Confessions of a (chronically ill) graduate student

It’s finals week. The library has gone feral.

It smells of coffee, old books, and fear. Packs of freshmen, unprepared for this desperate season, roam with glazed eyes searching for the shelter of a study room. Others sleep in the open. No one crosses the lone wolves, who without a pack must fiercely protect their resources. Either they’ve cut themselves free because they’re so much better, or they’re so much worse the group abandoned them. It’s too risky to find out. Graduate students circle the microfilm machines protectively.

Beware, all you who dare to enter. It’s finals week.



Skipper on a Bloom

20170416_131522It’s been a rough spring for flower pictures, to be sure! Torrential rain, late freezes, and gusty winds stripped scraps of white and pink from the trees, and if it wasn’t snowing stinging flakes of ice, it was snowing petals.

But then on Easter Sunday I ran into a little tree in a park in a protected corner, and then bemused several visitors by chasing around it in dizzingly little circles. I wasn’t really prepared to go shoot butterflies that day, so the picture quality is not the best.

Butterfly photography to me is a weird mix of the childish and the mature. I get a lot of odd looks when someone says “she is very into taking pictures of butterflies.” Chasing them at times does seem to be the most childish of hobbies, but it is so enjoyable. I often lament that many seem to feel doing things that are innocent fun and then loving it is childish; standing on one’s dignity only for the sake of appearing to be “adult” is so limiting. Stand on tiptoes, chase a butterfly, blow bubbles! And along the way, reach what you need, promote awareness of the role of pollinators and learn about photography, and expand your lung capacity to really handle those long melismas for an important performance. Even though the picture quality isn’t what I wanted, it was still a wonderful moment.




Elimination Diet Spaghetti

DSC_0042I called it “insta-food” on the shopping list. Those things that could be plunked in a microwave and nuked until they exploded, or boiled in a pot. Junk that could be made and devoured in something less than 20 minutes, to be honest. There are always those days when you just need something fast. One insta-food was spaghetti. Comforting, fragrant, hot, and mostly healthy, I could use canned sauce and noodles to make marinara quickly. If I threw in some veggies, I’d be feeling good about my skills in the kitchen because I had successfully washed and sliced mushrooms. 🙂 Add in some sausage that I’d thawed hurriedly under hot water in the sink, and maybe a package of salad, and I’d have something on the table that actually looked like a real meal. The elimination diet makes such insta-food harder… but not impossible!

First, noodles. This was the easiest problem to solve! I went with brown rice noodles from Meijer for the picture above, but I love spaghetti squash too. Other vegetables, like zucchini, can be spiraled into “noodles” as well. Brown rice noodles have about a 35 second window of tasty to gloop, despite what the packaging may promise. I’d recommend sampling often and pulling them off heat right when they’re almost but not quite to where you want them to be cooked. I covered the noodles in sea salt, garlic, and olive oil to keep them from sticking … and because it was oh-so-good to simply steal a few straight from the colander.

Second, sauce. I wanted the “I-can’t-cook!” type, found in a can. It is very difficult to find a canned sauce that doesn’t have soy, corn, wheat, or sugar added. Meijer came through with Classico Riserva pasta sauce. It’s not the cheapest sauce, but at least for the money the taste is fantastic.


Third, veggies. I added onions, mushrooms, slivered zucchini, and bell pepper. I’m a veggie fan. It also gave me another chance to dust the white powder and pink crystals of life, good ol’ NaCl, over everything… and here perhaps I should mention that I am on the exact opposite of a low-sodium diet. When I cook at home for my salt-sensitive family, I add a little Italian seasoning to the sauteing veggies and crank salt over my plate separately, and it seems to work for them. 🙂

Last, meat. This is perhaps the hardest. It is nearly impossible to find a chicken sausage without pork casing (why?!!?). Sugar is by far the most persistent additive I’ve found, with even Trader Joe’s Italian chicken sausage wiping out on this last hurdle. I can neither confirm not deny the rumors that Whole Foods has an Elimination Diet-friendly sausage, but online chatter seems to indicate this is a regional phenomena. (The fact that Whole Foods nickname is “Whole Paycheck” also means I tend to steer clear of the local store.)  Fortunately I come from a family that has long believed in the cost-savings and health benefits of a good pound of ground turkey. 🙂 Brown ground turkey in oil (I usually use canola and/or olive), adding in garlic, salt, pepper, and Italian seasoning to make a quick sausage substitute. I like to add extra basil and red pepper flakes for a spicy/sweet kick.

While the meat browns, add in your other veggies, then cover in sauce. Simmer. To me, it tastes like home.

Two important notes:

  • First, this has all sorts of veggies in it that are not low histamine. Right now I’m on a limited-histamine version of the Elimination diet, but I sense that my days of pepper- and tomato-laden kitchen experiments are going to be rather short-lived. While it wouldn’t fulfill my not-so-secret plan to find a quick-fix, bad-cook meal, there are tomato-less spaghetti sauces.I recently found this page, and it looks very promising:
  • I bought Trader Joe’s Vegan Mozzarella. First, it is NOT Elimination Diet compatible if you’re avoiding corn. Somehow I missed the corn starch in the ingredient list, even though I’ve tried to be diligent about twisting packages sideways and gently pulling aside flaps of plastic to squint at the tiny black ink under the glaring fluorescents in the dark hours of exhausted after-work shopping. I will confess. I tried a little anyway. The final judgement? … well, you can eat it, but it tastes like…melted plastic. It does look like cheese and melt like cheese, and perhaps if one grew up on Cheese Whiz and Kraft Mac and Cheese (and is allowed corn), it would even taste a little like “cheese.” After a tentative bite or two, I did the unthinkable: I scraped that part into the trash.DSC_0057

Blackberry Agave Cream of Rice

DSC_0002My childhood home was in a small valley floating in clouds of blossoms and wisps of sea fog, surrounded by spikes of spicy-sweet sage mountains. In the spring, fields of stock, sweet peas, and marigolds spread down towards the sea. It might have been ground zero for allergies, but I spent a lot of time rolling down windows to catch the scent of stalk on a cool morning breeze.

