Author Archives: antijen

Spock Therapy

Vulcan Lane Sign

Image credit: Wonderferret via Flickr, CC by 2.0

I’ve fought hard against depression and anxiety for decades. I’ve read so many self-help books and tried all the positive thinking in the world. I’ve yanked on my bootstraps and I’ve Stuart Smalley’d myself in the mirror. I’ve written about my depression. I’ve given therapists my life story and they’ve tried to dig into my subconscious to pinpoint what emotional upheavals in my childhood might have turned me into a nervous caffeinated Eeyore. It wasn’t until I stumbled onto cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that my life finally started to change.

Cognitive therapy is hard work. Such hard work, in fact, that I wasn’t ready to take it on until I finally found a medication that lifted my depression just enough for me to dedicate my resources to anything other than basic needs. Even then, I was reluctant to take on the challenge. CBT is a long-term commitment. It’s not just dumping a week’s worth of troubles onto a therapist’s couch and walking away with a new bounce in your step. It’s constant repetitive work, like redirecting a fork-wielding toddler away from the power outlets, over and over and over.

Any Google search on CBT will quickly get you to a long list of “cognitive distortions” that get in the way of healthy thinking. It’s worth buying a copy of David Burns’ Feeling Good – The New Mood Therapy and reading through it yourself to really understand the research behind the therapy techniques. Essentially, you train yourself to recognize and label distorted thoughts as they come by, and then use appropriate techniques to challenge or “talk back” to them. Every time you check in and find your brain veering off course, you need to stop, focus, and correct it.

It can be intimidating to a beginner. I’ve recommended the book to friends who start out very enthusiastic and then abandon it after a chapter or two because it’s difficult or confusing. And it is difficult. Especially if the only therapy you’ve ever had (if any) is the introspective, cry-on-a-couch, relive-your-childhood-until-we-get-to-the-bottom-of-things therapy.

So I’ve found an easier way to approach it. If you want to start telling your irrational thoughts what’s what, but the books seem like gibberish to you, start simply. Don’t jump all the way in and splash around. Start logically. Your exhausted, anxious, depressed brain needs a first officer who can help you keep your shit together even when you’re falling apart. Your brain needs Spock.


Let me explain.

The beauty of CBT, and the reason it connected so well with me, is that none of it is magic. No fake-it-till-you-make it, think positive, rainbows and unicorns pop-sci bullshit. It’s just logic. Pure, simple, and real. Logic. It’s Spock therapy.

At its core, CBT is simple: it’s about recognizing cognitive distortions. It’s about noticing when your thoughts need to be relieved of command. The purpose isn’t to change how you feel, at least not directly. It’s about recognizing that the thoughts you think contribute to which way your mood is likely to swing, and learning to control them instead of letting them control you. Everyone has irrational thoughts from time to time; the difference is that folks suffering from depression or anxiety have them more often, and believe them more often, and get trapped in a feedback loop of irrational thoughts causing very real feelings.

Now, CBT isn’t about never being sad: things suck sometimes and everyone deserves a good cry when it gets to be too much. And it’s not about never being angry: a kicked puppy is right to bite back. You’re allowed to have feelings! You’re human, after all. What the therapy does – what the hard work you put into the exercises does – is help you to assess whether the thoughts you are thinking make any sense, in context.

And who’s the best out there at telling an impulsive and irrational captain that he’s being ridiculous?

Kirk and Spock argue

Image credit: JD Hancock via Flickr, CC by 2.0

You know the logical answer.

Just imagine Spock (Tuvok will do, I’m not here to judge you on your Vulcan choice) on your shoulder, listening in on your thoughts. When your brain pulls out an irrational cognitive distortion, Spock is there to question you and make you reconsider. That’s his job as first officer. Don’t worry, you’re still the captain: sometimes, you’re going to decide that Spock is wrong and you’re going to accept your thoughts and feel your feelings. But before you dismiss your first officer, give him a chance to challenge you. When you start making statements about yourself or the situation you’re in, hand them off to Spock before you give them any weight. Think to yourself: What would Spock say?

Let’s take one of the most common kinds of distortions: “all-or-nothing thinking,” or applying a mental filter that accentuates the negative and discounts the positive.

“Dammit, I forgot my wallet at home again. I can’t do anything right.”

“Captain, that statement is illogical. You have, in fact, done several things right even in the past hour. You are wearing correctly-buttoned pants, and you drove yourself to this Trader Joe’s without breaking any traffic laws.”

