Questions that perplex, part one

The following things make no sense to me. Let’s start our survey of hard-to-answer questions with women’s clothing.

  1. If the average American woman is a tad over 5.4 inches in height, why are most jeans, yoga pants and trousers designed for hypothetical women who stand about three inches taller?  I’m an inch taller than the average, but I’ve lost count of all the pants I’ve had to shorten over the years because the hems were long enough to trip over. And “petite” sizes are too short. What’s going on here? Why aren’t pants that are supposedly  designed for mid-height women not properly sized to fit those same women?
  2. Years ago, brassieres were made of sections of delicate, filmy fabric and lace sewn together in a variety of fetching ways. Then, almost overnight, all bras became made of inflexible foam cups that generate perspiration. The change was probably made to keep costs down, but foam-cup bras leave much to be desired in the way of fit. They compress the breast tightly inside the confines of the cup, or when a larger size is selected, the breast then bounces and rattles around loosely inside its foam cage. Never yet have I found a foam-cup bra of any size or dimension that fits as well, or looks as fetching, as the sweet lacy whimsies of the past.
  3. What’s with the indescribably horrible dressing rooms at the local Macy’s (Bloomington, Indiana)? The dressing rooms there have apparently never been remodeled since that wing of the mall was built in the 1980s. In Macy’s horrible cramped dressing booths, all the mirrors are fattening mirrors instead of regular mirrors. Shoppers flinch with aversion from their own reflections, spotlit by the strong overhead light that cruelly delineates every ripple of cellulite and bulge of fat. So different from another unnamed retailer at the same mall, whose spacious dressing rooms are large enough for two or even three people, designed to resemble a boudoir, and lit gently from all sides for an even glow. If retailers truly believe that women will buy just as much from stores with horrible dressing rooms as from stores with lovely dressing rooms, they should compare notes on sales. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t particularly feel like buying anything after I’ve been made to look ugly and deformed in a distorting mirror, but perhaps Macy’s has a different sales philosophy: humiliate shoppers into grabbing anything off the shelf and getting out of there quickly without trying anything on.
  4. And the biggest, final question is: why do these three things endure, year after year, with nothing being done about it? It’s because it takes more than one nut with a blog to make a difference. Speak up! Suggest beneficial changes to management! Complain to management! Write your own nutty blogs! Have a skilled tailor or seamstress create custom clothes for you! Changes won’t happen without critical mass.
The tacky exterior of the College Mall, resembling post-modern Wild West storefronts.  Photo belongs to
The tacky exterior of the College Mall, resembling post-modern Wild West storefronts. Photo belongs to

On courage


Because of my public blog posts about my experience with cancer, many people have told me “You’re so courageous!” and “I can’t believe how brave you are.” I always feel like a fraud when they tell me this, because I feel just as frightened as anyone else who expects to be dead before the year is up. But as my very wise mother-in-law once said to me, “Most people don’t understand what ‘courage’ really means. ‘Courage’ doesn’t mean that you have no fear. It means you do what you have to do, even though you’re afraid.”

I’m frightened not by Death itself, but by the nasty consequences leading up to the physical act of dying. More on that in a moment.

Death holds no fear for me because to me it simply represents the closure of the life cycle. It’s something that every human has done before me for a million years and more. It’s something that every creature currently walking, crawling, swimming or flying on earth will experience at the end of its life. Why be afraid of a natural process that is shared by all? Many people experience debilitating fear of things—spiders, storms, heights, etc.—that other people regard quite calmly. As a young woman I was terrified of what I imagined to be the agony of childbirth. Imagine my surprise and delight when at the age of 36 I finally went through childbirth and found it to be gentle and easy, in no way similar to any expectation I had held. It was all-natural, no drugs, and I was completely conscious the whole 24 hours of the process. It was the most magical and the most deeply profound experience of my entire life. During the birth my mind simply stepped aside and let my body take over (which it did PERFECTLY). So might not Death turn out to be similar to Birth in this way,  the body taking over from the mind and guiding it through an instinctual process that’s powerful and remarkable, with distinct stages to be experienced along the way?

Unfortunately, the modern experience of death is much like the modern default for childbirth: the idea is  simply to medicate the patient heavily and monitor the vital signs. Hospice keeps suggesting higher doses of narcotics for me, but I don’t really want to be stoned on drugs during my last weeks of life. I want to remain clear-headed as long as possible, so I can continue writing and engaging in my fiber-art activities. These things help me maintain a good quality of life and cannot be done in a drug-induced fog.

