31 March 2013

Lessons from my Brain Tumor, part 5

If you haven't read the beginning of my brain tumor story,
you can read part One, TwoThree, and Four of the story by clicking the links.

By late 2005, it had become easy to ignore my brain tumor. Since my radiation treatments had finished in late 2002, I’d gotten into a routine and adjusted to life with a brain tumor. And because something like a brain tumor isn’t a very visible condition, it was easy for my friends and family to forget about it somewhat as well. After my surgery in early 2006, however, friends and family dropped back into the habit of treating me like a fragile, porcelain doll. By the time we moved from California to Maryland in January of 2009, I was tired of being “the lady with the brain tumor.”

I had a fresh start, with people who didn’t know anything about me, and I decided to keep the news of my brain tumor as private as possible. I made my husband and children promise that they wouldn’t tell anyone about my tumor, and I decided that, other than the regular follow-up doctor’s appointments I knew I’d still have to endure, I would ignore my tumor and pretend that life was completely normal.

Because there’s really no such thing as “normal,” but brain tumor or no, I wasn’t going to get any closer to “normal,” and I was tired of being defined by something I had no control over. And my amazingly-supportive family must have realized how difficult it was for me, because they agreed to my decree without a single argument.

So we drove cross-country, from California to Maryland, and I declared myself “brain tumor free” as we crossed the border into our new home state.

In real life, I couldn’t ignore the issue as much as I wanted to. When my new friends began to worry about my frequent dizzy spells and balance issues, urging me to consult a doctor, I had to admit that I already knew the cause for my odd symptoms, and I let them in on my secret. So a few, very select, close friends knew about my health issues, but I didn’t broadcast my tumor, and my children were true to their promise. They kept my secret, and I got to enjoy life as “Veronica Bartles” again.

I was no longer “that girl with the brain tumor.”

I enjoyed my new tumor-free status so much, in fact, that I didn’t put up much of a fight when the neurologist I was assigned to for my follow-up appointments declared (without consulting the medical records I provided): “You don’t have a brain tumor. You never did. And I’m not one to say your doctors in California didn’t know what they were talking about, but…” He dismissed me from his office. Told me he could prescribe thirty-days’ worth of muscle relaxants to help with my muscle spasm issues, and indicated that if I persisted in hypochondriacally holding to the belief that an imaginary tumor existed, I should seek help from a mental health professional.

I tried a few times to get a referral to another doctor for a second opinion, but when the referral coordinator explained to me that this doctor was the only option authorized by my military insurance provider, I decided not to keep pushing the issue. After all, I wasn’t exactly dying. And I was totally ready for a break from the constant tests and follow-up doctor’s appointments. And it was really nice to play make-believe for a little while.

Yes, I worried from time to time. Like when I woke up one morning and literally couldn’t get out of bed, because my muscles simply wouldn’t respond to my attempts to move. (Lying in bed, paralyzed, for three hours, while your mind races through every “what-if” hypothetical scenario is REALLY not fun.) Or when my kids started daydreaming about what they wanted to do/be when they grew up, and I wondered “Will I still be here when my children are grown?” And every now and then, I thought that, maybe, I should push again for an appointment with a competent doctor. But I was enjoying the “brain tumor vacation” too much to ruin it by rocking the boat.

Until my husband got orders again.

In April 2012, we received word that we would be relocating to New Mexico. And I had to gain medical clearance before we could move. Which meant I had to provide the military medical coordinators with copies of my medical records, including the reports for the follow-ups I should have been having all along. Reports that didn’t exist, because I didn’t push the issue when Dr. Incompetent dismissed me.

After a three-month process, which included contacting all of my doctors from California and coordinating a plan for future care with the military group in New Mexico, I finally received the required medical clearance paperwork, along with a strong reprimand from the military medical group and orders not to allow my follow-up care to slip through the cracks again.

Determined to “be good” this time around, I made an appointment with my primary care doctor as soon as we got to the new base in New Mexico. And he told me that it was pointless to bother with follow-ups on the brain tumor, since I’d gone more than three years without follow-up appointments while in Maryland and nothing bad happened. He advised me to take more multi-vitamins, and he said we’d revisit the issue only if my symptoms got bad enough to put me in the hospital.

I switched to a different primary care doctor.

I feel like I’m back to square one, fighting to be taken seriously by doctors who are determined to believe that my medical issues are all in my head. (Duh! They totally are!! That doesn’t mean they’re imaginary!)

After a LONG conversation, where I had to go over the whole story again and totally ended up in frustrated tears, I convinced my new doctor to put in a referral to a neurologist. I suspect that he put in the referral simply to get the crazy, crying, basket case out of his office. And you know, I’m totally okay with that at this point. If I have to resort to tears to manipulate the doctors to listen, I can pull out the tears. (I have my first appointment scheduled with the neurologist next week. Fingers crossed and fervent prayers that it will go well!)