How about “fortune-telling,” where you jump to conclusions (usually the worst ones) without any evidence. What would Spock say?

“He didn’t call back. I must have said something to offend him.”

Captain, telepathy is not a common human trait. Absent any evidence that he is in fact offended, you are basing your belief on conjecture. There are many explanations for a delayed response on his part, and your hypothesis does not carry more statistical weight than the others.

Irrational thoughts are sneaky. They can be really convincing, especially if they’ve been with you for decades or more. Talking back to them takes dedication and a lot of practice, and I honestly believe that the Feeling Good book is the best tool you can have in your pocket. Get the handbook, too, and really take the time to learn how your brain distorts things. Nobody else can do the work for you, and you can’t improve without effort. But that doesn’t mean that you have to make that effort alone.

Some people wear religious symbols – crosses, stars – or get meaningful images tattooed on their bodies to remind them they’re not alone in their journey. In my case my symbol is a reminder that I don’t always know best, because my thinking can list towards the irrational without my conscious mind realizing just how far off course we’ve gotten. If I’m not careful, I find myself fighting like mad just to stay in place as my depression and anxious thoughts pull at my mind like a tractor beam.

That’s why I depend on my first officer to help me make the right decisions about when to pay attention to what my brain is saying.

Spock and Kirk

Image credit: Sonny Abesamis via Flickr, CC by 2.0

Keep Spock with you. Let him help you.

He has been, and always shall be, your friend.



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Maybe I Use Too Many Monkeys

Monkeys. Too many monkeys. My brain is full of them. My cognitive control center is run by a monkey crew, none of whom work particularly well together or enjoy each other’s company. It’s never quiet up there. One of them is always worried about something, and they trip over each other to inform me about the VERY IMPORTANT THINGS that they think I need to deal with RIGHT NOW. They’re jerks. I really wish they’d shut up, because they’re causing some pretty serious anxiety these days and that’s a lot to deal with.


Many people who seem to have their act together (including my trusted therapist) have suggested I try meditation as a strategy to deal with my anxiety. But I just don’t see how it’s going to work. There are too many monkeys. I know the point of meditation exercises are to quiet your mind, and to just let intrusive thoughts float through and be on their way, but I have too many thoughts. Too many monkeys reminding me about all the things I have to do. Not to mention the 24-hour round-the-clock repeating video of all the things I’ve ever done wrong.


I envy people who can answer the question “what are you thinking about” with a simple, honest, “nothing.” If I’m asked the same question, the answer takes long enough that the listener should probably take notes to follow along:

This beer is good but I probably didn’t need the calories. But that caramel egg put me over a reasonable count for the day anyway. I should stop if I want to fit in any pants by next month. I need new jeans. When can I go shopping? Oh, clothes, wait. There are clothes in the washing machine, better get that in the dryer before bed. Liam needs socks tomorrow, he wore the last clean pair today. Oh, crap. Liam. I didn’t make Liam’s lunch for tomorrow, I should do that. Nuggets? He had those yesterday, I should probably change it up for him. But he won’t eat much else, this food thing is getting complicated. Maybe it’s time for the meal plan? But that’s expensive, what’s $15 a week come to, $3 a day? That’s a lot. Nuggets are cheap, fuck it. Oh, wait, I almost forgot the laundry!

**Note to my readers: I DID forget the stupid laundry after all.

Even if I could manage to succeed at meditation, I don’t understand how it can possibly fix an overactive mind. I guess it gives you a few minutes of calm, with a reduced heart rate and blood pressure and all that good stuff, but once you snap your fingers and pop back into reality, all those problems you were worried about are still there. And you’re now 30 minutes closer to death without having dealt with them. Even considering meditation makes me more anxious because it feels like a wasteful use of the precious little time I have to get shit done. I get angry just thinking about it. Seriously – just writing these sentences out and thinking about possibly trying to meditate has triggered an anger response in me.

To be honest, I can’t even say that I hate my monkeys. They’re so familiar to me now, and my brain would seem so quiet without them. I just wish I could train them to prioritize better.

Friends who meditate: how? How do you make it work? Have you evicted the monkeys? Or are yours just better-trained? What’s the point of the half hour of quiet, if it just means you’ve got to catch up with the world again afterwards? How can I approach meditation with something other than frustrated rage?

Aeropress Guide for Normal People

Aeropress coffee

Current favorite mug, full of fresh-pressed coffee goodness

I just received an Aeropress as a gift. How do I get good coffee out of it?