And yet the medical issues that plague me are very painful. I’ve already taken a course in mindfulness meditation for cancer patients. Are there additional alternatives to addressing pain in a non-drug manner? Unfortunately, palliative care seems to be built upon a foundation of drugs, drugs and more drugs. As I have learned the hard way, narcotics have extremely undesirable “digestive consequences.” And of course there are drugs to combat that problem as well, although they don’t work well for me.

If I could avoid all narcotics, I’d be in much better overall condition right now, and could meet my end consciously, without being a doped-up constipated zombie. As usual, I’m stuck here in Bloomington without the resources and options that exist in other states and countries. These include legal Death With Dignity; perhaps a center that offers Conscious Dying services; an alternative attitude toward death in general; and maybe a death doula to guide the process.

So, we’re back to the concept of “courage.” Although not frightened by the idea of Death, which I see as the welcome end of pain and suffering, I’m scared to death of what I’m soon about to plunge into: the loss of my body’s integrity and dignity; the humiliation of the bowels; the lack of viable non-drug options; the lack of understanding on the part of medical providers; pain followed by narcotic stupor. Scared? You bet I am.

But as there’s no alternative for me, I simply keep stumbling forward on the path I’m on. Is that real courage? I have no idea.

Another nugget from the journal: The Rite Of Spring

I don’t always want to write about my cancer, folks! Some of my best descriptive writing can be found in my journals, so here’s another morsel for your enjoyment, followed by notes.

Dancers in the 1913 production of The Rite of Spring.
Dancers in the 1913 production of The Rite of Spring.

October 23, 2014

We went to hear the IU Symphony Orchestra perform Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I worked on the costume crew for the ballet long ago, but there is a huge difference between listening with one ear to the piped-in public address system, or even standing in the wings holding a quick-change costume, and sitting in the first balcony absorbing the blows of the music. My god, this was one of the great experiences of my life. The music was, as Kessler wrote long ago, “…a new kind of wildness, both un-art and art at the same time. All forms laid waste and new ones emerging suddenly from the chaos.” In the first movement I could hear things being born, and hear precursors of other things dying. The strange thing is that Frank interpreted it mostly the same way as I. “I didn’t hear things dying,” he said, “but I heard them being born.” But why did we, and Kessler, interpret the dissonance and arrhythmic beats as things being born at all? There are no predecessors in this kind of music to make us aware of what “things being born” sound like when translated into music.

The sounds of the Rite of Spring hit my belly like knife stabs. My heart beat faster, tears swam in my eyes, my forehead knotted into deep creases, my breath almost sobbed. I came to the edge of bursting into tears at five different places. The orchestra was so loud in one or two or three points that it could have been a rock performance. The main timpanist certainly got a workout; he deserves a clap on the back and a free dinner at the restaurant of his choice for such hard work. The guest conductor, Nowaks, disdained the evening wear that’s usual in conductors, and instead wore black trousers beneath a — there is no other description for the garment — “frock coat.” But a frock coat made of shining silvery gray with intricate paisley-like patterning in it, very loosely cut and falling to mid-thigh. “He’s a bohemian,” I said to Frank admiringly. There were two musicians playing “Wagner tubas,” which neither of us had ever heard of before. The instruments were laid down beside the chairs of the French horn players, who doubled on the Wagner tuba in the especially loud parts. They resemble the French horn but are more beautiful, with less piping, and the piping arrangement is an oval instead of a circle. There were something like eight double-basses being sawn away at, and a flotilla of violinists and another flotilla of cellists. There were 106 musicians listed in the programme.

We applauded and applauded, and stood in respect at the great accomplishment we had witnessed and shivered in front of. Frank did not nearly weep, as I did, but admitted to feeling as though the music was piercing him. “I’m really glad we witnessed this,” we both agreed.

A Wagner tuba, courtesy Wikipedia.


Note: The initial performance of the ballet version of this work did not in fact cause a riot, as is often claimed; but there was quite a bit of hissing, stamping and jeering from portions of the audience, and some of the loudest objectors had to be removed from the theater. Part of the furor was a response to Nijinski’s choreography, which featured clumsy movements on the part of dancers who stamped, jumped and toed-in instead of toeing-out, the better to represent the ballet’s story of a prehistoric tribe choosing a maiden to be a human sacrifice. But many of the objections were to the music itself, which was of a sort never heard before. To use modern terminology, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring disrupted the comfort zone of listeners to a degree never experienced until then.

