What Does it Mean to Be a Rearview Worrier?

I am a rearview worrier. I don’t fret about things that could go wrong in the future. Instead, I spend my time obsessing about things that might have happened in the past.

I can still see the car that sped through the red light and the intersection when, rearview mirrorthankfully, I hesitated a moment before entering. I can still feel the cracked ice and the icy water seeping into my winter boots when I fell through when I was a kid. It might be why I liked I Am, I Am, I Am so much. Or why I’ve already written about regret.

In fact, my whole memoir is about coming to understand what could have been. I only comprehended the gravity of my own brain tumor after seeing what happened to my dad after he lost much more after his stroke. It’s been 24 years since my tumor was removed and I’m still obsessing about what could have been.

Over the past two weeks I’ve I had my yearly brain MRI and exam with my doctor to ensure my tumor hasn’t returned. This annual appointment always causes me to reflect, but this year, I learned something I never knew.

There is a spot on the scan where they removed the tumor. It appears as a flat grey spot, unlike the white brain matter around it. I’ve always wondered why the spot looked so big, especially since I was told the tumor was only pea-sized. I was only 22 at the time of my surgery and I didn’t pay much attention to what was happening to me, but I imagined they went in and scraped out just the tumor from my temporal lobe.

But now that I was much older, I wanted to really understand what happened. My doctor scrolled through my scans, showing me the grey spot in three different scans of my brain until I could finally see its shape in 3-D form.

Brain scan showing missing spot
By then I was guessing the “spot” was actually a ping-pong or maybe a golf ball, something that he confirmed as he popped out the temporal lobe from a model of the brain and pretended to pinch off the front quarter of the bean-shaped lobe.

I rounded my fingers into an imaginary ball holding the space in my hand, “What’s in the space where the brain used to be?”

“Nothing, he answered. “Well, brain fluid,”

I was floored. For all the rearview worrying I had done about my brain tumor, I had never understood my surgery in that way before. I was walking around with a literal hole inside my head. Now I really had something to think about.

I had already come to terms with brain surgery and the fact that I had been very lucky to have a small tumor in a very operable spot, but I needed to know what else I might need to have been worried about. My rearview worrying set in for a while, as I pictured everything I had already imagined for my first surgery, but now doubling down. Things could have been double worse!

And then I stopped. I had done all the reverse worrying I could do. While the new information was interesting, it didn’t really change anything.

I was still who I was after the surgery and my life has played out the way it had, no matter how many times I reworked it. But I was still glad I had done all that reverse worrying in the first place. It helped me see how lucky I had been. Now, maybe even a little bit more. I still had a lot to be grateful for.  And now I  have a bigger hole where I can store all my thankfulness.

Saturation on the Algarve Coast and During a Wisconsin Flood

We are waterlogged. It has stopped raining for now, but Dane County where I live, has received epic amounts of rain over the past few weeks. Just before my husband and I left on a recent trip to Portugal, somewhere between 11 and 15 inches of rain fell in 24 hours. Flash flood warnings bellowed across the television and streets looked like rivers with water a foot deep.

News video the next day showed cars abandoned in roads, rising lake water, and a flooded Costco. I pet my dog Chai as I a read report on Facebook of a friend who spent the night at work because she couldn’t get home. As I did, I felt my dog’s ears, wondering if they had always been so thick. I thought the flaps should feel thinner between my fingers.

Later as I checked her ears again, they had grown like the swollen ground. She didn’t seem to be bothered by them, and it was too late to call the vet. Hoping to help avoid a crisis one day before we left on vacation, I tried some home remedies, giving her Benadryl and squirting some ear drops in while coaxing her with peanut butter.

The next morning only one ear was still puffy. I called the vet and set up an appointment for mid-day. By then the other ear had started to shrink back to normal size, though not all the way. The vet said ear swelling was sometimes related to an ear hematoma where a dog’s ear flap fills with blood when a dog scratches or shakes their ear too hard. But she didn’t feel that was what Chai had since her ears weren’t that swollen. She sent me home with some ointment, which we could send to the dog sitter. But by the next day the swelling was nearly gone.

