Thursday, March 29, 2012

The list of talents I possess is pretty short. I’m not very artistic or creative. I’m a terrible public speaker. I’m certainly not athletic. I can bake a mean cookie and crochet pretty well, so I’m all set for whiling away the hours in a rocking chair when I hit my 70s. Besides, I’m not so sure those would be considered talents instead of learned skills. But if there were two talents that I could choose for myself out of the endless realm of possibilities it would be the ability to sing and dance. I should qualify that by saying I’d like the ability to sing and dance well. I technically can do both. Unfortunately when I do sing or dance, I run a very serious risk of embarrassing myself to the point that I would probably need to go into hiding if anyone ever witnessed me doing either.

I think my desire for the ability to sing like Kelly Clarkson or bust a move without looking like Elaine from "Seinfeld" comes from my insanely strong love of music. Probably 75% of my day, every day, is spent listening to music, whether I’m at work, at the gym, in my car, or at home. It just makes everything better and easier when your favorite songs by your favorite bands are playing in the background of whatever you’re doing. And when I’m listening to music, I can’t help but want to sing along and dance around to the sound coming out of the speakers, wherever I am. While I’m at work, my iPod is firmly docked in the speaker on my desk, which is turned up just loud enough for me to hear, but quiet enough so that it doesn’t disturb my coworkers in the offices near mine. I never sing out loud while I’m at work; I like my colleagues too much to subject them to that kind of torture. But, I do bop around in my desk chair ever so slightly when a good, upbeat tune comes up on my iPod as it shuffles through my songs. I think I’ve been able to do this on the sly, so far, because as soon as I hear footsteps coming down the hallway, I sit still as a statue, continuing with my work and pretending like nothing’s going on until the person has completely passed my doorway. Once it’s safe, I promptly resume getting my seated-position groove on until the song is over. I don’t think any of my coworkers have ever caught me yet, but if they have, they’re too nice to say anything about it.

That’s about the extent of my dancing abilities, mostly bouncing and swaying from side to side a little bit. To some, it might look like I’m enduring some sort of seizure, but I swear I’m okay, really. A friend of mine told me recently that all a woman has to do is move her butt around and that’s considered dancing. I disagree with him. I believe that’s called “shakin’ your booty” but it’s not actual dancing. No, I want to be able to cut a rug without looking like I have some kind of illness. No ballet, tap, ballroom dancing, or any of that fru-fru stuff, either. I’d go more for hip hop, breakdancing, or maybe even something like Zumba. The only thing is, I’m too uncoordinated and tightly wound to do any of that stuff. You have to be able to let go and let loose if you want to dance and dance well, and it’s just not in my genetic makeup to do either of those things.  

The only place I allow myself to sing out loud is in my car, only when no one else is with me, and either 1) the windows are securely rolled up and little sound escapes to the outside world, or 2) I have the music turned up so loud that no one would be able to hear my terrible warbling anyway. It’s not that I can’t carry a tune; I can at least do that. Thankfully, years of piano lessons and being a clarinet-playing band geek in high school and college prevented any signs of tone deafness. It’s just that the tune I do carry doesn’t sound so great when it escapes my vocal cords. Occasionally I will muster up the courage to sing somewhere besides my car, and it’s usually in my house when it’s only me, my dog and my cat. If I just can’t resist the urge to sing along to whatever song is playing, I’ll belt it out with my pets as my audience. It usually results in my cat putting her ears flat on her head and running for her life, and my dog giving me a confused look and tilting his head side to side as if he’s saying, “What IS that noise coming out of your mouth?” One time, my normally mild-mannered, good-natured cat was so offended by my singing that she reared back and popped me right in the mouth with her paw. So what does that tell you?

On the spectrum of good and bad singers, I’d place more toward the William Hung end. But maybe my singing and dancing abilities aren’t as horrific as I believe them to be. Maybe. I’m absolutely my own worst critic. I’ve lived most of my life in the school of thought that if you can’t do something perfectly, you shouldn’t do it at all. Mediocrity is not an option. But I think that attitude has kept me from partaking in and enjoying a lot of things in life. Fear of failure is a big deal for me, and I often let that fear hold me back from trying new things that I very well might enjoy, even if I’m not perfect at it. I also care way too much about what other people think of me. I worry about looking stupid while playing a Wii game or people noticing my weight when I go bowling as I step up to the lane to hurl the ball. They’re all stupid insecurities that hold me back, and quite frankly it’s a little bit selfish or vain to think that anyone would give two craps about how I act or look. People have much better things to worry about, I’m sure. I’ve been making a conscious effort to not worry about what other people think, and I’m definitely improving, but it’s a hard habit to break. More and more, though, I find myself thinking, “F@*# it. If someone doesn’t like something about me, they can look away or hit the road. I am who I am.” And I have to admit, it’s quite freeing.

I’ve always been a little bit jealous of those people who can just let loose and have fun no matter what. You know who they are: the ones who hit the dance floor at a wedding reception and twirl and bounce around without any regard to how they look or what they’re doing. (Admittedly, many of them are drunk, but still…) Then there are those people who you see while driving. They’re in their car, music cranked up and they’re singing unabashedly and flailing their arms around to the song. They’re just having fun and enjoying the moment (and hopefully not causing any accidents). I always break into a huge smile and laugh when I see those people at a stoplight jamming away on their steering wheel, and it’s not a “Ha ha, look at that dummy making a fool of himself” kind of laugh. It’s a “Man, he looks like he’s having so much fun” laugh. I don’t see their flaws or imperfections, I just see the sheer joy they’re getting from the music they’re listening to. So why shouldn’t it be the same way for myself? I’m working on it, and the less I care about being perfect, the less I worry about someone hearing me sing and the happier I feel when I do it. Funny the way that works.

