Monday, February 28, 2022

The King Cake Gift, and Coconut Flour Banana Chocolate Chip Bread

A few weeks ago, during staff meeting, my colleagues and I were reminiscing about pre-pandemic times in the dining hall, when the staff would put together a Mardi Gras spread like you've never seen: shellfish, po'boys, king cake, beads, you name it. We figured that the likelihood of a Mardi Gras celebration this year is pretty low, given that the dining hall has been short-staffed, supply chains have been unpredictable, and everyone is just plain old weary. I started waxing rhapsodic about king cakes, pining away for one, and one of our colleagues mentioned her friend's recommendation of Haydel's, which she said was the best king cake there was: totally authentic New Orleans.

I decided that I needed to order a king cake to lift everyone's mood. A real king cake, from New Orleans, from one of the famous king cake bakeries.

Except I didn't act on my plan until it was waaaaay too late to order  in time for Mardi Gras, at least from any of the big bakeries.

I took to Facebook, to see if I could find someone in the New Orleans area to pick one up and ship it. People had all kinds of good ideas (Goldbelly, etc.), but most of them were dead ends. Except one.

One of my friends suggested that I get in touch with a friend of hers, a "good guy," she said; "I bet he'd do it." So I messaged him, telling him that he didn't know me from Adam, but would he be willing to pick up and send me a king cake, and I'd venmo him whatever he wanted?

To my utter surprise, he said yes, sure, he'd do it. And, it turns out, his neighbor owns a coffee shop (hey, if you live in New Orleans, drop in and say hi from me, OK?) which gets regular king cake deliveries from Nonna Randazzos, one of the other big king cake bakeries.

When he told his neighbor about my crazy scheme, he gave him a king cake to send to me. He told me not to worry about the cake, and just sent me the receipt for shipping.

And so four days later, there I was, sitting in our staff meeting, with a fresh king cake from New Orleans.

And: I found the baby.

With all of the shit going on in the world right now, with so much pain and suffering and war and violence, that king cake was a glimmer of hope and faith in humanity.

I didn't take any pictures of it, because it was too tasty, and we gobbled it up. But I'll leave you with coconut flour banana bread, which I made this weekend, and which is also pretty tasty, and because, chocolate.

Happy Mardi Gras, everyone. Lassaiz les bontemps rouler. The world sure could use some.

Coda: the dining hall did Mardi Gras after all. Jamabalaya, king cake and all.

Coconut Flour Banana Chocolate Chip Bread
adapted from detoxinista
For a while I was feeding this to my son for breakfast, telling myself that it was healthy and full of protein. You can tell yourself that, too.

3 very ripe bananas
3/4 cup coconut flour
5 large eggs
1/3 cup coconut sugar (light brown sugar works fine too)
1 t. ground cinnamon 
1 t. baking soda 
1 t. baking powder 
1/4 t. fine sea salt
1 t. vanilla extract
A generous handful of mini chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350ºF and line a 9-inch by 5-inch loaf pan with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, mash the bananas. Add the coconut flour, eggs, coconut sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and vanilla. Whisk the batter together well, breaking up any lumps so a smooth batter is formed.

Pour the batter into the lined loaf pan and bake until the center of the loaf has risen and started to crack, feeling firm to the touch, about 45 to 55 minutes. Remove the parchment onto a rack and cool completely before slicing and serving.

Because this loaf is moist, be sure to store it in an airtight container in the fridge. It should last a week or so; you can freeze it, too, for a few weeks.

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Tuesday, February 1, 2022

The Care Ring and Murgh Keema

My church has a Caring Committee, which I co-chair. Last week, there was a flurry of messages and requests from folks around the very quick decline and (and unfortunate passing) of an involved and committed church member; she was admitted to the hospital for jaundice, came home with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and was gone in a matter of days. She was a vibrant, creative soul, and it was heartbreaking and hard in so many ways for so many people in the fellowship. And selfishly, it didn't do much to make me feel better about feeling dismissed by doctors.

The Caring Committee is meant to be the Casserole Brigade, a temporary support system of regional Care Rings that activate when people are sick, or when there's been a loss, or when people need a grocery delivery or a ride: when people have an acute material need. Helping people to make decisions to get hospice care and getting them connected to the right resources are, unfortunately, out of our wheelhouse. But that's what people really seemed to want us to do, as her friends surrounded her, were stepping in to give her a sponge bath or other personal care. I spent a good part of the week trying to be clear about what the Care Ring could (e.g. remove snow and ice) and couldn't (e.g. call the social worker) do, reminding her friends that they also needed to tend to their own hearts and that even the most loving of friends can't be expected to do these things. I tried to let people know that there were going to be other opportunities to help, that there was a village, that one person didn't need to go rushing in and feel like no one else was there. I tried to help them understand that we needed to empower her and her husband to make difficult and painful decisions that maybe we didn't agree with. Or even to empower them not to decide.

