was asking, she was answering.) Questions like: 

Q:        Is Dr. Cruise really that way?

A:        Oh for sure, but he’s really that good.

Q:        I’ve seen a lot of post-mastectomy equipment and special jammies advertised online. Which of those things do I need? 

A:        None except a recliner, which you will need because with a crescent-moon shape of skin, fat and muscle cut from hip to hip, you will be unable to stand up or lie down straight for a while. You will have drains in your chest and belly, but you can pin them to a lanyard or shoelace. (Confession: I bought a pretty pink drain-holding apron anyway.)

Q:        Why do the MRI results use the word “enhancement” to mean “cancer”? Seems odd.

A:        Because on the MRI, the cancer cells light up like Christmas tree lights. They are “enhanced” by the contrast fluid given via IV during the procedure. She brought up my MRI scan and there were the Christmas lights. A big white glob of them.

She says she will call as soon as she hears from the genetics lab. I’m writing this on Thursday and so far, no word. 

Dr. Cruise puts on a show

So far during this journey, I have resisted allowing Drew to accompany me into doctor’s offices because (a) it’s my body and it’s a rather intimate part of it, and (b) I don’t want to have to feel the need to “act brave” or act in any other way than what is natural for me while I process the news that comes from each one of these visits. And what if I have to ask a particularly embarrassing question? Ugh. I’ve explained all this to Drew and although he would rather not only (a) be there beside me every single moment, but (b) if he could, crawl inside me and take it all on in my place, he has understood and accepted this limitation cheerfully. However, now we have a male doctor (part of the patriarchy!) and he wants to make sure the marital unit is all on the same page, so I invited Drew in to this appointment.

If you have ever wondered whether the autism spectrum is a positive rather than a negative human adaptation, may I present our Dr. Cruise. He is a walking talking poster boy of surgical success despite or perhaps because of a complete lack of human connection. He explained the specific procedure with visual aids, letting us know that the microsurgery he will be performing involves stitching blood vessels that at most are two millimeters in diameter with surgical threads one half the width of a human hair using microscopes only 10 times the power of normal sight. He reiterated the risks of failure of the procedure (failure meaning the failure of the implanted tissue to regain blood flow and thus its eventual death and removal). He likes to explain that although the failure rate is between 1 and 5%, if you are one of that 1 to 5% then it is a 100% failure rate. He answered every question by beginning the explanation in layman’s terms and finishing in medical terminology. It was as if he was trying to communicate in a foreign language but could not complete the sentence without reverting to his native tongue. 

When he had to leave the room momentarily, Drew and I would give each other “see what I mean?!” faces. He was just as I described, or maybe more.

As he continued his medical soliloquy, he mentioned in passing that the surgery was scheduled for March 6. 

Oh.

News to me, but welcome news, I guess. If it has to happen, let’s get this thing behind us. The next two weeks, I will try to wrap things up that I can do ahead of time, and trust Drew with the rest. Drew will be taking time off to nurse me back to health. 

It’s On.

It’s quite an involved operation with two operative sites. My oncology surgeon will be performing the mastectomy while Dr. Cruise performs the harvesting of my belly fat, small amount of muscle, and important blood supply from my belly. Once my oncologist completes the mastectomy and removal of a few leading lymph nodes for biopsy, Dr. Cruise will complete the breast reconstruction. The entire procedure will take up to eight hours. After the operation, I will spend the night in the post-op intensive care ward where nurses will monitor the blood flow in my FrankenBreast every hour to make sure it stays alive. The next day I will be transferred to a regular post-up room and remain for up to four more days. In these days of cycling people out of hospitals as fast as possible, that’s a heck of a long time, so you can imagine the shape that I will be in those first few days. 

After that I will be remanded to the care of Nurse Drew, who is taking his job very seriously. He is planning to take off work for a full month following my operation and will stay by my side as long as I need him. What a guy.

what a nice guy--madeline-kahn-funny-people.jpg

I didn’t sleep much last night, but soon this will be my new normal. Time to be brave. 

My Right Boob - A Body Part Story in Parts. Part 6

Dr. Male Becomes Dr. Cruise

You know that kind of surgeon that is somehow like 90% talent and 90% ego? The kind that you totally want to be doing your surgery but maybe don’t want to invite to join your bowling league? That’s our Dr. Male. And I hate pigeonholing him by gender stereotypes, but (a) I didn’t think about that before fictionally naming my last plastic surgeon “Dr. Female,” and (b) Dr. Female was so caring and willing to explain things and Dr. Male may be caring but doesn’t show it, or also may have just scheduled emotions for a two-week window in August.

Dr. Male wants me to tell him how much research I have done. He wants me to tell him if I know the degree of difficulty in this procedure and if I am prepared for the recovery period. He wants me to know that this surgery involves removing not only the fat but that fat’s blood supply from my belly and reattaching the blood supply to the vessels in my chest via microsurgery. He wants to see what he’s working with, to make sure I have enough belly fat to spare (apparently, at my weight I’m on the bottom of the bell curve). Also, he wants me to know that lately he has been doing less of these procedures because they are so time intensive and he is so busy, but that he will make an exception for me, but ONLY if I’m super-duper sure that this is what I super-duper want.

My hair may have blown back a little from the pure adrenalized yet focused Tom Cruise-level energy coming off him. If we could bottle this, we could put Red Bull out of business. A big NO for the book club, but a big YES for my surgeon. If he is willing to do this last belly-to-boob miracle, I will sign up. Especially if this is the last doctor I have to stand in front of while naked to the waist.

Dr. Cruise requires two office visits before he will book a patient for surgery. This must be a pretty standard rule for plastic surgery since buyer’s remorse is a tough thing to wear on your face. Or body. Forever. I book my second visit for next Wednesday. If I pass that one, my doctors will finally consent to synchronize their calendars and get me a surgery date.

Next Monday I meet with my oncologist to talk DNA. Stay tuned.

My Right Boob - A Body Part Story in Parts. Part 5

What Kind of Breasts Do You Want?

My oncology surgeon just does the breast deconstruction. I need another surgeon to do the breast reconstruction. She gave me two referrals: one who is (1) male, (2) in Portland, (3) very experienced, and (4) busy, or one who is (1) female, (2) in Vancouver, (3) is not as experienced but fresh out of a fellowship back east and knows all the hip new tricks, and (4) probably more easily booked. I chose to start with the Vancouver female. 

