Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Why You'd Rather Have Dr. Asperger's Syndrome than Dr. Perfect Bedside Manner

Once upon a time I had a mammogram--and was reassured, as I always had been, until now. Dr. Perfect Bedside Manner never rushed me. She had my results in her hand and was smiling as I walked in. She shook my hand, offered me a seat, explained why I was just fine--"I have nothing but good news for you!"--and, after exchanging a pleasantry or two about my very good gynecologist, who recommended me, let me go. But then two months later I found a lump--technically a swollen lymph node--and the circus of my treatment--tests, tests, test, chemotherapy, baldness, old ladyhoodness, and other distressing symptoms, began.
To my gynecologist's surprise, Dr. Perfect Bedside Manner was not assigned to my case. The hospital has a team, and normally Dr. PBM is on it, and I guess they must have thought--no one offered an explanation--maybe they thought I would sue--that I would not be comfortable with a doctor who had failed me. It's a common failure, misreading a mammogram, but how would they know that I knew that? In any case, I was assigned Dr. Asperger's Syndrome, who walks like a Hollywood Frankenstein and has the bedside manner of a snail. His expression--that of someone who hasn't had enough sleep and needs a bathroom--never seems to change. 
Since the whole idea of chemotherapy, to shrink the lump before surgery, seemed not to be working--because I could feel the round, hard, lump after four rounds of epirubicin and cyclophosphamide--I made an appointment with him. If side effects were all I was getting out of chemo, I wanted out.  
Dr. Asperger's Syndrome, with none of the personal charm of Dr. Perfect Bedside manner, has other qualities. What he lacks in ordinary everyday politeness he makes up for in competence. He is the doctor who knows how to identify that single snowflake, the one he seeks, in a blizzard. 
Not long before my appointment I was waiting to speak to a receptionist when he happened to come down the hall. I'd met him twice before, so smiled and waved. He moved robotically down the hall, not seeming to see me. 
I was waiting in the same place the day I had my appointment. He strode down the hall toward the receptionist. This time I got a vague, startled nod as he continued walking. The receptionist guided us down the hall to an office and unlocked it; he left and let her take me in and question me about my insurance. By this time I was bald and wearing my wig. He'd met me before I lost my hair, so I wondered if perhaps he did not recognize me in my new blond haystack. About which he said nothing. He returned and asked something--perhaps "How are you" in such a flat affect that I felt nervous. I flipped off my wig, said, "Well, now we have the same haircut," and he didn't laugh, although actually we do sport the same military buzz cut. Equally gray, too. He stared intently at my offending scalp for a moment, as if calculating. After the interview, I imagined he was thinking, "She is not completely bald, therefore . . . ." or "Her stubbles seem exactly a quarter of a millimeter long, which indicates . . . ." He turned, scribbled something on a clipboard, and set up the ultrasound. I lay on the table as he slimed me with gel and started moving the arm of the ultrasound around my breast. I had questions and started asking them, but when I glanced at him, I desisted. He was leaning into the screen with an intensity that made me want to stop breathing. I thought the sound of my respiration would break his concentration. His eyes were wide and bugged out. "Speaking up now, " I told myself, "Would be like asking a man in the throes of a very good orgasm whether he'd remembered to pick up his shirts at the dry cleaner." 
Only when Dr. Asperger's Syndrome had completed his exam and tossed me a towel with which to wipe off the slime did I express my concern that the lump seemed bigger. The one at the edge of my breast.
"No, no! We'll take that one out later. The other one's smaller." He smiled in a cheery fashion and walked out. I thought of Lurch, the Addams family butler.
But I'm much happier with Dr. Asperger's Syndrome than Dr. Sweet Bedside Manner, who missed the diagnosis and left me unaware and untreated for two long months. 


Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Wigless Cancer Mom Answers the Door

Wigs, as a rule, aren't comfortable. But ever since I lost the little cotton skullcap that goes under mine, the thing's surprisingly more comfortable--my sharp gray hair stubbles function like velcro. Still, I don't wear my wig at home. If I know the Amazon delivery guy is ringing the doorbell, I quickly don one of my Smurf caps. If it's just one of my children, I don't. They've gotten used to the sight of Mom-with-military-buzz. 
Somehow, I thought one of my kids had forgotten his or her key when I answered the door one evening around six. There stood one of my older son's friends, his eyebrows suddenly up, eyes popping, mouth in a classic "O." No doubt about it. The kid was in shock. So I was, actually, having made feeble plans to keep breast cancer a secret.
"Oh," I said. Then, overly brightly, "Hello!" In came the kid. As I directed him to my son, I explained, "This is my chemotherapy head, but don't tell anyone."
"It's--ahhh, okay!" gasped the kid.
"Normally, I wear a wig."
"It's--really--okay!" he added.
Today we're visiting friends in Bavaria, and I woke up in the middle of the night to use the facilities. Unexpectedly, the girlfriend of our host's son was emerging from the bathroom just as I entered.
"Oh, hello! It's just me," I said with manic cheer.
She smiled. Girls understand better, without having things explained.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Six Paclitaxel Tips for Breast Cancer Gals

If you've already endured four cycles of epirubicin ("The red devil"--it turns your pee red, or rather neon-popsicle orange) and its sidekick, the equally devilish cyclophosphamide, you may feel teary and sleepless upon arriving for your first of twelve weekly doses of Paclitaxel (aka Taxol in the USA). But my experience has relieved me. Paclitaxel's no picnic, but does not cause the completely flattening effects of the first cycle of chemo. I felt sleepy, because of the stuff they add to prevent an allergic reaction, but had no other side effects besides a slightly flushed face. I'm not back to my usual energy levels, but can imagine returning to ballet and tap classes now.

