Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Back to the old country

I am heading down to New York today, the annual trek to "the old country" for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It's a time when Jews from all over converge on New York, hence my memories of the holiday usually include a big traffic jam on the way down.

Tomorrow is the day, and before I continue, I want to wish everyone a happy, healthy year that hopefully brings more peace to our troubled world.

Of course my parents are foremost in my memory. We had a tradition. My mother set a beautiful table the night before, and my father loved to cut the round challah and wish everyone a New Year with no round edges, just like the challah. We ate it with honey and had sweet honeydew melon, all for a sweet New Year.

We went to services, where everyone was all dressed up, then to the local Greek coffee shop for lunch with cousins who had also attended, then hung out at the apartment for a little while before proceeding on to dinner with my father's side of the family.

I have followed the tradition as closely as possible, with gaps when I was in the hospital or unable to go into a crowded place. Joe was unable to go because he was in college in Maine, and I missed him, with memories of the two young brothers walking ahead of us in their similar suits, the rest of us behind them  remarking on how cute they were.

I was almost going to skip the services at the 92nd Street Y this year. They have modernized, and the cousins who usually go decided to go elsewhere, though we will try to meet for lunch. I thought we would just get together, have a round challah, and say our own prayers. I was sad about it, but with the cousins now leaving, and the price for tickets very high, I figured that's just the way it was going to be.

I ran it by Katie and she said that it was fine, but somehow I didn't get around to asking Ben until a couple of weeks ago. I just figured that it would be OK with him too. I was surprised, and also touched, when he said that actually he would like to go because it keeps him connected to his Jewish roots.

I panicked. The Y fills up. The subscription manager would never just sell me the tickets for the one day at this point. He would say he'd have to discuss it with the board. It would be the equivalent of ruining Christmas.

I called as soon as I could and made my plea, and he was very nice and gave (well, sold) me the seats.


It's supposed to be sunny, as it always seems to be on Rosh Hashanah. We'll do our version of the tradition: services, lunch, then Betsy and Michael's, now in Queens. Family dinner with Marge and Bill on Saturday.

And then, true confessions, we have tickets for the Sunday matinee of "The Book of Mormon" on Broadway before we head back. It's kind of an odd combination of events, but what can I say. We were going to be in the city anyway, so it seemed to work out. I think my parents would approve.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Back on the team

I have been on the fence about rejoining my tennis team.

 Comfortable with George's clinic and weekly round robins, I asked myself whether the added pressure of being on an official team was worth it.

But I always wanted to get back on the team, and when Korby needed more official 3.5 players to create a team, a signed up.

Donna and me before our match.
I was always a 3.0, but in August 2007 when Korby and I won our match at the Districts, where the winning teams from the area compete, I was bumped up a level to 3.5. A few days later, I learned that I had relapsed, and I was back in the hospital before I ever played a match at the higher level.

Yesterday, Donna and I played my first 3.5 match.

I had butterflies the night before and talked to Ben, who reminded me that first of all it's only tennis.

Yes, we are playing for brownies and not big bucks, but when you've played league tennis for as long as I have, it takes on a life of its own.

Ben also reminded me that just getting to this point is a huge accomplishment. He said that maybe I couldn't see it that way because I was not in the room that night in 2009 at the family meeting when Dr. Alyea said there were 50 things wrong with me and I might not make it.

"I'm so proud that you are going to walk on the court again and play official USTA tennis," he said. "It doesn't matter if you lose, 6-0, 6-0.

When we got out on the court yesterday, that's what I thought was going to happen after we lost the first set 6-0.

The ball came faster and with more consistency, and my mind drifted off the court. "As soon as this is over, I'm going to get out of here and appeal my rating and get back on a 3.0 team where I belong. Bla, bla bla."

Our opponents were nice...and younger. One of them was tall with a long black ponytail and reminded me of my younger self.

In the second set, after we somehow won a game, I readjusted and thought, hey, maybe we could do OK. Donna reminded me to focus on the ball, not on the score or outcome, and to keep my feet moving.

I reminded myself to just get it over, giving them the chance to miss. It worked, and they made more unforced errors. My serve kicked in, and sometimes their return went into the net. That was a big confidence booster.

 When we won the second set 7-5, I was so in the zone that when I saw Donna smiling, I asked, "What just happened?"