January 31, 2019.  Dr. Female started by saying, “So you’ve chosen to have an implant reconstruction.” I didn’t know I had chosen that. I knew that there were two basic reconstruction options. One was getting the mastectomy, waiting for some healing to take place, then pushing the newly sewn-up skin to grow enough to fit an implant by slowly inflating a balloon-type insert under the skin for a few weeks, then having a final surgery where the implant is, well, implanted. A second reconstruction method involved harvesting fat and skin from one’s belly and moving them into the chest area and fashioning it into a breast of sorts. It is known as “flap” surgery because they consider it a “flap” of skin and tissue. Gross. Let’s not even go into nipple reconstruction. That’s a whole other thing. This is making me exhausted and a little woozy. 

It turns out that implant surgery is the only thing Dr. Female does. She did give me some good advice on the pros and cons of each type. Even though she does not perform the “flap” type of surgery, she told me that although it is considered a much longer and more complicated surgery and requires a longer hospital stay, the final results can appear and feel more natural, as they are your own tissue. And as the “flap” is autologous tissue, you do not have the risk of your body reacting badly to the alien implant and producing the hard scar tissue that sometimes happens in implant surgery. Of course the ideal candidate will have some belly fat to spare, but that just means you end up with a little tummy tuck in the bargain. The advantages to implant surgery are that the surgeries are less complicated and you can choose your new “look.” If you are interested in coming out of this business with more or less headlight wattage than when you started (or, if you just don’t have the belly or butt fat to spare), implants are the way to go. She can give you a nice big implant and make the other boob match. She made some measurements and took some photos of my chest (still quite rainbow colored).

Smile.

Smile.

If I had had my choice of boob styles twenty years ago, I might have gone for some real head-turners, but now, on the downhill side of my 50s, I didn’t need more. I might even be happier with less. I like the idea of less belly and no implants. That means I would have to say goodbye to Dr. Female and start over with the Portland guy. This is hard and uncomfortable, but it would be ridiculous to get a second-choice surgery just because it was easier not to go to more doctor’s appointments. Although I admit that I did consider it.

This Is Not Dignified

Later That Same Day.  Next stop: the MRI machine. If you are wondering how to get good images of boobs in an MRI machine – after all, aren’t boobs going to nestle squishily on top of one’s chest as one lies on the table? Then you’re not thinking outside the box, er, tube. What if we have the ladies lay on their stomach and let their boobs hang down in, like, boob holes? You’re a genius, Steve!

The Venus of Willendorf - what we think about hasn’t changed in 50,000 years. Nice look, but I’ll stick with something more practical.

The Venus of Willendorf - what we think about hasn’t changed in 50,000 years. Nice look, but I’ll stick with something more practical.

The MRI experience was unremarkable save for the part where I had to mount the rack on my hands and knees and lower my boobs down into the square holes on either side of a one-inch bar on which I was to rest my sternum. There was no dignified way to make that move. My lame jokes fell flat (so to speak) in the room. Check that off my list.

The next day I arranged to meet a new doctor. This is the busy one so I have to make an appointment a week and a half away. Ah, well. I’m in no hurry to lose a body part and have a facsimile made out of spare parts. I just don’t want friends to keep seeing me around and finally say, “Weren’t you supposed to have breast cancer?...”

More to come after tomorrow’s doctor visit…

My Right Boob - A Body Part Story in Parts. Part 4

Hurry Up and Wait.

January 28, 2019.  On my second visit to my new favorite oncologist, we talk about how DNA can snap one day and start duplicating malformed versions of itself (i.e. cancer cells), and how some of our genetic codes have little flaws that make it easier for such mistakes to happen. She listed a bunch of known gene mutations such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 and the implications for me if my tests come back positive. In some cases, such as the BRCA gene mutations, it means that the incidence for subsequent cancers go up high enough that it makes sense to change my surgery to a full bilateral mastectomy. That is why it is important to get the genetic testing done before I’m wheeled in to surgery. Such DNA doom is a long shot for me, but worth doing the work and waiting the three weeks it takes to get the test results back to rule it out. So they give me a test tube with a “fill to this line” marker about ½ inch up. Sounds easy enough until you start trying to make like 50 ccs of spit on cue (well it seemed like 50). I spit into the test tube for like 20 minutes. Luckily, the nurse leaves me to spit alone, as this is the weirdest thing I have done all day. 

While I’m there they get the test results of the hormone markers in my biopsy sample. Ninety percent of the cells had estrogen receptors and thirty percent had progesterone receptors. This is good news for post-surgery care. In the absence of any evidence of the cancer spreading to lymph nodes, or some scary genetic findings, I will be able to skip chemo. 

Later this day, I decide to take my oncologist’s advice and get the news out there about my cancer in one big announcement. She suggested this method as opposed to telling people one-on-one and having to weather each shocked and saddened sentiment and each long, heartfelt hug, as this can be exhausting and much more damaging than one Band-Aid rip. I make the following announcement on Facebook:

FRIENDS: After some agonizingly long waits between each test result reveal, I can confirm that I have breast cancer. I’m definitely going to lose a boob but it could be worse. Although further testing and/or post-surgical biopsies may change the outlook, it appears that I may be able to skip the chemo part of the festivities and just take hormone blocking medication instead. I don’t share this with you to gather sympathy or prayers but rather to keep you, my most treasured friends and family, in the know if I need extra time or lack my usual panache in the next month or two. My doctor suggested that I tell my friends and family in large, impersonal ways to save myself the trauma of each face-to-face reveal and each subsequent emotional reaction, which can be draining rather than strengthening for certain types of people (me). This darn thing will slow me but not stop me so don’t stop needing me and asking for my help and I won’t stop needing you and asking for yours. HUGS - Janice

I get lots of heartfelt cyber hugs and pledges of help. That’s really nice and I feel like people sure are nice. And there’s nothing like the word “cancer” to put the fear of, well, death into people. But I feel like I should hurry up and get on with my surgery or something – start looking sick now that I’ve made such a big announcement out of it. But with the slow speed of genetic testing and consulting with reconstructive surgeons, the looking-sick part of this cancer will have to wait.

Stay tuned for more exciting surgical visits and tests to come! On the next episode of My Right Boob!

