Focus! Focus!

So, I haven’t mentioned out loud here yet that I’m participating in Blogging 101 here on WordPress.

The whole idea is to bring focus to my blog and to define what I want to do with it. I’ve been banging my head on the wall for about 24 hours now trying to figure out how to accurately convey what I want to do here. I’m still not sure I’ve got it, but I think the new title and tagline help. I am, after all, the mom here. It’s what I’ve done for the past 20 years, and it’s left little time for anything else. Now that one kid is in college and the other is half-way through high school, I find myself alone a lot of the time and feeling like I need to challenge myself. While I do appreciate clean bathrooms and a tidy kitchen, that’s just not enough to keep me from losing my mind.

Over the past week, I’ve put my head down and started taking some notes and doing some research on things that most catch my attention. I’ve been paying attention to the podcasts that suck me in — Radiolab, Stuff You Should Know, Freakonomics, to mention a few. I’ve been reading article after article on freelance writing, science writing in particular. I’ve been making sure that when an idea for a business venture pops into my head, I write it down. I’ve been making a list of skills that I need to develop to make myself more marketable.

It all seems overwhelming some days, but as I look back over my notes, things are starting to come into focus. I’ve stopped feeling like I’m wasting my time, and I’ve started feeling like I’m beginning to get a handle on where I’m headed.

My being here right now is part of getting focused. I’m pleased to say that simply trying to determine the focus of what I want to write about is paying off. I’m not there yet, but things are starting to take shape.

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Why I’m Here

When my children were young, I spent my time teaching them and finding out exactly how much I didn’t know. Now that they’re one step shy of being adults, I can no longer use them as an excuse to learn new things. So, I have to make learning opportunities for myself, and what fun is learning something new if you can’t share it with somebody?! So, welcome to my virtual “playground.” This is where I get to play with ideas and share them with you.

I always have podcasts on in the car and when I’m working around the house, and most of them deal with science — food science, psychology, medicine, why and how things came to be. Some people might say I have a tendency to over-analyze things. It’s not true. Don’t listen to them. I just like to look at things from every direction.

When I sit down and write about something, it helps me to connect the dots. While I’m at it, I might as well put it out here and share it. So, come on in. Grab a cup o’ joe or a spot of tea and let’s figure this stuff out together!

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The view from over here.

So, here’s the thing: September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month.

We are a cancer family. For the past 14 years, we’ve been a cancer family. We’re very aware. People around us are very aware. Our experience is a reminder that they are also vulnerable. Nobody likes to think about it, including me and everyone else in our family, especially our very own survivor.

We don’t like being defined by cancer and our experiences with it. On the other hand, we — perhaps, just I — feel that it’s important for the rest of the world to understand what it’s like to be a cancer family. Why? Because most people think that after a few years of survival, you stop worrying about it and stop talking about it so much, and everything is back to hunky-dory. Except that’s not true.

We might be able to put it all away most of the time, but sometimes something will come up in conversation, or you start trying to remember when this, that or the other thing happened, and you find yourself telling time by cancer or saying things like, “So, you know about my son, right?” when you have something to say, but it won’t make sense if they don’t know. When they don’t know, then you need to explain that he is a cancer survivor and yadda yadda yadda. Blah blah blah. The conversation is now side-tracked. I get sick of hearing myself say it. Sometimes I just keep my mouth shut, and then I can pretend we’re just like everybody else.

If you know a cancer family, what you might not realize is that they are still living with this disease all of the time, even though it’s “gone.” It leaves an indelible mark, and you’re never absolutely sure that it’s really gone. You keep a watchful eye on every member of your family, watching to make sure it’s not hiding somewhere, lurking in the dark. Cancer and paranoia are best friends.

