When a person goes through chemotherapy, part of the package deal includes hair loss.
At first this fact deeply disturbed me. I’ve had thick, wavy and tempestuous hair all my life, and I’ve always had a special relationship with it. It always refused to take a curl other than its own wave; it generally pulled loose whenver I pinned it up; and individual fallen hairs have accumulated in the corners of my bathroom floor from time immemorial. And yet I loved my hair, loved it so much that I preferred having it long than having it short. Loved it so much that I could hardly bear at first to think of going bald. The aesthetics of bald craniums are entirely lost on me, since I associate thick hair with vitality, health and sexiness. Bruce Willis and other bald actors can buff their shining domes all they like, but I have never found the look to be particularly attractive.
But several weeks into my treatment, my thinking has come around. I’ve accepted the inevitability of the fact of my own looming baldness, and my lower lip no longer begins to tremble at the idea. And it’s just in time, too, because today (15 days after my first chemo) my hair has begun falling out almost literally by the handful. There’s definitely a wistful sensation deep in my heart as I pull out a new clump and toss it into the chilly spring air to float away on the breeze; but I know that baldness will come and meet me before the end of the week is here. And that knowledge is actually far easier to handle than I thought it would be back at the beginning.
My feeling now is one of resolution: I rocked the shaggy thick hair look for more than five decades. Now it’s time to rock that bald head! – And don’t think I can’t do it.
Less than three weeks ago, to my immense surprise, I became a woman with cancer. I had always thought that my fatal weakness would turn out to be some form of autoimmune disease, and this belief was reinforced two years ago when I had the DNA decoding company 23andMe assess my genome to determine my health risks. Because six out of my nine top genome-linked tendencies were autoimmune in nature, I never dreamed that cancer would snag me instead. But perhaps it will be shown one day that autoimmune tendencies support certain cancers, in which case 23andMe won’t have been so far from the target.
My cancer is MMT, Mixed Mullerian Tumor, which attacks the female reproductive organs. I’d already had a hysterectomy so the disease went for my ovaries. Fifteen days ago I had major abdominal surgery to remove large cancers from both ovaries. The smaller one was the size of a lemon; the bigger one was at least twice that size. Countless small “granular” cancers remain inside my abdomen and will need to be targeted with chemotherapy.
Because I’m a journalist by profession, I see no reason to censor the flow of information. To link shame to a diagnosis of cancer seems to me to be a vestige of the 1940s and ’50s, when doctors often didn’t tell their patients that they had cancer at all, and spoke of it to their relatives only in hushed voices, behind closed doors. I’m all for openness and truth, not shame and obfuscation, which is why I’m writing this essay. Those who don’t feel the same should stop reading right now.
Cancer has lessons to teach us, if we’re open to the experience and don’t flinch. Lung cancer claimed the lives of my two dearest women friends from college days, and watching their sorrowful deaths taught me a powerful lesson. It’s not just how we live that affects people around us for better or for worse, it’s also how we die. One of these two women collapsed into fear and anger at her diagnosis and shut herself off from all her friends and acquaintances, refusing to answer phone or email messages, and refusing to let people come over and hold her hand and tell her how much they loved her. The other woman reached out to all her friends and asked for their emotional support, and basked in their love until she succeeded in wresting a year-and-a-half remission from her 99% deadly form of cancer. What I learned from the deaths of these two women was that the support of friends is heartwarming and immensely valuable, and that fear/anger rubs off on the survivors who are left behind.
So I have resolved to tell everyone the facts about my disease, and to be as courageous and brave as I can manage. The mortality rate for MMT cancer is not at all good, but those mortality rates are based on the average American who struggles with that disease. And I’m not an average American by any means. Average Americans too often eat junk food, drink to excess, have messy personal lives, and are overweight. I eat organically, I have always taken care of my body, I am surrounded by a loving and close-knit family, I’m happy and optimistic by nature, and to my astonishment (with heartfelt thanks) I have discovered that scores of people value me and are rooting for me to defeat this disease. And all these factors can be extremely powerful when it comes to influencing the mortality rates. I’ve been an outlier all my life; so I think it entirely possible that I can prove to be an outlier when it comes to cancer as well. Time will tell, but I see many reasons to hold onto my optimism right now.
Tomorrow I get a baseline CT scan and my chemo port. Wish me well!
