Monday, December 31, 2007

Le Chou de Bruxelles



"How do you say 'brussels sprouts' in French?" one of my nieces asked the foreign exchange student staying with her family. Everything sounds sexy in French, including the names of vegetables.

By request of my brother-in-law, here's the very free-form "recipe" for my Christmas Eve brussels sprouts.

Chou de Bruxelles Elisa

Prepare in: One large covered sauté pan. I've seen similar recipes using stock pots or even woks; it's important to have just one layer of sprouts and a small amount of liquid.

Ingredients: brussels sprouts, water, 6-8 TB unsalted butter, sugar, prepared horseradish, caraway seeds, salt.

Step 1: Steam
Clean sprouts, removing stems and damaged outer leaves. Place in one layer in the pan, and add about 1/4-1/2 inch of water, and about 2 TB or a quarter stick of unsalted butter. Cover the pan and heat on Medium until water is boiling. Reduce to a simmer, and leave the lid ajar. Periodically stir and turn the sprouts, making sure that all of their surfaces get sauteed/steamed.

If you figure the liquid out just right, there will be no need to drain it once the sprouts are tender. Keep looking for color to change from a light green to a bright green, and then to a slightly duller color, indicating that the sprouts are tender. Take care to not over-cook, because they need to be slightly firm to withstand the sauté.

Step 2: Sauté
Once most of the water is gone, add the remaining butter. Remove the cover and sauté the sprouts on Medium, stirring often. After about five minutes, add 1/2 tsp sugar, or more to taste. Sugar will reduce bitterness and also help create a golden-brown appearance. Continue sautéing sprouts until they do start to "glow," about 10-15 minutes. Add 2 TB (more or less to taste) prepared horseradish and stir, coating all the sprouts. Sprinkle with caraway seeds and salt, and serve hot.

Bon appétit!

photo by Kent Wang

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Pilsen at Dusk



Near Cermak and Halsted, December 28, 2007.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Week from hella



Stop the world, I want to get off. Well, not really, but I'd like to pause the ride for a little while.

Early on Christmas eve, I had a festive visit with Dr. K, the radiologist. Before I consulted with her, a resident took a history and examined me. "Dr. B did your surgery? Oh, he's good. His patients usually don't have much scarring." Afterwards, Dr. K came in to complete the examination, and to describe the course of treatment. I'll be getting six weeks of radiation, five days a week. Each treatment will take about fifteen minutes.

The first step was to create a treatment plan, part of which would be to determine if it was safe to zap the lymph nodes lying along my sternum. If the lymph nodes overlap the lungs, it's a no-go, since radiation can cause damage to lung tissue. Dr. K checked the schedule that day. "There's been a couple of cancellations. Would you like to get your planning CAT scan right now?" Six months of cancer treatment has taught me a couple of things. First, if they give you a blanket, do not give it up until they allow you to get dressed again. Second, if they offer you an appointment for the same day, accept it immediately.

Off we went to the CAT scan thingy. After looking at the images, Dr. K came in to speak with me. Unfortunately, my lungs were partially under my sternal lymph nodes, so she recommended against targeting that area. Instead, they would hit my axillary, mammary and clavical nodes. A technician tattooed three blue dots at target points on my chest and armpit, and then photographed my naked torso. Tattoos and nude photos all in one hour! It was like mini spring break, only without beer bongs.

I drove home and started cleaning the house in preparation for my in-laws arrival that evening. Christmas is sort of a mixed blessing for those of us afflicted with seasonal affective disorder. I could feel my mood darkening along with the days, but the flurry of activity preceeding the holidays kept me too busy for a free-fall into the Abyss. One serious misstep was, while shopping for gifts, to purchase the book Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person, by Miriam Engleberg. I had read about Engleberg's collection of cartoons a couple months ago, and all of the reviews were right on: the book was an often very funny account of what its like to be a cancer patient. However, I secretly hoped that Engleberg was not like me. You see, she died last year, after cancer spread to her bones and brain. As I read the book, I couldn't avoid noting the eerie similarities. She had the same type of breast cancer as me. She had a lumpectomy, with chemotherapy and radiation. In 1979, we both had a boyfriend named Roger. OK, I had a boyfriend named Roger in 1980, but you get the idea. If she were alive, we would be the same age.

After I read the book, fear lay in my heart like lead. Between her first diagnosis and death, Miriam had only five years. I am already enduring the bittersweet realization of midlife. Much is behind me, and what is ahead will pass quickly. What if the cancer comes back? In Greek mythology, the three Moirai, or Fates, determine the length of life. Atropos,"the inexorable," cuts the life-thread spun and measured by the other two goddesses. I feel like I've glimpsed the shears, still without really knowing the measure.

Like my father before me, movement through space provides me some respite. If my dad was anxious, sad or angry, he would drive and drive and drive until he put some distance between himself and his troubles. Being a city-dweller, the train is my neurotransmitter of choice. Pink Line, take me away...to Pilsen, which is where I took the photo above. Pilsen is an old Bohemian (as in Czech and Slovak) neighborhood on the south side of the city. It's now Mexican, with a growing art gallery district in its eastern section. The main drag, 18th street, is heartbreakingly beautiful. Tall Mittel-european stone and brick buildings line the street, while little houses off of it reflect a more peasant vernacular, with charming, crude flowers carved in the window lintels. One is prevented from complete transport back to old Bohemia by some of the eye-popping exterior paint jobs, mostly in shades more common to Oaxaca. The colors could cheer even Kafka. And so it did me.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Breasts




I visited Dr. B yesterday, and as I hoped, he removed the drain. So why do I feel so lousy? Ever since Monday, I've been afflicted with a general malaise, and more concrete symptoms, such as aching joints. Others have told me that healing from surgery can be draining. Every conversation I had today seemed to have been broadcast from some distant planet.

With the drain removed, and swelling reduced, I can better see the end results of surgery. There will be a little dent on the outside of my right breast, and any illusion of symmetry between the girls is now officially over. In fact, asymmetry is very common. When it comes to breasts, "normal" includes countless shapes and sizes. The previous link, a site advocating public breastfeeding, is probably NSFW. Breasts, despite doing unsexy things like feeding babies and getting cancer, are still officially dirty in this country.

And not having breasts is dirty, too. Twisty at I Blame the Patriarchy found that, despite having a double mastectomy, going topless while swimming was not an option. It upset the other women at the pool, apparently. Although I'm not as bold as Twisty, I wondered if I would feel self-conscious undressing after a mastectomy, even in front of other women. When I exposed my bald head in public, it most often was women who stared at me. Although some of the scrutiny was friendly, though artless, some was cold, without a spark of kindness or concern. Perhaps a cancer patient who chooses to not cover her bald head, much less her mastectomy scars, is considered to be weird and threatening.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Recovery and Gratitude

I took the last week off work for recovery, and have pretty much exhausted my ability to amuse myself. One thing that does keep me preoccupied is my drain, which clogged up on Wednesday evening, nearly ruining the shirt I was wearing. A painful but instructive visit to the surgeon cleared things up, and I now coexist more or less peacefully with my little bag o' body fluid. The upside to cancer treatment is that for every procedure you dread, there's always something, very often the end of said procedure, which you can joyfully anticipate. DOE Day, or Drain Out of Elisa Day, is expected to occur this coming Tuesday.

My recovery would have been a lot more boring if it weren't for my excellent coworkers, who chipped in for a care package. Heather, who did the actual shopping and delivery, really got inside my head--at least the part that eats. She brought me such delicacies as a box of clementines, Lebanese flat bread, baba ganoush and dark chocolate with dried cherries. Thanks for everything, my friends! You're the best.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Fuzz



My hair is now visibly returning, although it will take a while for the stuff on the head to look like "hair." Downy eyebrows and eyelashes are sprouting as well.

Other good news: Dr. B, the surgeon, called today. He had the results of the pathology reports. The perimeters showed no additional cancer. Eleven lymph nodes were removed, and of those, six were cancerous. He told me this was not surprising or necessarily bad news, since they presumed that several lymph nodes would be involved. So, in his words, "no addition excision is required." That means, no going back for a mastectomy, at least not during this particular battle with the disease. Now, I have to look forward to radiation and hope that cancer will never return.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Three Days After

I finally got up the nerve to remove the dressings and take a look at Dr. B's handiwork. Considering how much he had to remove, and the paucity of raw material (I have less than an A cup), it doesn't look too bad. I have two incisions, one on the breast itself, and the other on the inside of the armpit. The swelling and bruising has increased over time, and my right arm has limited mobility.

