22 April 2013

...And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

For months, I've been wanting to get to know my neighbors better. We've been on friendly terms since we moved in back at the end of August. We smile and nod and say hi when we pass each other on the shared driveway, and we've had a few short conversations on those rare occasions when we're both outside at the same time... But even though it's not entirely obvious to the general public (I try very hard to hide it), I'm kind of terrified of people. I can't even call my closest friends on the phone (or even my own parents!!) without first doing some serious deep breathing to calm the pulse-racing, palms-sweating, near-panic attack that always hits when I think about talking to someone who didn't seek me out. So even though I was pretty sure we'd get along well, I could never bring myself to strike up a real conversation.

But this morning, I sat in church and listened to the speaker talk about how important it is to forge connections with those around us. He challenged us to set aside our fears and invite our friends and neighbors to do things with us more often. And I remembered that my husband had signed us up to host a few families from our congregation for a dessert potluck this evening. I thought, maybe this would be a good chance to invite the neighbors over. But then that familiar fear started and I nearly talked myself out of it. Because what if they didn't want to spend time with me? What if they think I'm weird? What if months of slightly anti-social behavior made them think I was too prickly to be friends with?

But then my youngest daughter cuddled up into me, and I realized I had the perfect excuse to start a conversation with the neighbors!

In the past few weeks, the little neighbor girl has decided that she really enjoys playing outside with my two youngest daughters. She's been coming over almost every day to ask if "the big kids" can come out and play after school. I could totally use my daughters as an excuse to invite the whole family over! "The girls wanted to spend time with their friend" is a lot less scary than admitting "I was hoping you would like to be my friend."

Ironically, all 4 of the other families invited for the potluck cancelled at the last minute, so in the end, it was just us and our neighbors. And we had a lovely conversation that wasn't even the tiniest bit awkward or uncomfortable. I even forgot to be nervous! I wish I'd found the courage to get to know the neighbors sooner, but I'm so glad I followed this little girl's example and the wise counsel of my church leaders and took a chance to invite them over.

Isn't it amazing how easily children can make friends? They rarely spend hours, days, weeks or months agonizing over whether or not someone might accept their invitations to play. They see someone that looks interesting and take a chance. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the rest of us could follow that example more often?

19 April 2013

Super-Secret Recipe Testers Needed!

It's Thursday again, which usually means a new and delicious recipe from the kitchen of yours truly...

But I'm running a little behind these days.

The amazing new "miracle drug" that I've been taking (okay, maybe it's not technically classified as a miracle drug, but the effects have been miraculous for me, so I choose to think of it that way) has had an interesting side-effect on me. Because I'm no longer in constant pain, I've been able to sleep when I'm tired. No more super-late nights followed by way-too-early mornings for me! This is wonderful!! Except, I'm discovering that I can't do as much in 15 hours of wakefulness as I used to accomplish in 20-22 hours each day. Until I get into a new rhythm, I'll have to slow down a bit.

This is not to say that I haven't been working. I started a brand-new, shiny writing project (another YA Contemporary novel), and I'm REALLY excited about the story. I can't wait to be able to share it with you!! It's still in the early stages (just started writing the first draft late last week), so I don't want to say too much yet, but I can tell you that the main character dreams of being a famous chef. Which means LOTS of fun experiments in the Bartles kitchen, as I imagine the recipes that my main character would whip up for the various scenes of this new novel. (Yay!!) Unfortunately, because the recipes are intended to become a part of this shiny, new manuscript, I can't post them online for you (Sorry!), and I don't have enough hours in my day to come up with new recipes for the blog AND new recipes for the book every week.

Don't worry! I'll still be posting recipes full of yummy goodness. Just not quite as often. For the next few months, I'll be posting recipes on the first and third Thursdays of each month (and book reviews on the second and fourth Tuesdays). I'm hoping to be back on a more regular schedule by the end of the summer, so the plan right now is to re-evaluate in September, at which time I may return to my posting-three-times-a-week schedule.

