Do you eat the red ones at all?

Red smarties coming out of the box in the shape of a heart

After the lovely small wedding we attended last week, Tom and Harry hosted the minister and his wife, as well as J. and me, at a fancy schmanzy restaurant for a celebratory dinner. Over the course of our meal, we had no end of engaging conversations.

At times, we shared our most private thoughts. Tom mentioned, for example, that, when he was younger, he had hated the taste of red Smarties. He tried to convince us all that red Smarties tasted different from the others, at least when he was a child. He was quite insistent. He was so animated I wondered whether red Smarties were so abhorrent to him that he refused to eat them.

As a chocoholic, I was curious about Tom’s assertions. I had to find out for myself if there was any truth to what he was saying. Thank goodness that clinical psychologists like me are trained in both research design and clinical practice. I could tell you with my eyes closed exactly how to assess Tom’s hypothesis. And, yes, my eyes would have to be closed.

In mere moments, I had designed the perfect study. I picked up a box of Smarties at the grocery store a few days later. (They happened to be on sale.) I coerced J. into being my assistant as well as the second subject in my study. I would pay her in–this is obvious–Smarties.

First I divided the Smarties into two groups: the red ones vs. everything but red. Then I sorted the Smarties into groups of three, each group having one red Smartie. I turned my back to J. and asked her to hand me a group of Smarties one at a time in a random order. When I received the first Smartie, I forgot to close my eyes as I brought my hand to my mouth. What a dummy. I kept my eyes shut through the remaining trials.

J. agreed to participate in my study but she refused to be blind to the colour of the Smarties she was eating. I recall she said, “Just give me the darn Smarties.” She didn’t believe knowing the Smartie’s colour would influence her taste perception at all. She wasn’t taking the study as seriously as I was, apparently, and her responses may be biased as a result.

In any event, the findings were as I expected (I’ve just added experimenter bias to subject bias): neither of us disliked the taste of the red Smarties. We also concurred that the red Smarties didn’t taste any different than the others. Over the course of the brief study, we didn’t spit any red Smarties out in disgust; we savoured all of the Smarties because Smarties are inherently yummy.

My interest in Smartie research did not stop there, however. I began to wonder what proportion of Smartie lovers suck them very slowly vs. crunch them very fast. (I, for one, am a slow Smartie sucker. Ah, the taste of smooth melting chocolate…but I digress.) This burning question has prompted a second study. If you would like to participate, contact me at 1-800-SMARTIEPANTS. Compliant subjects only need apply. That means no Smarties for you, J.

A modern fairy tale

Love conquers hate t-shirt

Once upon a time there were two men. We’ll call them Tom and Harry, because neither one could ever be a Dick. Let’s say they met over a cup of coffee and they fell in love and they settled in to a relationship They both had successful careers and they lived in a sweet home, one that had been in the family for generations, along with their various and sundry four-legged friends. But something was missing.

One day they got a call that two young children, siblings, needed a home. So they jumped into action. They bought bunk beds and Kraft dinner, since they were short on time. They took a crash course (self-taught) in being the best parents they could be. One week later, they welcomed these children into their home and their lives. They bought the kids clothes and toys and books and school supplies, because the young’uns hadn’t arrived with much. The wet bar downstairs was quickly transformed into a children’s play area with a dad-constructed full-sized puppet theatre.

Both parents were already accomplished chefs, so they were ready for the sudden onslaught of family meals and children’s lunches. They enrolled the kids in schools and in after-school activities, and they quickly learned how to queue for coveted special-interest camps.

But there were other skills they needed to learn, and learn them they did. In no time, Tom had mastered the art of French braiding and shopping for sparkly clothing while Harry created the perfect Princess cake and carved a watermelon into an impressive shark for a children’s fruit plate. These dads could be counted on for the best home baking at parent-child gatherings. In no time, they were the envy of all the neighbourhood moms, and maybe even a few of the dads.

After devoting several years to raising their children, Tom and Harry decided to do something for themselves and their family: as their 20th anniversary approached, they set a date for their wedding. They’d long been discussing marriage, but their insta-family had delayed their plans. Seven years into parenthood, they called the minister they have known since their children’s christening and asked if he’d have time for a quick union.