Now for the really gross part: the drain. The device, which I now know is called a Jackson-Pratt drain (link not safe for the squeamish), consists of a flexible silicone bulb attached to a long tube, part of which is stitched into the incision. The bulb is meant to be squeezed flat and capped, and the resulting suction helps drain the wound. That means that every six hours or so, I empty the bulb into a specimen jar and note how many cc's of stuff leaked out of me. It's a simple but ingenious device, and if I pin the bulb under a jacket, nearly undetectable. However, it's a pain in the ass to try to shower with it, as I was advised I could. I ended up binding it to my torso with the only thing I could find, some clear packing tape. Later, my husband scrounged up a little gauze and surgical tape, and we were able to dress it properly. I think sponge baths are the way to go from now on.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Surgery

I was out cold for much of yesterday. They decided to give me general anesthesia instead of the twilight, so my stay in the recovery room was lengthy. I went in for pre-surgical procedures at noon and didn't leave the hospital until 8:30. The attending nurse gave me extra barf bags for the trip home, which came in handy at the Osco prescription counter. "Would generic (Vicodin) be OK?" asked the pharmacist. "Yes...um excuse me," and as discreetly as possible I horked into my bag, which turned out to have a leak in it. Oops. "Cleanup on Aisle 18."

The biggest ordeal of the day was the pre-surgical guidewire insertion, where two radiologists labored for nearly an hour to insert needles into the parameters around the tumors and then thread thick wire into the insertions. One of them, Dr. M., was sweating profusely by the time they were done. I really wasn't prepared for what came next, which was a very gory mammogram. I'm not good about seeing my own blood, and nearly fainted. The radiology technician, who seemed unnerved herself, put ice packs on my neck and I gradually got my legs back. I bled all over my gown, and had to be given a new one. By the time that was done, I was looking forward to being put under.

The scene in the prep room before my operation was amusing, as one person after another came in and asked me the same questions. Are you allergic to latex? Did you take any aspirin or ibuprofen in the last week? Then the surgeon, Dr. B. arrived, looking exactly like one would expect after watching countless TV hospital dramas. In fact, he is a rather good-looking, lean man with striking blue eyes, who wouldn't seem at all out of place standing next to Hugh Laurie, or any of his fictional counterparts. The fact that he was in full surgical blues, including cap and booties, didn't hurt the impression. He described the procedure to me and my husband, and then turned me over to the anesthesiologist. "I'm going to give you a little something before we put the tube in," she said. They started the drip in my IV, and I remembered nothing until awakening three hours later. I couldn't open my eyes, but felt the breathing tube being removed, and a choking sensation. Someone, probably the anesthesiologist, asked me how I felt. I had just been drinking with Dr. B. at the Green Eye in Bucktown, and resented the interruption. I then told her as much, and she laughed. "He would be fun to go out drinking with!"

Today, thanks to Vicodin, I can move around and not think about the huge dent in my right breast too often. The dressing is still on, but I was told I could remove it today and take a shower. Not sure if I want to see what's under there...

Thanks to all who contacted me before and after the surgery to send their best wishes. I even got "flowers" via text-message! I could thank my husband online as well, but words on a screen do not suffice. He's been a rock.

I will be back on here, soon.

Monday, November 26, 2007

I don't want to hear it anymore

I recently took a couple of vocal techniques classes at Old Town School of Folk Music. At the beginning of class, the instructor usually asks each of us to name a favorite singer. I adore several, including a few who don't have so-called "good" singing voices, such as Randy Newman. A single-octave range with sensitive phrasing, that's singing technique to which even I can aspire. But in the intermediate class, when asked the same question, I decided to shoot for the moon. "Dusty Springfield," I answered. The blank looks from my classmates were alarming. Am I really that old? "You know, 'Son of a Preacher Man' from Pulp Fiction?..." Thank god they included Dusty Springfield's biggest U.S. hit in that soundtrack. "Oh yeah, that's really good...so she had some other songs?" asked a young woman sitting next to me.

Yes, she had some other songs. This is Dusty Springfield in 1969, singing Randy Newman's I Don't Want To Hear It Anymore. Voice + Song = Perfect.

Thanksgiving

I had a great Thanksgiving weekend, due to my family. Mom, bro, sis, sis-in-law, niece: thanks for coming to Chicago this time around. And, I'd like to bestow a special Green Badge of Courage to my niece's boyfriend, who tolerated hazing involving a certain cruciferous vegetable with good cheer.

My surgery is scheduled for this Thursday. The surgeon, Dr. B, still thinks we can manage a lumpectomy, despite the discovery of a suspicious spot closer to the nipple. The greatest physical trauma will occur when the fat pad in my armpit is removed, along with a number of lymph nodes. Recovery will be painful, and there is an elevated chance of permanent edema and swelling in my right arm. Will I be very disfigured? I can't help but wonder.

In discussing the growth of the tumor, I alluded to the fact that it had been growing for a year. "Oh no, this has been growing for three or four years, at least," he corrected. That really floored me. I had this thing in my breast for that long? What is the point of getting regular mammograms if something like this can go on for so long without being detected? I'm still trying to take something productive away from that discussion, but all I can muster is that the diagnosis techniques which I thought would protect me seem nearly useless.

Amusing Searches Update

The holiday weekend has been very good for the keyword search logs. Visitors have found my blog by using the following searches:

naked neighbor husband
nude pakistani girls pictures
ted nugent jerky
the evil french hobo clown
attack of the 50 foot boob
hot+my+amercan+sexxxy

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Amusing Searches

At long last, The Fifty Foot Blogger has accumulated a few mildly amusing keyword searches. Google Analytics collects general information on traffic to this blog, including web search keywords used to lead visitors here. And just to head this bit of paranoia off at the pass: NO I CANNOT TELL EXACTLY WHO IS READING THIS. Your net privacy is safe with me, the-only-person-I-know-in-Reno.

My favs:

people who should be my friends on Myspace
attack of the 50 foot hooker
fifty foot nose
frenzy feet blog

Like I said, mildly amusing. A few years ago, the online 'zine, Library Juice, published a definitive list of funny Google searches leading to their website. I can only dream of having magnificent searches like "precolumbian porn," "i want pakistani girls picture clean no sexy," and "is cannibalism legal?" bringing visitors to this humble blog.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Reading Gestures



from the Site Unseen exhibit of time-based arts, Chicago Cultural Center, November 13, 2007

Ted Nugent is my shepherd; I shall not want



While waiting for the bus recently, I noticed a storefront with a number of photos and fliers taped to the inside window.

"YOUTH, TEENS, GANGS...WHAT IS THE ANSWER?" one of the fliers asks, rhetorically. "IT'S NOT CONVENTIONAL SOCIAL PROGRAMS...IT'S NOT PUTTING A BASKETBALL IN THEIR HANDS...IT'S NOT 'TAKING THEM TO CHURCH'..."
A posterboard covered with photos is captioned "WE DO HAVE FUN HERE!! We are starting a new church in Logan Square." Photos include fun-loving Christians wearing full camo, practicing cross-bow technique, and propping up the the head of a recently killed buck, with bloody tongue dangling out of its mouth.

Services are at 11 am, and they're not taking any hostages.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

I see naked people

The best conversation flows effortlessly from one topic to another; one hardly where it's going. I had one of those on Saturday, while drinking a framboise with a friend at a local bar. One minute we were talking Belgian beer, and a few minutes later, the naked neighbors.*

For a while in 2005, everyone in our little corner of Avondale seemed to know where and when the naked people could be spotted. There were three of them living together on the second floor of a corner building. They all seemed to enjoy taking early evening showers. The window directly adjacent to the shower wasn't frosted enough to provide privacy. It probably looked ok from inside, but from the outside, especially at dusk, it provided a live nude show.