Four farmhouses built by prominent Presbyterian Covenanters still stand in Bloomington, surrounded by neighborhoods that were carved out of their former farm fields. The Covenanters had met with religious intolerance and bloodshed in their native Scotland. Bud Faris (now deceased) once told me that one of his ancestors had been burned at the stake for his beliefs. The Covenanters emigrated to the United States in the 1700s, where some of them settled in South Carolina. They were committed abolitionists who were completely opposed to slavery. Unwilling to live any longer in a slave state, a group of those Carolina Covenanters then came to Bloomington, where they thrived and built a church adjacent to Covenanter Cemetery at the corner of High and Moore’s Pike.
The first is Faris House, built around 1853. Faris House is rumored to have been a station on the Underground Railroad, and a now-collapsed earthen tunnel in the basement appears to lead toward the brick dairy building a short distance farther down the hill. Bloomington is rarely included on modern maps of Underground Railroad routes, but it must have had at least sporadic activity, for escaped slave Robert Anderson was staying at the Faris farm when the Emancipation Proclamation was proclaimed. According to the story, Anderson went directly to the courthouse and had himself registered as a free man of color, and stayed in Bloomington for the rest of his life. He settled with his wife on land just adjacent to the Covenanter Cemetery and his descendants live there to this day.
The next old house is often called Raintree House for the raintrees that formerly stood on the property, but it should by rights be called Millen House. Built by William Millen around 1845, the house is very similar in style to the Faris house, with five windows across, a central front entry, and chimneys on both ends. If this house had been only a single room deep, it would have been an I-house, but when a house is two rooms deep, it’s known as a massed-plan house. See the Wikipedia entry on the building at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millen_House. All of the Green Acres neighborhood used to be the Millen farm. The house is sadly orphaned today, for virtually all of its remaining yard was divided up for little ranch homes after the Second World War. The house looms in a mournful way above the back yards of these 20th-century spec cottages, hemmed in on all sides.
The next old house is the Thomas Smith house, which is the oldest structure of this collection, supposedly built in 1833. There are barely a handful of houses from this era remaining in the whole of the county. The frame part of the house is an addition; the brickwork is original and the bricks were dug on-site, as with the other houses. This house is smaller than the others, reflecting the frugality of the times in which it was built. Apparently a private graveled drive once ran between Smith house and Faris house, directly crossing High Street (which would not have existed in those days). The ghost road runs through the side yard of a house on South High street, whose owners have never been able to plant anything or garden on that side, due to the thick layer of gravel underlying the lawn. The house is now surrounded by modern houses of the Covenanter Hill neighborhood, all of which used to be the family farm.
The fourth house, Blair house, can be regarded as the frame version of the preceding style of brick homes. Built in the 1860s, it is located in the heart of Maple Heights neighborhood, which of course represents the extent of the original farmstead. The Blair family were also staunch abolitionists. The Blairs originally buried their dead near the family home and later in the Presbyterian Cemetery (White Oak). The house today has a completely different aspect due to a 1920s-era brick porch. There is an interesting blog entry about the house and the family at http://bloomingtonthenandnow.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/823-n-maple-street-the-historic-james-blair-house/, posted by Derek Richie of Bloomington Fading.
The thing that interests me is that all four of these 160-year-old-plus houses are still standing and inhabited, while many other notable homes have been demolished. The town was by no means all-Covenanter, and yet the Covenanter houses appear to be over-represented in the historic record for this era. All of the four men who built these houses were local community leaders; but so were the builders of many now-vanished old farmhouses. For some reason, these four survived, and in architectural terms, Bloomington is the better for it.
Over the past ten-plus years working the “Homes” beat for the Herald-Times, I have wandered through hundreds of houses, asking questions and recording information that never made it into print for one reason or another. One recurring item that always fascinates me is when owners of old houses say (with a barely visible shudder) “Old So-and-so, who owned a prominent local business, built this house in the 1890s, and they say he died in the top left bedroom and was laid out in the parlor.” This kind of information–a corpse in the parlor–is always seen by those who pass down the legend from owner to owner as exceptional, not the rule. Quips about ghosts and hauntings are bandied about, because it’s assumed that the presence of a dead body in an old house is a very rare thing.
But if the truth be told, every single house built in Bloomington before the early 20th century, whether wealthy or poor, most likely had at least one corpse in the parlor. Bloomington had no city hospital until 1905, and in its first years the institution was a small and limited place where appendixes were taken out and grievous injuries addressed, not a place where people went to die. From time immemorial, ill people had always been tended by their relatives in the comfort of home, and if they required a doctor’s services, the doctor came to them. Why on earth would a sick person haul himself or herself up out of a sickbed and totter to a doctor’s office? Or to a hospital, for that matter? In that era, one’s own bed was the proper place for a sick or dying person.
