Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas Season 2009

Christmas has passed and I am only just now sitting down to write. I’ve been thinking about what to write for days, but in between getting ready for meals – and eating – I’ve been pretty much lying on the sofa or bed with heating pads and hot water bottles, quite lethargic.

It really has been a very nice, joyous holiday. On the Wednesday before Christmas we went with our friends, Kirk and Lisa, to the Italian Market in South Philadelphia for breakfast and shopping. We went to the “wild” game purveyor and purchased some venison – as we were planning a venison stew for Christmas. This I kept secret from certain members of my family as I thought they would be predisposed not to eat it!

It is always fun shopping at this outdoor market during the holidays. If it weren’t for all the Asian vendors it would feel rather Dickensonian. It was cold that day, and the fires were going in the trash cans behind the vegetable stalls. We stopped in another of our favorite stalls to pick up provolone and pasta cheeses, then went over to the seafood store to buy fresh little neck clams and chopped clams for Christmas Eve dinner.

On Christmas Eve we put together a simple dinner of spaghetti and clams and salad. Mom’s neighbors joined us, as did my brother and his family. Joan and I made a terrific white clam sauce – and she made her killer garlic bread. Earlier that day, Thierry and I put together our venison stew. It was Thierry’s idea to make it the night before – and he was right – sitting overnight enabled the flavors to blend, and if I say so, it was a tasty meal. All but one person ate it, some even had seconds!

Again, our Christmas meal was simple, starting with a salad, then the stew, followed by delicious fresh made applesauce (by Lisa), topped with vanilla ice cream. Joan also made her famous chocolate cake. We began the party with stuffed mushrooms made by Ann, asparagus and nuts by Jean, and absolutely delicious dumplings made by Koniko.

Last night, Sunday, we had our 4th annual family wine tasting; a tradition begun as an alternative to inter-family gift giving. Lauren and Robert (famous wine-guy from one of our local state-run liquor stores) chose a wide selection of domestic and imported wines. We began with a sparkling white from California, a white California Viognier blend, and reds from Argentina, Spain, and France. Everyone (each couple or individual) brought an appetizer and a cheese selection.

Each of these celebrations can be characterized by the same ambiance. A general feeling of (relative) calmness prevailed (which is unusual when a big crowd of Italians and sisters get together). Missing were the frantic, rushing to get the food on the table gyrations that normally take place. I don’t think anyone felt overworked. Everyone pitched in, both in getting things together and in the clean up, and everyone seemed to be engaged in conversation, laughter, and in having just a plain old good time.

I don’t know if I speak for myself, but I must say it was a wonderful holiday, especially when surrounded by my terrific family, great friends and loving husband.

Holiday Wishes

Christmas got away from us this year. We had hoped to make our own cards again, but unfortunately, couldn’t find an appropriate photo. We then pulled all of the cards purchased at end of season (over the years) and still sealed in their boxes, and other left-overs from previous years. Thierry pulled together his mailing list – I didn’t get that far. We sorted all of the cards on the floor of the office, but alas, that is where they stayed.

So, we would like to now wish all of you a terrific holiday season, and a New Year filled with everything special to you, and may you find fulfillment in all that you do!

Monday, December 21, 2009

What Condition My Condition is In

Thierry says I should write about what ails me, as that is one of the purposes of the blog - to keep everyone up-to-date on my “condition” - so be forewarned, this will not be one of my more cheery postings.

In general, I have felt pretty good I guess. This chemo has not affected me like in the past, when I was curled in a fetal position on the sofa for two days afterward. I have been pretty functional. What has been developing over the past several months is a chronic sinus condition that has me very grumpy.

Two days following my treatments, my sinuses seem to dry up, and congest, and run, and I wake up with incredible headaches. These conditions last several days. I am able to put up with a lot of discomfort, but this has really dragged me down, emotionally as well as physically. I have been trying some homeopathic remedies like NetiPot, steam treatments from a pot filled with hot water and Vicks or chamomile flowers, and saline spray, but not with any regularity. Last week my brother-in-law gave me a bottle of Fluticasone (a steroid spray), which I really believe saved me last weekend, and has made the condition bearable.

Today I had an appointment with an ENT (Ears, Nose and Throat) specialist. His conclusion was that my sinuses were aggravated by the chemo and they are dry and crusty (great image here). He gave me over-the-counter remedies: an ointment to moisten the sinus passages and saline spray 4-6 times a day – basically anything to keep the sinuses moist.

