Thursday, May 31, 2012

Do Jews own anxiety?

There is a joke that goes something like this:

A Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew walk into a bar.

"I'm so thirsty I must have a beer," the Catholic says.

"I'm so thirsty I must have a glass of wine," the Protestant says.

"I'm so thirsty I must have diabetes," the Jew says.

People – often Jews themselves – tell jokes about Jewish anxiety, or neurosis, because they know it to be true. Many Jews, myself included, must work hard to shake the feeling that something bad lurks around the corner. On screen, Woody Allen provides a perfect example. Years ago when I saw the Jewish comedian Jackie Mason on Broadway, he did a routine about a Jewish mother sending her child off in the car; it went something like this: "Call me when you get to the corner, call me when you get to the first traffic light..." concluding, of course, with "Call me when you get there." Sounded just like my mother.

You pick some of this up from your parents, but it runs deeper.

Whatever your symptoms, they probably signal a terrible illness.

If you've had cancer, the symptoms may very well signal a return of the cancer.

In an essay titled "Do Jews Own Anxiety?" that ran Saturday in the New York Times, writer Daniel Smith calls anxiety "the non-transferrable cost of being Jewish."

He writes, " As a Jew born since, say, A.D. 200, you are forced to live in a world in which you are — for perplexing, unfathomable reasons — not only the object of a widespread psychotic rage but also, as the very consequence of that rage, urged and expected to associate all the more strongly with your heritage. Indeed, you are urged and expected to act as a kind of personal repository for nearly 6,000 years of collective memory and as a bearer of an entire people’s hopes for surviving into the limitless future. You don’t want to be anxious? You don’t want to be neurotic? Tough. You were born into anxiety."

Still, he writes, Jews don't own anxiety and never have. He mentioned Emily Dickenson, who "lived on dread" and almost never left the house; William James, who was paralyzed by uncertainty for a decade; and Soren Kierkegaard, who wrote, “The greater the anxiety the greater the man.”

But Jews own a large part of it.

It is a pefect sunny day, and I'm not going to think about it anymore. Katie and I are going out to buy flowers for the garden, and then we will plant.

I hope I don't get stung by a bee.

I hope I don't get poison ivy.

I hope I don't get sunburnt...Oy Vey...enough already!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Runner's low

Ever since the St. Patrick's Race in March, I've lost my interest in running.

I trained hard and accomplished what I set out to do: run the race not for time but for finishing it and feeling well. Afterwards I couldn't get the desire back.

I vowed to run about three miles a couple of times a week, combined with walking and tennis, just to maintain my bottom line for when I want to run again. I wonder if people who run long races feel like this afterwards and what they do about it.

Non-runners might say, "If you don't want to do it, then stop," but most of us wouldn't do that. I want to get back in "the groove" where I get that runner's high. I am, after all, a runner who writes, or a writer who runs.

I have written before about some generalized aches and pains that might signal arthritis. This doesn't make it easier. It's been very hot here, and the other afternoon I decided it was time to go. When I got back, I bent over to pull something out of the garden and could barely get up. OK, no more of that.

I should really do it first thing in the morning like I always used to do in the old days. Then you're done. But I'm so stiff in the morning that it's harder to get up and out.

Today I paid attention to the weather. I walked Maddie with Deb and her dog Sue Ellen. Although I thought I might run aftewards, I was so tired and hot just from the mile walk that I put the run out of my mind. I went up to my room, did some yoga, and fell asleep on the floor.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The art of optimism

When you think of the optimism inherent in "seeing the glass half full," you usually think of a sunny person who believes everything will turn out alright.

I know a couple of people who are like that and wish I had that personality type. If you are a worrier, it's hard to get out of that mold.

In a story in Tuesday's New York Times Personal Health column headlined "A Richer Life by Seeing the Glass Half Full," Jane Brody cites a different definition of optimism that opens the door wider.

She refers to Suzanne C. Segerstrom, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky and author of a book called "Breaking Murphy's Law," who believes that optimism is not about being positive so much as it is about being motivated and persistent.

By the first definition, when I was in the hospital I was a pessimist, worrying so much that my nurse friend Vytas called me "Nervous Nellie."