My Right Boob - A Body Part Story in Parts. Part 3

In the system

January 23, 2019.  My new oncology surgeon is a pro at making her patients feel safe and calm and at explaining the basics of breast cancer types. For instance, I learned that although the word “invasive” sounds bad in the diagnosis Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, it just means the cancer cells that have probably been living happily in my milk ducts for some time have now “invaded” the tissue outside the ducts, producing this lump. I learned that how we treat the cancer depends on the genetic markers found in the biopsy sample. Unfortunately, at the time of my appointment, the genetic marker testing of my sample had not been completed. Her hunch, though, is that my tumor (My Tumor) is one of a couple hormone-receptor types that feed on estrogen or progesterone, which means that chemo can be replaced with a simple hormone blocking drug that I will take for the rest of my life. The bad news is that the breast has to go. The calcifications that I saw on the mammogram are markers of cancer in the ducts and they are all over a good quarter of my breast. My nipple is a goner too, owing to the fact that the main cancerous mass is located directly behind it. I have an appointment with a plastic surgeon the following week to talk about reconstruction options. Hoo boy.

I also got a visit with someone with the professional title of Nurse Navigator. My nurse navigator can help me find resources that may be helpful to me such as insurance assistance, classes, mentoring, what-have-you. That’s really nice. I’ll bet some patients really need a resource like this. I don’t feel like I do. I kind of wish they would use some of the nurse navigator money to hire more lab techs in oncology.

My Right Boob - A Body Part Story in Parts. Part 2

The Bruise Rainbow.

January 17, 2019.  Eight days later, I show up, take off my bra and get down to work, lying still. If you have never had a boob biopsy, here’s the score: They re-locate the lump with ultrasound, then keep the ultrasound hovering over the lump while a doctor numbs the area with lidocaine (you can watch along on the ultrasound as the needle finds the area and delivers its load of medicine).

This is not my breast. I “borrowed” this from the internet.

This is not my breast. I “borrowed” this from the internet.

Then once the area is nice and numb, the doctor brings out the Big-Ass Needle that is so fat that he actually needs to make a small incision in the skin to insert it. Part of the Big-Ass Needle barrel is cut out, producing a space that the doctor positions with the help of the ultrasound right in the lump, so some of the lump tissue can snuggle down inside the needle tube. Then he says, “you’re gonna hear a snap,” and you totally hear and feel a snap as a spring-loaded outer tube is launched over the Big-Ass Needle, trapping some of the offending tissue inside. Then he withdraws the biopsy needle and repeats as necessary. I think he took three samples.  Then they place a little titanium “marker clip” in the lump to remind themselves where they’ve been. This is handy (a) when they have to go back in and find the biopsy spot in order to clean out the cancer, or (b) when they find that it’s nothing, but they see the same suspicious spot on subsequent mammograms – the little clip is there to say, hey, we’ve been over this before. They tell me the clip looks kind of like the spring out of a ballpoint pen but way smaller. No, I don’t know why they call it a clip and not a spring.

We’re learning!

We’re learning!

They send me home with an ice pack in my bra and tell me to wait one to two business days. Since it’s Thursday, if the oncology lab doesn’t get the results back to my doctor by Friday, it will be a long weekend.

It was a long weekend. While I wait, my boob turns all the colors of the Bruise Rainbow. Lots of purple and yellow. Red and brown. Then it was a long Monday. By Monday afternoon when I still didn’t hear anything, I called my new family clinic office. Turns out my new Nurse Practitioner doesn’t work on Monday. It sounds like they have the results but cannot release them to me. I know what that means. Everybody is happy to share negative (good news) results. Only one person can share positive (bad news) results. Argh. However, now that I have stirred the office pot, I get a call soon after, booking me for a visit with my NP first thing in the morning. By now, the results are obvious, but we all have to follow protocol.

January 22, 2019.  My nurse practitioner confirms my suspicions. I have invasive ductal carcinoma. It’s the most common type of breast cancer, she tells me, and the Legacy health system has some fine oncologists to help me navigate this new world in which I am now living. Next step: a visit to an oncology surgeon. The oncology office calls me while I’m still on the way home from this first shocking (but not that shocking) visit. Here goes nothing.

My Right Boob - A Body Part Story In Parts. Part 1

This Kind of Thing Always Happens to Me

November 28, 2018.  I felt vindicated when the American Cancer Society changed their guidelines about mammograms, especially for women under 50. Instead of recommending annual mammograms like they had all through the 80s and 90s, they dropped their insistence on mammograms entirely for women in their 40s and only recommended mammograms every two years for women in their 50s. I felt that I was a poster child for the new guidelines. My boobs were always being flagged for further painful probing due to their density (oooh, such dense boobs), or due to a propensity for harmless cysts that came and went. Spare me.

Well, yes, I am in my 50s. Quite deep into them actually. But still. I didn’t want to miss out on the freedom from boob flattening that I had endured throughout my 40s that is now offered to today’s 40-year-old women. I felt that I had had enough mammograms in my 40s to make up for several years now that I was in my 50s.  

December 21, 2018.  I got a mammogram this December because my doctor quit. My general practitioner, who worked out of a slightly grubby, cramped urgent care center in a grubby, cramped strip mall, just closed up shop one day and skipped town. I don’t know what precipitated her flight, but I’m guessing it wasn’t a call from Johns Hopkins. I was fine floating along without a new GP until I realized that she had not renewed by high blood pressure medication after my last annual checkup. I would have to find another GP so that my blood pressure would not bounce back to its natural, dangerous level. I found a new nurse practitioner in the office that my husband frequented (he never really liked my old GP and had found somebody he trusted not to disappear under cover of darkness), and because I was a new patient, she went through the gamut of health things that I should have been doing, including having a mammogram.

That’s not to say I didn’t argue with her. I asked about the new guidelines in the hopes that she would back off and tell me I had been through enough. I told her of my history of annoying and painful false positives. She told me that I was free to not follow her recommendation, but that her recommendation was to get a mammogram. So I scheduled a mammogram.

And yes, the breast center called me a few days later to tell me that they needed me back in to take some more pictures of my right breast and maybe to have an ultrasound as well. The booking nurse was all, “don’t worry,” and I was all, “this kind of thing always happens to me,” and we booked the appointment.

January 9, 2019.  The mammography tech had loaded up the mammogram I had about two and a half years ago and showed me the comparison to my new mammogram. It was obviously the same breast, all the architecture matched, except the new one had little white spots all over it and a suspicious smudge right behind the nipple. That nipple that looked a little different these days than it used to. “This is what we’re concerned about,” she said. Hmmm. This kind of thing happens to me all the time…

The ultrasound tech took a long time. A long time. And she spent a lot of time scoping out my armpit area. “What exactly is she looking for?” I didn’t wonder. My suspicions were confirmed when the radiologist came in to deliver his findings. He was an older fellow who looked like he hated this part of his job when he had to tell a woman that what he saw on his screen was nothing but bad news. He told me the that I had a mass in my breast (although my armpit lymph nodes looked clear) and that the next step was to get a biopsy to see if it was cancer. However, after seeing the lump myself on the mammogram and ultrasound and knowing there were only so many types of tissue possible in a human breast, I suspected that the biopsy was just to confirm what they already knew. Of course, they were saying the opposite: we won’t know anything until we get the biopsy, but their faces were saying we know.