Despite all that, while I felt like it wasn't fair to ask her friends to do those things, I also know that I would want a friend group like that if I knew I didn't have much longer to live. And when we learned she was gone, I know they were glad to have done these last things for her.

The other morning, seeing a photo post from one of those friends of a group of women eating and being silly and just enjoying each others' company, I confess I felt sad and lonely. I don't have a group like this, a group that I hang out with or go on adventures with or even eat a meal with when I'm not with my family. This is probably in part because I work full time and have chosen to prioritize my kids and cooking and things like that when I am home. I don't work hard at group friendship, I've never joined any of the covenant groups in my church (which are effectively social connections with a spiritual common ground). But it's also because I've just never really figured that kind of thing out. And sometimes, on the darker days, I wonder who will be there, besides my husband, if I ever need it. Maybe the Caring Committee will bring a casserole. But also maybe not. Because they didn't when I broke my foot in March 2020, or when I concussed myself in October 2020, or while I have been freaking out about my health over the past month. Then again, COVID. So no one was bringing casseroles anywhere. And ... I didn't ask them to.

I realized this morning that maybe the 300 pound gorilla sitting on my chest making me contemplate my own mortality is probably not just my own health stuff but also my body remembering February, which is my month of multiple pregnancy losses and the complicated loss of my father, as well as my daughter's birthday. So there's that. But still.

No Kidding in NZ posted the other day about needing a bigger support network. I couldn't agree more; if the pandemic has shown us anything, it's that we desperately need each other. I don't think that those of us who have children can take that care for granted, because we can't rely on our children to be our caretakers, especially if they need care, too. And the larger village is out there if we think about it. Sometimes it's just hard to remember who they are because we're not used to asking for help.

On that note, I called my endocrinologist on Friday, after some encouragement from Mel. He took my call right away, between patients, without me needing to leave a message, and said that it was clear that something is wrong, and it's just a matter of finding out what. He proceeded to order a ton more blood tests, so I left another few pints at the lab this morning. Which gave me some hope, at least, that maybe someone can help me figure out what the hell is going on with this crazy body of mine. 

And I go to the cardiologist on Wednesday to follow up on my two ER visits, but they called me yesterday morning. Apparently my two week heart monitor has shown ventricular tachycardia (the reason I wake up in the middle of the night feeling like my heart is pounding? is because it actually is pounding, at a lively 163 BPM). So I get to start taking beta blockers. Except that means I can't take the only thing that has made me sleep since my concussion in October 2020. Heart attack or insomnia from hell? I get to choose.

If I have to go on some kind of special diet, that will really curtail the bringing of casseroles.

Go give your Care Ring some love today.

Murgh Keema (or Turkey and Peas)
This is a recipe from Madhur Jaffrey's Quick and Easy Indian Cooking that I make often at home, and that the kids really like. It's the sort of easy to digest meal that I might bring over to a friend who isn't vegetarian. If you're vegan, you could definitely use Impossible if you're into that, or probably even tofu crumbles ... if you do that, let me know how it goes.)

3 T. vegetable oil
cinnamon stick
4-5 cardamom pods
2 bay leaves
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 t. peeled, finely grated ginger
1 1/4 lb. ground chicken or turkey
8 oz. fresh or frozen peas
1/4 t. turmeric
1 t. garam masala
1/4 t. cayenne pepper (optional; we leave this out for my daughter)
1/2 to 3/4 t. salt
2 T. fresh lemon juice
freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a wide pan over medium high heat. When the oil is hot add the cinnamon, cardamom and bay leaves.  Stir for a few seconds.

Add the onion and fry until the pieces brown at the edges. Put in the garlic and stir for a few seconds. Add the ginger and stir for another few seconds.

Add the ground meat and fry and stir until all of the lumps are broken up.

Now add the remaining ingredients.  Stir and mix for another minute before  removing from the heat. Serve with rice, or quinoa, or naan, or whatever makes sense to warm your belly.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

When It's Just Not Normal

Somewhere midway through December, I called my GP to ask if I could come in. I was experiencing symptoms of a UTI, something that has happened with me occasionally as long as I can remember. Health care is slow these days, for all of the reasons we read about in the news, and they agreed to see me about a week later, for which I was grateful. I left a sample, and she prescribed me a three day course of antibiotics, just in case.

The culture came back negative, and I went on my way. Only the symptoms didn't go away. So I called again, a week later, asking if I could re-test.

