Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Death of a Washing Machine: So Unexpected

We were in total denial thinking our sturdy Miele (Americans: think GE, Speed Queen or Maytag) was in vibrant health. Looked the same. Sounded the same. Until one afternoon when an agonized crunch of metal followed by a distinct burning smell catapulted me to the basement, where the machine's lights were blinking in all the wrong places. I unplugged the washer and sniffed around, trying to determine whether that burning smell (I'd hauled out the wet wash, which also reeked of smoke) was coming from within our walls or the drum. The drum. Yes, that would be the case. Drum rolls seem to go with death, or execution, and our machine had worked itself to death, as the repairman confirmed when he paid his call.
Attaching a gizmo with a cord to his computer and plugging the other end of the cord into our machine, he determined that the washer built to last around twenty years was actually--if one measured its life in terms of wash loads--a whopping thirty-six years old. Plus, now that I think of it, we'd really tortured the poor dumb creature. All those grains of sand I hadn't completely shaken out of the kids' blue jeans back when they were in kindergarten and grade school. All those very full loads of sheets and comforters and pillows that had been vomited on (and worse) by sick kiddies. And just when we were starting to do a little less laundry, our loyal machine called it quits. We've combed Amazon and Otto and have settled on a more environmentally-correct model, and we think we got our money's worth from this one. RIP, Washy.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Adventures with the Italians and Stamps

Where do you buy stamps? And how many stamps does one need to send a postcard from gorgeous Italia to serious Germany, or from sunny, carefree Italia to Trumpesque America (or what's left of America--congratulations, ye of the chicken balloon with T's head on the White House lawn). 
Ask three Italians, get three answers. 
One is usually sent to the "Tabacchi,"a little shop selling stamps and the knowledge of how many to use in addition to newspapers and tobacco.
At reception in our hotel (run by teenagers) I got the vaguest of answers. But very sweet, polite answers. For examples, 
"Oh, to USA? I think, maybe two euro. But you ask at the Tabacchi."
Where was this Tabacchi? https://www.tripsavvy.com/what-is-a-tabacchi-in-italy-1547549
"Oh, easy, five minute!" Yes. Five Italian minutes. I did question the teenager in detail--I all but asked for a map. I walked in the directions she'd suggested. No Tabacchi. An old woman rode by on a bike, crooning in a raspy voice to her orange cat, who was in a cage affixed to her handlebars. The cat seemed eager to be taken to a party.
I had no idea where I was, and asked a bus driver if he spoke English. 
"Leetle beet," said he. The standard response. But he pointed me in the right direction. When I got to "Stop," I should turn left. At least, that is how I understood his instructions. I also thought he meant "Stop at the next street." But what he actually meant was "Stop at the big STOP sign at he end of that very long street." And turn left. And go through twisty, turny alleyways until the sign "Tabacchi" appears and the shopkeeper lets you know someone sold your husband the Italian equivalent of Federal Express stamps for Germany ("He only need one euro! Not-a one euro thirty.) Plus you do get the right number of stamps for the USA--a whopping 2 euros 20 for a post card. Where do I mail them? 
"The Lotto place!"
I looked. Finally a little old lady showed me the red post box, which was down the street from the "lotto place."
I shot my postcards into the Italian post box. Will they land? Anywhere?

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Best Stovetop Chicken When There's No Oven

I love to bake chicken. Plain, with salt and pepper, or covered with mushrooms and mushroom soup and cream, or slathered with some nice mix from Oil&Vinegar, but when you have one of those vacation rentals with no oven, you've got to find a way to render crispiness, or at least flavor, unto chicken. 
The basic rule: a ton of garlic and the very best olive oil. Easy for me, since I'm in Italy. Details:

For a hungry family of five: about nine chicken thighs or breasts. WITH the bones

At least two cloves of garlic

At least one shallot

Pack of very fresh mushrooms 

Two packs of baby tomatoes, one red and one yellow. But feel free to substitute. You could use peppers or zucchini or both.

A massive bunch of fresh, washed, chopped parsley. But you could substitute fresh rosemary (and if you do, use less. A little rosemary goes a long way).

The juice of one lemon

Salt, pepper, oregano 

Dry white wine, one cup, or red

Potatoes (I'll get to their preparation)

(1) Put around half a cup of extra-virgin Dante Olive oil in the bottom of a very large pot. (In the supermarket I asked a couple of gigantic Italian women whether they spoke English and got the answer I always get around here: "leetle beet." What was the best olive oil? Their eyes lit up and they said, "il migliore," and I knew they understood. They pointed to the Dante and I must say, that stuff is so flavorful I could almost drink it out of the bottle).

(2) While the olive oil is heating, salt and pepper the chicken. Drop it into the pot. The oil should be hot--you should hear a sizzle. Stir and turn the chicken every few minutes, letting it sizzle on high heat for around ten minutes. Cover.

(3) Meanwhile, yell at your teenagers to chop that garlic and shallot. Add these. (The garlic, not the teenagers, although by this time you'll feel like adding the teenagers). Add chopped, fresh, parsley--loads of it. A bunch the size of a small child's head. 

