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The Cat and the Bag

Our daughter Nina adopted a kitten almost a year ago, as she was quarantining in Los Angeles with her roommate, working at a demanding job, had broken up with her long-time boyfriend, had a horrible acne outbreak, and was generally feeling terrible.  Leo is a very active and affectionate cat, and has been a lifesaver for her.

So now, when our children visit, they bring their pets.  At this point we have our cat, Sophie; we’re babysitting Jake and Madison’s rabbit, Uni; Nina and Leo are visiting; and then there is always Max, the neighborhood cat, who acts like he lives with us. 

So after three days of Nina visiting, but always being off with her friends, we were finally having a “family night” of watching a funny movie.  We were sitting there laughing, about ten minutes into the movie, and I was feeling so happy about having picked just the right movie for our Los Angeles based kids – LA Story with Steve Martin – and looking forward to lots more welcome laughs.

Nina was sitting on the couch with a bag next to her – a “Gap” bag with rope handles, containing some shorts a friend had dropped off for her.  You know how cats love boxes and bags.  Leo jumped up onto the couch, and onto the bag, and one of the rope handles somehow got around his neck.

He looked terrified, jumped down, bag still around his neck, and took off at a run!  We were now laughing at Leo and the bag.  Nina said she had never seen him run so fast!  Nina immediately went after Leo, but he was nowhere to be seen.  We were all somewhat concerned by a cat with something stuck around his neck, so Mike, nephew Don and I also got up and started searching for Leo.

We searched all through our two-story house … nothing.  Mike got out a big flashlight and looked under furniture, through every closet, and even crawled through the attic, which adjoins Nina’s room.  There was no sign of either Leo or the bag.  We all got quiet and listened in various places … this is not normally a quiet cat … and didn’t hear a peep.

We contemplated whether Leo could have jumped out a window.  The casement windows in our bedroom were slightly ajar, though it is three stories down to the backyard, so we hoped to hell he hadn’t jumped.  But Don took the flashlight and searched all around the perimeter of our house.

Nina went to the grocery store and bought a jingly cat toy.  She jingled it all around the house, hoping to lure Leo out, but to no avail. 

I googled “How to find a cat that is hidden in your house,” and Don and I laughed at the advice, though it was actually a pretty good article.  But it didn’t really have anything that could help us.

Nina called her friend Emma, who told her that her cat sometimes hid for hours.

Nina and her dad got into a fight, of course, after Mike voiced what probably all of us were thinking, but carefully not saying – that he hoped the cat hadn’t hanged himself by now.  

Mike kept diligently searching, and even pulled our big bed on a foundation of drawers out from the wall, since there is a “channel” underneath, only accessible from the head of the bed, that a cat could crawl into – but Leo was not there.

We reassured each other that it was extremely unlikely that Leo had jumped out the window … he must be hiding … he must be keeping quiet for the first time in his life.

I was mostly sad that our watching of the funny movie was interrupted.  I said to Don, “Welcome to the bizarre world of the Doerings, where we can’t even do something normal like watch a movie without some crazy shit like this happening.”  It just felt unbelievable that a loud and juvenile cat, with a large bag attached to it, could disappear like this without a trace!  

Our search went on for a couple of hours, and it had gotten too late to keep watching the movie.  So I went to bed, and asked Nina to wake me if the cat was found.

I went to sleep, and a couple of hours later was awakened by – a gray kitten, with part of a bag still stuck around his neck, walking around next to my head!  I grabbed Leo, removed the bag, and brought him in to Nina!  I had a very happy daughter!  

I was even able to immediately go back to sleep.  When Mike came to bed we mumbled to each other that we will probably never know where Leo had been hiding.  Probably in the attic, which is filled with junk and has numerous crawl spaces.  Maybe someday we will find the rest of the bag.

It all started when we invited a few friends over for a bonfire in our backyard.  As we sat around the fire pit talking, one of our friends suddenly fell through our old canvas chair she was sitting in, and was unceremoniously pinned within the chair frame, with her butt on the ground and feet in the air!  We managed, with some difficulty, to pull her out, and she was okay.

But the next day I woke up thinking about how embarrassing, not to mention unsafe, this incident had been, and that we must buy more of those cheap but sturdy resin Adirondack chairs.  Mike said they had them at the hardware store in Coronado.  So we drove there in both our cars, since we knew it would be hard to fit them into either our Prius or Corolla.  Mike managed to jam the four chairs into my Prius, and tie the trunk door partially down with rope.

On the way home, as we were crossing the Coronado Bridge, with Mike trailing me, he called to tell me that something had come loose, and I should pull over as soon as possible.  However I didn’t see anyplace to pull over.  And it all felt pretty secure … I had the feeling the arrangement would hold together till we got home … so I kept going.  I was almost out of gas though, so I pulled into the gas station near our house.

The gas station was pretty crowded, so I had to drive around some cars to get to an empty pump.  Maybe I was nerve-wracked by the whole process of driving home, while disobeying my husband’s instructions, and hoping my cargo would not fall out all over the freeway!  Anyway, I brushed against the retaining wall at the perimeter of the gas station as I drove around the cars.

A female employee rushed over to me, waving her arms and yelling, “Look at your car, look at your car!”  Being accustomed, as I am, to ignoring small fender-benders and scrapes, I told her “Oh, it’s okay,” and waved her away.  She started exclaiming again, and again I reassured her and waved her away.  I started gassing the car, and then saw Mike, and walked over to the other side of my car to talk to him.  

At that point, I saw what the woman had been exclaiming about.  My car had sustained major damage from what had felt like just a tiny brush against the retaining wall.  The bumper, fender and headlight were hanging by a thread!  I stared in shock, as Mike removed the headlight and put it in my front seat.

Then I remembered that I had switched our car insurance only a week earlier.  After probably 30 years with 21stCentury, I had switched us to Geico, for its better price and coverage.  However I realized in an instant that it might seem suspicious that I gotten into an accident right after switching … they might think I had only signed on to get my car repaired.  I suddenly realized that the exclaiming woman might be an important witness, to confirm the date of the accident.

So I went to the office to ask for her contact information, but she wasn’t there.  I asked the other employee about her, and she acted like she didn’t know what I was talking about.  The manager came out, and they both looked at me like I was crazy.  Mike was also giving me funny looks.  After a few minutes, I said, “Okay, forget it,” figuring she must have been wearing a uniform from another job, and hoping I would be okay without a witness. 

So I filed my claim, got an estimate from an auto body shop, and an appointment to get my car fixed.  Then came The Phone Call.  “Mrs. Doering, we noticed that you filed your claim only a week after signing up with Geico.  We need you to talk to our blah-blah department to confirm some details.”  Oh no.  How did I know this was going to happen.

I talked to the woman at the fraud unit, or whatever it was.  She told me, “Most gas stations have observation cameras.  The best thing would be for you to go to the gas station and locate video footage that would establish the date of your accident.”  I thought – yeah, sure, they’re going to have video footage of an accident that happened a week ago, at the perimeter of their gas station … fat chance.  But maybe one of the women who had been in the office would be there, and remember that I was asking about the person who was a witness … maybe someone could corroborate my story.

So I drove to the gas station, hoping against hope that something would work out, and contemplating what might happen if it didn’t.  I entered the office and asked if they had observation cameras near the retaining wall.  As expected, no, they didn’t, they only had cameras right in front of the office.  

But then a miracle happened.  I looked up and there was the woman who had witnessed the accident!  I asked her if she remembered, and she did, and was happy to give me her contact information.  Of course then the manager told her not to, claiming that I was going to try to hold the gas station responsible for the damage to my car.  I assured her that was not what was going on, so she finally agreed that I could have the employee’s contact information.  The employee also explained that she had been leaving her shift when she witnessed my accident, and maybe that’s why the confusion had ensued.  At any rate, the insurance person called her, and everything was straightened out.  Yay!

But that was not to be the end of my insurance woes.  About a week later, I was going through my mail (which I like to put off for as long as possible), and came across a letter saying that the insurance on one of our rentals had been cancelled.  Oh god, my worst nightmare!  I was amazed that this cancellation was done with no warning whatsoever, especially since it was automatically paid out of the escrow account with our mortgage company.  But we had just refinanced this house, so the payment must have fallen through the cracks between the old and new mortgage company.

So I got on the phone, frantically calling the insurance company to get the policy reinstated.  But it was a Saturday, so it was closed.  After my attempts to pay online were rejected, I finally managed to pay for the entire year’s coverage over the phone with a credit card, on an automated line, and made myself a note to call again on Monday.

First thing Monday I started calling … first the insurance company, who said the policy needed to be reinstated through my insurance agent.  Then the agent, who got the policy mostly reinstated, but said I had to call the insurance company again, and give them a verbal assurance that there had been no claims during the 17-day period when our coverage was lapsed.  