And so it came to pass, in the beautiful garden of their inclusive church, the sun shining brightly upon Harry’s bald head, that these two dear friends were married in a moving ceremony. The couple’s love for one another and for their two children was ever apparent. J. and I had the special honour of being their witnesses.

Some people take issue with a wedding between two loving same-sex partners. Others cannot imagine two men as devoted co-parents. I don’t understand those people.

The icing on the cake–there’s always icing on the cake–was the actual icing on the gorgeous and delicious wedding cake that their eldest baked and decorated for them. She has obviously learned from the best. I envision her as an expert baker, perhaps after she completes her engineering degree. This young lass displayed spatial problem-solving skills superior to her very bright parents during the wedding ceremony.

Now that rings have been formally exchanged, I predict that Tom and Harry and their lovely children will all live happily ever after.

The End Beginning, or maybe The Continuation

My recipe for the perfect nap

Woman napping on couch under blanket

Last week we went on the perfect cancerversary trip. I didn’t have to do anything but show up, we made use of every vacation minute to the fullest, we saw lots, ate well, and even had a beer on the patio (maybe that was J., but I enjoyed my teetotaller’s lemonade). Our frenetic pace unfortunately brought me back to leukemia reality: I have been napping daily since I got home.

I’ve had many years of practice now, and, not meaning to brag, I have an honorary Ph.D. in napping. In the past, I would often lay down, only to toss and turn and drag myself up a while later, not having slept but more tired and more frustrated than before. I can nap almost anytime, almost anywhere, and even if I know I only have a brief reprieve before I must again be up and at ’em. Despite my expertise, I do have several preconditions that bring my likelihood of napping success close to 100%.

The first necessity is absolute utter exhaustion. I have become a good judge of how tired I am at any particular time, even if I can’t rate my exhaustion on a 1-10 scale. If I can barely keep my eyes open, if one or more people tell me I look like a truck has run me over, if I can’t stop myself from yawning, I know I will fall asleep as soon as I allow myself to lay down.

Second, I need a very comfortable couch. It doesn’t have to be my couch, which is handy because it allows for some flexibility of napping location. (Warning: If you happen to have a comfortable couch, you may find me curled up on it when you least expect it.) “Why not a bed?” you ask. I can’t really explain that, except to confess I’m more likely to nap for too long if I allow myself the comfort of a pillow-top mattress.

Third, I need a blanket of some kind. If I am chilled, I will never be able to sleep. I need to be warm and cozy.

And last, I need background noise of some kind, preferably in the form of a trashy television show. Border Security was my show of choice for years, but being able to recite every oft-repeated episode by heart necessitated a change.

I have recently found a suitable substitute in Say Yes to the Dress. On this show, assuming you have never wasted your precious time watching (my time is far from precious), brides-to-be drag an entourage of family and friends to a fancy wedding dress store to choose their gown for their special day. There’s nothing like a roomful of people in utter disagreement about what a bride should wear. I’ve seen tears and anger and, sadly, meanness, and many brides leave without saying yes to a dress.

I have learned so much from this show, when I’ve been able to stay awake. Among other things, it has prepared me for a very special wedding I will be attending this evening. I’ll give you the complete rundown on Friday. Now I must nap, so I can be in good form for the celebration. I am so excited!!

Introducing the intermittent reinforcement schedule

Basset with tongue in bowl

Despite what I may have led you to believe, Jelly has many advanced dog skills. She can do all sorts of magnificent tricks, like shaking a paw while laying down, sitting, or standing. She sits and stays while we fill her bowl with high-priced kibble, and refrains from eating her meal until we release her, which happens as soon as we hit our tolerance threshold for drool on the kitchen floor.

Now that she is maturing, I am enjoying my trips with Jelly to the off-leash park more. Jelly stays fairly close by. If she lags behind, it’s only to sniff a particularly fragrant blade of grass. Rarely do I have to call her to me anymore; she usually remains within a reasonable distance.

Except when she doesn’t. I attribute these lapses to my never training her to come when I call her. You’d think I’d have mastered this command, which requires an understanding of basic reinforcement theory. You learned all about reinforcement theory in Intro Psych, right? If so, you likely received a better grade than my mediocre B, thereby better preparing yourself for elementary dog training.