(4) Wash and add the tomatoes--stirring--and the mushrooms--same. Realize you haven't added all the mushrooms. Do so, after rinsing and removing dirty parts of stems. Shake in the oregano, if you haven't already. Lots. Enough for a huge pizza. Squeeze in the lemon. Try to keep the seeds from entering the pot (you can strain through a small sieve)

(5) Meanwhile, you've also washed and boiled (do not peel, but do slice) some potatoes. When you can poke into the potatoes with a fork, drain them and add them to the pot with the chicken.

(6) Slosh in wine. Around a cup. I used red because we didn't have white, but white is more traditional. I must say, the red added a delightful flavor. My fifteen-year-old, who normally detests the aroma of wine, said, "Gee, that smells really good." The dominant flavors--wine, garlic, oregano, parsley--are what got him.

Let the pot boil, covered, for a good 25 minutes or more--stir occasionally. When the meat is easy to cut and not pink inside, everything's done. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

What Small Hotels in Rome Can Do to Attract German-American Families: Five Tips

We travel with children. We do laundry. I don't mind trotting around the corner to the laundromat, but the lack of folding dryer racks tends to be a problem. Most hotels have a little retractable string over the bathtub, adequate for drying two bras and a pair of underpants. We need more. Much more. We also need to get in touch with our teenagers. When the WiFi's down and the phone has a constant busy signal, we worry. And because we worry, and we constantly sight see, and we don't get as much sleep as we need, we want coffee. Perfect coffee. Coffee strong enough to walk on. Ground Illy beans, and more of them than go to make the average cup of coffee in this hotel. I have a feeling the powers that be think Americans like weaker coffee. But we like our coffee very strong indeed. So:

(1) Provide drying racks. Don't go blank in the face when asked.
(2) Keep that WiFi up
(3) Strengthen your coffee
(4) Gladly provide stamps along with the mail service. Don't tell me to trot round to the bar at the next corner. I want one less errand to run on my vacation.
(5) The Biggie: let us redeem VAT tax refunds at your hotel.

Visiting Vatical City: the Pope, Shoulders, and "Free the Knee!"

We barely made it to our papal audience--by the time we'd snaked through the long lines, fending off vendors of tours and rosaries, Francis was already lyricizing about baptism and hope on several Jumbotrons. If you stood on your chair you could still make him out in the distance, but not near enough to get any good images on your cell phone. We had been warned not to expose shoulders or legs, so as the mercury crept toward 104º F (40º C) we left our hotel in blue jeans, not shorts, and in long-sleeved cotton shirts. At Vatican City, we were herded into a large building, possibly Castel Gandolfo, where I observed plenty of women wearing shorts, mini-dresses and spaghetti straps. Many a bare shoulder sported herself at the Angelus. No Swiss guards tried to cover those shoulders, and it occurred to me, when I saw folkloric national costumes from all over South America and Africa, that many of these get-ups have an off-the-shoulder component, and the church does not want to turn away the faithful.

The very-covered look
What I hadn't expected, when nature called and I wanted to answer, was a lack of toilets. Predictably, lines for women's rooms were longer, but a total of eight toilets--missing toilet paper and soap--is hardly enough. With all the Vatican's money, not much goes into the basic amenities for women. Those monks I saw striding across Vatican square, with their dark cowls and their lean and hungry looks, those priests in their black cassocks and magenta cummerbunds, do they ever consider such things?
I had to rip up the paper bag in which my postcards had been stashed to take care of business. 
What had I expected? A bunch of guys who think that Mary was a virgin apparently can't imagine her needing to pee. Think again, guys. Adoration of Mary is not the same as respect for women. Or respect for Mary. If a woman's basic needs are not met, if she is only "adored," she's not happy.
Why would I imagine that a bunch of men in black robes who don't have sex and who don't believe the virgin birth involved the passage of a baby's head through the vagina would make sure there was enough toilet paper in the women's toilets? Incidentally, bodily functions seem to be something the Virgin Mary is not supposed to have. An orgasm during the annunciation? ("God had one, presumably," says one blogger, another adding, "Where do you think the expression, 'Oh, Gawwwd' comes from?")
Once we got to Saint Peter's, the dress code police got stricter. Women in shorts had to buy scarves from street vendors to conceal their shoulders. Or wrapped them around their thighs, since the signs required "respect."
Yes, they were turned away at the door without the scarves.
Since when do naked shoulders and thighs denote lack of respect? Oh, we know the answer to that one, having just seen the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Adam and Eve, tempted by a "snake"--really a pretty woman growing a snake out of her backside-- are getting kicked out of Eden by an angel with a flaming sword. By women came evil into the world! Well. If you'd call a little curiosity, a relaxed sense of the rules, which are made to be broken, and a healthy appetite "sin."
If the sight, smell, and consumption of that luscious fruit is sin, folks,  bring sin on. Here's a gigantic breast, courtesy of Michaelanglo and with apologies to Instagram:

My daughter quipped, "Free the knee!" and pulled at her jeans. She flipped out both shoulders.  
P.S. S.O.S. to Vatican: buy some toilet paper and build some toilets to put beside it. Plus soap dispensers, complete with soap. And how about towels? Or even hand dryers? One thing is for sure: the pope can afford to do this. Make it so!