I first learned about it from my tenant Chris, who used to walk around the block when he needed a smoke. At about seven on a warm spring evening, he noticed a bunch of little boys gathered across the street, looking up at something. It was a shapely young woman washing her hair. "She was beautiful," he said, dreamily. Our neighbor Marji was not so entranced. Sometimes a man was in the shower, and she said he was "throwing himself around like King Kong." I'm not sure what that meant, but it sounded kind of transgressive. She put a note in their mailbox, which said something like "Everybody can see you taking showers!!" But, the shows continued.

It became a running joke. As I stood on the sidewalk talking to Jo-jo, who has lived on our block for over 40 years, Marji's husband came out to join us. "I know what you're out here for!" she teased. I seemed to be the only person on the block who hadn't seen the naked neighbors. Finally, as I walked home from the train, I glanced up and saw number three, a heavier woman. They were right, you could see everything. She didn't have as large of a following as her more slender roommate, but there was one spectator of note, sitting in a police squad car. The officer watched with his window down, while enjoying a cigar.

*An analysis shows that most of the digression was due to my own ADDish brain: Belgian beer>my friend's friendly bartender in Ghent>a bartender i met in Amsterdam who used to live in Chicago and was fascinated by the obesity of our police force>the cop i saw chasing a suspect while holding a cup of coffee>the cop who smoked cigars on his beat>the time he was watching the woman showering>the naked neighbors

I Heart Wikipedia




Category: Fictional drugs is the kind of kooky Wikipedia entry I love. I stumbled on it while looking for an entry on Nepenthe, a mythical drug which brings complete forgetfulness.

Missing from this list, Can-D, from Philip K. Dick's science fiction novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. In the novel, Dick anticipated virtual reality and fantasy play, albeit with the assistance of a fictional hallucinogen:

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch takes place some time in the twenty-first century. Under the authority of the United Nations, humankind has colonized every habitable planet and moon in the solar system.

Life for most colonists is physically daunting and psychologically monotonous so the UN must draft individuals to colonize. Most colonists entertain themselves using Barbie-like “Perky Pat” dolls and the multitude of accessories manufactured by Earth-based P.P. Layouts. The company also secretly creates Can-D, an illegal but widely available hallucinogen that allows the user to "translate" into Perky Pat (if the user is female) or her boyfriend Walt (if male). This allows colonists to experience an idealized version of life on Earth in a collective unconscious hallucination.


I have resisted getting an account in Wikipedia, but this may push me over the edge.

Bread and Circuses

Bread and Circuses, a documentary film about the legendary Brazilian band Os Mutantes, has been languishing for over a year due to lack of production funding. WGBH Boston has come up with some cash, so one hopes we won't have to wait too much longer. American Girl Producers blog about the project, and trailer:

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Comfort




As I mentioned last week, the surgeon saw an extra something on the post-chemo MRI which merited a biopsy. I should apologize for referring to it a "mass," since that sounds, well, massive. Let's call it a "spot." The spot was slightly anterior (in front of) and lateral (to the outside of) to the existing tumor.

Unfortunately, the radiologist didn't feel that an ultrasound-guided biopsy would work, since she couldn't see a match between the images produced by different imaging techniques. She recommended an MRI-guided core biopsy. That meant coming back on Friday and spending nearly five hours at the hospital. I received an MRI to establish the biopsy target, received the biopsy, and then went through additional tests.

Nurses continue to rock, especially the ones I've encountered during my cancer treatment. On Thursday, I was attended by Nurse J., and Nurse S., a short, stocky guy who cheered me by recounting his favorite Dave Chappelle sketches. "You were an ideal patient!" Nurse S. said as they wheeled me out of the MRI room on a gurney. "Really?" I asked, "What do other patients do?" "They get all frightened and start thrashing around inside the tube." While he spoke, he rubbed my bald head. I found it soothing. "How is my Elisa?" asked Nurse J. with her heavy filipino accent. She dressed my incision, and piled warm blankets on my legs and chest. I felt like a baby, but in a good way. The radiologist came over to see how I was doing, and noticed the blankets. She became nostalgic. "When I was doing night call, sometimes those warm blankets were the only thing that kept me going. I'd finally get a break at 2 or 3 in the morning, and I'd just go to the storage room and wrap myself in one of those." Light-headed from hunger and a small reaction to the epinephrine added to the local anesthesia, I was released in the wild at about 2:00 p.m. As a free woman with a hole in her boob, my first act was to buy a latte and cookie.

Today, I rewarded myself with a bratwurst and duck fat fries at Hot Doug's. Then a friend and I went to Dusty Groove, a record store which specializes in soul, hip-hop and various world music genres. I bought a compilation, Tropicalia: A Brazilian Revolution in Sound and Forever Changes. Love. Here's Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes performing Domingo no Parque (Sunday in the Park), one of the songs included on Tropicalia.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Fall Back in Fall



Mosmi's Coin Laundry. Avondale, Chicago.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

CTA Stories: M.I.L.K.



On occasion, instead of taking the Blue Line for my morning commute, I ride the Diversey bus east. The demographics of the bus change as we venture closer to the lake. First the Polish domestics, most of them women, easily identifiable due to fondness for animal skin prints and improbable hair color. Then, Hispanic moms escorting children to school and daycare. My section of Avondale is Mexican/Guatemalan/Salvadorian, with a smattering of Puerto Rican and Euro-everything. Around Wolcott, real estate signs start to tout "Luxury two-bedroom units starting at 300." Thousand, that is. We have entered yuppie territory, and white guys with briefcases and Blackberries join the mix.

However, just before the bus enters that realm of overpriced real estate, it passes through one of the city's oldest housing projects, Lathrop Homes. One winter morning, the bus pulled over to pick up passengers at the stop just north of the Chicago river. BAM! Something hit one of the windows, hard, and the bus rocked with the impact. Several people screamed. I whipped around to look in the direction of the sound. A passenger, one of the Polish women, was crouching on the floor. The window next to where she had been seated was coated with a white fluid. BAM! Another one hit a window two seats down. This time, I saw it--a carton of milk. A boy of about fourteen or fifteen ran behind a tree for more ammo. He re-emerged holding a pint milk carton. It was double the size of cute little cartons I remember from grade school. The assault continued, despite the efforts of an elderly woman from the projects who screamed at the boy to stop. He had quite an arm, this kid...if he had aimed the milk at someone's head, he could have knocked them out cold.

His face lit with sadistic joy, he hurled another milk bomb at the bus. BAM! A carton hit the back door, and a spray of milk shot through the center crack. The driver scrambled to lock the front door, and then drove a couple of blocks ahead and pulled over. He radioed for police assistance. "A youth is throwing milk at the bus." Long pause. "Milk. M..I..L..K." I felt sorry for him. It was difficult to make a case that a milk attack required police intervention. Ten or fifteen minutes later, the cops showed up. By then, the perpetrator was long-gone, leaving dozens of late commuters and proverbial spilt milk in his wake.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Bad News, and Badder News

I hope it doesn't come in threes. Bad news, that is. I was having a perfectly lovely lunch hour: grilled cheese sandwich at Gina's, a a visit to Columbia to see the Girl on Guy exhibit and the discovery of very nice wine and food store in the south Loop. It's when I got back to the office that the day took a nose-dive. I recently applied for a travel grant, one which many of my colleagues have received in the past. The rejection letter was waiting in my inbox. OK, that was a bummer. It will be more so as I find out which of my coworkers did receive the grant.

I guess the Fates decided I needed another one, so I received a call first from the MRI technician at BCH, and then from the surgeon, Dr. B. There's an additional mass behind the big one, the one that was reduced by chemo. He recommended another biopsy. It's Friday afternoon and I can't seem to find anyone in, so I get to stew about it all weekend. Maybe that's number three. I hope so.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Another Easy Sunday Post: When I Come Home

OMG, isn't 19 year-old Steve Winwood dreamy? Calm down--I was only eight when the movie The Ghost Goes Gear (1966), featuring the Spencer Davis Group was made, so I'm age-inappropriate on two different levels. Marilyn Monroe had a crush on Abraham Lincoln, so there.