Six tips for Paclitaxel:

(1)You won't feel that bad during the treatment, but toward the end you'll start to feel drowsy. A friend who had been through the whole 12 weeks of Paclitaxel called that phase of treatment "The sleepy time." Some women go comatose. Why? Apart from the obvious, that chemo wears you out? They give you an anti-allergenic whose side effect is . . .you guessed it . . .fatigue.

(2) Which is why every site dealing with Paclitaxel advises you "not to operate heavy machinery." I never do. Even when I don't have cancer.

(3) The facial flush and forgetfulness will still be there. But you're used to those by now, right?

(4) Seems like the worst side effects--the extreme fatigue, the body or bone aches, come a few days after the treatment. Just when you were feeling fine after the epi-and-cylo. But you still don't feel quite as bad.

(5) Some websites tell you not to drink coffee. But my doctor says coffee is okay. Since coffee would be much harder for me to give up than red wine, I'm drinking my morning coffee. With sugar, too. 

(6) Ice packs on your hands and feet help prevent neuropathy (numbness in the hands and feet). Bring along thick socks to wear on your feet. The nurses usually provide the cold packs. When your fingers start to burn with the cold, take them out for a few moments. If you can tolerate at least 20 minutes (I did 40, with a break in between) you may avoid the numbness.

P.S. Except around the brain, of course . . . .

Friday, August 12, 2016

Six Tips For Breast Cancer Chemo Patients

(1)  You get blood drawn so frequently—in my case weekly—that you’ll forget to press hard on the spot the needle went in. You’ll want to just run out of there, and the nurse will forget to remind you to press that spot. Press it. Otherwise you get purple and green bruises all down your arm.
(2)  Find a diet you like and follow it—I’m going for a version of the low-glycemic diet, detailed elsewhere on this blog as the “Mom Belly Diet.” Basically, you don’t eat carbs in the evening—no rice, no pasta, no bread, no potatoes, no pizza crust—so that you lose, or at least don’t gain. Why? Because women with breast cancer don’t waste away, even when they’re dying—they puff up. It’s the steroids but it’s also overeating. So find and follow some sensible diet you like. You might even invest in an anti-cancer cookbook. I just ordered this one, Rebecca Katz’s The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen: Nourishing, Big-Flavor Recipes for Cancer Treatment and Recovery.
(3)  Remember the latest on anti-cancer foods—the three “Cs”: coffee, cabbage, and cumin. They’re all supposed to be hostile to cancer. So enjoy them.
(4)  You’ll also find websites telling you differently. Ask your doctors if the inconsistencies drive you nuts, and remember that you’ll get different answers from different doctors.
(5)  Think about, but don’t go nuts over, sugar. There’s a theory that going off the stuff starves cancer cells. My doctors think your body is going to have some sugar in it no matter what you eat. I usually restrict sugar to breakfast, when I have a tablespoon of it in my coffee or my oatmeal, or I have jam on my cornbread or muffin. Both of which have a bit of sugar in them.
(6)  Chemotherapy does not go on forever. Four down, twelve to go, I tell myself. After next time, Five down, eleven to go.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Re-routing the Republican Candidate

Now, my friends, is the time for quiet persuasion. I am not the person to do this. I get hysterical and my voice squeaks when I mention the name of the Republican presidential candidate, and do not think I can be a particularly good influence in person. I did call my sanest cousin in the great state of North Carolina, much in danger of falling to the enemy, and she reassured me that she hated the guy--but then admitted: "I know folks who are voting for him." Their reasons? Can one talk about reasons when one is talking about teenagers who give birth to cocaine-addicted babies, bearded mountain men whose closest relationships are formed with wild turkeys, semi-literate roofers, folks who are generally down and out, whose next paycheck is not always secure, whose diet promotes high blood pressure and is washed down with too much corn whiskey? Folks who are ready to listen to anyone who says, "You're good. Get rid of _________________ (fill in the blank with the ethnicity or religion of your choice) and your life will be good." Call it populism, call it demagoguery, but those who think have to learn to speak in just the clear, simple style of the Republican presidential candidate--but to send messages of love and inclusiveness instead of the ones that he is sending. Churches, I call on you. Pastors, I call on you. Preach love now, preach hope now, preach "you can be good" now, before we all go down in flames. And let's re-route that toupée-flipping candidate back to the business world, where one hopes he will do less harm. Networks, news media: stop mentioning his name. He knows all news is publicity. Please. Just stop mentioning his name. Refer to him as "the candidate" if you must talk about him at all. The less you cover him, the better. Except in one area: whenever he can be made to look ridiculous--not outrageous or racist or narcissistic or impulsive or inarticulate, though he is all of the above--but really laughably ridiculous, and this is more than removing that awful toupée--then showcase this. Showcase what would make anyone, including his fans, laugh. Remember your Harry Potter: "Riddikulus!" and a wave of the wand, and the fear-indusing boggart vanishes. Think of the Republican candidate as someone to be laughed at. CNN, BBC, if you must say anything about him, and I'd rather you did not, you should be laughing at him.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Olympic Glories: Revisiting Chariots of Fire