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Critical Mom's Cauliflower Casserole

This is adapted from a German children's cookbook featuring Bugs Bunny. But the Bugs Bunny version has no garlic and no cauliflower. I prefer my version:

Ingredients:
One large head of cauliflower
About 250 grams noodles (rigatoni or spiral noodles)
About 5oo ml cauliflower-water, i.e. the water in which you've boiled the cauliflower
About 200 ml cream (more is fine)
About half a tablespoon of nutmeg
A pinch or two of cayenne pepper
A block of  Parmesan cheese (enough for a family of five)
Butter--around 100 grams, total. More is okay.
Many cloves of garlic. Sixty, if you have the energy. But never mind. I only use one or two myself.
Five tablespoons of flour

PRE-HEAT oven to 200º Celsius (around 425º F)

(1) Boil noodles, drain and set aside in a colander. Lean toward al dente--they'll be baking too, and if you cook them for the "twenty minutes" the original recipe recommends, they'll disintegrate. 

(2) Grease a largish pan with butter. Around fifty grams of butter.

(3) Cut apart a head of cauliflower. Boil, including the little crumbly bits, for about ten minutes or until you can easily poke a fork in.

(4) Put the noodles in the greased pan. With a slotted spoon or small sieve, airlift cauliflower from pot to pan, leaving water intact, with all the little bits of cauliflower that were so small they stayed in the pot when you lifted out the rest.

(5) Mix noodles and cauliflower around in pan.

(6) On a small cutting board, slice up your garlic. Thin slices, but it doesn't have to be diced. Put these in a small pot with at least fifty (but if you use more I'd jump for joy) grams of butter, and put on low heat. Gradually add, stirring constantly, the five tablespoons of flour, and add the nutmeg and cayenne pepper. NOW add 500 ml of the cauliflower water, and you can include all the little piece of cauliflower that didn't yet make it into the dish. Stir. Add the cream. Keep stirring at low heat until the mixture thickens. Pour over the noodles and cauliflower.

Grate the Parmesan and sprinkle over the noodle-cauliflower casserole. Bake for thirty-to-forty minutes. Enjoy with red wine. Or white.


Friday, July 28, 2017

"Pop!" Goes the Palbociclib

I was thinking of getting off the clinical trial, gentle reader, because my white cell count spent a week hovering at the levels of a patient in the final stage of AIDS. During this hand-sanitizered time, when I went through gallons of the clear antiseptic fluid in the little plastic bottles, bottles that always got lost at the bottom of my purse, and when I put on rubber gloves when I had to pick up dishes my feverish child had eaten off of, I worried. Is taking this drug just good for the clinical trial or is it also good for me? Nobody knows, of course. That's why the clinical trial continues. If your white count rises, you get to go on a slightly lower dose of the medication. I went to the hospital twice to have blood drawn--sometimes they can't find a vein. 
"What did you drink this morning?" asked the nurse. 
"Coffee! With lots of hot milk," I said. She shook her head. I was supposed to drink water, lots of water, eight glasses of water.
"But then I'd have to pee all the time," I said, and she rolled her eyes. 
The American hospitals seem to think you should always swallow your pills with "a full glass of water."
After my nightly glasses of red wine? And when I'm about to go to bed, hoping not to wake before four a.m. when I always have to pee? I don't think so. 
The American hospitals say, "No Seville oranges." I don't know if the navel oranges I've been gobbling hail from Seville. They might actually come from Florida. But I stopped eating them until my white count climbed again. I've had to renounce grapefruit for the duration of the study. Also grapefruit juice. It's a good thing they didn't ask me to give up chocolate, red wine, or curry.  They did, however, make me stop taking the pills while my white count remained in the toilet. When they called in with the first blood count, I could tell from the nurse's tone of voice that the news was going to be bad. Hesitant, shaky, doubtful: "Well, we hope that your count will go up," she said, but her unsaid warning seemed to be that if it did not, I'd be residing for the rest of my life in one of those huge plastic bubbles, like the boy in Paul Simon's eighties ballad:
I came in for the second blood test that week, and the nurse beamed and said, "I understand you are on a drug holiday?"
Now, she used the term perfectly correctly. It really does mean a required break, or a legitimate break, from a medication. But (1) I've only heard the term used by women who go off their antidepressants for a week so they can have orgasms with their boyfriends and (2) I can't help picturing a "drug holiday" as mainlining heroin or something equally evil.
My white blood cell count climbed again, so my "drug holiday" ended. Of course I don't have anything like a normal count. Just better than bad.  I continue to use enough hand sanitizer to send the stocks of various companies soaring. (Check this out: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/21/health/washing-hands.html) And I pop a smaller pill, one with only 100 mg, down from 125 mg. The twenty percent chance of cancer returning is still supposed to be diminished, even with the smaller dosage.  But oh, ye Pfizer gods, what exposures to which ailments occur when you're inhibiting cancer cells while inadvertently lowering white counts?
I've had four different answers to this question so far, none of them satisfactory. Weigh in, pharma, big and small, weigh in.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Breast Cancer Girls: to Out Oneself at Work or Not ? Pros and Cons