The Lost Weekend

Unfortunately, it wasn't spent in an alcoholic daze. No, I wasn't drunkenly jumping on the bed, like Jack Lemmon*. I was lying on it, wishing I could actually catch a few Z's. Friday night, I hit the so-called "nadir" of chemotherapy, when the effects of the previous treatment cause one's blood-cell count to tank, and in general make you feel like shit. The nadir hits 4-7 days after treatment, so I already knew I was up for a fun and active weekend. I spent most of yesterday in bed, and my attempts to complete even the most basic tasks today have been desultory. My accomplishments, other than this post: taking a bath, and making coffee. I also was very encouraging as my husband removed the two window unit air conditioners and carried them down to the basement. I'm going to try to do a load of laundry this evening--wish me luck.

*Thanks to Wikipedia, I now realize that I was thinking of The Days of Wine and Roses, although The Lost Weekend is looking even more interesting, due to the fact that it was scored with a theremin, and the original story involved an incident of gay-baiting.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Chemo: The End



Goodbye, Baxter 6300 I.V Pump. I'll miss hearing you erupt into loud alarm after I exercised the utmost care while rolling you into the toilet. You always waited until I was seated on the throne, you joker. But most of all, I'll miss the way you drip, drip, dripped poison into my veins. May we never meet again.

I completed the 8th and final chemo today. I told Nurse L that she was the only thing I was going to miss about it, and she gave me a big hug. Dr. G, who I'll see again after my radiation, examined my breast and said that the tumor looked "good," and that it was hardly palpable. Tomorrow, I call the surgeon* and try to get a tentative date. However, he'll probably want another MRI before proceeding. The process of arranging cancer treatment is reminiscent of using more than one contractor on a home improvement project. You have to do all the coordination with the different trades, continue to monitor the work quality and progress, and then the flooring guy (or oncologist) suddenly doesn't show up for a month. I need to hire a general contractor--one that specializes in cancer.

There's one more plus to ending chemotherapy: I won't have to buy a yet larger pair of "fat" jeans. I stepped on the scale to be weighed today, and discovered that I had gained another three pounds since my last visit. I weigh more than I ever have in my life. And I'm bald. Fortunately, both are reversable.

*Yes, my husband and I both are positive the oncologist told us his office would contact the surgeon. You have to get it in writing from these people.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Happy Sunday: Antoine et Les Problèmes

Mondays are hard. Generating blog content is hard. Solution: post a video every Sunday. I hope you enjoy the following proto music video, possibly copied from a Scopitone. No actual French rock stars were hurt during the making of this film, despite Antoine's atrocious lip-syncing.



Les élucubrations d'Antoine, 1966(?)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Chinatown



"Feel OK?" Dr. F. asked. I did feel OK, but tried to remain as motionless as possible. I was bristling with acupuncture needles: feet, shins, knees, stomach (upper and lower), hands, ears, and a jaunty single right between my eyebrows.
He positioned a warming lamp over my feet and closed the door, leaving me alone in the darkened treatment room. Chinese music came from some distant part of the office, barely audible.

My first experiment with non-western medicine arose out of desperation. After several weeks of early morning hot flashes, I was almost demented from lack of a good night's rest. Already a little fogged by chemo, my brain wasn't up to handling sleep deprivation. The parking lot incident at the dentist's office was the final straw. As I walked toward my car, I was covered in confusion. A green Escort--that's it, all right. But what door was I supposed to unlock? I opened the nearest one and sat down. It was the front passenger seat. When I saw the steering wheel on the other side, I laughed. Still, it was unnerving.

Research indicates that acupuncture is mildly beneficial in reducing the severity of hot flashes. An acquaintance gave me the number of Dr. F, a traditional Chinese medicine doctor. She said he had worked wonders with her husband's chronic sinusitis. I was willing to give anything--anything but Effexor--a try.

Dr. F, a slim man with silver hair, works out of a grim little second-floor office in Chinatown. The dented waiting room divider is decorated with a silk diploma banner from a Chinese college, and a calendar depicting cartoon zodiac animals dancing in some kind of frenzy. After I arrived, Dr. F started a medical history, and the briefest of examinations. He timed my pulse, and then asked to see my tongue. He scrutinized it pleasantly, and jotted some notes. He asked about my liver function, and recommended I get a blood test. "Chinese herbs maybe too strong now for your liver." At least, that's what I think he said. Dr. F has a pronounced accent. It took a while for me to understand his question about my "white blood cell" count, which I gamely tried to repeat back to him. Wide brood sole? Wait blue sew?

After he had taken my history, Dr. F led me back to the treatment room, past metal shelves stacked with bins of wonderful-smelling herbs. After sterilizing the entry sites, he began to insert the needles, which looked nearly as fine as human hair. I glanced down and saw him deftly poking one into the meat below my thumb. It was absolutely painless. Four needles, the ones on my abdomen and knees, were attached to electrodes. Dr. F adjusted the current until I felt a tiny jumping sensation at each point. The whole thing took about half an hour. Afterwards, I felt mildly invigorated. Perhaps a placebo effect, but a nice one.

After I left Dr. F's office, I went to a nearby bakery and bought a "dry pork bun," expecting it to be filled with barbecued pork. I was suddenly famished, and my mouth watered as I bit into it. I discovered that its primary ingredient was mayonnaise. I ate it, anyway.

Photo: like, totally

Friday, October 12, 2007

Straight out of Ohio*

A friend, noticing comments in an earlier post, asked me "who is Scott Walker?" Noel Scott Engel was born in 1943 in Ohio, started out as a teen crooner, eventually adopting the stage name Scott Walker. He moved to the U.K. in the mid-60s, where he still enjoys his greatest fame. After morphing through several musical styles and increasingly eccentric personas, Walker became a near-recluse, producing only three albums since 1980. His last album, The Drift, has been lauded by some critics as brilliant and avant garde, and by others as nearly unlistenable. Despite his having many high-profile fans (David Bowie and Sting, among others), he is largely unknown in the states. Perhaps that explains the tardy U.S. release of the documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, which includes a far-out studio session where Walker samples the sound of a man punching a side of meat.




UK Trailer Scott Walker: 30 Century Man
Included in TimeOut London's 50 Greatest Music Films Ever

*like me!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Chemo 7/8



In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (just in case you didn't notice all of the pink crap for sale everywhere):
6,000 Runners Fail To Discover Cure For Breast Cancer

Before today's chemo started, a nurses' aid took my blood pressure, temperature and checked my weight. I've gained 11 pounds since starting chemotherapy. Not too surprising to me; lately I've been straining to get into jeans, and zipping skirts up three-quarters of the way and covering the gap with a long top. Weight gain during chemotherapy for breast cancer is very common. It is poorly understood, however. It could be due to hormonal changes, stress-related overeating, or lowered activity levels. I am an over-achiever in this regard--apparently a 10 lb. gain is typical of women receiving a six month regimen of chemotherapy, and I've only had not quite four months.

During my session, Nurse L dragged Dr. G in to take a quick look at me. It was the least he could do, seeing that he missed the last two scheduled appointments. I was already hooked up to the drip, so disrobing wasn't an option. Thanks to an American Apparel t-shirt bra and my rapidly eroding sense of modesty, I just hoisted everything up to give him a look-see. "The tumor appears to be shrinking," he confirmed. He seemed to think I was doing well, otherwise. We asked him about the surgery, frustrated with the fact that we had no idea when it was going to actually happen. He said that his office would contact the surgeon when I have my final chemo. I'll believe it when I see it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Overheard (and seen)

Woman (after kissing man goodbye at the entrance to the Logan Square Blue Line station): "Have a good day, baby! See ya tonight, and I'll try to bring a blunt!"
Man: "Aaaright!"

I board the train, and sit next to a young man with a notebook. He divides the page into two columns, and pauses, looking thoughtful. He writes in each column. I try to tilt my head enough to catch the entries in my peripheral vision. One column is labeled Delights, the other is Distastes. I can't read the items under Distastes, but the two entries under Delights are "Milk" and "Lavender." To my disappointment, he gets off at Division.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Chemo 6/8

Almost done...almost done...that's my mantra. Once again, my oncologist Dr. G. was out, and the nurse practitioner examined me. My husband was disappointed, most especially since he was prepared to "tear him a new one" over the vague information about my surgery schedule and the lack of palliative care. BCH* does a great job with the drug delivery, but not so much with information-sharing or emotional support.