Now that I knew and I knew they knew, we needed to get the work done so that we all could know together. It was Wednesday, I figured we could knock this out before the weekend. No, the next biopsy availability was Thursday. Not the Thursday that is tomorrow, the one that is a week from tomorrow. The nurse looks at me apologetically. Well, what am I going to do? Stomp around and demand a biopsy? Don’t they know who I am? (I’m not even sure who I am.) I enter the appointment in my calendar and go about my week as if I am not waiting for cancer news. (I am totally waiting for cancer news.)

Stay tuned to this channel for More Parts coming soon…

When Your Passion Becomes Your Passion

I have been waking up at 2:00 a.m. lately and staying awake for an hour or two each time. Since I know I am always in for a couple of unproductive hours sleep-wise, I try to make it productive in other ways, by reading or solving a minor problem. While awake one early morning, I had this idea for a piece in my "After Mondrian" series. I was going to flip Mondrian, or at least paint him in italics. And I was going to use one of my favorite go-to subjects: trees.

This being a linear type of painting, I sketched it out using a grid. I moved the grid to the canvas rather sloppily (I learned later), and filled in the grid lightly with very thin acrylic paint. Once I was satisfied with the paint sketch, I started in on filling the grid.

I have witnessed an old-school automotive paint detailer painting straight and perfectly curving lines. I do not have that kind of steady hand. Luckily, painter's tape exists. Yes, they make it for canvas as well as walls. I had strips of tape littering the easel, the desk, and at times, my shirt, but even for all that, some rogue paint brushstrokes got in and stayed. Plus some further paint experiments with varying degrees of success.

I wanted to complete it and have it ready to hang by this week, as I wanted it to be one of my focal points for an installation I am hanging at Vinnie's Pizza for the month of March. Okay, that doesn't sound like one of the more prestigious art galleries in town, but they have a couple beautiful walls that they generously share with members of Mosaic Arts Alliance. And we at Mosaic do not say no to walls now that our flagship Gallery 360 is out of business.

As I was basically following a grid, it seemed like a slam-dunk easy deal. But as the paint got thicker and the grid disappeared, I found it harder and harder to color within the lines. On top of that, the "formula" that I usually use to keep a viewer's focus kind of got lost in my need to make it my way. 

I would wake up at 2:00 a.m. thinking about this painting and trying to solve its problems. Every once in a while I would come up with a good idea during this time and would be able to make it happen the next day. But then I would run into a new problem and have to wait until my 2:00 a.m. thinking session to solve that one.

Then I was done. And I photographed it for my portfolio.

Then when I cropped the photograph I found a huge flaw.

Then I fixed the flaw.

Then I was done. And I rephotographed it for my portfolio. (Taking care to delete the earlier photo).

Then when I cropped the photograph I found a huge flaw.

Then I fixed the flaw.

Then I was done. And I rephotographed it for my portfolio. (Taking care to delete the earlier photo).

Then when I cropped the photograph I found a huge flaw.

Then I fixed the flaw.

Then I was done. And I rephotographed it for my portfolio. (Taking care to delete the earlier photo).

Then I cropped the photograph. And it was good. Enough.

Oregon in Italics. 36" x 24" Acrylic on Canvas.

Oregon in Italics. 36" x 24" Acrylic on Canvas.

Can you believe this little thing caused me so much angst?

Turns out I'm full of it. Angst, that is.

I Had ONE Job.

And made it into two.

I had a commission. The client knew what she wanted. Something to fit over a couch, something very much like a painting I had done that had already sold. Something like this but longer:

This little 11" x 14" guy has sold three times if you count the commissions I have accepted to reproduce it.

This little 11" x 14" guy has sold three times if you count the commissions I have accepted to reproduce it.

This type of work is acrylic on masa paper, which has been fused with a thicker watercolor paper and then mounted on a wood cradle board. Lots of layers of paper and color give it that neatly segmented yet vintage look. 

So I bought the paper and a long cradle board to mount it on. But the wood cradle board was so pretty with such a beautiful grain in it that I couldn't bring myself to cover it with paper. Luckily, I had bought some acrylic inks that are more permanent than watercolor and less opaque than acrylic paints. I began painting thinking if it didn't work, I could mount some paper over it and no one would have to know.

I now know why people don't normally paint right on wood. It sucks up paint and does not give it up unless you bring out the sander. It is UNFORGIVING. However, no matter that I might have splattered a bit there (instant seagull) or flubbed a bit there (that mountain just got higher), the results are pretty spectacular. 

Here's a quick photo I took with my phone under bad lighting:

Acrylic ink on wood. 12" x 48" (Up close you can see the wood grain through the ink.)

Acrylic ink on wood. 12" x 48" (Up close you can see the wood grain through the ink.)

I guess it's back to the store for another cradle board. Maybe two in case this happens again.

New Year, Fewer Things

There will be a few changes here in Art Town this year. 

Listen here.

Listen here.

1. Since August I have been a member of a co-op gallery in town called Gallery 360. However, due to rising rents in downtown Vancouver, we are closing for good on Saturday. This will allow me more time to paint but fewer customers for whom to paint. For now, I will be happy with the extra time and worry about clearing out paintings later.

New Year. New Rules.

New Year. New Rules.

2. The People Have Spoken. My paintings are selling, but my dumb tote bags are not. I may always paint tote bags, but now only for my own damn self. 

Life is short. Art is long. Used Art was a Dumb Idea.
Don't follow the crowd.

Don't follow the crowd.

3. I'm keeping used-art.com for now, but now janicetracy.com is my primary web domain and used-art.com will redirect there.

Make a splash.

Make a splash.

4. I will eat less until I am not making such an effort to avoid my own reflection. This one is a bit of a cliche this time of year, but just like the lottery, you can't win if you don't play.

We're all just chilly meerkats on a stump in a zoo. Here's a hug from me.

We're all just chilly meerkats on a stump in a zoo. Here's a hug from me.

5. I think you're nice. Don't you? 

Free Shipping Just Out of Time for Christmas!

