Miss Sharon Jones

Miss-Sharon-Jones-beacon

Yesterday, Steve and I went on a date to Minneapolis. Our favorite dates go like this: Mass at the Basilica, brunch at Moose and Sadie’s, play at the Guthrie or movie at the Lagoon or Edina theater.

Because the film we wanted to see was at 12:15 p.m., things were a little crowded. So we went to Mass on Saturday at home and then went in just for brunch at the film. Somehow I thought that Lucia’s Restaurant was only open for dinner (2-10), or we would have gone there. Instead we went to Barbette, where I had a fantastic omelet with chunks of ham and stretchy, flavorful Gruyere, and Steve didn’t mind that there were not hash browns; the smashed red potatoes sufficed.

Then on to the main event: Miss Sharon Jones. It’s a documentary by Barbara Kopple (who won Academy Awards for Harlan County, USA and American Dream but who has done so much more). This documentary is about soul singer Sharon Jones and her comeback after a cancer diagnosis in 2013. Can I just point out that she performed bald, and looked amazing doing it!

sharon_jones-10317I know Sharon Jones’s story because our son-in-law, Homer Steinweiss, is the drummer for the Dap Kings (that blurry guy in back of SJ). The band has been together a long time, and were the touring band for Amy Winehouse. As Homer says in the film: “I’ve played with this band since I was 16 years old.” Steve remembers meeting Sharon at a record release at a record store in Minneapolis (I’m thinking it was probably Electric Foetus) where about 20 people showed up. They struggled a long time before achieving success. We were at their First Avenue show for 100 Days, 100 Nights, their breakout success, where Homer reported excitedly that they had sold out– the first sold out show of that tour. After that venues got bigger and selling out the venue a more regular occurrence.

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings are known for sparking the soul revival that is very strong in popular music right now. A few years ago, driving home from a friend’s cabin, the funky, rural public radio station had pretty much divided all the best songs of the year into two categories: funk/soul-inspired and British-pop-inspired. Daptone Records, a studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn, basically started so the Dap Kings could record music the way they wanted to– funk and soul only on analog equipment– and press real records. In that way they are part of this whole “back to the basics” movement in, well, everything. Artisan records!

Because of Homer, we were aware of Sharon’s cancer in 2013. The band was about to release a new CD, Give the People What They Want, which was delayed a little more than a year until Sharon could finish treatment. And she just barely finished treatment before a tour was upon them.

sharon-jones-voice-cover

I have trouble imagining touring two-three weeks after chemotherapy. Sharon went out there and sang bald! That is so brave! I hadn’t realized that until I saw the trailer for the film.

Sharon really sums up “the head game” of returning to life after treatment when she says: “I’ve lost my confidence.” I know for me I have to get psyched up, still, for a bike ride or to do laundry (going up and down stairs) or work in the garden. And I can call off any of these activities whenever I want. In this film we see the gigantic machinery of a CD release in action, and the 11-piece band waiting to get going (and earn some money), and the pressure on Sharon is intense. Because even though these young people say their first concern is her health, and they mean it, they are also setting up a tour and record promotion and it’s rather high stakes. And it’s one thing to perform a single song on a late night show (though what if chemo brain makes her forget the lyrics?) and another to do a 90-minute set on stage before a large live audience.

And when that day comes, you can feel the love for Sharon Jones. The patience of the audience, and the true joy of the audience to see her return.

Also, Sharon Jones is fierce and she his funny. She has her sense of humor to help get her through. She jokes about her bucket list and as she runs down her television schedule for the day– from Michael and Kelly through Ellen. When she gets the call that she’ll be on Ellen, she can barely contain her excitement. “That’s like meeting Oprah!” she says. One more item from the bucket list.

And I couldn’t help appreciate that a friend of hers put her up in a rural setting during treatment in New York State. And made green smoothies and good food for her! I was so happy to see her in that setting, not in a New York City apartment or even with her extended family in Georgia (who were calling for money while she was in treatment). I have known for years that Sharon had a large number of people to take care of– but this film brings it home.

la-et-ms-sharon-jones-cancer-valerie-june-revi-002

This is a beautifully-made film. Sharon Jones is an incredibly strong woman. There is a powerful scene where she goes to her Pentecostal church and sings– and dances. She was in pain climbing up the church stairs, but when the spirit moves– she comes back to her powerful self. Her voice and her feet won’t fail her. It’s a turning point in her confidence (though turning points are often short-lived in this cancer game).
It’s also an incredible example of what it means to “live with cancer.” You have to be brave every day and keep bringing up your game. How does a whole community, and a fan base, go forward in this news and experience? Sharon’s worry (one of them) was that the CD would be released posthumously and sell really well, because “poor Sharon, oh she was such a saint, she was so amazing, how come we didn’t recognize it”… the Jim Croce story. So the release and the tour itself are a triumph. And when she isn’t up for making a video, too, they do an animated video that she adores– they even got her beauty mark in there. No sugar-coating of Sharon Jones, who was told she was too black, too short, and too overweight to make it as a singer. Take that!

sharon-jones-dap-kings-return-lead

If you don’t know the music of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, you should listen to some. They also put out an excellent Christmas album last year. And if you get a chance to see Miss Sharon Jones, (the film or the live performer), don’t miss her!