I know how I should have trained Jelly to come. First, I was to reward her every time she came, or as we say in psychology speak, to reinforce her on a continuous-reinforcement schedule. This approach is best when a dog is learning a new behaviour. The reward could involve my greeting Jelly excitedly or, more often (bad Annie), my giving her a treat.

Once Jelly came every time I called–did she ever?–I should have stopped giving her a treat each time (in other words, I should have shifted to intermittent reinforcement). This means I should have rewarded her occasionally, on what’s known as a variable-ratio schedule. The best way to maintain a learned behaviour is not to know when to expect the next reward. I want Jelly to comes each time thinking she might score a treat, which she may or may not.

Diligent dog trainers stop rewarding with treats altogether once the behaviour is mastered. These trainers naively believe that their dogs will come simply in order to please them. Forget that. Jelly comes only if there’s something in it for her, and that something must be edible.

But that’s only part of the problem. Recently I’ve realized that, rather than my training her, Jelly has been training me. Every so often I turn around, only to find my sweet dog MIA. When I look her way, I barely see her head above that long fragrant grass. Eventually she looks my way. She knows she should come but is waiting for me to call her first. That’s because she’s learned that if she runs to me out of the goodness of her heart, I’ll greet her excitedly but won’t proffer a treat. She knows I give her a treat only if she comes when I call her, so she’s learned to wait until I beckon, and then she comes a-running.

Now you probably understand why I received that B in Intro Psych. Not only have I failed at basic reinforcement theory, my dog understands the theory better than I do. She has me wrapped around her huge Basset paw.

A reminder that things happen in their own time

Vacations are good reminders of how lucky J. and I are. We have the means and the flexibility and the health, especially the health, to travel. Pack a few clothes and my pharmaceuticals, find someone to care for Jelly, and we’re out the door in no time.

As my 5th cancerversary celebration, this trip has special meaning. That J. surprised me isn’t saying much; I’m so oblivious that J. could plan anything without my knowing. My ignorance doesn’t make me any less grateful for her efforts, however. Her summer is absurdly busy–she married 9 couples last weekend alone–yet she managed to squeeze in a few days off somehow.

And so we find ourselves hanging out in another city, walking our socks off (such a strange expression, since shoes hold our socks in place), and enjoying being somewhere different. It wouldn’t really matter where we went or what we did; I’d be happy we acknowledged the milestone.

Packing for this trip was a breeze, at least to start. Sunscreen? Check. Walking shoes? Check. Personal pharmacy? Checks. But what to wear? I am temporarily wardrobe challenged, although you may resent my complaining about my shrinking from Large to Medium. I’m not complaining; I’m simply telling you I need a few clothes that fit.

Cancer killed my love of shopping long ago. I never want to overspend because whatever I buy today may not fit tomorrow. Still, I anticipated shopping success on this trip, so I left space in the suitcase for my purchases, and packed only three shirts for three days. I failed to factor in the possibility of a heat wave and the discomfort of a sweaty t-shirt. I also failed to consider that my search might fail.

Chopped chef with sweaty bald head preparing his dishTwo days passed, two hot and humid days, and my shirt inventory was almost depleted. Last night, after returning to our hotel, making dinner over a hot stove, the sweat dripping off me (I felt like a contestant on Chopped), I had two choices: I could shower or faint from heat stroke. I chose the former.

After the shower, I couldn’t put on the same wet t-shirt without causing a scene. J. suggested I wear my last shirt last night and then again today. Either that or try out the emperor’s new clothes, which would have caused an even better scene. Wearing the same shirt two hot days in a row would have to do.

After my shower, I went to get my last t-shirt from my suitcase, only to discover that I was smarter than I thought: I had brought a fourth shirt just in case, but I forgot I’d packed it. (Now do you understand how easy it would be for J. to pull off a surprise?) Of course the fourth t-shirt was my #grateful shirt. Do you even have to ask? And, yes, I was grateful to find it.

In time, I will outfit myself with a few new shirts that fit. I was reminded that not everything happens on my schedule. Until then, I will make do with voluminous shirts.

“Why no mention of pants?” you ask. For a long time now, I’ve known better than to throw out my skinny jeans. Life is full of surprises.

What kind of survivor are you?

