Sunday, October 28, 2007

Tag



So, I was recently tagged by Sherry, whose blog abreast in the world posts the latest research and news in breast cancer, along with deep observations, bold opinions and absolutely gorgeous graphics. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to express, Sherry! (Being a newbie, I’m not sure if I’m doing this right, but I think I am supposed to supply six factoids about myself then tag someone else…)

1. Disclosure: Anything funny in this blog originated from my friend Sam. It’s a good thing I had breast cancer and she didn't because if she decides to write a blog, she’ll have to find another community of writers and readers--and that means my witticisms and wry observations will remain “my own.”

2. I got caught shoplifting when I was 9. I had stuffed a bottle of bubbles and a box of Red Hots in the front of my shorts (stealthy, I am not). The manager of the Ben Franklin Five and Dime, a very big woman in a sleeveless summer dress, asked me what I had taken. “Nothing” not being an option, I removed the stolen items and stared off into the middle distance. She took me to the back office, where I thought she was going to autoclave the items and give me a lecture. To my horror, she did neither; instead, she made me call my dad. A super fun phone conversation ensued, and I was grounded for a month. Fortunately, my mom could never follow through on our restrictions. After a week and a half, she came home from work with a brand new pair of white go-go boots for me. “You can go outside,” she said. I put on my go-go boots and slammed open the screen door.

3. I love Thanksgiving. I love everything about it. One of my top 5 favorite things to do is spend the day before Thanksgiving baking pumpkin and deep-dish apple pies. I’ll put on some music, throw open the windows (it’s usually sunny here in California that time of year), light candles, make dough and put it in the freezer until it's cold enough to roll, and peel apples until I get blisters. This year, my brother and his wife are coming, as well as Ocho and his crew of 8. My ex and his girlfriend may be coming for pie. I hope so.

4. This is for a whole ‘nother post, but I have been reading a book my friend Tina gave me called, “Cancer as a Turning Point.” It’s a great book. It offers up all sorts of insight into how to find meaning in cancer and use it as an opportunity to re-evaluate your life and reorient your compass. I packed the book when Ocho and I went to Mineral King in the Sequoia National Forest this last September. We did some of the book's exercises in the car on the way there. One of them asked, “What makes you feel alive? What has the opposite effect?” Ocho rallied and supplied some answers. I filled several pages of the little spiral notebook he had in his console. Later in the week, I was reading the book in bed, and did Exercise 5. The opening sentence reads: “There is an old saying: On the day before you die, get your house in order. Write what you would have to do today if you were to follow this advice.” I had a sudden, urgent thought and jumped out of bed to get the notepad I had stolen from Ocho's car: Tell Mom and Dad that I love them, I wrote. I had 20 or 30 other bullet points that followed, but my knee-jerk, gut response was to tell the people who had given me life (and grounded me for shoplifting) that I was aware of the hard work, the sacrifice, the suffering, the joy, the fun, the sweetness and the disappointment that had gone into raising me.

5. If I died tonight, I would feel as if I had experienced a rich, full, meaningful life. I have struggled mightily with religion my whole life, but the past 17 months have opened new spiritual possibilities to me. I will always be a Buddhist at heart. Its compassion, acceptance and inclusiveness is appealing to me. But I also see that this past year and a half has been what my friend Andrea calls “a God thing.” Sam wholeheartedly agrees. The topic is worthy of its own, complete thought.

6. I was feeling very ‘boo-humbug” (ok, I stole that from Ms. Feral) about Halloween and had decided not to pull out the decorations: the little plastic skeletons with headshots of Mike and Kate as the “skulls,” the black “Mr. Death,” that laughs maniacally whenever you make a loud noise, the white stuffed ghosts and orange lights that for the past 15 years I’ve hung in the kitchen window, etc. “Screw it,” I thought. “I’m tired. And I’m depressed.” But, while the past year I’ve let myself off the hook for sometimes not sending thank you notes, letting bought-but-not-sent birthday presents languish on the entryway table, neglecting the yard, paying bills late, I deciced that foregoing my kids’ traditions was not going to be one of the casualties of my recent ennui and sadness. I spent the weekend raking leaves, planting purple and orange flowers, buying pumpkins, and taping up the ghosts and the kids’ homemade Halloween decorations from elementary school. It made me happy. And while my kids didn't pull out their digital cameras or write about it on gmail or myspace, I know that having a little continuity in their lives means more than they consciously notice or can express.