Hey folks! I'm back from the bazaar circuit and I've updated my tote bag inventory with all the ones that I still have on hand. These are the last of the tote bags. They have helped me get to 10,000 hours of painting and now I'm moving on to other art projects. I'm hoping to make other useful items - maybe shirts or scarves - but you already all either have a car full of tote bags, or are plastic enthusiasts.

SUCH AS.

SUCH AS.

Although tote bag canvas has been the very best thing as a surface that I could paint with little worry of failure or waste of expensive stretched canvas, it is not a lucrative venture.

Starting now, I'm throwing in shipping for free via USPS for all tote bag purchases. Just go to the"Use This Art" page and pick out your favorite tote. Once you have chosen your favorite, click on the "Buy a Tote Bag" page, buy a tote bag (obviously), tell me in the notes which one you have chosen, and USPS shipping will be free.

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And if you're a local friend, shoot me a text or facebook message, and I'll hook you up with a deal. 

The Best Toy I Never Owned

Question of the day: What toy from your childhood do you miss the most and, if it broke, how?

This seems like a Christmas themed question. Let’s dive in.

The toy from my childhood that I miss the most did not belong to me.

It belonged to my best friend Salli. Salli lived across the street. Her dad was an up-and-coming lawyer – so up-and-coming that they did not stay long in that house and soon moved to a bigger house in a fancier neighborhood – but one Christmas, maybe around 1968, Salli got an Easy Bake Oven. It was so technical. So delicate. And it did the one thing that I wanted all toys to do from that moment on: give me chocolate food.

The Easy Bake Oven was a genius bit of homemaker training first introduced by Kenner in 1963. It was a working oven, if by working you mean it makes things slightly warmer under the heat of two small light bulbs. However, there were these cake mixes you could get that I think you would just mix with water maybe? and would magically “cook” in these itty-bitty little pans that fit snugly under the light bulb, er, in the oven, and they were so magically delicious I would have killed a leprechaun to get more.

The first Easy Bake Oven model 

The first Easy Bake Oven model 

You know those moves that mark the protectiveness and fear-of-disaster of a new owner of an expensive piece of silicon wizardry or delicate workmanship of, say, a new computer or guitar when they are trying to show it off to you but afraid that you might push a hidden self-destruct button, or drop it from a height of 19 feet onto concrete, even if you are currently in a carpeted room on the ground floor? You know that thing where they give a thing to you but do not remove their outstretched hands? Just in case? That is how Salli treated her Easy Bake Oven, which is exactly how I would have treated MY Easy Bake Oven if I had one. But as the covetous friend, being the one on the receiving end of this treatment was frustrating, even though I realized, even at the age of what? Six? That this was EXACTLY how I would act. Still. I wanted that cake.

That Cake! For those of you who are of a certain age to remember those light-bulb-baked cakes, what was it about those cakes? Was it the heavy-duty chocolate flavor? Because those little guys were made of a chocolate that is probably now either too expensive or illegal to produce. Was it the density? The chemicals that are probably now on the FDA Hazardous Materials list? Was it one of those or was it that I was six and my taste buds were amped up beyond crack-level at the excitement of waiting SEVERAL MINUTES for our little cake in that little round mini-pan to come out of Salli’s VERY OWN OVEN. WE HAD THE POWER OF CHOCOLATE. I don’t remember ever feeling that much anticipation.

About the diameter of a pancake and about the height of a brownie, these babies were my world.

About the diameter of a pancake and about the height of a brownie, these babies were my world.

I tried to not eat more than my share when it came out of the oven, but it took all my willpower to not snatch and snarf it in a corner. When we weren’t playing with the Easy Bake Oven, I was thinking about playing with it. Even when I wasn’t anywhere near Salli’s house I spent a lot of time thinking about those cakes. THOSE CAKES.

Access to Easy Bake Oven cakes depended on so many things outside my control: Salli had to ask me to play at her house, she had to feel like playing with her Easy Bake Oven (after a while it did not hold the same fascination for her that it did for me), and most crucially, her mom had to have purchased some specialty Easy Bake Oven cake mixes. Such a gauntlet of circumstance existed between me and the object of my obsession.

Eventually, Salli moved on, moved to the fancy house, grew tired of the whole pretend-cooking thing, and got lots of newer, more interesting toys, but I never really did. I'm sure she grew tired of my casual, hey-wouldn't-it-be-a-gas-to-get-out-that-Easy-Bake-Oven hints. To this day, one of my favorite foods is home-cooked brownies straight from the oven, the closest grown-up food to one of those little mini-cakes.

Unlike your obsession with that Daisy air rifle, (I’m assuming), there’s no going back for me. The Easy Bake Oven is still a thing, but not really. It now looks like a spaceship and has a real heating element in it instead of a light bulb.

What the eff? If you grasp the two handles will you see through time?

What the eff? If you grasp the two handles will you see through time?

Even if you found a 60’s era oven, Betty Crocker has long since stopped making the cake mixes chemically perfected for light bulb cooking. I know there’s room for improvement in my obsession; one nut even wrote a light bulb cookbook. But (a) I may be crazy but I’m not a nut and (b) I have a real oven and access to real food. My obsessions are limited by time and apathy. But if somebody offered me a bite of a real-life old-school Easy Bake Oven mini-cake, it would still take all of my grown-up willpower not to snatch and snarf.

What was your favorite toy?

Hey Everybody, Wanna See My Vacation Slides? (Part 2 of 2)

Hey, come back here!

Welcome to part 2 of my vacation slides. This part will be about our trip to the Orkney Islands and down the northwest coast of Scotland. In order to keep this brief, I've left out a lot of the good parts like the time we stayed in a little B and B on the highway outside of Wick and it was just like staying at your Aunty Bee's house, with a nice couple in their 80s, lots of rules, old quilts, and a shower that ran on what sounded like an old weed whacker motor.

I digress.

Let's start with the ferry trip over to the Island.

View from the ferry between Scrabster on Stromness. Those are real names.

View from the ferry between Scrabster on Stromness. Those are real names.

Drew bought us the special Big Spenders' Lounge ferry tickets. There were four of us in a lounge the size of an average bar, so that was nice I guess. There were shortbread cookies, some weird caramel bricks, plus a glass of wine. I felt quite posh as I Jansplained to Drew how the term posh was reputed to be derived from the old pleasure cruises down the European coast from London. The best tickets were for seats on the port side of the boat while traveling south (as one had a view of the coast as opposed to open ocean) and the starboard side of the boat when returning back up north (same reason). Hence, PORT OUT STARBOARD HOME were the best and most expensive tickets. POSH. He was, naturally, eager to learn and not at all humoring me.