TV Survivor logo

Is today really my 5th Cancerversary? I know, I can’t believe it myself. 5 years ago today I found out I had cancer, then I almost died, but I didn’t. I’m alive, I’m alive, still!

Come to think of it, is today the actual date? It depends on how you define the term. Should I make it the day that the astute on-call hematologist told me she thought I had CML, or her confirmation later that week with results of a bone-marrow biopsy? I’ve chosen the latter as the date of note. By the date CML was confirmed, I had overcome my overwhelming denial and was ready to accept the reality.

I wish I could be celebrating, like many others do, the date that cancer was eradicated from my body, whether through surgery and/or radiation and/or chemotherapy, but I don’t have that kind of cancer. I am celebrating 5 years of living with (or should I say, “not dying from”) cancer, which is a whole lot better than the alternative. With the wisdom and guidance of my stellar medical team, I am still here. Sure, I’d prefer to be rid of my leukemia altogether, but that’s not the CML way. Technically I may be in a remission of sorts, but I am not cured and, as far as I know, I never will be.

Five whole years of leukemia and I’m not dead yet. It begs the question, have I been pulling your leg all these years? Do I really have cancer? Yes, the doctors tell me I do. Remember, I am not a writer of fiction.

This is how I know I still have cancer: I hang out with other cancerous folks every 6 weeks of late. This more frequent cancer-centre visit schedule reflects both Dr. Blood and Dr. Blood Lite’s concerns about my goutiness and my weight loss. I trust I will be on a less frequent cancer-reminder schedule sometime soon.

Have I convinced you that I do have cancer, even though it’s not killing me, or at least not yet? Whatever, I believe strongly that a milestone like this should be celebrated. It’s an accomplishment of sorts, even if I didn’t make it happen.

J. asked me how I wanted to celebrate the day and, after giving me approximately 30 seconds to deliberate, she booked us a quick trip away. And today, when I have coffee with a few dear friends I don’t see often enough, I may order a small hot chocolate, but only to get my doctors off my back. Or maybe I won’t. I’m lactose intolerant.

I also celebrated by wearing my leukemia shirt to the gym. It subtly screams SURVIVOR on the back. A fellow yogi with whom I’ve exchanged pleasantries in the past asked me what kind of survivor I am, so I told her with undeserved pride. I think she was disappointed that I had not won that Survivor television show. Imagine me on a desert island fighting for my life. What if there’s no pharmacy? No blood lab? I’d be sunk.

Tonight I’ll be raising a glass of fizzy fruity soda from a fake champagne bottle. Don’t let that stop you from imbibing something stronger or, alternatively, eating cake. Together let’s toast 5 years of still living. L’chaim!

The luck of the draw

Toddler sitting on sidewalk with little puppy kissing his face

I love my PALS visits with Jelly. I get to go to new places and meet new people and watch them adore my dog. Of course I love to tell them funny stories about her, but I don’t go on and on about her because it’s not all about us, especially during these visits. I have to find other topics of conversation instead.

I’ve long accepted that I’m terrible at small talk. Getting-to-know-you conversations are hard for me in general. I was particularly stumped at a PALS outing last week.

We had volunteered to visit a special nursing home. The residents there are hard-to-place older folks who would not otherwise be accepted into seniors’ homes. Many are alcoholic and/or mentally ill, and many once lived on the street. The alcoholic residents are given controlled amounts of alcohol at regular intervals. Without access to alcohol, these people would likely continue to live in poverty on the streets. The residence’s goals are to reduce these people’s run ins with the police and their need for emergency health care.

I’ve been in many seniors’ homes with Jelly and this one was more run down than others I’ve seen. (Imagine the challenges gathering funding for a place like this.) So were the people there, many of whom were socializing in the common area when we arrived. Still, this special residence gives them a roof over their heads and three meals a day, access to laundry facilities, and on-site medical care. There are significant daily supports in place, so they don’t need to be trying to survive on the streets anymore.

I didn’t know what brought these folks to this residence and my asking them would have been inappropriate. Of course I wondered about their pasts, though. Sometimes their mental-health issues were apparent, but others simply appeared poor and downtrodden. I hope my discomfort wasn’t obvious, but I felt even more awkward than usual finding common ground for conversation.