Sherry, thank you! I’d like to tag Princess Hedgehog at http://princesshedgehogchronicles.blogspot.com. Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I Don't Want to Look Cute



“You look adorable,” said my friend Judie, when I tried on a wig that reminded me of Mia Farrow’s haircut in Rosemary’s Baby. The woman who’d just put the wig liner and wig on my head nodded in agreement. Clearly, neither she, nor Judie, was lucid. Mia looked adorable in that haircut because she weighed 98 pounds and looked like a sexy pixie with her cute freckles and startling bone structure. Me? 145 pounds. A smattering of age spots. Woodland creature cheeks.

It was June 2006, and I knew I was going to lose my hair in mid-August after getting the first of six Adriamyacin/Cytoxan chemo-tinis, straight up. To get used to having less hair, I did what a lot of pre-chemo women do: I cut my hair in increments. When I went to the Wig Palace with Judie, I had recently cut my long hair into a smart little shoulder-length bob. It was kind of fun and swingy, but I lived in mortal fear of humidity or rain, either of which transformed my angular bob into a fuzzy pyramid.

“I don’t want to look cute,” I said to Judie and the wig lady.

I was surprised by the words. I am able to speak my mind, but I have the kind of personality that tends more toward the timid than the torrid. That changed fast after May 2006, when I found out I had breast cancer. I knew for a fact that I was going to have to take extraordinarily good care of myself if I was going to get through it.

Taking good care of myself meant making an appointment with my OB/Gyn when I felt that hard, small, immovable lump in May 2006 (even though I’d just been in her office the previous week for a UTI). Changing plastic surgeons midstream. Telling my oncologist that I didn’t think I could do Chemo #6 because it was taxing my heart. Letting my second plastic surgeon know that I was unhappy with my reconstruction (even though I think he’s a compassionate human being and a great surgeon). Recently calling Dr. B at the Dorothy Schneider Cancer Center for an ultrasound because my oncologist had found a lump.

(My oncologist thought the lump was scar tissue, but I’ve learned to err on the side of caution. Turns out it was scar tissue. And I’m grateful for Dr. B, who took my call on a Thursday and scheduled me for an ultrasound at 8:00 a.m. on Friday.)

I tell this story because, while it’s important to speak up for yourself in life, it’s absolutely critical to speak up for yourself in the medical system. No one else is going to do it as well, and with as much personal information, as you.

“Judie, let’s go get lunch,” I suggested to my friend when we were standing out on the sidewalk of the Wig Palace. The wig lady had suggested we look at the Mia wig in natural light.

A week later I found Hansen/Fontana in San Francisco. They make wigs out of human hair and style them to your specifications. It’s where I got the wig with the permanently side-swept, “That Girl” bangs. But it was a radical improvement over the Mia wig. I had to go to work, in a new job, in an office, and it was paramount that I look and feel as good as I could. And if that meant saying that I didn’t want to look cute, I was just fine with that.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

NorCal Rednecks


To put myself through college, I waited tables at Longhorn Steaks in Marietta, Georgia. It had a jukebox full of Hank Williams Jr. and Willie Nelson records; a vintage, white Frigidaire full of long-necked Budweisers and Lone Stars; and red vinyl booths full of 10-percent-tipping rednecks.

When I moved to San Francisco, I noticed it, too, was full of icons: politically correct boomers, bargain taquerias, overpriced real estate, high-test coffee, dot.com intellectuals, aging hippies, and a conspicuous absence of rednecks.

And while it's been 20 years since I've lived in the South, I still can ID a redneck in 20 seconds flat. So I was certain--absolutely--that the guys in the pick-up next to me at the Bank of America last summer were beer-guzzlin', chick-hatin', finger-lickin'...rednecks.

I had just had chemo #2 and was working at home instead of the office. I took a break to go get a sandwich at the deli and to deposit a check at the bank. It was 120 degrees in my un-airconditioned house, so I left my wig with the permanently side-swept bangs on the kitchen table.

I drove to Lorenzo's and got my egg-salad sandwich. Inside were two teenagers, who didn't even notice me, and the owner, who nonchalantly put my sandwich and chips and soda in a bag and wished me a lovely afternoon. "Cool," I thought. "I may as well be invisible." I drove over to the Bank of America to deposit my expense check. As I pulled into my parking space, I glanced over to my left.

Next to me were two guys in a blue pick-up truck. The guy on the passenger side, the one I could see, had long, dirty hair and was wearing what my friend Sam calls a "wifebeater"--the same sleeveless white t-shirt that Edward Norton Jr. wore in American History X. "Ok, here we go," I thought, as I got out of the car and made eye-contact with the dude on the left. "Go ahead; make your derogatory comment about my shiny, bald head, you dim, hairy redneck."