For a very poignant and great interview, I recommend this visit she did with Terry Gross for Fresh Air. Right now, she is touring and getting more rounds of chemotherapy. Hers was a short remission, which does not help the longterm prognosis. Knowing this while watching the film was also sobering. One can understand why she wants to continue performing now, not just go to bed. Everything I hear is that she has good energy (though she’s performing with neuropathy, which I cannot imagine) and is in good spirits when she shows up to perform, to record, and etc. I’m hoping for a long life and a lot more music from Miss Jones.

sjdk-christmas

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August

August 22 duskIt has been a beautiful August. Just like June and July. The prairie behind our house was burned very late in the season, so it is behind– or it is just different than the other prairie. The river of blue stem came in and matured before the yellows– the coneflowers and tall sunflowers– bloomed. Last night at 8:30 it was nearing the end of a luminous sunset, with lightly colored sky and the burst of yellows on a mellow purple canvas. A camera can’t really capture it, but this comes close enough.

selfie aug 22 2016I’m having a late bloom myself. My hair is just starting to come back, mostly white, seemingly straight. It’s soft, like the fleece blanket my sister gave me, or a stuffed animal’s fur. Velveteen rabbit, say.

I’m taking good care of my hands, but then I do something stupid and hurt them. Last week I cleaned and trimmed the garlic, my biggest harvest (planted in October 2015). On my way from the shop to the other barn, where I had another bed frame of garlic drying, I pulled down the garage door from the outside and crushed two fingers. I ignored it, just hoping the fingernails wouldn’t fall off. They’re mighty dark purple (and there’s dirt deep under the nail bed) but I don’t think I’ll lose them.

garlic harvest 2016

kitchen glovesSomeone, my sister or my mother, left these handy rubber gloves in the cabinet below my kitchen and bathroom sinks! Truth is, I’ve never been good at protecting my hands. But now I’ve been bandaging the fingers and wearing the gloves when I harvest in the garden or clean in the kitchen. Both came in handy for yesterday’s canning session. The only canning session I’ll have this year.

Then at the end of it, I opened the steam canner and scalded my other hand!! I put aloe vera on it and it is okay. But what is wrong with me?

impressive, no?

impressive, no?

I had to laugh when, after the heat of the kitchen, I took a cool epsom salts bath. There I was, with my two hands held out of the water, soaking. Though cool, it was not quite cool enough for the burned hand, and I wanted to keep the band-aid protected nails out of the water until the end. Hands and feet. I need to be mindful of them. I’m still healing, still coming into bloom, even this late in the season.

garlic drying close-up

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Summer Eating

Greek Salad

Greek Salad

It is wonderful to be back in the kitchen during tomato season. Even with a sparsely producing garden, there are ingredients to match my energy level without completely overwhelming me.

My temptation in these times– as during the weeks of chemotherapy with their rise and fall in energy level due to steroids and the effects of the chemotherapy– is to push to get things done and be ambitious in feeding mind, body, spirit… I want to write and I want to read and think about what I’ve been reading and I want to clear out the weedy garden beds and dig the potatoes and clean and store everything. I also want to visit people! I’ve had so many invitations to social engagements since announcing my “extra time” before surgery. I find I can only do one “big” thing a day, and often that has been a long, long, wonderful lunch with someone I haven’t seen in months.

So I often don’t have much energy left when it is dinner time. I’m trying to keep it simple. Every few days we have enough cucumbers for a cucumber salad with yogurt, sour cream, and dill. Dried dill from last year’s garden now that the dill plants are dead. I could eat a caprese salad with chopped tomatoes, basil, fresh mozzarella and olive oil every day, so as long as we have fresh mozzarella, that is on the menu.

Even the tomatillos are sparse. There are a lot of them but they just aren’t filling out and bursting their husks. But there are a few. One night when I was looking for a corn/tomato relish to go with scallops, I found something even better that I want to share here: tomatillo guacamole. I quickly forgot about the corn relish.

scallops cilantro guacThe tomatillo guacamole is so bright and citrusy and fresh, a perfect accompaniment to fish. It would also be great over some simple enchiladas. Or with chips. Or a dollop in chicken chili or chicken tortilla soup. We had the scallops with the guac and orzo, tomatoes just drizzled with oil and topped with basil, and leftover green bean, lentil and corn salad. Later I had the guacamole with the leftover orzo, which was also good! Here’s the link to the original at kitchn.com.