"Your culture came back negative," they told me. "Everything looks normal."

Except it wasn't. I pushed them. My voice may have wavered. I didn't want to go back in for another doctor visit; I just wanted them to re-do my labs. Finally, reluctantly, they agreed. And got another negative culture, which I didn't hear about until I called them to ask about results another week later. Because no news is good news, right?

We went on a short road trip for the holiday break, staying far away from other humans. Symptoms were getting worse. I had to run to the bathroom constantly, was drinking enough water for a small elephant, found myself having to stop and rest frequently because my heart was pounding away at over 100bpm doing the simplest things, like standing in line or walking slowly. One morning, I woke up with a nosebleed. I was scared, and we headed home early.

The day after we got home, I called the GP again, left a message. Hours later, they called me back. Head to the hospital, they said. I felt abandoned, afraid of taking an even greater risk. But I did what they said. Six hours later, I was seen in a crowded, COVID-filled ER, where beds lined the hallways. They took my blood, took a sample, ran an EKG. Normal, they said, and gave me a 7 day antibiotic, just in case it was a UTI.

I went for a follow up to my GP, described my worsening symptoms. Palpitations. Loss of appetite. Back pain. She was distracted; she asked me questions that I'd just answered, ran me around the office hallway, impatiently trying to recreate the palpitations I was describing. I tried to explain that there were so many symptoms. She told me she had four more patients waiting. "Maybe it will just resolve on its own," she said, shrugging. Because all of my bloodwork came back normal. When I called again, they ordered an ultrasound, just in case, which I couldn't schedule for another week and a half, because the hospital is so busy and short staffed.

Another week went by. I couldn't eat. I called the doctor again, feeling guilty for doing so. She listened, hesitated. "Should I be prescribing you an anxiety med?" said the doctor. "Are you feeling anxious?" "I don't even know any more," I replied. Yes, I am anxious. About my health.

Things got worse. A strange, sour taste in my mouth after eating. My stomach growling and gurgling. Unquenchable thirst. Abdominal pain. A fear of straying too far from the bathroom. Urine that looked like water. Palpitations. I kept telling myself it was all normal, like they said. But I was also googling, and the things I were turning up said kidney failure. I was trying not to let anxiety compound what I was already feeling.

The ultrasound got postponed, because of "a change in scheduling" at the hospital. Another week.

On Martin Luther King day, I called them again. I left another message, told them I was worried, wanted guidance. I went to a Day of Service with my kids, kept my phone on loud so I could hear the ring. It never came. And towards the end of the morning, I couldn't get enough air. I told my kids as calmly as I could that we were going home a little early. My husband drove me to the ER, for the second time in three weeks.

Another ER, another five hours. More bloodwork. A chest x-ray, which is what they do when you complain about shortness of breath. A COVID test, which I knew would come back negative. All normal, they said. Or at least, this doctor said, in a way that felt almost angry, "sometimes the ER can't find the answer."

So who does, I wondered to my husband, on the way home? Whose job is it to help me feel better? To figure out what's wrong? Why am I in the position of trying to diagnose myself, when I am not qualified to do so?

There in the ER, I began thinking about the people who would care for my kids if I die. Not my husband, but the larger village. The people who would help my son figure out college, teach him to drive. The women who would be there for my daughter's first period. The people she could invite to her dance recitals, who would stand in together to be some semblance of what I would have wanted to be. I began thinking of all of the things I haven't done with my kids yet. The trips I wanted to take with them. The milestones I want to celebrate. I felt overwhelmed with grief. I’ve worried for fifteen years about losing them. Crazy, irrational fear, maybe, but I know that loss is possible. The thought of leaving them before I gave them everything I wanted to give them was too much.

A few days after I got home from the ER, the doctor's office called me. Twice. I ignored the first call, feeling despondent. What was the point? I answered the second call. A follow up, they said. I agreed, wondering whether I should try to find another GP, not sure where to go any more.

He ordered more tests. More bloodwork. I’m waiting for those results, feeling hopeless. This morning, I finally had the postponed ultrasound. Which came back…normal. I'm supposed to call a nephrologist, just in case, which will likely be another wait, because things are slow right now, and it's hard to get an appointment with a specialist, or with anyone. And still, no one knows what's wrong. My legs swell by nightfall. My heart pounds away whenever I'm not sitting still. My thirst is unquenchable. I strain to empty my full bladder. My taste buds are all messed up. Some days I don't want to eat. I've lost almost fifteen pounds. And I go to work, and cook dinner, and do the laundry, and act like everything is fine, because I am normal.

Only I'm scared shitless that something is really, really wrong.
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