The guy leaned out his window and smiled at me. "You look really pretty," he said.

"Thank you," I said, smiling back. I was close to tears, but I was just too happy to cry.

You never know about people. Even when you're absolutely certain you think you do.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Texas Hold 'Em


Here’s what I remember from those first post-mastectomy moments: Waking up to see my primary care physician, Dr. J, in the recovery room (even though there was no medical reason for him to be there). Being comforted by my family and friends. Watching my Mom futz with the daisies and delphiniums. Sipping 7-Up. Smiling, even though the pink-flowered elastic tube top they had put on me felt like it was lined with burlap and foxtails. Testing the efficiency of my morphine PCA drip. Feeling gratitude. Worrying what my hair looked like. Drifting in and out of sleep.

I also clearly remember this:

My “suite” had the usual hospital stuff, but one half of it had the look and feel of the Brady’ Bunch’s den. It had a low-slung sofa, a curvy coffee table, an entertainment center and TV, and a big round table with chairs, over which hung a Gunsmoke--looking light fixture.

After sleeping a bit, I woke to the sound of voices, so I turned in their direction. Surrounding the big round table were my ex, Ocho, my brother Dennis and his girlfriend, my Dad, my son Michael and his buddy, and my friend from work, Mitch.

My brother: “Ok, here’s the flop…here’s the river…and I’m guessing the ex has nothin’ but pocket deuces.”

The ex: “I’m betting my pocket deuces’ll beat that weak hand you got, Dennis.”

Ocho: “Check.”

My brother: “You can’t check yet, Ocho.”

Ocho: “Right…”

They were playing Texas Hold ‘Em. And it felt oddly normal and comforting.

The game lasted for hours and continued into the night, while Mom and Katie watched movies and read People and Us.

I did have a few hours alone. When everyone left to get dinner that first night, I took the opportunity to look at myself. The desk/table that held my 7-Up and ice had a secret pull-out compartment with a mirror. I flipped up the mirror and looked at myself. The tube top I had on was pink with patronizing little flowers and a ruffle at the bottom and the top. “Good grief,” I thought. “Who designed this ridiculous-looking and uncomfortable thing? Not only does it itch, it looks like a top I got at the Sears Roebuck in Shawnee Mission, Kansas when I was 11.”

I undid the Velcro on the tube top and looked at the white bandages wrapped around my chest. My chest was as flat as a prairie. “I look exactly like I did in 1971,” I thought. I laughed at the image, and also, I think, at the reconstituted pre-teen angst it induced. Then I had a good cry.

Two days after the surgery, I was discharged from the hospital. When I got home, I had a burst of energy—I looked at my flowers, I went through my mail, I had dinner on the couch. Two hours later, I crashed and crawled into bed.

The French doors in my bedroom look out onto my backyard. Here's how I'd like to describe the view: green grass, abundant flowers, artfully shaped Japanese maples and a little Balinese meditation house. Here’s the actual view: dead grass, abundant dog poo, leggy Japanese maples and a deteriorating wooden swing set that is a liability just waiting to happen.

There are, however, hand-trimmed, 12-foot hedges in my backyard, as well as an orange tree, a giant redwood, and some Mexican sage that the hummingbirds like. I gazed upon these for a while then fell asleep for a few hours. I woke to the sound of voices out on the back deck. It was a lovely feeling being in my home, surrounded by my family and friends, the setting sun making everything look a deeper shade of green, the current crisis providing meaning, energy, solidarity, love and life. I soaked it all in. And I listened…

Here’s what I wanted to hear: “…incredible…recovering so quickly…very brave…such a good mom…can you believe what she’s done to this yard?...so strong…so healthy…so lucky…and her hair looks amazing…”

Here’s what I heard:

“Who needs a beer?”

“The ex needs one because he’s only got a two and a five.”

“The bro needs one because he’s going to try to bluff with that inferior hand.”

“Check.”

“You can’t check yet, Ocho.”

“Right…”

I drifted in and out. Everything in my world was Ok.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Totally Mod

Like most couples, Ocho and I recycle arguments. In fact, we've totally flattened the cans on a few topics. So I was delighted when we recently got into it about something brand new.

Ocho was at his house in his bed watching a movie on his Macbook. I was at my house making an Excel spreadsheet of my expenses. I called Ocho, looking for a distraction. "Who's in the movie?" I asked. "It's the guy who was in The Mod Squad," he said. "He also was in The Matrix."

"Dude," I said. "You are so not the man when it comes to '70s pop culture. Lawrence Fishburne was in The Matrix, but it was a totally different guy in The Mod Squad."