The primary care doctor also referred me to a dietician and another doctor to discuss my weight (after seven years of trying multiple diet and exercise plans, I still haven’t been able to lose the weight that I gained while on the steroids – I’ve about given up on ever looking beautiful again, but I’m not above grasping at straws, so I happily accepted these referrals). Unfortunately, this new doctor walked in, took one look at my overweight body and jumped to conclusions. Obviously, I must stuff my face with junk food 24/7, and if I would only get off my lazy butt to exercise once in a while, I could bring my unhealthy weight under control.

After more than half an hour, trying to get this doctor to hear me, I was in tears again. At which point, she declared that I was obviously depressed, and if I wasn’t willing to make appropriate lifestyle changes, she couldn’t understand why I’d even bothered coming in to see her.

I have to admit, I felt totally betrayed. I’d gone into this appointment full of hope, certain that I was going to meet with a partner, who would help me try to find an option I hadn’t yet tried. Instead, I felt like I was locked in a room with that mean girl from high school, who made herself feel superior by pointing out the flaws and weaknesses of everyone around her. And by the time she finished telling me that I was fat because I was lazy and suffering from depression and she couldn’t help me because I wasn’t willing to do anything to help myself, I couldn’t stop crying. I left her office and cried for the next three days.

And then I dried my eyes and took a deep breath and got back on the treadmill to keep moving forward. Because quitting simply isn’t an option.

But moving forward doesn’t mean I have to keep beating my head against a brick wall.

Perhaps, it’s time to take a new approach.

My particular brain tumor is one that likes to camouflage itself. It hides from the normal scans – and even the more in-depth scans. Even the doctors who really knew what they were looking for had trouble seeing it.

And my quality of life really isn’t that bad. Yes, I have frustrating issues. I would love to be able to consistently control my own muscles, and trust that my arms and legs and hands are going to work when I need them to. But even when my brain-tumor-inspired quirks pop up, I muddle through. I’ve been dealing with these issues for years. And I’ve proven time and time again that I can do so much more than I thought I could.

But the thing is, there isn’t a magic pill that can suddenly make me “all better.” And even if the doctors decided to open me back up for an additional surgery to remove the remaining tumor, there’s no guarantee that it would fix everything. So I have chosen to stop fighting.

No, this doesn’t mean I’m giving up. I’m not planning to roll over and die. I still expect to live for quite a while yet. But I’d rather live my life, whether it’s for the next sixty years or the next sixty minutes, enjoying my friends and family and being grateful for the blessings I have in my life. I’m tired of fighting to make people “take me seriously.” You can’t force people to care. You can’t make people love you. And if I fight hard enough, I might be able to force people to work with me on my terms, but it won’t be a pleasant experience for anyone involved.

So the sixth and “final” lesson I’ve learned from this brain tumor is this: Life doesn’t come with any guarantees. I may not always be able to count on the people I expected to count on, but sometimes, the people I never expected to be there for me will step up in surprising ways. I may not always be able to be where I wanted to be, but sometimes I might find myself in a place that’s even better than I imagined. I may not always be able to do the things I want to do, but I can do the things I need to do. And I have a team of hundreds, maybe thousands, of friends and family members who have my back when I’m not strong enough to do it on my own.

Catch up on the story by reading Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four.

Update!! Read the latest on my Brain Tumor Saga here.

28 March 2013

Crock Pot Gourmet: Chicken Curry

You can serve this delicious and simple Chicken Vegetable Curry with plain, brown rice, or with the
Creamy Brown Rice with Shiitake Mushrooms from this post.

You will need:
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken tenderloins
2 lb. frozen, mixed vegetables
3 Tbsp. curry powder
2 Tbsp. garlic
1/2 c. coconut milk powder
2 c. water
Spray 2 1/2-quart or 3-quart crock pot with non-stick spray.
Place 1 pound mixed veggies in bottom of crock.
Add coconut milk powder,

and curry powder.
Place chicken tenderloins on top of veggies.
Top with the remaining frozen veggies.

Add approximately 2 c. water. (You're not going for a soupy texture, and the veggies and chicken will both give off juices, so make sure not to add too much!)

Cook on low for 6 to 8 hours, until chicken is thoroughly cooked and sauce thickens slightly.

Serve over your favorite rice.

26 March 2013

Book Review: VANISH by Karen Spafford-Fitz

VANISH by Karen Spafford-Fitz is a thrilling mystery for the middle-grade crowd.

Fourteen-year-old Simone feels like her life is in a downward spiral since she moved to her new school. The popular girls don’t like her, the other kids in class ignore her, and her old friends haven’t replied to any of her emails. Simone doesn’t have any friends at all. To top it all off, she moved in too late to sign up for the fun classes, and she’s stuck taking Leadership studies as her elective class. But when her class begins a new Kinderbuddy project, to mentor the students in the kindergarten class, Simone instantly connects with her Kinderbuddy, Lily. When Lily and her mother vanish, Simone might be the one with the key to discovering their whereabouts.

Spafford-Fitz weaves a story of intrigue and mystery, full of twists and turns to keep the reader on the edge of her seat. Readers will cheer as Simone leads the investigation to find the missing Lily, and as she discovers that she isn’t as alone in life as she thinks she is. And that sometimes, friends are found in unexpected places. This story will strike a chord with anyone who feels alone or who is trying to adjust to changes and new situations.