Tomatillo Guacamole

1 avocado, halved and pitted
1/2 pound tomatillos, husked and coarsely chopped
1/2 lime, juiced
1 garlic clove, coarsely chopped
1 small shallot, coarsely chopped
1/2 1 jalapeño, seeded and coarsely chopped (to taste)
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
1/2 tsp cumin
salt to taste

Combine the ingredients in the bowl of a small food processor and pulse until well blended. And if you know me by now, you know I used a teaspoon of cilantro chutney in place of the cilantro leaves. I think I had 6 tomatillos, probably less than  1/2 pound. I skipped the shallot, too.

Tonight, I made an easy Greek Salad. I had a mix of beautiful cherry tomatoes thanks to my friend and seed saver Scott Pauley. He’s growing 17 types of tomatoes this year, and I got some large, beautiful yellow grape tomatoes streaked with red from his garden. I had Supersweet 100s (the standard cherry) and also Mexican grape tomatoes (Scott gave me the seed last winter when we did our annual exchange).

I also remembered good old Patricia Wells. I have so many fancy cookbooks, now that the farm-to-table seasonal eating craze has taken off. But I still love Patricia Wells’ Salad as a Meal. This is the book I looked to when I wanted to store roasted peppers and to pickle jalapeno peppers. I also look to it to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything in a Salad Nicoise or Greek Salad. All you really need for Greek salad is tomatoes, cucumber, feta cheese and olives. To the one below you could also add red onion and other things. I had a nearly finished bottle of capers I tossed into the mix. I couldn’t remember the dressing ingredients so I consulted Patricia Wells– and learned she makes hers with lemon juice and olive oil, no vinegar. I added half a squeezed lemon, but still used a little white wine and white balsamic vinegar (no red in the house).

Greek Salad

mix of cherry and grape tomatoes, cut in half or quarters
2 medium cucumbers, ends trimmed then peeled and slices cut in fourths (It reduces the chance of bitterness to cut the ends off first. I like my cucumbers peeled in strips with some skin left intact.)
seedless olives (I usually have Kalmata on hand from Trader Joe’s) halved
1 red pepper diced
capers if you like them
feta cheese
dressing of red wine vinegar, lemon juice, salt and olive oil, whisked together and poured over the salad
torn basil leaves or fresh oregano added to the bowls when serving

This is enough for a meal on a hot summer evening. But Steve is a landscaper, so we ate this with some reheated chicken thighs from a barbecue last week. It would have been good with tortellini added right to the salad.

And for those nights when we have some zucchini or summer squash, zoodles or a simple saute still does the trick!

veggie saute

 

 

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The Date

hope chairWe have a date. It is September 7. That is when I will have my “debulking” surgery, known as the Mother Of All Surgeries (MOAS).  I saw the nurse list it on a form as “exploratory/hysterectomy.” I’ve been calling it the hysterectomy+.

I love my surgeon. After the serious fiasco of my surgery plan falling apart two weeks before I was scheduled to get surgery (for that story, read the second half of this post ), I met with my new surgeon on Tuesday (August 16). August 16 was the date I was supposed to have my actual surgery at Mayo.

This was a hard appointment. Going over the details of the surgery was tough– the main point which is that cancer cells are microscopic and she would get what she could see, where she could see it, but at Stage IV she would inevitably not get it all. The incision will go from my diaphram/breast bone down to my lower abdomen (though she will go around the belly button). This was actually reassuring to me– she can get more places with an incision like that.

She explained the bowel situation– the cancer nodules can become like plaque. They start in the lining but can become patches that anchor into the bowel wall. If that has happened, she will do a bowel resection, cutting out part of the bowel and resecting it. That might not happen in my case, but on the worst case scenario side, there may be too much “plaque” to remove and still have a functioning bowel.

For this surgery, depending on what she finds, it is a balance between removing the cancer and cancer-damaged tissue, and preserving quality of life and life itself through maintaining functioning organs.

My surgeon is fantastic. She is a superstar. I just loved everything she said, even as it was very difficult to take in and process. Her approach, her passion, her willingness to bond with me, a woman who has come to her office at the 12th hour, was inspiring. And I am grateful.

The date was initially scary– nine weeks out. When in my mind I had 3-6 weeks as the optimal window. But my surgeon was confident, she said really the only problem was the anxiety, the mental game, for me. That anything that was there was not brightly lighting up the scan, that my scan results were “exceptional.” That whatever was there, if it was growing at all, would only be easier to “get” in the surgery. That going to nine weeks, in my case, did not change the surgical plan at all.

And so, I have processed much of this information. And amazingly, as I have throughout, I feel quite at peace. If anything, these three weeks are too few to do all I want to do. I want to write, and I made a start of that yesterday. I want to can tomatoes, and I will do that hopefully this weekend.

I told Steve, after a dinner of scallops on Tuesday night, that the gourmet food would now slow down! There is time. Time for some “healthy, feeling good” living before the surgery. The surgery followed probably by two more rounds of chemotherapy, to kill every microscopic cancer cell we can manage to kill. Which will take me to the end of 2016. And I will say goodbye to this year, and march into 2017 with hopes for a long remission. Hope. And Faith.