Friends have asked me the following:

Do they have a support group? I dunnoh--can't find evidence of any associated with the hospital. They do have a brochure for Gilda's Club, which offers support services. The Nurse K., the nurse practitioner who examined me this time, offered to give me the contact information for another nurse who had survived breast cancer and is now on Tamoxifen, an estrogen antagonist that has some nasty side-effects itself. It's the first time I've received any offer from BCH staff to be put in touch with another survivor.

Do they offer therapeutic massage? No. As a matter of fact, I haven't seen evidence of any palliative care (i.e. counseling, support groups, meditation or yoga, massage) Some smaller Chicago area hospitals offer these services, but not BCH.

Oh, and I received my first billing for chemotherapy. If I didn't have insurance, would have to pay $2500 per session. That doesn't include the cost for blood work or examinations. Every time Dr. G looks at my boobs for ten minutes: $158.

Am I receiving the best treatment for my cancer? In fact, I probably am receiving excellent care. So why do I feel so uncared for? Perhaps BCH will eventually launch a research study on whether patients are also feeling human beings. I hope the results are statistically significant.

The final chemo drug Taxotere Paclitaxel has a new set of side effects, including bone pain, watery eyes, and rosacea-like pimples and rash on my upper body. My eyelashes and eyebrows are scanty, now. About four or five days after chemo I get very tired and easily winded--probably a sign that both my white and red blood cell counts are bottoming out. My hot flashes are on a more predictable schedule, although one that interferes with early morning sleep. From about 4 to 6 am, it's covers off, covers on, over and over. During this time, sleep is in short snatches until the next one hits.

That's all the news, which as per usual is in the form of a complaint. They were right: when you have your health, you have everything. Too bad I had to get terribly sick to appreciate that axiom.

*Big Chicago Hospital

Monday, September 24, 2007

CTA Stories: Green Limousine


I wanted to use this post to praise my favorite CTA bus drivers, and throw barbs at some others. Of all of the agency employees, I think the bus drivers have the most stressful jobs. The word "multi-tasking" doesn't even come close to what I've seen on the Diversey bus on a typical Saturday afternoon. In addition to answering directional questions, a driver is expected to make sure nobody sneaks on without paying, remember to stop when the cord is pulled, avoid hitting reckless cars, bicycles and jaywalkers, lower and raise a hydraulic lift and then get off and manually pull down a ramp for disabled riders, stay roughly on schedule, and often have his/her ear worn out by some chatterbox who sits up front. Difficult passengers, some of whom have subjected me to sights, sounds and smells I'd sooner forget, are there for the duration. When the man who clearly had gone to bathroom in his pants got on the North avenue bus, most of the passengers (self included) bailed out, choking and gagging. The driver didn't have that option. In that light, it is especially surprising at how many mensches one finds behind the wheel of the Green Limousine.

I have however, encountered a few crazies and garden-variety misanthropes wearing the CTA badge. Some of the more notable:

The young guy driving the Division bus who openly cursed other motorists and got on the PA system and shouted, and I quote, "Get your asses to the back of the bus!" I believe the CTA-favored phrase is "please move to the back of the bus in order to allow other passengers to board." As one of my fellow passengers said, as he was leaving at Clark and Division, "You are insane. I am reporting you."

Also driving a Division bus was an African American woman who launched into an obscenity-laced rant at another black woman with a West Indian accent. Her crime? Pausing too long at the door to give instructions to a man watching her dog. The driver said (cursing redacted) "You people think you're better than us and then come here to steal our jobs!" The passenger began to weep and said that she was going to visit her dying mother in Jamaica, and why was she being treated like this? (I tell you people, why are you still driving? Never a dull moment.) Several people on that bus also vowed to report the driver.

And then there's the sour prick who still works the Belmont route. Instead of doing something for which his personality is suited, like working at a remote fire watch station in the Rockies, he's right in the midst of what he loathes: people. Weirdly, he is also a ringer for actor Strother Martin, and even sounds like him, albeit with a Chicago accent. A few weeks ago, I picked up the west-bound bus at Southport. It was packed, and I backed off the steps to allow several people who had to struggle through the crowd get off belatedly. I paused for one second to see if there was anyone else. "Get on the bus!" he snarled. "I don't got all day!" What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Although most of the drivers are mute and innocuous, the mensches still outnumber the jerks. I already mentioned the driver who allowed two little girls to bring an entire Christmas tree on the bus. Another time, one looked the other way when a little boy got on with a puppy. Pets are supposed to be in carriers, but the child sat directly across from the driver with the sleeping puppy on his lap. He stroked its ears, his face suffused with a pure joy.

Another driver assisted a women in a wheelchair at the east-bound stop at Diversey and Sheffield. She seemed profoundly disabled, possibly with ALS, and even moving the controls on her electric wheelchair was a struggle. As is usual in that neighborhood, someone had parked an SUV at the bus stop, making it impossible for the driver to pull close to the curb. The driver lowered the ramp to street level, allowing a large gap between bus and the curb so that the passenger could maneuver to the corner and up the ramped part of the sidewalk. In her opinion, it wasn't a good solution, and she lit into him. She was pretty abusive, calling him "stupid," and saying he should have dropped her off at the corner. He didn't defend himself, but quietly said, "I do apologize, ma'am. I am sincerely sorry." She continued for a little while longer, and then directed her chair to the corner and deftly rolled up and on to the sidewalk. I was very impressed by this man's grace and composure, and told him so. He thanked me, and said "At the end of my shift, I can walk off of this bus. She probably will never walk again. Maybe I should have pulled up to the corner, I don't know. But I do know that my life can't be as difficult as hers."

Last, the literary bus driver. I was preparing to get off the Belmont bus, holding a paperback in my hand. Traffic was heavy, and we crept toward the stop. The driver noticed my book, and asked me what I was reading. Uh...Independent People. "Is it good?" I'm enjoying it, I said. "What's it about?" I struggled with myself for a brief moment. I looked at this man and saw someone who was blue collar, black and very heavy; he had been automatically filed in my brain under "Different," with a capital D. How would I describe to him a novel which, although historical, is about timeless themes like colonialism, patriarchy, the mystical bond between children and animals, and ultimately how the oppressed sometimes brutally oppress others? "It's about a sheep-herder and his family in turn-of-the century Iceland," I answered lamely. "It's really, really good. The author won the Nobel Prize for literature." He pulled the bus over to my stop. "Let me write down the title and the author." He was very enthusiastic about the novel, and made sure to spell Halldór Laxness correctly, even including the diacritic. "I always ask people about what they are reading. I've read some very good books I wouldn't know about otherwise." I asked him for some examples. He mentioned a few books, some of them more popular works, but one that struck me was Madame Bovary. I wished him happy reading, and continued home. I imagined him relaxing in a big chair, maybe a La-Z-Boy, reading the part in Independent People where, after his daughter's coffin has been tied to the back of a horse, an old man whispers an ancient incantation in each of the animal's ears. "You carry a coffin today. You carry a coffin today." The girl was his last child remaining in Iceland. The passage makes my heart ache, even now. In my mind's eye, the literary bus driver sighs, and puts the book down for a few moments, overcome with emotion.

Photo: Goatopolis

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Cancer: What should you say?

As promised, in one of my first posts: What should you say to someone who has cancer? I've heard variations of all of these, and I'm sure I've said a few of them, myself.

Do's

"I'm not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care."

"I'll keep you in my thoughts."

"Please let me know if I can help."

"I (or a family member) survived cancer."

"How are you doing?"


Don'ts

"My grandmother died of breast cancer."
(I'm sorry for your loss, but this is really not the time to share that with me.)

"I'm sure you'll be fine."
(Thanks, but don't minimize the seriousness of my diagnosis)

"My friend went through radiation. It was a horrible ordeal."
(Like I'm not dreading it enough)

"You look really pale."
(Oh, I didn't know I look like hell)

"I can't wait to stop having my period." or "It's just a breast."
(Just because you feel a certain way about your body doesn't mean I feel the same way)

The last one is really a head-scratcher. Some women have made comments to me that seemed to reveal a dislike or repugnance toward their own bodies. That's unfortunate, but I don't appreciate the assumption that I share those feelings. However, unlike one of the sources cited below, I'm not offended by people telling me I have a nicely shaped head. And, I wasn't really offended by the patron who told me "It (my wig) is cuter than your real hair!" She's a weirdo, so I would have been disappointed with anything less obnoxious.