By the second, I was an optimist, working as hard as I could to get better, even by encouraging my donor to take hold while I walked around the nurses' station. (I.e. I said over and over, "Come on donor, come on." Obviously this did not directly affect the outcome, but it did help me feel stronger and therefor might have helped my immune system.

When you look at the second definition, I think that a lot more people can consider themselves optimists.

Brody writes that according to Segerstrom and researchers from the Mayo Clinic, optimism can be learned.

One suggestion: Avoid negative self-talk. "Instead of focusing on prospects of failure, dwell on the positive."

We can all try that one, but hey, it ain't always easy.

For example, when I make a big mistake on the computer and have to redo something, I should NOT say, "YOU IDIOT, YOU SENILE PERSON, etc, etc."

When I am losing in a tennis match, I should NOT say, "You can't do this anymore."

I do know enough to then say to myself, "No negative self-talk!"

It's a good correction to keep in mind.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Feeling groovy, reconnecting with friends

It's hard to believe that I had my 40th high school reunion this weekend. Some called it our second 20th. It was held at Friends Seminary, a Quaker school on 16th Street in New York. Lunch was in the courtyard on Saturday, bracketed by a party Friday night and Saturday night.

After lunch we went into the old meeting house for a silent meeting, in which people who are moved to do so stand up and speak. We had these once a week in high school, and it was profound being back there as though we had never left. (In photo above, Pam, Tami, me, Nancy and Emily, in rear, on the bench where we pose every 10 years, and below, Tami, Nancy, Emily and me at the rooftop garden.)

About half of our class of 50 attended. I made lifelong friends at Friends who I see all the time, and it was good to spend the weekend with them. It was also good to reconnect with people I hadn't seen in years. One of the organizers of the event paused the festivities Saturday night to announce the "Groovy" award. Drum roll...It went to me for wearing fishnet stockings, a throwback if ever there was one. I found a pair months ago and bought them, thinking they would be great for reunion.

A group of us took our "bench" photo that we take every 10 years on the same bench in the park next to the school. One friend couldn't make it, so she said she is going to photoshop herself in. We'll have to see what that looks like.

I got in a short run in the park but basically got my exercise running around NY. I stayed an extra night to see my aunt and was so tired that I slept 12 hours and almost missed my train. I got home around 5 and was checking my e-mail when I remembered that I had a wedding to attend in two hours in Northampton. You never saw me move so fast. My friend Ken Ross from the paper was married to Andrea Stone in a simple, beautiful ceremony, followed by a reception. And then it was time for more reconnecting, this time with newspaper friends.

My room is a mess from the suitcase that kind of exploded after I dropped it on the floor and from the clothes I tore out of the closet while looking for the right dress to wear to the wedding. Today I am going to clean up and chill out.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Exercise helps cancer survivors live longer

A story in yesterday's New York Times, Cancer Survivors Who Exercise Live Longer, cites new research showing that exercise reduces the risk of premature death from cancer and other causes.

This is comforting news to those of us who already exercise and a get-up call to those who don't. Studies show that you don't need to start a vigorous exercise program: Walking will be fine.

People commenting on this story in the Well section pointed out that exercise is not a panacea, writing  that they knew people who exercised and died anyway. I was in the hospital when four-time Iditarod winner Susan Butcher died of leukemia at age 51 in 2006. A pall came over the pod as the news came over the TV. How could someone so young and healthy die?

Yes it's no guarantee. But for those who are able to do even some walking, it definitely can't hurt.

I have viewed my exercising as part of my therapy of getting healthy and back to normal. People who know me point out that I often over-do it, which is true. It's counterproductive because then you just end up tired. I am working on finding a balance.

Of course for years experts have stressed the benefits of eating well and staying active. When I was diagnosed in 2003, I was stunned. I did everything they said to do, and still, I got cancer.

Exercising didn't protect me, but it did help me get through everything they threw at me. My doctors said that because I was otherwise healthy, they were confident I would emerge from the treatment just fine.

So there are good reasons to keep on carrying on, or in my case, swinging that tennis racquet.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A few of my favorite things

Mother's Day presents
My children know what makes me happy.