This means that virtually every house built in Bloomington before the turn of the last century experienced one or more deaths within its walls, often of small children. But houses built in the 1910s and ’20s, after the concept of migrating to the hospital to die had taken hold, would have been largely death-free (unless the owners had been extremely impoverished). Beginning by the ’20s funeral homes began to offer grieving Bloomington families an alternative to laying out Granddad in the parlor.
But once upon a time, the elderly and the ill died at home. Grieving families washed and laid out the corpse of their loved one as a matter of course, and friends would come with food to share in the time of grief. A coffin would be purchased at the local furniture store, and the memorial would be held at home in the parlor. We of the 21st-century are so divorced from the process of death that we regard it as a gruesome oddity when we learn that a former owner of an old home died in his own bedroom. Just remember: this wasn’t a case of just one Victorian businessman in the bedroom of one old house; it was everyone, and everywhere: rich and poor, genteel or criminal. But lest you stroll through the city’s historic districts and contemplate all these deaths with a shiver, remember that any morbidness is yours, not theirs. Death prior to the 1910s was accompanied by warmth and love and care. And ask yourself, in your heart of hearts: wouldn’t you rather breathe your last in the comfort of your own bedroom with your loved ones around you? I certainly would.
[This article first appeared in the Bloomington Herald-Times, and the photos below are all copyright Ron Nehrig. Click on images to enlarge.]
Bread is ubiquitous in stores, restaurants and bakeries. Yet most people don’t know what real bread tastes like. Ron Nehrig is keenly aware of the difference, because he makes his own loaves from whole grains he grows himself.
Ron lives in a house he built on a 15-acre property in northern Monroe County. A fine food aficionado, he approaches the challenge of making excellent bread with the same rigor that he employed before retirement as a computer engineer and IT specialist.
“I’ve grown a garden forever,” he observed, “along with a big area of wildflowers, sorghum, millet, Egyptian wheat and sunflowers that I grow for the birds.” As he spoke, countless juncos, finches, nuthatches and chickadees fluttered around the feeding station outside his living room window. “I’ve always grown winter wheat, oats and rye as cover crops, but I never thought to harvest it because I had no way to mill it. So I finally decided to harvest some for myself. Once I had a grain mill, there was no going back.”
Everyone knows that home-baked bread tastes better than grocery-store bread. But bread tastes even better when made from freshly-ground organic whole grains harvested from the yard. The toast that Ron served me was aromatic, fine-grained, and utterly delectable.
“There’s just no comparison with my flour and store-bought whole wheat flour,” he said. “The age of store flour means that nutrients have oxidized and fats are going rancid. And refined white flour has lost most of the nutrients that are necessary for our health. It’s not surprising that so many people are becoming intolerant of wheat.”
Research at Cornell has established that a whole wheat kernel contains health-enhancing antioxidants, just like fruits and vegetables. But refining wheat into white flour eliminates 70 percent of the vitamins and minerals and 83% of the antioxidants. Enriching flour only adds five of the thirteen nutrients back, and none of the antioxidants. Wheat kernels will keep for several years, but flour soon loses its quality. That’s why Ron mills his flour just before mixing each batch of fresh bread.
“Bread made with refined flour has become just a carbo-wrapper for other foods, instead of being a food itself,” he stated. “Wheat has gotten a bad name lately, but what we’ve been eating is just carbohydrates, only a portion of the wheat. It’s like eating only one small part of the cow.” (As a reporter I can truthfully state that although generally sensitive to gluten, I ate two slices at Ron’s home followed by three more slices that I took home, with no ill effects.)
Ron’s whole grain loaves are fine-textured and delicate because he sifts the fresh flour and removes the rough bran coating of the grain. He then sends that bran back through the mill two or three times before returning it to the flour. In this way he retains useful fiber without impairing the structure of the developing gluten strands during the kneading process.
The hillside below Ron’s house basks in light. A nearby pond supplies fish as well as water for his extensive garden. “I grow as much of my own food as I can, and eliminate as many environmental problems as I can,” he said. “I like to know the origins of the food I eat.”
The open hillside provides plenty of space for open patches of different grains to grow. Each patch yields anywhere from 40 to 100 pounds of finished grain.
Ron grows several varieties of corn, millet, spring wheat, winter wheat, oats, and Khorasan wheat (also known as kamut), a large-grained yellow wheat which may have originated in the Khorasan province of Iran. He harvests by hand using a kitchen knife and runs the seed-heads through a slow running hammermill shredder to separate the grain from the chaff. Working by hand in the summer heat, he often muses about how a farmer in the 1800s with a hundred acres would have processed his crop.