I want to be a coffee snob when I grow up, but I just haven’t had the time or money or patience to really start down that path yet. One of my most lovely friends knew of my dream and sent me an Aeropress to try, and I unboxed it with absolute delight. Coffee snobbery, here I come!

One tiny hiccup in my plan: my new Aeropress was secondhand, and didn’t come with instructions! I had a basic idea what to do with it, since I’ve used a French press before and the concept is similar enough, but I wanted to do it right, and get perfect coffee out of the Aeropress on my very first try. So I searched online for how-to guides. There are a ton of them. Every coffee blog out there has an illustrated step-by-step guide to the perfect Aeropressing. They’re lovely, and I’m sure they’re accurate. But I am an amateur coffee snob. I’m the kind of person who usually buys Kirkland Colombian coffee in the 3lb bucket, not handpicked singing Arabica beans delivered from the Hawaiian mountainside by emerald hummingbirds.

“Measure out 17g of coffee.”

“Add 200g of water.”

“Heat your water to 190F.” (They make programmable kettles! Did you know that? What a world!)

You guys. Please.

I just want coffee. I don’t want to drag out a kitchen scale and a thermometer. It’s 6am. My toddler will be up any second. Coffee. Now. Please.

How can a normal person get great coffee out of an Aeropress?

I’m mostly normal. Depends who you ask. Here’s how I’ve been doing it so far. I’ve got a whole week of use behind me, so I’m totally qualified to write my own how-to guide.

1. Collect all your junk in one place. Coffee, coffee scoop, cup, spoon, Aeropress parts, and Aeropress filters. Fill up a measuring cup with water (about 1.5 cups) and put it into the microwave to boil. Or get the kettle on. Whatever it takes to get boiling water.

Aeropress setup

The set-up

2. Assemble the Aeropress so the plunger is just inside the chamber making a nice tight seal. Stand it up, upside-down, and put in two flat scoops of coffee. My scoop delivers about 1.5 tablespoons when flat and about 2 tablespoons in a rounded scoop. So we’re looking at about 3 tablespoons total of fine-grind coffee.

Adding coffee to Aeropress

Add the coffee

3. Fit a paper filter into the holder, then go get your water. Carefully, and over your mug in case you spill, pour a tiny bit of water onto the filter to wet it and help it stick in place. I use a spoon to do this because I can’t be that precise with boiling water, especially before I’ve had my coffee!

Wet Aeropress filter

Wet the filter

4. Pour hot water into the chamber of the Aeropress, over your coffee grinds, until it’s about half an inch shy of the edge. Stick a spoon in there and give it a good stir. One of the coffier-than-thou how-to-Aeropress guides I found suggested that I should “stir the grounds with a bamboo paddle or butter knife.” What, I ask you, is wrong with a spoon? YOU ARE STIRRING A THING. USE A SPOON.

Stir coffee in Aeropress chamber


5. Wait 2 minutes or so. This will vary depending on personal taste and what kind of coffee you’re using, but I find that it’s better to err on the side of stronger coffee, because I can always dilute it with hot water afterwards. There’s no good way to rescue a weak cup of coffee. My current favorite fancy “treat myself” coffee is Peet’s Major Dickason’s blend, and I find that two minutes is exactly right for a full chamber and two scoops.

6. Carefully attach the filter holder to the chamber – remember, this is almost-boiling water we’re playing with – and then flip the whole thing over onto your mug. I haven’t experienced any leaking during the flip, but you can always sit your empty mug upside down over the Aeropress and flip the whole thing over that way if you’re concerned. I usually use the plastic funnel attachment to that the thing sits more securely in my mug and is less likely to tip.

Aeropress inverted with filter attached

Aeropress with filter in place

7.  Slowly press down on the plunger and squeeze coffee out into your mug. It should take about 30 seconds of steady pressure, and you’ll hear a little hiss from the filter when you’ve hit the bottom.

Pressing the Aeropress

Squeeeeeeze! (Note the plastic funnel for extra stability)

8. Sample the coffee concentrate, add hot water until it tastes right to you, and then enjoy.


You have to press pretty hard on your Aeropress to get the coffee out, so I wouldn’t recommend using a delicate family heirloom coffee mug for this. You can always use something stronger, like a small measuring cup, to press into, and then transfer the coffee to the mug afterwards. I just try to use a good tough mug, because I don’t want extra dishes.