If you don't tell the folks at work, you have the fun of being the local Rorschach test. 
I just met up with a colleague who hadn't seen me since my wig--we had to give an exam together. He's a scholarly Irishman, entirely buried in his work, so much so that I was counting on him not noticing anything different about me. But he glanced up from his coffee with that startled look--followed by a look of horror--the one typically preceding a remark from one of the secretaries about what a nice new hairdo I have. With frozen politeness that belies the shock they can never quite hide, they say, "Short for summer, right?" and I smile back and thank them. 
This guy said, nervously, "Well, now, you've really remade yourself completely!" His eyes flicked me over and the scholar in him took over--having processed the data, he felt driven to assess: "Was it a mid-life crisis, now?"
I smiled. "A mid-life crisis is as good a name as any."
He smiled back as if he now knew just what the situation was: "Well, now, don't worry--it'll be over soon!"
See? Rorschach test. He looked at the ink blots and thought "menopause." I'm kind of flattered. Yeah, as in, "Gee! I look young enough to be just starting menopause?" 
If you go ahead and tell the folks at work that you had cancer, you never get to hear stuff like this, and I must say, I enjoyed hearing it. 
I didn't tell because I didn't want people rushing up and asking how I was, with a look of tragic fear in their eyes that screamed, "Are you going to get so sick I have to teach your courses for you or give your exams, or worse yet, clean up some mess created by your cancer-riddled brain?" Or maybe they'd do what I would have done, in fact, did do, when another colleague came down with breast cancer. I wondered what she'd done to deserve this. Not that she'd done anything. But she must have had an unhappy this or an angry that or taken too much whatever. I would much rather have thought she'd done some preventable thing than feel the full force of how unpredictable life is. Only I am predictable: must have been the clomid I took to increase fertility. Or the red wine. Or drinking out of plastic bottles. Or using lipstick and hair dye. Or . .  .
So, for me: tell your family. They will help you through an illness. But the folks at work are unpredictable. If they're like me before I had cancer, I wouldn't tell them. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Ask Three Doctors, Get Three Answers: The Palbociclib Blues

I feel fine, but my white cell count is slightly above that of a corpse. I'm in the range where, according to my physician friend E., I should retire to a bubble: "Don't travel! Don't go outside! Don't be in crowds! Avoid anyone with a cold!"
But I want to live
Today, I went to the main railway station, took a train, while surrounded by people, all of us squishing past each other and angling for seats, to a neighboring city, where I took a ballet class. Steamy, sweaty people gripped barres and little droplets of perspiration flew around the room. After class, I got back on the train, came home. Every step of the way--after I pushed the button to open the tram door, after I gripped the back of a seat so as not to fall down, after I opened my locker--I slathered on hand sanitizer, to the point where my skin is really, really dry, so then I get out the Eucerin. Hand santizer is my holy water--and I'm not even religious.

I didn't go for my friend E.'s answer--even though she's a really hotshot doctor--so I asked another doctor, who said: "Nooooo, you don't have to stay home. Just take the precautions you are taking, and don't kiss anybody who has a cold."
My husband doesn't have a cold. We do a lot of kissing. My daughter does have a cold, so I haven't hugged her for a week, but I do bring her cups of tea and jump back when she coughs. So far, I'm not sick.
Doctor number three reminded me that I'm better off sticking with the Palbociclib if I can tolerate the side effects, because otherwise the cancer might come back. "It does with a lot of women," he reminded me. 
I may go for doctor number four pretty soon. Anyone with a cheerful word and a new idea would be fine by me.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Trans Plans? Thinking about Transgender Lives

Heading home today via the station named after my German region of residence, I was startled to see, neatly affixed to the wall above the escalator, a new enamel plaque indicating a change of station name: elegant white letters on a deep blue background proclaimed: CHELSEA-MANNING-PLATZ, or Chelsea-Manning-Square. Really? Are Germans that cool, or was the sign just the work of a politically-inclined prankster?

City of openmindedness or lone wolf? Wolverine?


Presumably the latter--my son couldn't believe how gullible I was ("They don't use that font on signs here, Mom!") and since I find no information about new names for stations in our local news, but I admire the taste and resourcefulness of the person who put the sign there.  In my defense, I've seen that font elsewhere. Quite nearby.
Looking quite professional and really hard to reach, the sign gleams with a certain cocky pride at the skinheads who can't pull it down. I bet someone made an effort to get that thing on the wall in such a way that it'd be hell to remove. I imagine that someone dangling, Mission-Impossible style, from the ceiling to place the sign. 
My students have been reading Jennifer Finney Boylan's entertaining exploration of her transgender experience, so the new name struck me as the universe's stamp of approval for acceptance and tolerance. A long time ago in a galaxy far away, there was a country, the United States of America, that had a real president. Not the thug with economic tentacles running so deep that even if they all got sliced, he'd pop out new ones faster than the many-headed hydra. Not the guy who could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still get elected.
But here, in a small city in Deutschland, we've got a Chelsea-Manning-Platz. When will be get an Edward-Snowden-Square? Listen, my clever ideologue, you who puts up signs: this time pick a place where everyone will see your sign. How about Hauptbahnhof?

Post Hoc, 15 August: I came down the escalator and glanced over at the wall, and alas! No more Chelsea-Manning-Platz. Damn. Put back that sign, please!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Training the Narcissistic Mom: Five Tips

Well, you can't, really. But you can manage her, sometimes, if you decide to remain in touch at all. 