So if one day you’re driving down the road and you see a nerdy white girl with short brown hair and glasses in a silver compact car singing at the top of her lungs to Gotye, Two Door Cinema Club, or Augustana, or bopping around in the driver’s seat (only when the car is stopped, of course) to Far East Movement, The Black Keys, or Flo Rida, be kind. Try not to point and snicker too much, just realize that she’s having fun and is extremely happy in that singular moment. And for once, she doesn’t really give a flip if she looks and sounds ridiculous.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Last Sunday, March 25, 2012, marked three years since my aunt lost her battle with cancer. Teresa Cotton was only 47 years old and left this world far too soon, but she fought tooth and nail to stay here as long as she could. Teresa was first diagnosed in 2004 with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a type of cancer in the blood and bone marrow that slowly takes over the body’s ability to fight infection. As a result of her treatment, Teresa’s cancer morphed into mantle cell lymphoma, a rare and uncommon type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She sought treatment at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, but after five years of fighting for her life, her body just couldn’t take any more even though her spirit was as strong as ever. Teresa died on March 25, 2009, leaving behind a son and a daughter, a husband, and countless friends and family members who loved her dearly, me included.

From the time I was a very small child, I always felt like I had a special bond with my Aunt Teresa. She lived three states away from my mom, my sister and me, and I only saw her a few times a year, either when she came up to Illinois to visit us or we made the seven-hour drive to Saltillo, Mississippi, where she, my grandparents, and my uncle Terry (Teresa’s twin brother) lived. I loved those trips and couldn’t wait to leave home when my mom told me we were piling in the car and heading south. While I loved seeing all of my family there, especially my Uncle Terry who always let my sister and me get into whatever mischief we wanted to, the person I always wanted to see the most was Teresa. She was a beautiful person, inside and out, and made me feel like I was the center of her world during the far too few days I spent with her every year. When I was still small enough to be carried, she rarely put me on the ground. When I got too big for that, she let me curl up in her lap where I’d stay for hours as she and my mom had long conversations catching up with one another.

And man, was she ever fun! Her laugh was completely contagious – loud and full with just a little bit of snorting thrown in – and you couldn’t help but feel happy whenever you heard it. I have so many memories of crazy things she did with me and my sister when we were young. The best one is when she took us on our first teepeeing raid in the middle of the night in the backwoods of Mississippi. The victim was my Uncle Terry, and while he slept we covered every inch of his house and property with roll after roll of toilet paper. For good measure, we soaped his windows, too, and I’m sure it wasn’t hard for him to figure out who the perpetrators were from our messages of “Love you, Uncle Terry” left with bars of Ivory. I’ll never forget the time we went to Saltillo for Halloween and Teresa took us trick-or-treating. While most of the other adults we encountered going door to door just wore plain clothes, my aunt embraced the spirit of the evening completely and donned an elaborate getup that made my sister and I howl with laughter. I have no idea what my or my sister’s costumes were, but I can clearly picture Teresa dressed up in a fluffy white bunny costume, covered head to toe in white fur with huge ears, a poofy tail, and custom bunny teeth that the dentist she worked for had made especially for her to wear that Halloween. I’m pretty sure that she had even more fun than we did that night.

Teresa taught me the meaning of kindness at a very young age. She was one of the most loving people I’ve ever known and she wasn’t afraid to express it, like so many people are. I remember her always greeting people she knew with a big hug and a kind smile, and if she cared about you, you knew it. Her kindness wasn’t just extended to people, either. She had a big fat Siamese cat, “Snuggles,” the most horrible, most evil cat to ever roam the earth. He hissed. He scratched. He clawed. He bit almost everyone he came in contact with, but not Teresa. She could pick him up and actually snuggle with him, but anyone else needed to have a suit of armor on just to get near him. For whatever reason, her demeanor seemed to calm the demons that raged inside that vicious animal, and she loved him despite his meanness.

We traveled to Mississippi for New Year’s Eve one year and I had gotten sick while we were there. While everyone else was outside in my grandparents’ front yard shooting off fireworks to celebrate the holiday, I was stuck inside, watching from the screen door with a fever and an earache. I remember Teresa coming inside from the rollicking festivities that were still going on, sitting on the floor right beside me, and staying inside with me as we watched the fireworks exploding in the air. I suddenly didn’t feel like I was alone and missing out on the fun anymore because of her small, kind gesture. That trip ended much the same as the ones before it, and many after it – me curled up on the backseat of my mom’s car, crying like a big baby, as we made our way home. “What’s wrong?” my mom would ask me. “I miss Teresa!” I would blubber in response. My mom always said the same thing: “It’s not like you’ll never see her again.” But to me, that’s how it always felt.

As it always does, life happened. My sister and I grew up and got busy with high school, extra curriculars, and friends. Then came college, and then careers as we became adults. Teresa had a family of her own and her two kids were the absolute love of her life. The trips to Mississippi for us and to Illinois for her became fewer and fewer as the years went by, and eventually stopped. We kept in touch with phone calls, letters, and e-mails. I remember when my mom first told me that Teresa had leukemia. I remember hearing that it was treatable, and it seemed like she would beat it without too many problems, and then back to normal. I wish that’s how it happened, but it’s not. Teresa endured countless chemo treatments, hospital stays, and radiation that at one point burned a hole in her esophagus. But she kept going, she kept fighting.