Again I return to my first night’s prayer. Surrender. Falling into this. Trusting in God and surgeon. Trusting in what will be. And so many people have responded with the words of Julian of Norwich: “All will be well.” Simple and powerful.

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More Cooking… catching up

zucchini and tomatoes

In the week way back in late February before I started chemotherapy, I planned great meals. My last meals before taste would be taken away– and at that point I was expecting nausea, too.  I prepared by purchasing Cream of Wheat and a case of ginger ale. They’re still in my kitchen, unopened.

knife and cornIn the weeks that followed, I got gifts. So many gifts. And lately, after chemo finished, another round. Early, I received sharp knives from my Aunt Doris. I also received rosemary olive oil from my friend and fellow cancer survivor Jean.

More recently, I received a gorgeous Le Crueset pan from my friend Lina. When I protested it was too generous, she reminded me that I had bought her first Le Crueset pan back when she bought her first apartment, 12 or 13 years ago.

tender cover

My friend Anne bought me this gorgeous cookbook, Tender, by British food writer Nigel Slater. It is a serious tome, organized by vegetable. He turned his small backyard into an elaborate fruit and vegetable garden, and shares that tale as well as recipes. Kind of hilariously, he made his raised beds out of hedges, like a proper British garden. The hedges are home to an army of slugs! but do look nice in winter under the snow.

So in this, my window between chemo and surgery, also the highpoint of summer produce, I’m bringing the whole arsenal to bear on a few dinners. I’ve got a little of everything. Which is excellent for fancy food. I have a lot of garlic, including this beautiful purple kind.

meager green beansTonight I made two things, both inspired by recipes in Tender. One was a lentil and tomato salad. I used the rosemary oil and white wine vinegar for the dressing, with a little smashed garlic. I steamed today’s small harvest of green beans (the rabbits are still wreaking havoc there, but also the bean plants are somewhat sick and putting out little curved pods with a large bean at the bottom, clearly a desperate reproduction strategy in a bad season). And then I added an ingredient that does not appear in Slater’s book: corn. Corn is clearly not a British vegetable. It certainly is not an urban gardener’s vegetable! I cut the corn off the cob with the great knife from Aunt Doris.

lentil bean corn salad

The hot dish was zucchini and tomatoes. I used regular oil and added fresh thyme, mostly because I didn’t feel like going out to the mosquito-infested garden for basil. I also used cherry tomatoes, which are bursts of flavor and break down great in a pan. I added onion and garlic and I made zoodles out of the zucchini with my spiralizer. All cooked up in the sunny yellow cast iron pan.

zucchini tomatoesAnd tomorrow, I’ll practice my scallop searing, with a tomatillo sauce. On the side,  more corn with cilantro butter and potatoes. Or cilantro slaw… or, or, or whatever I come up with. It’s so great to be back in the kitchen.

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Pizza!

pizza with basilAnd when we got home, I visited the garden, where I found many tomatoes! And a few more sad summer squashes… and lots of basil!

I knew what I wanted to make, and if you know me, you would have been able to guess. Because if I can rally to make one great summer produce meal, it is going to be pizza.

I did not have three days to make the crust, or feel up to making mozzarella to get whey for a crust, but Mark Bittman has a very satisfactory crust recipe that takes just an hour of rising time. I double the yeast, always, and with the food processor it takes very little time.

Pizza Dough

(adapted slightly from Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything)

3 cups white flour (you can substitute one cup of semolina or 1/2 cup wheat or other flour)
2 tsp salt
1 Tbs (according to me) yeast
1 cup+ water
2 Tbs olive oil (can be flavored)

Mix the dry ingredients in the food processor 30 seconds then pour in 1 cup water and 2 Tbs olive oil through the feed tube. If you need more to make it cohere into a ball, add more water slowly. Once it comes together, knead it on a floured surface until it is a nice, springy ball of dough. Put it in an oiled bowl covered with plastic wrap for an hour or so.

pizza summer squashI also didn’t really feel up to making pesto, but what pushed me forward on this pizza was the fact that I had a lovely garlic scape pesto in the fridge (from my friend Maryjude made with garlic scapes I gave her). I suspect she used a recipe like this one— she used roasted pumpkin seeds but you can use pistachios or walnuts or whatever nut you choose (even sunflower seeds).  I also had store-bought fresh mozzarella from our nearly daily caprese salads. I sauteed some garden onion and yellow squash and added some garden garlic at the end. That was the base.

pizza assembledThen I put slices of tomato all over the top and the mozz and parmesan cheese. I set aside the basil for after the pizza was done (basil doesn’t do well IMO in a 500 degree oven). It only takes 8 minutes to cook, then top with more parmesan, basil, and serve!