Piles of garbage in the Rio bay, on the Rio shore, and in the athletes' veins--I wanted to get away from the real Olympics for a bit, find some more pleasant version of same, and the great escape that came to mind was Chariots of Fire, the 1981 Academy-award winning drama about the 1924 Olympics, about brotherhood, about teamwork: gorgeous young men running down the beach in a pack, the Scottish athlete missionary, Erik Liddell, burr-ing: "When I run, I feel His pleasure." (Make that "rohnn." Mayke that "play-zoor.") Liddell's disapproving missionary sister saying, "You're running so much you've no time (ti-yum!) to stand still!" She thinks running removes him from God. He knows God "made me fast!"
Oh, do I hear the beginnings of my Scots Presbyterian ancestors, that ragtag crew escaping the Highlands, probably slightly ahead of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and hoofing it from Pennsylvania to the Carolinas. The clan of Scots highlanders that became mercenary soldiers for King William of Orange, sometime around the Glorious Revolution.
Until the 1580s, when Mary, Queen of Scots got beheaded, my family crouched in caves, ripping apart stolen sheep with their bare hands, lifting out the guts to make haggis--which got bolted down with homemade mead--and hiding the remains before the Laird of the manor caught them. The Laird often caught them anyway, stringing up the men before disemboweling them and then publicly exercising his right to prima nocta, secunda nocte,  tertia nocte, and all the other noctes he wanted, with our clans' women. Meanwhile, my ancestors spent their days trying to get wheat to grow out of rocks, slaughtering opposing clans and swimming upstream ahead of the salmon. They passed their Sundays at the local kirk, listening to sermons on how slowly and completely we would all burn in hell. When the chance to fight religious wars for King William of Orange arose, these hardy Scotsmen girded their loins, packed an extra sporran and ghillies, fought like the wild highlanders they were, and when the wars were all over, sat damply on their kilts in steerage on their way to the colonies. The few offspring that, generations later, achieved prominence, demonstrated talent for warlike deals with Hessians during the American revolution.
Nostalgic for this idealistic, though uncomfortable past, I watch the film's English lord graciously ceding his right to run to the principled Liddell, who won't run on a Sunday. The Jewish athlete getting dissed for being a Jew, running a race he's lost previously to Liddell, and shaking hands with him. 
Respect! Honor! No Doping, apart from beer! A simpler life and training, during which athletes appeared to be doing those funny 1950s Royal Canadian Air Force drills that in real life knock your knees out. But these men all got along so well, driven by honor and ideals and love.
"See, kids," I said, as Liddell preached to a crowd of working-class Scots drenched in torrential rains after booking it around a hilly, gray landscape, "That's where your ancestors came from! Those Scots Presbyterians!"
They'd only heard about the Bavarian Catholics, so were impressed. Wood and stone churches with plain wooden benches, stark wooden crosses. A far cry from those gorgeous Baroque cupids that adorn the cathedral in Bavaria. 
We all ate popcorn, basked in the spirit of the Olympics, and felt refreshed--ready to turn to the real thing in the morning. 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Olympic Openings: Creepy-Crawlies or Star Wars?

As we sacked out around the TV this morning, eating blueberry corn muffins and watching the strange crawling monsters slide across the Olympic stage in Rio, my husband asked, "Are those Star Wars ships?"
I put down my coffee cup and watched a jointed mechanical leg clip across the stage, green streamers and lights flickering.
"It's a praying mantis from the jungle," I said. 
Amazonian warriors were dancing to something that only Busby Berkeley could have choreographed.
"It's a spider!" said my daughter.
"They're getting the athletes prepared for what they'll find in their hotel rooms," said my son. 
On came the Portuguese conquerors, on came the slaves, feet clamped to blocks of stone. Meanwhile, outside the arena, the workers, the professors, the nurses, the doctors, who haven't been paid for four months, let their discontent be known. Meanwhile, the German rowing team is told not to dip their hands in the waters as they row, nor allow a drop of that water to enter their mouths. The pink flamingos observing the debris float by, the bloated dead fish on the beach, have seen it all and like Alice in Wonderland, remain unperturbed. The whole story of the conquest and colonization of Brazil had played out on the Olympic stage at the opening ceremonies--now the question remains: what will the people of Brazil take away from this particular pageant and contest?

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Swedish Beaches, But No Melting Pot