I assumed the flooding was done too. It was only a little misty when we took off on our flight from Dane County Airport. But a few days later, I began seeing that there was not only flooding in Dane County, but now throughout the state. In Port Washington, my hometown, almost 9 inches of rain flooded basements and closed the Interstate.  News bulletin after news bulletin flooded my email inbox with notices about yet another county being added to a flood watch or disaster area. One morning my husband woke to texts about a probable tornado in the county where his brother lives,  which had knocked down multiple trees in his yard.

As we moved to the Algarve on the Portugal Coast, our landscape couldn’t have been more different. The ground was dry and dusty, leaving a brown coating on my sandals and feet. Everything I touched seemed to leave my hands gritty. Portugal has been dealing with its own force of nature in the form of heat and wildfires. It was only the beginning of August when the temperature soared to 113 degrees Fahrenheit and a wildfire burned more than 50,000 acres in the southern part of the country.

The Algarve coast is known for its rugged Atlantic coastline. The water has worn away the limestone and depending on the tide secret grottoes,  passageways, bays, and beaches reveal themselves. We explored the area on all levels, climbing on top of the cliffs, walking along the beaches and dipping in the water. Each revealed a new way to see the beauty.

On the beach we could walk from cove to cove, ducking through hidden archways and tunnels from one stunning beach to another. Beautiful shells washed up on the beach and left there with the tide caught the light. In the water, we paddled under the rocks on kayaks, looking up through skylights of erosion. " "

And then one by one as the tide rolled in, all these gems were gone. On our way to the Algarve we heard on the news of tourists who had to be rescued by the Coast Guard because they didn’t leave a beach in time and were stranded at high tide. It was a reminder to us as we explored the region the fleeting nature of these beautiful places.

We left for home from the small Faro airport, which led to an overnight layover in Amsterdam, another layover in Detroit, before a final flight home to Madison. It wasn’t the most convenient flight, but leaving from Faro saved us a drive back to Lisbon, and flying into Madison saved us a drive back home from Chicago or Milwaukee at the end of the trip. Still, the total trip took 15 hours, plus sleeping in the airport.

We had done a ton of walking on the trip and my feet were killing me already, but by the time we finally got in the car to make the short drive home my feet were swollen to twice their normal size. As we made the long way home, avoiding multiple streets that were still closed in Madison, I noticed the sogginess of the landscape as another storm moved in.

I wasn’t sure if my feet had brought some of the saltwater home with me or had become bloated to show sympathy with the water-logged landscaped. I wondered if that’s what Chai’s ears had done before we left.

Thankfully, in the past few days, it has finally stopped raining and my feet have returned to their previous size. Chai’s ears are back to normal too. As we go for a walk it’s as if we are walking through low tide after the flood. The debris isn’t as beautiful as the colorful shells of the Algarve, but it belongs to the rain. I wave off the mosquitos and poke at the mushrooms growing in the edges of the sidewalk.


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While I Was Away, A Nice Surprise

I have been away for about 10 days on a beautiful vacation to Portugal. I will write more about it when I’m not so tired, I wanted to share a nice surprise I learned about while I was gone.

An excerpt from my memoir about my brain tumor and my dad’s stroke was published while I was gone. This essay focuses on how my large family connects around food. After his stroke my dad was no longer able to eat solid food, rather only received nutrition through a feeding tube.
 My dad cooking before his stroke.
Though he was technically being fed, he never lost the hunger for food. And I don’t believe he understood why we weren’t allowing him to eat.

You can read the whole piece, Familial Food, at Hektoen International.

I hope you enjoy!