Oh boy this was good.

red wineAnd I’ve been lamenting all summer my inability to drink the fine wines my brother supplied me with in the spring. (As my husband happily guzzled them– what a boor– though I mostly switched him over to beer.) My brother chose summer wines, so most have been sweet, and even this one was a little sweet for my taste buds in their current state. But it was so nice to open up and have a glass of fine wine, I didn’t fret.

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Respite: North Shore

duluth lift bridge up

Duluth Harbor lift bridge raised for charter fishing boats to get through.

Steve and I got away for the weekend on a long-awaited trip to the North Shore, as Minnesotans call the shore of Lake Superior from Duluth to the Canadian border  (really they mean Duluth to Grand Marais, which is too bad, because Grand Portage is really wonderful and just 17 miles farther north).

The trip met both our delights: furniture and food. On the way to Duluth we stopped for a burger at the Crystal Bar and Grill in Mora. I’d attach their website if they had one. This place looked like a bar from the outside, but inside it was a really friendly, brightly lit cafe with no scent of spilled beer. Everyone in town was there. It reminded me of the little bars in towns along the North Dakota border that clearly have two lives: cafe by day and bar by night. I kinda wish I’d gotten the special. Instead I got the patty melt, which was a regular size and shaped hamburger on wheat toast with cheese and grilled onions. Yum.

old Loll factory

Front of the old Loll factory, which does not jut out like the back.

In Duluth we went straight to what we thought was the Loll factory. Loll is a Duluth company that makes high-quality, high-design outdoor furniture. Adirondacks for Room and Board. The first factory, a super cool modern building that looks like a giant rusted shipping container with windows jutting out over an old railroad siding, is no longer Loll. Now it is Epicurean, maker of custom cutting boards (this will make sense later).

loll hattie and nateThey told us to just go down the road a mile or so and we’d see Loll on the right. So we did. And since it was late afternoon on a Friday in August, we were welcomed in, got to meet and talk to the designers, and were given a tour of the factory by Hattie, the very friendly front desk person. Here she is with Nate, who climbed up to get us our souvenir cutting board (which Hattie is displaying).

Visiting with the designers was really fun, and seeing the “prototypes” along a wall in their office. The main problem with plastic, of course, is that the legs get “soft” over a certain height.

Orders going out

Orders going out

So maintaining clean designs with that material is challenging. I also loved all the whimsical plastic stuff they had around– bicycles and clocks and Barrel-of-Monkeys plant hangers, etc. When you have a C&C machine and lots of scraps of high-quality plastic, you can make cool stuff. They were proud to show us (through a window) their THREE C&C machines. And when the founder is still an active designer/producer, you get air conditioning on the factory floor (but they’re also proud of the heat return system that uses the machine heat to keep the whole building warm in a Duluth winter).

Loll floorIt is also a wonderfully Portlandia operation. Lots of men with beards and men and women with tattoos loving their old school uniforms with their names embroidered over the pocket. The company actually started as two guys making skate board parks. Like serious skate board parks with half pipes. The parks were made of plastic and compressed wood fiber board. And they wanted to figure out a way to use the scrap material. So they started making Adirondack chairs. And cutting boards out of the wood fiber. And eventually this became Epicurean for the wood fiber boards and Loll (which is short for Lolligagger) for the furniture. They don’t make skate parks anymore. And their plastic is very high quality and infused with sun diffuser to retain color fastness.

red Lolls at New ScenicLoll became the theme of the trip. Friday night we went to the Rustic Inn, a restaurant in the wonderfully  named “unincorporated community” (population 30) Castle Danger, where Steve could get his second burger of the day (and Castle Danger beer brewed in Two Harbors) and I could get a very good smoked salmon sandwich on Ciabatta (and a very bad Caesar salad that was iceberg lettuce with a few croutons and Caesar dressing from a bottle).

But Saturday night we went to my favorite restaurant– one we first visited on our honeymoon eight years ago– New Scenic Cafe. Their logo is these two red Loll chairs.

More Loll at Scenic, where the wait can be long, but is also scenic!

More Loll at Scenic, where the wait can be long, but is also scenic!

It did not disappoint. Steve almost had a burger, but I talked him up to a smoked salmon burger (the bun, which was pitch black thanks to squid ink, was sadly ordinary in taste and texture and unfortunately stuck to his teeth). I had the scallops, which were seared to perfection and served over a citrusy sweet mix of little things I couldn’t identify. And really, that I could taste the scallops– right down to their carmelized smokiness, was such a treat. But even more, I ordered a glass of red wine and it was delicious. It was really, really good. The first time I’ve enjoyed a glass of wine in I don’t know how long. I’m back, baby.

For dessert, we hit up Culvers on the way back! (Sugar is still not tasting good to me, and that wine was not sweet at all, which was to my benefit. I couldn’t see wasting money on pie or sweets that weekend… the Culvers was OK until I was about halfway through.)

new scenic cookbookI bought the cookbook. It is thick. It is beautiful. It tells you in pages of detail how to make beautiful little plates of food, often one plate at a time. I am getting a collection of cookbooks (who am I fooling) that is replacing on the shelves my collection of African Literature (which I used to teach).