In the meantime, I realized that my recipe index is starting to get out-of-date. So I'll be spending the next week or so updating the recipe posts with printable versions of the recipes and reorganizing my recipe index page to make it easier for you to find the recipes you're searching for. (I'm in the process of creating printable recipe pages for each of the recipes I've posted so far, and I hope to have all of those up by Monday. Please be patient with me!)

And I will need a few volunteers to test out the super-secret recipes I'm developing for my manuscript in the Bartles test kitchen, so if you're interested in helping me out, leave me a comment and let me know! Please include the following information in your comment:
  * Your cooking skill level (I'll likely need some more experienced chefs as well as a few novices)
  * What kind of recipes you're most interested in testing (desserts? entrees? side dishes? snacks?)
  * Any special dietary needs that would limit the recipes you could test (allergies?  vegan? vegetarian? gluten-free?)
  * Make sure I know how to contact you! (I probably won't be able to send every recipe to every person who offers to help, but I can't send you any recipes at all if I don't have a way to contact you privately. If you don't want to post your email address on the comments, feel free to send me an email via my handy "contact me" form on my About Me page.)

16 April 2013

Book Review: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green

I really hated this book!

Don't get me wrong. It's very well-written. But that's the problem. It was TOO well-written.

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS expressed, much too clearly, my own fears and issues, as I deal with my brain tumor on a daily basis. I knew this was going to be a hard book for me to read. I actually try to avoid cancer-themed books as much as possible, though most of the cancer books I've read contain a cast of characters making such melodramatic choices in order to "beat" cancer or to "live their final days to the fullest" that I can roll my eyes and remind myself that it's not really like that. I suspected that wouldn't be the case with THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, and I didn't really want to read it. But so many people recommended it to me that I finally decided to give it a try. (I recently started new medication, and I'm relatively pain-free for the first time in years, so it's easier to pretend that my brain tumor doesn't really exist this week.)

I chose to listen to the audio book instead of reading the paper version, because I knew I wouldn't be able to listen to my own voice as the narrator. And I'm so glad that I did it this way! Because even with the irreverent, snarky narrator, who sounds nothing like my inner voice, I had a hard time getting through this book. I had to stop repeatedly and turn to a very dry, kind of boring, non-fiction book, just to give my mind a rest from the intense feelings this novel brought up.

Like Augustus Waters, one of my biggest fears is oblivion. What if I die before I have a chance to make a grand, positive impact on the world? What if I never get to be the important author who touches the lives of millions, or even dozens, of people?

And like Hazel Grace, my other fear is that I could be a grenade. I want to live a life that touches those around me and leaves joy and laughter behind. But what if I let people rely on me too deeply and my passing only brings sorrow and tears? What if...

I don't like to ponder these what ifs too deeply.

And I kind of hate John Green right now for making me face the questions I'd rather avoid.

Because, when my daughter hears someone talking about death or dying, and she dissolves into tears because she's certain that Mommy might be next, I'd rather make a batch of chocolate chip cookies and cuddle on the couch with a silly movie and the promise that, even if I died right this minute, we will still be forever connected as an eternal family than admit that I sometimes lie awake at night with the same fear.

For anyone who wants to step into the mind of a person dealing with a terminal illness, for those who want to know what it feels like, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is the perfect book to read. Because John Green masterfully illustrates the ups and downs, the fears and the hopes. It's really an amazing book. And I'm glad I finally read it.

But don't ask me to read it again.

15 April 2013

Counting My Blessings

It's been a while since I wrote a simple "I am so grateful" blog post, but I feel like I need to take a moment this week to count the many blessings that Heavenly Father has given to me.

1. I am so grateful for this new medicine - the "miracle cure" that has targeted exactly the right systems to give me many pain-free moments for the first time in years.

2. I am so grateful for amazing friends who are there for me whenever I need a listening ear, and who support and encourage me in my wild, random flights of fancy.

Most notably, this week, I am extremely grateful for Brenda, who called me to ask for help with a scene she was stuck on, and then let me tag along on her shopping trip where I proceeded to yammer on about the difficulties I was having in pinpointing the voice of my new main character... And she was as excited as I was when I finally managed to nail down that elusive voice and figure out exactly who this character is! (Thank you, Brenda!!)