"Same guy," Ocho insisted.

With that challenge, I opened another browser window and googled a photo of Lawrence Fishburne. Then I googled The Mod Squad. This is one of the photos I found:



All of a sudden, it didn't matter whether the actor in Ocho's movie was Lawrence Fishburne or Clarence Williams III (whose name I'd just found). What mattered is that I'd found a graphic representation of each distinct phase of my hair evolution this past year. I emailed the photo to Ocho. "Check this out," I said on the phone. "Before chemo, I was Julie. For about eight months post-chemo, I was Pete. Now that the rainy season is here, I am Linc."

When people want to tell you something difficult, they often will use we instead of I. "We are tired of hearing about your hair," Ocho announced. "I am too," I said. "Honest. But think about it this way: My hair, and the amount of product and time it takes to do it, is so consuming that it totally distracts me from all the other things that bug me. Dig?"

Silence. Although, I'm sure he was thinking, "Right on, Baby. Right on."

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Namaste


There’s a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn called Wherever You Go, There You Are. It’s all about mindfulness, being in the moment, focusing.

The idea is that if you focus completely on whatever it is you’re doing—chopping wood, carrying water, washing dishes, folding clothes, listening to someone squeegee the very last eighth of a teaspoon of yogurt out of their little plastic Yoplait container—you will become clearer, calmer, centered.

Ocho and I recently spent a Saturday at Spirit Rock meditation center in Woodacre. It offers the uncentered masses classes with names like “Transforming Our Rage Inheritance,” “Whole Body Breathing,” and “Essential Dharma.” I signed us up for something a bit more suburban-sounding: “The Art of Acceptance.” I figured there was plenty I needed to accept.

The Art of Acceptance involved free green tea, hours of meditation and a 40-minute talk on the Art of Acceptance. During the first of what easily were hour-long sitting meditations, I would hyper-focus on Ocho’s breathing and the shooting pain that started at the base of my neck and ended at my coccyx. After a few sitting meditations, the speaker sounded the gong and announced that we’d be going outside for a walking meditation. I tried to high-five Ocho, but he ignored me. (And it had nothing to do with his shortage of fingers.) No matter. I was overjoyed that we were going to have recess, if only for a few liberating minutes.

What do you visualize when you hear the words “walking meditation”? When it was announced, I had a visual of myself trotting through the mossy, fog-blanketed hills of Woodacre, while someone back at the yurt fluffed my zafu and zabutan. Instead, I discovered that a walking meditation consisted of the 120 people who were recently sitting and meditating and breathing beside me, together (but individually) walking the Spirit Rock grounds at a snail’s pace in the pouring down rain.

And it is impossible for me to exaggerate the pace or the rain.

Here’s what it’s like to walk meditatively: Imagine picking up your right foot and s-l-o-w-l-y motoring it forward. Two whole minutes later, you carefully put your foot down on the wet ground, while the rain drips from your nose to your chin to your now palsied foot. Then you do the same thing with the left foot. And on and on. Forever and ever. “You all look so stupid,” was the phrase that was doing a continual loop through my increasingly irritated consciousness.

Back inside the center, I tried to meditate. Like surfing, it is harder than it looks. I found all kinds of distractions, most of which involved my looking around when I was supposed to have my eyes closed. Who had the best posture? Who had a cute haircut? Who looked like they lived in Marin? Who was the stillest? I also was distracted by sound. The sound of the heater kicking on. The sound of the blinds slapping against the window frame when the heater kicked on. The sound of Ocho’s allergies.

The sound of my stomach rumbling momentarily distracted me from the sound of Ocho’s breathing. The green tea, even four cups of it, wasn’t holding me.

Just in the nick of time, the speaker sounded the gong and announced lunch. Before getting to Spirit Rock that morning, Ocho and I had stopped at Whole Foods in Mill Valley. We stuffed almonds, wasabi peas, berries, brown rice cakes, curried free-range chicken salad, organic yogurt and recycled plastic spoons into our reusable grocery bag. Some people went outside to eat; others stayed inside and either sat in their chairs, on their zafus or meditation benches, or lounged on the floor. Ocho and I lounged on the floor and shared our Zen-y goods. I desperately wanted to tell him about the bet I’d wagered on the “race” between the dude with the dreads and the woman with the matronly gray bouffant and the pink windbreaker. I wanted to see who would get to the door last after the gong sounded. I didn’t have the opportunity to tell him this exciting development, however. We’d been instructed to eat in silence.

After lunch, we had our sixth or seventh sitting meditation, followed by our fourth and final walking meditation.