I will probably never make a single dish from here in its entirety, but it has really good instructions on how to perfectly sear scallops and also a recipe for a lamb meatloaf on top of a red onion slice that I might not be able to resist (though mine probably will not have 16 slices of 1 inch squares of braised cabbage on top or be accompanied by one baby red potato, one Parisian carrot, and one fingerling sweet potato and will definitely not be served with cream sherry & foie gras sauce and a raw egg yolk).

Given how few peas I get from the garden each year, I like the idea of this garlic scape-encircled salad.

new scenic salad

And I find it hard to imagine myself deep frying and shaping wonton wrappers into little taco shells, but this sashimi taco (with a full page of instructions) is appealing. In fact, I wish I’d have been able to talk Steve up to ordering these for dinner, but I was worried he might not be satisfied with an appetizer as dinner, no matter how fancy. He did enjoy his “West Coast Style IPA” presented as seriously as a high-end bottle of wine.

new scenic detail

It was a great trip, a wonderful break between chemo and surgery. I’m so glad I could taste the food and wine! My senses are still a bit dulled, but it was fabulous. And though the walk along the beach (after crossing the lift bridge) was challenging with the neuropathy (I only fell once, and that was on the edge of a sidewalk coming back, which really could have happened to me in full health!), we found a gorgeous bed and breakfast where Steve wants to stay next time.

At Sarah's TableWe finished our trip with brunch at At Sarah’s Table in Duluth. We got to sit outside, in the shade, with a view of Lake Superior. The food was delicious and there was a great Loll bench to sit on during the short wait. Steve didn’t get to read his plants book because we had to discuss, of course, why it was called “At Sarah’s Table.” Probably another Sarah’s Table in the state, Steve opined. To which I countered: But then why not Sarah’s Organic Table or something like that, not the set up of “At Sarah’s Table, (where….) ?? Our brunch table conversation was much more scintillating, I promise.

This place was nestled in a neighborhood, and reminded us of some of the great restaurants in Minneapolis neighborhoods. It had a Duluth flavor, though, with a gentrified condo building across the street that had its own raised bed gardens, and more raised beds (with herbs) next to the restaurant, a hose running from the garden to a house three doors down. We lamented, again, why St. Cloud doesn’t have any good (i.e., not greasy spoon) brunch places. I think it could be done by pairing up with an established restaurant (like the White Horse Tavern) that right now just serves its regular lunch menu, but not by opening a dedicated space. Anyone out there want to make that happen for us? Cause we love brunch.

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Thriving Prairie

This is a twofer blog day… Because even as my vegetable garden has struggled, with no effort at all the prairie has been thriving. Variety, beauty, all sorts of goodness. We’re moving into goldenrod season now, so I thought I’d take a little trip through the flowers that have bloomed in late July/early August. I took these before going on an 8-mile bike ride on Saturday. That was a great ride– so nice to give energy to something other than work or domestic tasks.

goldenrod with our houseEven before they’re in full bloom, goldenrod are gorgeous.

goldenrod in bloomOf course, in bloom they’re even more gorgeous!

purple coneflowersEchinacea/purple coneflowers always amaze me.

purple coneflower with butterflyAs do the butterflies they attract. Anyone know what this butterfly is?

prairie flowers AugustBut they aren’t alone…

bergamotThe bergamot are past their prime but still gorgeous– and bloomed in such big bunches this year.

sawtooth sunflowerYou have to get up close to appreciate the sawtooth sunflower fully. The pollinators open up the core to expose more little flowers…

grey headed coneflowerBut the grey-headed coneflower is, for me, the Queen of the Prairie. She dances over all the other flowers on her narrow stem with her drooping ballet skirt.

And though I have no photos, the monarch butterflies are starting to arrive. They do their ecstatic dances and mating all over everywhere and float above the prairie. The crickets are just arriving, too, to serenade them and drive the chickens crazy in their pursuit of protein treats!

 

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Struggling Garden

small harvestThis has been a tough year in general for gardening. Between chickens, rabbits, squash bugs, fungi, deluges of rain followed by heat and no rain, everything has struggled. The weeds have done extremely well. I have been operating at about 40% energy and strength. Put that together, and you will get meager harvests.

And yet, we eat prodzucchini noodles mealuce from the garden every day. We eat very well, in fact. It’s amazing what you can do with some basil, a few cherry tomatoes, and two medium zucchini (that took two weeks to get to harvestable size!)