So I called and gave this verbal statement, and was told that next I must email the declarations page to my mortgage company at a specific email address.  Good thing I had insisted the first person email me a copy of my reinstated policy, which they would not have done otherwise.

So I downloaded the policy and sent it to the email address I was given, only to receive an automated answer stating that “For your own protection, we do not communicate through email.  Please go to our website and contact us through our secure server.”  However the email did not give the URL for their website!  I did a web search, but could not locate any websites that resembled their email address.

So I had to call the insurance company back.  Each of these phone calls entailed probably ten minutes on hold.  By this time I had spent hours on this project, and was fuming.  I told the person who answered that it would be nice if they did not tell me to email the policy to an address that did not accept emails.  She said, “Oh no, you don’t email it at all, just go to the mycoverage.com website, and upload your declarations page there.”  So I did this, and it seemed to work. 

No more than thirty minutes after completing this hours-long project of reinstating the insurance, I received the following text from our tenant at that house: 

“Hi Daria, we had some hail yesterday. Today, some of the neighbors have submitted claims on their roofs. Just wanted to alert you that maybe you may want some to take a look at this roof.”  

Jesus Christ.  How had I known?  The main reason to submit insurance claims in Colorado is roofs destroyed by hail.  This hail event had happened one day before I got the policy reinstated.  

At this point I was tearing my hair out, or feeling like it, and updated my husband.  He said, “Wait until it hails again, and then submit a claim.”  Well, that might be a plan.

However I looked online at a website that lists hail events, hail sizes, and dates.  I found that for the city in Colorado where this rental is located, it generally hails on only one day per year.  Naturally, it was the day before the policy was reinstated.  I was screwed.

A day later, the tenant contacted me again, saying that the roof was definitely leaking, and a certain place in the house was wet.    

My latest reframe of this disaster is that I have been having trouble with landlord insurance for some time.  I had switched some houses to Traveler’s, but they jacked their rates way up after the first year, so I was anxious to dump them as soon as possible.  I had called my preferred insurer, HIPPO, but was told that I had too many claims (due to other hail damaged roofs), so they could not insure us.  Upon questioning, they said that one of the claims would drop off in July, and I could try again then.  So I have been counting the days until July.  

So my final thinking is – if I did file a claim for this roof, then I would be stuck with Traveler’s for god knows how much longer.  And that would probably cost me more than repairing this roof out of pocket!

Mother’s Day

Today is Mother’s Day. I have been crying since last night. I know it seems silly. I wasn’t expecting much, since Jake and Nina came down from LA last month for my birthday, which is more important to me than Mother’s Day.

Then Jake called a few days ago to say he was planning to come see me for mother’s day, but then some friends invited him on a deep-sea fishing trip, so he was going to do that instead, and would we watch his rabbit for 2-3 weeks while he and his girlfriend take a trip to the east coast in a few weeks? Then daughter Nina texted me last night to tell me she was having dinner with my sister and celebrating Mother’s Day with her, and she wished I was there! 

I told Jake we’d be happy to take care of his bunny, and Nina that I was so glad she was getting together with my sister … and Mike bought me three bunches of flowers last night and was so sweet. So I don’t even know why I’m crying. 

My latest thought is that it’s just the sadness that our kids don’t live with us anymore. Maybe I need a “day of sadness over not having our kids with us anymore” every Mother’s Day. Truly. No matter how many times people tell you to “enjoy your children while they’re still little,” you do, but it’s such an intense time that it either flies by or is too painful due to the work overload or … I don’t know. 

When our kids were little, I did absolutely love it and love them, and I had this funny feeling that this time would go on forever. I knew it wouldn’t, but I guess it felt like we were such a closeknit family, that maybe I thought that would never end. Gretchen Rubin has a saying, “The days are long but the years are short.” I could never wrap my head around what that meant, but recently, several years after reading it, I suddenly understood.

Oh, and we can be glad we are so affluent, because I’ve also noticed that the more money you have, the further flung your children are … or that’s how it seems to me.

Mike’s nephew Don was with us for about a week recently, and is going to move in with us in about another week. We love him, and it’s SO nice to have him around. He is 50, I think, but it almost feels like having one of our kids with us. He shares many of our views and interests, is so easy and pleasant to be with, and it feels like he appreciates us and doesn’t pick fights with us. So we’re looking forward to his living with us, though he says it will only be for a few months, and then he will return to New York.

I’ve also gotten some very sweet “gifts from the universe.” About five years ago, Mike tried to crack an egg into a pan, but it slipped and spilled all over, and even seeped between the pieces of glass of our oven door, creating an ugly smear. Mike said he would take the oven door apart and clean it up, but never did. 

Fast forward to a few months ago … for some reason I started thinking about stoves, and went to the Home Depot website, and located the exact stove I would love to have – a top-of-the-line GE Café double range. I “saved” it, and figured I would buy it some day when we remodel our kitchen. 

That afternoon, I came downstairs and saw Mike – cleaning the oven door!!! After all these years, he had suddenly decided to take it apart and get rid of that gross egg smear! I was so thrilled and thanked him profusely! However he was unable to get the door back together again … some tabs had sheared off when he took the door apart. He told me to buy a new stove and he would pay for it … having no knowledge that I had picked out a new stove that very morning!

So I ordered the stove from Home Depot. It was backordered, due to manufacturing delays, due to COVID. So we had to wait about three months, with no door on the top oven! But it finally came on Thursday! It is so gorgeous, and is the first time I have ever bought a full-priced stove, rather than a second from Sears Outlet! With my love of cooking, I’m kind of amazed I never had a super-deluxe stove before! 

It also happens to be the same stove that our older son Nick bought – he found it at an outlet store for a fraction of its usual price – so we have had some fun chats about its features, and its funny habit of sending a text every time it does anything – like “Your preheat is complete” or “Your timer has rung.”

Another gift – several years ago, Jake gave me some beautiful and expensive gold colored wireless headphones so I could listen to music while working out. I had never dealt with wireless headphones before, and things kept going wrong – I lost the charging cord and couldn’t locate a new one, and then the headphones just quit and wouldn’t work at all. After several attempts to get them to work, I put them into a drawer and told myself I would try again later. 

Fast forward several years – the wired headphones I use to listen to Audibles on my walks quit working. Actually they didn’t – it was my old iPhone’s headphone jack that broke. Rather than get it fixed, I decided it would be cheaper to use wireless headphones.

So I bought some cheap wireless headphone, but then thought – before using them, I will try one more time with the much better ones that Jake had given me. So I got them out, and used the cord from the new headphones to charge them (and learned what kind of charging cord is needed for wireless headphones). They still wouldn’t work, so I fiddled with them, reconnected them to Bluetooth, and discovered that all this time, the problem was that I didn’t know you had to hold down a certain button to turn them on and off! Now they work perfectly! Another Mother’s Day gift.

Well, I always remember when I was about 13, and I told my mother – I saved up money to buy you a Mother’s Day present, but we’re here at this concert, and my friend Sam didn’t have any money for a ticket, so I spent the money on a ticket for him. She gushed that she was glad I had done that. Wonderful role model, as always.

Ankle Saga

Since I seem to be on the subject of my recent medical sagas, here is my five-year ankle saga. I will tell you the punch line right at the beginning: “You gotta shop around,” as The Miracles tell us.

This piece began as a Yelp review for the surgeon who finally saved me, a year ago. I waited a year to make sure it was successful. But once I started writing the review, I ended up telling the whole story, as follows.

It all began with a weird intermittent pain in my right ankle. I had been a lifelong jogger – a couple of miles, three times a week, for years. I gave up jogging for awhile because I thought I was too heavy for it. But then I went back to it, because unlike most people I knew, my knees never bothered me. So I figured that, amazingly, I still seemed to be doing okay with it. Jogging always felt easy, like the one thing I could fit into my life. I could take a mere 30 minutes out of my busy day and do my run. I felt like it kept me strong, kept me alive, really.

Until the ankle pain. This just didn’t seem good. So I looked on Yelp and found a doctor near me, Dr. K, who had impeccable credentials and great reviews. Dr. K took x-rays and said, “I can’t see anything wrong with your ankle, but I can see that you have bone spurs on your big toe.” It was true that my right big toe had been getting stiffer and stiffer.

I should also mention that I’m someone who normally never sees doctors. All my life, I had either been very healthy, or ignored my health issues, and just didn’t trust doctors. So until an issue became unbearable, I didn’t go. As for this toe pain, I had assumed there was nothing that could be done. But it was getting worse and worse.

He recommended a cheilectomy – surgery to remove the bone spurs. I had never had surgery before, but this seemed to make sense. At least one issue would be solved. So I had the surgery, which was actually pretty horrendous – months of lying on the couch with my leg elevated – but eventually it did heal, and solved that problem.I went back to him about my ankle, which still hurt intermittently. It was usually okay, but I remember one day when I had parked across the street from Vons, and was walking to my car with two bags of groceries. The pain became so sharp that I almost fell down, and didn’t know how I was even going to make it to the other side of the street. I made it somehow. And usually the pain was much more mild. But something was definitely wrong.