I’m sure that if I took the extra effort to weigh out my coffee and water and to measure the exact temperature, I’d end up with better coffee. But I’m not aiming to win coffee competitions, just to get a tasty cup of coffee in the morning. Please, if you’re into precision, get out that scale and weigh your 17g of coffee. You’ll probably have better coffee than me. I can live with that.

This is the “Aeropress inverted method,” since we’re starting with the gadget upside-down. You can also do it the other way, and start with the filter in place and the Aeropress standing up over your mug. You’d add water to the chamber, wait, put the plunger in, and press, instead of screwing the filter on just before flipping the whole thing. I do the inverted method because I live for the danger. Also because my friend told me it was better, and I got tired of reading the coffee snob sites to see if she was right.

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My Third Favorite Cake

Cake with cherries

Image credit: Erich Ferdinand, CC BY 2.0

I have a friend – a good friend, mind you, not just a friend I made up for the purposes of this post – who likes to ask people what their third favorite kind of cake is.

And that makes me crazy.

First of all, being asked about cake makes me think about cake. About at least three different types of cake, all of them proud medalists in the cake Olympics of my mind. So, the BEST cakes. She always asks me this question when I am at work and nowhere near cake. It’s torture. It’s not like being presented with a golden fork and a table full of cakes and being asked which of the delicious soon-to-be-fork-stabbing-victims is your third favorite. That’s high-calorie heaven. But being subjected to a cruel thought experiment where cake only exists inside your head? Inhumane. I think there’s a footnote in some UN document about it.

Cruelty aside, I hate the question because it’s impossible for me to play favorites with cake. I can tell you what cakes I don’t like. That’s an easy question. Like fruitcake – that’s not even real cake. And vegetables aren’t dessert, so you’ll never sell me on carrot cake (although I may pout and lick off the frosting). But there’s a reason it takes me twenty minutes to choose my dessert at the Cheesecake Factory.

I love so many kinds of cake. So many. Chocolate, vanilla, marble, yellow, funfetti, almond, lemon, pumpkin spice. Coffee cakes and cheesecakes. Buttercreams and cream cheeses and whipped cream frostings. Sprinkles! Chocolate shavings! Obscenely large frosting balloons!

Taking out the cakes I don’t like doesn’t do much to simplify the problem. Infinity minus ten is still pretty much infinity. I stare into the abyss and infinite cakes stare back at me.

I love you all, my sweet children. Every layer and every crumb. I love you all. I can’t play favorites.


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Amazon Affiliate Links

Hello friends.

Hello too, enemies. Please enjoy your stay, and bless your hearts.

In an effort to cover the costs of maintaining my blog, I’ve decided to sign up for the Amazon Affiliate program. It isn’t likely to affect your experience here in the least, but anytime you click on an affiliate link and buy something on Amazon (anything at all – it doesn’t have to be the item I’ve linked to), I get a teeny tiny percentage of the sale. Your purchase price won’t change a cent.

I don’t want huge ads interfering with the flow of my thoughts (or your reading), so you’ll mostly be seeing text links. Even then, I don’t plan on overwhelming my posts with them, because I think it’s gimmicky and rude. I may use an occasional image link if it’s a picture similar to one I’d have used in the post anyway, or an object I am describing because I love it and recommend it to my friends.

I promise to be a respectful sellout and not abuse my linking powers. Please consider helping me out and buying through my site once in a while, if Amazon is a place you regularly shop. Every little bit helps.

Amazon requires me to clearly state the following on my site, so here it is in all its official legal boilerplate glory:

“Jen is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to”

Liam at 21 months

Twenty-one months.*


It’s weird to keep counting age in months, and I know moms are made fun of for doing it, but it’s such a weird place to be, in between one-and-a-half and two. Neither one of those fits, because he was someone else at 18 months and he’ll be completely different all over again by 2.

So much has changed since my last update. He took his first independent steps at Grandma and Pop’s house, carefully carrying my travel mug full of coffee from one side table to another. He didn’t realize he’d done it, but my mother-in-law and I looked at each other with huge incredulous eyes and then spent the next ten minutes handing him other things to carry around. He toddled happily from one adult to another, carrying balls and books, for an hour. Lots of cheering, a little crying, and a page turned.