Book Review: Beauty in the Broken Places

This week I read Beauty in the Broken Places by Allison Pataki. It is the story of how Pataki’s husband Dave suffers a stroke in mid-air as they are flying to Hawaii during their “babymoon” when she was five months pregnant. Not that anyone ever expects a stroke, but he is only 30 and healthy, so this medical emergency is completely in the broken places_

In the early moments when she still does not know what is happening, Pataki tries to keep herself calm to protect her unborn baby. As time goes on and she sees how Dave’s mind has changed she wonders if her daughter will ever know her husband as she has.

Dave has issues with memory, acts inappropriate at times, and goes through physical therapy to regain his abilities. The book alternates between his recovery, letters she is writing to him to help him remember what he will not, and chapters that show how they met, fell in love, and came to the moment on the plane.

I am always interested to see how someone facing a drastic change in a loved one through illness responds. Pataki discusses how she used her faith to get through the experience and shows us some low points of fear and despair, but I felt as if she kept us at arm’s length.

Instead of the long narrative about the couple’s love story, I wanted to see how they struggled to regain what was lost. When she gives birth, her husband has recovered enough to take part but still has a long road of recovery ahead of him. His brain is more like an adolescent like a teen.

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”

Ernest Hemingway

Pataki discusses how he slept most of the day and wanted to do nothing but watch television at a time when his brain needed more stimulation. She lets us know that he says she is nagging him, yet we don’t see any scenes of these interactions or dialogue of this on the page.

I also wondered what it was like to bring a daughter home and have someone so unreliable in the house. She speaks about how she did all the work and of her exhaustion and resulting depression, but I imagine there might have been fear when her husband interacted with the baby or awkwardness between the couple, but the detail was not there.

From the timeline, it seems as if the stroke, writing, and publishing of the book occurred within the last few years. At the end of the book, Dave writes a letter thanking Allison and others for their support but acknowledges there is still work to be done. I wonder what type of book it might have been if it had been written in a few years when the full story could be told.

What Do We Really Know Anyway?

This week I came across two seemingly opposite, but related quotes. The first came from a fellow writer and blogger who was describing her self-publishing process. She was discussing what she knew when she started the process and what she knows now. She says:

“I’m also aware of around another 50% of things that I know I need to know…”

Christine Betts, The story continues … my  self-publishing journey

I love the curiosity in the statement. It shows how far she has come and how open she is about learning what she doesn’t know.

It is different than the other kind of not knowing I read about this week. This quote came from an article about Dr. Barbara K. Lipska. I wrote about this book a few weeks ago. It tells the story of a neuroscientist who begins experiencing strange symptoms as a previous breast cancer moves into her brain.

In the article in the Washington Post, the writer, Libby Copeland, paraphrases Lipska:

“The thing she’s realized, Lipska tells me, is that we don’t know the things we think we know.”

-Libby Copeland, She made a career out of studying the brain. Then hers veered off course.

Though this quote seems less hopeful, showing our fate as unlucky humans who can’t possibly know what might befall us, it made me think about it in less dire terms. In the business world, saying that someone doesn’t know what they don’t know is a put-down.

It’s a way of saying, a person should have the forethought to prepare for whatever might come. It’s usually used to point the finger. Of course with our health, blame isn’t always relevant.

Though modern medicine seems to have it all figured out, it too has many unknowns. There are even words for the things it can’t define, such as idiopathic, which means of unknown cause.

Today, doctors are also trying to manage the things it may not know. Doctors practice “active surveillance”, which is a way of managing the known unknown. Active surveillance may be practiced instead of treating a patient with a less aggressive form of cancer.  Instead of receiving treatment the patient may return to the doctor for tests and biopsies every six or 12 months to see if cancer markers have increased and if treatment is needed.

For a doctor, not treating may be the hardest thing. But it’s hard for us all. We all want to be the person who knows everything. Admitting we don’t is harder.

what we dont know versus what we know we dont know_




Lights Out. The Magic of Anesthesia and Amnesia.

I had minor surgery this week that required general anesthesia. I have been knocked out a lot in my life, but it has been about 10 years since my last surgery on my foot. A lot has changed. Then I don’t remember so many people coming in to tell me what would be happening.