I went back to Dr. K and got an MRI, but he still insisted he could not see a thing wrong. So I figured I would just have to live with this.

By this time I was retired. I had given up jogging, due to the ankle pain, and taken up rowing on Mission Bay and folk dancing. I seemed to be able to do both without my ankle hurting, and enjoyed them for a couple of years. I was careful when walking, and didn’t run.

Then we took a trip to Colorado. On the way back, we were late for our flight, and ended up running through the huge Denver airport. I felt okay while running, but my ankle was much worse afterward. I knew I had to try other doctors and make further attempts to get this solved.

So I went back to Yelp, and next tried Dr. W, another doc with great reviews. He took an x-ray, and said the problem was that I had thinning cartilage surrounding my right ankle. He recommended “ankle distraction surgery,” a procedure he taught to other doctors, in which the doctor operates and pulls the joint apart a tiny bit so the cartilage can expand and fill the space. You have to wear a huge “cage” around your entire leg for six months, with screws going through your skin to the bone, holding it all in place. Obviously it is extremely invasive. But I was so desperate that I was considering it. He also talked about amniotic fluid stem cell treatment as another option.

So I researched stem cell therapy, which seemed like a relatively non-invasive treatment method, and it was touted as a cure for a wide range of ills, especially joint issues. I found that amniotic fluid does not actually contain stem cells, but “stem cell factors,” so it really doesn’t help. So the fact that Dr. W had recommended it eroded my faith in him further.

I found a doctor in LA who seemed to have helped a ton of people, Dr. D. With stem cell therapy, at least this type, they harvest bone marrow from your hip, spin it so they separate out the stem cells, and inject these cells into your joint, all in one visit. So I had this procedure done, and he injected my stem cells into about a dozen places in my ankle. None of this was fun – lots of pokes – but it wasn’t that bad either.

Dr. D was unclear about how many of these treatments would be needed. While in his waiting room, I read a paper he had written about how x-rays and MRI’s were essentially useless – he didn’t bother with them at all. Stem cell therapy could cure anything! The first treatment didn’t help, and I went back for one more. They were about a thousand dollars a pop as well, out of pocket. Dr. D said I might need many treatments to be cured. It all started to seem suspicious and pointless, and I couldn’t believe it was doing my hip any good to be drilled into. (Not that I’m disputing that stem cell therapy helps many people – it just didn’t help me.)

Dr. D told me to wear a walking boot for a month after the stem cell treatments. So one day I was walking down the street in my boot, and a guy made a comment to me about it, and we started chatting. It turned out he’d had problems with his ankle too, but had a great doctor in San Diego who had cured him with stem cell therapy! I got his doctor’s name and made an appointment. This doctor told me that it was important to use umbilical cord stem cells. That as people age, their stem cells become less and less potent. I researched this and it was confirmed. So Dr. D’s treating me with my own aged stem cells was unlikely to have worked, even if my problem had been amenable to stem cell treatment otherwise. Ugh.

So I got another way more expensive umbilical stem cell treatment from this doctor, and again it didn’t help. He had not done any x-rays or MRI’s, just given me the treatment I asked for.

By this time I’d had to give up rowing and folk dancing, and was becoming increasingly hopeless about my situation.

At the same time I was trying to deal with my weight issues, and my son Jake insisted I needed to find a nutritionist and go! So I found someone in my neighborhood with great reviews, Francesca Orlando. She was very smart about a wide range of issues, and told me I had to see Dr. Damion Valletta about my ankle … he was the doctor for many sports teams, and the best. At this point the last thing I wanted was to see yet another doctor. But I finally forced myself to make an appointment with Dr. Valletta.

When I called for the appointment, I found out that Dr. Valletta shared an office with Dr. Paul Murphy, who had done surgery on my husband’s shoulder several years ago and saved him from endless terrible pain. Mike worships Dr. Murphy, and had kept telling me to make an appointment with him, and I’d kept saying, “but he’s not an ankle guy.” In retrospect, I should have listened to my husband, and at least called Dr. Murphy for a referral.

When I got to Dr. Valletta’s office, his assistant said, “He will want to see a full set of x-rays before he sees you,” and they took the x-rays. Honestly, no one had bothered with this prior to Dr. Valletta! Only a random x-ray here or there. Dr. Valletta seemed very smart, high-energy and personable. He immediately diagnosed me with a hole in my talus (ankle bone), and showed me the hole on the x-ray. He said he had no idea what could have caused it, but that was definitely the problem. He said this was an unusual condition, and without treatment, my ankle was likely to collapse. We discussed surgical treatment options over a couple of visits. He did not want to do the surgery himself, and told me the top ankle doctor in the country was Dr. Robert Anderson in Green Bay, Wisconsin, team doctor for the Green Bay Packers.

I had gotten to the point where I would have gone anywhere in the country, or even the world, to get this problem fixed. I tried to do a video or phone visit with Dr. Anderson, but his office said he would need to see me in person. So I arranged for Mike and me to take a trip to Wisconsin! We also took a mini-vacation in Milwaukee, which we loved.

Dr. Anderson confirmed Dr. Valletta’s diagnosis, and also that this hole, or cyst, was growing rather rapidly. He said what he would recommend was an arthroscopic surgery of filling the hole in my ankle with bone graft from my heel, and covering it with artificial cartilage. He said there was no need to him to do it, however … it would be easier for me closer to home. First he recommended Dr. K, whom he had worked with at times to do follow-up care on Chargers players he had operated on. But I nixed that idea. Then he recommended three doctors in the LA area whom he had known for many years.

So I researched the three doctors, and actually did reconsider Dr. K. Mike and I went to see him, and discussed the surgery I needed. He admitted that he had done this surgery maybe ten times, and that all had been failures, and two had resulted in the patient having to have ankle fusion, in which all the bones are fused and the ankle no longer even bends. His message was that this type of surgery was unlikely to be successful. But the message I took was that this guy didn’t know how to do it, and don’t go to him!

Of the LA doctors, one had bad reviews, so I crossed him off my list. I sent my information to a second one, but his office was impossible to deal with, after a number of tries, so I crossed him off too.

We went for a consult with the third, Dr. David Thordarson at Cedars Sinai, and from the beginning, loved him. He seemed knowledgeable, competent and kindly. He looked like the quintessential doctor … gray hair, clean-cut, handsome, older but not too old.

Dr. Thordarson said he had done about half a dozen of these surgeries, and they had all been successful. I was glad to hear that, but half a dozen?! That is so few, that to me, it puts it into the category of an experimental surgery, which was the last thing I wanted. However I really had no choice, so I scheduled the surgery.

However I had a feeling of dread about the upcoming surgery, and kept imagining terrible outcomes. This seemed like no state of mind to be in, going into surgery, so I cancelled it. I mean, I was able to walk … not very far, but at least I could putter around the house … and I didn’t want to get any surgery that would make things worse instead of better.

I felt the need for divine intervention, and had heard of “Power of Eight” intention groups. I decided to start one … maybe that would give me the confidence and support I needed … at least I would feel I was doing everything I possibly could. That is a whole story in itself, but I did start a “Power of Eight” group with some friends, which is still ongoing, and still an amazing source of personal and hopefully divine support in our lives.

Meanwhile, a friend of my sister’s, married to a physician, heard of my plight. She consulted her husband and he told her the only place for me to go was the Hospital for Special Surgeries in New York. I seriously considered this … researched all the doctors … made an appointment … planned a trip to New York that would include this. But ultimately, I decided that Dr. Thordarson seemed really good, and I couldn’t imagine who else would be better, so I cancelled it all.

So I got the surgery, which was amazing – just three little holes, through which the surgeon guided a tiny camera and instruments to accomplish what was needed. All seemed to go well, and I didn’t even have any pain afterwards … almost none! However I did get a fever, and was worried that it signaled an unseen, internal infection.

I tried to see a doctor, and found that of course it is useless to try to see your doctor when you are sick. Your only options are urgent care or the ER. I went to urgent care … was treated with antibiotics for a possible UTI … but the fever came back. So this time I went to the Scripps ER, and the doctor gave me a massive dose of a sulfur antibiotic in addition to what I was already on. This resulted in my breaking out in hives all over my body. It was truly miserable … I could not bathe due to my recent surgery, had itching hives all over, plus the fever. So I went back to the ER and this time was hospitalized. Over several days they gave me every test known to man – blood tests, MRIs and CT scans of every organ in my body – and determined there was nothing wrong.

So I finally came home to rest and heal. At some point, someone said it might be “post-surgery fever,” which apparently is a thing, and I think it was as simple as that.