Only a couple weeks later, he figured out how to stand up in the center of the room without pulling up on anything, and he was suddenly excited about walking. We walk into school together from the parking lot in the morning, and back out to the car in the afternoon. I hold his little hand and we move in literal baby steps. If I’m in a hurry and try to scoop him up, he protests, pointing to the floor and thrashing in my arms. He must walk, and stop to point out everything on the way. He bends to point out red squares in the tile floor. He points to the radio on the counter and signs for music. He yells DUCK and SHEESHEE at the seagull and fishies on the school mural, then shows me his fish face, says “mama?” and waits for me to do it back. Once we get outside, it’s CAR! Ight? Udda ight? As he points to a car’s two headlights. And if he turns and catches sight of the school’s name on the wall, he’ll waggle his music finger and say “ee-eh-geeee” to tell me there are letters there and I better start singing about it immediately.

Speaking of singing, every drive turns mama (or daddy) into a music player set on shuffle, as we try to figure out what his song of the day is. Wheels on the bus? No. ABCs? No. Sometimes he helps and gives us a hint – wiggling his fingers for the “shishy bishy” spider, or mumbling “uppabudda (world so high)” for Twinkle Twinkle. But mostly it’s trial and error with a music critic in the back seat yodeling nooOOOoooOOO after the first three notes of every wrong song, and giggling and clapping when we get it right. Then it’s “ah-hehn” because we need to do it again. And again. And again.

We have a similar issue with books, and it’s frustrating to have so many wonderful and beautiful books around that he just yells at and slams shut after the first page. He still loves reading. He races to the book bin to grab a favorite before backing into us to sit in our laps and read. But we’re down to about a dozen that he’ll actually tolerate all the way through. I thought I had the solution when I went to a consignment sale and bought other books in the same series as ones he’s really into, but he’s no idiot. It’s not that easy to trick a toddler, you guys. The first time he opened up a Pigeon book that didn’t start with the driver saying “Hey, Pigeon, why don’t you show me your happy face,” he gave me a withering glare, put his hands on his hips and said “anny” to show me he was just as angry as the pigeon who refuses to take orders from a bus driver.IMG_20160305_093627

His language has absolutely exploded lately. He understands so much that we’ve had to start being careful with important words. If we say “bath,” he’s at the stairs within seconds, yelling FAFF FAFF FAFF and trying to pull his shirt off. He likes repeating the names of family members, and he’s just figured out his own name: L’mm. It’s the cutest. About a week or two ago he started stringing two words together. First “uh-oh duck” to tell us the garden duck had fallen over, but soon after that he was doing “hi Daddy” when Dave walked into a room and “byebye Ah-mull” waving at the cat (Animal) on his way out the door to daycare. He uses “other” to make two-word phrases a whole lot now, too. While putting shoes on: udda feet? Taking his coat off: udda ahmm? Poking mama in the eyes: udda eye?

Taking turns is a huge right now. If I kiss him, he’ll immediately lean over towards Dave and say “Daddy? Daddy? Until Dave kisses him too. Then he’ll grab my shirt and yank me towards Dave saying “Mamadaddy. Mamadaddy,” insisting we kiss too. Same goes for high fives (yeah!) and fist bumps (boom!) – it’s not over until every permutation of the fists or palms present in the room has been tried. This includes self-fives. Toddler self-fives are super cute, folks.

Eating is still a struggle, with a very limited set of acceptable foods that seems to change without any good reason. This week’s huge hit has been pineapple, which he’s hated for months and will probably hate again by next week. I’m trying to be cool about it and not force foods on him, just have things available close by for him to try if he wants to. It’s working fairly well – he’s tasted garlic french fries, a cheeseburger, an italian sub, honey mustard dressing, an egg sandwich with pepperjack cheese, BBQ chicken pizza, and tortilla chips in the past week. And he voluntarily licked a spoon that had been dipped into a Chipotle carnitas burrito bowl. He spit all of it out, and the display of dislike involved weird hissing sounds and dramatic wiping of his tongue with his hand, but he’s at least tasting things.


This post wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t write about the tantrums. Because those have started. It’s not horrible yet, but he’s definitely developing opinions and he’s sharing them. There’s a lot of general low-level whining when we can’t figure out what he wants when he’s pointing and babbling, but every few days something bigger takes over and he gets mad. He’s started to throw his toys in frustration and anger, and the silliest things set him off. I guess that’s just toddler life, but it’s weird to see our mellow little guy crying in frustration when we won’t let him ride his trike when it’s time to get in the car for daycare. Or when it’s time to go inside after a wagon ride. Or when he can’t play with a knife. Or can’t have a third serving of pound cake. He’s just learned to stomp his feet, too, so it’s about to get even more interesting.


