“Dr. Google”

Artist not cited

When reading Colm Toibin’s essay collection I found the one on cancer particularly intriguing. Toibin spent hours using only Google to self-diagnose his condition. It took a long time before he finally went to a doctor and found that not only had he misdiagnosed his situation, but also that the cancer had already spread beyond its original site.

Typing symptoms into Google tempts many of us, but frequently we come up with the wrong conclusion. I am reminded of my neighbor who rushed over in the summer cradling his little dog. He was certain that the growth on the dog’s abdomen was cancer. Google had a photo that looked just like the one on the dog.

Fortunately he gave “Doctor Charlie”(my husband, not a doctor on tv or in real life) a chance to take a close look at the swollen bump. A calm inspection revealed that the dog was the victim of a very voracious tick, still attached, still feasting. With a deft hand and groans of disgust all around, Charlie removed and destroyed the tick.

No wonder so many veterinary practices use the above image to point out that Google isn’t a veterinarian.

“Small Bites”

Most of my reading consists of full length novels or complete books of nonfiction such as history and science. I have always struggled with compilations, whether of poems, essays or short stories. I end up avoiding them without questioning my dislike.

Since I have appreciated much of Colm Toibin’s fiction, particularly Brooklyn and Nora Webster, I picked up his recent book of essays A Guest At the Feast at our library this week. (As I did so the librarian told me he would be reading in Hartford(Connecticut)on February 7. He will be at the Mark Twain House for this event. Since it is a hybrid event, both in person and streaming, anyone can attend. It is at 7pm Eastern Standard Time in case you are interested.)

The first essay about his bout with testicular cancer was compelling and familiar to anyone who has experienced chemotherapy either first hand or in a close friend. Fully involved in this ordeal, I turned to the next essay. This one recounted his growing up in Ireland. I stopped to really wonder why I didn’t want to read on. In my mind once I pick up a book I like to read it through.

Finally I understood. I need to approach any anthologies, whether of prose or poetry, in small bites. I came to realize that my habit of reading–start to finish–is precisely the wrong strategy for such books. I need to read an essay, a short story or poem and then put the book down to let it sink in. If I still want to read I can turn to something else, probably a novel.

This afternoon I will read his thoughts on Pope Francis. I won’t be trying to connect it with cancer treatment! The essays were, in fact, written many years apart. Who knows. I may even check out a book of short stories one of these days.

“Compelling Reworking”

I have enjoyed reading the novelist Barbara Kingsolver for many years. Each novel is original, unlike many authors who get in a pattern of a set locale or set time frame. In this 2022 book Kingsolver reworks Dickens’ David Copperfield with a character nicknamed Demon Copperhead by his friends and neighbors. Lovers of Dickens will find many characters in the book with names very similar to the original inspiration.

Kingsolver sets the book in very southwest Virginia, an area close to Tennessee and Kentucky, a part of the United States we think of as Appalachia. A region once supported by coal mining and tobacco farming, it is now better known for its abject poverty and opioid addiction. The poverty because the natural resources were tapped out. The opioid addiction because large pharmaceutical companies flooded the region with Oxycontin which they maintained was non-addictive.

At 560 pages this is not a quick read. In fact I read it in bits at a time allowing myself an opportunity to really take in the characters and their predicaments. Filled with violence, addiction, and hopelessness, Kingsolver’s writing also highlights the strengths of the people, their determination to get by and their tight family bonds.

I had no trouble connecting with David Copperfield before I had ever visited England. I hope that those of you who are unfamiliar with Appalachia can connect with this novel as well. Let me know what you think if you end up tackling it.

“January 26, 1953”

I pause each January 26 to remember my little sister Patsy. She died at 64, never making it into her 70’s to join me in old age. I still remember my mother coming home with this big(over 10 pounds) dark haired(the rest of us are blond/brown) brown eyed(ours are blue) baby with no name. She was going to be Jeannie(with the light brown hair) but a quick look at the actual baby required a new name. After two weeks she finally was named Patsy, much to my relief. At five I was not happy with an unnamed sister.

Along with the dark hair, dark eyes, height and build totally different from my own, she came with a much sunnier disposition than I ever could maintain. Her laugh still echoes when I think of her.

Eternal peace dear one.

“Fox Went Out On a Chilly Night”

During the fall Charlie piles up leaves over the tomato patch to provide mulch for the soil in the spring. This year’s leaf pile attracted a lovely visitor for many mornings in December and January. We guess that he chose this spot for the heat that came from the pile of composting leaves. At any rate he settled down happily here for hours at a time morning through early afternoon.

Unfazed by our comings and goings, he occasionally–as here–looked up and then lay back down. Apparently since we are between dogs at the moment the fox thought our yard was fenced just for him. For whatever reason he clearly was as relaxed in the open area as I suspect he could possibly be.

While we have seen foxes in the nearby woods this is the first visitor to our yard. I imagine that once we have a dog again we will not see the fox. Nonetheless he was a welcome visitor to our yard. He came so often I even named him Rufus(couldn’t resist!)

Thanks to everyone who wrote to make sure I was returning to the blog. Life has a way of happening, taking us away from routines. Things have settled down and I can once again use my brain and imagination to get back to writing.