Standing Stones of Stenness

Standing Stones of Stenness

You can take really awesome photos of the Standing Stones of Stenness, a small but impressive henge that archeologists are still studying, but if you look closely at unretouched photos, you can spot the farmhouses and sheep that crowd up around it on three sides (the road is on the fourth side). So it is hard to feel as if you are surrounded by the ghosts of the mysteries or whatever, especially when you read the interpretive kiosk and learn that a farmer had once planned to blow them up with dynamite to get them out of the way of his farm.

BUT STILL. They are big, impressive, ancient, and I touched them. You can walk right up to them and touch them. And I also want you to see this cool photo. 

Standing Stones in full drama mode.

Standing Stones in full drama mode.

We got sidetracked at the Standing Stones because it was on the way to Skara Brae.

Skara Brae looking its best for me

Skara Brae looking its best for me

Skara Brae is a 5,000 year old stone age village that lay buried under sand for 4,000 of those years until uncovered after a particularly hard storm in 1850. It was fitfully and destructively excavated until proper study began in the 1920s. It has remained an archeological treasure ever since.

You can see that the entire village was connected by little passageways because even though Orkney was warmer than it is now, the winter nights were long and cold.

You can see that the entire village was connected by little passageways because even though Orkney was warmer than it is now, the winter nights were long and cold.

Skara Brae has been a fascination of mine since I first read about it, I'm guessing in National Geographic, some umpteen years ago.  I don't know why it captured my imagine so fully, but if you feel the same way, you can learn more about it here.

There were other ruins, other henges, but there's just one more thing I want to show you from Orkney: The Tomb of the Eagles.

The entrance to the Tomb of the Eagles

The entrance to the Tomb of the Eagles

The Tomb of the Eagles sounds pretty cool, but I think I would have called it the Tomb of All Those Skulls Plus Some Eagle Talons, but they didn't ask me.  The tomb was found on a farmer's land when he happened upon a cave filled with human bones and skulls. There were also a number of eagle talons mixed in with the skulls, so they theorized that maybe the eagles knew a good snack cupboard when they saw one and took advantage of the free food.

Of all the attractions I dragged Drew to, this one was one of the few not owned by either Historic Environment Scotland or the National Trust for Scotland. This one was privately owned (actually by that original farmer's family), and was much more cavalier about the artifacts found there. I TOUCHED A SKULL! I also touched some stone tools and maybe some eagle talons? I lost track. And bonus, the entryway is so small, you have to get in by scooting in on your belly, on a wheeled cart. Like this:

Scooting inside the Tomb of the Eagles. 

Scooting inside the Tomb of the Eagles. 

FYI, there are no bones left to discover in the tomb. (I checked.) But you can touch some in the visitors center. Tell them I sent you. (It will mean nothing.)

Thanks for visiting Orkney with me. If you ask me, I'll show you one hundred more photos I took.

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave

We wanted to make sure we didn't miss Smoo Cave in the far northwestern tip of Scotland. Some of the reason was because I read about it, but some of the reason was because of the name.  

Heather, peat, and lochs under blue sky.

Heather, peat, and lochs under blue sky.

I took this particular photo out of a moving car because I wanted to capture the colors happening to the water on this beautiful sunny day in the far north. 

Posh faces for posh food

Posh faces for posh food

Whew. After a long day of driving on one-lane roads, it's time to choose a menu, wait in the drawing room of our posh hotel until called upon, then be served a number of courses with little bits of lemon sherbet in between to cool our palettes. I thought a lot about Rodney Dangerfield's character in Caddy Shack. 

The grounds of the Eddrachilles Hotel in Badcall Bay outside Scourie, Scotland

The grounds of the Eddrachilles Hotel in Badcall Bay outside Scourie, Scotland

Whereas the northeast coast of Scotland seemed to alternate between sheep farms and industry, the northwest of Scotland seems to alternate between sheep farms, wild moors, and gorgeous seascapes. Our catch phrase for this area was SCENIC AF.

Just another scenic AF view.

Just another scenic AF view.

The heather hills are dramatic. The clouds are dramatic. And the roads are dramatic AF because there is only one lane, lots of corners and hills, and you never know when another car is going to come barreling toward you. There are turnouts for when you meet a car coming from the other direction, but they are not always there when you need them.

Scotland roads are for gamblers. 

Scotland roads are for gamblers. 

Hey, let's see more of that dramatic Scotland scenery!

OMG ANOTHER BEAUTIFUL THING. WHEN WILL IT END?

OMG ANOTHER BEAUTIFUL THING. WHEN WILL IT END?

Apparently mistakes were made when we got to the Torridon Hotel, the one real posh splurge we had planned, and they gave us the fanciest room in the place, the room with the big bow window looking out over the grounds of the estate. See the biggest room in this picture, the one on the second floor? That's our room.

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I knew I overpaid, but I didn't realize by how much until I saw the room.

My Patagonia duffel bag looks right a home here.

My Patagonia duffel bag looks right a home here.

...and the bathroom.

Draw me a bath, Jeeves.

Draw me a bath, Jeeves.

In the morning it was time to remove our Nissan X-Trail from among the Teslas and move along before they realized their mistake. Next stop: Isle of Skye.

Here's a taste of one of the quieter pockets on the Isle of Skye.

Here's a taste of one of the quieter pockets on the Isle of Skye.

Now that we have driven many miles south on the west coast, we are now down closer to Glasgow and other population centers, which we noticed because of the amount of tourists we had to navigate through on the Isle of Skye. We no longer felt like we had the place to ourselves. Luckily, our hotel was tucked away on a less traveled thumb of the island and we had a nice evening there.

Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan Castle

These castles sure know how to pose for photos. I dragged Drew to many more ruined castles, but I won't drag you there. I just want you to see this one last castle.

Castle Stalker

Castle Stalker

This is not the best photo of Castle Stalker, but it is MY photo of Castle Stalker. I made the hotel reservations in Port Appin for it, I hiked a couple miles for it, and I lugged my telephoto lens all over Scotland for it. So I'm going to leave you here with this photo of this ridiculous cardboard box of a castle, beloved for only one reason.

Castle Stalker as seen in Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Castle Stalker as seen in Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Thanks for watching my vacation slides and only yawning once or twice. If you like what you see, I have about 480 more where these came from. 

Hey Everybody, Wanna See My Vacation Slides? (Part 1 of 2)

Hey, where are you going?