It finally all came down to a stem cell transplant. It was the only thing that would save her life. Despite testing family members, friends, and even strangers who showed up at a bone marrow donor drive, a match was nowhere to be found. Until one day, when she got the news that a match had been located. Teresa thought it was someone who lived somewhere in the United States; turns out it was a 22-year-old guy in Germany who just happened to be on the registry and was the best match in the world, literally, for my aunt’s much needed stem cell transplant. As part of her treatment to prepare for the transplant, the doctor told her that she needed to eat as much fatty food as she could get into her stomach every day. For whatever reason, the fattening food would help in the transplant process. I remember how excited she was to be able to eat as much ice cream and as many hamburgers as she wanted. She always found the bright spot in the darkest places. There were lots of setbacks, lots of stumbling blocks on the road to the transplant. She had to be well enough before the doctors could give her the donated bone marrow cells that she had waited so long for, but the cancer always seemed to be one step ahead of her. My mom would give me daily updates about what was happening. “Did she get the transplant today?” I would ask. “Not today. She had to have another plasma transfusion,” or “Not today, her counts were too low again” were the answers I so often got. Until finally, the day had come. She was ready. She was well enough to start the transplant process, and it was as simple as hanging a bag of reddish-colored fluid on an IV stand. All Teresa and everyone who loved her had to do was wait for those miracle cells to take hold and bring her new life. But they never got a chance to work. Teresa’s tired, battered body had been through too much and her kidneys failed. The rest of her started shutting down, and Teresa Cotton died of sepsis three weeks and one day after receiving the transplant we all thought, hoped, and prayed would save her life. It was some of the most devastating news I had ever heard when my sister called me at work to tell me she was gone. I felt like a part of me, the part she helped shape and mold, was gone, too.

Before Teresa got her stem cell transplant, my mom traveled to Houston to see her at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. My mom spent three or four days in her sister’s hospital room, sitting at her bedside and catching up, just like they had always done before. I think when my mom came home, she believed, just as we all did, that she would see Teresa again after the transplant was done and she was on the road to recovery. But she didn’t. Our next trip to Saltillo, Mississippi, was for Teresa’s funeral. It was horrible and beautiful all at the same time. Horrible to think that she had fought so hard for so long and she still lost her battle. Horrible to think that she was gone forever. Beautiful to see the rows and rows and rows of people sitting in the funeral service. Beautiful to look at the line of cars that stretched so far back in the funeral procession that you couldn’t see where it ended. That’s how many people loved my Aunt Teresa.

To this day I wish that I had gone to Houston with my mom when she went to the hospital to see Teresa. My mom asked both my sister and me if we wanted to come with her, and while we did, we both had to work. We had to take care of things at home. I know that I thought I’d get to see Teresa again when she got better. All were lame excuses and I should have gone. I didn’t know it would be my last chance to see her again. My last chance to tell her that I loved her. My last chance to tell her what a huge and positive influence she had been on my life. Not going to Houston then is something I will regret until the day I die. I can’t change it now, but I wish I could. If someone told me I could go back in time and change one thing that has happened in my life, going to Houston to see my aunt one last time would be at the top of the list. I only hope that wherever Teresa is now, she knows how much I miss her, how much I love her, and how much I wish she was still here.

I’ve decided to participate in this year’s Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night Walk, which raises money for research into a cure for these horrible diseases that affect so many people. Between 20,000 and 25,000 patients diagnosed with leukemia alone die every year. Countless more are diagnosed and have to suffer through difficult treatments that might only buy them a little extra time. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least five people I’ve known who have been diagnosed with some form of leukemia or lymphoma. Three of them didn’t make it. One, thankfully, has come through with flying colors, though at one point he was on the brink of death. The other is a four-year-old little boy who is bravely undergoing treatment and fighting the good fight. Leukemia and lymphoma, like most cancers, don’t discriminate. They can hit anyone, at any time, for any reason. I hope in my lifetime a cure is found and I hope by participating in things like Light the Night, I can help that to happen. I’ll be walking in honor of Teresa and I’ll remember how hard she fought and how much she meant to me and so many others. I’ll be grateful for the time I had with her and selfishly wishing she was still here. I hope she can see it. And I hope I make her proud.      

Monday, March 12, 2012

I’d have an awful lot of questions if I ever sat down to have a conversation with God, as I’m sure most people would. And I’m not talking about when I die and (hopefully) go to heaven for that whole final judgment thing. I’m thinking more about going out to lunch or dinner with the big man (or woman, whatever you prefer), sitting across the table from him, and firing one question after another at him. I’d want to get everything out during that one sitting because I’m sure God is pretty busy managing the universe and all that. I’d have both overly broad and intricately specific questions I’d want to ask about the world in general and my life in particular. It would be a long meal, for sure. I wonder what he would look like…I’d ask him to come as Johnny Depp.

I don’t generally spout off about my religious beliefs. Religion is too touchy, and often too controversial of a topic to bring up in casual conversation. Everyone has their own beliefs that they subscribe to, which is good and the way it should be. But I just flat out don’t like it when someone tries to force their own beliefs on me, so I don’t do that to anyone else. I try to respect everyone else’s choice in religion, or lack thereof, and to respect that we all see things a little differently. I don’t really subscribe to any particular religion, but if I had to label it, I guess my beliefs would be more Christian than anything else. While religion and faith go hand in hand, I don’t think they’re the same thing. I have more faith than I have religion. I believe in karma. I believe in fate. I believe everything happens for a reason. And I absolutely believe in God. I firmly believe there is someone or something up there managing and shaping things on a daily basis. I firmly believe there is someone or something watching out for me and I’ve had too many weird coincidences in my life to make me think otherwise. The first that comes to mind is the time I flipped my car when I was 20 years old. My Chevy Cavalier was airborne, barrel-rolling at least four or five times down the country road I had been driving on. It was totaled with a capital T. There were no windows left, all four tires were flattened, the hood and rear end were crumpled up messes, and yet there wasn’t a single scratch on the roof. It came to a rest on its wheels and I walked away almost completely unscathed. All I had were some bruises from my seatbelt and some scratches on my hand after my arm flew out of the busted driver’s side window and scraped along the asphalt while my car tumbled down the road. It was an absolute miracle that I wasn’t killed, that the top of my car wasn’t crushed like the rest of it. Someone or something was watching out for me that day. I have absolutely no doubt about that.