(1) Two massive handfuls of praise can result in a droplet or two of money. I dolloped out the "you-are-wonderfuls" as much as I could because my son needs a few expenses covered at university and my mother loves playing Lady Bountiful. We thanked her. Profusely. And we'll do so again.

(2) You have the right to remain silent. Tell her nothing. Rule of thumb: if you don't really care about something, you're safe discussing it at any length with her. What's dear to your heart should stay right there--nowhere near her.

(3) But she's asking! She wants to know? What do I do? You make something up, or you omit whatever would make you sad or nervous to talk about with her, and you send her something she wants. A photo of your kids to put on her wall and brag about. A box of stuff she likes to eat from Amazon Prime.

(4) Keep a journal. When she sends a letter or she keeps you on the phone and you read the letter or you listen to her and your head starts to spin, just write down everything that trots through your mind. And if you're at all like me, plenty of thoughts will stampede through your head after a five-minute conversation with Mom. I write on trains. I find recollecting what I wish I could say to her soothing. Writing these things down also helps prevent you from confiding in her. 

(5) Find out as much as you can about her. This helps more than you'd think. After digging through family letters and photos, listening to her, and delving into my own recollections, I really do have a good sense of how she became so awful. I can sympathize. I can see how she never had a chance, even as I ask myself, "My God--couldn't she have developed a tiny bit more sense than a newborn?"

Sunday, July 9, 2017

How To Write a Condolence Card When You Dislike the Bereaved: Six Tips

I was rather fond of a relative who just died. I don't like her kids with whom I've had almost no contact since 1995.

What to write on the condolence card? Hundreds of websites out there offer lines that sound really good. 

None advise on what to say when you'd prefer to avoid the bereaved. So I'm establishing  guidelines:

(1) Relax. You need not worry about buying the perfect card! My husband was on his way to the grocery story and said he'd pick one up. "Religious or non-religious?" he asked. "Non," I said, and I now have a crucifix-free card.

(2) Keep it simple. I once had a dreadful colleague whose brother committed suicide. It occurred to me that I might be fired for not sending a card, so I found one that had upbeat, comforting lines, wrote, "I am very sorry for your loss," signed the thing and sent it. 

(3) Resist the urge to explain. A no-brainer.

(4)  Although they're probably not looking for a card from you any more than you're looking to send one, they'll resent not getting one. Either way, they're not going to change, so just send the thing.

(5) Deaths are a time for reflection. Why was it you found your aunt more forgivable than her kids? Because they knew better--or I believed they did. That was my fault.

(6) Doesn't the person deserve a card even though you'd rather forget him or her? I suppose. Will a card from me be appropriate? The key issue remains whether you'll have less grief, so to speak, if you send the card. You're doing the socially correct thing. What's in your heart stays with you, if you wish to console.

True confession: I sent the thing, and now can throw away their address. I was surprised how exhausting it was to write four or five sentences. Almost more exhausting than producing that 68,000-word memoir I'm trying to market. Because I was restraining myself from dumping those words on my relatives. 

Who are, yes, in my book.



Thursday, July 6, 2017

Trump Marches Into Poland

He told conservative Poles exactly what they wanted to hear. Most of what he said could be construed as fairly true, or at least moderately true. According to Wikipedia, from which he took a chunk of his talk. A few stale facts with a dollop of very creamy flattery. Besides, "a man who can't talk morality twice a week to a large, popular, immoral audience is quite over as a serious politician," Oscar Wilde remarked, and the Poles, with their pro-Catholic, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-free-speech agenda, lapped it up. The Donald, pleased with himself, as always, sailed offstage, leaving Germany and France and the huge bill he's sending them for NATO in his wake.
On the train this morning, a British guy told a colleague he was really glad Trump had won. If only Marie Le Pen had won, too, the British guy said. The other guy--apparently an underling--said it was so great to be with someone who "talked normal!" Yeah, the Brit agreed, "Not many people do these days."
Except in Poland. There Trump stood, alternating the Wikipedia page on Poland with goo about patriots dying for their country--for freedom. Then he threw in a few God-Bless-Yous and fled.
 A  Polish joke. But this clown keeps on winning. Why?  

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Boundaryless Family and the Virtues of Estrangement