I often fall back on one strategy when I have no idea what to say. On all our PALS outings, people can choose to visit with the dogs or not, so those that do attend are clearly dog lovers (or cat lovers who are willing to accept second best). Their interest in animals gives me an easy inroad: I ask them about their experiences with dogs. That breaks the ice, probably for me more than for them. People love to talk about their dogs–I can relate to that–even if they may be sad recalling better times in their lives.

On this visit, our dog conversations reminded me that our lives may not have been all that different at one point. These people weren’t born mentally ill, although they likely were harbouring bad genes that would reveal themselves later. They likely lived with family when they were younger, just like I did. But at some point, poverty or mental illness or addiction derailed their lives. I expect they’ve had bad luck, while somehow I did not. Life is truly unfair.

I’m glad this special residence can provide these folks a home. Everyone deserves at least that, no matter what.

Introducing Dr. Blood Lite

This one’s for you, Janet.

You may wonder who this Dr. Blood Lite is, and how I named him without consulting you first, my dear readers. This time I didn’t need your help, thanks to a comment on a previous doctor-naming post. In that comment, a beloved beer connoisseur, who would never imbibe the beer of the masses, came up with this perfect name.

If you haven’t yet put one and one together, Dr. Blood Lite is Dr. Blood’s locum for her sabbatical. He is a lovely young doctor and, since he’s been trained by Dr. Blood, I know he’s learned from the best. Dr. Blood had told us she had considered her replacement carefully, and she hit the jackpot. Dr. B.L. seems calm and kind and he even introduced himself using his first name. You know how I like to be on a first-name basis with my physicians. It gives me a false sense of collegiality.

Although I did not recognize the newbie, we had met once before when I was an inpatient on the hospital’s palliative unit. Do you recall that hospital stay, the one where the hematology unit was full so I ended up lodging with the dying people? I could not remember him but J. clearly recalled Dr. B.L.’s Edmonton Oilers lanyard. In fact, I envision her hijacking my future appointments to talk about McJesus. That Dr. B.L. could remember our brief encounter is a miracle on par with McJesus’s MVP performance last year.

Back to my health for a moment. Dr. B.L. told me that, if my blood work is to be believed, I am holding steady on all fronts. This is good news. There are no significant changes since last visit, which means I will stay on my current treatment plan.

My blood work did not explain my appetite loss, which was a relief. I had pretended I wasn’t worried about my disinterest in food, but I was lying, as you probably suspected. I may have a perfectly reasonable medication-related explanation for the pounds melting off me, but as a graduate of the School of Something Could Always Be Seriously Wrong, I’ve still wondered whether my liver might be tanking. As of today, I worry no more. My liver is a-okay.

Despite my apparent well-being, Dr. B.L. was alarmed by my rapid weight loss. So alarmed, in fact, that he said something that no doctor has ever said to me before: he told me to start eating more. He forbid me from losing any more weight and said he expects me to pack on a few pounds by the next time I see him. He even suggested ways I might increase my caloric intake.

My inside voice could not help but giggle in response to Dr. B.L.’s concern. I wanted to say, “Do you realize who you are talking to? I am a glutton! Cookie Monster is my doppelganger. Or is it Miss Piggy? Whatever, you’ve got me all wrong, doc.” Instead, I listened respectfully and told the doctor I would take his concerns under advisement. Yes, I used those words. And he smiled, just a little. I think we’re going to get along.

Now I must force feed myself some dinner. Doctor’s orders.

arm reaching table full of appetizers

With age comes wisdom, sometimes

Basset hound running behind greyhoundI am slowly coming to accept that I am not the young buckette (is that doe?) I once was. I had a crash course in recognizing my limitations when I got sick. Now I know that I won’t run any more marathons, climb any more mountains, or participate in any more aerobics classes that will cause me to break a sweat.

But every so often I forget. Occasionally I try to run a little bit and my body quickly reminds me to stop. I seem to be the last person leaving every yoga class I attend–I roll my mat and collect my things at a snail’s pace. Everything takes longer than it used to when I was youthful. I moved with vigour once, but now I’m slow as molasses. In fact, recently I gave up rushing altogether, and I must say I don’t miss it.

