Saturday, April 29, 2017

German Birthdays: A Quandary for the Uninitiated

North Americans tend to be startled by German birthday customs: there's no such thing as the birthday boy or birthday girl. If you want a birthday party--or worse, are expected to have one--you organize it yourself. You also invite all your friends and co-workers. Plus, you get to pay. You get to bring piles of sandwiches or boxes of cake to the office, at the very least. A German friend and I share a birthday. I tried to phone her to wish her a happy one, but had to go through three or four friends, all of them uncertain whether they were allowed to reveal her hideout, before I finally located her in the hotel where she was taking refuge . . . in Switzerland. She and I had a good laugh. She was having what the Germans call a "round" birthday, which for them just means a birthday with a zero at the end, marking the end of one decade and the beginning of another. Those are the birthdays on which some amount of flair is dictated by German culture. You either hide out and hope no one knows you're having a birthday, or you throw a massive bash. For her, the thought of having to invite fifty people to a restaurant--or cook for fifty, or more, at her own home, all at her expense--was something she could not face. She'd rather hide. I've also adopted a policy of hiding on my birthday, since the thought of a huge spread catered by me on that day literally makes me burst into tears. I have quiet birthdays with my husband and our kids, and I dream of past glories, when a friend or two, back in that palace of perfection, New York, would take me out to a little restaurant somewhere and not let me pay because it was my birthday. Because you'd never dream of not treating someone on his or her birthday.
Recently, my husband and I were stymied by a birthday invitation we got . . . and didn't get. German friends who came to our wedding, whose family always got together with ours,  whose son's wedding we attended, one of whom is our oldest's godmother, whom I look forward to seeing. . . these folks issued a birthday invitation for a round birthday. A rather important round birthday. But to my husband's consternation . . . the wife called him . . . they were only inviting him.
"Yes," he said, puzzled, "I had been thinking it would be fun for you and me to go, and the children are old enough to manage on their own for a weekend." But the wife had used the singular term for "you"--she'd been quite explicit. Stunned, I wondered whether the husband just didn't want to feel like he had to speak English on his birthday--if I'm there, they do tend to speak English for my sake. Then I wondered if this was a guy's night out. Then why would the wife do the inviting? They don't have enough beds? I can't come up with a good reason for this. My husband's going because he's loyal to his friends, but I think I won't feel the same way about these folks after this. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

And Now for the Pills: Ten Tips on Estrogen-Blockers

You're done, right? Sixteen chemos down, two operations, twenty-eight radiations. You've been bald as a peeled egg, lived through a prickly hairdo following male-pattern baldness, worn an itchy wig that fooled the secretaries, but not the gay men, at work, and now have a curly chemo-do that makes you look like an intellectual dyke, which you're not, having always favored long, flowing tresses. The plus: now your earrings show. You're wearing big ones. Even bigger ones! Louder lipstick, too. 

The other fact: As your skin dries, your wrinkles deepen, you need bigger jewelry and louder lipstick under the best of circumstances. Which do not include the breast cancer--it's no fun! It's even unpleasant!--you've just spent a solid year fighting off. 

And now they want to take away your estrogen, which you've always counted on to stay young. And feminine. You'll be on those estrogen-blocking pills a solid five-to-ten years. How will you do it? Here's how.

(1) Invest in state-of-the-art tweezers to pluck the hairs now sprouting, with depressing regularity, on your chin. I can highly recommend the Tweezerman slant tweezerette, which you can find on Amazon.

(2) Invest in state-of-the art lipstick. The kind that doesn't evaporate from your no-longer dewy lips. The kind that makes even your children say, "Gee, Mom. You actually look better with that stuff on."
I can recommend Victoria's Secret Velvet Matte Cream Lip Stain. I also like Victoria's Secret "extreme plumper" Knockout Red--even though it does make your lips itch a bit--and Victoria's Secret Bombshell Pink lip plumper, which tingles pleasantly on the lips. L'Oreal's a great old standby--I love their British Red (#350) and all their bright red shades.

(3) It's okay to wash down the Tamoxifen or the Letrozol (aka Femara) with a glass of red wine. Yes, it is. While enjoying Grey's Anatomy and holding hands with hubby. 