I'm grateful for Ashley, who provided a listening ear and overwhelming enthusiasm for my new project when I emailed her with the details on my newly-fleshed-out characters, and who is helping me through the torture of writing a synopsis for my established manuscript. (Thanks, Ash!)

I'm grateful for Susie, who knows me better than most people, and who sent me a package this week with the best "I'm thinking of you" presents ever: A new pencil for my story pencils collection and a sign to go on the wall in my writing corner. (Thanks, Susie!!!)

And I am grateful for Summer, who encouraged me to push past my fears and gain the courage needed to share my recipe experiments with the world. Which means that I now know exactly how to write this new main character, who is a closet gourmet who desperately wants to be noticed for her fabulous recipes, and dreams of a day when she has the courage to share with someone other than her best friend. (Thanks, Summer!! - And thank you to Jessica Sinsheimer, who was also a part of that initial twitter conversation that got me started in the recipe-sharing game, and to all of you who have responded so well to my recipe blog posts, keeping me going.)

3. I am so grateful for my AMAZING husband, Phil, who totally and fully supports me in my writing. I'm so blessed to have a man who doesn't complain if he comes home to a sink full of dirty dishes and a disorganized house, who will head straight for the kitchen to figure out something for dinner, so I don't have to stop writing. A man who agrees that a trip across the country for a writer's conference is a necessity, not a luxury. A man who spent his entire Saturday morning going to three different stores with me to track down copies of the movies I needed to re-watch so that the film-obsessed best friend of my new main character could refer to a scene here and a line there in random conversations throughout my manuscript. (Thanks, Phil! You're the best!!)

4. I am so grateful for all of you! Your support and encouragement keeps me going when I feel like I'm just spinning my wheels. <3 p="" thank="" you="">


09 April 2013

Book Review: DEAD GIRL MOON by Charlie Price

I don't read a lot of mysteries or thrillers anymore, but when I received DEAD GIRL MOON by Charlie Price, I was intrigued. The premise had promise, and Charlie Price is an Edgar Award-winning author, so I was sure I wouldn't be disappointed.

Grace ran away from home to escape her abusive older brothers, and she figured that any life was better than the one she was leaving behind. Mick decided that he was tired of running from the law with his petty thief of a father, and he’s determined to put down some roots and make a new life for himself. JJ feels trapped in a tiny town where she’s all but invisible. When their lives intersect in the small town of Portage, Montana, their unlikely friendship might be precisely what each of them needs. But when they accidentally discover a dead body, they’re afraid to come forward with what they’ve found, because they suspect the murderer might be one of the powerful men who run their sleepy little town. As they make one mistake after another, bumbling through their attempts to stay out of the spotlight, Grace, Mick and JJ find themselves hopelessly ensnarled in the middle of a murder investigation, where they might be the most likely suspects.

Price’s tale of three unlikely allies, hunting for a murderer in a small town where everyone is hiding something, holds the promise of an intense thrill ride. Unfortunately, however, the novel doesn’t live up to its full potential. The narrative skips between multiple points of view, never stopping long enough with any one character to truly scratch the surface characterization, and readers are unable to fully step into the promised intrigue, leaving the story somewhat limp and lifeless.

For someone who reads for the action and plot more than character development, this might be a fine novel, but for me, I was disappointed that I couldn't find even one character in the story to care about.

08 April 2013

Lessons Learned from My Brain Tumor: Update!

I know I said that last week’s installment was the end of my brain tumor story (If you missed reading the story, you can catch up now! The full story is broken into several parts: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5), but I met with my new neurosurgeon this week, and I felt I had to give a quick update…

For about a week prior to my appointment, I practiced my approach. I imagined the scornful way I would probably be treated, and I rehearsed the way I would explain my symptoms without resorting to tears. I told myself that, if I could get through this appointment, I would be able to avoid any further follow-ups for the next few years… or however long it would be until I had to go through the military medical clearance process for our next move. And, I decided, if this doctor insisted that I was imagining things, I would demand that he put it in writing, so I could make the military clear my medical restrictions file. If I was only “imagining” my tumor, after all, I shouldn’t be required to keep going in for follow-ups for it, right? And it shouldn’t prevent us from any overseas assignments, either. (I’d love to be stationed in Hawaii or Europe… but they won’t allow us to have an overseas assignment, as long as I still have a brain tumor.)