It was incredibly hot and humid. "I'm sensing a fall in our energy level," Donna said. "We have to keep our feet moving." She was right. If you show that you're tired –which I was – they will take advantage of your body language. So I danced around (with effort!) a big contrast to when I could barely lift my feet off the ground two years ago.

The score was 2-1 us as we neared the two-hour mark when the match ends. If we won the next game, we won the match.

 3-1, us.

 Donna beamed and came towards me.

"Did we just win?" I asked.

But I knew the answer.

It was an incredible feeling, one that is still with me now.

Afterwards, we went upstairs for cheese and crackers, and I got a chance to catch up with other players whom I hadn't seen in years.

When I called Ben later, he said, "This is one of the top five stories in all my years of observing and covering sports, from little league to the pros."

Well, I wouldn't go that far.

But it feels great to be back in the fold.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A weekend of friends, family, food and traffic

Me, Emily, Nancy and Tami at Tami's stepson's wedding.
After staying over in New York Friday night, I practically flew out to South Jersey to Tami's for a beautiful family wedding, spending precious time with my high school friends, their spouses and Tami's extended family.

Despite any worries about traffic, the coast was clear through the Lincoln Tunnel, and the approximately two-hour drive passed quickly.

We stayed over, and I spent some time the next morning at her house, reading the New York Times, talking to relatives I've known forever, drinking good coffee and eating delicious coffee cake.

On the way back to New York Sunday morning, I paid for my good luck on the way over, getting stuck on the New Jersey Turnpike for what seemed like half a day. I was reminded of the downsides of living in the New York area; I drop back in like I never left, even savoring the sounds of sirens, buses and breathing in the smell of the sun on baked pavement, but then I remember. The traffic.

When I finally got off the turnpike, I had to inch my way across town through snarled traffic. At one point when I was trying to get through a cross-walk so as to avoid gridlock, pedestrians insisted on walking in front of my car, even though I had the green light. When I tried to move ahead, slowly, of course, so I wouldn't hit anyone, they gave up and went around but started banging on the back of my car. Ah, New York.

I was so sick of the car that when I got into the neighborhood in the East 70s, I parked in the equivalent of East Podunck, on the wrong side of the street when it came to having to move it, or sit in it, in the morning for street cleaning from 9 to 10:30 a.m.

On Sunday, I went to a wonderful restaurant, Matisse, and sat outside for the New York version of  family dinner with Jeanne, Bruce, Aunt Marge and Bill and cousins Serena and Chaska. Chaska was in from California as part of the East Coast tour of her band, Raining Jane. We like to say our cousin is a rock star; she's beautiful inside and out and radiates what you'd just have to call a life force. (Serena is the same way except for not being in a rock band).

(Thanks, Bruce, for the New York photos.)
Serena, Chaska, Jeanne and me at dinner in New York.
They convinced us to go to SoHo, to the City Winery, after dinner to hear some music. All I knew was what Serena said, that it was some kind of folk music that I'd probably like. It turned out to be Tom Paxton, who provided part of the soundtrack for my high school years, and it was interesting to see him so many years later.

It ended up being a late evening, but the next morning I had to get up early and get to the car on time.  I got provisions – coffee, breakfast, newspaper and book – and sat in the car for the duration. I was slightly chagrined that the street cleaner never game, but on the day that you don't wait, that's the day the street cleaner comes and you get the dreaded bright orange ticket.

I had lunch with our close friend Harriet from the beach, then headed towards New England, stopping in Stamford, Conn. to hit a few with Ben, have dinner with him and Meghan...and sleep on their couch because it was too late to hit the road again.

The next morning, I left for home. At night, I dropped into bed and konked out.

Folk singer Tom Paxton and me.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Juggling many balls

I was going for a record and feeling good about it.

The goal: Getting as many things out to the car in one trip as possible. These are the things I juggled: purse,  cereal in container, milk in covered cup and open coffee cup (I lost all of my travel mugs...I think they took off with the socks).

I didn't get very far. The coffee spilled onto my sweatshirt, and the milk cup tipped over and left a trail to the car. Somehow I got it all to the car anyway, but then I lost time by having to rush back into the house, throw the sweatshirt into the wash and grab another.

Why the rush?