White sands, blue waters, huge numbers of blond, blue-eyed children, a dock from which one can dive, beach grass, beach plums--the scene could be Nantucket, except for the stocky, gray-haired old lady and her white-bearded husband relaxing in their beach chairs, he with a pipe protruding from his mouth, she throwing off the Ikea towel draped over her, revealing pendulous breasts. She ambles down to the water and swims. 
Plenty of Swedish beaches and pools advertise naked swimming. This isn't one of them, and topless does not count. 
I lie on the beach thinking about swimming, but too lazy to move until a need to relieve myself prevents my nap.  Following the direction pointed to by the sign reading "Toalett," I end up on a parallel path, where I hear a language I know isn't Swedish, and see girls who appear to be ten or eleven in hijabs, long sleeved shirts and long pants, chatting with a man, probably their dad. The three of them seem to be moving a branch somewhere. They see me in a shirt and bare legs and the conversation stops. I retreat and finally find the toalett.
When I am back on the beach, the little girls are squatting by the waves, gazing with apparent longing at the water, throwing a few pebbles in, the younger edging her feet almost to the water's edge. I know those kids would love to go swimming. 
Behind me, partly hidden by beach grass, their mother, also in a hijab and long-sleeved shirt and long dark pants, stands, her face grim. What must she think? The dangerous neighborhoods in Malmö and other Swedish cities we visited are not safe for Western women, who have been stoned. And here her children sit among the heathen, these half-naked blond heathen. 
I think of a young, bright student of mine who took my class on race and racism in American life. She discussed her own experiences as an immigrant: "Before 9/11, when people asked where I was from, I had to draw them a map of Afghanistan. After, I never had to draw the map."
A year after my class, she came to visit, this time in hijab, her body covered in black cloth. She wanted to go to New York--she knew I came from there. Did I know cheap places to stay? What sights should she see?" Halfway through my enthusiastic description, she burst into tears and admitted that her family wanted her to marry. But she wanted to travel.
"Are you being threatened? Coerced?"
"No--" she looked away. "It's more like I'd break my father's heart if I don't." Her father always told her, "We live in Germany, but we're not German."
She asked me to send her a reading list. I did. I saw her on the street months later, hugely pregnant, not looking happy. She had a B.A. in a science. 
There is no women's center at my university--at least none addressing these women. There are no conversations. There seems nothing for me to do apart from ask questions--the ones I felt too stunned to ask this girl--What about your own heart? What about what you want? What about your longing to travel, what about that career you wanted?
 I have suggested to students like her that they read Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Sometimes I say, "You may not agree with her, but she's important, so you should know about her." Will the mullahs come after me?  
And who will help these women? They live in Germany. They live in Sweden. They live in France. They live elsewhere in Western Europe But their families, their fathers, warn them not to belong to these places. Their fathers are full of fear.  
I want to talk to the fathers, the mothers, the daughters--without getting stoned. Any suggestions?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Breast Cancer: Chemotherapy Ten Side Effects They Won't Mention

You don't really want to read the medical side effects--trust me: what's left of your hair (now military) will march off all by itself--no need to scare it. 

But here's what they don't tell you

(1) You meet lots of nice bald ladies, who tell you about their side effects, or reassure you that you need not worry about the ones the doctors fear.

(2) The technie who hooks you up to the IV drip will have a poker face. You will ask, "After this, can I go home and cook dinner?"
"Sure," he will say, "If ya could cook before."

(3) When you think you're all done, he'll return with a hypodermic, the one you have to shove into your own belly. He's very careful. After he thinks you know what you're doing, he'll explain. Pointing to the ten drops in the hypodermic, he'll say, "If that breaks, it's 1700 euros."

(4) You won't mention that once half a drop sort of started oozing before you got the needle completely in.

(5)  You'll gain weight even while you feel nauseous. Unless you follow the Mom Belly Diet. Good thing I started that before my diagnosis.

(6)  Your tumor might seem larger before it seems smaller. You can make them measure it via ultrasound. They might tell you they're watching a different tumor--the one they expected to shrink. Which it is! They're so happy!

(7) But this tumor? The one that's bigger under my fingers? Wave of hand. That's just a lymph node. They're slicing that out anyway. Later, when you get your lumpectomy.

(8) You'll feel twenty-five years older than you did before you started chemo.

(9) Everyone will tell you this is temporary

(10) It isn't.  

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sorrow and The Murder of Quandeel Baloch

Quandeel Baloch, known for defying conservative Pakistan society by posting sexy photos and videos of herself, has been strangled to death by her by her brother in central Pakistan. Another honor killing. 
So many of these "honor killings" occur when the victim is sleeping. Her father, her brother, sometimes both parents, strangle or stifle the young woman before she can wake up. So many victims trust their families never to harm them, even as they fear for their lives, or even as some part of them lulls them into acceptance of this tragic fate.
What is the brother feeling as he squeezes the life out of his sister? Can I assume that he feels nothing more than a sense that he is administering a just punishment? Does he love his sister? Did he ever love his sister? What was it like for him, growing up with this sister? Are there photographs of the two of them? Does he remember playing with her, laughing with her? Does he try to erase these memories, if he has them? Did he never see her? Was she never more than a shadowy presence in a headscarf, silent and serving meals, cleaning, until she ran away? Is he now--was he before--a man dead to feeling, because feeling is excruciating? Is he so poor, working so hard, that feeling has always been a rare luxury? Was it a thrill to him to kill his sister? 
The Guardian of 17 July 2016 reports as follows:

Her brother, Waseem Azeem, was arrested on Sunday. Police presented Azeem before the media in Multan, where he confessed to killing her. He said people had taunted him over the photos and that he found the social embarrassment unbearable.
“Yes of course, I strangled her,” he said.
“She was on the ground floor while our parents were asleep on the rooftop. It was around 10.45pm when I gave her a tablet ... and then killed her.”
Azeem said he acted alone and was “not embarrassed at all over what I did.”
“I was determined either to kill myself or kill her,” he said as he was being led away.

So he drugged her, put his hands around her neck, and pressed very hard. Does he feel more like a man now? Is a lack of "embarrassment" his true feeling? Is he genuinely proud? Is he crying when no one is looking? Does his sister haunt him in his dreams? I think of Bill Sykes killing Nancy in Oliver Twist: her eyes follow him everywhere. 
 I want to know what these men feel. Or if they feel. I want them to feel something different from what they probably feel--I want them to feel regret, remorse, sorrow--what I am feeling as I watch CNN reports. What would this young woman have felt about her life twenty years hence, had she been allowed to live? Maybe she'd look back and laugh and think, "I was a jackass." Maybe she'd still be posting selfies, after a dose of Botox. Maybe she'd follow that young whore-old nun trajectory. Maybe she'd be a writer.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Ten Things You'll Want to Know About Coping with Estrogen-Positive Breast Cancer Chemotherapy

(1) Diet: no more grapefruit, no more wine, no fresh ginger on treatment days.