I do pray, quite often, and I’ve done that since I was a kid, but it’s not the “Hail Mary” or “Our Father” prayers that I learned in Catholic grade school. Nowadays, my prayers are more about protection for the people I love, guidance so that I can stay on or find the path I’m supposed to take in my life, and help to become a better person every day I’m still living. Sometimes I ask questions, too, but I never seem to get any answers. It’s incredibly frustrating sometimes, which is why I’d like to sit down with God at Panera Bread Co. one day, chat over a nice chicken Caesar salad, and finally get some answers.

I’d have to make a list of the questions I want to ask. That journalism training would certainly come in handy here. Be prepared, know what questions to ask, and be ready for spontaneous follow-up questions based on the answers you get. Sounds easy enough, but I’m not sure I could narrow down my questions to a reasonable amount. I know that some of them would be silly and inconsequential, but I’m still dying to ask. For example, “Why, God, did you give me such small hands? Seriously, sometimes I have to look in the kids’ section to find gloves that will fit me. Things that other people can pick up with one of their normal-sized hands, I have to grasp with both of mine. How is that fair?” I imagine his answer would be something like, “Be grateful, my child, that I did not also give you tiny T-rex arms like Cee Lo Green or that I did not give you giant man hands that are disproportionate to the rest of your body. Be glad, and use your tiny hands for good.”

I think I’d also ask him about gas prices. “Really, God, can’t you do something about these ridiculous gas prices? It’s getting out of hand. Can’t you make someone invent something that makes cars run on air, dirt, or trash, you know, things we have in pretty abundant supply down here?” His answer might be, “I’ve blessed you with a job that is only eight miles from your home. Buy a bicycle, my child.” I have a feeling that God would probably be pretty cryptic in his answers, not really answering the question but still giving you enough information to make you think about the meaning in his words. He’s probably all mystical like that.

I’d want to ask him about big and small picture things, like why there can’t be world peace; why some people go hungry every night while others live in the lap of luxury; why our pets can’t live longer; why food that’s good for you tastes bad and food that’s bad for you tastes great; why we have brown or blonde hair instead of green or blue; why there’s always one checker at the grocery store who has to inspect and comment on everything you purchase, and I always end up in her lane (because it is always a woman); why no one has found a cure for cancer or AIDS yet; why bananas go rotten so fast; why I’m so terrible at math; why politicians are so slimy and crooked; why tulips, which arguably are the most beautiful flowers on earth, only bloom once a year and only last a few days; why someone was allowed to invent country music; and why bad things happen to good people. I’d steer clear of the “What’s the meaning of life” question. It’s a little cliché.

But if for some reason God went all control-freak diva on me and only allowed me to ask one question during our little sit down, I guess it would be this: Why do you allow people to hurt others, hurt them badly and hurt them often, in so many different ways? I have no idea what his answer would be to that. It might just be a stumper for the big G-O-D. Or, he might come up with some explanation that has to do with man having free will to do what he chooses. Really, God? Come on. You’re the master of the universe, creator of everything, right? Give me something better than that. What about that whole “love thy neighbor” thing? What about the Golden Rule? I understand you’re busy up there, but you’re letting a lot of things slide. People treat other people like garbage every single day, sometimes for no reason at all, and I’d really like to know why. I’m not sure that any answer I got would satisfy me unless God agreed to smite all the shitty people on earth with a lightning bolt or something. There would be a lot of smiting going on. If I ever did get to have this conversation, I hope it would be while I’m still alive so I could put the answers I get to good use. If I have to wait until I’m dead, well, then God better block off a good four hours for our postmortem interview cause we’ll have a lot to talk about.

Friday, March 9, 2012

If I were abducted by aliens and put through some kind of probing/inspection, I think it would feel much the same as going to the dentist. I recently had the pleasure of visiting my dentist for a root canal, and let me tell you, it was as much fun as, well, getting a root canal. It’s really not all that bad once you get past the shots. I’m super squeamish around needles, especially the kind that are going to be stuck in some body part of mine with the purpose of putting something in or taking something out. Thankfully my dentist knows what a big baby I am and keeps the giant turkey baster-sized needles he uses out of my line of sight. Once I’m all good and numb, it’s usually smooth sailing for me. I’m pretty used to having people come at me and stick their fingers in my mouth. Luckily for me, they’ve all been dental professionals of some sort, so far anyway. Along with the routine visits to the dentist, I’ve had braces twice to perfect my once very crooked teeth; four teeth pulled to get said braces; four impacted wisdom teeth surgically removed; two gum surgeries, both to aid said braces in said smile perfection; fillings; and a whopping six root canals (two on the same tooth) and seven crowns, all thanks to a quack dentist who put lawsuit-worthy fillings in most of my molars when I was in high school. Pretty soon I’ll be an honorary member of the British royal family with all the crowns I’ve amassed.

