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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl (the title allow caught my attention)

When I saw this book, I knew immediately who would be first on the list to read it - my sister Teresa whose list of allergies seems to grow every month.  While all in my family are allergic to one thing or another, Teresa is at a whole different level and handles it with grace, much (it sounds) like Sandra Beasley.
...btw, the chocolate-pumpkin “cheesefake”at Thanksgiving was good.

Having celebrated my own birthday a little over a month ago (and enduring over 30 food allergies and sensitivities), I had to read poet Sandra Beasley’s autobiography, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from and Allergic Life. Birthdays can be difficult when you can’t eat dairy, eggs, and soy and when you start throwing in beef, shrimp, pine nuts, cucumbers, cantaloupe, honeydew, mango, macadamia, pistachios, cashews, swordfish, and mustard, day-to-day living can be a tightrope. Sandra tackles the subject with a “that’s life” attitude, detailing serious allergic reactions that derailed family plans, adventures in eating out with friends, and the various food substitutions her mother tried over the years.  

I can relate to the experience of going somewhere and having to quiz the parent, friend, waiter, hostess, chef, cook, etc. with the eternal questions, “what’s that and what’s in it?” We follow her through childhood (she was initially diagnosed when she was a toddler), high school, college, and up to her current professional life. Along the way, she learned what happens when you aren’t careful at parties or special events (e.g., a wedding in Italy); what treatments and allergy medications have (or have not) worked and the “Russian Roulette” attitude that many have towards their allergies and treatments (e.g., what happens if you take six Benadryl at a time); how the restaurant industry avoided dealing with but is beginning to accept (sort of) their allergic customers; how to be a food critic and provide a credible restaurant review, and how the patience, understanding, and helpfulness of her circle of family and friends have helped her survive. When she takes a cooking class with her boyfriend, she gets a messy crash course in navigating her way through a recipe and in being able to find people that can live with her allergies, too.

While much of the book focuses on her allergy-afflicted adventures, Sandra also discusses her education about allergies – what they are, what causes them, how they have been and are currently being treated, why people with the same diagnosis have different reactions (or seemingly none at all), and what is the future of testing, diagnosis, and treatment. She reads about clinical trials, talks with parents of newly diagnosed children, and attends industry conferences to find out what’s new on the allergy front and what is actually working. And she, like me, has discovered that living with allergies endows you with an obsessive-compulsive need to stay in control and an opportunity to keep discovering what’s important in life. After all, would you ever try to learn how to make gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, and soy-free chocolate-pumpkin “cheesefake”? (I’m made it for Thanksgiving – ask Eileen how it was.)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Review of Val Walker's The Art of Comforting

It's been a while between posts.  Not for lack of content, but lack of time to post.  Without further ado, following is Teresa's review of The Art of Comforting.  It sounds like we could all find wisdom and peace in this book - I think will need to borrow from her.

Tragedy and loss can bring out the best and worst in people; September 11, natural disasters, foreclosure, military deployment, job loss, divorce, illness, injury, death, and the uncertainties of everyday life offer us the opportunity to help others in their struggles and tragedies. But just as clothes are not one-size-fits-all, comforting requires some customization as well. In her book The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress, Val Walker delves into this nearly-forgotten venue of human interaction; what she found is comforting people are everywhere, including in ourselves.

She begins with her own difficulties after a divorce: the canned responses, the lack of camaraderie, the isolation. A visiting friend, skilled at comforting, rescues her from the quagmire of her unhappiness and so begins her journey of trying to understand how to help others with sincerity. While many self-books are written to help people deal with one or a few types of difficulties, she couldn’t find anything that described how people truly can help others. 

Dismayed at the lack of comfort in our world, Val sought out those who have succeeded in comforting people. She wanted to go much deeper than merely asking what they did by asking: When should you reach out and how often? What should you say or write? What words or phrases are and, more importantly, are not comforting? What if someone resists your help? What strategies enable you to provide consolation and reassurance in a genuine manner? How do you help others (as well as yourself) put and keep everything in perspective?
Val dispels many myths and misunderstandings of being a comforting person: we need years of training (e.g., formal courses or a college degree); we need to be compassionate (“warm and fuzzy”); we need to be good conversationalists, always knowing what to say; we need to be cheerful or always upbeat; we need to be always available at a moment’s notice, etc. Instead, she tells of people who, in both small and big ways, reach out to someone or groups of individuals in need of understanding and hope; how art, nature, animals, and entertainment can aid in the surviving and healing process; how both adults and children can learn to be comforters, even in this techno-paced world; and how to deal with loss when it is or was inevitable. 

Throughout the book, Val stresses that there are no patented tricks or copyrighted secrets; anyone is capable, if he or she has the desire to make someone’s life a little easier today so that person can make it until tomorrow. Perhaps St. Francis of Assisi would agree (paraphrasing his famous prayer): “Oh, Master, grant that I may never seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand...”