Yesterday my plan was to get up whenever and take my time driving to New York. From there I would leave the next morning to a wedding in New Jersey, stay over night Saturday and then repeat the two-step trip back home by stopping in New York for a night and heading back Monday.

It was a way to avoid the hassle of public transportation while also avoiding the mistake I made last November when I drove the whole way to Philadelphia (about five hours) and fell asleep at the wheel on the way back, luckily doing no more damage than driving onto a sidewalk and getting two flat tires.

The rush was that tennis had called. If somebody asks me to substitute in a group, it's as though they've placed a mouth-watering slice of chocolate cake in my reach. I can't say no. Especially now, when we are still playing outside as the inside season draws near.

Yesterday was beautiful. A little cold in the morning, but with a clear blue sky. So of course I went.

The group met at 9 a.m. in Longmeadow, on my way to New York but kind of early in terms of the approximately 40-minute drive (30 if there's no traffic) and the fact that I had to pack and get everything into the car.

When it comes to taking a trip, I am notoriously slow at getting out of the house. I figured this deadline would at least jump start me, even though through the previously hot days I hadn't been sleeping well and could have used the extra time in bed.

I did well until the trip to the car. My juggling was in contrast to my rule this time last year during my falling-down period, when I told myself that I was allowed to take only one thing at a time out to the car. I guess it was a way of feeling back to my normal self. Oh well. I actually did make it to tennis on time, spills and all.

I have been playing with a lovely group of women. The tennis is good, and so is the sense of humor. When I first started back last season, I was, understandably, not up to speed and afraid that I would be a drag on anyone who played with me.

Now I feel normal. Sometimes my team loses, but sometimes it wins. "Pretty shot!" someone says to me.
They don't know how much that means.

After tennis, I love to roll the windows down and feel the breeze blowing my hair back. I did that yesterday while continuing on my trip, with a stop at Starbucks first, of course.

It should have taken about two hours. There were so many backups due to construction, I lost track of how long it took. I have been listening to Andre Agassi's book "Open" in the car, which is so interesting and a great way of staying awake.

I have a problem with long drives, and Emily suggested listening to a book. I haven't tried it since a long time ago when I listened to an old radio comedy tape in the car and laughed so hard I missed my exit. But this seemed like a good time to try again.

It worked, up to a point, but the trip was taking so long that I got drowsy and had to pull over and take a quick power nap, one of my great skills. I am able to fall asleep in seconds and wake up 10 to 15 minutes later, totally refreshed.

I stopped at a weird rest area in the middle of the Merritt Parkway, which always make me think of a time when the kids were little and we had hit crazy traffic on the way to the Old Country for Rosh Hashanah. The toilets flushed on their own, but one of the kids was so light that the toilet kept flushing while the child (no names here) was sitting on it trying to accomplish something.

Understandably, this was extremely unsettling, and the mission could only be accomplished when I came in and stood on the toilet seat behind the child. But I digress.

When I woke up yesterday, it took a minute for me to reassess and figure which side I had come in on. No way I wanted to go out the wrong way and have to circle around.

I did go the right way and arrive safely in New York. I even found a parking spot that was "good for tomorrow" on East 71st Street near Jeanne's apartment, where I would be staying.

Big rush of satisfaction, like hitting a winner.

I got to the apartment, changed into my running clothes and felt the call of the reservoir, almost like the call of that doubles game.

I ran to the park, around the reservoir and back.

By the time I was finishing the loop I realized the whole run was too long after that busy day.

But I got back to the apartment with no mishaps, still standing and happy to be my crazy normal self.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Send in the clowns

We all know that laughing makes us feel good.

A study released yesterday takes this one step further by showing that laughter actually helps increase tolerance to pain. Published by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences in Oxford, the study found that the muscular exertion in laughing triggers increased production of endorphins, the brain chemicals that make people feel good.

It tested resistance to pain before and after bouts of laughter, showing volunteers videos and comedy performances while inflicting pain with a freezing wine sleeve over the forearm, a tightening blood pressure cuff or a difficult ski exercise.

(Wondering what kind of people volunteer for this kind of exercise. I've had enough pain, thank you.)

You know instinctively that laughter makes you feel better (I went to the hospital with a collection of "Seinfeld" DVDs), but the study adds a little something more.