(4)  Stay sexy. If you're older, so much the better. Your kids don't require round the clock service. They sleep through the night. In fact, since they're now teenagers, they sleep through the morning, too. Lock your bedroom door. Enjoy your husband.

(5) Try the Mom Belly Diet (see my blog entry). Those estrogen blockers--they slow down your metabolism. Short version of the diet: cut those carbs in the evening. 

(6) Exercise. If you never tried it before, now's the time to start. If you've exercised all your life, now's the time to step up your efforts. Weight-bearing efforts. They'll be giving you bone scans, those doctors, as long as you're on those estrogen-leeching pills. So keep your bones as strong as you can. Stomp through tap class. Jump through ballet. Walk.  

(7) When (not if--because you will) get the blues, buy a pet. A doggie. A cat. I have guinea pigs. They sniff at you, they stand up and squeal when you hand them carrots, and they generally show more affection than children. Invest in a pet.  

(8)  Take vacations. Preferably with your husband, but you can try them with your kids, too. I just spent a wonderful ten days in New York with my younger two. We had a blast, and I forgot all about cancer. 

(9) Talk to your doc. If you're experiencing joint pain, bone loss, bone fractures, lowered libido, hair loss/thinning, weight gain, hot flashes and sleep issues, the more common side effects of all three major estrogen blockers, you can probably switch to a different pill. 

(10) Take chocolate. Preferably just a square or two of the very dark, 90% cacao kind, but you can, occasionally, gobble a bar of milk chocolate. Feeling good is important!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Flying With Teenagers

Expect to be scrutinized. The security lady in Düsseldorf called me over and I reached for my bag, which I thought she wanted me to open. She grunted no, whipped out what looked like a torn scrap of paper, and wiped it against one of my thighs, then the other. With a wave of her hand, she dismissed me.

What was that stuff she wiped on my pants? My husband thinks I was being randomly checked for explosives.

At Heathrow, the kids and I hunted for the gate to our next airline, finally going down some stairs where we saw American Airlines personnel. 

"Yay!" We're saved! said my son.

"What is the relationship?" asked the airline representative, staring at me intently. 
"I'm the mother and these are the kids," I said.
She turned to the kids. Where did they go to school? Did they like that school? Did they have a favorite subject? Did they have a favorite teacher?
My kids had the good sense to answer politely, and in detail. She turned to me. What did I do? I was a teacher? Where did I teach? How many students did I have?
"It depends," I stammered. "A seminar might have six. A lecture could have one hundred." After this very intense small talk and more penetrating stares, I offered to show the other passports my kids have and my German residency permit. Silently, she declined and waved me onto the bus that would take us to our gate.
What was she looking for? Was I suspected of abducting my kids?
On the way home, at the very large Zurich airport, I lost the kids. They were ahead of me getting off the plane, and I said, "I'll come when I can," and nodded to them to go on, since a large man in front of me had stopped moving. I thought they'd be standing by the plane door, but they weren't. I waited. A long time. When I thought they must have gone ahead, I went ahead. Then I went back. Then I went forward to the train, where I asked the guard to help me find them. With a big smile he told me not to worry, to go ahead to passport control, because they could only have gone in that direction. I waited for one more train, and when I didn't see them, I took the train. At passport control I found no sign of them, and since I had their passports, I knew they had to be behind me. Could the guard make an announcement? No, he said, sounding bored, but go ahead to Information--it felt a mile away--and they'd make an announcement. I went ahead. They announced, in what seemed a very soft voice. 
"Oh, they'll hear that all over the airport," the woman assured me. I asked her to make the announcement again. She did.
She insisted I stay there. Ground Control would find them and bring them to me. Finally, after ten minutes, she said I might take a look at passport control. 
There they were, my daughter in tears, a policeman ready to check me out again.
Zurich airport: they never did hear the two announcements. They speculate that they were on the train by then, but I think you need to make those announcements more loudly.
All's well that ends well. My son said, "How about my Hollywood moment!" When my daughter got upset, he said, "Don't worry! I'll find Mom for you!"
We had a great reunion before boarding our last flight and were so delighted to see my husband.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

How To Cope With Con Edison When You're Only In New York Two Weeks Per Year: Ten Tips

(1) 800 numbers cost a fortune if you're dialing from outside the continental United States. Sometimes you can just replace the 800 area code with a 212 code and reach the same representative.