The fear creeps around the back hallways of our minds, and about every six months or so, the doctors take us by the hand and force us to actually go in there and look around. I’m grateful to say that not much goes on there these days — just some dusty memories that gaze back at us, remembering when we lived there. Sometimes, something will come up that doesn’t look quite right, and then we have to venture a little further down those hallways and spend some time checking for cracks and making sure that the weak spots are not any weaker. You can’t go in there without waking up the demons that sleep there. They come alive and taunt you into imagining the worst. They dance in front of you, grab at you, try to pull you in. I’ve gotten very good at walking away, but the door won’t close. You can still see the light and hear the noise. You just have to turn around and leave as quickly as you can and forget about it until the next time you’re forced to walk down there again.

So, yeah. It’s Childhood Cancer Awareness month. That one month out of the year when all of us over here impossibly try to tell all of you over there what it’s like and implore you to help us. If you know someone who has had a child with cancer, just remember that while they seem okay — and they mostly are — they don’t have the luxury of just forgetting about it 11 months of the year. Just because their child looks and acts healthy doesn’t mean that they don’t think about it every day in some way. Make a point to know when their child is going for a checkup, and stay open to listening when they need to talk about it. Everybody — no matter what they’re going through — needs to know they aren’t alone.

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On Being Christian …

I’d just like to clarify a few things. More and more often, I feel like Christians and Christianity are being disparaged by people who only know Christians by what they hear on the news. Generally speaking, Christians have become poorly represented in the media, and the Internet is full of haters who are only interested in one side of the story.

First of all, I’d like to say that you are free to believe whatever it is you want to believe — whether or not you’re right. And so am I. You don’t have to agree with me, but you do have the obligation as a fellow human being to respect me and my beliefs.  Just as I do you and yours. I know that nothing I say is going to change your mind. Likewise, nothing you say is going to change my mind, either. I know you find this frustrating, but stop calling me names. I’m not stupid, bigoted, ignorant or narrow-minded. I’m just as interested in scientific advancements and racial/gender equality as you are. I’m also not opposed to changing my mind on issues when it becomes obvious that I’m wrong. I don’t hate you because your skin is a different color, and I don’t care who you love as long as you’re not abusing or subjugating anyone.  I love science, and I try really hard to understand both sides of an issue before I make up my mind about which side I want to stand on.

What bothers me the most is that I cannot explain to you the peace and joy I’ve experienced because of my faith. I cannot effectively convey my experiences to you. I’ve tried, and you just smile politely and go away thinking about how quaint I am, and I go away thinking about how sad it is that you can’t feel what I have felt.

I am not and never will be a good apologist for Christianity, but here are a few things — in no particular order — that I think about that you might find interesting and contrary to how you view the Christian faith:

  • Jesus hung around with the people on the fringe — thieves, prostitutes, beggars, lepers, etc. These were the people who needed him the most. He wanted to make their lives better. He didn’t hold their sins against them. He encouraged them, healed them and simply asked them to love one another as they loved themselves and to stop doing the things that were hurting them and those around them. He held in disdain the aristocracy of his time, and they made him the most angry. That’s where the word “hypocrites” came from — they would go to Temple and act one way, but as soon as they walked out the door, they were back to wielding their power against their enemies, the poor and otherwise less fortunate. This still happens, and it wrongfully happens in the name of God. The human race can be so stupid.
  • I believe that God is our creator, which means that he created and loves each and every one of us. Again, it doesn’t matter what color your skin is or whether you’re gay or straight. It’s human beings who have created the biases present in our cultures. Again, we’re supposed to love one another as we love ourselves. We’re not very good at that.
  • When I say that God is our creator, I don’t believe that he sculpted us out of clay and then breathed life in. I believe that somewhere along the way, He set events into motion that allowed the human race to evolve into where we are now. In the process, he gave us free will to make our own choices. He wants us to love him as much as He loves us, but again, we’re not very good at that. That’s why we often abuse our free will and make stupid decisions that hurt people and actually turn people away from Him. Still, He lets us keep our free will because if we don’t come to Him because we want to, what good is it?
  • I don’t believe that The Bible should be taken literally. I believe that the Old Testament was written to explain the universe to us in a way we could understand at the time it was written. Just as we write and read stories to our children to explain the world to them, God gave us only as much as we could understand at the time. God sent Jesus to us to correct the misunderstandings that had become a way of life, and he did away with the ritualistic laws that were instituted by man. Again, he did this by relating to us in a way we could understand at the time — i.e., He spilled His own blood as a final sacrifice so we could feel clean. Before He died, He gave us sacraments that would allow us to renew ourselves in ways that didn’t involve slaughtering animals or our first borns. Jesus was one cool dude. I’m sure you would have liked him. He loves you.
  • I also believe in evolution. Are you surprised by that? I also believe in the Big Bang. Crazy, isn’t it? Believing in either one of these things does not make God impossible. If you understand how evolution works, then you will know that somewhere along the way, a mutation occurred and BAM: humans. Same thing goes for the Big Bang. Forces in the universe came together and what ensued is just too miraculous for me to believe it was a happy accident. It’s OK if you don’t believe this. One of us is wrong and one of us is right — or neither. We’ll probably never know which one of us is right, so let’s just agree to disagree. That way we can enjoy each other’s company without arguing about something that neither one of us can prove.
  • Our universe and everything in it is constructed in such an orderly fashion that I just can’t believe it’s a matter of coincidence. Isn’t it odd that the makeup of a galaxy is so similar to that of an atom? For example, the Golden Ratio can be seen in the measurements of a DNA molecule all the way up to the arrangement of the arms of a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way.
  • Every anti-Christian, agnostic and atheist I know was turned off to faith and religion by a misguided fellow human being who was acting in the name of a faith they didn’t understand. That doesn’t make faith wrong. That makes the human being wrong and far more damaging than someone who has no faith at all.

A final word: If you’re right, and there is no God then, as a Christian, I have lived my life well. Hopefully, I’ve made someone’s life better along the way, and I can die happy knowing that I have tried to live a good life in service to others. However, if I’m right, and God is real, I hope something happens to change your mind. Otherwise, I’m really going to miss you.


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The Chronicles of Insomnia

I’m awake. Maybe it’s the ringing in my ears or the wind outside or any of a dozen notions that are rolling around in my head. Whatever it is, instead of fighting it, I just got up. Fighting insomnia is a losing battle. I try not to look at the clock, but I can’t help myself. Then, I’m counting the hours until my alarm goes off, and the math keeps me awake. Damn you, math.

So, I was listening to a podcast about the placebo effect yesterday. Ironically — or maybe to the point — the topic was perceived quality of sleep. Test subjects were told they would be given an EMG that would be able to tell whether or not they had a good night’s sleep. It all looked technically accurate, but the EMG was really a sham. The researchers really just wanted to test whether or not the suggestion of a good or poor night’s sleep was enough to influence an individual’s performance on cognitive testing.

When the study participants arrived, they were asked whether or not they’d had a good night’s sleep the night before. What surprised the researchers was that it didn’t matter whether or not the individuals thought they had a good night’s sleep. What mattered was what the researcher reported to the participants about the outcome of their EMG. If the researcher said that the EMG indicated the participant was well-rested, the participant did better on the test even if they had reported a poor night’s sleep. Ultimately, the study showed that as long as an authority figure presented the suggestion, participants would believe it. In other words, self-perception didn’t have an effect. Plenty of subjects reported they’d had a great night’s sleep, but if they were in the group who were told by the researcher that their EMG indicated a poor night’s sleep, they didn’t do as well on the test.

So, this whole notion that we are so susceptible to the power of suggestion has my mind churning. And that’s perhaps why I’m not sleeping. Ironic. Yeah, I guess it is.

I have so many questions. Does awareness of the placebo effect cause a person to be so cynical that it can no longer help them? Can you still benefit from a placebo if you know you might have gotten a placebo? What about all the rubbish on the Internet? There are all sorts of claims made about all sorts of things, and while most of it is rubbish, what does that matter if the suggestion that something works actually helps someone, as long as it doesn’t kill them, that is?