The basil has done very well. And the tomatoes, although many of them have blossom rot and the vines are suffering from extreme blight, will ripen into a great harvest if the sun continues to shine (which I’m thinking it will).

green tomatoes

But the cucumbers, although covered in blossoms from early on, have just not produced. And what they’ve produced has been small and struggling. The bottom ends have curled– I think a sign of not enough water. I blame squash bugs. Cucumber ends are notoriously bitter, a defense against predators eating them, so I see the curling ends as a protest against the bugs. It’s not the pickle factory of past years, but to tell the truth I don’t feel up to making pickles this year. We’re eating the occasional cucumber salad and it is very, very good.

cucumber vinesYes, there are four or five cucumbers hanging there, and I picked four after taking the photo, but they are small and misshapen. The high quantity of seeds inside speaks to their desire to reproduce against all odds.

Then there are the green beans. Last year I had such a great harvest from the bush beans, I decided to just grow that type this year. Who needs the bother of a trellis, always threatening to fall over in the wind and needing to be staked? Well, I learned a lesson about that this year. Rabbits love bean blossoms and tender bean stems. We got some beans early on, but they are gone now. Still, the plants continue to put out fresh shoots and blossoms… and there are actually a lot of beans on the “dry beans” plants.

bean flowersBut even the kale plant is short…

short kaleI never did get around to planting all the onions– though I stuck some in a bed thinking I’d harvest them as green onions or small onions. Small onions I got, a whole box full.

onion harvestAnd I have garlic to beat the band (planted in two beds last October, the scapes dutifully cut by friend Henry Ebel, pulled by me and Nancy Ebel and drying in the barn). Which is a good thing because I won’t make it to the garlic festival this Saturday and will need these for seed garlic as well as winter eating. This photo is half the harvest.

garlic harvestAnd despite borers of some sort and some very sad looking plants, the winter squash are producing– this butternut squash was on a plant I almost pulled up a few weeks ago because it looked beyond hope of recovery from the borer at its root. My friend Kate pointed out the new growth on the end.

butternut squash

For me one of the big disappointments of the post-chemo phase was that I just didn’t have the energy to go pick blueberries. I’d missed strawberry picking (around my birthday in June) but to miss blueberries– that was a travesty. But then, crazily, through the magic of the FB algorithm, I got this post about The Fruit Club.

fruit clubNow I’d heard of this semi truck loaded with fruit bought direclty from growers back in 2009 when I was strawberry picking. But that was the last I heard of it, and even at the time it sounded like a myth. Then here it was, with blueberries and Georgia peaches, and it would be a mile from my house on Sunday from 12:30-2. So I ordered a couple cases of blueberries and one of peaches and showed up. And yes, there was the semi, a bunch of people waiting in their vehicles, and in no time a woman and her teenage sons had set up operations and were handing out fruit.

fruit club fruitNo, I didn’t pick these 10 lbs of blueberries. But they are seriously good, fresh, and in addition to freezing quarts and quarts and giving some away, I can eat them by the fistful. And I am. With both hands. Superfood.

And I see some grilled peaches in my future, too. Fruit has been my mainstay for sweet things since anything with sugar in it tends to taste medicinal or chemical. Pears, peaches, and blueberries have been especially good. So thank you Fruit Club! I didn’t even have to fight anyone. And the teenager offered to carry my boxes, presumably because of my headscarf (he didn’t offer for anyone else) but I could carry them. (I hope I’m not breaking any rules of Fruit Club to say what happens at Fruit Club.)

All in all, this little garden has done well for us. Going into fall we’ll have garlic, onions, winter squash, and potatoes. And plenty of tomatoes in the freezer. No pickles or red salsa (oddly, the cherry tomatoes have fared way worse than the larger ones, but there are more than enough tomatillos for green salsa and tomatillo sauce, which hopefully freezes well).

And every day we get our little harvest, sometimes a zucchini or yellow squash, sometimes a few beans, sometimes a few cucumbers, always a couple tomatoes.

I know my sister is out there making parallels to the way my little body has done over these months. I’ll let you work the metaphor if you’d like.

 

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Final Scan

Not my scan, just an example.

Not my scan, (for one thing this is a man), just an example.

Thursday, August 4, I met with my oncologist to look at the final scan. I have to admit, I hardly thought about it. In fact, I had zero stress about the results at all. Mostly because the midway scan had been so tremendous and showed us how well the chemo was working. It was not possible that it could be bad news– I can’t actually remember a time during this whole process when that was the case or when I was so confident.

Still, looking at the picture on the screen is always scary. Because the inside of a body is incomprehensible. First, the kidneys are so high! They are where the lungs should be (at least the lower part of the lungs) so when there was this lit up spot on both sides, I had trouble understanding that wasn’t anything to worry about. The kidneys are going to light up with dye. Above the kidneys, though, it was just blank. No outline of the lungs, nothing. Nothing. Clear. Where before the lining with its insidious nodules had been a faint outline, there was nothing I could see.