Well, first of all, they make me happy. And second, the Mother's Day presents made me happy: flowers from the garden, tennis balls, coffee and a gift certificate for a book.

Katie joked that I could fill up on the coffee so I would have the energy to play tennis.

Ben came home for a day, and I was especially happy to have all of them there. We went over the tennis courts to "hit a few" (my father's coinage), and I could have used some of that coffee trying to keep up with him. He beat me 6-2*. Why the asterix? Because he had to hit in the singles court and I got the doubles lines, and he had to get his first serve in and I could take as many serves as I wanted. Well, he is very young and athletic...and fun to watch.

The weekend included dinner out and breakfast in, made very special by sitting at the table with the three of them. I got in a Mother's Day run and a dog walk.

The dog, alas, ended up stinking up the day.

She hadn't seemed to get into anything, but she smelled awful. Joe went around spraying Febreeze, with me running around after him and yelling at him to stop. We kept her in the kitchen while we ate dinner in the den, and although she had mostly dried off, she still smelled.What to do?

If you wash her in the bathtub, she makes a real mess. So I took her in the back, hooked the end of her leash onto the edge of a bench, grabbed the dog shampoo, pulled out the hose and got to work shampooing her and hosing her down. Needless to say, she was not happy. She yanked hard and got away, pulled down the bench and ran in circles. Luckily by then she was clean enough.

Katie caught the dog and Joe righted the bench. I was exhausted and soaked but pleased with my work.
I sat at the table and lit an "Orchard Pear" candle. The dog konked out, and the evening ended peacefully.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Time flies

I was going to sit in the living room to catch the morning sun today but changed my mind. The room did not have its usual serene quality. Katie's stuff is all over the place.

Actually it's all over the house. Her dorm room at college was pretty small, and it's hard to imagine all that stuff fitting in there.

College is over, and it's only early May. The more you pay, the less time they spend there. (This is not an original thought. I've heard it said by parents all around.) I picked her up yesterday and, with the help of two friends, we loaded the car. It's the reverse of move-in day, minus the excitement.

Katie pointed out, "I'm half-way through college."

Time flies (obviously also not an original thought). You can't think about it every day, but then something happens and it hits you, like your baby being half-way through college.

And here's something else: Next weekend I am going to New York for my 40th high school reunion, or as someone put it, our second 20th. How did we get so old?

Here's another thing to think about: We are still here.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Easing pain with laughter

Most people might not find anything funny in colorectal cancer, but Brenda Elsagher, who has had it, sees the humor in it and in life with an ostomy.

The Minnesota comedian travels around the country with an act that is aimed at getting people to become more comfortable with a kind of cancer that is, as she says, "hush-hush."

She believes that laughter really is the best medicine when you are hurting. New research backs this up, showing that laughter raises pain thresholds, probably due to increased production of endorphins, the feel-good hormones.

Check out my Q and A with her in Cancer Today, the publication of the American Association for Cancer Research.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Spring pickin's and other stuff

I had body aches and was tired for about a week, with no fever but a feeling that was low-grade fluish. If I took Tylenol, I felt better and could play tennis, but I wasn't up to running.

And there was that nagging feeling that this might be the start of something really bad. I bugged people by asking if they thought something major could be wrong (as if they knew), and finally did what I should have done all along: call Melissa.

I was driving somewhere when I just pulled over and paged her. She called right back. I said, "This is something really goofy," and she laughed and said, "I'm glad." I told her I was worried about feeling sick. She said I probably had a virus and said I should call if I developed a fever. And for good measure, "You're allowed to feel sick, just like any other person."

I knew that already, but I was reassured to hear it from her. I'm lucky to have a caregiver who has the attitude that no question is too silly. Bottom line: If you're worried about something, just call. The next day I started to feel better, mentally and physically.

Spring pickin's
I have been working, slowly, on getting the grass and weeds out of my big garden. I'm probably half-way there. The garden backs up onto a small wooded area fronted by ferns, which love to creep into the garden. Getting them out is a big job. They have deep roots, even the babies. Around the back, under the trees, we have a lot of Lilies of the Valley. My mother loved them, both because they're so pretty and fragrant and also because her mother's name was Lillian.