I should qualify all of this by saying that I’ve found a fantastic dentist who is just the kind of person you want if you must have someone fiddling around with your teeth. He’s an incredibly kind and caring person, and an absolute anal retentive perfectionist. If something isn’t right, he’s going to fix it or manipulate it until it is, and that’s fine by me. I don’t really want to join the legions of toothless people wandering the world gumming their way through life eating nothing but mashed potatoes and applesauce. I enjoy having teeth very much, so I’ll take whatever steps I have to in order to keep them in my mouth. Going to the dentist is not foreign to me, but still, every time I go and endure some kind of procedure, I can’t help but feel like I’m on another planet as I’m reclined in the chair. If aliens were poking and prodding me, I would expect to 1) Not be able to understand what they were saying; 2) Have all kinds of weird sounds and smells going on around me; 3) Have a big spotlight shining on me; 4) Be put into weird positions so they could get the best view; and 5) Be just a little freaked out about what they were doing. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but these are all the same things you experience when you’re sitting in the dental chair, no?

When I’m at the dentist, especially for something like a root canal, I lie in the chair for a couple hours spending that entire time wondering what the hell is going on. My dentist and his assistant are both American and speak crystal clear English; however, once they get to work, they may as well be conversing in Chinese as far as I’m concerned. They throw terms back and forth like “distal buckle” (Do I have some kind of belt on my teeth that I’m unaware of?), “20-14 blue cones” (Please tell me my teeth will still be white when this is all over!), and “endo” (This one I’ve figured out to mean endodontic treatment, the fancy-pants term for root canal. Score one for me!). They send each other cryptic messages, like “Pass me the viscous, I want to clear out this mesial area” (What?!? You’re putting couscous in my mouth because I have measles?), and “The lingual measures 18 and a half” (Is that a good thing? Bad thing? Do I have an abnormally large lingual or an inadequately small one, and what in the world is a lingual?). This goes on during the entire procedure, and my mind never stops trying to figure out what they’re really saying. I’m a curious person by nature, and if there’s something I don’t know I usually try to figure it out one way or another. But so far, I’ve restrained myself from delving too deeply into what these foreign words and weird phrases mean. Part of me really wants to know, but a bigger part realizes it’s probably better if I don’t know exactly just what is happening inside of my tooth while the dentist is at work. I think it would make me dread the experience that much more to know he was going to do such and such at this stage of the procedure. I’ve convinced myself that I’m better off being left in the dark, even if my brain does concoct its own bizarre translations of what’s being said and done.

A lack of understanding the language isn’t the only reason I often feel like I’ve been teleported to Mars when I go to the dentist. The sounds and smells alone make me feel like I’m having some type of close encounter of the third kind. First, there’s the bizarre suction/light/mouth guard that’s shoved into my mouth to suck any and all moisture out of my oral cavity, illuminate the area where the dentist will be working, and protect my airway from any flying enamel, metal, porcelain, what have you. It’s a good idea. It is. And I appreciate the safeguards, but it just feels and sounds so weird. Here I am, lying down with a big hunk of rubbery plastic in my mouth that has a suction hose trailing down the side of my face as it does its job and turns my lips and tongue into shriveled up raisins. Meantime there is a constant whooshing sound reverberating in my ears as all the water and spit is being sucked down the hose. Then there’s the drilling. Ooooohhhh, the horrible drilling. I’m not sure there’s any worse sound on earth than a dental drill. Maybe because it’s so close to your ears, I’m not sure, but it’s awful. And whatever kind of drill is used during a root canal is loud and high-pitched enough to leave my hearing fuzzy in the ear closest to the tooth that’s being worked on. I’d rather go to a heavy metal, headbanging concert if I’m going to be leaving with hearing damage. And then there’s the smells that are emitted from your mouth and swirl up to your nose. The worst ones for me are the weird burning smell when a tooth is being drilled or a metal filling is being removed and the bleach smell of whatever antiseptic is being squirted into my tooth. When that one hits my nose, I can’t help but think, “Hey doc, if you’re going to be bleaching things in there, spread some over to my front teeth so I can get some tooth whitening action while I’m here.” He never listens to me, though. Probably because anything I try to say just comes out as “Aaaahhhh, aahh ahhhhaaha.” There’s a plethora of dental smells, a robust bouquet that’s enough to make me throw up in my mouth. Good thing I have that big suction-y thing hanging off my face to prevent any possible aspiration/asphyxiation.

When it’s all said and done, I get up out of the chair and try to make my jaw function normally again, feeling a little bit dizzy and a lot numb. (Thankfully my dentist lets me go home whereas I think the aliens would probably keep me.) I stop by the front desk to have an unintelligible conversation with the very friendly receptionist who makes my next appointment and doesn’t laugh at my attempts to speak like a normal person without sounding like a drunk with cotton balls shoved in her cheeks. “How’s next Tuesday at 4:30 for you?” she asks. “Thath thould be fline, I cahm wuk my lunf howa an be hewa at thath time” I clumsily say, trying not to spit on her as I try to figure out where my tongue is in my mouth. I make my way out to my car, take a sip of water that dribbles down my shirt, and apply soothing balm to my raisin lips, even though I can’t smush my lips together enough to spread the balm around. I go home, return to normal, and mentally prepare myself for my next visit. Now that I think about it, maybe an alien probing would be easier than going to the dentist. I’m pretty sure it would be a one-and-done for the Martians. There’s a reason they always say, “See you next time” as you’re walking out of the dentist’s office. At least you get some freebies on your way out, though, as proven by my growing collection of toothbrushes and travel size Colgate. I bet the aliens wouldn’t be so generous!   