I called my ancient mother, who is determined to get on a train all alone, without her walker and without her cane to sit by the bedside of her sister, whom she has never liked, and who is now dying. I did try to suggest Mom might like a traveling companion, but of course this is none of my business. When are such things my business? She can barely remember the name of the relative with whom she's staying, and her assisted living residence nurse cringes every time she wanders off without the cane or the walker. . .  which she's always doing. Meanwhile, Mom insisted she was just fine, that "it's just a train ride," and that by the way, how had I known my aunt was dying?
Her daughter, Cousin X had told me, said I.
"That's nice. By the way, did Cousin X mention her son is having surgery to become a woman?"
"No, she hadn't," I said. "So now we have a transgender relative," I added, since Mom seemed to expect me to say something. I took a cheerful tone, as is always amenable to her, perhaps especially when her sister is dying. 
"Oh, and he's now going by the name of Y," she said, offering his new, feminine name, which does not begin with Y, and yes, curiosity drove me to look the kid up on Facebook.
Why is Mom rushing to the bedside of an unconscious sister after a lifetime of undercutting her? I can imagine a cartoon balloon spelling out Mom's thoughts as she holds the dying woman's hand: "I won, because I'm older, but lived longer."
It would never occur to Mom that Cousin X might like to be the one to tell me about her son. Or not tell me about her son. The son, or daughter-to-be, might have his own wishes about what, when, and where to tell relatives about his transition. 
Cousin X had, however, a few months ago, sent me her sister's very thorough genetic tests revealing a particular illness. Had Cousin X asked her sister if it were okay to send me test results? I didn't ask. But I don't tell these folks anything at all about myself. Back in the days when Mom invited my ex-boyfriend out to let him know she would have married him, I thought I still had to let her know some things about my life, because She Is The Mother. 
But I don't. I send her just enough information--a cute photo here, a funny story there--to keep her from asking too many questions. 
Meanwhile, the relatives tell me to give Mom "plenty of TLC." Oh, I do. I call her and I ask how things are going and how she's feeling.
"Fine!" she says, adding, with unmistakable relish, that her sister "is breathing through her mouth now!"
P.S. She skipped the funeral. Her sister died, the excitement was over, my mother felt she'd gotten what she came for, and she went home on the train. All by herself.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Fleeing Forced Marriages--or not--in Germany: A Teacher's Perspective

The more terrifyingly out of control things get, the more young women seem to keep things to themselves, desperately hoping that the problem will, if not evaporate, become more bearable. At least, so it seems to me when I talk to those whose families insist that they marry. One, who just took an exam with me, casually mentioned her family wanting to take  a vacation in a country she fled as a child, where her parents were killed, a country currently enforcing Stone Age laws regarding women, and with a war in every corner. She seemed embarrassed to have raised the topic, especially after I and the other professor giving the exam reacted with horror. We waved our arms around begging her, "Don't go! It's your life!"

Most of the young women in danger of these marriages come from countries ending in -an. They are Muslim and grew up in Germany, or arrived before their teenage years and have gone to school with German girls who take for granted freedoms of which my Muslim students never dreamed. Some of the Muslim students shyly conform and I never hear from them. Some tell me in a resigned way and with a shrug that they're getting married, or just got married, and a few have desperately recounted their unwillingness to defy their families.

And no wonder. How many sixteen-to-twenty year old women have the emotional strength and financial resources to give up their families forever? Brave possible beatings or so-called honor killings if their hiding places are discovered?

I have yet to meet one. 

But I did, a few days ago, see a student who had been in our Masters program and done well, then disappeared. She vanished three or four years ago, and about a year after that, I happened to enter a shop one day and found her behind the counter with a man old enough to be her father--maybe her grandfather. On the tip of my tongue was the question, "Oh, is this your dad?" when she beat me to it: "This is my husband." 

Now she's back in my office, some years later. The husband is gone--the shop is gone--she has the young child and the husband's parting words were that she could return with him to that country ending in -an, where he would support her. Or she could be on her own and raise the child in Germany. 

She's staying. I applaud her! But how will she do it? Where are the support groups?

Here are some resources I'd like to provide, where you can ask questions, not be judged, and get, at the very least, a listening ear:

http://sabatina-ev.de

Founded by a Pakistani woman who refused a forced marriage and converted from Islam to Catholicism, this organization helps women and girls flee forced and abusive marriages.

https://www.caritas.de/startseite 

This Catholic organization helps women of all faiths to find safety.

https://www.theahafoundation.org

That brilliant atheist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, runs this organization that helps to protect women and girls from genital cutting, forced marriages, and honor killings.

I'd like to keep a stack of copies of her book, The Caged Virgin (see chapter ten for practical tips on getting away from a forced marriage!) on my desk, and hand it out to any student I suspect of being on her way to one of those miserable marriages.  

But most of all, I would like for these young women to be able to say to themselves, "I want a life! I want to live, not be hustled into a marriage before I've finished high school or college. I want to choose my husband or partner, or I want to live alone, unmarried."

I want them to say "I" with an exclamation point, to feel that their feelings and wishes are important. I wish them courage. 

The student I just examined, the one going on the vacation from which I fear she may not come back, is focused on a sibling, and the sibling's safety. The sibling doesn't want to leave Germany either, but neither of them dares to sneak away from home, find a shelter or a job or a community. 

Guilt--that dreadful power of the weak over the strong ("I'm getting old! You can't leave me! I've got cancer. You can't leave me! I fed you and clothed you! You can't leave me. I took you in when you were an orphan. You can't leave me!") remains a powerful deterrent to the freedom these young women deserve--a freedom that should be their birthright. 

When I teach American literature, we often read Harriet Jacobs' harrowing narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, about her owner's sexual harassment and abuse, about her struggle to keep her children safe, about her dangerous escape to the North. Jacobs' memoir was published in 1861. Her goal, to inform Northern white women about the rape, abuse and torture routinely experienced by women like themselves who happened to be black, strengthened the abolitionist movement, and slavery was abolished in 1863.

 At least theoretically, at least in America, the land where, even under Trump, and even in a gun-mad world in which a movement devoted to Black lives mattering is essential, girls can't legally be thrown into marriage. 