I'll keep it brief. I just want to let you know that I haven't dropped off the face of the earth, I just went to the other side of the earth for an extended romp around Scotland. OH MY GOD DID YOU KNOW SCOTLAND EXISTS? THEN WHY AREN'T WE ALL THERE? Oh, you don't like the real possibility of cold drizzly rain every single day of the year? Well that kinda weather is right down my alley, so I was HOME.

Glasgow has the BEST CEMETERY EVER, called The Necropolis, on top of a hill.

Glasgow has the BEST CEMETERY EVER, called The Necropolis, on top of a hill.

I have one hundred photos of Glasgow sights, but I am choosing this photo of The Necropolis to share with you because look at it. 

Actually, Glasgow is lousy with museums and not just local, volunteer-operated repurposed houses with a couple dusty dioramas, but huge, stone temples to the past with so much awesome stuff they have to keep most of it in storage. Oh, man, Scotland has lost track of more history than we even have. I couldn't get it all in. My eyes got sore from looking. Drew's feet got sore from walking. My feet couldn't have been happier. 

Criagmillar Castle outside Edinburgh.

Criagmillar Castle outside Edinburgh.

Would you like to know how it feels to be inside the courtyard of a 14th century castle? I don't because I ALREADY KNOW and it's AWESOME.

Fluffy coo

Fluffy coo

They really do have these fluffy coos in Scotland, although I suspect they keep them around for the tourists as they are outnumbered by their less fluffy cousins. They seem to know that their job is posing for photos.

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness

Here is Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness (pronounce "Urkurt," but in a Scottish accent). It's very popular because of its position right on Loch Ness which is popular because of a fish monster. 

Girnigoe and Sinclair Castle, Wick, Scotland

Girnigoe and Sinclair Castle, Wick, Scotland

Here is a cooler, just as ruined castle on the east coast that we got to explore by ourselves because there are no road signs to it and there's a bit of a hike to get out to it. I hope that never changes.

Inside a Neolithic cairn

Inside a Neolithic cairn

When you travel with me, you get to see all KINDS of burial ideas! Here's a stone-age one: build a big pile of stones with a secret chamber in the center.

Outside a Neolithic cairn. In particular, the Grey Cairns of Camster outside of Wick.

Outside a Neolithic cairn. In particular, the Grey Cairns of Camster outside of Wick.

This is another thing that requires a good GPS and a guide book because there is not a lot of signage. WHY AREN'T MORE PEOPLE INTERESTED IN STONE AGE DEATH CAVERNS?

Stacks of Duncansby off of Noss Head at the far northeast corner of Scotland

Stacks of Duncansby off of Noss Head at the far northeast corner of Scotland

I'm beginning to appreciate all that I put Drew through as my driver and companion to every offbeat, off-the-beaten-track bit of beauty that I was able to research during my vacation preparation. Here we are on another hike in the far northeastern corner in the rain to view this bit of earthly mightiness. Pretty cool though, right?

Drew at John O' Groats

Drew at John O' Groats

We'll leave Drew here at John O' Groats. In my next slide show, we will cross the Pentland Firth to the Orkney Islands, even norther than Scotland to find Skara Brae and other stone age treasures, then head down the west coast.

You're coming back for the second half of our trip, right? 

Right?

Does Everyone Deserve to be Heard?

This is the first in a planned occasional series using questions from a favorite podcast, Spontaneanation. In it, Paul F. Tomkins uses a question provided by a previous guest as a jumping-off point to a conversation with the current guest. I plan to do the same – only TO MYSELF.

Does everyone deserve to be heard? That depends. Do I have to listen?

For a short period of time, I attended a Unitarian church here in town. I felt their ideas and mission most closely mirrored my own: respect for every faith and the fruit of one’s own faith ought to be works that relieve pain in others. (That’s a MY theory of faith and not necessarily that of Unitarian/Universalism. Don’t hold them to it.) I discontinued my attendance there after it became clear that I was a square peg and my attempts to fill any of the round holes in their congregation were met with indifference. I never stared at so many backs as I did during their after-service coffee hours. And at 5-foot-3 I’ve stared at a LOT of backs.

Wait, that was not my point. HERE’S my point: there is a moment during each Unitarian service where congregation members are free to share a life event that is either a source of grief or joy. A microphone is passed around for this purpose. In this congregation, there was a young man with developmental challenges who would take the opportunity every week to tell everyone about his cat and various other “I love lamp” issues that might occur to him. He loved holding the microphone and he loved talking and he had no dismount. And the congregation, as they should have, let him bathe in this moment of weekly attention. No one was hurt and the young man, when he finally exhausted all his thoughts, sat down beaming. And I SQUIRMED. And DOODLED. And thought uncharitable thoughts. But that boy deserved to speak. And he deserved to be smiled at. And heard, I suppose. Why am I writing this? I end up looking like an impatient grumbler.  Actually, “Impatient Grumbler” would be an accurate subtitle to this blog so I guess no one should be surprised.

That was the story that popped into my head about two weeks ago when I first read the question, “Does everyone deserve to be heard?”. After the events of the last weekend, the question has become much more meaningful and loaded, so I will ask myself once again, 

Does everyone deserve to be heard? Even white supremacists and pretend Nazis?

Yes, everyone deserves to be heard. No one deserves to be hurt.

How should we approach a Nazi/Confederate rally then? Nazis and white supremacists are angry weaklings who blame others for their own failings. They spread their hate to other, insecure and sad minds, so that their evil thoughts never quite die out, no matter how many wars they lose.

They want to be taken seriously. So we should stop giving them the microphone.

What if, instead of counter marching at the same day and in the same place as the Wieners (I’m tired of calling them Nazis because they seem to like it – go figure - so I’m going to start calling them the Wieners), a counter march is held, in the same place, but the NEXT DAY? It would make it much easier to gauge the relative size of the marches. The Wiener march would be maybe 50 people and the next day I’m guessing you might have 500 peaceful marchers for racial equality in the same place. BAM. PWNAGE.

In this way, we do not allow clashes where the Wieners might end up looking aggrieved by being the butt of a beat-down, peaceful people will not get hurt, and the Wieners would get much less attention.

IGNORE. Let them speak to a dead microphone. They may not go away, but they will own less real estate in our thoughts and our news feeds. They will shrink like a cancer bathed in chemo.

THEN MARCH IN PEACEFUL STREETS. If you believe in the teachings of Martin Luther King, then live them. 

Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

I don’t expect my prescription for a Wiener-less peace to be filled, because it is so easy (and, I am sure, satisfying) to give in to the rage caused by such evil, malignant intent, but I can dream.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

And now, your art tax.