Maybe hospitals should send in comedians or at the very least comedy videos along with prescriptions of percoset and oxycodone.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The face of cancer

In an interview on National Public Radio today, film critic Roger Ebert discusses his decision to write openly about the multiple cancer surgeries that left him unable to speak.

Communicating through a computer program that turns his typed words into speech, Ebert told interviewer Melissa Block that his approach differs from the way his old sparring partner, Gene Siskel, dealt with the brain tumor that took his life in 1999.

"He was intensely private about the situation," Ebert told Block. "I respect it. I think perhaps it influenced me to be very open about my own illness."

The 69-year-old Ebert did the interview in connection with his new memoir, "Life Itself." He had salivary gland cancer, thyroid cancer and cancer of the jawbone, and after reconstructive surgeries failed, he was left with no lower jaw. Unable to eat or drink, he is fed through a tube; he breathes through a tracheotomy, which took away his speech.

His situation is extreme in many ways, but his forthrightness presents an opportunity for patient/survivors  in general to examine their feelings about being open and their fears that if they are, they might regret it.

Ebert is a prolific movie critic and blogger; he calls his blog "a venue for my truths," and one of those truths, Block says, was posting a photo of his disfigured face.

"I was advised not to be photographed looking like this," he tells her. "Well, it's how I look. And there's nothing I can do about it. We spend too much time as a society denying illness. It's a fact of life."

Ebert has been through hell, but in addition to talent, bravery, and resilience, he has an advantage: His fame gave him a "pass go" card to pursue his profession with less fear of stigma than ordinary people. 

September brings with it the hope for new beginnings (think freshly-sharpened pencils, blank notebooks and back-to-school clothes for everyone and, for Jews, the upcoming High Holy Days of reflection and repentance beginning with the new year, Rosh Hashanah). For those fortunate enough to be back on their feet, it is an especially interesting time to reflect on  the question of how up-front to be and how it affects decision-making in the coming year.

I've been thinking of this myself as I ponder the question of where I go from here. I spent the last "school year" regaining my strength and finding freelance work to update my clips and polish my interviewing, researching and writing skills.

I feel great. After a characteristically intense dose of rumination compounded by fear of getting back out there again, I decided to apply for select full-time jobs (one in particular really appeals to me) and to continue trying to get more freelance jobs (I have some ideas and also possibilities that seem likely to turn over in the near future).

There is plenty of thinking to be done. In the meantime, of course, I have to keep up with my tennis game.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A few thoughts on 9/11

So much has been said and will be said today, I wasn't going to write a thing.

And yet, here I am.

The names are being read aloud as I read this over, and I am reminded that my small slice of sadness is nothing compared to those directly affected. But it happened to us all in some way, so here is what I have to say.

New York is my home town. I've spent my adult life in Massachusetts, but when people ask me where I'm from, I often say, "I'm from New York but, but I live in Massachusetts."  I love it here too, yet the connection isn't the same. My parents are gone, but I still have relatives and friends in "the old country,"  and I continue to go back as much as I can.

Like many others on Sept. 11, 2001, I watched it on TV. Then I raced to the newspaper. The place was buzzing with activity in efforts to put out a special edition for the next day. Everyone had at least one job. I had two.

My official job was trying to track down Jane Garvey, who lives in Amherst (in our circulation area) and
was then director of the Federal Aviation Administration.

My other job was frantically trying to find out the whereabouts of my parents, both lifelong New Yorkers then in their 80s, who had gone out innocently that morning to doctors' appointments.

 Garvey was in Washington, D.C., and couldn't be reached, but I did talk to her husband, Hampshire County Sheriff Richard Garvey, who said he had spoken to his wife and she was in a safe place. I honestly can't remember what else he said, but I did get a quote that I sent to the city desk to be included in a "wrap" for the next day.

I couldn't get ahold of my parents, but I did hear from Bruce, my cousin Jeanne's husband, from their apartment in New York. He said that my parents had managed to get back home. I can still hear his words: "We are OK. Our city is not."

My father died five months later of a brain tumor. I was so sad that this was one of his last memories of  New York. My mother lived another five years, and at least she got to see the city rebuild.

Life went on, and the city regained its vibrancy, but of course it was never the same.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Four words we love to hear

And they are...

"Your labs are great!"