Now it is a year later, and I’m very grateful for the surgery. I would say that my ankle is 90-95% better. I tried rowing again, and that seemed to aggravate it … same with yoga. So I can’t do everything, but I can walk with friends, which is all I really care about.

So I went through a total of seven doctors in this journey. I am grateful to all of them – good and not so good – not trying to demonize any of them, they’re all trying. And I’m proud of myself for all I went through … I am nothing if not dogged.

Yea for Carbs!

My neverending battle with the medical establishment continues. My blood sugar level had gotten deep into prediabetes territory, and as it was one tenth of a point away from diabetes, I knew I had to do something. My cardiologist had been telling me for years to stop eating carbs, read Wheat Belly, etc. I saw a new integrative doctor and nutritionist, and they joined in the choir.

The only problem is that 1) I love carbs, 2) every book I’ve read that I regard highly, such as Blue Zones, promotes a Mediterranean or vegan diet, both of which make total sense to me, but not this new low-carb or Keto stuff … low-carb goes against everything I believe in, and 3) carbs are necessary to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that produces a feeling of well-being (and also reduces hunger), which antidepressant drugs seek to increase. As someone whose mental health is always a bit precarious, I felt that the last thing I should do is give up carbs. See https://www.psychologytoday.com/…/serotonin-what-it-is…

But I tried their plan, reasoning that I could eat a no-carb breakfast, consisting of two eggs, and that wouldn’t kill me. But after trying that for a month, my A1C was WORSE, not better. Not to mention that Blue Zones (my Bible in general) says that people worldwide generally eat an egg or two per week, so I didn’t regard this extreme egg eating as healthful in any way.

I did further research, and found that the American Society of Clinical Endocrinologists recommends losing 10% of your body weight to prevent diabetes. That made sense to me, and is something I’d love to do anyway. So I decided – back to what has worked for me in the past. I will do food journaling, and keep my food intake to around 1200 calories per day, indefinitely. I will combine my love of planning, my love of checking things off lists, and my love of cooking, and that should work for me.

So I started doing this, and have lost about 10 pounds in a month and a half. Though I also decided I would not weigh myself (later changed my mind about this), and would instead focus on the practice of eating right, regardless of the result.

So I saw the new nutritionist yesterday, and received the same BS lecture about how I need to lower my carb intake and eat more vegetables. Little to no mention of how great it was that I brought all my perfectly printed out food journals and nutritional analysis (which I’ve done for years on a fantastic website – www.FitClick.com), how wonderful that I have lost ten pounds, and how healthfully I eat (I already eat a lot of both raw and cooked vegetables). She also refused to prescribe an A1C test (average of your blood sugar levels over three months), claiming that it would “only lead to disappointment until I’ve been on her diet for more time.” Although she was very “nice,” I was so angry during the visit and depressed afterward … not good.

So this morning I went to CVS Minute Clinic and got an A1C test on my own. Even though the test is a measure of the average of your blood sugar over three months, and I have only been following my protocol for about a month and a half, my blood sugar level has fallen dramatically – from 6.4 to 5.6, which is normal and out of prediabetes territory!

So all I can say is F— these people and their absurd low-carb fad. I don’t like eating smoothies for breakfast or salad for lunch, because it leaves me feeling starving. I prefer the “miracle muffins” I bake for breakfast (no flour, sugar or fat), a bean burrito or vegan bologna sandwich for lunch (emphasis on legumes), raw veges and cottage cheese dip for a snack, and a normal dinner. I hope these folks don’t drive the many depressed people in this country to worse mental health or suicide.

I was seeking support in maintaining healthful eating, but none of them seem capable of saying, “Great job, keep doing what you’re doing!” nor appreciating all the amazing and healthful recipes I have created. I doubt I will ever see a nutritionist again in my life. Thankfully I have a supportive family, friends and therapist.

Most recently, an ad popped up on my Facebook feed for GenoPalate, a business that will supposedly take your DNA sample from 23andMe or Ancestor.com, analyze it, and tell you what diet you should be eating, based on your DNA.  What really grabbed me was their allegation that some people need a higher level of carb intake than others.  

So I managed to download my DNA report from 23andMe, and upload it to GenoPalate.  A week and $29 later I got their report.  Sure enough, I am one of those people who needs a higher level of carbs!  I feel so vindicated!

Mike and I have gotten totally hooked on watching Gunsmoke. It’s funny because prior to this, I had never watched an episode of Gunsmoke in my life. It’s the last thing I ever would watch, being the peace-loving hippie that I am, and more than that, being someone who is so upset by unwholesome movies that I don’t watch anything that is even suspenseful, let alone violent. But Gunsmoke is our evening comfort activity, and it is truly saving us!

Every episode is a morality tale, as Mike says. For me, there is so much wisdom and goodness in how Marshall Matt Dillon conducts himself. His authority, bottom line, is based on his being such a fast and accurate shot that he can outshoot almost anyone, and being good with his fists. But he always exhorts and almost begs the bad guys and the merely misguided to not draw, to not do anything stupid that will get them killed. They usually do anyway.

Matt uses such creativity to solve all the constant murders and crimes, that it’s really fascinating. We always joke that Matt Dillon’s main activity is burying the dead, and that it’s a wonder that Dodge City has any inhabitants left!

The Chester Goode character is also fascinating. At first glance he seems lame, and lame-brained as well. But he is actually a good shot with the rifle, and is fearless, maybe simply from his loyalty to Marshall Dillon. Matt clearly feels he can rely on Chester to take the prisoners to jail or anything else that needs to be done. Although Chester drawls on endlessly, it often ends up serving some purpose, and he is an integral character in everything that happens.

That all being said, we have some questions and observations, for any other Gunsmoke loving folks out there. Well, maybe only two questions. Are those bar girls prostitutes? All of them? Why don’t Matt and Miss Kitty get married?

Observations:
• Everything in the show is historically accurate. There was one show that had a character whose parents were killed by a group called Quantrill’s raiders in an anti-slavery uprising in Lawrence, Kansas. We looked it up and such an incident did happen.
• Marshall Dillon has many “friends” that we’ve never heard of, but they come back into his life … usually in time to have somehow changed and now be trying to kill him.
• Matt Dillon does get shot sometimes, and it seems like it’s always in the left shoulder. We wonder how his shoulder has held up at all!

Most exciting moments:
• Finding out where Marshall Dillon got his horse! As a horse nut, I always noticed that Matt rode a buckskin horse. But nothing was ever said about the horse. Then we watched an early episode in which Matt saved the life of a white boy who lived with the Indians. Someone had stolen a bunch of horses that the boy was watching, and shot the boy, and the horses were in Dodge City. The boy recovered, and snuck out, taking the herd with him … all except the best horse, a buckskin, which he left for Marshall Dillon! Matt has ridden it ever since!
• Another exciting thing is that we own a rental in Pueblo, Colorado. It is an odd town that I had always avoided, because I read such bad things about it on the city-data.com forum, which is a great source of information. But once we went there, we found out that, despite its weirdnesses (general low level of education and difficulty getting anything done right), it is a very old steel town, and has tons of the Victorian, brick and Craftsman houses that I love. Anyway, characters in Gunsmoke are always going to or from Pueblo.
• Lastly, I am excited that Gunsmoke is the longest-running TV show in history – It ran for 20 years, from 1955-1975. So it will be awhile before we run out of episodes to watch!

If you watch Gunsmoke, pay careful attention to the opening, in which Marshall Dillon is often walking around Boot Hill, where the bad guys are buried, and making some philosophical observation or another.

Sometimes I have to take a break from Gunsmoke – I can’t take any more bad guys!  They are so cruel and horrible.  But then I recover and go back for more.  Despite all the great TV shows out there, this is all we want to watch.  Maybe someday we will go to Kansas and visit Dodge City … after the pandemic is over!

Quarantine Memories

Masks. White, black or blue pleated surgical masks. N95 masks for medical personnel only!
Fashion statement masks of bold flowers or leopard spots.
Something new for our culture, that some cannot accept, and even kill over.

Long hair with dark or gray roots … no hairdresser visits for us!
Toilet paper shortages … what a riot! Why does TP cause us more panic than anything else?
Toilet paper from Amazon turns out to be little half rolls from China!

Life has slowed waaaayyy down.
Hard to find flour or yeast in stores … we have all turned to comfort baking!
Nurseries are packed as we do more gardening!

Many working from home, like we always wanted to (though some not).
Zoom for meetings, virtual birthday parties, music lessons and choir!
It works pretty well once you get the hang of it!

Everyone panicked that they will get flabby without going to the gym.
No cleaning ladies … have to do our own cleaning after umpteen years.
Apps like Zoom, Instacart and Door Dash are saving us.

I feel like we will look back over this period and barely be able to believe it.
The most corrupt and incompetent administration in history presiding over 100,000 deaths.
The great US is now the subject of pity from the rest of the world.