American Cancer Society. What Should I Say to the Person Who Has Cancer?

AlixNorth.com. What Not to Say to Someone Diagnosed With Cancer

Chemo Chicks. Excuse Me?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Roscoe Street


Is this a story about the CTA? Not really. It's not even a story, just some random memories about a place I lived, long ago. The apartment was on Roscoe near Greenview, and the Brown Line elevated train, then called the Ravenswood, was in my back yard. The year was 1986 or 1987. I don't remember exactly.

I was nearly broke, and moved in with my friend Brek in order to save money. He slept in the bedroom, and I was on the couch. We had two fans. Air conditioning was for other people. I remember an entire summer of sweating profusely on threadbare sheets, and waking every time the once-an-hour night train roared past our building. Even so, I slumbered through an audacious tag of our building: LATIN KINGS RULE, with a crown, all in two-foot tall spray-painted gothic lettering right under my open window.

The noise from the Ravenswood train constantly interrupted conversation. I had a friend who lived near the Paulina stop, and when we talked on the phone, he would say "wait a minute" while the train went past his place. A few minutes later, I would say "wait a minute," while it went past me. My roommate and I sat on the back porch with a six-pack of beer and waved at people riding the "El." Many of the older, un-air-conditioned trains with open windows were still in commission. Sometimes a passenger would shout at us. One time, somebody playfully tossed a tennis ball down at us.

The neighborhood, Roscoe Village, was mostly white and working class. An entire building just to the east seemed to house only hillbillies. Two men in the building sat at their third floor window and harassed me every time I walked by. They were always there, day or night. The bodega across the street had very recently been a tavern. Brek's former roommate yelled at a man who was making noise outside the bar after closing. The man finished off his bottle of Everclear, and threw it through the open window, where it shattered against the far wall. I was glad the tavern had lost its license before I moved there.

Mostly, it was a homey, friendly neighborhood. A pizzeria on Southport sold fresh cannoli. In warm weather, people sat on their porches and greeted us. One of our neighbors, a curmudgeonly old guy who always smoked a cigar as he walked his toy poodle Sally, stopped by to grouse about teenagers or our mail service.

Brek, a urban sophisticate compared to me, introduced me to, in no particular order: sushi, Kraftwerk, moshing, Jagermeister, William Burroughs, wearing black everything, Reynan's Bakery (now long gone), and city biking. I owe him a great debt, especially for the sushi intro. Alas, he got engaged and decided to move in with his fiance. I couldn't afford our squalid little slice of heaven on my own, so I left Roscoe Village for a shared apartment in Lakeview. Perhaps it was a special place and time, or maybe being young always makes it so. I don't think I've ever missed a neighborhood as much.

Photo: Joseph Palmer

Monday, September 10, 2007

Chemo 5/8


This was a botched shot, but a rather sublime one. I think I was having a hot flash as well, just to add to the ordinary spit-and-shine polish.

To friends and family who listened to me talk, and sometimes cry, over the phone last week, love and thanks. I was really low, and you helped bring me up. L & E, thanks especially for sharing the details of your own experiences with me. Knowing someone else was strong enough to get through that helped me feel a little stronger, myself.

The hot flashes have reduced in number and intensity, and (knock on wood), I seem to have regained control of my pelvic muscles. I won't have to add Depends to my shopping list any time soon, thank god. I talked to the nurse about it, and she was mystified. She suggested a prescription for Effexor, an antidepressant used off-label to treat hot flashes. Such a trade-off: the side effects of Effexor vs. the side-effects of my violent hormone fluctuations. I declined, for now.

Today was the first chemo with a new drug, Taxotere, On the plus side, it won't damage my heart, like Adriamycin, and I don't have to take steroids or antinausea meds. On the down side, it can cause peripheral neuropathy, i.e. nerve damage in the fingers and toes. Numbness is a common side-effect; severe reactions to the drug include nail loss and residual pain. I did my research this time, and found a study in France where subjects who wore frozen medical gel gloves during treatment experienced minimal neuropathy.

You guessed it: I brought a cooler full of frozen gel pacs and gripped them during my therapy. Nurse L let me do it, although she clearly thought I was a little nuts. It was, uh..uncomfortable, to say the least. But, I just shelled out nearly $200 on private guitar lessons. If freezing my hands for two hours every two weeks keeps me playing, it was worth it.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Funny Post

Ha...gotcha! Have you ever noticed how women are encouraged to joke about menopause? Oye, the hot flashes! Cue laugh track.

Yesterday, I had at least twenty separate hot flashes, and none of them have been funny. Each one seemed to wash away a little bit more of me, like the surf carving away a sand castle. This morning I cried out to my husband as the worse one hit, a nearly indescribable combination of fire and ice, followed up by nausea and abdominal cramps. He stroked my soaking wet head as I trembled and wept.

I'm being turned into a eunuch. In my pelvis, there's a deadness. The flush of estrogen from my body also brings geriatric problems, like sometimes peeing myself when I cough or sneeze. I cried the last time it happened, as much from nostalgia as humiliation. I was a normal woman a little while ago...remember what that was like?

A friend naively asked, "can't you do hormone replacement therapy?" If you haven't gotten that memo, doctors no longer recommend estrogen replacement for menopausal women, especially those with estrogen-receptor sensitive breast cancer, such as myself. Instead, we are instructed to take tamoxifen, a drug that blocks estrogen. Kill the woman to save the person: that's the prevailing theory. Tamoxifen is carcinogenic in itself; taking it doubles the chance of endometrial cancer. I've haunted countless listservs looking for information from cancer survivors, and those taking tamoxifen uniformly complain of non-stop hot flashes, loss of libido, anorgasmia (inability to have an orgasm) and other problems associated with low estrogen. The term "castrated" is often used by women to describe their symptoms.

Anyway, a co-worker told me how she liked the way I mix up the content in my blog: funny combined with "sad, struggly stuff." I'm afraid my funny bone is estrogen-receptor sensitive, just like my cancer, and the sad, struggly stuff is what's left for now.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

"Normal"

How am I doing? Thanks so much for asking. I very often feel mildly lousy, sort of like having a touch of the flu, but without clear end in sight. I often have the urge to lie down. I told my officemate that he should not be alarmed to see my feet sticking out from under my desk; I was most probably just taking an impromptu break. On chemo weeks, I take a four-day course of steroids. These make me hyperactive and sometimes weepy and little paranoid. During my third chemo cycle, I upset a friend a great deal by accusing him of ignoring me, which he was not. The steroids also have added seven pounds, mostly around my middle.

Also on chemo week, I develop a sore throat, and sometimes cold sores and tenderness in my gums. I am constipated, a condition that completely and excessively reverses itself the next week. You see, the chemotherapy drugs target rapidly-dividing cells throughout the body, including those in the intestines. My spleen...I'm getting used to my spleen. The swelling is brief, and hardly bothers me any longer.

I am getting shiny bald. The hair loss includes all of my body hair, although I have, to my chagrin, had to shave my legs earlier this week. And, I wouldn't pay for my brazilian bikini wax--entirely too haphazard. Eyebrows still intact, but for how long? My skin heals very slowly, and I'm using bandaids to cover even minor blemishes and cuts.

I had my last period of my life, I believe, about three weeks ago. It arrived a week after the previous one had just finished. When a hot flashes hit, I feel like a human can of Sterno--I envision a nearly invisible blue-white flame is shooting out of the top of my head. If you are a smoker and need a light, just touch your ciggy to my scalp. It's a shame to waste all that heat.

The tumor does seem to be shrinking, and my breast is gently collapsing as it recedes. It's now easy to see how much tissue was eaten up by the thing. I wonder if I'll ever be able to look at myself in the mirror and feel "normal" again.