Big Sur, 20" x 16" oil on canvas (palette knife application), on display this month at Gallery 360

Big Sur, 20" x 16" oil on canvas (palette knife application), on display this month at Gallery 360

Sunsets and Pebbles

When I type “sunset” into my iPhoto picture catcher, it returns 156 matches. That’s only the ones that the iPhoto brain can identify as sunsets. There might be just as many that it misses. The technology hasn’t quite perfected this game.

That’s at least 156 times that I needed to record the moment of a beautiful sunset, and approximately 150 of those times I was at the beach.  I’m not going to attempt to analyze this need. I’m sure most peoples’ photo collections are similar.

I’m also not going to analyze the need to then reproduce the sunset artificially using paint and canvas. It just happens. It happens to me a lot. Usually they are not as good as the original photograph, let alone as good as the original moment, but I keep trying because that is my compulsion. (Ugh, I hope you feel for me, living with this burdensome compulsion. GOD I can be pompous.)

(I KNOW. I could have just erased that whole thing and rewritten it, but I want you to know what a ridiculous child I am. It’s part of my charm.)

(THERE I GO AGAIN.)

Here's that beach in the daytime in 2004 with my favorite model, Drew, for perspective.

Here's that beach in the daytime in 2004 with my favorite model, Drew, for perspective.

Let’s get this back on track. Here I am, making another attempt at depicting a sunset. This one is based on one I photographed on Cobble Beach on Yaquina Head (also called Black Pebble Beach), just south of the lighthouse. It’s an unusual beach for the area. It’s a little cove packed with smooth, palm-sized rocks that slide around under your feet, making walking tough going. The surf sounds extra tinkly, roaring up and sliding back out, causing the stones to roll around under the force of the water.

You can’t see the little stones in the painting, but I tried to depict the feeling that you get when you have to take yet another picture of a sunset, even though you have plenty.

Yaquina Sunset (With Extra Seabird). Oil on Canvas 20" x 16"

Yaquina Sunset (With Extra Seabird). Oil on Canvas 20" x 16"

Trail Rage

So we took this great trip to Moab, Utah a month or two back. Drew had been there several times on mountain bikes and vroom-vroom bikes and wanted to share the place with me. And what's not to love: canyons, color, ancient petroglyphs, modern recreation, and RV parking. 

I expected to love it, and did some research on the hiking opportunities in the area. Drew had the two-wheel trails pegged, but I wanted at least one day of two-footed adventure. 

I found the Fiery Furnace trail hike. It is a very lightly marked trail in Arches National Park, which can only be accessed by ranger-led group hike, or by self-guided permits which require some prior video training. The National Park requires all participants to be of good enough physical agility to clamber up and down rocks, jump gaps, and squeeze into tight spaces, and to be able to complete the 2.5 hour loop. 

This will be perfect. I can go on a somewhat challenging hike in unfamiliar terrain, and I don't have to drag Drew along as my buddy-system buddy. I'll have a ranger and a group. Drew can drop me off like a soccer mom, go ride his mountain bike, and come pick me up when my hike party is over.

At the ranger desk when I bought the ticket, the ranger showed me a laminated hand-out that showed all the squeezy, clambery types of agility I would need to possess, showed me a visual example of the amount of water I would need to bring, and made me promise that I was man enough to handle the trail's trials. I promised. Watching her explain the rigors ahead, Drew was all the more certain that, one year out of back surgery and 55 years through a life lead by avoiding the agonies of hiking, he would happily leave it to me. 

I bought a new little day pack to carry my required burden of water. Even though the weather report was for mild conditions, I did not know how strict my ranger guide was going to be and I did not want to get turned away for breaking water rules. I did not need (a) so much water, and (b) to worry about my preparedness.

Five hundred yards was all we needed to know that someone, actually three someones, did not listen to the ranger with the pictures of clambering hikers. Two were past their prime hiking age and one woman was probably younger than me but carried too much weight on a bum knee that she admitted earlier was either pre- or post-operative. (I don't remember which. I actually heard that remark at the bathroom before the walk began and I didn't think she was part of the group at the time. She somehow neglected to mention that to the ranger.) The ranger gave them all a chance to ditch the hike, which had already visibly taxed them. They did not take the hint.

Our personal Park Ranger. Let's call him Justin. He kept trying to teach us stuff. Ugh.

Our personal Park Ranger. Let's call him Justin. He kept trying to teach us stuff. Ugh.

We moved on with the three stragglers straggling further and further behind. We would hike for a while and wait. And wait. Finally our ranger (I don't remember his name. Let's call him Justin), for the safety of the stragglers, made them lead the hike with him so that he could help them over every clambery bit. That meant the rest of us (maybe 12 of us) were in a continual bottle neck, waiting to do in a second what it had taken five minutes for the trio of dumb to manage.

Ranger Justin doing the heavy lifting

Ranger Justin doing the heavy lifting

Ranger Justin did not know when he woke up that morning that he would spend the day lifting three people up and over the entire Fiery Furnace trail, and neither did we know that we would spend the day in a line behind them waiting. Alas.

I see a few crossed arms. I am not the only one not believing this is happening.

I see a few crossed arms. I am not the only one not believing this is happening.

I am SO SORRY about using the word "alas." I will do better. It's just that...I mean...gaahh.

Here's Ranger Justin, bent over as ever, as he tries his best to help, while the rest of us wait and not hike.

Here's Ranger Justin, bent over as ever, as he tries his best to help, while the rest of us wait and not hike.

Ooh, sorry again for that "gaahh." That's not even a word. As a journalist, I am supposed to be able to use words to express any thing or circumstance. 

Here's a hint as to the speed of our "hike." The ranger-led hike that started an hour later caught up with us and played through, as if we were an aged and bumbling golfing foursome.

As you can imagine, we "hikers" at the back were exchanging a lot of careful "what were they thinkings" and "didn't they get the warnings," but we had all paid a lot in time and money to travel to the park, find lodging, and buy tickets for this hike, and we were trying to salvage the day by trying to put a pleasant spin on it. I spent a lot of my free time at the back of the line taking photos, which was pleasingly distracting. I got some good ones.

One of the photos I took was the basis for the following painting that I think is complete.

Can you feel a little extra anger or frustration in this piece? Good, and now you know where it came from.

I really enjoyed being down in those little slot canyons. I wish I could have been able to really clamber and jump, and I hope to get to go back to do so. Hopefully it won't be so long that I will be the slow one.