(2) If you've tried the 800, the 212, the 888, the website form, and all of them keep clicking off on you--and if you're on hold to the tune of over 19 cents per minute, listening to the worst Muzak you've ever heard, for thirty minutes, hang up.

(3) Next option: call much earlier in the day--if you're in Germany, call at noon, German time, which is usually six a.m. New York time, and you'll get a representative. Don't call during regular American business hours--you'll get the wait. The gruesome, soul-destroying wait as the kids scream downstairs and the dinner dries out.

(4) If you find your blood pressure too high after dealing with the@#$%^&*(O)P!! representative, never cuss him or her out (i.e. when you've told them the Con Ed website just clicks off on you and they say, "Ma'am, you can get to it through Google or Bing"--yes, the woman really did say that.) Just thank the representative and hang up.

(5) Go to Get Human
They do have Con Ed numbers. For a nominal fee--$30, last time I looked--they will call Con Ed for you and "resolve the issue."

(6) If you don't want to spend the thirty bucks because your Con Ed bill is already outrageous (a refrigerator in an uninhabited apartment racks up over $634?) call again with a script in hand. Slow down when the representative says, "Ma'am, you're talking too fast." Don't talk when she cuts you off as you explain how they didn't send your paperless bill. Let her yell, "Let's go forward, Ma'am." When she says, "As a courtesy, I will remove your late fee," Don't scream, "As a courtesy, you behemoth?" Just say thanks. 

(7) There's always the option of writing to the CEO. A useful website to know is this one,
which gives you the email address of John McAvoy, CEO of Con Edison, among many others, along with tips for how to write to him, starting with "be polite." Yeah! And I was! Here's a similar useful website: 

(8) Notice when the CEO writes back, and when she or he does not. I had an issue with, because I felt they weren't clear on the fact that they can't send you your genetic predispositions if you live in Europe. I didn't go for the answers I got on Customer Service, but when I wrote the CEO, she was very responsive, polite, and helpful. I hasten to add that I have not heard from Mr. McAvoy.

(9) Be persistent. I'm going to write him again

(10) Do stay polite. No matter what. But if Mr. McAvoy is reading this, I'd like to know why it isn't easier for New Yorkers living in Europe to get service, and get billed easily, without the time-wasting efforts I've been through over the last weeks--not to mention the loss of sleep.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

How To Finish Breast Cancer Radiation: with a Leap and a Skip and a Whoopee!

My friend Georgia tells me that at Sloan Kettering you get to bang a big gong when you are finally done. I'd love to do that. But when the Technician at my German radiation treatment center gave me a patient satisfaction form to fill out, and I remarked that the Sloan Kettering ladies got to bang a gong, the techie seemed startled. Why would those American women want to do that? Why would anyone? The form asked me to comment on the amount of time I'd spent in the waiting room and whether I wanted to complain about that, and the amount of pain my skin had endured as a result of treatment (not all that much) but I wanted to talk about my need to bang a gong.
My breast looks like it forgot to put on sunscreen, and got French-kissed by a cheese grater.  It feels like a bunch of mosquitoes have been pecking at it but if you didn't know, I console myself, you might mistake its rosy glow for orgasmic flush.
Meanwhile, I figure I can pass off my chemo-curls as a perm when I see my mother. I managed to get through breast cancer without her detecting that I was ill. Why wouldn't I tell her? I wanted to avoid the avalanche of anxiety, followed by her theories of why I came down with cancer in the first place--theories that would involve whatever she thinks I should or should not do or be. Then we'd have had another round of the avalanche of anxiety, concurrent with sudden, unwelcome contacts from doctors she thought I should see, or faith healers, or friends she'd met on the street who had reported they battled cancer with herbs and I should stop all that nasty chemo and radiation and try herbs instead . . . . it was so nice not having to deal with Mom while I went through all this. 
Here's how to finish radiation: tap dance out of the office singing "I Did It My Way."