Here’s a BBC Proms video of an orchestral performance of the work. Be sure to listen to it with the volume turned up until you flinch! And here’s an interesting BBC drama that depicts the rehearsals and opening night of the original ballet, Riot at the Rite; its last half-hour shows the dancers in real time doing their best to carry on with the opening night’s performance despite disruptions from the house.

Food? or vile glop?

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Last week I was having problems with my digestion, so I stopped eating for a few days. The kind folks at Hospice were alarmed, and sent over a sack filled with different kinds of nutritional “foods” that are designed to keep the life-force strong. Hospice had the very best of intentions, and I am grateful for their concern. Although I do not wish to malign them in any way, the stuff they sent over was not real FOOD. In fact, I’m outraged at the idea that they feed this stuff to dying people.

The first three ingredients in the so-called “pudding” are water, sugar, and corn maltodextrin (a heavily processed starch with a high glycemic index). Yum, yum. Moving on to the ersatz “shake,” the first three ingredients are water, corn maltodextrin (again) and sugar. And as for the alleged nutritional apple-flavored “juice” (which bears the warning “Contains no apple juice”), the main ingredients are water, sugar, and corn syrup solids. For the sake of comparison, a Milky Way candy bar contains 37 grams of total carbohydrate. The fake “juice” contains 43 grams of total carb, which makes it significantly sweeter than the candy bar. But wait: the “shake” contains a whopping 52 grams. The “pudding” wins the carb battle with a moderate 30 grams, which is approximately the carb equivalent of three-and-a-half Oreo cookies.

What the hell is going on here? Why is this stuff being pawned off on the ill and elderly? For that matter, why is the worst food in town found at the hospital, where they dole out high-sodium, high-carb, high-junk-ingredient glop to patients and guests?

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I understand that our local city hospital is now part of a corporate empire, which by appearances is so concerned with making a profit that the emergency room is now completely devoid of old magazines to page through while waiting. I understand profit and loss. And yet, why is a place that’s supposedly dedicated to saving people’s lives, and restoring health, apparently in partnership with the sugary-fake-foodstuff manufacturers?

It takes very little money to make the best therapeutic comfort-food possible, the same food that has nourished sick people for thousands of years, a nutritious foodstuff that lacks known allergens and causes no sensitivities. I’m talking about chicken broth, which is as easy to make as a salad (just more time-intensive). Instead of pushing these egregious false “foods” upon ill people, the hospital would be well advised to have someone come in two or three times a week and simmer 30 gallons or so of chicken broth. (And a pot of veggie broth too, for our vegetarian/vegan friends.) I make broth at home all the time. And despite feeling wobbly, I even made some three days ago when my own supply of frozen two-cup servings ran low.

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Soup is good food. Pudding can be good food too, if it has real milk and egg in it. Shakes can even be good (ice cream is, after all, quite nutritious.) And juice is good, assuming that it actually contains real juice. But this swill (I don’t know what other word to call it) from Hospice is completely vile. It’s not real food, only a collection of starches, sugars, artificial flavors and nutritional powders all mixed into water. Maybe someone who spends their life eating at fast-food joints wouldn’t object to eating Ensure products, but I do, because I know the difference between real food and fake food.

I wouldn’t feed this stuff to a dying animal, let alone a dying human being. If you agree, let the hospital management know. Or snipe at them via social media until they begin to pay attention. I think it’s time for a food fight! 

The most difficult question

20141027_101624Doctor-assisted dying is not a choice for ill people in my state. Nor is it an option nationally, as it is in Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands and several other more enlightened countries.

Many people will immediately protest: “But obviously, suicide should never be legalized or encouraged.” To which I reply, as a person with terminal cancer, “My desire to take an early exit is a completely different thing than a healthy person who commits suicide.” I want only to hasten the inevitable and painful death that already looms on my horizon; I do not seek to end a healthy life filled with possibilities.

Speaking rationally and without depression, and after a lifetime of considering the ethics of the question, I would choose physician-assisted dying in a heartbeat, knowing what I am soon to endure. But it’s not legal here.

