A story without a fairy tale ending

Cover of Hunger by Roxane Gay

As the year nears its end, I become excited about the publication of the Top 100 book lists. One book on every list I’ve seen is Hunger: A memoir of my body by Roxane Gay. When I am a grown-up writer, I want to be Roxane Gay. (Sorry Gabrielle Zevin, you’ve been usurped for now. I still love The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, though.) If you’re interested in reading Hunger, know that it’s not an easy book to get through. The author bares all in her writing.

I hadn’t known of her previously, but Roxane Gay is a respected author of both fiction and nonfiction. She is also morbidly obese in what she justly calls a fat-phobic society. She was gang raped at age 12, after which she gained weight to keep herself physically and sexually safe from others. Dr. Gay views herself as a victim rather than a survivor of her rape, and acknowledges she has not healed from the trauma. She suggests people stop judging the obese without knowing their story, and realize that fat [her word] people have other attributes too.

Dr. Gay, who has a Ph.D. in technical writing and is currently a professor at Purdue University, acknowledges years of self-loathing, challenged relationships, and discomfort in her own body. Her frankness about her life is both uncomfortable and enlightening. She described the profound effects of an emotionally abusive relationship in a way that still haunts me.

She speaks of the all-too-frequent judgement and the difficult situations that she experiences. Strangers censure what she places in her grocery cart and deride her as she walks down the street. Well-meaning friends patronize her by sharing their insights about food, nutrition, and weight loss. Professional colleagues cannot hide their surprise when, after corresponding on line, they first encounter her in her physical glory. Imagine realizing you’ve been provided a chair for a reading that will not comfortably support your body, and worrying the whole time that that chair could break.

This book helped me to imagine what being obese would feel like in a society where thinness equals beauty. Is anyone truly above judging people based on their outward appearances? I know I’m not.

Near the end of the book, Dr. Gay described an ankle break that resulted in a hospital stay, and her community of support’s unexpected rallying around her. Despite all her self-loathing, she realized how many people love her and would miss her if something were to happen to her. I was reminded of how moved I was by my own troops’ tremendous support of both me and J. when I was deathly ill in the ICU. I also recall how much I appreciated the teary hugs I received when I was finally sent home. I too felt that I would have been missed had I not survived.

I can’t say reading this book will be fun, but you too could scratch an insightful read off your Top 100 list. Like me, you may find that Dr. Gay’s insights stay with you. When I’m next on an airplane and the fattest person walking down the aisle takes the seat next to me, I’ll think about this book, and I’ll make as much room as I can. Do unto others and all….

 

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Introducing the emotional hangover

Have I ever defined the post-Bar Mitzvah (Bat Mitzvah, in my case) blues? When someone gears up for something for so long, and it’s fantastic, but then it’s over? That’s what today feels like for me.

After months of anticipating yesterday’s Light the Night Walk in downtown Calgary on a beautiful fall evening, it’s over. My special support team walked the full five kilometres with me–a kilometre for every year–to celebrate my enduring good health. The evening was perfect.

I’ve described the walk before but allow me a medically inaccurate and absurd analogy. Imagine each walker as a blood cell. There are the white blood cells, the largest in size but fewest in number. Those are the leukemia (and other bloody disordered) survivors holding our little white lanterns. Then there are the red blood cells, which are smaller but more plentiful than the white cells. The red-lanterners are those walking in support of the white lanterners.

Platelets are small fragments of blood cells. They are represented by the gold lantern holders, who are survivors in their own way, walking in memory of someone who has died. They may feel they’ve lost a part of themselves.

Finally, let’s not forget the plasma, which carries nutrients, hormones, and proteins through the body. Consider the plasma all the amazing volunteers who registered all the walkers, distributed t-shirts and lanterns and coffee and hotdogs, and lined the pathway cheering us on.

We of many lanterns walked along a narrow pathway, clustered together but hopefully not clotting. We white lanterns were surrounded by our devoted red-lanterned supporters. One group followed after another, each its own community of red-lanterened support for one little white lantern. The gold-lanterned folks formed their own groups or were sprinkled amongst the whites and reds (we had two golds on our team) because blood disorders touch too many people. Along this narrow pathway–an artery? a vein?–walked all these blood cells, supporting one another, guided by our plasma support staff.