24 March 2013

Lessons Learned from my Brain Tumor, part 4

If you need to catch up, you can read part One, Two and Three of the story by clicking the links.

In the fall of 2002, when I finished my six weeks of daily radiation treatments, I thought my brain tumor story was over. I had just completed the most difficult time of my life, and except for the little bit of radiation sickness that came on at the tail end of the treatments and the slight hair loss I experienced, I was feeling better than ever before. For the first time ever, I experienced hours, and even whole days when I didn’t have a migraine. And I discovered that there are, in fact, headaches for which a Tylenol will actually work! After all these years, thinking that Tylenol only worked because of the placebo effect, I realized that even the “slight headaches” I’d been experiencing for years were migraines strong enough to make grown men cry. It was what I’d gotten used to, and I didn’t realize how bad the pain was until it wasn’t my constant companion anymore.

My doctors were pleasantly surprised to find that the radiation didn’t simply stop the tumor from getting bigger. It actually shrunk in size! I was better, and this difficult journey wasn’t even as hard as I’d expected it to be!

Sure, I’d have to go in for follow-ups ever few months, so the doctors could monitor my symptoms and scan my brain and make sure I was still doing fine, but that was nothing. I no longer had dizzy spells and headaches, nausea and vision problems to deal with. And I knew I’d only continue to get better from this point on.


Because my tumor was the benign kind. Not cancer. So once it started behaving, I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. Right?

Sigh. Wouldn’t it be nice if life worked out that way?


In July of 2004, when our fourth child was only a few months old, my husband was sent to Korea for a year with the Air Force, leaving us behind in California. By this time, some of my symptoms had returned, but the tumor was still holding steady on the scans, so I wasn’t worried. Phil (my husband) and my doctors, however, were concerned. Sure, I was managing my symptoms just fine, with Phil’s help and support, but I had a brand-new baby and three other children (ages 2, 4 and 6). What if I started having blackouts again? What if the tumor started growing? What if I needed help and I was all alone?

My doctors, my husband, and several of his commanding officers wrote letters to request that his orders be cancelled. He was needed at home, and I shouldn’t be left alone, they all argued. Especially not for a full year. And everyone, all the way up to the group commander, was certain that the Air Force would see the error of their ways and tell Phil to stay home.

Until two weeks before his report date, when the request was denied.

“If your wife needs care in your absence, you should hire a live-in nurse to care for her,” the email said. And Phil went to live in Korea for a year, while I stayed back in California with four small children and a calendar full of doctor’s appointments.

And it was difficult, but I had friends to help me through, and I made it through the year with only a few scary moments. I discovered that I was still strong enough to deal with this brain tumor, even when my husband could only support me through phone calls and video chats.

Phil returned from Korea in July of 2005, and I heaved a giant sigh of relief. I made it through a year without him, and nothing major happened. My tumor was still behaving itself. Life was good. I turned the kids over to Phil for a few days and went to spend time with some friends. And then we settled into a peaceful, low-stress routine, happy in the knowledge that we were strong enough to make it through anything. And I wasn’t going to self-destruct.


Then, in early October 2006, I had a massive dizzy spell while grocery shopping. And then the blackouts started again. And the breathing troubles. And the vision problems.

And then, the MRI showed that the tumor was growing again.

My primary care doctor (Dr. O’Donnell at UC Davis – I was no longer even going to the military clinic for routine illnesses by this time) suggested that we consider the possibility of surgery.

But wait! Didn’t they tell me, back in 2002, when they discovered this thing, that they didn’t even want to biopsy it because it was too risky? What would happen to me if they cut me open and started poking around in there? Sure, the symptoms were horrible, but what if the surgery made things worse?

Dr. O’Donnell assured me that it was my best option at this point, and he referred me to Dr. Boggan.

And I already knew who Dr. Boggan was.

Way back in my first week of radiation treatments, I had met another brain tumor patient one day, while waiting in the lab to have my blood drawn. We started chatting, because that’s what you do, and this man asked if I was planning for surgery sometime in the future. I told him no, of course not. My tumor couldn’t be operated on. It was in the brain stem, and all of the doctors agreed that the unique placement of the tumor made the idea of surgery much too risky. Turns out, his tumor was in the same spot on the brain stem (what are the odds??), and most doctors didn’t want to risk surgery, but when the tumor started growing too big to deal with in any other way, they had referred him to Dr. Boggan. “Ask about him, if you ever have to consider surgery,” this guy told me. “He’s really good. I came through the surgery perfectly fine. I only lost feeling in one hand.”

Way back then, I had listened to this other patient with growing horror. The dangers of surgery were 100% confirmed. I’d never even consider surgery. But now, four years later, I realized that surgery was my only option. And once again, the Lord had placed me in the care of the best doctor available for this type of surgery. After lots of fasting and prayer, and a few Priesthood blessings, we decided to move forward with the surgery. And I wasn’t scared. Much.