(Warning: skip the following single paragraph if you are easily horrified.)

I have carcinosarcoma, also called Malignant Mixed Mullerian Tumor, which is so rare that there is little research being done on it, and no cure. After living with it for a year and a half and enduring major surgery and various chemotherapies, I’m now in the terminal stage of the disease. The cancer has spread throughout my abdomen and into my liver and lymph glands, but this won’t be what kills me. A large inoperable tumor is embedded low down between my intestines and is impinging painfully upon my bladder and rectum. The rapid growth of this tumor will soon pinch off these vital systems and leave me completely blocked, unable to urinate or defecate. The tumor is growing so fast that my belly already resembles that of a woman five or six months pregnant; this distension will increase swiftly in the weeks to come. Any surgical attempt to correct the blockage would only temporarily extend my life while exposing me to even more continued suffering.

Quite calmly and rationally I ask you: why is it against the law for a physician to help me make a dignified early exit with my head held high? Why should control over the end of my own life be dictated by other people’s emotional and religious scruples? An assisted death with dignity would spare me horrible suffering and would prevent my family and friends from seeing me waste away to a skeletal form with a hugely distended belly. Why do lawmakers feel so certain that dying people should have to endure their full quota of pain?

In this country it’s legal to put down a dying pet. In fact, it’s considered to be the most humane solution to ongoing pain. So why does our government compel human beings to go through the kind of suffering that we would never allow in our own cats and dogs?

Perhaps you happen to believe that human life has a sanctity that must not be tampered with. That’s fine, and I respect your religious values (although I must point out that the Bible nowhere contains the phrase “sanctity of life”). But an enlightened society should not allow followers of a single religion to enforce their religious beliefs upon others, nor should those religious tenets be encoded into the default government over all Americans. I believe that subjecting me and my family to extended suffering serves no useful governmental purpose and displays a profound lack of compassion.

I seek only peace, and a quick end to my suffering. And this is exactly what’s being denied me. I believe that the Swiss, the Belgians and the Dutch have it exactly right when it comes to compassion for the suffering: after a waiting period of several months, and a close vetting of the medical records, patients are allowed to gently and painlessly pass away in the presence of their family and friends. We need this option in the United States.

Please share this text with your legislators and your governor.

Drat those deer


I used to be charmed by the idea of backyard urban wildlife habitats. As a lifelong birdwatcher and environmentalist, it seemed like a good idea at first. But after nine or ten years of watching the increasing number of urban deer in my neighborhood, I think differently.

I’m all in favor of encouraging habitat for the small things: birds, bees, butterflies, and bats, upon whose presence many other things depend. The larger mammals—skunks, raccoons, foxes and opossums—are acceptable in lesser numbers. But I’m utterly opposed to urban deer. Not only are they causing countless thousands of dollars citywide in damages to yards and vehicles, they’re also a sign that Nature is horribly out of balance.

Because mature does frequently bear twins, the urban herd doubles itself about every three years. There simply isn’t room for all of these deer. We need some checks and balances here.

This problem is exacerbated by people who invite the beautiful little spotted fawns to come right up and nibble food out of a human hand. That’s great fun while the fawn is small. But flash forward two or three years to when Bambi is suddenly a grown stag with antlers, overwhelmed by aggressive hormones during the fall rutting season. Imagine an aggrieved homeowner going outside to shoo the stag away from the garden, only to be turned upon by a 110-pound animal that’s armed, dangerous and completely unafraid of humans.

This is NOT a good scenario. Deer can and do kill people every year. People in my neighborhood (including me) have been menaced on repeated occasions by pawing, snorting bucks. A small dog was killed by an angry doe near here just a few years ago. Having semi-tame large wild animals in such high concentrations within city limits is a very bad idea.

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the words “But we’ve taken their habitat away”, I’d be rich by now. Folks, this is a fact: never in the state’s history have there been as many deer as today. Far more deer live in Indiana today than in the early 1800s when this area was first settled, and their current overpopulation has nothing to do with habitat destruction. Apex predators in the old days (bears, cougars, wolves, and human hunters) kept the deer population within reasonable and sustainable bounds. Today their ever-increasing numbers are forcing them to colonize suburbs and cities where they feast on landscaping as though it was a never-ending salad bar. This is not Nature at her best. This is instead an indication that something is terribly wrong.