(2) After the first chemo, you'll feel as though you were walking through Jell-O. I asked if they'd given me a sedative. No, they hadn't.

(3) A glass of prune juice really helps with the inevitable constipation. If you find the stuff sickly sweet, as I do, try half water and half prune juice, and add a little fresh lemon juice. Glug down far water than you like to drink: a liter and a half--over seven cups a day, for Americans.

(4) What was I writing? What was that name? How old am I? Chemo-brain starts right after the first chemotherapy.

(5) Before you get the chemo, you get the port implanted under your skin above your healthy breast. It looks like a fuse, or like one of those wierd bolts Frankenstein has sticking out of his head--but can be concealed with a good sports bra, if you're in the mood for sports. Getting it surgically inserted is as much fun as going to the dentist to have a tooth pulled, only moreso. But you'll be okay right after.

(6) You'll be in the mood for sports sometimes. Other days, you'll be lying on the sofa feeling that I-Can't-Get-Myself-To-Water-The-Plants feeling--the way you felt during the first three months of pregnancy.

(7) Estrogen, until now your friend, has become your enemy. Why am I sweating? What's that chin hair? How come I'm not thinking about sex right now? Welcome to the land of the Hot Flash--you'll cope by opening the fridge door and sticking your face in (a good way) or screeching at your loved ones (not). 

(8) Eighteen days in, you'll need that wig. It will have the consistency of hay and to you it will scream "wig!" but if your co-workers aren't looking for a wig, they'll see a new haircut. Accept compliments gracefully, even though the wig feels like having a spaghetti grabber clamped to each temple. 

(9) You'll have to swallow lots of pills in the four days after your chemo. They'll forget to tell you to put on sunscreen. Slather it, and wear a hat. Otherwise the cortisone will make you burn. Even with no sun, you'll get bright red patches on your cheeks--you'll be able to pass as a lupus patient. 

(10) You'll have to give yourself a shot the day after the chemo. Yes, every time. Tell yourself diabetics and hemophiliacs do this every day. It will be over in a minute. Don't worry about the instructions, which say to push the needle in "until you hear a click." A gigantic spring will sproing out as soon as the needle's really in. You'll find taking the needle out much easier than putting it in.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Easy Summer Avocado-Shrimp Dinner

When you're in the mood for lukewarm--not piping hot--this dish is for you! You'll need:

2 packs of frozen prawns
Many cloves of garlic (I use at least eight)
Two (or more) ripe avocados--I prefer the green ("Florida" or "Dominican") but the Hass kind is fine, too.
Olive oil
Juice of two fresh lemons
Fresh ground pepper
Fresh ground sea salt
Garlic powder 
A platter

Dump the frozen shrimp in a colander and run cold water over it; allow to defrost. Go right ahead and use fresh shrimp if you'd prefer. Defrosting takes a few hours. Let the shrimp drain as much as possible; they should be fairly dry when you toss them in the pan. 

Once the shrimp are ready to go:

Juice the lemons; set aside.
Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a pan. Slice the garlic--not too thin--and sauté it, letting it get a little brown. While you're gently stirring the garlic, add salt, pepper, and garlic powder to the shrimp. Dump shrimp in pan--stir fry briefly. Better undercooked than rubbery overcooked.

Slice open avocados; with a melon baller or a teaspoon, place pieces of avocado on tray.  Pour on half the lemon juice; add salt and pepper. Pour shrimp on top of avocado pieces. Pour rest of lemon juice on shrimp.

Happy eating! The dish is good with a salad on the side, Basmati rice and a dry white wine.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Patriotism of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I feel honored to be an American--a feeling I have not experienced for years now--because of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's assessment of Donald Trump.  He is "a faker" she said, with "an ego." She thinks it's time for us all to "move to New Zealand." In the event of Trump's election, she adds,
 “For the country, it could be four years. For the court, it could be — I don’t even want to contemplate that,” Justice Ginsburg said in an interview on Friday with The New York Times
Her honesty, her gutsiness, has not received the high praise that it deserves, judging by most of the comments on her interview in The New York Times. Fear is palpable: everyone is afraid to say what they really think of Donald Trump. Donald Trump has been allowed to get away with calling Justice Ginsburg's remarks "a disgrace," and slandering her--saying her brain is gone. For shame! Where are the rest of the Supreme Court justices? What is the matter with you all, powerful politicians, powerful judges? Stand up and shout that Donald Trump is unfit to be president--pernicious in every way to America, to American values. That he has gotten so far so fast is a sign of national deterioration, of fear, of inertia.
I call on everyone who is anyone to denounce Trump in no uncertain terms--and to praise Ruth Bader Ginsburg's bravery, honor, and patriotism. Evil, Saint Augustine reminds us, is "the absence of good," and in America's hour of need, the good must speak their minds--not shamefully declare that Justice Ginsburg has "gone too far." America, get off your couches! America, march in the streets! America, in the Senate and in the House, stand up and denounce this petty dictator, this narcissistic clown, this nihilist. America, take pride in running out of town this cheap bully, Donald Trump, before it is too late.
Postscript: it's a sad day in America when Justice Ginsburg apologizes to a man whose presence in a presidential race would have rendered our Founding Fathers apoplectic. Had Ginsburg spoken as she did about any other presidential candidate in my lifetime--and I was born during the Eisenhower administration--I'd have considered her remarks inappropriate. But these are hardly ordinary times, and Trump is a poisonous snake. What a shame that noone supported Ginsburg's denunciation.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Dependence Day, 2016