I don't feel very womanly, that's for sure. Even the little man outside the laundromat who muttered "chiquita" (cute), at me yesterday, couldn't raise my spirits. Perhaps I should view this as a form of chemical satori, or a crucible, where my sexuality is burned off, like dross. I just wish I knew who or what I will be when this is over.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Underground Music


My apologies for the lousy quality of this photo: after my experience at Pitchfork, it seems like I'm incapable of taking a good picture of a person playing a musical instrument. This lady has been rocking out the Jackson Blue Line stop on and off for a few weeks. Sometimes she has friends, sometimes she's solo. She's a talented blues guitarist and vocalist, so if you happen by, drop a couple bucks in her gig bag.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Chemo 4/8



Let me introduce you to my big bag 'o drugs. I have three different anti-nausea medications, one steroid, and one white blood cell booster. The booster, Neulasta, has to be self-injected, and comes encased in a clear plastic guard which locks after injection. This is to prevent accidental pricks to those handling the medical waste, for example. I successfully self-injected after the first two chemo sessions, then made my fatal mistake: I read the instructions.

I've always had an aversion to instructions, one so extreme that it took me over a year to discover all the features of my IPod on my own. I should have followed habit with the Neulasta and continued my intuitive (and correct) injection procedure, but instead I thought I should at least look at the insert that came with the drug. The instructions showed how the sliding guard could be snapped up in place after injection, blocking all access to the used needle. Easy, I thought, absently-mindedly moving it up and down...CLICK. I had locked the guard before using the injection. It's very sturdy-looking, and quite close to the drug receptical...not something a band saw or bolt cutters could probably manage. In addition, the drug is delicate. I was told repeatedly that shaking it would damage the mixture.

I called K, a pharmacist at the specialty drugstore for chemo patients. K is this fast-talking, hyperefficient gay man who I imagine snapping his fingers as he solves all of my problems. Girl! You locked your Neulasta syringe?...no prob! Here's the direct number to a rep at Amgen, just tell him K sent yah! [Snaps!]

So, I actually called the drug company that makes Neulasta and asked them to give me a "one time accomodation" for being a knucklehead, at which point they would give a credit to my drugstore for a new syringe. This is no small matter, since if I didn't get the credit, I would have to pay $150 out-of-pocket for a syringe. After answering a series of "so...how can you be so dumb?" questions from the Amgen rep, I called back K. "I can't be the only person who has ever done this." K reassured me, "no, it happens all the time." Tomorrow I wait for a courier to bring me a new, unlocked syringe.

Chemo was uneventful today. Ativan still rocks. After I went home, I fell asleep and dreamed that I was renting a white clapboard house somewhere on the beach, maybe in Martha's Vineyard or Cape Cod. I was running around in a white bikini getting ready for an old-fashioned clam bake. You're all invited; just close your eyes.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

CTA Stories: Don't Do This, Please


Boingboing recently reported on findings by the University of London's Centre for Neuroimaging on how fear is processed in the brain. In the face of immediate danger, processing moves away from the pre-frontal cortex to a more primitive part of the brain, one which controls quick-response survival mechanisms. That may explain why, a couple of New Years ago, I picked up a burning log that had rolled out on the rug, and threw it back into the fireplace. The pre-frontal cortex certainly wasn't engaged then. Fortunately my contact with the log was brief, and I got away with singed, sooty hands.

It may also explain my actions on the Red Line train few years ago. I boarded the train at Fullerton, and the doors were closing. A woman standing on the platform thrust her hand in between the doors to force them open. Instead the doors, which are lined with thick rubber gaskets, closed on her hand. She tried to extract herself, but she was wearing a heavy bracelet that prevented her from doing so. And...the train started to move forward. She screamed. Time seemed frozen. Surely the engineer would see or hear her, I thought, but seconds passed by without the train stopping.

Every door is equipped with an emergency lever, which is round, red, and about the size of a tennis ball. I've heard it referred to as the "cherry." Pulling it down will force the doors open, and at least in theory, the engineer will then stop the train. I was about two or three seats away, but I somehow levitated out and up and yanked the cherry as hard as I could. The doors opened, and the train braked. The woman fell back, and then ran away, perhaps embarrassed at having done something so stupid. I sat back down, the eyes of all of my fellow passengers on me. A few minutes later, an irate engineer walked back to our car. "Who did that?!" I was silent, partially because I was a little rattled, and also because I didn't want a hassle. Nobody else said a word. He finally stalked back to the front cab, and we continued our trip to the Loop.


photo credit: thirdrail

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Birthday


Many thanks to those who sent along birthday wishes. It was a good day by any measure: I had a healthy appetite, the love of family and friends, and my beautiful/ugly city under my feet and in my gaze.

At 7:30 in the morning, I met with a friend to walk around the neighborhood and take photographs. Less than six blocks from my home, the north branch of the Chicago river curls under the Belmont Avenue bridge. A sliver of a park lies along the banks, and under the cover of dense trees and brush, two men were there fishing. "They're really biting like crazy!" one said. I asked him what he was catching. "The one I just threw back was a carp, but I've been getting bluegill, bass.."



Later, another friend treated me to a hamburger and ice cream at Margie's Candies. My rootbeer float with chocolate ice cream left me with that wonderful gut-busting fullness of childhood birthdays past.



I gave myself a few hours to recover, and then my husband and I went out for sushi and a movie. My bald head will be swathed in luxury, thanks to his gift of a beautiful Hermès scarf.

Now, onward.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Hot Priest Calendar Casting Call


Calendario Romano is now accepting applicants for its 2009 calendar! So, if you know any hot priests...nah, me neither.

That's because we do not live in the land of hot priests, otherwise known as Rome. When visiting there recently, we not only noted that the cappuccinos were tastier, but so were the clerics. Perhaps it's the proximity to the political center of the Catholic Church, the Vatican. Or, perhaps it's the proximity to an already attractive gene pool. Whatever the reason, priests in Rome are HOT.

Apparently I'm not the only one who has noticed this phenomenon. Thus the creation of the Calendario Romano, twelve months of luscious Our Fathers padded out with fascinating facts about the Vatican, like license plate colors, and the location of the official Vatican pharmacy.

I stumbled on the 2007 calendar at 3 am, in a bookstore on Via Cavour. We had been up most of the night enjoying a 24-hour street festival, tripping over empty Becks bottles, and shopping at the Euro store ("Tutto un Euro!") with scores of fellow bargain hunters, many of whom were cranked out of their skulls on more than just beer. After buying flip flops, remaindered German face cream, a pink bunny sponge, and a guitar-shaped thermometer (that was fun to pack), we still had several Euros burning holes in our fanny packs. Joking--I would never be caught dead wearing a fanny pack. We walked into the neighboring bookstore, and there he was: Father What-A-Waste.

Enjoy.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Bring in the Clowns

A friend who blogs was wondering if it's legit to recycle old material. Why, self-plagiarism is a venerated tradition in the letters! I blogged this previously in Myspace, before essentially abandoning that virtual trailer park:

Long before American institutions like Clarabelle or Ronald McDonald, the venerated art of scaring the bejesus out of little children took shape in circuses across Europe. I submit for your approval, the evil clowns of the continent. Why stick with just four horses for the Apocalypse? Why not use a tiny car?



Nothing makes a child laugh quite like a man with eyes painted on his eyelids, along with some paedophiliac hobo makeup



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Cirque de Soleil meets "A Clockwork Orange"



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I like the monkey guy on the left. Can't even imagine what his real face looks like.


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"Insane" is the new "funny"



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Not so much scary as sad.


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Eats actual human flesh


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Just plain evil


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Give it up for Grock


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Much more, including freaks, dancers, animal acts and carnival ride images are at Circusmusem.nl

Monday, August 13, 2007

Chemo 3/8



I just had my third chemotherapy session of eight. Miracle of miracles: no one vomiting or dry heaving in our earshot, and this time we got a nice private room with a work table. Once again, I found the strength to play Snake on my phone. I then discovered that the default Steven Hawking-like voice commands could be customized to say, for example, "ELEESA EES GRAY-EAT," and "JOE EES THMAAN."

Nurse L was back from vacation. She noted that my birthday was coming up soon. Yes, I told her, and my birthday has shown me the upside of having cancer. Although I still have another year, I was beginning to dread my 50th birthday. Now, when I hit that milestone, especially if I'm cancer-free, I'll celebrate like hell. I'm thinking a bottle of Veuve Clicquot in Paris. That sounds about right.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

CTA Stories: Is this a test, and did I pass?