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Not everyone can say they’ve had a best friend from the very second they arrived in this world. I can, and I count myself very lucky for it. My sister has been my best friend from the moment I was born 32 years, three months, and 20 days ago. I can’t remember a single day in my life when my sister hasn’t been by my side, literally or figuratively, helping me navigate my way through what has been a complicated journey thus far. Looking back, there are times that I’m not sure I would have managed to get through with my sanity intact had it not been for her.

My sister and I have always been a team. Four and a half years my senior, she is the quintessential big sister – sometimes bossy, usually smarter, and always looking out for me, though she may have had misgivings about having a tagalong, bratty younger sibling at times. To this day, I’m not sure I buy her story that we were playing hide and seek when she locked me in a cooler one time when I was a toddler. But I think for her, those moments were few and far between. There were, of course, the typical arguments and bouts of bickering as we grew up which usually involved me tattling to my mom about something she did in an effort to get her in trouble. I took on my role as the tattletale little sister with vigor when I was a kid. But any argument we’ve ever had has never lasted long. More often it was the case that we were having fun and getting in trouble together as kids. I have a very vivid memory of one such moment when I was on the verge of getting spanked for something stupid I had done. My mind has conveniently blocked out whatever the crime was that I committed, but I sure remember the punishment! I knew my mom was going for the dreaded wooden spoon, her punishment delivery tool of choice. (I should note here, that my mom never spanked us hard enough to leave a mark and only when it was well deserved on our part. I’ll never deny being enough of a trouble maker at times to warrant a good swat every now and then.) As soon as she wasn’t looking, I deftly grabbed a plate from the kitchen counter and shoved it down my pants as a sort of butt cheek shield, with my sister encouraging me that it was a good idea. I didn’t take into account the loud “BONG” noise that would reverberate from my rear end when the spoon first struck the porcelain hiding under my clothing. My sister, who was watching from the sidelines, burst out laughing at the noise and the shocked expression on my mom’s face, which of course didn’t sit well with her. We both ended up getting a few light swats with the wooden spoon that day, which wasn’t quite as hard for me to take as a 5 or 6 year old because my sister was right there with me.

My sister and I have always been partners in crime. We came up with more than a few schemes and terrible ideas that started off as grand visions of adventure. Of course, my sister was always the ring leader and I followed her blindly and very gladly. One of my best memories as a kid comes from one summer at my dad’s house when my sister and I were left to our own devices. My grandma was babysitting while my dad was at work one day, and my sister came up with what seemed like the best idea ever to surprise my grandma as she was napping on the couch in the family room. We’d rig up a swing of sorts I would sit on that my sister and her friend who was spending the day with us would lower out of an upstairs window and down to the glass doors leading into the family room. I would be the one on the device, of course, because I was the smallest (and dumbest). Once I reached the doors, it was my job to knock on the glass, wave to Grandma, and then give the signal to be heaved back up into the window. It was a perfect plan and we went to work gathering the piece of plywood and two jump ropes that we’d use for the swing. We didn’t take into account the weakness of the board and the short length of the jump ropes, and I started to panic once my butt was hanging out of the window, the wood beneath it making slight cracking sounds. I quickly realized this wasn’t the great idea we thought it was and tearfully demanded that my sister and her friend pull me back into the safety of the bedroom. I chickened out, and even though my sister was clearly disappointed that our plan fell through, she didn’t hold it against me. I have countless other stories from the childhood shenanigans we got into, including driving my dad’s SUV through a local park late one Saturday night, that have turned into memories I will cherish for the rest of my life.

I’ve looked up to my sister for as long as I can remember and as a kid, I always deferred to her judgment and took her word as gospel no matter what. Even if I ended up looking like a moron because of it. For years, anytime my mom changed a light bulb in our house, I would take the burned out bulb, pack it in Kleenex or some other cushiony material, and gingerly place it in the trash can. I must have looked like a lunatic, but my strange behavior stemmed directly from something my sister told me when I was very young – if a light bulb breaks, it will burst into flame and start a fire. She always snickered every time I painstakingly prepared a light bulb to go in the trash, and I could never understand why. I was saving our house from burning to the ground! What was so funny about that? She put me out of my misery one day by calling me outside to the driveway where she held a burned out light bulb in her hand high above her head. No sooner had she said “Watch this!” than the bulb careened through the air and smashed into a thousand little shards on the concrete. I, of course, flipped out and ran to get the hose while my sister laughed hysterically before calming down enough to inform me that light bulbs don’t, in fact, become fireballs if broken. I was ticked off at the time, but now it’s something that makes me laugh every time I think about it. I have a little more common sense now, but I still trust my sister as much now as I did then and seek her opinion and judgment on things as simple as how my hair looks to complicated matters, like the direction my life is headed in.     

As adults, my sister and I are still extremely close. We do just about everything together and there’s nothing either of us wouldn’t do for the other. I recently went through an extremely difficult situation, probably the hardest thing I’ve experienced in my life thus far. I feel like I’m coming out of it as a better, stronger, and happier person, but I’m also confident that I wouldn’t have made it through without the love and support I received from my friends and family, and from my sister in particular. She picked me up when I had fallen and I didn’t think I would ever get back up again. She took care of things like going to the store for me when I couldn’t get off the couch, let alone leave the house, and bringing me food and making me eat when I couldn’t even fathom ingesting anything again. She comforted me when I needed comforting, offered support when I needed supporting, and she gave me a little kick in the butt when I needed it to get me going as soon as I was ready to face the world again. She was my rock and provided the strength I needed and didn’t have in a really difficult time. But that’s my sister. That’s who she is and that’s what she does. There’s nothing she wouldn’t do to help someone she cares about. But she’s strong, the strongest person I know, and she’s no pushover. She’s fiercely protective of her friends and family, and especially of me because that’s just how it’s been since day one. We take care of each other no matter what. We’re a team, always have been, always will be.