I’m not the only one who is aging. Jelly turned 7 last month, which means she is now  a doggy senior. Although she looked like a puppy until a year or two ago–even dogs want to believe they look younger than they are–even her little red eyelashes are now turning grey. I’ve noticed she’s never been asked for identification for a senior’s discount.

There are other signs of Jelly’s advancing age: she is more likely to amble than gambol when we visit the park. Still, we go there so she can venture as far as she wants that day and visiting with her four-legged friends. I do miss the days when she’d chase her peers over hill and dale, barking frantically as she brought up the rear, “Wait for me! Wait for me!”

Except for last Friday morning, when Jelly temporarily forgot that she too is no young buckette anymore. She met up with Kona, a lovely tall greyhound cross, who seemed intent on a running mate. Kona egged Jelly on persistently, resulting in an all-out no-holds-barred chase around the park. Kona was born to run. She easily outpaced Jelly, who persevered nonetheless, cutting the odd corner when she needed to. Jelly fought the good fight, until she tanked, whereupon she slowly limped back to the car.

I knew exactly how Jelly would feel following that romp. I knew she would regret running herself ragged, but there was no way I could convince her to pass on the opportunity. We all need to learn from experience. Has anyone ever heeded the wisdom of elders?

I was not surprised that Jelly spent most of the weekend recuperating. Will her stiffness stop her from trying to outrace the next greyhound that wants to be chased? Probably not. She’s a dog, and she does not always learn from experience. Come to think of it, neither do I.

But all is not lost. Despite Jelly’s recent stiffness and fatigue, every time the wind blows, she rises from lounging and leaps off the deck, positioning herself under the apple tree in case a delicious snack happens to fall. Each time, I drag myself agedly out of my chair, thereby granting Jelly ample time to wolf down her spoils. Jelly’s body may be old, but, at least when it comes to food, her mind is forever young.

An open letter to the Calgary Police Service

Dear Calgary Police Service:

I just heard that you have been excluded from marching in uniform in Calgary’s Pride parade this year. You are allowed to march only in civilian clothing but without police vehicles or floats or sidearms. I have read that you plan to attend despite these restrictions to further relations with the LGTBQ community. God bless you for that. In your shoes (are you allowed to wear shoes?), I’d boycott the event altogether.

The Pride organizers still want you there on the sidelines, in uniform, ensuring that everyone is safe. Good thing, since were I to attend, you might have to restrain me from telling the Pride organizers how I feel about their decision.

This decision of exclusion has been made to spare persons of colour the post-traumatic stress that could be triggered by seeing police in uniform. I feel for these people, and I understand relations between police and these groups have been strained, but I do not understand how eliminating your uniforms will aid relations. These marginalized groups will still see you in uniform on the sidelines that day, and on other days patrolling the streets.

I wish I could talk directly to these groups because, as a psychologist, I know this decision will not help them to resolve their PTSD. In fact, the lack of uniformed police presence at this event may only exacerbate these feelings. PTSD is an anxiety disorder not to be taken lightly. Traumatic things happen to people, and, for some, PTSD can be the result. By excluding you, these groups lose the opportunity to see that police are not to be feared in all situations, that they are marching in support of the whole LGTBQ community, of which these groups are a part.

This decision has been made by Calgary Pride organizers, but I do not believe it reflects general consensus of the LGTBQ community. I, for one, do not support it, nor does my wife, nor do any of the Calgarians, LGTBQ or not, that I have spoken with. I have expressed my discontent to Pride Calgary but received only a form letter in response.

I feel sad that I will not be at the Pride parade this year. For many years, I’ve looked forward to attending with friends and supporters. I am there on the sidelines, hooting and hollering and stealing candy from children. I’m also known to tear up when I see all of the brave marchers, especially those in uniform. Once a very kind female officer noticed my tears and stopped to ask me if I was okay. I had to explain to her how grateful I was for CPS’s attendance.

Perhaps I am most sad because, in the past and continuing to this day, LGTBQ people are mocked and maligned and discriminated against for dressing or acting in a way that is not considered within the norm. We have fought so hard for inclusion and Canada especially has made great strides. Sadly (and ironically), this no-uniforms decision is one of exclusion. You deserve better.

Calgarians of all colours and races and orientations are grateful for your service. If our Pride party, now relocating to the backyard, gets out of hand, I’m glad to know that I can always call you.