Conspiracy theories of every bizarre variety, repeated by 45.
Armed reopen activists demonstrating with anti-vaxxers … ugh.
Saturday Night Live and every other comedian mocking Trump.

Businesses dropping like flies.
The sad demise of Souplantation and possibly other favorites.
The corrupt distribution of gargantuan sums of money has barely helped.

Inability to get tested for COVID.
Medical appointments over the phone if at all.
Dr. Fauci is the new sex symbol!

It all began in 2015 when I noticed a strange flaky patch of skin on the side of my nose that would not heal. I went to a dermatologist and he said he would burn it off, but if it came back, I should get a biopsy. He did not mention that time was of the essence. It did come back, but I waited until 2018 to come in for the biopsy, due to my general avoidance of doctors and health issues, I guess. By this time I had researched basal cell carcinomas (BCCs) and concluded that that was probably what this was, since one of the signs is “a wound that will not heal.”

I got the biopsy elsewhere since my regular dermatologist was scheduled for months out, and the biopsy confirmed this was a BCC. The derm wanted to do Mohs surgery, in which they cut out the BCC, and then keep cutting away at the edges, or margins, biopsying as they go, until the margins are clear of any cancer cells.

I had seen my mother and others go through Mohs, and although they had ugly holes after the surgery, they generally healed up to where the holes were undetectable. However this BCC was on the side of my nose, and I was very reluctant to get a hole punched in the middle of my face. I rarely wear makeup, so I need to look as good as possible au naturel.

I called friends for referrals to the best plastic surgeons in San Diego. I went to one, and he was not at all encouraging. He said that my BCC was not located in a place where there was skin that could be pulled over it, and that there would be deformity. Then he started talking about cutting a flap or something, and I tuned out … It just seemed like a really bad option.

I went back to my original derm, and he mentioned that radiation was an option. I was so thrilled to hear this, and shocked that no one else had mentioned that any treatment other than Mohs was available.

I went to the cancer center he recommended, and they set me up to do electron beam radiation. However I was not feeling at all comfortable with this either. The doctor in charge seemed to have no particular concern with where the margins of my BCC were, which is the major concern in Mohs surgery, and how he would know if they were zapping the right area. When I asked him how he could tell where my BCC was, he said, “by looking”! Well, if that were true, why did I get a biopsy at all? It just didn’t add up to me.

Plus my original derm had noted that my BCC had “moved” from where he had first seen it in 2015. What sense did that make? Cancer does not “move,” it spreads! Now I was really scared and just in a state of shock over doctors saying things that did not make any sense.

So I started doing my own internet research. I found something called Superficial Radiation Therapy, or SRT, which claimed to be a more appropriate and less damaging form of radiation for treating BCC’s. It had a very slightly lower “success” rate than Mohs, but was still highly successful, and sounded much better to me than anything else I had found. I looked online but could not find any doctors in San Diego or Orange County who did it.

So I called Sensus, the company that manufactures the SRT machines. They gave me a list of doctors that have SRT machines. There was one in Hillcrest, right near where I live, and I went to see him. Although he had a stellar résumé, a number of things made me uncomfortable. He would set up the SRT treatments, but the person who did the actual treatments was the same woman who answered the phones in his office! When I asked her about her credentials, she did not say anything related to radiation!

I did ask this doctor why so few derms have SRT machines. He said he’d had to go through a huge professional certification ordeal in order to be able to use the machine, and he thought this was why more doctors did not have them. Also that Mohs is more profitable … surprise, surprise.

But I was still uncomfortable about his lack of concern about the margins of my BCC. Then I remembered that Sensus also manufactures “SRT Vision” machines. These include ultrasound, which shows the actual BCC, with every treatment. So I called Sensus again, and they told me there were two doctors in California with SRT Vision machines – one in San Francisco and one in Marina del Rey.

I looked up the derm in Marina Del Rey on Yelp, and she had mixed reviews. A number of reviews described how abrupt and terrible her bedside manner was, while others extolled her knowledge and that she was a diplomate with the state board of dermatology. I had a hard time even proceeding after reading these reviews, but finally forced myself to call her office to ask some questions. Within a few minutes they put the doctor herself on the phone! She answered all my questions and couldn’t have been nicer! So I made an appointment to go to Marina del Rey for a consultation with her.

Mike and I took the train up to Marina del Rey, and talked with her extensively. We really liked her, and she ultrasounded my entire nose. She confirmed that the BCC was only in the area where the flaky skin was. So that anxiety on my part was put to rest. I liked her practice so much that I thought I would just go to her.

After awhile, however, the reality of needing to take 17 trips to LA started to worry me. It had taken all day to go up and back on the train, and I knew I would go insane doing that even one more time. I thought I might drive, starting off very early, but it would be at least a two hour drive.

My original plan had been to go to the derm in Hillcrest if my case was straightforward, which it was, so I thought I would go back to that plan, despite my concerns. But I called his office and he could not start until after Christmas, which would be a month or two. They also routinely did 13 treatments, which I knew from the derm in LA was considered the “travel challenged” protocol, and I didn’t like that idea either. I preferred the regular 17 treatment protocol – a larger number of gentler treatments.

So I could barely believe I was doing this, but I called another doctor, the seventh at this point – in San Juan Capistrano – and went for a consult with him. He told me that radiation can cause cancer, so I should consider it carefully. He said he did quite well with Mohs surgery on the nose, and that his most successful procedures involved taking cartilage from the ear and inserting it in the hole. Ouch. He asked me what my biggest concern was, and said that in terms of the cosmetic result, SRT probably was the best option. He recommended doing the 17 treatment protocol rather than the 13, saying they had found it gentler and better, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

He also had a dedicated radiation therapist, Kim … another sigh of relief … who also drove up from San Diego, and I really liked her. She told me what I could expect at every stage of SRT treatment, and even introduced me to her own mother, in her 80s, who was from South Carolina but staying with her for awhile in order to get SRT! Her mom had already had Mohs and reconstruction on her nose, but another BCC appeared, and she did not want to go through Mohs again. Her mother’s nose looked very red, but she said it did not hurt, and I figured I could live through some major redness.

Kim also advised me to buy a cream called Miaderm, which was specifically formulated for skin undergoing radiation treatment, on Amazon. I was again so relieved, because I had a feeling that it would be helpful to use some sort of a cream, but the other doctors I’d talked to did not recommend doing so.

So I started on my twice-weekly sojourns to San Juan Capistrano. I actually really enjoyed the one-hour early morning drive, listening to my book downloads and watching the sunrises and ocean views! Kim was a really warm and interesting woman. It turned out we had a lot of odd things in common, such as that her daughter was a college rower … and strangely or sadly enough, these treatments and visits were often the highlight of my day!

I took a few photos as I went, in order to be able to publish my story with photos. I swore to myself that no one else would have to go to as much trouble as I had to find SRT. I don’t know why doctors don’t seem to advertise their SRT services online … or at least I could not find them online or on Yelp.

I just finished my final treatment today. I will post another photo and followup when my nose goes back to normal! But since I know there are a gazillion people out there facing BCC treatment, I thought I would publish my story right away. I think everyone deserves to know that SRT is an option!

Constance Lerner was born on September 20, 1929 in New York City, to Max and Anita Marburg Lerner. Both her parents were college professors.  Max’s family had immigrated to the US when he was a young child, from Pinsk, Russia, to avoid the pogroms against Jews.  He became a syndicated columnist and prolific author.  Connie was raised largely by nurses as both her parents worked.  She attended City and Country School, an iconic progressive school in Greenwich Village, which she loved.  Her parents had two more daughters, Pamela and Joanna.  Then they divorced, and Anita moved with the girls to Boulder, Colorado, where Connie attended high school.  She played clarinet in the marching band, and always carried a book of poetry in her pocket.  She returned to the east coast to attend Smith College for two years, and then Sarah Lawrence College.  Sarah Lawrence did not have majors, but I know she studied Greek, Latin and French. My parents occasionally spoke in French when they did not want me to understand them!

In her last year of college, a young man, recently returned from serving as a bombardier in the 12thAir Force in World War II, was hanging out in the school cafeteria. He liked to go to local colleges to check out the girls.  He noticed a beautiful girl who went through the cafeteria line three times!  Yes, my parents loved food!  They met, and the rest is history.  I would say that the main thing they had in common was that both had been in psychotherapy, which was a young discipline at that time, for years. In fact, my mother had taken a “time out” at a sanitarium for six months mid-college, after suffering a nervous breakdown.