But it’s mostly still good times, overall. He still loves music and is very gentle when Dave hands him the ukulele to let him try it. He loves the real piano at Grandma and Pop’s, and also loves to take a tour of the wind-up music boxes in their living room so he can dance. He’s getting exposed to lots of different styles of music thanks mostly to Dave’s eclectic tastes, but for now Elmo singing the alphabet is still tops on his list.

As he’s growing up, he’s getting better at understanding instructions and interacting with us in more meaningful ways. He participates in getting dressed and undressed now, putting his arms in sleeves, pulling off socks, and naming body parts as he goes. He climbs the stairs on his own, and he loves throwing trash out (we’re still trying to teach him that not everything is trash). Our conversations actually communicate information in two directions now, and that blows my mind.


I think the next few months are going to be wild. I’m looking forward to them.

*Originally posted as 22 months because I apparently can’t count. I keep this blog real, folks.

Don’t listen to idiots.

There’s a very important bit of information that you need to remember when the little voice inside of your head tells you that you suck, and nobody wants to hear what you have to say, and that you’ll never amount to anything.

That voice is YOU.

Think about what that means for a second.

The voice in your head says you’re an idiot.

But the voice is you.

The voice is most likely wrong in the first place. Chances are pretty good that you’re actually a lovely person worthy of love and hugs and wonderful things. But you quietly think to yourself that maybe it might be right, which is why you’re here reading this in the first place.

But that voice is you.

And that means if that voice is correct, and you’re indeed an idiot, then that voice must also be an idiot.

Don’t listen to idiots.

Shut up, voice.


Cupid’s Undie Run – Freezing for a Cause

I don’t run. My attitude towards running is summed up by this Garfield cartoon:


I also don’t love the cold, as anyone who’s ever been within whining distance of me in the winter will know all too well.

Despite these things, on Saturday, in sub-freezing temperatures, I will be running for charity at the Cupid’s Undie Run in Washington DC. Yes, “Undie Run” means that they encourage runners to brave the cold and run in Valentine’s-themed undies. It’s like a polar bear plunge, but without the frozen lake. Just the same questionable judgment and the same shivering bodies.


Why run in the cold and risk frostbite patches on my cellulite? Because it’s a challenge. Because I want to stretch myself. And because I’m selfish.

You see, the one-mile run is in support of the Children’s Tumor Foundation, which raises money to fund research into and awareness of Neurofibromatosis, a potentially serious and sometimes fatal genetic disorder that affects up to 1 in every 3000 births.

Liam, my wonderful and adorable toddler, is that one in three thousand.

liam uke

He was diagnosed with Neurofibromatosis Type 1 (formerly called Von Recklinghausen’s disease) last summer, near his first birthday. He’s already had to go through sedation for three MRIs, and he’s on track for at least two more of those scans before his second birthday. He has tumors in his brain that need to be watched, because if they grow they could affect his eyesight… or worse. So far they’re stable and not causing any trouble, and we’re very, very grateful for that, but we’re doing scans every two months to be able to catch them right away if they change. Liam also gets regular physical therapy to help him catch up with the big physical milestones, because the low tone associated with NF1 means that his muscles have to put in more effort than the average kid to do the same work. He’s working very hard and he’s doing very well and we’re incredibly proud of him. He took his first independent steps just over a week ago, and we all cried a little.

He’s healthy and happy and just as nutty and exhausting as a normal toddler, and if you didn’t know about all this you likely wouldn’t even know there was anything going on under the surface. But this is a condition that will need monitoring for the rest of his life. And because the severity of NF1 varies so much from person to person, we don’t know what his future might hold. Raising money for this research is all I can do to try and improve the chances that even if the worst case scenarios come up, science will have a way to get him through them.

So I’m pulling on some bright underpants and running a mile in DC with a handful of wonderful friends, on a day the temperature won’t even break freezing. 

I’m not raising money for his big medical bills quite yet; so far it’s been expensive but manageable. But there are lots of kids out there who are living with NF1. Neurofibromatosis can cause nerve tumors in the brain or in the body, which can cause blindness or pain or other disability, and require surgery or chemotherapy. Those tumors often include small lumps called neurofibromas that can be seen on the skin, and those bumps can be off-putting to some, leaving people living with NF1 feeling isolated. Kids with NF1 are at greater risk than average for learning and processing disorders like ADHD and dyslexia.  The money I’m raising this week, by running in the cold in a goofy outfit, will help to fund research into these complications, maybe leading to better ways to prevent or manage them.