I knew that everything would be all right. I was certain that I would come through the surgery with no problems. I still had work to do, after all. It wasn’t my time. And even when one of my best friends (who was totally convinced that I was going to die on the operating table) insisted that I should write goodbye letters to my children before going in for surgery, “just in case,” I wasn’t scared. After all, I went through radiation treatments without substantial hair loss or radiation sickness, my tumor shrunk with the radiation, when the most they were hoping for was to slow the growth, and even with my renewed symptoms, I still felt better than I did before they found the tumor back in 2002. Surgery was going to be a piece of cake.

And it was. Kind of.

When Dr. Boggan got into my head, he discovered that my tumor was actually much bigger than it had appeared on the scans. In fact, the growth that they had been monitoring on the scans wasn’t even the actual tumor. It was a calcification that had grown in the center of the tumor. My tumor was a thin membrane that had grown over and around the brain, molding itself to actual brain tissue and becoming virtually invisible to scans. My two-hour surgery turned into a nine-hour ordeal, and by the time they had to stop, they were only able to get 60% of the tumor.

But they got 60% of it! And I was alive. And what more can you ask for, really?

Yes, there were complications. I woke from the surgery and discovered that I couldn’t feel my left arm or the right side of my body from the waist down. I still had total control over my arm and leg, but I couldn’t feel them at all. Over the next few weeks, I had to re-learn how to walk and how to carry things without dropping them. I discovered that, depending on whether my bladder was leaning more toward the left or the right side of my body, I couldn’t always tell if it was full or not. Weeks later, my throat was still scratchy from the breathing tube, and the doctor couldn’t guarantee that I’d ever get my beautiful singing voice back again. And the steroids I had to take made me jittery and restless… and I gained over 100 pounds in less than a month.

I felt like a chubby toddler, and I was constantly frustrated over the things that I should be able to do but couldn’t. I couldn’t even dress myself without help!

And so we come to lesson number five: Those little things we take for granted every day? Walking. Talking. Feeding yourself. Reading a book. These are blessings! We have so much to be grateful for, and it’s so true that you don’t really know what you have until it’s gone. But these days, I try to be a lot more aware of those tiny miracles.

Read part five of my Brain Tumor Story (coming 3/31/13)


Catch up on the story by reading Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

22 March 2013

Cover Reveal! LIBRARY JUMPERS by Brenda Drake

Today is Brenda Drake's birthday!!
To celebrate, she's giving us a gift!! A sneak peek at the cover of her debut novel, LIBRARY JUMPERS, which will be released in February 2014!! Isn't it beautiful?

I'm so excited to be a part of this cover reveal! I got a chance to read a draft of this book, and I love it! I'm already marking off days on my calendar, waiting for the release! Go add it to your To Be Read list on Goodreads! (I did!!)

Like Brenda's new author page on Facebook!

21 March 2013

Crock Pot Gourmet: Split Pea Soup

Split Pea Soup is one of our favorite cool-weather meals, but it certainly doesn't photograph well. My daughter pointed out to me a few weeks ago (as she was begging me to put this soup on our week's menu) that "Everyone I know who has ever tried split pea soup didn't want to even taste it at first, because it doesn't look like it will be good, but once they tried it, it became their favorite soup." I almost didn't post my super-simple, three-ingredient split pea soup recipe, because I couldn't figure out how to make it look appetizing in pictures, but it's simply too good not to share!
You will need:
2 lb. green split peas
1 lb. carrots
1 medium onion
salt (to taste)

Chop the carrots into small pieces. Or, for a less-chunky soup, grate the carrots.

Chop the onion.

Place carrots and onions into the bottom of a 7-quart crock pot.
Wash split peas.

Add peas to crock pot. Sprinkle with salt, to taste.

Fill with water. (Leave an 1 1/2 to 2 inches at the top, to avoid boil-overs.)

Cook on low for 8 to 10 hours, until soup reaches desired consistency.

Many people cook split pea soup with a ham bone in it, for flavor, but this is totally not necessary (the split peas, carrots and onions together are rich in flavor), and fishing a ham bone out of the finished soup is messy. But you're welcome to add ham to the soup as it cooks, if desired.
For my family of carnivores, I sometimes provide crumbled bacon at the table. They can sprinkle it into their soup bowls, as desired.

19 March 2013

Book Review: FACESPACE by Adrian Chamberlain

FACESPACE by Adrian Chamberlain is a quick, easy-to-read middle grade novel for kids who are just getting involved in the world of social media.

Danny McBride feels like all of his FaceSpace friends are having more fun than he is. He’s tired of staying home to play Parcheesi with his mom on Saturday nights, instead of going to the fun parties that all of his friends go to. So Danny comes up with a plan to improve his popularity. He creates a FaceSpace profile for a fictional British rocker named James and friends him online. At first, his plan seems to be working. Suddenly, people at school are noticing who he is, sitting him with lunch, and inviting him to parties. Even Megan, the cute girl from his math class, is finally noticing him.

The only problem is that everyone wants to meet James, and James only exists in Danny's imagination.