I know a lot of people who have siblings who they don’t see very often or don’t get along with very well. It always makes me a little sad because they’re missing out on something wonderful, something I admittedly take for granted all too often. I’m incredibly grateful for the friendship my sister and I have. It’s the greatest gift I’ve ever received and something I’ll hold onto with all my might as long as I live, even if she did lock me in a cooler.

Friday, March 2, 2012

I’ve been trying to eat healthier lately. Nothing too drastic, just making smarter choices like whole grain bread over plain white, getting my five fruits and veggies in every day (ok, most days), eliminating soda, and cutting down on snacks. So far I’ve been pretty successful, but I won’t lie – there are days when I look at my dinner plate of grilled chicken, brown rice, and broccoli and wish it was a heaping bowl of ice cream. It’s not like I’m making a huge lifestyle change and becoming a vegan or something, but I am trying to make more sensible decisions that could help me maintain my health in the long run. Don’t get me wrong, though, I still enjoy junk food as much as the next person. Try taking chocolate away from me and you risk losing a finger or two.

Every once in a while I question some of these healthier choices I’ve started making. Example No. 1: Greek yogurt. I kept reading and hearing about this “super food” and how much better it is for you than regular “Americanized” yogurt. It has more protein, less sugar, and fewer carbohydrates plus all the standard benefits of any yogurt like being high in calcium and having the “good” bacteria that helps with digestion. (I still get a little creeped out at the thought of intentionally eating bacteria, and sometimes I have to convince my inner germophobe that it really is good for me before I start squirting hand sanitizer down my throat.) But here’s my problem with Greek yogurt: It’s gross. Lots of people would disagree with me and say that it’s delicious, and cheers to them, but it’s not. It’s sour. Sometimes it has a weird bitter taste to it, depending on the flavor. And if you don’t stir it really, really well, it’s dotted with gelatinous white blobs that look more like Elmer’s glue than food. The worst part for me, though, is the bizarre aftertaste that lingers in my mouth. If I were to shove a dirty, sweaty sock in my mouth and suck on it for a while, I imagine it would taste much the same as the Greek yogurt aftertaste. For whatever reason, I keep eating it, usually for breakfast. I manage to make myself choke it down because it fills me up for several hours and I convince myself that it’s good for me. If I wasn’t concerned about the healthy aspects of eating it, I’d just eat chocolate pudding for breakfast and be done with it. Still, that first spoonful always makes me screw my face into a sourpuss scowl much like a little kid would make when forced to eat brussel sprouts. I keep trying different brands and different flavors, but they’ve all had the same result so far – initial revulsion, reluctant acceptance, quick swallowing, and sweat sock mouth.

Example No. 2: Turkey bacon. I don’t eat bacon often. I might buy a package once or twice a year, but every now and then I get a craving for its salty, tasty goodness, even though I know it’s awful for me. A while back when I was in the grocery store, I got that craving but decided to give turkey bacon a try in an attempt to find a healthier option. I’ve always heard that turkey bacon is better for you because it's lower in fat. This makes sense because turkey in general is a much leaner meat than pork. I’d had turkey bacon many years ago, and I didn’t remember it tasting all that different from regular bacon. So I bought a pack of turkey bacon thinking I was making a smart choice. Now that I’ve seen it, cooked it, and eaten it, I’m not convinced. First of all, this stuff looks like it was squished into a Play-Doh mold or punched out of a die-cut machine. It has scalloped edges and looks more like “Beggin’ Strips” dog treats than real meat. Scalloped edges. That was my first indication that this might not have been my best purchase at the grocery store. The second was the color. It has this weird purplish hue to it that again immediately made me think of Play-Doh. I poked it a couple times to make sure I wasn’t going to be ingesting some kind of clay, and my fingertip didn’t leave an indentation on the scallop-edged, purple mystery meat so I ignored my hesitation and went ahead and cooked it.

The third indication this might have been a bad idea was the taste. When I cautiously took that first bite, I felt like I had stuck my tongue onto a meat-flavored salt lick. Come to find out, most turkey bacon has a higher sodium content than regular bacon. Hmmm, maybe I really should start reading food labels before I buy something. The final bad indication was my cat’s reaction to the small piece of turkey bacon I offered to her. My cat is a feline garbage disposal. She doesn’t have that normal cat finicky-ness that makes her picky about food. If you show just about any kind of food to her, she’s going to snap at it like Jaws trying to bite someone’s leg off. Don’t even try to eat a PB&J sandwich around her – it’s one of her favorites. So, anyway, I offered her a very small bite of turkey bacon and initially, she snarfed it out of my hand like she usually does. It didn’t take long, though, before she decided it was too weird even for her, shook her head a little bit in protest, and shot it out of her mouth like a projectile. Turkey bacon does not pass the Libby test. Good to know. I still have the turkey bacon in my fridge, mostly because I can’t stand to throw perfectly non-expired food in the trash. Now the question is do I force feed it to myself so I’m not wasting the $4 I spent on it, or do I just forget about it and chuck it in the garbage? Maybe I’ll just wait until it expires and I don’t have a choice anymore.