Henry Vandyke Carter - Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body (See "Book" section below) Bartleby.com: Gray's Anatomy, Plate 1035

Henry Vandyke Carter – Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body (See “Book” section below) Bartleby.com: Gray’s Anatomy, Plate 1035

Then there is the peritoneum, that crazy lining that covers not just my reproductive organs but also the bladder, bowels, intestines, liver, stomach, spleen… I won’t pretend to understand it– Here is what wikipedia has to say. Reading it makes me wonder what all will happen in surgery, but also makes me happy that my oncologist is only talking about my bowel lining. I can keep most of my organs– all but the reproductive ones.

Again, the bowel lining on the scan was “dark”– I couldn’t make it out apart from the organ itself on the scan. That is good news. And although there are tumors remaining, and they have not reduced in size much since the last scan, they are calcified.

Calcified is good. Calcium can’t get in there unless the tissue is dead. There are no active cancer cells if the tissue is dead. All the tumors we can see are calcified.

We killed a lot of cancer. A lot. All the cancer a scan can see, and hopefully even more.

Because there is cancer that the scan cannot see, only a human can see with the aid of who knows what, and only a human can remove, with skilled hands and possibly even robotic equipment, we will have surgery. She will remove the lining of the lung and the bowel, the peritoneum, the omentum, whatever linings and flaps that can host future cancer or where the cancer might be hiding. The lung and bowel operation is called “Stripping.” Those poor organs will be left naked in their cavities, and I’ll have to work to keep them healthy and happy.

Health-Insurance-Plan-CartoonAnd that comes to the second part of this story. The surgeon. The reason I was distracted at this happy last meeting with my oncologist. Because on July 30th my surgery plan, which was to happen on August 16, fell apart.

I had called my insurance company when we knew we wanted to do the surgery at the Mayo Clinic back on June 6. This was a month before my final chemotherapy treatment. I had one question: What is the coverage for this surgery? I have my notes from that conversation– I talked to Kelsey, she looked everything up, and she said since I had met the out of pocket maximum for the year, the surgery was covered 100%. We both marveled at such a thing. I moved forward and made an excellent plan.

But what she told me was wrong. One thing she said was that I absolutely needed to get pre-authorization. Not getting that could result in my being responsible for the whole bill. So my oncology office got into gear for authorization: but they got back a form saying my plan was “open access” and I didn’t need authorization. I have that communication, too.

Insurance might as well be a rolled up scroll someone signed with a fountain pen and locked up somewhere inaccessible.

Insurance might as well be a rolled up scroll someone signed with a fountain pen and locked up somewhere inaccessible.

So it was in double checking the pre-authorization information that I learned, through a series of phone calls to insurance company, my oncologist, and Mayo, and a series of different answers, that the authorization person at Mayo said: it looks like because the Mayo Clinic is out of network so you would be responsible for another $5,000 worth of deductible and 60% of the bill. I called the insurance company again and they confirmed this statement. The crushing weight of that debt and what it would mean to me in coming years almost undid me. Also, the idea of making a decision about life-or-death surgery based on money was so depressing I can’t even convey it. It was a bad weekend.

But I had done research. I actually had a list of six gynecological oncologists not at Mayo who are top notch. I will spare you the details, but after four conversations, and picking another gyn-onc they said was in network but I determined from my own research was not in network (they had the wrong hospital affiliations for her on file), I found a surgeon. One of two (both at the same practice) who were on my list and in network.

And after another three frustrating days which included crying on two answering machines trying to get assistance and feeling a clock ticking loudly in my head, all the forms and records necessary got to the new surgeon’s office. I have an initial appointment on August 16, the date that was set up for my surgery at Mayo. And although we will be probably doing the surgery in the seventh week after treatment ended (3-6 weeks is optimal), all the cancer is dead, remember? I am not worried about that week. I have utter confidence in the new surgeon, and her hospital is only one hour away, not 3 1/2, so traveling home after surgery will be significantly easier. In fact, everything about it will be easier. Because it is close, one day next week I’ll drive to the office to hand-deliver the disk of my scan and the forms I need to fill out before my appointment.

pond from patioAs I write, I’m looking out on our big pond. The big pond has been a mess this summer. Early on, it became covered with green algae. But then we had a deluge of rain and water rushed in from town through a giant culvert, and all the algae was washed away. It looked so healthy and great. Now though, red algae has formed or grown on the surface. The cattails along the edge are dead, probably from the high water levels earlier.

I can’t help but think of my peritoneum. We’ve flooded it and it is clear. But we need to get in there before the red algae can move in. It’s the final step. I don’t think there will be any more scans, and there won’t be any more chemo (there was talk of two more rounds after surgery). My CA-125, the primary marker, is 18.7 (anything below 35 is normal). It has been below 35 since June 1, and has continued to go down bit by bit. We will be watching that number in months to come, and hoping it stays down. Every other single number on my blood tests was in normal range. I feel, personally, like the cancer is gone. Aside from persistent neuropathy and getting tired quickly, I feel healthy. The cancer is Dead. We’ll now do what is needed to remove its habitat and keep it out of my body.

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