Since I live in Germany, nobody's waving flags, setting off fireworks, or enjoying backyard barbecues today. Should they be doing so in the USA? I've never felt less sanguine about the survival of America's separation from Great Britain. We no longer have anything like the democracy Jefferson and the Founding Fathers envisioned: we have a plutocracy, and the very real prospect of Donald Trump uniting Americans in hatred of immigrants, Muslims, and anyone whom he personally dislikes. I'm sure he has the pull to hammer Hillary Clinton on her emails and bludgeon the FBI into making her life difficult; I'll bet she's got the moxie to give Trump and the FBI a run for their money. Money. That is what government depends on, in ways unimaginable to the Founding Fathers.
Neither Clinton nor Trump could survive as politicians without the massive funds they've accumulated. The dregs of democracy that still remain--we citizens do all get to vote--depend heavily on the messages paid for by the candidates. It never occurred to me, growing up, that I'd prefer to hide under a rock than celebrate on Independence Day. In the hall of the academic building in which I teach, a colleague was trying to remember the lyrics to "You're A Grand Old Flag," and as we attempted to sing it--followed by "God Bless America," another colleague in a sentimental mood hummed a few bars--after which we dispersed, ashamed of the line, "symbol of the laaaaa-aaaand we love!"
"That's the bathos of it," said my colleague.
Every time Trump yelps that he wants to "make America great again," that "bad things are happening," that "we have no choice," I daydream about crowds descending on the stage, waving banners that say, "Blessed are the Peacemakers!" and inciting audiences to remember that:
(1) What we want is to make America good again. Not "great." 
(2)  Good things are happening--will happen--when we know that we always have choices, and we always have hope.
(3) The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Critical Mom and the Weather

Basement bailing has become one of our regular pastimes. First the rumble in the sky, the gray clouds swirling overhead, the plummeting barometer and then the torrential, tropical rains. Then, thorny branches growing faster than something out of a science fiction movie across the steps leading up to the house, a fluorescent garden, greener than a rain forest--then a few forty-minute segments of sun before the torrents begin again.

Tram delays. Water in the boiler room. Water in the storage room. Plastic food containers waiting to scoop the stuff up before it becomes malarial.

The air, as I write, is clear again. Between Brexit (Welcome, Brefugees! says my child's internet joke), unmentionable American politicians, and the weather, I do wonder if we're on the cusp of the end of civilization. Weigh in, science minds.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Mammography and The Critical Mom

Mammograms have been described as the "gold standard" of cancer detection, but they aren't. Not if you have a very common condition called "dense breasts" which makes reading the mammogram like "looking for a snowflake in a snowstorm," one radiologist remarked in a You-Tube video. And no, you cannot tell by squeezing your own breast or looking at it whether it has the quality that is medically called "dense." 
 I went blithely off for my mammogram on March 22, thinking I was wasting my time. Not one woman in my family had ever had breast cancer. I didn't know then that 80% of those who do develop breast cancer have no family history of the illness. Nor did I know that one in eight women (some statistics say one in seven) will come down with it in the course of their lifetimes, the main risk factors being (1) womanhood and (2) getting older. What I wish I'd known on March 22 is that I should have asked for an MRI just because I had dense breasts. The MRI finds what the mammogram doesn't. So, girls, first go find out if you have dense breasts and then get the appropriate test at reasonable intervals.
On March 22, after the mammogram, the sweet radiologist at the hospital, light brown curls falling over her lab coat, spectacles adorning her scholarly-looking face, said, "I have nothing but good news for you!" and I smiled, scoffed at the huge waste of time bothering with the mammogram, went home, and the next day flew to New York for a week-long vacation I very much enjoyed, imagining myself to be in perfect health.
On May 24 as I sat at the table reading, I slipped my left hand under my right armpit. What was that little thing? A pimple? Some fatty tissue?
Couldn't possibly be cancer, because I just had a mammogram!
And you know what? The radiologist still insists the mammogram was clear. Maybe the lump grew overnight like the mushrooms in our garden. Or maybe Radiologist #2, a guy, who rolls his eyes at the first radiologist's report and insists the cancer showed, is right. I don't know but I'm sure glad that after two hours of dithering and telling myself the doctor's office was probably closed anyway at four-thirty in the afternoon (it wasn't) I resolved to call the next day. I did call the next day, but the following day was a holiday here in Germany, so I saw her on Friday, two days after calling. She harrumphed and sent me to a radiologist who did a needle biopsy and let me know I'd see results on Tuesday. There is a malignancy, but it is said to be contained, and I am told I will have nine or ten unpleasant months ahead of me, the first stage of which--the insertion of the chemotherapy port above the healthy breast under local anesthesia--was as pleasant as the plucking of a tooth at the dentists's, only moreso. Soon I'll be bald, unless it's possible to use a cold cap. I'm interested in hearing from other very active fiftyish-sixtyish women who have kept up their active schedules, including sports or dance, during their ordeals. 
And check out your breasts! Regularly!

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Critical Mom's Miracle Diet, part two

I kid you not, folks: the Mom Belly Diet as I have previously termed it (see last entry) works like a charm. It's pretty healthy, too, and I find it almost effortless. 

Will power never comes into the picture unless I start daydreaming about the time I had a really fluffy panettone, fresh from the oven, and sweet red wine, for dinner. I was entirely alone for an evening with the full knowledge that I could go back to my husband and kids very, very soon, but now, now, even every now, I could eat in peace and admire the view and my rubber tree with its glossy, healthy leaves. 