At moments during the walk, I looked around me and saw my little group, distinguished by their absurd team attire–perhaps next year you too could look sharp in a multicoloured Dr. Seuss hat–and I realized how not alone I am. While I searched for my own team, I saw so many similar groups ahead of and behind me, reminding me that we’re all in this together.

I’m blessed by the people who walked with me and the people who sent their regrets and wished me well. To the team members who hunted down my ridiculous 5-year pin, which I finally received from a kind volunteer, a 5-year survivor himself. To the two very handsome firefighters, the retired one who appeared on site unexpectedly with his beloved partner, the other one in uniform who handed me my survivor’s rose at the end.

Today I am spent, drained, hungover, but in a good way. You must know this feeling. I look forward to next year’s event. If you too aspire to be a red blood cell in colourful clown attire, know there’s always next year.

Crowd picture at Light the Night Calgary 2017

A microscope may help you see our team.

Celebrate your milestones, whatever they are

3 Light the Night walkers with their Survivor t-shirts

We leave on our big vacation in 12 sleeps. When we were first planning this vacation, J. told me her rush of fall weddings would end immediately following Thanksgiving. We could be on the plane already, except I didn’t want to miss the annual leukemia walk. Which would you choose, a trip to Israel or a leukemia walk? Don’t answer that.

This decision to delay the vacation may not make sense to you; I’m a little bewildered by it myself. Going on this annual walk, hanging out with my fellow leukemics, wearing my guest-of-honour SURVIVOR t-shirt, has become a significant event in my year. I’ll try to explain.

My definition of a milestone has changed over my five years with leukemia. After I became so sick, I was proud of being able to walk unassisted and to tie my shoes without falling over. I vividly recall my first post-diagnosis yoga class, which I survived despite falling over a few times. I remember cooking my first real dinner post diagnosis, and seeing my first client. Being alert enough to drive again was another milestone.

As time passes, the goals have shifted. There’s the annual Cancer Centre’s Christmas gift-basket draw, which means I’m alive to lose my money again for a good cause. I don’t hate my birthday anymore, and the importance of cancerversaries is self-explanatory. For whatever reason, this leukemia walk has taken on an odd significance in my annual calendar. It’s my prize for getting leukemia and not dying from it.

This year’s will be all the more special because I will finally receive my 5-year pin. Now you know the real reason I delayed my vacation: I wanted a silly little commemorative pin. Frankly, I could have lied about how many years I’d had the illness and received this pin anytime–no one asks for a doctor’s letter–but I’m too honest for such deception.

This coveted pin is nothing to speak of. It’s the shape and colour of a drop of blood with a 5 on it. The blood-drop symbol is almost identical to that used by Canadian Blood Services. When I wear my pin proudly, people may well assume I am a blood donor (I selfishly only take blood), and not a leukemia survivor.

Does it matter that the pin will have meaning only to me? Of course not. If anyone asks, I can always set them straight. (Ha ha. “Gay person sets unknowing one straight.” And they say we’re out [no pun intended, truly] to convert people!)

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I never envisioned reaching goals like these. Now, planning for my next milestone keeps me hopeful that leukemia is not going to take my life. No wonder cancer-related goals, however insignificant, have become so important to me.

Then, two days later, J. and I will leave for Israel. Who ever thought I’d get any doctor’s blessing to travel so far? Yet another cause for celebration. That and anticipation of the best hummus and falafel anywhere. I can almost taste it….

A plate of hummus with falafel balls in the middle

Sometimes it’s best not to keep score

Newspaper on doorstep

First, let’s get the Facebook page out of the way. To those of you who have kindly sent me Friend requests, I am not ignoring you; I am simply paralyzed by my ineptness. I learned the hard way that there is a difference between a Facebook account and a Facebook page, and had to shut my first attempts down. I will get back to you when I manage to sort my page out.