Even though a dramatic cull would certainly benefit the entire ecosystem, the very word enrages the deer-defenders. There’s no arguing with someone who is emotional and angry. (In fact, as an aggrieved gardener it’s all I can do not to be snarky and angry right here in print.)

There is a widely shared misconception out there regarding Nature. The deer-defenders believe that a system without apex predators is one that’s in harmony and equilibrium. But in fact it’s the opposite. An illustration of this attitude: a kindly and civilized person on my street sent a friendly email to all the neighbors requesting that they keep their cats indoors because they enter her backyard habitat and stalk the creatures she is trying to harbor. (She also provides water for the deer in a basin in her front yard.) But any miniature ecosystem that banishes predators can never be a viable or valid system. Every ecosystem in the world, be it desert, jungle, or the Arctic Circle, has predators to keep the system in balance. Without predators to kill the slow and the weak, the whole ecosystem falls apart. A backyard “habitat” that banishes all predators is simply a pretty picture with a frame around it, a nicey-nice idea of what constitutes an ecosystem, not the real thing.

Why should gardeners who are simply trying to live ecologically and sustainably be held hostage by animal populations that are wildly out of balance? Why should dangerous wild animals range freely through yards and streets without fear? Why should walkers be threatened by stags on public sidewalks? Why should the entire ecosystem of perennials, shrubs, tree seedlings, birds, small mammals and insects be adversely impacted by unsustainable numbers of herbivores?

The city needs no more “backyard habitats” if the result will be even higher numbers of destructive cervids rummaging for decreasing amounts of food in people’s yards.

If stones could talk….

The old Monroe County courthouse prior to its demolition.

During my 11-year tenure as “Homes” columnist for the Bloomington Herald-Times, I learned many fascinating things. For instance, oral history in Elm Heights says that the three houses on the southwest corner of Fess and University were built using architectural salvage from the original Monroe County courthouse. (That courthouse, constructed in the 1820s, was demolished in 1905 to make room for the current limestone structure.)

In this case, oral history is probably correct. One of those three houses has a basement ceiling supported by hand-hewn timbers with adze marks, an architectural element common in the early 1800s but highly unusual a century later. In the house next door, a massive, non-standard and obviously ancient paneled door was cut down to fit a low basement doorway. And renovations at that second home uncovered piles of soft smoke-smudged antique bricks serving as fill around the foundation.

I think I have identified an additional element of the old courthouse not far from Dunn Meadow: reused limestone foundation blocks which nowadays serve as a humble retaining wall.

This wall is at the northeast corner of 7th and Dunn.

The entire north side of Seventh between Dunn and Indiana is edged with stone retaining walls. Most of them appear to be roughly pecked into shape using a hammer and chisel. We know from commissioners’ records that when Jack Ketcham built the original courthouse he used stone and lumber from his own property south of Bloomington. The construction took years longer than he had promised, to the great annoyance of the county commissioners of the time. But consider how long it would have taken to shape countless limestone foundation blocks in the absence of industrial milling machinery! When you consider that the bricks were handmade as well, it’s a wonder that Ketcham finished the building at all.

The contrast between early 1800s and 1900s shaped stone.
The contrast between early 1800s and early 1900s shaped stone.

Look how rough, large and heavy these old stones are. 20th-century milled stone was always neatly shaped and the pieces were smaller, to ease the task of stacking them. But even roughly shaped stone was too valuable a commodity to simply throw out when a building was demolished. The reason I believe that these stones came from the old courthouse is because the houses in that block date to the correct time: 1905 and immediately after, according to the Monroe County Interim Report. And there’s so much of the recycled pecked stone that it must have come from a sizable building.


It’s always a surprise to look at something that I’ve passed countless times and see it with new eyes. I had never thought twice about this block of retaining walls until recently, but the angle of the sun at this time of year made the rough texture of the stones much more visible.

This stone in an Elm Heights alleyway appears to be repurposed.
This incised stone in an Elm Heights alleyway appears to have been repurposed.

Do you know anything about these retaining walls, or about the three houses at the corner of Fess and University? Are there any other buildings in Bloomington allegedly built using salvage from the old Courthouse? If you have any anecdotes, please let me know.

(To learn more about the various incarnations of the Monroe County courthouse through time, see my old blogsite.)

A mix of quirky topics that at times might seem oddly strange, or strangely odd.