My point: my German students read the book in a rage, wondering how such things were ever possible. The quieter students, the Muslim girls, many in hijab, read the book and I wonder what they are thinking. Are they making comparisons to their own lives? Are they just sliding the contents of the book into a mental drawer marked "school" and avoiding any conscious awareness of similarities to their own lives?

The problem comes down to the pronoun "I" and the sense that one has a right to use it--to be a person with needs of one's own. 

I write in a certain amount of despair myself, having not had that sense of a right to say "I" when I was a young woman. I didn't go into a forced marriage, but the West has its own problems with patriarchy and I fell down a rabbit hole with an authority figure I should have shrugged off much sooner than I did.

And now, like so many old people, I hope to prevent the young from making that particular mistake. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Clinically Tested: Palbociclib and Me

I've never been in a clinical trial before, but I vividly remember the Gray's Anatomy episode in which Meredith--wanting to help Adele, who has Alzheimer's--manages to make sure Adele gets the real McCoy, not the saline solution. I got handed a bottle with a number on it--I have my very own four-digit number for the duration of the trial, so that neither I nor the doctors know whether I am getting the real thing. 
Except that I obviously am: I didn't bother with Dr. Google until the nurse called to let me know my white blood cell count was "too low" to continue this week, and my count was fine before. I hadn't noticed any side effects apart from the usual, the fatigue I can't quite shake, although my new hair did seem to be growing more slowly . . . I'd gone from fuzz to something approaching Jimi Hendrix within weeks, and now there was nothing going on up there.
I'm not supposed to eat grapefruit. I don't. But I crave oranges and consume them frequently. 
I'm wondering whether the statistics that seem to tell the tale are correct in my case. Statistically speaking (but I had to read How To Lie With Statistics in sixth grade) I am in exactly the category likelier to survive longer without a recurrence of cancer if I continue with the clinical trial. But now that I think about the situation, I've felt tireder ever since I began what must be Palbociclib.
Anyone out there experienced with this medicine? 
P.S. Eight days after I posted this, my white count is still too low to resume the stuff. Hmmmm

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Breast Cancer: One Year Out and Happy Anniversary

I just noticed I'd posted exactly one year ago that I'd been diagnosed with breast cancer and that the diagnosis had initially been missed. The doctor who missed it also missed another diagnosis about a month ago, this time for a cracked rib. I'm not giving her a third shot. Fortunately, the mop-up squad identified and fixed things, before my cancer spread.
Looking back on the year of three operations (first, the port insertion, second, the lumpectomy, and third, the follow-up to get the few bad cancer cells out from the margins), chemotherapy (sixteen of 'em) and radiation (twenty-eight of those) I can heartily attest to being glad to be done with cancer. Except for the pills--the pills, the pills, the pills! The ones I have to take plus the ones from the clinical trial, plus the three-month check-ups and yes, they will probably be mammograms, and probably my insurance doesn't pay for the three-way mammo or the MRI, but maybe I'll get that anyway as part of my clinical trial. I'm almost certain I'm getting the placebo, since I've experienced no side effects and this pill is the one pill I've ever taken in my life that produces zero side effects, but I like the idea of the free bone scans and blood tests. Maybe they'll make up, in diagnostic power, for what I won't be getting if I can't get that MRI or three-way mammo. I can't say I've gotten a bad deal here in Germany: every few months I got a bill for either seventy or ninety euros. If I'd been in New York, I probably would have had to sell my apartment plus borrow my way into the middle of my dotage, I should live so long. Neither Trumpcare nor Obamacare would have taken care of me. A New York friend cautioned me, just as I was starting chemo, to make sure I asked for and purchased that Emend pill, even though it was either fifty or seventy-five bucks--it was really worth it, stopping the nausea. Here in Germany, I got the Emend as part of a packet of pills my doctors told me I had to take, and I paid little for them--they must have been in those occasional bills for seventy or ninety, usually bills that arrived after ten chemos or ten radiations. I've heard the mastectomy rate is as high as it is in the States because radiation is so expensive. In Russia there's no radiation, so they just chop. Germany has been good to me, very good, in the health care department. Have I learned that cancer is a journey? No, it is a massive bother and no fun at all. Have I been spiritually enhanced? Are you kidding? Have I had "preventative" mastectomies so that I won't have to worry about cancer returning? I keep asking myself who would do that--who'd voluntarily lose sexy nipple sensation? A woman who was the tenth in her family to get cancer, and who had the BRCA gene, did so, and I can completely understand. But I've heard so many tales of women just having their breasts hacked off even if they're not (yet) cancerous, sometimes even cutting off a healthy breast when there's no BRCA gene. Then there are the non-reconstructionists, the Flat-is Fab crowd, the gals with the tattoos across their empty chests. Brrrrrr. To me, that's sad. If I'd lost a breast to a mastectomy, I'd want at least the feeling I had one, yes, even without sensation. I can't help but think the Flat-is-Fab crowd is in angry denial. I bet I'll get a couple of angry reactions to this post, but they'd be welcome. Happy Anniversary.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