My mother worked at the New York Times, as secretary to the Sunday Editor, during the early years of her marriage.  She loved working there, would pitch story ideas at times, and got a few published.  She also represented the New York Times in a beauty contest, and was chosen as runner-up.  Meanwhile, her husband, Richard Russell, worked as a textile salesman and designer in the garment district of New York.  His boss was Alfred Schlossberg, father of Edwin Schlossberg, who later married Caroline Kennedy.  After receiving a small inheritance and tirelessly researching how to invest it, Richard discovered the work of Charles Dow, and had found his inspiration and main influence.  With my mother’s encouragement, he quit his job to start Dow Theory Letters, his investing newsletter.  He eventually became a well-known financial writer, who added his many thoughts about the arts, politics, lifestyle, psychology, and anything else on his mind; which many subscribers found to be very addictive reading.

Connie quit work right before her first daughter, Daria, was born.  Daria was followed by Nicole two years later. Nicki did not develop as expected. When she was two, she was diagnosed with autism, which was almost unknown at the time.  She was physically normal, but never developed speech. Nicki got sick a lot, and Richard decided to move the family to sunny San Diego, which he was familiar with due to his love of cacti.  It was a bold move to relocate from one of the world’s centers of culture to what was a backwater navy town at the time, and friends thought the Russells had lost their minds.  But move they did, and never looked back.  We moved into a house practically on the campus of San Diego State University, where we lived for six years.

My parents mainly socialized with other Jewish families, many of whom they met through an old army buddy of my father’s, Jules Pincus.  However they did not attend synagogue or formally practice the religion. My parents discovered encounter groups at the local Jewish Center.  This happened during a family crisis, precipitated by my father’s unfortunate and apparently psychologically driven habit of shoplifting.  He was caught, and my parents were in terrible fear for weeks that he would lose his license from the SEC and thus lose his livelihood. Instead the judge sentenced him to counseling, which encounter groups were considered a form of.  He did not lose his livelihood, but did eventually lose his marriage, as an indirect result of this.  My mother also participated in the encounter groups, and found her inspiration for the rest of her life.

My sister Betsy was born, five years after Nicki.  I had begged my parents to have another child, which they were reluctant to do after Nicki.  But Betsy was normal, beautiful, charming, a born actress, and lit up all of our lives.

Connie was a wonderful musician, who had played piano from a young age, and later learned guitar and accordion as well.  Both my parents were enamored of the folk music movement of the sixties, and decided to open a folk singing coffee house.  They found a closed-down candy factory on El Cajon Blvd., and decided to keep the sign and name.  Thus The Candy Company was born, and managed by Cliff Niman.  They had many world-class folk singers there, including Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Mama Thornton, Hoyt Axton, Jack Tempchin and many others.

On the sad side, their marriage had always been rocky.  This was the sixties, and both my parents had extramarital affairs, which they were open about, their main creed being radical honesty.

Meanwhile, my parents had struggled mightily with Nicki, their autistic daughter, who was never toilet-trained, and became increasingly agitated and disruptive.  She screamed frequently and in public, threw fits that included jumping up and down and hyperventilating, and during the night she smeared feces over the walls of her room and destroyed everything she could, including pulling bathroom fixtures out of the walls.  My mother had her on a child leash whenever we went out, so she did not run into traffic and get killed.

Half the time, Nicki was so skinny we were afraid she would starve to death.  She would only eat foods of a certain color.  She went through a phase of orange foods, in which she ate a ton of carrots, and her skin became tinged with orange.  Later in life she decided she liked food, and ate so much that she became obese.

My parents sent Nicki to Blueberry, a pricey boarding school in New York, the best school they could find for someone with autism, for a year and a half, when Nicki was five.  I was so relieved, as our family life was finally “normal.”  But Blueberry was unable to help Nicki, or even get her toilet-trained, and the nightmare returned.  We had live-in help to care for Nicki and the house, and this went from one person to three non-family members living in our home at all times.  It meshed with my parents’ increasing interest in encounter groups, which they held a couple of times per week at our house.  My mother became the “leader” in this interest.  I escaped to the world of horses, which I loved; first in Bonita, and then at La Jolla Farms.

My father then decided to move us to La Jolla, which I was unhappy over, as I’d wanted us to move to Bonita where my horse was.  But La Jolla actually turned out to be a happy place, at least for me, while I attended junior high there.  My parents lasted another five years in La Jolla Shores, with the encounter groups and the whole menagerie.  Then they divorced, while I was attending a hippie boarding school in the Santa Cruz mountains.

After the divorce, my mother bought a church property in Pacific Beach, which included a sanctuary, small house, two-story dormitory, large “fellowship hall” and parking lot. She continued with her encounter group calling, now in the context of a commune.  Hundreds of people had passed through her evening encounter groups, and a handful decided to essentially devote their lives to the work, joining the commune.  Connie started a non-profit organization called The Psychotheology Center, combining her interests in psychology and spirituality.  It later was renamed The Center for Psychological Revolution, and later The Center for the Examined Life.  Though it was usually just referred to as “the group.”  My mother talked me into joining her group when I was seventeen, and I remained with it for ten years.  Betsy left when she was twelve and lived with my father and his second wife, Paula.

Connie was essentially operating as an unlicensed therapist, and the “work” at the Center consisted of around-the-clock “groups,” caring for Nicki and the property, and part-time work to sustain ourselves.  Most of us settled on working as school bus drivers for Francis Parker school, which paid a decent wage but was very part-time.

Connie often referred to her “change,” when she felt her life had completely turned around, due to her involvement in encounter groups, honesty, and coming out of her shell, I guess. She celebrated this “anniversary” yearly.  Her goal was for others to experience this as well, and the work of the Center was directed toward the “cure” of its participants.  Connie believed in telling the truth, not just in the encounter groups, but 24-hours-a-day.  This led to rifts with her family and others.

There was much discussion of moral or character precepts, psychological and spiritual principles. My mother was very much ahead of her time, I feel, in her veneration of honesty, the power of small groups, and the need for admitting one’s needs and vulnerabilities.  I feel that her work foreshadowed the self-help movement (small groups), reality television (unvarnished honesty) and vulnerability as recently espoused by authors such as Brené Brown.  She believed in the power of small groups to change the world.  She also had a strong interest in relationships and sexuality. While a strong advocate of commitment and marriage, she also pioneered a concept she called “stellar mates.”  She felt everyone had an “earthly mate” (spouse) and “stellar mate,” which was like a therapeutic and spiritual partner.

Connie was quite a writer herself.  She wrote an autobiographical article called “How the New Yorker Ruined My Life” and submitted it for publication, but it was not accepted.  She self-published a book she wrote called, Nicki: Notebook for a Theory of Autism.  I still remember her purchasing an old printing press, and group member Joe Prenn getting it working and printing the book! It came out beautifully and I wish I still had a copy!

Connie bought an old school bus, circa 1957, which we all learned to drive.  It not only had a stick shift, but you had to double-clutch it. But we learned, and getting our Class II licenses launched us into our later careers as school bus drivers!  Marel rewired the bus and Joe refurbished it with bunk beds and storage bins on top.  We took a trip across country to visit with other intentional communities. Mike Gutstadt and others created a film of the experience, called Five American Gurus.  I wish I still had a copy!

Connie was helpful to many people, but the group had a definite abusive side.  This was due to its more or less being a cult, her complete control over others, the anger and criticism of her relentless confrontations, and things devolving into her classifying people as “good” or “bad.”  She reserved her strongest criticism for narcissists, again being ahead of her time in identifying this problematic trait, and “bitches,” her word for the female equivalent of narcissists.  People were also essentially used to care for Nicki, and gave up many years of their lives for questionable gains.

People slowly left the group, and she and the few remaining committed souls instituted a program of “exchangers,” where anyone who needed housing could live at the Center in exchange for contributing work, in the form of caring for Nicki or the property. Overseeing all of this was quite taxing, and her health was always on edge.  I finally convinced her that she needed to end this experiment, and after about twenty years, she sold the property and got out of her “group” business.

During the next period she joined a group for Jewish senior singles, where she made some wonderful friends. She moved to an apartment near us in Mission Hills.  She joined a painting class, which she really enjoyed, where they painted from photographs. She met a man who taught an acting class, and joined his circle of friends.

Then she had a fateful meeting with a group of people who called themselves the “As God All Lives” group. This group was led by a man who called himself Christ Roses, and had around twenty followers.  This group was actually similar to my mother’s group (only more extreme), in that there was a small “core” who lived communally, plus other more distant members, and they engaged in a form of all-day meditative prayer they called “sounding,” and had multi-day meetings with their leader periodically.  They ate a raw vegan diet that consisted mostly of salads, fruits and nuts.  My mother joined this group full-time, and followed it when they moved to Hawaii.

She lived in Hawaii for about ten years.  She took Nicki with her, and several members of this group cared for Nicki.  All of this care of Nicki, who needed 24-hour, one-on-one care, was always paid for by my father; so this was how many people survived over the years.  We visited Connie once in Hawaii, and Betsy visited periodically.  My mother was very enamored with one of the group members, As God All Lives Richard.  Her feelings were not returned in kind, though he was fond of her and helped her a great deal in her spiritual progress, I would say.  I always felt it was poetic justice that my mother had led a cult for many years, and then she joined a cult.