“People who have no room to grow can still mill their own flour and make wonderful bread,” he pointed out. “It’s very rewarding and satisfying to grow your own, but you don’t have to. Most of these grains can be bought at Bloomingfoods and Sahara Mart. Even Wal-Mart occasionally carries organic wheat berries in 25-pound bags.”
Mixing bread is not rocket science. The ingredients can be as simple as flour, salt, a dash of oil and yeast. He alters the ingredients slightly each time he bakes, and often adds homegrown corn flour, millet, barley, oats, rye, spelt, durum, sorghum, and other grains.
Wherever he goes, Ron preaches the virtue of real bread. And after tasting his exquisite breads, it’s easy to become a convert. An electric mill costs about $240 and takes up about the same amount of counter space as an electric mixer.
“I will plant grain as long as I can manage,” he summed up. “And not milling grain is a missed opportunity.”
For more information on how Ron Nehrig grows and harvests grain, copiously illustrated with his own photos, see http://www.RonNehrig.com/Gardens.html. Many of his favorite recipes are posted at http://ronnehrig.blogspot.com/p/breads.html.
Bloomington relies on surface water, not aquifers. Until the 1920s the growth of the city was severely challenged by the lack of water. Unlike Indianapolis, Chicago, Louisville or Nashville, there is no river to provide a steady source of drinking water.
Bloomington sits on a rolling plain almost twenty miles from the White River. Its early years were marked by a chronic lack of water. Springs and creeks dry up during the late summer, and we are subject to periodic drought. This is not due to climate change, for during research for my book on the Showers family I discovered historic records of many droughts going back into the 1880s. The average seemed to be about one drought every seven years.
The Showers family was particularly interested in obtaining a stable and abundant source of water for the city, not only out of civic altruism but also because their steam-powered furniture factory required large amounts of water. Beginning in the 1880s the Showers brothers, James and William, began advocating the construction of a reservoir to meet the needs of the growing city. During each bad drought the factory had to shut down, leaving its employees unpaid. This affected the community at large since the factory was the largest employer in town.
The city’s first reservoir was created when a stream was dammed and the waters captured in a pond atop the bluff southwest of town past Landmark Drive, some distance south of where Bloomfield Road runs up the steep hill. The water from that small pond was gravity-fed to the city below. The second reservoir was located at what later became known as Twin Lakes. The first lake there did not furnish enough water and so the second was constructed.
But none of these three small reservoirs was sufficient for the needs of the city and its industries. So Weimer Lake was built, followed by the Leonard Springs reservoir. The problem with all of these reservoirs is that they overlaid porous karst limestone, riddled with sinkholes and crevices. Most of the water percolated down through the porous lakebeds and was lost.
The city suffered. Although plumbed-in city water began to be available to expensive neighborhooods in the early 1900s, it was never enough. During droughts there was not enough water for working-class housewives to wash dishes or launder the family’s clothes. Every house built before 1915 has an underground brick or limestone cistern fed by gutter downspouts. These cisterns were often located just outside the back door, half of the unseen cistern protruding beyond the home’s footprint to receive the downspout, and half underneath the back room of the house, where the housewife used an old-fashioned long-handled iron pump to draw the water up for domestic use. Today the old cisterns are generally capped off with a slab of limestone or concrete, but in the old days they appear to have been open, and I found several tragic items in the newspaper about toddlers who fell into the family’s cistern and drowned.
Fed up by the city’s inability to provide enough water, the University built its own reservoir in the upper Griffy watershed around 1910. But even that reservoir dipped dangerously low in drought. There were times during which students were instructed not to take more than one shower a week. By the late 1910s, when the city began offering sewage services to the first few neighborhoods, the water problem became acute because the act of flushing used so much additional water.
The Showers brothers lent support and money to the construction of the West Side reservoirs but lost patience when it became obvious that the struggle was useless. By around 1920 the Showers family and city residents were fed up with the situation. They demanded that a new reservoir be built on the stable limestone layer that characterizes the eastern half of the county. The mayor blocked their efforts, insisting that the city had invested too much money and infrastructure on the city’s west side to consider moving and starting over. Proponents of change orchestrated a sizeable demonstration at the Courthouse, and the Showers family stepped forward and took matters into their own hands. They announced that a new city reservoir would be built on Griffy Creek north of town. Members of the family personally donated 25 percent of the cost of building the new reservoir, and the three banks controlled by the family provided loans for the remainder of the money. Construction began on the lake in 1923.