Danny knows he has to stop it before things really get out of hand, but he doesn’t know how to get rid of James without sacrificing his new-found popularity. With this cautionary tale, as Danny runs the risk of losing even the friends he started with, Chamberlain illustrates the dangers of deception and the difficulties that arise from not being true to oneself. Although the plot is predictable, Danny is a loveable character with fears and worries that most middle grade readers will relate to.

This was a fun book, and I was able to read it in a couple of hours. Bonus: it opened the door for discussions with my kids about appropriate online behavior, and I didn't have to lecture.

17 March 2013

Lessons from My Brain Tumor, part 3

If you missed Part 1 or Part 2 of my brain tumor story, you might want to click the links to catch up before reading this part.

In my initial visit with the neurologist (right after they found my tumor), she explained that because of its location in the brain stem, the least risky course of treatment for my tumor was radiation. Even a biopsy could be troublesome, since there isn’t much wiggle room in the brain stem, and a wrong move with that biopsy needle could cause more problems than it was worth.

Because we’re in the military, I didn’t get to choose my treatment center, unless I wanted to pay for it all on my own (and yeah, there’s no way you can pay for something like this without insurance)… The two available options for our area were Travis AFB and the UC Davis Cancer Center in Sacramento, California. Travis AFB would have been Tricare’s first choice for treatment (Tricare is the military insurance plan), even though it was a farther drive for us, because it was a military facility (thus, it was less expensive for the military to pay for), but Travis AFB had a full patient load, and they couldn’t fit me in. So I was referred to UC Davis. And the UC Davis Cancer Center just happens to be one of the top facilities in the country for treating brain tumors (while there, I met people who had come from all over for treatment).

You might call it luck or coincidence. I firmly believe that it was a case of the Lord looking out for me. I know that we weren’t just coincidentally in the right place at the right time for me to get the best treatment possible. We were there by Divine design. Heck, when we got the orders to take us to Beale AFB, everyone in my husband’s chain of command was certain that the orders were a mistake. “You’re a Korean linguist, and they don’t have a mission at Beale for Korean linguists. You’re not supposed to be going there!” And from a military standpoint, they were 100% right. There was no reason for my husband to be at Beale AFB as a Korean linguist. But it was the best place in the world for us to be stationed when my tumor was discovered.

And so I began radiation treatments at the UC Davis Cancer Center.

The first step in the treatment was to create a mask, custom molded to my head, which would hold my head in the exact same position every single day, so they could guarantee that they were shooting the pinpoint radiation into the same place every time.
The mask was in two pieces, molded to fit my head completely.

Front part of the mask - the mesh on the nose piece broke in our recent move.
Imagine it with the mesh filling in that hole too.

I had to lie perfectly still, while they pressed a warm, pliable, plastic mesh around my head. And I had to stay perfectly still while the plastic hardened into place. Because the mask had to be perfect. To ensure that the treatments would be targeted properly, they couldn’t allow for even a millimeter of wiggle room.

Did I mention that I’m claustrophobic?

I got through the agonizing process with my husband and my mother by my sides, each holding one of my hands and talking me through what seemed like hours (but was probably closer to five minutes) while I waited for the plastic to harden and fought the rising panic attack.

But that was the easy part.

When I started my radiation treatments the next Monday, no one could be in the room with me (because of the high levels of radiation being shot through the room). The radiation technicians would take me into the room, where they would fit the mask to my face and bolt it to the table. Then, they would go into the next room, where they could watch me through a window and talk to me over the speakers while the machine rotated around my head, shooting pinpoints of radiation into the marked coordinates for fifteen minutes.
Going into the radiation treatment room. Notice the big, thick, heavy door that kept radiation from leaking out?

About every third day, by the time the technicians had the mask bolted to the table, I was in a full-blown panic attack, and they had to rush back in to take the mask off, so I could sit up and breathe and calm myself down before we could proceed. And not once did they complain or grumble or look down on me for being a big baby. The doctors, technicians and nurses at the UC Davis Cancer Center were the most amazing group of medical professionals I’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with. I felt like we were a team, working together for a common goal.
Me with the doctor and one of the lab techs (and the machine) on my last day of radiation treatments!
Somewhere, I have a picture of me bolted to the table with the mask, but I couldn't find it today.

And as scary as the treatments were, I knew that it was a necessary part of my path to recovery. My mom and husband couldn’t stand by my sides to hold my hands through the radiation treatments, like they did during the creation of the mask, but I never felt like I was alone.

Because I wasn’t.

My grandfather, who died when I was in high school, stood by my side every single day as I was trapped on that table. I could feel his presence, and I could see him standing there, close enough that I could reach out and take his hand if I got too scared. But just knowing that he was there for me made it all okay. And every time I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore, every time that I started to panic in the middle of the treatment, Grandpa would take a step closer and tell me that everything was all right. And it was.

That’s the fourth lesson I learned from this brain tumor: I’m never alone! The Lord loves me enough to put me in the right place at the right time to fight the scariest ordeal I’ll ever undergo. And I have family and friends, both on Earth and in Heaven, who will always be there to love and support me when I don’t have enough strength to get through on my own. Life is not a solitary journey. It was never meant to be. And we’re stronger together than we could ever hope to be alone.