So on Thursday afternoon, I went in to see Dr. Yonas, the head of the neurosurgery department at UNM. As I sat in the waiting room, I pulled out the manuscript I’m reading for one of my critique partners and forced myself to relax. There was no point in getting all worked up over this. One way or another, this was going to be the end of it. And so I didn’t care what he said to me. I’d already decided I was done. And so I told myself that the butterflies working themselves up into a frenzy in my stomach were irrelevant.

But I was totally lying to myself, and I knew it.

The nurse brought me back to the examination room and took my vital statistics (no surprise, my blood pressure was a little high), and then she left me to wait for the doctor…

After an eternity, a doctor came in to speak with me. It wasn’t Dr. Yonas, but a resident whose name I didn’t quite catch. And he looked almost as nervous as I was.

Great, they didn’t want to deal with me at all, so they’re pawning me off on some incompetent newbie, who probably hasn’t even looked at my file and won’t listen to a word I say.

I took a deep breath and put away my e-reader.

“I have been going through your file,” he said, “but it’s so thick that I’m having trouble pulling out all of the relevant information. I thought you’d probably do a better job of summarizing it all for me. Would you mind telling me about your tumor? When and how did they discover it?”

When I nodded, he lost his nervous look and pulled out a piece of paper and a pen and sat down to listen to my story. A few times, as I told him the same story I’ve been telling you, he stopped me to ask for clarification and further detail on one point or another, prodding me for dates to fill in the timeline and specific symptoms I experienced. He didn’t contradict me or roll his eyes. He just listened, and asked questions, and took notes. Then, he ran me through the normal neurologist physical exam stuff… testing my reflexes, checking my balance, having me follow his finger with my eyes, watching me walk across the room and back, poking and pinching my arms and legs to see if I could feel it equally on both sides. (I couldn’t feel the pressure equally, by the way. – I hadn’t realized how much my left hand and right leg were still numb until this appointment. I guess I’ve gotten so used to dealing with the loss-of-sensation that I didn’t even know how much I’d adapted.)

After I finished telling my story, and he finished the physical exam, the doctor took his (now completely full) piece of paper and left the room. (He explained that they needed to finish looking over the images from my MRI scans, to get a clear picture of what we were dealing with, and he would be back soon.)

I spent the next several minutes trying to concentrate on the manuscript I was reading instead of worrying about what he might be saying about me.

A million years (or at least 10 minutes) later, this doctor and an older man, who introduced himself as Dr. Yonas, came back into the room. Dr. Yonas asked me a few more questions to clarify the tumor timeline and the symptoms I’ve experienced, while the resident stood awkwardly across the room. (This is when I realized that the resident’s nervousness had nothing to do with me. He seemed almost in awe of Dr. Yonas.)

When he was finished quizzing me, Dr. Yonas sat back and shook his head. “When they did the surgery, they didn’t completely remove the tumor, did they?”

“No,” I explained. “But they got 60% of it.”

“So they left almost half of it. And then, afterward, you had radiation treatments?”

“No. The radiation treatments were before the surgery. 6 weeks, 5 days a week. They said that was the maximum amount.”

He explained that the latest MRI scan looked virtually the same as my scan from 2008, back before I left California. And I braced myself. I held my breath and bit my lip, determined not to cry when he told me that I was imagining my symptoms, as I was certain he was getting ready to do.

“Your symptoms,” he said, “are exactly what we’d expect from a tumor like yours. Straight out of the textbook. And I’m so impressed with the way you’ve adapted to be able to handle them. You’re amazing.”

He continued to explain that, because I was handling everything so well, there was no need to pursue additional, serious treatment measures. “I’d suggest a new MRI every 2 years or so, but I’m your neurologist on-call, if you need anything in the meantime. So what can I do for you today?”