Now a question for those of you who have your paper delivered: did your newspaper arrive at your doorstep this morning? If it did not, I think I can explain. I received it. Ever since I left those stale banana chocolate chip muffins out for Mr. RAK, we have awoken to one or sometimes even two newspapers on our doorstep. I may have to rename Mr. RAK Mr. DAK (as in “Daily Acts of Kindness”) because he has been so generous with us.

You can imagine that I, who am prone to guilt in much lesser circumstances, am overwhelmed with this current situation. This man receives no financial compensation for his generosity toward us, and I genuinely believe he is not trying to encourage us to reinitiate our subscription. My gratitude is killing me.

Of course I keep a mental tally of the give and take in any relationship. If I feel I’m giving too much over time, either I try to address the inequity with the person directly (when I’m in a grown-up mood) or, if I’m feeling more child like, I withdraw from that person. According to my usual tally system, I’m always in the red. Always. So a situation like the one with Mr. DAK, where I’m getting a lot more than I’m giving, torments me.

I am trying to practice allowing someone–in this case, Mr. DAK, to be kind to me. But in order to rebalance things just a bit, as soon as I finish this post, I will be baking a batch of oatmeal cranberry cookies to leave for him tomorrow morning, when he will be dropping by with an extra newspaper for us. I give thanks to you, Mr. DAK.

I was discussing the newspaper situation with a neighbourhood friend who happens to pay for her daily paper delivery. She mentioned that every so often, maybe once a month, her newspaper does not arrive. As she was discussing this with me, she said, “Hey, wait a minute….” We agreed that maybe Mr. DAK, in a Robin-Hoodish manner, is stealing from the subscribers and giving to the nonsubscribers. So if you’re my neighbour and your newspaper doesn’t arrive, feel free to take ours. God knows we haven’t paid for it. Consider it your way of assuaging my guilt.

Happy Thanksgiving. May you all have much to be grateful for this weekend.

 

P.S. I’ve had a few enquiries about this year’s Light the Night Walk for Leukemia on Saturday, October 21. You are more than welcome to join us. The team name is Annie’s Anemic Leukemics, and the registration link is here. If you are interested in celebrating my fifth cancerversary with me, come on out. All the better if you’re an Olympic weightlifter: you can carry me over the finish line if I get too pooped to walk.

Never, ever lose hope

Picture with "Kindness starts with one."

Since this is a cancer blog, has this post title made you think I’m going to write about how a cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence? I certainly haven’t died yet, and my dear friend with lung cancer is absolutely thriving. This week, her doctor gave her only good news at her check up, ending with, “Don’t come back for a year.” That indeed is grounds for hope, and we should all celebrate her fantastic news.

But I’ve misled you. I’m not writing about cancer today since I have something even more important to tell you. What could be more important than a life sentence [no, not that kind, the other kind]? Are my priorities skewed? Don’t think I can’t hear you questioning my judgement. (Occasionally I insert a double negative just for fun.)

Overnight, another huge weight in my shallow existence was lifted off my shoulders. Earlier this week, we had awoken to two gifted newspapers, and J. suspected we might be graced with another this morning. Last night, J. decided that she would repackage my excellent banana chocolate chip muffins in their tightly sealed container and leave them on our landing for a special someone. (She was trying to preempt freezer burn.) Since my educated neuroscientist friend informed me that squirrels are diurnal, I was much less worried about any overnight verminous interference.

Each morning, the less exhausted of us gets up with Jelly to take her out for her morning piddle. I was hoping J. would jump out of bed today since I despaired about finding the increasingly stale muffins sitting undisturbed on our landing. To my surprise and delight, Mr. Random Acts of Kindness had left us a newspaper and had taken the muffins. Maybe the big yellow sticky inscribed with “For You!!” in bold black ink helped.

Finally, after days of fretting and two previously unsuccessful attempts at gifting him, Mr. RAK had received his very small token of thanks. This made me so exceedingly happy that I yelled to J., who had likely fallen back to sleep, that the muffins were gone. What is more important, that she know the good news or that she get her much needed rest? That is truly a rhetorical question, since for days now I’ve been moping over my own failed efforts to acknowledge my thanks. I was sure my good news trumped a little sleep debt.