So after hearing this podcast on the placebo effect, I had an idea. What if this susceptibility to the power of suggestion not only allows us to benefit from placebos, but what if it also causes ailments? According to the research, we have actual physiologic reactions to suggestions. For example, if an individual is given a low-calorie milkshake, but they’re told it’s a high-calorie milkshake, the physiologic changes in their body are the same as if they ate an actual high-calorie milkshake.

In Radiolab’s Placebo episode, one of the doctors was telling about how we have receptors in our brains for morphine and other opioids, and when we’re given a placebo, the opioid receptors in our brains are activated. Did you get that? You are given a sugar pill, told that it’s a pain killer, and your brain says, “Hey, morphine!!!” Put another way: We have within ourselves the power to fix ourselves.

Well, what if the opposite is true? What I mean is, what if we make ourselves sick by the same power of suggestion that allows us to benefit from the placebo effect? I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill hypochondriac. We all have that Aunt Marge in our lives who thinks that every sniffle is typhoid (and please, God, don’t let me be her). I’m talking about the suggestions we hear every day from whatever mode of media we’re allowing into our heads — news reports on the latest culprit in the obesity epidemic, web articles on chemicals in our food that are sure to kill us all, GMOs, corn, soybeans, wheat, fossil fuels, McDonald’s french fries. We are bombarded with tiny little snippets of information, and we don’t always have the time to get the whole story. We develop our own perception of what we’ve heard, and that perception develops into a suggestion to our brains. Well, what if those notions are enough to trigger changes in our brains and bodies because we believe, on some level, what we’ve heard?

Somebody who is smarter than me is going to have to take up the gauntlet and figure this stuff out, and when they do, I’m sure I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and read about it.

I hear my family waking up to get the day started. Time to go fill my coffee cup and join them. I predict a nap coming on later. I wish that researcher was here to tell me that I had a good night’s sleep.

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Visions of Sugar Plums

I’m sure traditional sugarplums are quite delicious (thank you, Alton Brown), but these are prettier, much better for you, so tasty, and they inspired me to get the camera out again.

It was just about this time last year that I started getting more serious about photography.  I haven’t been spending much time with the camera for the past few months, but the lights and colors of the season are getting me fired up again.  That holiday bokeh always sucks me in.  So, I’m going to ride this wave of inspiration and get the rest of the Christmas decorating done today.

Posted in 'tis the Season, Food, Photography | 2 Comments


I was just loading some clothes into the washing machine — yes, laundry.  See?  I think I said before, when all else fails, there’s always laundry.  I wasn’t kidding.

As I was turning on the washer, it occurred to me:  I’m not stuck anymore!  Hallelujah!

I’m pretty sure I underestimated the negative effect my stress fracture had on me.  I was essentially being held down by the big, clumsy boot on my foot.  It’s been gone for a couple of weeks now, and I’m cleared to resume regular activities.  So, that’s what I’ve done.  I’ve been working hard for the past several days, and I’ve gotten back to my daily walks with the puppy and my regular exercise routine.  I am completely amazed at how much better I feel.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not surprised by this. I am, however, amazed at the degree to which this all impacted me.  I think it’s pretty cool that I’ve been given this opportunity to measure how important activity is for me.  I’m just going to chalk this up as one of life’s little lessons, one of God’s little blessings, and I’ll store it in the back of my mind and pull it out the next time I feel like being a slug.  Anyone reading this can feel free to remind me.  Just be nice about it, ok?

So, what I have to say is this: If you’re having trouble sleeping, or if you’re feeling blue, or maybe you just don’t feel like doing anything, get yourself OUT OF THE HOUSE and just take a walk.  If you have a dog, you will now be your dog’s hero.  If you have kids, they’ll think you’ve lost your mind, and maybe they’ll just go with you to see what happens, and then THEY will also be out of the house, and how awesome is that?!

Enjoy your walk!  I’ll see you when you get back.

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