Read part four of my Brain Tumor Story


Catch up on the story by reading Part One and Part Two.

14 March 2013

Crock Pot Gourmet: Stuffed Bell Peppers

When I want to impress people with my gourmet cooking abilities, I pull out something like
Stuffed Bell Peppers
This is a dish that looks super-fancy, but it's actually really quick and easy to pull together.
My favorite kind of recipe!

For a printable version of this recipe, click here.

You will need:
6 large bell peppers (green peppers are usually cheapest, but red, yellow and orange are delicious too)
2 lb. ground beef (or ground turkey or chicken, if you prefer)
1 large onion
1 lb. shredded carrots
2 Tbsp. minced garlic
2 Tbsp. Italian seasoning
1 c. rolled oats (if you need the recipe to be gluten-free, make sure you have gluten-free oats!)
1 egg
grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Place ground meat into your mixer bowl.

 Add chopped onion, minced garlic, shredded carrots and Italian seasoning.
Mix on low speed until thoroughly combined.

Slice tops off peppers and remove seeds.

You can set the pepper tops aside to use as lids for a prettier presentation,

 or you can chop up the pepper tops and mix the diced pepper into the ground meat mixture.

Add oats and egg, and mix on low speed to combine.

Divide mixture evenly between peppers, packing the meat mixture tightly into the hollow pepper shells. Carefully place the peppers into an ungreased 7-quart Crock Pot. (I had a little bit of the mixture left over, so I formed it into a large meatball to cook alongside the peppers.) - I often sprinkle the stuffed peppers with a bit of Parmesan cheese at this point, but that's completely optional.

Cook on low for 5-6 hours, until meat thermometer reads 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Serve with your favorite side dish. Pictured here: Stuffed Peppers and Green Bean Casserole.

*Note: For the sake of being pretty, I've pictured a full pepper on the plate, but half of a stuffed pepper is usually plenty for one serving.

13 March 2013

Why a Writing Contest Failure was the Best Thing Ever

original artwork by S.P. McConnell

This Friday, the submission window opens for Pitch Madness, an amazing contest on Brenda Drake's blog, where writers get the chance to showcase their best pitches, and agents compete to win the chance to request pages from the manuscripts pitched.

Those of you who have been following my blog for a while will remember that I entered Pitch Madness last March as well... and I didn't get in. I made it into the slush round, but wasn't picked to be one of the actual showcased authors for the agent round. And I was kind of devastated, because I had put so much hope behind this opportunity. Several of the agents participating were on my dream list, and I just KNEW that if they saw my pitch, they would fight to the death for a chance to read my manuscript.

But I didn't even get a chance to play the game! (Sob!)

A day or two after the selections for Pitch Madness were posted, I saw another frustrated author post on twitter: "The worst part about not making it in is that I don't even know why." I responded to her tweet, completely agreeing with the frustration and wishing that I could also know why I wasn't selected. But I understood that, with the number of entries received in a contest like this, it was totally unrealistic to expect feedback from the judges on the entries that didn't make it. And I pulled out my virtual pom-poms to cheer for those who did make it into the contest, so I wouldn't fall into the trap of heartbreak and bitterness.

Imagine my surprise when contest coordinator extraordinaire, Brenda Drake, sent me a private message (she had seen my tweet) to let me know that my entry had been very close. Half of the judges loved it, the other half did not... so it didn't make it past the slush. She explained the problems that the judges had seen in my submission and offered me a few tips for the revisions. Then, she encouraged me to enter the Writer's Voice contest that she had coming up in May.

I revised, got feedback, revised again, reworked my pitch multiple times and got my entry all beautiful and shiny.

And I chatted with Brenda and the other judges for the upcoming contest on Twitter almost daily.

My manuscript was better than it had ever been. My pitch was nearly-perfect. And several of the judges expressed interest in my story even before the submission windows opened, playfully teasing each other back and forth on twitter over who would get to pick me for her team.

It was a sure thing.

 When the Writer's Voice competition rolled around, I proudly posted my entry on my blog and waited for the fighting over me to commence.


Sure, I got  lots of comments and encouragement from my friends, the other contestants, and a few people who wandered across my blog... but nothing from the judges.

And of course, I cried. I sobbed. I bawled. I threw a couple of mini tantrums (in the privacy of my own bedroom, of course). These judges were my FRIENDS!! They had ENCOURAGED me! They said I was a good writer!! So why wouldn't they pick me?? Maybe they weren't really my friends at all. Maybe they were just big old meanies who had only built up my hopes in order to crush me and laugh at me in public. That was the only possible explanation, right??

As I wallowed in a pool of self-pity and woe-is-me-isms, Brenda sent me another private message. "I really wish I could have picked you. I think you have talent, but your manuscript still isn't ready. You didn't really do anything about those issues I mentioned the last time, and they're still holding you back."