As readers know, even the water from Griffy Lake was not sufficient, and Lake Lemon was built in the 1950s followed by Lake Monroe in the 1960s. Lake Monroe displaced an entire small town and its cemetery and historic farmsteads. If it silts up as quickly as all the other lakes, then Bloomington’s water supply will be challenged again within our lifetimes. Where could another reservoir be constructed? The landscape is far more densely settled than it was in the middle of the last century. Securing a permanent water supply, as opposed to one that works for a half-century or so before becoming compromised, will be a challenge not easily solved.
A suggestion: it would add very little the the cost of construction if all new houses came with five- or ten-thousand-gallon subterranean cisterns made of concrete and fed by downspouts. When water is so inherently scarce, it makes no sense to allow rainwater to run off without being used.
“What literary character would you like to be for one day?”
My teenage son posed this question last week, and we began to consider the possibilities. There’s an inherent problem with any fairy-tale question like this, namely the unpleasant surprise that is always built into a magic wish that’s being granted, which results in that wish turning out differently than you expected. So if you say “I’d like to be Huck Finn for a day,” you’ll not find yourself as Huck during one of his golden days of floating down the Mississippi on the raft with Jim. Instead, you would land inside Huck’s skin at the beginning of the book, when the widow has crammed him into an uncomfortable suit of clothes and keeps nagging him, “Don’t smoke! Don’t yawn and stretch!” Or even worse, you might find yourself as Huck during the time in which he wears fluttering rags and sleeps inside an empty barrel in a warehouse down by the waterfront. And it might be a cold and rainy day, too. This is the “down-day” problem.
What about Scarlett O’Hara? Wouldn’t it be fun to be her? But you might not be able to enjoy Scarlet’s appearance at the ball, because it would be 96 degrees Fahrenheit on the most humid Georgia day imaginable, and she might be in bed having her period, and sulking. —Well, what about Rhett Butler? Didn’t he have fun? Sure, if you like aimlessly hanging around a bordello and gambling while drinking whiskey. Which might not be all bad, but a day like that certainly won’t win any Pulitzer Prizes, not to mention being unhealthy and unsustainable.
How about Jay Gatsby? But he probably had loads of down-days. You’d probably find yourself inside his skin on a day when there is no crazy party, when all there is to do in that huge and silent Long Island home is moon around on the dock until the sun sets and the green light appears across the water. Real thrill of a day, there.
There are many great American novels that you can read and admire without wanting to be a character inside them for one day. Think of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Would you really want to be one of the three children, struggling against fear and racism while they investigate the haunted house down the block? We certainly would not want to be the father, Atticus Finch, even though he is a good and noble lawyer; nor would we want to be Calpurnia, the maid. Great book, but not much fun as a jumping-in point.
Wouldn’t it be fun to find yourself inside a bodice-ripper romance book, panting with passion? How about one of the historical romances like “The Other Boleyn Girl,” all of which seem to feature interchangeable cover art of bulging Elizabethan cleavage with pearl necklaces dripping into their shadowy depths? Unfortunately, nobody will volunteer to be Henry VIII, and fewer of us would want to star as Anne Boleyn in the middle of such Machiavellian scheming and intrigue. We all know how her story turns out. Practically every day was a down-day for poor Anne.
Might it be fun to be Harry Potter for a day? Maybe, but he also had an awful lot of down days. (Think of the awful night he goes with Dumbledore to try to retrieve the horcrux from the ghoulish cavern by the sea….brrr, the very thought gives me the shivers.) Harry had altogether too many experiences with trauma and pain and loss. A good day for Harry would be a day on which Malfoy successfully aims the Jelly-Legs Jinx at him from behind a pillar.
How about “The Lord of the Rings”: would you want to be Bilbo? But you’d end up inside of one of those endless afternoons while he snoozes in the sun during his retirement in Rivendell. But we wouldn’t want to be Frodo, because (like Harry Potter) he suffers too much in order to save his friends and his world. —What about an elf, like Legolas? I get the feeling that elves, being practically immortal, have countless days on which they just slowly drift by while thinking grave thoughts and looking impressive.
My son and I finally agreed on the literary characters we would choose to be for one day. We chose Toad of Toad Hall, from “The Wind in the Willows,” because he had few days on which he was not enjoying some new and all-encompassing interest. Basically, Toad was always capable of finding fun for himself and his friends, and was almost never without a hobby. We also chose Jherek Carnelian (from Michael Moorcock’s fantasy trilogy “Dancers At The End of Time”), who when he grew bored had only to touch one of his power rings to transform the landscape around him into scintillating emerald and fuschia and could modify his own body as well into any color or shape he felt like.
What literary character would YOU choose to be for a day? And could your character escape the down-day curse of the genie who would grant your wish? Share your choices below in the comments.