A Moment In Patriarchy-Land: Sunny Days in Berchtesgaden

My husband and I spent a comfortable night in the busy, friendly sort of Bavarian inn where there's no soap in the bathroom and no internet in the room--the rooms are opened with actually keys--but the smiles are friendly, the service fast. The innkeeper--who gave me the cutest excuse, namely, "Oh, we only have internet here in the dining area, because otherwise we never see our guests! First it was TV, and now it's WLAN--isn't a hundred and two. The password he just gave me indicates he's about my age. He hadn't gotten around to checking us in last night, and did so as he handed us our boiled eggs. 
"Ah, Sie Sind Der Professor!" he said, lingering on each syllable, eyes round, turning to my husband with the most ingratiating smile I have ever seen. He all but bowed and I just know he was wondering where he'd put his white gloves. It had been a long time, he told us, since they had a professor there! A real professor!
He nodded at me, the little woman.
If I'd have mentioned that by the way, I'm a professor too, the poor man would have dropped the coffeepot he was holding.
After he wandered back to the kitchen, my husband said, "See! That's how professors used to be treated. Back in the nineteen-sixties."
The Austrians at the next table were clamoring about how they couldn't wait to see the Eagle's Nest--Hitler's hideaway in bad days gone by. 
Last night we sat on a balcony at the home of friends, enjoying the sight of snow-capped Alps, green valleys, forests, sheep munching their way through the green. It's glorious. I mean, you don't say "pretty," when you're looking at Berchtesgaden. It's on-beyond-breathtaking; it's epic gorgeous everywhere you look. 
Enough to have made me wonder, this morning, in my coffeed-up state, if it's remotely possible that Hitler had a sense of beauty. You wouldn't think so, from looking at his early drawings, about which a friend once remarked: "Right away, you see there's no love in those lines. He doesn't love what he's drawing. That's why you look at the picture and feel bored." She's right. He must have picked the place strategically, not from a love of the mountains, rearing up like ancient guardians, and the lovely Bavarian houses with the wood-paneled balconies, the roses creeping up the sides, the windowboxes exploding with floral color. I never come here without a sense of unbearable contrast: the loveliness of the place and the evil genius, the canker in the rose, who held court for too long, long enough to create a tourist industry decades later. As we sat on the balcony with our friends last night, the light fading, two small electric lights appeared on a mountain peak at some distance. I asked whether that were a hiker's hut.
"Oh, no, that's the Eagle's Nest!" said our host. "It's a restaurant now."
"Some day," I said, "Mara-a-Lago will be America's Eagle's Nest." Tourists will come--I can see a cross between the mad king Ludwig's castle and the beach. Yes, bad guys make good tourism--'tis the way of the world. 
But our jovial innkeeper isn't a bad guy. Just a guy who doesn't think. The one thing he has in common with Trump, probably.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Ultimate Anti-Cancer Meatball

You like flavor? Spice? Yum!

Ingredients:

Shallots (as many as you feel like)
Fresh ginger root (at least a thumb-sized piece)
Fresh garlic (enough cloves to sink a battleship)
Red onion (one, small)
Fresh turmeric (also a thumb-sized piece. More if you like)
Fresh parsley (a bunch)

About a kilo (around 2 lbs) of ground pork. Or ground any meat you like. 
Two eggs
A cup of water. 

1. Chop the shallots. Put in a large pan sizzling with about two tablespoons of either olive oil or plant oil. Gently cook.
2. Chop garlic; add to shallots and stir.
3. Chop ginger root; add to mix and stir
4. Chop red onion; add to mix and stir
5. Chop turmeric; add to mix and stir 

When the spices have  been nicely sautéed--crisp but not burned, for as long as you like, set aside. Add two eggs and the water to the ground pork and mix very well. Add in the sautéed spices. Mix well. Add salt and pepper. If you like add curry powder. Mix well. 

Chop the parsley and add to the meat (don't sauté the parsley!)
Mix meat mixture again. Put in a tight container or in a freezer bag, tightly closed, for several hours in the fridge. 

An hour before you want to eat, make jasmine rice. Form the meat mixture into meatballs. Drop into very hot vegetable oil and brown nicely on both sides. 
These are great with rice and a vegetable. We had sliced carrots with mint and cumin. Enjoy!
Why anti-cancer? The ginger, the garlic, the turmeric, the onion! You could add cilantro, too! Wash it all down with a glass of red wine. That'll either prevent or provoke the growth of cancer cells, depending upon which authority you read that day. 



Wednesday, May 31, 2017

What "Covfefe" Really Means! (To the Tune of L.O.V.E)


 "C" is for the furry thing I like . . ."O" is for the osteoporosis pill I take . . . "V" is for the very, very, extraordinary me, and last but definitely not least, . . . "F" is for what I like to do to "E," for everyone. Yes, "F.E," that's my refrain.

If only things were that simple. I'm whistling in the dark. If only the clown were making a fool of himself yet again. But looking like he's making a fool of himself is this clown's Modus Operandi for getting rich and screwing the planet. So "Covfefe" is either the deal he's cut with Putin, or the fate of the investigators of his Ivanka's Chinese operation: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/31/activists-investigating-ivanka-trumps-china-shoe-factory-detained-or-missing.  
Or maybe the fate of "C," as in Jim Comey. Watch your backs, folks. Here's Nat King Cole, singing the song as it ought to be sung.