I’ll keep trying to find healthy alternatives to unhealthy foods I enjoy, but the better choice is just never as good as the bad stuff. Is this a sign that I’ve actually grown up into a responsible adult who makes good, responsible decisions? I’m not so sure about that, but maybe it’s at least a step in the right direction, even if it does leave a horrible taste in my mouth!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

I had an interesting conversation with someone the other day that sprung out of our weekly discussion about the most recent episode of “Survivor.” What started as the usual “I can’t believe they voted that person out” turned into a friendly debate about the roles of men and women in today’s society and whether chivalry is, or should be, dead. For those of you who don’t watch “Survivor,” they have changed things up a bit this season and made it a women vs. men competition – one tribe is made up of all women and the other all men. It’s an interesting dynamic, and to stir things up even more, both tribes are living on the same beach with their camps a short distance from each other. There’s still a clear definition of whose camp is whose, but they’re close enough for the contestants to be able to mill around the beach and end up at the opposing team’s designated area.

While I’m enjoying the twists this season, I have to say that the women’s tribe is starting to annoy me to no end. There’s been a lot of whining about how they’re supposed to build a shelter and start a fire with no men on their tribe. There’s been some grumbling about how the challenges would be easier if they had some men to help them out, even though the challenges are clearly designed to favor neither tribe – anyone can participate and potentially win. What really drives me crazy, though, is the way the women have been skulking over to the men’s camp, batting their eyelashes, and coyly asking for “just an ember” from the men’s fire so they can start their own. During storms on the island, many of the women have been running to the men’s shelter seeking warmth and dryness that their own shelter doesn’t provide. Instead of taking it upon themselves to get it together, fix their shelter, and build themselves a fire, they just keep running to the men with a “Poor little ol’ me, I’m just a girl” swoon. As I watch, my brain is screaming, “Figure it out and do it yourselves, for God’s sake!” Now, keep in mind that the women’s tribe has everything that they need to build a fire and a sturdy shelter. They have flint, a machete, access to kindling and palm fronds – the same things the men’s tribe has. The men do have a tarp, which helps greatly in keeping their shelter dry. But they won that tarp in a challenge, fair and square, and all it involved was untying some ropes, clearly something that has no gender bias.

All of this leads me to the interesting conversation I had wherein the other person (also a female) and I disagreed about the way these two tribes have been acting and interacting so far. I argued that the women shouldn’t be running to the men’s tribe constantly, seeking shelter and fire under the pretense that they don’t have any men on their tribe to help them. This is “Survivor,” after all. They knew, or should have known, what was in store for them before they were chosen to be on the show. Do you have to build yourselves a shelter? Yes. Do you have to build yourselves a fire and maintain it? Yes. Do you have to find your own food and water? Yes. All of these factors are well known and are in place regardless of what tribe you are on or what kind of tribe mates you have. If you can’t do those things, then you shouldn’t be on “Survivor.” My debate partner argued that the men should be more willing to help the women because they clearly are having a difficult time being on an all-women’s tribe. The men should offer them help with building their shelter and should give them embers for their fire because it’s harder for women to do those things. I call BS. The women should take care of themselves. Period. These tribes are battling against each other in the challenges. The men aren’t expected to take it a little easy when fighting for immunity because the team they are competing against is made up of all women. Why should they be expected to behave any differently at camp?

Now, I realize this is a television show and perhaps not the way the real world works. People aren’t usually separated by gender in everyday situations. And that’s where the conversation with my fellow “Survivor” fan turned to how men and women should interact with each other on a daily basis. It’s not so extreme as building shelters and fires in our daily lives. But should men be expected to open car doors for women just because they are women? Should men be expected to pull out a woman’s chair at a dining table just because she’s a woman? Should men be expected to do all the manual labor around a house while the women handle only the cleaning chores? My debate partner disagreed and said these things are all just a matter of a man being chivalrous. Again, I call BS.

Now, I’m not a feminist. I’m not all about girl power or “down with men, we don’t need ‘em!” I don’t think women deserve special treatment just because they’re women, and vice versa. I guess I would consider myself more as an equal opportunist. If a man is supposed to open a car door or hold a door open for a woman, why shouldn’t she be expected to do the same for him? I have two hands that are perfectly functional. My arm muscles are capable of heaving open that oh-so-heavy car door and I can manage to shut it myself, too. I somehow manage to get in and out of my car every single day, and even *gasp* drive myself to work! I don’t go into the garage every morning, stand there waiting for a guy to pop up and open my door for me, muttering to myself as I wait, “How am I going to do this? There’s the handle. I know I do something with it, but what??” I’m not necessarily going to get offended if a man opens a car door for me. It just seems archaic and extremely old fashioned. If it’s just a nice gesture, then whatever, but don’t do it because I’m such a frail and weak female that I need help. I’m not and I don’t. I hold doors open for people all the time at stores, restaurants, etc., but only because it’s a kind and considerate thing to do. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s a man or a woman walking through that door. But I don’t expect it to be done for me by anyone.

My debate partner argued that men should be chivalrous because they’re men and that’s what they’re supposed to do. Chivalry is quite literally an ancient concept coming out of medieval times (no, not the cheesy restaurant). It’s defined as the qualities idealized by knighthood, such as bravery, courtesy, honor, and gallantry toward women. It first went into practice when men were still wearing suits of armor, fighting enemies with swords and shields, while women hunkered down as damsels in distress waiting to be rescued. By definition, chivalry doesn’t sound that bad, but to say it should only be practiced by men toward women is ridiculous today. If it involves treating others with courtesy and honor, shouldn’t we all be practicing chivalry? I think the term should be dropped all together and it should just be a common sense approach to life to treat others with respect. To be kind to a fellow human being for the sake of being kind. Throw everything else out the window. Give help when help is needed, but don’t expect it in return. You don’t have to be a man to be chivalrous and you don’t have to be weak if you’re a woman. How about this as a code to live by: men AND women, just treat everyone else the way you’d like to be treated and take care of yourself, for crying out loud!