She offered to work with me, once the contest was over, and so I sent her my manuscript, which she promptly ripped to shreds. And I cried again. (Are you noticing a pattern here??) I turned off my computer and told my family that I was done being a writer. Obviously, I didn't know what I was doing, and I could revise this thing forever, and it would never be good enough, and I should just give up on that silly, old writing dream.

Then, I fired up the computer again and took another look. And of course she was 100% right.

So I revised and edited and sent the manuscript to critique partners for feedback... and revised and edited and got feedback from new critique partners... and revised and edited and revised and edited... and many drafts later, I entered a few more contests.

This time around, I made it to the agent round of a couple of contests, and I even got a few requests.

If my friends had "played favorites" with me and allowed my not-quite-ready-yet manuscript to slide through into the agent rounds of the contests, the agents would have been tired of seeing my pitch by the time I was actually ready. Which would have hurt my chances in the long run, and not helped at all.

And so, a year later, I am so grateful for these contest judges (still friends of mine) who had the courage to face hundreds of hopeful authors, like me, and boldly say: You may not be ready yet, but keep trying. You'll get there.

And I'm trying my luck with Pitch Madness again this year. I have a brand-new, never-been-pitched-before, polished and shiny manuscript. And this is truly the best novel I've ever written. It might even be "The One." But if it's not, I'll learn from this failure too... and my next novel will be even better. (I'm already in love with the new story. It might be "The One!")

Update: It turns out that the polished and shiny manuscript I was working on was indeed "The One!" My debut novel, TWELVE STEPS, will be published by Swoon Romance in March 2014!

12 March 2013

Book Review: ZOLOCOLOR by Byron Glaser and Sandra Higashi

I've always said that I write because I have a creative mind, but not a single creative bone in my hands. I can't even draw stick figures! But ZOLOCOLOR by Byron Glaser and Sandra Higashi is a perfect release-your-inner-child-artist escape for even the most artistically challenged. But the beauty of this book is that it's equally appealing to me, with my non-artistic hands, and my talented artist husband, Phil, who can create whole worlds in an afternoon.

This is a coloring book for all ages and skill levels, and it can make everyone feel like a real artist. 

You’re never too old, or too young, to appreciate the joy of a new box of crayons or freshly-sharpened colored pencils.  But sometimes, a traditional coloring book with its cookie-cutter pictures and conventional coloring rules just isn’t enough.  Glaser and Higashi have designed a book that is meant to encourage creative thinking and coloring outside, along and across the lines.  There are no words to this book, other than a brief paragraph which gives the reader permission to explore the space between black and white, finding patterns as they choose to follow or disregard the lines in, among and through the shapes on the pages of the book.  A series of black and white patterned pages provides endless hours of creative fun and imagination, and when you reach the end of the book, you’ll want to find a piece of paper to continue exploring the world of imagination on your own!

When I'm stuck on a writing project or need a way to unwind, I like to pull out a page from this book and let my inner creativity flow freely.

10 March 2013

Lessons Learned from my Brain Tumor, Part 2

If you missed part 1 in my brain tumor story, click here to read it and catch up.

By the time my brain tumor was discovered, I had all but given up on myself. I was convinced that I was a hopeless hypochondriac, forever doomed to a life of sub-standard living, because no matter what I tried, I couldn’t stop inventing make-believe symptoms. Which meant I would never have a chance to feel better.

So when they finally discovered the tumor and I met with a neurologist who explained the options for my next step, I was practically giddy with excitement. This diagnosis, for me, was not a death sentence. It was a much-needed reprieve! I was so thrilled to discover that I wasn’t actually a crazy woman that I wanted to share my good news with the world!

As I left the neurologist’s office, on our way out to our favorite restaurant for a family celebratory dinner, I called my parents. “Good news, Mom!” I gushed, as soon as she answered the phone. “I have a brain tumor!!”

The line went silent.

And suddenly, I realized that without the proper context (the years of questioning my sanity, the frustration over feeling sick all the time for no apparent reason, the new promise that my condition might respond to treatment), the idea of a brain tumor wasn’t necessarily joyful news.

And to make matters worse, Mom had answered the phone by putting me on speakerphone – because they were having a big, family dinner with all of my brothers and sisters that still lived in my home town. In one fell swoop, I’d managed to freak out almost my entire family!


I quickly backtracked and explained that this really was a good thing, because it meant there were options for treatment. I didn’t have to be sick all the time for no reason anymore. And by the time we hung up, my parents, siblings, nieces and nephews all told me that they understood. And they offered semi-heartfelt congratulations on my diagnosis.

Of course, they didn’t understand. Not really. Even my husband and children couldn’t truly understand the immense relief and gratitude I felt. Because they hadn’t lived inside my head with all of the doubts and fears. They didn’t know that even the scariest something was far easier to deal with than the nothing I’d lived with for so long.

Unfortunately, I was so caught up in my relief and joy that I didn’t really understand how scary this diagnosis was to everyone else. I simply expected them to be as happy about it as I was.

As word spread about my brain tumor, people started treating me differently. I had always been the person that people would come to for help, the one everyone looked to for strength, to lift them up when they stumbled. And I was comfortable in that role.