Earlier this week, I was riding the Red Line to the Loop. I took a window seat near the door. A woman sat next to me; she was 30ish, blondish, and had a lot of luggage, some of which directly blocked my exit path. At the next stop, a blind man entered, feeling his way with a long, white cane. He found two empty seats next to the door, and directly kitty-corner to ours. He propped his cane next to him, and took out a braille copy of The National Geographic. It was fascinating to see him skim the raised dots. The movement of his fingers nearly replicated a reader's gaze, pausing to carefully scan items of interest, and brushing past those which didn't quite engage.

My stop, Jackson, was next. I stood and tried to negotiate my way past the woman's carry-on bag. Absorbed in her Blackberry, she swiveled her legs to one side, without standing. That made it extra difficult to get out. I staggered a little and bumped into the blind man's cane, knocking it over. The subway doors opened, which meant I had about 15 seconds to get off the train. I apologized to the man, who I then realized was also deaf. I kneeled down and tried to lift his cane back up, but the tip was stuck under the carry-on bag. While I was trying to do this in time to still make it out of the door, the woman leaned over and said "Excuse me, do you know how to spell 'casket?'" Huh? "Uh...C.A.S...K.E.T." While I was spelling, I managed to right the cane and catch the door just before it closed. "Thanks!"

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The New New Look

On Sunday, I shaved my head. Depressed by messy hair loss, I decided that being bald had to be be better. And, I wanted to see the oversized occipital bone that has made it nearly impossible for me to wear most women's hats. It is very impressive, but I don't think it looks out of proportion with the rest of my enormous head. I also have a dent on the top back of my skull, approximately where one of the fontanelles, or soft unclosed spots found on infant skulls, is located. Mom, any idea? If you dropped me on my head, all is forgiven. It would explain a lot of things, actually.





I can't remember what this wig was called, but from now on it will be referred to as "Elisa, Jr." It has too much hair on it, and I think it looks like a freaking wig. But the real problem is that it's August out there, and wigs and Chicago heat and humidity do not mix. I've been wearing a scarf to work, when I'm not sticking my bald head into a colleague's office just for a reaction shriek. Showing up for meetings bald is fun, as well. It really speeds the agenda along.

Monday, August 6, 2007

CTA Stories: Strange Cargo

I've noticed my tales of public transportation fall into discrete categories in my mind, with one incident reminding me of similar. For example, one of my craigslist correspondent's stories about a shell man leaping off the train to escape an angry sucker reminds me of the guy I saw running down the El catwalk to escape the police chasing him on the ground. I'd probably call that category of story "Amazing Escapes" or somesuch. However, my favorite category is Strange Cargo, i.e. people transporting things for which they probably should have rented a handcart, U-Haul or cattle car. I can think of two right away.

A bed. Several years ago, I was riding the north-bound Red Line. At Monroe, five young people carried a bed on to the train. It was an old-fashioned metal hospital bed, with exposed springs. It was a struggle to get it in the door and then wedged down the aisle, and another to get it off again, at Chicago. I have no idea why the conductor didn't stop them.

A tree. On Christmas Eve, I was riding the west-bound Belmont bus when it stopped at Lincoln and picked up three passengers: two little girls, about seven and ten years old, and a four-foot-high Scotch pine. The girls wore the kind of faded, thrift-shop coats of the very poor. I figure that the guys at the lot probably just gave them the tree, or let them "buy" it for a handful of change. The bus driver never said a word, and just smiled and waved them on board. They dragged the tree down the aisle, needles flying everywhere.

I wondered: wasn't there an adult who could have purchased a tree for them? Did they know they needed a tree stand? Did they have decorations? I never asked these questions out loud. The children looked so triumphant, and it seemed wrong to cast doubt on the venture.

photo credit: e. english

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Overheard

This was a few years ago, near Halloween. I was sitting on my porch reading as a group of really tough-looking gangster girls wearing MLD* colors walked by.
"Oh RIGHT...like she can AFFORD that many pumpkins!"

*Maniac Latin Disciples

Friday, August 3, 2007

Loss



I'm losing my hair; it's coming out in clumps. After washing my hands, I absent-mindedly swiped a wet hand across my crown, and my fingers were coated with it. "It's just hair," I told myself, but I and my spleen are feeling more metaphoric. It reminded me of other losses, and choices not made, or made carelessly. I was full of September thoughts.

Recently, I've been listening to a recording of a guided meditation called the Metta Bhavana, or cultivation of "Loving-Kindness." Loving-Kindness is, to perhaps oversimplify, compassion, patience, and understanding. In the meditation, the practitioner is asked to imagine wishing wellness, happiness, and freedom from suffering to oneself and to others.

Especially now, it is helpful for me to remember how universal is the experience of suffering. As I rode the train home tonight, I looked at the faces of my fellow passengers. Some were expectant and relaxed, and others careworn and distracted. And, I realized how much company I had (alas) in both my illness and my regrets. My fellow passengers.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Cancer and Vitamin D

In the Everything Gives You Cancer News: Vitamin D deficiency. The results of study are astonishing. I'm taking my supplements. I know, I know...



Most Americans and others are not taking enough vitamin D, a fact that may put them at significant risk for developing cancer, according to a landmark study conducted by Creighton University School of Medicine.

The four-year, randomized study followed 1,179 healthy, postmenopausal women from rural eastern Nebraska.* Participants taking calcium, as well as a quantity of vitamin D3 nearly three times the U.S. government’s Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) for middle-age adults, showed a dramatic 60 percent or greater reduction in cancer risk than women who did not get the vitamin.


More at Creighton University News

FYI, to everyone who has been telling me how wonderful I look: thanks. I felt great until about 6 this evening. Now, like a switch has been thrown, my bones ache, and my spleen, my mysterious little black bile machine, is making itself known. I have six more chemos to go, and can't help but believe that the feeling good times will be overshadowed by the not-feeling-good times. Remember to tell me I look wonderful, even when I look like hell.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Wiggin'

Yesterday, with nothing on my stomach but a homemade ginger-ale, I headed up to Skokie to purchase a cranial prothesis. Jerome Krause Fashion Hair, a promising name if ever I heard one, is located in grayish little medical building. There were nearer fake hair emporiums, but Krause was recommended by a friend who knows a couple of women with alopecia, and they swore by the place. It's also in center of the Orthodox Jewish community in Chicagoland, and those woman know from wigs.















Our introduction to wig-shopping was a little rocky at first, since our stylist Linda had not been informed of our appointment. But she dropped the hank of premium Ukrainian hair she was dyeing at the time, and served us with enthusiasm one rarely sees directed at chunks of inert protein. She brought out boxes and boxes of wigs, some hand-sewn, some machine-sewn, some synthetic, some human. Oh, the Russian hair is the best, she said. I patted some Russian hair, and it was sexy, smooth, and oh god...whose head did this hair belong to? Too disturbing. I started hearing that Wallace Shawn monologue The Fever in my head, and I couldn't consider wearing it. Let's buy some hair made in a sweatshop in Thailand, shall we? Much bettah..

I always knew I had an enormous head, confirmed every time I tried on Easter bonnets at Marshall Field's, and all of them perched on the top of my skull, like those comical little hats you see on lady clowns at the circus. Linda measured my head. "Is it huge?" I asked. "No, no..you are in the average range, 22 inches." What was the large range? "22 1/4 inches and above." My head was only largeISH. I also had, Linda informed me, a pronounced occipital bone, which was why wigs that looked great on most women made me look like I had a football coming out of the back of my head.


Because of the "hump," we decided to go with sleeker wigs, although I think this one goes a bit too far. It makes the fashion statement: I'm a high-strung German Philosophy doctoral candidate who chainsmokes and uses the word "bricolage" in regular conversation.









Then, there's this wig. I believe it was called "Cheryl," but I like to call it "MILF." No, no and no.



















This was called "Danielle." I call it "WTF?"


















Finally, we save the best for last. My husband modeling the "Phil Spector." Actually, it was "MILF" turned a little sideways.

I finally settled on a sassy red bob, and Linda clipped and styled it into a more hairdo-like shape. I'll post that later, since I still think it needs a few tweaks.