Please consider a donation to the Children’s Tumor foundation through the CTF website.

Learn more about NF, directly from the Children’s Tumor Foundation.

Wish me luck on Saturday. It’s going to be hell, but this little guy is worth it.

Update, February 2017: Thanks to everyone’s generous support, my team met its 2016 fundraising goal of $1500. I won’t be running this year, but I encourage everyone to toss a few dollars towards NF research, if they can spare it. 

Note: The link to the awesome heart-print boxers is an Amazon affiliate link. You can learn more about that here. 

Blizzard Preparation Tips From an Amateur Expert

Washington, DC - Snow Blizzard of 2010

Washington, DC – Snow Blizzard of 2010 (Photo credit Claude Cavender via FLickr under CC license)

With a huge blizzard bearing down on the mid-Atlantic region, people around here are in a bit of a panic. Store shelves are empty of essential French toast supplies, bottled water, and batteries, and lines at gas stations are stretching out into the street and blocking traffic. It’s not necessarily overkill, as much as I’d like to make fun of everyone – even the more conservative estimates are predicting that DC will be shivering under two feet of wet snow by Sunday morning.

There are hundreds of excellent emergency-preparedness articles online, published by people who know what they’re talking about. You can find storm and blizzard tips from the American Red Cross. Weather websites and networks. The federal government. You should read them and do whatever you can to get ready for extreme weather. Take this seriously.

But they’re not giving you the whole story. I’m from Montreal. I know blizzards, and I know a bunch of little tricks that will help you weather the storm a lot easier. Count on the pros for survival. I’ll help make your survival less miserable.

1. Bring your snow equipment inside

If the forecast calls for heavy winds along with several inches of snow, you’ll have snow drifts that can make it hard to get to the shed or wherever else your snow shovels and snow-melting salt are stored. Bringing it to the front porch isn’t enough – you need at least one shovel and some salt inside in case you’re faced with a wall of snow when you open the front door. This doesn’t apply to snowblowers unless you have an incredibly spacious foyer.

2. Get your scrapers and sweepers out of the car

Those scrapers and sweepers aren’t going to do you any good locked up in your trunk. Leaving them in your car in general is a good idea for when you’re out and about, but when you’re parking the car and getting ready to hunker down for the duration of the storm, bring the snow-removers into the house with you and leave them near the door. In a pinch, a kitchen broom works to sweep off a car, too, but if you’ve got a tool you like, why not have it ready to go?

3. Park the car close to the street

If you have a driveway and not a garage (or a garage too full of junk to get your car in there), park your car close to the street instead of close to the house. You’ll have to walk further to get to it, but you won’t need to clear out as much snow behind it to get it out into the street. Be careful not to be too close to the edge, because you don’t want a snowplow taking off your bumper. If you have to park in the street because you don’t have a driveway, my heart goes out to you. Best of luck defending your cleared spot from the vultures.

4. Get your grill ready

If the power goes out, you won’t have many options for cooking, so emergency planning dictates you stock up on protein bars and trail mix and other nutritious foods that don’t need heating. But if you have a grill out on the deck, you can heat up almost anything using a heavy pan (or one you don’t care about scorching). Pick up some propane before the storm, roll the grill a little closer to the door, and then once the winds die down you can wrap up in a parka and heat yourself up some water for cocoa. Don’t be a hero and go out during the blizzard, please!

5. Charge everything

Everything you can think of. Phones and tablets that can connect to the internet are obviously essential, but do you have laptops you can play movies or games on? Mp3 players you can load up with podcasts and music? Even old cell phones you never got around to recycling – if they still work, you can use them to play games and music, even if they’re not connected to any network. If your power goes out, you’re going to be bored and in the dark, so you may as well have as many toys as possible charged and ready to go.

6. Shower

Yeah, the water will probably still work if the power’s out, unless you’re on a well system with a pump, but who wants to shower in cold water when the heat isn’t working? Take advantage of the calm before the storm and hop into a hot shower.

7. Run the dishwasher and do the laundry

You might not get a chance to wash clothes or dishes for a few days, so check that you have enough clean stuff to get you through a week. If you don’t, a last-minute dishwasher load now can save you the headache of trying to wash off plates in icy water later. You might need a few layers of warm clothes, too, so make sure your sweatshirts and fluffy socks are all clean and dry. This is especially important if you’ll need to do some snow clearing – between sweat and snow, you’ll be soaked, and you will need extra sets of clothes to change into after every round with the shovel.