All of them asked me the same questions to make sure I was the right patient and that they were performing the right procedure and then explained what they would be doing. The anesthesiologist explained his portion of the proceedings in great detail, which seemed pointless since he was there to make me forget the whole thing. He explained how they’d knock me out. There would be sedation,  given intravenously, a mask over my mouth to deliver the anesthesia, and a tube in my throat, though it wouldn’t go all the way in, so I wouldn’t have a sore throat after.

Right now I’m having amnesia and deja vu at the same time… I think I’ve forgotten this before.

-Steven Wright

Just before 9:30 they started my IV and then walked me down to the operating room. I felt fine, and I even jumped up on the operating table, telling them I didn’t need a step stool. I laid back on the thin table and looked up at the enormous lights above me and a few people I hadn’t met yet apologized for their cold hands. For a split second, I started to get anxious. I thought about the mask and the tube. And that was it. I don’t even know if I closed my eyes. alt=

Before I knew it, someone was saying my name. I opened my eyes and looked up at the clock and saw that it was 11:30. I didn’t remember a thing. The magic of amnesia.

Once I had slept off the rest of the drugs, it made me wonder about the powerful drugs they had slipped me this and other times I’d gone under. How exactly did they make me forget? I hadn’t fallen asleep yet in the operating room. They had done what they said they were going to do, putting me under anesthesia with the mask and securing the tube. I just couldn’t remember.

All I could really find out was that the drugs that give you amnesia affect the area of your brain that remembers things. Duh. So you can respond, but you can’t remember. These were the drugs given in my  IV to make me relax.

The anesthesia was given through the mask while I was still awake but experiencing a state of amnesia. Scientists still aren’t exactly sure how anesthesia works. A guess is that it changes cell activity and makes it alt=harder for neurons to fire. Recent studies are focusing on what anesthesia can teach us about where consciousness exists in the brain.

Looking back on the history of surgery, I much prefer this method. In the past, I might be given a stick to chew on as they cut into me. Thankfully we have drugs to help us forget. Even if we don’t know how they work.



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A trimmer? A roller? And what does it say about you?

I was painting this weekend. Before this weekend I mentioned my plans to my dental hygienist and she mentioned how much she hated doing trim and much preferred rolling. She said her husband thought it was out of character since she was so detail-oriented in everything else she did.

I couldn’t know for sure, but I imagined anyone who cleaned other people’s teeth for a living had to be focused in on the details. She had spent a half an hour scraping and picking at my teeth until they felt like the hull of a yacht that would soon be put on the market.

I always thought that cleaning someone else’s teeth would take the type of patience I didn’t have. I had spent the time she was polishing my teeth imagining how spic-and-span her grout must be at home. I myself am not that fastidious.

But when I started thinking about the two different painting jobs, I realized I liked trim-work much better. The thought of rolling on the paint in the wide open area in the middle seemed like so much more work. I much preferred the careful precision of working carefully around the edges.

I wasn’t sure if it was because of the body movements, small and controlled with trim, versus big and strong with rolling that made me prefer one over the other or if it was something else. Maybe it was the even keel nature of the trim work and of knowing exactly where my work started an ended, like a neat checklist.

blue paint roller
Photo by Anete Lusina on

Everyone I asked had strong opinions about whether they preferred rolling or trimming, though no one could really articulate why. Both camps seemed to see value in their own preferred task, while still seeing the other as having merit as well. Most often people were tied to one,  and were sure they could never do the other.

I’m not sure what it is about this job that makes people so loyal to one over the other. Or if your preference for one versus the other  says  something universal about you. I do know in the end whether you are creating the outline or filling it in, it’s easier to paint within the lines when you do it together.

So tell me, which do you prefer, trimming or rolling? What do you think it says about you?

Photo by Tookapic on

No One Wants to Know What They Look Like Six Years From Now

If you could spy on yourself would you do it? Would you be brave enough to see yourself as others do? Would you want to look at yourself in 3D? Or even in 2D?