Finally I got a call from Richard that Connie was ready to leave.  I was teaching and could not leave my job, so my husband Mike flew to Hawaii to bring her back.  There are varying accounts of everything about my mother’s life.  My sister Betsy believes she was kicked out of the As God All Lives group because of her “food cheating,” in that she occasionally would eat a salad (minus the meat) at Taco Bell!  I would say they kicked her out because she was near death, due to their diet. Although this group still cares for my mother’s elderly and near-blind cousin, Suzanne, whom my mother introduced them to.

So Connie returned to San Diego, and I was able to rent a house across the street from us for her to live in, which was a godsend.  She was not in good shape, and Earl, a former group member and old motorcycle buddy of my father’s from the time Earl was a teenager, moved in to care for her.  She spent about fifteen years there.  She faithfully went to Curves gym for many years, for as long as she could.  After my father’s third wife left him, when he was 87, Earl or one of her other caretakers would take her to his house to visit, daily.  They did not talk much, but enjoyed being together for several hours every day.

Connie had Alzheimer’s for the last ten years of her life or so … it’s hard to say.  We were extremely blessed to have such loving, competent, patient and tireless caretakers for my father, and then my mother: Editha Espiritu, a dentist from the Philippines, and later her son Robin and his wife Kim. Also my old friend Sharon, who heightened the quality of their lives immeasurably with her foot rubs, music, singing, and practicing her weekly talks for her church on them; plus her beautiful daughter Monica, who also provided care.

Getting back to the story of Nicki, As-God-All-Lives Richard, Anne, Marianah and sometimes Michael cared for Nicki for over 20 years, well beyond the time that Connie left their group. Then one day I got a call out of the blue that they could no longer care for Nicki, and I needed to pick her up immediately.

This was a complete shock, and I scrambled to figure out what to do with Nicki.  Thousands if not millions of people in the US are struggling with where to place their autistic children, and it is not easy.  A friend told me about a wonderful community in Arizona, the state where Nicki had actually been living for some years, after her caretakers moved there from Hawaii, called Rainbow Acres.  Mike and I flew to Arizona several times to make all the arrangements for Nicki to have a provisional stay there.  However after two months of a three-month trial, they did not accept her.  The Espiritus said they were happy to care for her in addition to Connie, so that’s what happened.  I don’t think they had any idea what they were getting into, but they never complained.

While in San Diego, Nicole received services from the Regional Center including their Tailored Day program and respite care, both one-on-one care programs.  We had two fantastic behavioral specialists who worked with Nicole, Jara and Sari, who both provided loving and brilliant behavioral support.  Jara took Nicole around Ocean Beach, and many store and restaurant proprietors became friendly with her.

We had various crises, including Nicole’s fingertip being bitten off by an equine therapy horse, which led to several hospitalizations, and an overzealous and imaginative caretaker reporting us to Adult Protective Services.  We got through all of that, but it was still difficult to find enough caretakers, let alone get them to stay.  Finally Nicole got a better social worker at the Regional Center, who provided us with ideas for day programs and group homes that actually had a chance of working.

We tried to place Nicole at Brisas del Sol, a wonderful group home in Boulevard, east of San Diego, but after a weekend stay, they did not accept her.  Mike and I made another round of visits of day programs, and liked the ARC program in Kearny Mesa, which Nicole attended during the last months of her life.  It was the first time she had ever succeeded in a day program … i.e. not been kicked out. She was transported in a special bus with other clients, which I think she enjoyed.  The staff at the day program found her challenging but were fond of her, and she was progressing in going with their program.

The Espiritus also brought in additional relatives from the Philippines – brother Paul and cousin Andre – so we finally had enough caretakers.  After her day program, Paul and Andre would take Nicole for a long walk, and out to eat at Jack-in-the-Box or another place she enjoyed.  The Espiritus also took her on outings such as the beach and Sea World, which I’m glad she got to finally visit.

On the last day of their lives, Robin was about to shower Nicole, when she had a seizure.  She’d had several grand mal seizures in her life, usually as a result of her ingesting a non-food or drug that did not agree with her, and was on anti-seizure medication.  There was no apparent reason for this seizure, but they called me, and Mike and I went across the street.  I told them to let Nicole stay where she was lying and sleep it off.  Sometime later they came over, saying that Nicole was not breathing.   She had died, for no known reason.  Robin told Connie, who got tears in her eyes, and then she stopped breathing, an hour or two after Nicole.

We all felt it was sweet and fitting that this mother who had devoted so much of her life to Nicole departed from the earth at the same time.  Maybe Nicole did not want to live without Connie, whose time was clearly almost up.  Connie either wanted to follow and still be with Nicole, or perhaps felt that her job was finally finished.  What a job she did.  May they both finally communicate with each other, and joyfully cavort in heaven together.

— Daria Russell Doering

 

 

I had a hard time assembling my remarks, because I couldn’t quite decide which direction to go in with this.  So I decided to do what I always do, when possible, which is to go in both directions. Starting with the difficult one.  So here goes.

It’s often hard for me to talk about my life at all.  Because I feel like almost all of it has been tinged with pain.  And I don’t believe in suffering in silence either.  Though I have to say, like pretty much everything in my life, I got this belief from my mother.  Sometimes I forget that for a bit, but everything always comes back to her.  In this case her belief that through shining a light, the light of truth or transparency, on our pain, we can heal it.  I’ve been trying to take opportunities to heal my pain, all my life. This is another opportunity, and I feel that I’m surrounded by loving friends.  So I hope you will bear with me and bear witness to all of this.

While going through all these photographs, in preparing the slideshow, I was struck with what a nice little family we seemed to be.  And I thought – What happened?  Why did it end?  Why did they get divorced?  Then I remembered, of course – Nicki, the encounter groups – those two things just blew it all apart.

When I mentioned this thought to my daughter, she said – “I think something happened when you moved to California,” which is true – this crazy, wonderful state of California can cause all sorts of odd things to happen.  Nina also said, “Maybe your mother didn’t have enough to do,” and that’s also true.  If she’d had a career, things might have been very different.  She created her own career, completely made it up, and it was very radical.

Back to the subject of pain, I believe strongly that sharing our pain brings healing … and that’s a lot of what my mother was about … she had a lot of pain herself.  A lot of it you could call sexual pain or relationship pain, which was my mother’s specialty, I would say.  Her pain came from her upbringing and her parents’ divorce and so on.

So guess what, folks, I’m sharing my pain.  It’s in what I wrote in the bio, most of which I don’t normally talk about – everything from having an autistic sister who ruined my life, to be honest, to my parents’ “open marriage” and affairs, to a bunch of strangers living in our house when I was a child and teenager, to my father being arrested, to ten years of being “confronted” about my character flaws by my mother.

All l I ever wanted was to fit in, to be normal and live a normal life, and I sure as hell never got that chance.  It was not in the cards for me.  I had everything from a sister who didn’t talk, who everywhere we went emitted blood curdling screams and ate garbage off the ground … to these huge honesty encounters at our house.

Plus I really received no guidance.  We were never part of a religious community.  So many people feel they were abused by religion … my view is – give me a break, it also kind of tells you what to do in life, and I didn’t have that. Plus the main thing is that my parents, especially my mother, were these big laissez-fair parents.  My mother used to say, “Do whatever you want as long as you tell us.”  That was cool, in a way … I appreciated not being overly “controlled.” But it also wasn’t cool, because I always felt like I was wandering in the dark, ignorant, confused, that I didn’t know how to act or what was expected of me.  And that’s not my nature. I’m a perfectionist, or at least a conscientious person.  I like to do everything right.  And I didn’t know what was right.  So I’ve taken the rest of my life trying to figure that out!  Being in my mother’s group was part of that.

Of course my spiritual belief is that we all choose our parents and the main events of our lives before we are born.  So I am quite sure that this is what I signed up for.  But I think that the way life goes, we sign up for something challenging, and then once we are living it, we think – hey, I think I want to return this life! I can’t do this!  This is too hard!  But that’s not how it works.  It’s too late! We’re stuck!  And I’m sure that’s for the best.

So back to the bio … well, I thought I was writing a short obituary, but it turned into a six-page narrative.  For some reason, everything I write turns out to be six pages long, I have no idea why.  Anyway I ended up thinking the story needed to be told, and I don’t have an hour up here so I wrote it down, just the bare outline, really.

I wrote down the facts as I remember them.  I told the story straight, dark as it might be at times.  My main feeling was, by God, I had to live through this, so I don’t feel it’s fair to me and my experience or to anyone else involved and their experience to cover anything up.

However the painful aspects are not what I think about anymore … almost never at this point … my focus is on all the good that happened.  So that will be the focus from here on out.  I will try to switch gears completely and talk about the good things.