I went outside hatless. The rain had turned into a mist. While walking up toward the hill, I looked around me. Everyone was outside in the mist, their movements almost imperceptible. The grass and the leaves on the trees were heavy with rain. The air smelled like wet earth. The fog was slow and dense. I took a deep breath, and I thought, “Wow. I can think. I don’t have to rush. I can focus only on what’s happening and what I’m feeling in this very moment. And these people around me? They’re trying to think and focus, too.”

I went inside. Clear. Calm. Centered.

Ocho and I collected our things. “Are you going to finish that yogurt,” he asked. I glared at him. “Touch that yogurt, and I’ll stab you in the eye with this recycled spoon."

Namaste.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Cancer Hat


It was the hottest summer on record, and I was at Longs with the kids buying back-to-school supplies. While looking for thin black Sharpie markers, 1½ inch sturdy binders and other insanely specific items, I started to schvitz in my purple/black polar fleece ski hat.

I wore that ski hat because I was bald and because it was the only hat that I’d ever found that didn’t emphasize the fact that I have a very small head and very broad shoulders. I also have very muscular calves, for the record, which annoys my brother no end.

“Each family is given 100 percent of a certain trait or quality,” he hypothesizes, “and the members have to divvy up that percentage. I got the math and the fantasy football skills; you got the English and the calves.”

And the small head. Which wants to drift from the main point of this story…

Last August, a few weeks after I’d lost my hair, I found the ski hat in the back of my closet. I’d gotten it in Tahoe in 1995, during an impromptu weekend trip to the snow with my ex and my son. There was a blizzard that weekend, and, as usual, I’d packed all sorts of things: Scrabble. Cayenne. The latest Anne Tyler novel. New Matchbox cars for Mike. A little red raincoat for our dog, Sophie. Real maple syrup for the pancakes. But I’d forgotten socks for everyone and a hat for myself. So while we were in Truckee for lunch, I bought six pairs of socks and the purple/black polar fleece ski hat.

I wore the ski hat every year when we went skiing. And I wore it constantly after I'd lost my hair. All other hats engulfed my wee, little head. Most people don't know this, but when you lose your hair, you lose several inches of head circumference, especially if you lose lots of hair, like I did. I wasn't aware of that fact when the month before my chemo started I bought a green hat that I imagined would look cute on my soon-to-be-hairless head.

I brought it home and excitedly tried it on. "Isn't this cute?" I asked Mike and Kate. Kate, who usually gives straight-up wardrobe advice, declined comment. “That is such a cancer hat, Mom,” Mike said. "It is, isn’t it?” I said. I put it on a shelf in the back of my closet.

That's the cancer hat in the photo above. The photo was taken by my good friend David Papas, who's a professional photographer (www.david@papas.com). David was gracious enough (and brave enough) to take a series of shots of me before, during and after...well, everything. This shot was taken before, in Dave's South of Market studio. Not being a professional model, I had only three looks for him: self-conscious, distracted and pissed. This one artfully combines all three.

After I lost my hair, I tried on the cancer hat to see if I l'd changed my mind about it. "Life is good on Golden Pond," I said to my reflection in the mirror. "And today I'm going to catch that son of a bitch, Walter!" I returned the hat to the closet.

I digress...back to the story.

I loved the ski hat because it made me feel cute. But I also wore it for two very practical reasons: It kept my head warm and made me feel cozy. At the end of a long day, all I wanted to do was climb into my gym shorts, my Sushi Sam's t-shirt, my Uggs and my ski hat.

Which is exactly what I wore that night to buy school supplies.

As I carried our basket of items to the register, I noticed there were a few other folks that night who had decided to go to Longs 20 minutes before closing. Over by the thank you notes lingered a man with a grimy army coat and even grimier starter dreads. At the checkout was a grotesquely overweight woman buying several bottles of Mountain Dew.

I looked at each of my kids. “I’m sorry I’m wearing a ski hat in August,” I said. “It must be embarrassing for you.”

“Mom,” Mike said, “Take a look around: You are the least interesting person in here.”

“Cool,” I said, with a big smile.

I lost the hat eight months later on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz. I was simply crushed. The kids feigned concern, but they spent exactly zero minutes helping me look for it. No worries: I have my hand-knit "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" cap as a backup. I plan on wearing it lots in public.

(Note to my brother: It's going to be the Colts vs. Saints in the Super Bowl. The Colts defense won't budge on the run or pass, and the Bears are just inviting a loss with Rex Grossman as QB. In addition, while there may not be any real math in this story, there are lots of math terms.)