Of course, I could have let my anxiety diffuse my happiness in no time at all. I could have thought, “What if he doesn’t like my banana chocolate chip muffins?” or “What if he is a celiac?” or even “What if he’s sworn off sugar?” But I truly believe, in all situations, it’s the thought that counts. It has to be, or I’m sunk.

I had made my best effort to bake Mr. RAK something tasty, and I hope he enjoys them today. If he doesn’t, I trust there’s someone in his life that he can share them with, or that they will be welcomed by the other compost in his bin. More importantly, I hope I returned that moment of happiness he gives me whenever he drops an extra newspaper by our house. That was the point, wasn’t it?

 

The Hardy Boys: Mystery of the Missing Bride

Two male hands cutting a wedding cake

Following the fairy-tale wedding I shared with you last week, a compelling mystery arose at the restaurant celebration. I’ll provide a few clues along the way so you can solve it yourself.

I’d mentioned last week that after the ceremony, the newlyweds and their children hosted dinner at a lovely restaurant nearby, inviting J. and me, as well as the lovely minister and his wife. When they made the reservation, they made arrangements to bring along the beautiful wedding cake their daughter had baked so it could be served for dessert.

The family arrived at the restaurant first, two dads and their son all decked out in suits with boutonnieres, and their daughter in a stunning dress with a lovely wrist corsage. One of the dads handed the gorgeous cake to our greeter. The rest of the party arrived soon thereafter, filling the remaining four seats at the table. We sat facing the happy family, two glowing dads flanked by their two children.

It was the perfect evening with easy conversation. After Tom’s diatribe on red Smarties, Harry shared his feisty wedding-suit saleswoman’s loud comments on his hard-to-fit high glutes and saggy bottom. I dare say a splendid time was being had by all.

As we awaited our delectable meals–this was a grown-up restaurant after all–one of the serving staff leaned toward Harry and quietly asked him something we couldn’t hear. He tried not to draw attention to the interaction but because we were nosy, he acknowledged he’d been asked, “Shall we serve the cake when the bride arrives?”

Now I understand why Harry looked so confused at this question. There were 8 seats at our reserved table and all of those seats were taken. Even if a bride were due to arrive later, where would she sit? On Tom’s dapper lap? Wouldn’t that be a bit awkward for Harry? How could the server miss the two glowing grooms?

Harry appeared to take the comment in stride. (Did he really? How hurt was he by this innocent question?) He quietly instructed the server to bring the cake out when it was time for dessert, which another server did at that time. She asked no less delicately where to place the cake. (Sure, gay folks can marry in Canada, but they must not celebrate their union in public, it seems.) J. quickly piped in, “Between Tom and Harry [the “obviously” was implied].”

I wonder whether, by the time we left, the serving staff had figured out whose wedding we were celebrating. I had not just married Tom nor J. Harry, since we too are already gaily joined in matrimony. Similarly, the minister and his wife seemed very well heterosexually matched. And the children are a bit young for wedded bliss. That left only Tom and Harry.

People rarely bat an eye when I speak of Jelly’s other mother. But gay husbands and fathers are harder for many to understand. I can only pray such misunderstandings are not a daily occurrence for our dear friends.

In retrospect, I wish I’d clinked my glass loudly, prompting the grooms to demonstrate their love for one another with a mushy kiss. I imagine this simple gesture would have cleared up all of the confusion.

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

Yeah, sure, sometimes I’m grateful.

Let’s start this post by saying that I don’t buy a lot of clothes. But a few days ago I bought a t-shirt, size medium. (Hopefully it will still fit me when my unintentional hunger strike ends.) It says #grateful across the front, which I find a little Oprah-esque, but I liked it anyhow.

I don’t like to preach gratitude but occasionally I do find myself thinking of things I’m grateful for. Being alive is the most obvious one.

Soon after I bought the shirt, as if by fate, I had a texting exchange with a doctor friend, my second debrief of sorts with him following last week’s adventure at the urgent care clinic. He was kind enough to check in the evening of my incident, and somehow we got to texting again on Friday afternoon.

I was worried my friend might be angry with me for what I’d recently posted about my visit to the clinic because he’s the kind kind of guy (no, that was not one of my frequent editing errors) whom I imagine feels responsible for anyone’s mistreatment by a medical professional. That’s quite a burden to bear, don’t you think? I reminded him that he can let that go.