Which is what Melissa wrote me in an e-mail today after I got a mid-appointment blood test locally Wednesday.

The test was primarily to check on whether my liver is doing better on the slightly higher dose of prednisone (7.5 mg. daily, up from alternating 7.5 and 5). Melissa wrote that yes my enzymes are down, but since they are still not normal, I should stay on the current prednisone dose for now.

You always want to hear that you can decrease the prednisone, but I wasn't expecting much on that front, so although I'm not thrilled at staying on the same dose, at least the enzyme number is heading in the right direction.

I know I am OK, but even when I feel good, I'm always a little on edge while waiting for test results.

I assume I am not alone in this.

We hang on the words, "Your counts are ... (fill in the blank)."

In any case, I was very happy to hear that my platelets are 106, an all-time high since my transplant. At my last appointment a few weeks ago, they were in their 70s.

Only 42 to go to reach the lower end of normal! Normal is 150 to 450, and of course we are talking thousands, as in 150,000 to 450,000.

So to me, 106,000 sounds great.

Sure beats 3,000, which is what I had in the hospital at one point.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Pittsburgh weekend: Food, fun and friendship

Emily, me and Susan in Hidden Valley, Pa.
I came back late Tuesday from a wonderful long weekend outside of Pittsburgh with my friends from high school (and for life) Emily and Susan and Emily's husband, Mike, a talented cook and great guy extraordinaire.

I flew to Pittsburgh, where Emily picked me up. We then drove about an hour and half to their country house in Hidden Valley; Mike met us there, and Susan drove from Washington.

When you are with people you've known for a long time, so many things are in context. That makes it very comfortable, because you don't have to fill in the blanks. We laughed a lot, ate a lot of Mike's great cooking and, of course, talked a lot. We also watched a couple of movies and ate too many peanut M&M's.

On Saturday, four of us (Susan, me, Emily and a friend of hers) biked about 18 miles round-trip along part of the 141-mile-long Allegheny Rail Trail. The section we were on ran alongside the Casselman River; it was flat enough that we rode in twos and talked along the way while enjoying the scenery.

Rain was forecast for Sunday afternoon, so we got our exercise in during the morning, hiking three miles through the woods. This path had some (admittedly little) hills, so the distance we went was plenty for me.

We watched some of the US Open, and I studied the players swings' in awe, taking note of their
lightening-quick follow-throughs and constantly moving feet.

Back home I have really wanted to play, but my clinic and my doubles game (like some of the Open) was canceled due to rain.

That's OK, because out on the court after watching a championship, I often play worse than before.

"Move your feet!" my inner coach says.
I reply, "They're too heavy. I'm doing the best I can."

And then from my inner coach again, "Don't direct the ball, follow through! You saw how they do it."

Me: "Duh, I know what I should be doing. My arm won't go that fast."

I'm sure I'll end up playing – and watching more of the US Open – this weekend.

It will be fun, as it always is. But I kind of liked sitting on the couch in Hidden Valley, just watching the tennis, eating M&M's and talking to friends with no thoughts of going out to play while I was there.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

No longer an empty-nester

Things have changed since I embarked on my new life as an empty-nester this time last year.

Last year, Katie had just started college, Joe was returning for his senior year, and Ben was out in the working world. After a busy summer with two kids around, it was suddenly just me and the dog. I stood in the quiet house and cried. But pretty quickly, I adjusted to the rhythm of life on my own, just as people said I would.

This year, as I drove Katie back to Brandeis (on Monday), she remarked on how it was so different from last year. She had been nervous, and I was, well, I was trying not to freak out. On Monday, she was so excited that she was practically jumping up and down in her seat. I shared her excitement – it felt like I was going back to school – and I also knew that I would not sink through a hole in the floor when I went home without her, although I already miss her.

People had also said – as I well knew – that they come back, sometimes to stay.

The two youngest did, of course, come back for the summer, and now it turns out I will have company for the whole year.

Having gotten a job as Youth Initiatives Coordinator at the American Cancer Society's regional office in nearby Holyoke, Joe will be living at home.

We all know how hard it is to find work, and I am so proud of him for finding this very meaningful job. He took the terrible experience he had with my illness and turned it around so that he can use what he learned to help others.

While he's home, I expect him to continue helping me with all of my stupid computer questions.