I took a deep breath, trying to swallow my disappointment. I was being dismissed once again. I shrugged.

“No,” Dr. Yonas said. “I mean, what can I do to help you? What symptoms are you having that you haven’t been able to adapt to? What can I do for you today?”

I told him that the biggest issue was the constant pain I had from the intense muscle spasms I experienced, and he smiled. “Why don’t we try Baclofen? It’s used to treat muscle spasms, like you’ve described, in patients who have experienced spinal cord injuries.” He shrugged. “Which is basically what you have, since your tumor is in the brain stem. Would you be willing to try it for a month? Keep a detailed record of how you’re feeling, and come back to see me in four weeks?” He gave me his card. “If you have any problems in the meantime, just give me a call and you can come right back in.”

Then, he shook my hand and asked the resident doctor to write the prescription for me, and left the room. (As I left the hospital, I glanced at the card he gave me and noticed that Dr. Yonas was listed as head of the neurosurgery department. I guess that explains why the resident appeared to be in awe of him, and why the nurse sounded so impressed when she realized I was being seen by Dr. Yonas.)

I filled the prescription on my way home and took the first dose Thursday afternoon. And since starting this new medicine, I’ve had only 3 minor muscle spasms. For the first time in years, I’m not in constant pain!

And so lesson number seven is almost the same as lesson number one: Don’t give up! You may go through days, weeks, months, or even years where no one believes you, and you feel like you have to fight your way through at every turn, but eventually, things can and will get better, if you just keep going. And in the meantime, latch onto the friends and family who are there for you. Remember that you’re never alone. You always have someone on your side, and eventually, you’ll make it through.


And the “bonus lesson” learned? My story isn’t over. Right now, I’m living “happily ever after,” but I realize that there will be more trials ahead. There always are. And when I find those bumps on the road, I can move forward with confidence, secure in the knowledge that, even though there will always be more trials to come, no troubles will last forever. And I’m pretty amazing. I’ll adapt. I have my family, friends and the Lord on my side, and whatever comes, I’m strong enough to get through it.

04 April 2013

Crock Pot Gourmet: Lentil Chili

Sometimes, I want a nice, warm bowl of chili, but I don't want something from a can and I didn't plan ahead to soak a pot of beans the night before. This is why I always keep a few pounds of lentils in my pantry. All the goodness and yummy flavor of beans, but no presoaking required. This recipe for vegan Lentil Chili is one of our family favorite crock pot meals.
You will need:
2 lb. dry lentils
2 Tbsp. minced garlic
1 Tbsp. ground cinnamon
2 Tbsp. baking cocoa
1 Tbsp. Italian seasoning
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. chili powder
dash cayenne pepper (or more, to taste)
Wash the lentils, sorting carefully to make sure there are no small rocks in the mix.

Place lentils in the bottom of a 7-quart crock pot.
(For a 5-quart crock, you can cut the ingredients in half.)

Add spices and seasonings.

Fill crock with water, leaving about 2 inches of head space at the top, to prevent boil-overs.

Cook on low for 6-7 hours, until lentils are softened and plump.
Add one can of diced tomatoes. (You don't want to add the tomatoes, or anything acidic, until the lentils are soft, because the acid will prevent them from softening.)

Cook on low for another hour or two.

Serve alone, or over a bed of your favorite corn chips.
(My kids like to cover their chili with a ton of shredded cheese, but I think there's plenty of flavor without the added fat and calories of cheese.)

02 April 2013

Book Review: Z IS FOR MOOSE

Z IS FOR MOOSE by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, is the best alphabet book ever written! (Yes, there was a sale on exclamation points this week, and I plan to use them all in this review!!!)

Poor Moose just wants to be noticed, but it's hard to wait for the M when the alphabet starts clear back at the letter A! When M finally comes up, and they've decided to go with Mouse this time, you can imagine how poor Moose feels!

An alphabet for anyone with a funny bone, and especially for those of us who sometimes feel a little left out. The text is fun and quirky, and the illustrations are hilarious, with fun, little surprises on every page. You'll never want to go back to plain, boring alphabet books!