Several years later and most of a continent away, I went into the grocery store. And there were blackberries and bouquets of stalk. Small apartment, allergies, graduate student budget…. I managed to come up with three rounds of perfectly good reasons why not to walk off with arms loaded. The fourth time struggling past with my loaded cart, searching for that last certain something that always, at the end of every single grocery run, defies location, stopping each time I went past to breath in deeply the smell of sweet pastel memories… well, I couldn’t resist.

Coupled with the bliss of creamy rice cereal topped with agave and blackberries – a great and completely elimination-diet, allergy-friendly (for me!) combination – and the first strong morning sunlight in weeks, it was dreamy start to the day.

I’m Happy I Don’t Have Cancer

I’m happy I don’t have cancer.

Obviously. Pretty much everyone without cancer is, when it crosses their minds, happy that they don’t have cancer. People with relatives who have gone through this ordeal are happy when their nearest and dearest no longer have cancer. Doctors and nurses are happy when their patients no longer have cancer. People in remission are ecstatic they don’t have cancer.

I’ve been tested for cancer many times. The results have been negative. I’ve been overjoyed each time.

Yet there is a whisper in that hisses out from dark corners of the message boards. An insidious little suggestion from someone, somewhere, that curls like smoke through the atmosphere of places dealing with rare diseases and undiagnosed conditions. Even the miscreant thought that crosses my mind as I shiveringly wait for my test. If it is cancer, then there are treatments. There are support groups. People know what cancer is; it is the weapon of choice of screenwriters for ridding themselves of unwanted relatives in movies and TV shows, after all. Sandwich shops have donation days, when so much of a percentage of the money you spend is donated to cancer research or a local hospital. There are walks, boxes to drop loose change in, t-shirts, bumper stickers, and awareness billboards. Cancer is practically a brand. And isn’t that just a horrifying thought.

But then comes the rhetoric. If I have cancer, I’m branded as a “warrior,” a “fighter.” There is this belief that attitude is everything. Someone who dies of cancer is euphemistically referred to as someone who has “lost the fight.” The trouble is this is happening in the same culture that believes that failures are learning opportunities. If you lost the fight, it implies that had you tried a little harder, trained a little better, believed in yourself more… maybe you could have won.

This is a herculean burden to place on anyone. There are other articles talking about the strain of putting positive material – and only positive material – on social media sites, or on blogs like this one. Now imagine being miserably, horrifically ill, and somehow having those expectations of the importance of positivity increased tenfold. If you aren’t thinking positively, you aren’t really trying to win, now, are you?

There are so many cancer awareness months, weeks, and days that unless I post this in December, it will overlap with one of these events. So think about it on whatever cancer awareness day this is – the magnitude of a disease that is so pervasive it is stamped this firmly on the calendar. Think of how many different people will be affected. Think of how many will not inherently be Suzie Sunshine or Peter Positivity types of personalities, and remember that there is so much more than just a good attitude that goes into treating any condition. To frame this as a “fight” that a good attitude can win is unrealistic, putting a massive burden on those sick, and a horrific weight on those left to explain to a small child that their mommy lost a fight, as if had she just loved them a little more, she might have won fought harder and won like in most family (or sports) movies.

Instead, after the tests are once again over, I am relegated back to the corner of shame reserved for those with rare and/or undiagnosed diseases. Although there aren’t usually months dedicated to fighting for us zebras, or unicorn-pegasus hybrids, neither is there a rhetoric of eternal positivity being thrust upon me either. Oh, yes, it happens, but not nearly at the same level as the friends I have that did end up getting a positive diagnosis on those days. I fight for awareness instead. Perhaps for me, that is a better fight. To those stuck in this corner, though, quietly wishing for a condition that was even just known by doctors and nurses at the ER – wishing for cancer – I understand. To those that find themselves instead faced with a cancer diagnosis, I wish you the best of care and quick remission, and I won’t demand that you somehow turn into someone else, begin breaking weightlifting records, or train for the Olympics because you now have cancer.

I wish you all strength and healing, and peace from those senseless demands that bring neither. And for myself, I’m happy that once again, I don’t have cancer.





Somehow the first greening gold happened, in that glimmering way it does, and flitted by while I was recovering from a procedure. Warm soft breezes are alternating with rain like puppy teeth, needle sharp and bitey.


Butthe butterflies are back! Cabbage whites are actually the abbreviated flirty white blurs in the corners of this raggedy expanse of green, which will be knee-deep in wildflower blooms – and chest-deep in spiny thistles! – in bare weeks. Coyly, they refused to come near and hold still for a picture. Next time. Spring is here!