My foray into snooping on myself started one afternoon when I went through my old email box. Though I hadn’t looked there for maybe a year I was surprised to find that this other me was holding correspondence without me.

She was planning vacations, figuring out who to vote for, and was being invited to all kinds of fun (yet virtual) events. She was very busy and very in demand.

But then I got a notification from Facebook Messenger and actually saw her. She was staring back at me. Well, at least it sure looked like me. Except, it couldn’t be, could it?

A friend had sent a picture of a woman posing for a selfie that was making the rounds on Facebook. Someone had found the camera and wanted to find the owners. She said the post was old, but suggested the woman in the photo could be a relative of mine because of the resemblance. The more I looked at it, the more I wondered if it was this other me. The one from the other mailbox.

She sure tipped her head to the side the way I did. And the way she pursed her lips together in a sort of smug, but still bemused smile reminded me of my own grin in like photos. She even had a little dimple like me.alt=

I zoomed in. Yes. She even had red hair. Though much longer than I had ever been able to achieve. Maybe she had been studying some of those beauty tips I had seen in the other inbox.

And who was that guy? He looked vaguely familiar, like someone I might have dated once before I met my husband. Perhaps she had responded to the other email I read from her “friend”, the dating coach for smart successful women.

After studying the picture for as many clues as possible, I closed the browser and forgot about my clone. A few days later, I saw her again in my feed. Another friend was helping this poor couple find their camera. This time I opened up the post and looked closer.

The post had been shared more than 21,000 times, but there were only 11 comments. In the fourth one, I saw that someone knew the man in the picture and had messaged him to return the camera. Mystery solved.

Then I noticed the date. 2012. So, this person wasn’t really alternate me. It was alternate me, six years ago. Which meant alternate me was six years older now.

How had her life turned out? Did the guy in the picture and her stay together? What did she look like now? Would I look the same in six years?

I could probably find out the same way I had found out about my doppelganger in the first place. I could post the picture on my Facebook wall, “I’m looking for these people who once lost their camera, but were found because of social media. I think I look like the person in the picture and want to see what I’ll look like in six years.”

But that would be crazy, right? Who wants to see what they look like when they are older? These people have been through enough. And I’ve done enough spying on alternate me.


Book Review: The Art of Misdiagnosis

As a memoir and creative nonfiction writer, it’s no surprise memoirs are my favorite books to read. I think the greatest test of a memoir is knowing the big surprise and still wanting to read the book. Unlike other books, we know what happens going in. We don’t read to know what happens, but how the writer processed what happened.

In reading The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, by Gayle Brandeis, it is no surprise that story centers around her mom’s disappearance and suicide just a few days after she gave birth to her son. The subtitle gives that plot point away and the book begins with Brandeis’ blunt “After my mom hangs herself, I become Nancy Drew.”

But from there the story doesn’t follow the usual progression. We might expectmisdiagnosis Brandeis to simply look back for clues about why her mother killed herself, perhaps blame herself, and wonder what it means for her newborn. But the book is a combination of much more.

Brandeis weaves the troubled time leading up to the moment we know is coming with letters she is writing to her mom, following her mother’s death. Also, we see snippets of the script of The Art of Misdiagnosis, from which the book takes its title. It was the documentary her mother had been working on. The documentary chronicled the diseases her mother thought plagued her family – porphyria and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. We also see Brandeis’ past illnesses and experiences with being “the sick one”, which were both real and made up.

As her mother’s mental illness progressed and I read the troubling interactions between the two near the end of Brandeis’ pregnancy and even as I knew what would ultimately happen with her mother, I felt myself pulled into the story emotionally. I almost forgot what was coming, wondering with Brandeis, and perhaps wanting to suspend belief about what would happen to her mother.

We don’t read to know what happens, but how the writer processed what happened.