Not until Jennifer wrote to ask if I was doing ok did I realize how long an absence I had accumulated on my blog. There are seasons when the demands and complications of life take over and the creative energy I use to write seems unavailable. This is such a season. I fully intend, when things settle down, to return to a regular writing practice. It centers me, rewards me with an outlet for thoughts and reflections, and gives me an opportunity to share. I also love learning from friends around the world as they share their thoughts and reflections.

In the meantime, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas. May we retain the wonder I had that first Christmas when I could truly be in awe of all the tinsel and lights.

“Second Summer”

What do you call the sunny, warm dry New England weather after the first hard frost in late October or early November? I have always called it Indian summer and it has always evoked warm feelings about the season. This week we are experiencing a perfect example as you can see by the thermometer on the left(warm for November 3) and the dead sunflower on the right(remnant of a hard frost.) In fact it has been so warm the last few nights that Charlie had to take the storm window back off our bedroom window and reinstall the screen. Once he did that our sleep improved immensely.

Being the language nerd that you may know me to be, I tried to trace the etymology of the phrase “Indian summer.” There are many speculations about it but no consensus. Despite this, the American Meteorological people have stopped using the phrase, believing it offensive, and have substituted the earlier name “second summer.” It saddened me to see that among the possible reasons for the name, the weather reporters have decided that it must be offensive, gravitating to explanations that reinforce negative stereotypes.

Heaven knows there are many relics in American usage that are racist, including many names for geographic features of the landscape. I have no trouble giving such places kinder names. But when I think of Indian summer I think of Indian corn on the table with Indian pudding for dessert. All three bring me warmth and joy. I am happy to change all three labels if counseled by someone who actually knows they are offensive. Until then, I will smile each fall when we are visited by that warm spell after the killing frost. Whatever it is called.

“Pumpkin or Squash?”

When I was five I learned a riddle which made adults laugh. “How do you turn a pumpkin into a squash?” “Throw it up in the air and it will come down squash all right.” I really didn’t understand the joke, but I repeated it frequently enjoying the laughter.

In addition to being a banner year for apples, squash and pumpkins have been abundant this fall. Above from top clockwise: sugar pumpkin, butternut squash, butterkin squash and acorn squash. The butterkin is a cross of a pumpkin and butternut squash. I don’t know why it gets to keep the name squash. It could be a squashkin. I guess it doesn’t sound as marketable. Butterkin sounds rather endearing. Missing is the recently eaten spaghetti squash, so called because when cooked its inside comes out in strands.

While there are many ways to cook them, I have been using the air fryer for them recently. I cook the whole spaghetti squash, with a few fork holes for steam to release, in the fryer, turning it half way through. Once cooked and cooled the insides come out easily. The butternut, peeled, cut into little chunks with a little maple syrup added, roasts to perfection in the air fryer. The acorn works after being cut in half. I have yet to tackle either the pumpkin or butterkin. The regular oven will probably be best.

Living here and getting the CSA(community supported agriculture) has introduced me to a variety of new squash and pumpkins. And I finally understand the riddle. Sadly my grandchildren are old enough to groan when I ask it.

“A Was Once An Apple Pie”

If you have followed my blog for a while, you may remember that I bake four pies a year. Midsummer it is blueberry/peach. Thanksgiving it is pumpkin and mincemeat. But the fall highlight is the apple pie. Apples thrive in New England and we are able to buy varieties rarely seen in supermarkets. Above the filling contains Cortland, Pink Lady, Paula Red and Baldwin. They all came from the weekly produce bag we receive as part of our CSA(community supported agriculture)share. Apples are so abundant this fall that I may also make an apple crisp.

Apple pies take the longest to prepare of the four. The apples must be cored, peeled and sliced. Peaches dipped in hot water slip their skins more easily. I use pumpkin and mincemeat from jars, so they are the quickest. But knowing that I would be at it for a while, I turned on my music loud, sharpened my paring knife and went at it. Three pounds of apples filled the one above.

And as for music, thanks to modern technology, my Apple Ipad now plays “Elizabeth’s Station,” put together using some algorithm from my own collection stored there. Usually they get it right, introducing me to many artists I would never hear otherwise.

Cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon(just a bit)and those apple varieties make me wish blogs included a widget for “smell-a-vision.” Your imagination will have to suffice.

“Would You Find Out?”

I just finished a recent(2022) novel, The Measure by Nikki Erlick based on an intriguing premise. One evening every citizen on earth twenty-two or older receives a box with a piece of string in it. The string’s length tells the recipient how long their life will be. Some people look inside the box; others don’t. I found the premise more interesting than the novel, though it is entertaining. But it began a reflection of my own.

A friend in college lost her mother to Huntington’s disease. Here it is often referred to as the illness that took singer/writer/activist Woody Guthrie. This fatal neurological illness gradually destroys the brain in an cascade of devastating symptoms. The disease typically shows up in middle age. Although it is hereditary, a person may not know they carry the gene for the disease until they have already had children. My friend devoted her life to a study of the gene resulting in, among other things, a test to determine a carrier. Out of an abundance of caution she chose to be childless since the odds of passing on the gene are 50/50. She also chose to forgo the test. She chose to live with the uncertainty that brought.

Sometimes people are given a diagnosis that suggests a future length of life. Still, it is much less certain than either the Huntington’s test or the piece of string in The Measure. I put myself in the place of the characters in the novel and the situation of my friend. I have decided I would neither look at the string nor take the test. I prefer living each day as it comes, trusting the end is out of my control.

What would you do?