The point being the panettone's not off limits for breakfast. I'd be disinclined to have wine for breakfast, personally, but hey, all you would-be dieters, you could if you wanted to. Yes. And still lose weight.

I've usually craved a creamy or sweet breakfast. Butter, or at least a good butter substitute on my bread. Lots of jam. Bonne Maman blueberry or strawberry jam just makes me drool. Plus the very strong café au lait I make. Today I made blueberry pancakes and ate one and a half large ones with half a bottle of maple syrup. Plus my signature coffee.

Lunch will be salad, maybe with avocado. Yesterday it was that, with some Mettwurst thrown in. Now, my very favorite Medical Health e-zine editor, Dr. Gabe Mirkin, warns me that sugar and meat are "associated with cancer," and even The New York Times of May 5, 2015, agrees, detailing the German biochemist Otto Warburg's idea that tumors fed on sugar and could be treated by disrupting their source of energy: 

But sugar and meat sometime really, really hit the spot. Your soul sickens for them. You feel happier than happy when you eat them. After I'm involved in seriously strenuous activity--a ballet class, for instance--I crave a Mettwurst. Not ten of them. One, or two. This strikes me as different from what a dietician might call an unhealthy craving. In my pre-Miracle Diet days, if I had a glass of sweet red wine with my rice and curry at dinner, I wanted a second. Plus I wanted cheese and crackers and after that I wanted a chocolate bar. Or two. 
Then, the next morning, I was not usually that hungry for The Most Important Meal of The Day, Breakfast. 
Now I am. Butter! Cream! Pancakes! Oatmeal! Berries, berries, berries, and banana! Plus a little bit of sugar, oh, let's say a tablespoon. Dr. Gabe would not approve. But hey, I haven't seen 58 kilos since before menopause. Remember a month ago I weighed 61 kilos.
I believe I can get down to my desired 54-55 kilos by the end of September, and keep my weight stable. As long as I don't go back to big, carb-y dinners, I should be okay. 
Refresher course in the basics of this diet: 
Breakfast: WHATEVER you want. But healthy. Eggs, bacon, toast, fresh-squeezed orange juice. Cornflakes, cream, sugar, berries. Not a gook-covered pop tart.
Lunch: minimize carbs. One slice of bread, not two. Or just lots of fruit and cheese, or lots of avocado and salad.
Dinner: meat or fish or tofu plus lots of veggies. Lately I've enjoyed artichoke with butter-lemon sauce, steamed asparagus or broccoli, and baked salmon. You can also do grains like bulger or couscous--but no bread, no rice, no pasta, no potatoes, no sugar. Remember, all of these forbidden items are allowed at breakfast. And remember, one glass of dry wine is allowed.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Mom Belly Diet

Since April 5, I've lost 1.5 kilos or about three American pounds, almost painlessly. I saw the need to lose them while trying on sweaters at the Eileen Fisher outlet in the East Village. I would have looked great before developing The Mom Belly, which in my case means eight-to-ten pounds of extra flab retained after three C-sections and a few chocolate bars. I was with a sympathetic friend who revealed her diet secret. It's got a low-carb element, but it's not like most low-carb regimes.

For the first time in my life I've been able to follow a diet. That diet, my friends, I will now share with you:

Breakfast: Anything you like. Really. I'd recommend going healthy as opposed to jelly doughnut, and have gone relatively healthy myself. Here are some breakfasts I've had while losing weight:

(1) Oatmeal (half cup dry oatmeal with cold water and teaspoon salt stirred in, cooked until warm and smooth) with a banana sliced over it, and about half a can of sweetened condensed milk. Plus coffee with a half cup of hot milk.

(2) Oatmeal with about a half-cup of fresh sliced strawberries, heavy cream, and sugar. Plus coffee with a half cup of hot milk.

(3) Banana bread (find the recipe elsewhere on this blog)--two or three slices, with butter or a butter substitute, plus coffee with a half cup of hot milk. And sometimes sugar in the coffee

(4) One or two large blueberry pancakes made in a not particularly health-conscious way, that is, I do use white flour and two eggs, plus maple syrup, plus coffee with a half cup of hot milk.

Even you folks who don't eat breakfast will feel like eating it on this diet--I did, after the first day or two. 

Now for lunch and dinner. With lunch, cut carbs in half--if you're used to a sandwich, use one slice of bread only. So not much pasta, rice, potato, bread, or pizza crust. Actually, I've pretty much eliminated those from lunch, so here are some of my lunches:

(1) Salad made with prepared mix (comes in a little envelope, you add a little olive oil, maybe a tablespoon, and a teeny bit of water. For Germans--Aldi or Knorr brand salad dressing is fine, even though it has an infinitesimal amount of sucrose in it). Then add hunks of Gouda or Feta, plus a few olives, or fresh avocado, or both; add slices of ham and hard boiled egg, tomato, bell pepper. 

(2) One large avocado, halved, with the juice of one whole lemon, salt and pepper. You might want an apple and some cheese, too.

(3) One or two large Mettwurst from your local butchers--delicious. Plus apple and cheese.

Now dinner, girls, is where we get to the nitty-gritty. No carbs, EXCEPT for one glass of wine. Not sweet wine, though. So, Chardonnay or Merlot, say--not the Moldavian sweet red stuff that goes great with milk chocolate which, by the way, if you follow the diet, you will stop craving. 
SO: No potatoes, no rice, no pizza dough, no bread. Just meat and vegetables. Or fish and vegetables. Or tofu and vegetables. I think you can do bulgur, because it's more of a grain, and other grains are probably okay too, even with a little cheese on top. I steam the asparagus, but I sauté the bell peppers in a little olive oil and fresh garlic.