When I asked him whether he was angry with me for what I’d written, he responded: I could never be angry with you. To say I was touched by his response would be a gross understatement. The sentiment actually brought tears to my eyes. I know, you’re not surprised.

Sometimes someone says something to me that I know I will never forget. Some are traumatic moments, the ones where someone has blurted out something very hurtful or mean. We all have moments like those, interactions where we feel shamed or belittled or bullied. I try to let these incidents go because I don’t find stewing about them helpful. Sometimes I am successful but sometimes I am not.

But the moments where someone says something that so kind and supportive, those are moments I want to hold on to. I must have reread the text several times before I deleted it. It has been a great comfort.

Has anyone ever told me that I could never evoke anger? No one, ever. I understand why. I spend my days infuriating people with my irritability and cluelessness and rigidity and all my other tiresome quirks. Maybe this dear friend doesn’t know those annoying sides of me that would drive him crazy were we to spend too much time together.

Or maybe he does know how difficult I can be, and he still chose these words of support. That’s a true friend. So everyone should know how grateful I am. Thanks, dear friend, for debriefing with me after your very long day of work. And thanks for your continued kindness when we caught up a few days later, even if you were disinhibited by your first vacation beer. This post’s for you, bud.

And now I must go put on my new t-shirt, to drive the point home.

 Beer stein filled with beer on a wooden table at a pub

 

Jelly Jelly, full of belly, how does your garden grow?

Basset hound sniffing at the kale in chicken-wire cages

Within the few days since my last post, our flourishing garden is now bursting at the seams. In addition to our radish sprouts, our yellow and green zucchini, beets, beans, green onions, and lettuce have all made appearances. When they say 5-7 days on those seed packets, they really mean it. Any day now, we expect to see the beginnings of our herbs as well. Potatoes are hopefully taking root in our expensive new soil–growing vegetables ain’t cheap, at least in the first year–and our eggplant and strawberry plants are thriving.

One thing we’ve learned about gardening is that fellow aficionados are generous. In the past, even without a garden, we’ve received their overflow, but this year, they’ve donated the lush benefits of their hydroponics operations as well. Heirloom tomatoes grown from seed, kale for our salads and soups, even nutrient-rich soil from our friends’ garden if we need it.

Now we somehow have to protect our plants from pests small and large. First there are the bad insects, which we have banished thus far with the help of good insects, companion planting–even plants have besties–and soil coverage. Our studious kale plants are reading the newspaper as we speak.

Then there are the squirrels, which are cute from afar, but not in our garden. I have nothing against squirrels, but we are overrun with them thanks to a neighbour who generously keeps them in peanuts. They bury their cache in our yard, digging up plants in the process. Then they forget their hiding spots, often foraging in the wrong places. My keen observations suggest that squirrels are not very bright.

Finally, there is the peskiest pest of all: the beloved dog. I’ve sometimes wondered whether Jelly has iron-deficiency anemia because of her affection for greens. When we leave our grocery bags in our entranceway following a big shop, Jelly systematically pokes her head into each one scouting for greens, pillaging any leaf within reach. When we deign to store those greens on the bottom shelf of our fridge, Jelly materializes whenever the fridge opens in search of a healthy snack. Kale seems to be her favourite. Don’t worry, we wash our greens, especially before we serve them to company.

So why did I make the egregious error of placing our two donated kale plants within our easy reach, completely forgetting that Jelly would then have access to them too? (Remember, folks, I’m a novice, barely a preschooler, at this gardening stuff.) After a few drive bys–there goes a leaf faster than you can say, “Stop! Thief!”–and several more surreptitious attempts to score a snack, our generous friends loaned us chicken-wire cages to protect our kale from The Predator. Jelly still eyes the plants longingly but can’t seem to figure out how to knock the cages out of the way. It’s only a matter of time.

If Jelly does manage to break through the kale cages, our friends have promised a larger chicken-wire contraption to contain the dog. That’s a creative gardening solution. They must have gardening Ph.D.’s.