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Like anyone who loves someone with a mental illness, Brandeis struggled with creating boundaries with her mother, yet wanting to be there for her. Near the end of the book she talks about the many pursuits that had kept her mom’s interest over the years and how she and her sister had always wanted to believe that things would turn out okay. She writes of her mother getting involved in Kabalah, “This is it, we thought. She’s better now. She found the cure. How easily we fooled ourselves.”

I also found the information about Brandeis’ early illnesses interesting. She was sick with gastrointestinal issues as a child and secretly prolonged her illness because being “The Sick Girl” and the mother of “The Sick Girl” were central to her and her mother’s identity. I too have been the sick one and know how sometimes even the wrong attention can feel so right.

As the youngest of a family of nine I often used sickness as a way to get attention until I finally realized that we are all much more than our weaknesses. I did so by after re-evaluating my brain tumor in light of my father’s disabling stroke. This is the subject of my own memoir, so it was interesting to read another’s writer’s take on it.

In researching how they might have helped treat her mother’s delusions that others are out to get her, Brandeis finds comparisons between her mother’s delusions and her own hypochondria, “people with delusional disorder share similar traits with hypochondriac, in that, “both selectively attend to available information. …They make conclusions based on insufficient information, attribute negative events to external personal causes, and have difficulty in encouraging other’s intentions and motivations.”

The book is complex and does not search for easy answers. But it is truthful to the experience of mental illness and to a daughter trying to understand the suicide of her mother. In writing this, she’s done what good memoirs do and made the personal more universal.

#Throwback Thursday: Is Nostalgia and Its Warm Hazy Glow Good for Us?

While regret is what we wish we would have done differently, nostalgia is what we wish we could live again. We see regret through cold glass looking over our shoulder and nostalgia through warm fire glow that we want to run toward.

In listening to the second half of the Hidden Brain podcast I started and wrote about last week, I was surprised to think about how universal the feeling of nostalgia is. We all have it and based on our age, have different songs, foods, and television shows that set the scene for what can give us that warm glow. We often share similar feelings of nostalgia for these cultural touchstones.

Since about the 1980s, marketers have been using our emotions and our sense of nostalgia to sell us things.  Our shared sense of nostalgia also makes for an easy source of memes and popular themes such at #ThrowBackThursday, which make us chuckle and laugh at the way we’ve all changed since then, even while we all feel that familiar pang.

And for more personal memories that make you wax nostalgic, there is often a tapestry of thoughts and emotions that make our sentimentality rise up. At this time of year, I find myself remembering summers Up North, as we Wisconsinites call anything north of where we live. alt=""

We used to travel for what seemed like a full-day to our Uncle’s Al’s cabin in Iron Mountain, Michigan. We spent one week a summer on the small lake, but all the years have been condensed into one epic week’s vacation in my mind. I see my brother, sister and I swimming in the murky lake, having competitions on the large black innertubes, my sister the only one old and brave enough to swim across. Having to use the outhouse except for at night when we could use the inside toilet. The time there was a mouse and we caught it in a bucket. The time we all got the flu and I got sick on fruit punch. Other, better times, eating meat and potato pasties and real Colby cheese which we picked up on the way. Fishing in the boat and singing the Fritos corn chips song so loud we scared the fish.

Later, when I was older, I visited my Uncle’s Eddie’s newer cabin next door and visited my Uncle Al’s cabin, now my cousin’s. I marveled at how tiny it was. I also didn’t remember all the other things I forgot when I was a kid. Being bored or crabby in the car on the way up. The spiders and the scent of the outhouse. The muck at the bottom of the lake. I don’t remember crying, though I surely did.

That’s because those memories aren’t the ones that give me that warm glow. Nostalgia is like a movie. You don’t use every shot. You edit it to include the frames that make the best story. And the bad ones you include are the ones that get the biggest laughs. alt=""

So is nostalgia good or bad? Researchers have found that instead of keeping people stuck in the past, it pulls them forward. When people feel nostalgic, they also feel hopeful and optimistic for the future. Instead of the past holding people back, people pull the past into the future.  So don’t feel bad basking in that nostalgic glow.

What makes you feel nostalgic?