I find this diet very bearable--the first night or two I woke up from hunger and ate one slice of Cheddar cheese around two in the morning. After that I was okay.  I anticipate continuing to lose at a very slow rate, two pounds or so a month, for the next few months, and then I'll be done. And when I'm no longer trying to lose weight, I will have very small amounts of pasta or other carbs occasionally at dinner time.

Tip: a pleasant dessert is strawberries with whipped cream. Add McCormick's Vanilla, or Bourbon-Vanilla--just no sugar.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Jan Böhmermann, Blasphemer

Don't get me wrong--I love the guy and at our house we've got "Be Deutsch" playing on continual loop. The current uproar is the best way in the world to get German schoolchildren to memorize Böhmermann's hilariously crude lyrics about a certain thin-skinned (oh, in my opinion) leader of a state that Germany's got to keep relatively happy. Mutti Merkel has her hands full, and I wonder sometimes if she's ever taken aside her easily insulted colleague and said, "Listen, old buddy, old pal, have you ever seen the stuff the kids put up on You-Tube about me and about Barack and hey, these Panama papers are really more the kind of thing you should worry about. . . ."
Naah, she doesn't count, 'cause she's a woman, except when she's a head of state. Oh, I do hope my favorite young satirist hasn't Salman Rushdied himself. And God forbid Charlie Hebdoed himself. He should have thought of Osip Mandelstam's remark: "Only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?" Unfortunately, there is. Humor is on trial. Blasphemy is a concept immune to humor. Now supposing I was going to insult--not this tiresome Turkish president, but God, him or herself--can't he or she take it? By definition yes, one would think. If Herr Böhmermann had just dipped into some of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's remarks about how and why fundamentalists think the way they do, he might be out having a beer right now with his friends. Oh, but the poem is so good. It really is. Was the thrill worth it? And where are other satirists? David Sedaris, vault to your feet and defend this guy, please! Coda: "Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think." Thank you, Horace Walpole. We could use some thinking around here.

P.S. Why doesn't Erdogan take a hint from Dolores Umbridge's failed suppression of Harry Potter's interview disclosing the re-appearance of Voldemort? 

This week's Die Zeit, Germany's version of The Guardian, asks why The Queen, the most powerful woman in the world (aka Angela Merkel) is reprimanding the court jester, the considerably less powerful Jan Böhmermann. I know she's between a rock and a hard place, but between you and me, I think she ought to ask him how to handle dickheads. There's a long and honored tradition of the court jester knowing best. Just read King Lear. If the old king had only listened to his Fool . . . who knew the score from way back . . .

I wish I had Böhrmann's wit. But here's my two cents:

Erdogan's a great big drip
Not one bit of him is hip
Get this man a better life
So he won't be filled with strife.


I know: doesn't quite cut it. Well, nobody reads me, anyway. Boys and girls, go memorize Herr Böhrmermann's lines! Now!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Critical Mom and the Nightmare Tenants

If you own a co-op apartment in New York City, you're generally out of luck when you want a caretaker or house sitter--every since September 11, 2001, when panic rose and rules changed. Many a co-op forbids any occupants who are not owners or immediate members of owner's families on principle, or because the co-op thinks that otherwise the bank won't respect it, or for less clear reasons.

My co-op building has a rule: subletting is allowed two out of every five years. The rest of the time, the place must lie fallow, and your super, or a friend, can come in to water plants. But nobody can live there, and if you can't live there yourself, the apartment remains empty.

I'd had lovely subletters who stayed three years, because when I wrote to request a third year, somebody at the managing agency said yes, and that somebody, unbeknownst to me, got fired. 

Enter, stage left: a board member. This board member owns most of one floor of the building, and could her daughter live in my apartment and provide upgrades for a few months, that is, reside as my guest?

Could I say no? Yes, I could and should have said no. But I was afraid to do so, since the board member's vote could turn down any future sublets I might want to have. Overlooking a certain mayham in her personal style--she comes with the aura of her public intellectual ancestor and is a writer herself--I agreed, despite knowing my previous experience with her. She'd asked to use my apartment over Christmas for her family and said she'd "leave you something for the phone." What she left was a Santa hat and a phone bill for $272.

Right before my lovely subletters who stayed three years moved in--and she'd approved them--she suddenly asked to use my apartment: "The board need not know," she added. She was in the middle of a divorce, and oh, please, could she just stay in my place for three weeks. I said the board had to know and made sure the board did know.

She paid for two of the three weeks. So I should not have been surprised, but I was, to find, when I returned to my home halfway through her daughter's sublet to find that my convertible sofa, my Victorian love seat, and all of my wooden straightback chairs had vanished. Along with my French press coffee maker, my pots and pans, my can openers, a baking dish that had been a wedding present . . . .

Was there a security deposit? No. Is it worth suing her? Not really.

The lease ended and I changed the locks. I count myself lucky that the place is structurally sound, that the super only had to fix one minor leak and put one bathtub faucet back on, that the windows could be repaired, and that the stove--whose insides looked like the mammoth cave--could be cleaned and still works. 

I'm awfully fond of my little apartment, and hope to have a worthy caretaker some day. I'm wondering whether co-ops will ever allow worthy caretakers.  In my dreams. In my dreams.