8. Tidy up

Don’t clean up like you’re having guests over, but clear the floors to avoid tripping over things in the dark. I have a toddler, so this is impossible to achieve, but there’s hope for many of you. Also look around for breakables on counters and tables, and move them so they can’t get knocked over when you stub a toe on a table leg and hop around cursing.

9. Make essentials easy to find.

Extra hats and gloves and thick socks for outside? Fill up a tote bag by the front door so you can get at them easily. Stack warm blankets and snuggies and bathrobes wherever you’re planning on sleeping. Have a central charging location for all your electronics so you know where they all are.

10. Put your emergency food on the kitchen counter

Sure, you bought protein bars and applesauce and cans of beans, but where did you put them all? It gets dark early, especially under blizzard conditions, and you don’t want to waste valuable flashlight time digging around in the pantry trying to find the granola. Make a pile of essentials where it’s easy to find. Put things like scissors or corkscrews nearby, if you’ll need those to access your eats and drinks.

11. Have an emergency caffeine supply

I get headaches when I skip my coffee, so I keep instant coffee around in case the power goes out and I can’t run my coffee maker. If you grind it extra fine it dissolves half-decently in cold water, but you can buy the Starbucks iced coffee packets now and save yourself that trouble. Alternatively, have a case of Coke where you can get at it and just pour it into a mug at 6am and use your imagination.


Coffee Penguin says stay warm!

Good luck getting through this, everyone. I’ll see you on the other side.

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Not a real green dress, that’s cruel

Losing lottery ticket

Image credit: Mark Turnauckas via Flickr under CC by 2.0

I did not win the huge Powerball jackpot.

That’s probably because I didn’t buy a ticket. It’s not that I don’t approve of lotteries or gambling; I’ve rubbed the edge of many a penny over a scratch-off ticket, across the table from my Grandmaman, and I’ve carefully picked out special numbers for the Quebec 6/49. I like the fun of dreaming, and holding a little slip of maybe in my hand. Before the numbers are picked I’m not a winner or a loser, and possibilities are endless.

But some possibilities are more possible than others. Statistics are mean. They’re even meaner when everybody in the country is buying a dozen tickets each for a 1-billion-dollar jackpot. So, since the chances of me winning were almost the same whether I played or not, I saved myself a few bucks and dreamed about the jackpot anyway.

If I had a billion dollars (if I had a billion dollars)…

I’d buy me an exotic pet. But not like a llama or an emu. Just another cat. Or two. And I’d build an extension on the back of the house so they could have their own room full of sun and windowsills and great views of bird feeders. I would also buy bird feeders. The kind that defend the seeds by spinning squirrels off into space. The cats and I would all enjoy that quite a bit, I think.

I’d have a bunch more kids, probably, because I could hire a Fraulein Maria to come and governess them and teach them music and make them clothes from the drapes. And I’d buy super nice drapes for their clothes. Good thread count.

I’d go back to school and learn a bunch of things that I want to learn, and pay absolutely no mind to whether or not the courses would be applicable to real life and a good job. I want to learn more medicine and history of science, and literature. And maybe learn German. German is cool. I’ll need a big study to do all this learning in, of course, so I’ll add one of those to the house (over the new cat playroom). One wall would be all windows, and the other three would be floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, with those sweet rolling ladders so I can get to the top shelves. And a comfy chair, and a big imposing desk, and a giant globe and a telescope and microscope and maybe a full-size Dalek just for kicks.

I’d drink better coffee. I know, I know, life’s too short to drink lousy coffee, but the nice stuff is like 50c a bean, so I’m keeping the family budget in check by drinking Kirkland’s Columbian in bulk. So if I had that billion dollars, I’d definitely drink the really expensive coffees via a state-of-the-art espresso machine (Maria would also know how to work an espresso machine and draw narwhals in the perfect foam on my cappuccinos).

Image credit: Marc Smith via Flickr, CC by 2.0

Not many foam narwhals in the image banks, folks. Image credit: Marc Smith via Flickr, CC by 2.0

And yeah, I’d travel and fix up my house and make sure my family was all set for their futures, but that stuff isn’t nearly as much fun.

You’d rather hear about how I’d sign up for a while bunch of thing-of-the-month clubs so I’ll get new wines and bacons and cheeses and pies sent to my door regularly. Because I totally would. And Maria would bring me a slice of my April pie and my narwhal cappuccino and take the children out to the park in their drapes, and I’d spin my globe, poke my finger down to stop it, and see where we should visit next.

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