Suddenly, my friends and family were tiptoeing around me, walking on eggshells, acting like I was a fragile, porcelain doll who might break if someone breathed on me the wrong way. I was no longer “Veronica.” I was “the girl with the brain tumor.”

My brother (a junior in high school at the time) volunteered to come live with us for a year, to help out while I went through radiation treatments. Friends and acquaintances from church volunteered to babysit my children each morning as I travelled from Beale AFB to the UC Davis Cancer Center in Sacramento, CA (about an hour drive) for my treatments and various follow-up appointments. My husband’s commanding officer coordinated the squadron to bring us dinners from time to time, so I wouldn’t have to cook.

And I appreciated all of the help, even though I sometimes chafed at my brother’s attempts to care for me (I didn’t need permission to stay up past my “bedtime,” if I wasn’t sleepy!), and sometimes dropping my children off at the home of the friend who had volunteered to babysit took us a half-hour or more out of our way. I knew they all meant well. They were doing what they could to help, when they felt completely helpless. And I had to allow them to do so.

Still, it was probably the most frustrating period of my life. Even more than dealing with an unidentified, mysterious illness. I didn’t want to be “the girl with the brain tumor.” I wanted to be “Veronica” again, and I was tired of the way everyone stared at me with pitying looks. I didn’t want to be the charity case.

When, a few months after my diagnosis, my whole extended family gathered at my grandmother’s house in southern California for Christmas, my frustration over this new challenge came crashing down.

One afternoon, we decided to go for a walk on the beach. We were strolling along, enjoying the sand and the crashing waves, and in this, my favorite setting, I was finally feeling a little bit like my old self again. Until my mom glanced over at me to say something and stopped dead in her tracks, a look of horror on her face. “Who let Veronica carry the baby?” she demanded. “She might drop her!” (For the record, I had let myself carry the baby, since the baby in question was my own little girl, and I had been carrying her around just fine for six months without ever dropping her.) I expected the rest of my family to tell Mom she was overreacting, but instead, they reflected the same terror. No one had thought about it before, but as soon as Mom pointed out the danger, it was abundantly obvious to everyone that I couldn’t be trusted with such precious cargo.

I handed over my baby girl and not-so-graciously accepted the help of my brothers, who suddenly realized that I shouldn’t be walking on a foundation as slippery as sand without someone on either side of me to hold me up.

I came home from this vacation in tears. For the first time, I began to realize that this brain tumor diagnosis, which hadn’t changed much in my own life, except for the better, was a terrifying death sentence waiting to happen, as far as everyone else was concerned. I didn’t want to be “the girl with the brain tumor” anymore! I wanted to be myself!

That’s when I met Anikai.

She had been visiting family for an extended period, so she wasn’t around when we moved to Beale. And she wasn’t there to hear about my brain tumor diagnosis. So she didn’t know she was supposed to tiptoe around me. She sat next to me in church one day, and we started talking easily. I quickly realized that she didn’t know about my tumor, and I was grateful for a new friend who could see me as just plain Veronica.

Then, a mutual friend sat beside us and asked, “Oh, Anikai, have you met Veronica? She’s the one with the brain tumor.”

And Anikai responded in the best way possible: “Oh! You have a brain tumor? My mom died from a brain tumor!”

The room went silent. Everyone was afraid to even breathe, waiting for me to break down in tears. Because, obviously, you don’t mention the D-word around someone with a brain tumor! And poor Anikai looked like she wanted the floor to open up and swallow her. She had only wanted to let me know she understood a little bit of what I was going through, and now she was afraid I thought she was telling me I was going to die.

I laughed.

Finally, I had a friend who understood that the brain tumor was something that I have and not something that I am. To this day, I consider Anikai to be one of my closest friends*.

Second lesson learned from my brain tumor: Most people are well-intentioned, even if they don’t always know the best way to support you. I didn’t really need babysitters for my children during my radiation treatments. The cancer center had a large waiting room full of toys and books to keep them busy during my fifteen-minute appointment each day, and the doctors, nurses, and technicians were used to family members coming along. But I forged some lasting friendships with the people I allowed to help me. Sometimes, it’s better to smile and graciously accept the offered service, even if it’s not actually as helpful as they want it to be.

Third lesson learned from my brain tumor: An illness doesn’t define a person. And life doesn’t stop at diagnosis. If you have questions about what someone is going through, it’s okay to ask, as long as you do so with respect. Sometimes, “My mom died from a brain tumor!” is more helpful than “Oh, you poor thing.” (Honest reactions are appreciated, even when they aren’t necessarily the most diplomatic responses.)

*Side note: A few years after that first conversation sealed our friendship, Anikai and I were in a book club together. One evening, the book we were reading led to a discussion of dealing with a parent’s death. Anikai grinned at me and said, “My mom died from a brain tumor.” And then we both started giggling uncontrollably. The other ladies in the book club didn’t know what to make of these two insane people who thought death-by-brain-tumor was so freaking hilarious!

Read Part 3 of my Brain Tumor Story


Go Back to Part 1