My husband Mike and I will do our crazy brand of presentation here.  While I am always overly serious, Mike tends to lightens things up. And I don’t even see this as a serious occasion.  My mom had a life well-lived, that’s for sure.  She always tried to be happy, with varying degrees of success.  And Nicki … I don’t know … I hope she gets some karmic credit for all she went through.  And all her caretakers as well.

And my wonderful husband … I used to utterly upset him with all my crazy ideas, but now he just says, “There’s nothing I can’t do with a shot or two of tequila,” and carries on!

To begin with, and most importantly, my mother was the inspiration for everything I am, everything I have done in my life and everything I ever will do.  And I mean that 100%.  She was an amazing teacher.

Some of you may know a lot about the serious part of my mom, but I wanted to talk about some of the lighter parts, the ways we had fun together.  So I’m going to relate some memories, which are kind of random, which Mike will help me with, and I will comment on some of the items on the Alter of Life that I put together.

When I was a child in New York, what I ate every morning for breakfast was macaroni & cheese from a can … Franco America.  I couldn’t find that brand in the store, so I looked on the internet.  What I found was a Facebook group of “Fans of Franco-American macaroni & cheese,” with over 600 members!  So I joined it, and brought these cans of Chef Boy-R-Dee, which isn’t nearly as good.

Other foods she used to make for me – I was the oldest child, so they were just for me – were junket, a sort of curdled milk pudding that was popular 60 years ago – and you can still buy Junket rennet tablets to make it – and rice pudding, which is still around.  I was a carb-o-holic from a young age.

My mom was always a fantastic musician.  She had a beautiful singing voice.  She played piano from the time she was a child.  She said that she spent hours a day practicing piano as a teenager.  She was sort of down on herself over it, as she felt she had escaped from life with music and books, but I consider it time well spent.

Later she learned guitar and then accordion, which I love and feebly try to play myself.  On the Alter of Life, you can see a little guitar and accordion … not hers, but small ones we had.  Also a Stephen Foster song book … she loved Stephen Foster who wrote so many classics in the mid 1800s … everything from “Oh Susanna!,” “Old Folks at Home” (Way up and down the Swanee River) and “My Old Kentucky Home” to “Old Black Joe” and “Massa’s in the Cold Hard Ground.”  But our very favorite book was the Fireside Book of Folk Songs, written by Margaret Bradford Boni, who was one of Connie’s teachers at the City and Country School … she loved her and told stories about her occasionally.

Another strong memory I have was of my parents always reading to me before bed.  My dad read me all the Dr. Doolittle books, and my mom read me all the Mary Poppins books, there are three, and some of the Wizard of Oz books, both of which were her very favorites.  Kids today probably don’t even know that over 30 Wizard of Oz books were written.  One of my very favorite books was The Five Little Peppers … there were also 6-8 of those books, though my mom said the later ones, after the Peppers went to live with wealthy friends, were not as good as the first book, in which they were very poor. I still remember my mom saying that Mrs. Pepper did sometimes go on and on about things in the book, such as how “dear” candles were … there was no electricity in those days, and even candles were too expensive to use very much.  There were so many other books, but one of my all-time favorites, which we read much later at the Center was Pollyanna.  Don’t let anyone ever tell you that there is anything bad about Pollyanna … it’s one of the greatest books ever written.

In general my mom was an Anglophile … she loved anything English, although I don’t think she ever actually went to England … but that’s why I have the tea cup and saucer on the alter.

My mom was artsy in other ways.  When I was 8 or 10 she collected boxes to make pop art sculptures, which Andy Warhol was doing then.  She collected soap boxes, cereal boxes, any boxes, and glued them together.

She also, although the home I grew up in, in the elementary school years, was rented and very modest, kept a scrapbook of home decorating ideas, and that was really fun.  I still remember that there was a kitchen we both loved that was like a ‘50’s style diner, with red round bar stools, spiral striped pedestals, maybe red horses that you could sit on in there somewhere, maybe a black and white checkerboard floor … I just loved it.

My parents finally bought a house, when I was 12, in La Jolla Shores, a few blocks from the beach, for $55,000.  Those were the days!  They had looked at so many houses that their realtor finally said “to hell with it” and sold them his own house!  Then they actually got to do some minor remodeling … they put down some new flooring, which I think was vinyl, created two more bedrooms out of some spaces that had been something else, for our large live-in population, and they had some furniture made – couches for our living room with huge drawers beneath them that were actually day beds, with twin mattresses and lots of interesting pillows in the back … for our frequent visitors to sleep on.

Some other things I appreciate about my mom were:

She always encouraged me to take lessons … when I was a child I took roller skating lesson and horseback riding lessons, which she had suggested, even though she was afraid of horses herself.

She taught me how to choose the right husband and be married – even though her own marriage had fallen apart, she taught me what I needed to know.  Her belief was that husbands and wives should go their separate ways, as long as they were faithful and came together at night.

She and my dad loved food … they also loved being thin and fit, so she never fried anything in her entire life.  But she was an excellent cook, and I learned so many dishes and recipes from her.  Some had a French twist.  One of her favorites to cook was cheese soufflé.

We also had a dream when I was little called “food day,” or the day we were finally going to get to eat whatever we wanted!  I was finally going to get to have more than one taco from Taco Bell, and that just seemed like heaven!  We made a list of all the foods we were going to eat … Sadly it never came to pass, or maybe that was just as well!

So we had our dreams: food and interior design, and what we actually did, which was horses, books and music!  Not bad!

Incidentally, I grew up in what I call the cradle of civilization of the fast food industry – the SDSU college area.  I grew up going to one of the first Jack-in-the-Boxes, the very first Taco Bell, the very first Der Weinerschnitzel, and much later, the very first Rubio’s, in Pacific Beach.  I get a kick out of that.

And I need to mention clothes!  We both had an absolute passion for Lanz clothes.  You may know the famous nightgowns, often with Tyrolean stripes, flowers and hearts.  Back in the day, Lanz also made a line of dresses, and had stores.  We would take these monster shopping trips to Lanz when they had a sale.  They must have blanched when they saw us coming, because we would try on half the clothes in the store … just stacks and stacks of clothes … and buy a few items. Then they would be left with all these clothes to put away.  We did get some awesome clothes.  And I still have “the hat”!  We were both obsessed with this hat, which one of us bought at Lanz, and would trade it back and forth.

Moving on to the group years, probably my most outstanding memory that maybe encapsulates it all was when the APA, the American Psychological Association, was going to have its convention in San Diego, and my mother decided we should go and do guerilla theater there.  So we trooped down to the community concourse, or wherever it was, set up a booth with my mother’s writings, and our props, and acted out something or other. I don’t remember what it was, but I do remember the daring it took to do this.

My parents both displayed such raw courage that it’s mind-boggling.  It blew my mind.  Not physical courage, but emotional courage.  Both my parents took risks, bucked the trend, and were fighters. They were seekers for truth, personal healing, and a better world.

My mother was nothing if not experimental … she experimented with how to help people, honesty, relationships.  She made plenty of mistakes, but she put herself out there and tried.  Studies show that people’s greatest regrets are not from what they do, whether it succeeds or fails, but from what they don’t do. Connie did something, and gave it her all.

My parents were both amazing people, and it has taken me my whole life to come to terms with being their child.  I’m still trying to live up to their legacy, or complete it.

I never needed to go far afield for inspiration … my parents were just it!  Also my grandparents, my mother’s father was a prolific author and my father’s mother was a best-selling author as well.  They spanned the globe, so to say, from the social sciences to psychology to finance to Hollywood.  So whatever bad things I said about any of them, forget it, unimportant, I just feel very grateful and blessed …

So hail to the truth! Hail Constance and Nicole!  Both one-of-a-kind type individuals.  Adelante!  Or as my mother would say, Onward and Upward!  Or if that seemed like too much, she would say, “Put one foot in front of the other.”  Or as my grandmother said, “the key to writing is to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

So there you have it. If you want my mother’s view of how her parents and the New Yorker magazine ruined her life, you can read her article, which is the only one of her writings that I have.  I also noticed, after reading it for the first time in over 40 years, that it is six pages long.

If you want my view of how my parents and sister ruined my life, you just heard it and perhaps read it.

And some day my children may comment on the same.  I hope not, as I sure tried to break that cycle, but I’m not sure if I succeeded. I don’t even know if it’s possible. My mother once told me that no matter what I did, my children would still be neurotic and need to see therapists. Which really pissed me off, but what else is new.

And if you think I’m terrible for saying all this, all I can tell you is that it’s what my mother would have wanted.  I am my parents’ child.

I haven’t said much about Nicki, maybe for obvious reasons.  I will say one thing.  That since her passing, I keep dreaming about her.  In these dreams, I am being nice to her, hugging her, something I have to admit did not happen in real life.  We are reconciling in the spirit world of dreams.