I took a break from weeding the other day and cut some lilies and a few other early-spring flowers that were coming up. I picked a yellow "flower" that is probably a weed, but if you like the way it looks, then it's a wildflower.

On another bright note, I noticed that blueberries grown in the USA are available now. I bought a pint of berries from Georgia, plump and juicy and more affordable than those tiny trays of imported berries sold over the winter.

I have been snacking on them all day. Yum.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Running around New York

John, Tami, me, Emily and Mike alongside the Hudson on Saturday.
The past two mornings, despite getting a good eight hours sleep, I have gotten up, taken care of the dog and taken my nauseating Exjade dose of five pills dissolved in water, covered myself with a blanket on the couch while the feeling passed, turned on "Morning Joe," dozed off ... and woken up two hours later.

This morning I could hardly get up. My legs ached and my head hurt.

Logical explanation: I am exhausted from running around New York all weekend in boots that were not made for walking. On Friday night, I stayed downtown in my cousin Serena's one-room apartment, where three of us slept like sardines in her California Queen bed and another guest, sick with a bad cold, coughed through the night on the pull-out sofa next to us. The second night, I slept uptown on my cousin Jeanne's couch. Over two-and-a-half days, I covered a lot of ground, including going up and down subway stairs and running through stations to catch the right train.

Cancer survivor's knee-jerk reaction: I am relapsing.

Earth to Ronni (or to any other survivor who connects every bump or bruise or under-the-weather feeling with relapse): There is usually some other reason.

In my case, in addition to fatigue, I might even be coming down with something. Joe reminded me that I had blood work a couple of weeks ago. Also, he said, "You're old."

Even though I am paying for it now, it was a great weekend.

It started off on a perfect Friday afternoon when I found the perfect parking spot on Serena's block, good for three free days and, magically, almost in the same place where Katie and I got a spot the last time we went to New York. After I took my stuff upstairs, I walked uptown and east to the Gramercy Park Hotel to meet Emily, Mike and their daughter Jessica for a drink. They were a little late, and I didn't want to sit at the fancy bar reading a newspaper and drinking water, so I ordered a Cosmo. It cost $18, plus a $2 tip. Yikes!

From there I went further uptown to Marge's for take-out Chinese food, then back down to Serena's for the night. The next day, Emily, Mike, Tami, John and Jessica had brunch with me, and then we walked south on the nearby High Line and then on the path along the Hudson to the World Trade Center Memorial, probably a couple of miles. We visited the Memorial Pools, consisting of waterfalls cascading onto the spot where each of the towers stood, with the names of those who died inscribed on parapets around each pool. It was incredibly moving.

After that, I had a little "free time" and then headed for dinner in advance of the main event: seeing "The Book of Mormon."

Emily and a group from Pittsburgh where already going when a few months ago I asked if I could get a few more tickets and tag along. Then Tami said she wanted to go, and then John.

This was a big splurge encore for me because I had seen it before, but the rest of our group of 12, including Ben and Meghan, hadn't. Dinner with everyone, including a birthday cake for Emily, was a great time. The restaurant wasn't as close to the theater as I would have liked, and getting to the show on time involved more running. The others (rightly, I guess), didn't think I could get there fast enough, and Emily and Ben each took an arm and practically carried me along.

The show was just as amazing as before.

I had decided I couldn't give up my downtown parking place, so I threw a nightgown and a toothbrush in my bag and took a subway up to Jeanne's after the show. Then the next morning I reversed directions, gathered my stuff from Serena's and was about to leave the city when I realized I had forgotten my cell phone at Jeanne's. So I drove back up there.

The plan called for me to stop in Stamford on the way home and hit some tennis balls with Ben...which I did.


I hope this travelogue is not too long. It kind of helped me to write it down so I could see how much I did.

Here is one more thing. I didn't have the energy to exercise yesterday or today, but today I made a deal with myself that I would run just three miles. It was raining a little, so I put on my hat and went. I'm not sure what I was trying to prove to myself, but I have to admit it wasn't a good run. I felt like I was dragging myself along. When I came back, I had to quickly change and drive to Springfield to a school where I have started a new tutoring job twice a week in the afternoon.

OK already. I know why I am tired.