I have also experienced some very odd phenomena that I have yet to have explained. Saturday evening, after enjoying an afternoon of tree decorating and the company of several of our friends at our house, my glands started to swell and I developed a very sore throat – all of which disappeared on Sunday.

Sunday, while sitting in the oldest Catholic Church in Philadelphia listening to a Baroque concert, my left wrist started to hurt. Later that evening while attending a dinner party at a friend’s house, both wrists swelled and ached to the point where I couldn’t bend them. Thierry had to help me undress that evening. Isn’t that one of your worst fears – having to have help undressing – and not in a romantic, sexy way! Anyway, they were still swollen and painful this morning, although not quite as bad. A phone call to the nurses at the oncologist office proved unhelpful. Her first reaction was to ask “Have you gone to the emergency room”? How stupid was that! Not to be deterred, I stopped in at the infusion center after I got my Vitamin C infusion.  My nurse got the Nurse Practitioner  who confirmed that joint swelling is a side effect of the chemo, as are swollen glands.  No need to go to the emergency room!

So, if you were able to read between the lines, I’ve managed to live and enjoy friends and the season, while dealing with some inconveniences and discomfort. I guess that is what it is all about – focusing on all the good parts of the day, because each day I am alive is a good one.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Eyes Have It

For the men who read my blog, this one is for the girls.

Well, it happened. I lost almost all of my eyebrows. I only have a few stragglers hanging around. I actually went and bought fake eyebrows – a friend of mine found them on the internet. I haven’t tried them on, not since the fiasco with the fake eyelashes. My eyelashes disappeared first, and one afternoon while getting ready for a party, I made an attempt to get them on. Of course we were bucking up against the clock and Thierry was pacing. I got extremely nervous and made a mess of it. (Thierry’s fault obviously!). Okay, not Thierry’s fault, I should have practiced. I don’t know why I thought this would be easy. Finally I pulled them off and suffered through the afternoon with goo sticking my eyelids together.

It took me a while to realize what was wrong. When I would put on my new wigs and look in the mirror I looked washed out. I put on eyeliner, and it helped a little. Then I started to use a darker eye shadow, and that helped a little more, but still something was missing. Then one day it dawned on me – no eyebrows! I went to the store and searched high and low for brow pencil. You’d be surprised to learn how difficult it is to find – most drug stores had shades of brown. Finally I found black.

Did you ever try to paint on eyebrows where there are none? Lots of women darken the brows they already have. I’m starting virtually from scratch. Trying to get my painted brows on evenly is quite a challenge. To make matters worse, I am a Libra whose symbol is the scales – everything needs to be in balance. Invariably one eyebrow is higher, darker, or thicker than the other. In reality, no one has perfectly even eyebrows, and that thought is the one that I keep in the forefront.

All of this reminds me of an old friend who has no natural eyebrows and has painted them on for years. She has a definite idea of how her make-up should look – and she has been wearing the same make-up as long as I have known her, about 25 years. I used to tease her and tell her that she put her make-up on by the numbers – paint by the numbers: medium brown where the 1’s are, turquoise (eye shadow) where the 2’s are and so on. She wore her make-up to bed, and wouldn’t come out of the bathroom in the morning until it was all replaced.

I wonder if there is an eyebrow template that you can place on your forehead and just color in the brow. Do the ladies who do other people’s eyebrows for a living use a template? The brows are always so perfect – so even. Maybe I could invent one!

I never was much into make-up. When I was a teenager, my philosophy, and that of the times was, the least amount of make-up the better. I only wore eyeliner and mascara. As I got older dark circles started to appear, so that meant concealer needed to be added to the area around the eyes. I had pretty heavy eyebrows, and feel like I’ve been plucking my whole life. And I plucked everyday! Although I don’t miss the plucking, the drawing-in takes a lot of concentration and time. Later on I added foundation to my make-up routine – oh, and blush – yes, that was important. Lipstick only became important in my 30’s.

I used to laugh when I heard or read a comment that you should never go out without your make-up. Saturdays were freedom days. Wake-up, pop the contacts in, tie the hair back, put on the sweats and go to the supermarket first thing. That happened until I ran into one of our board members! I was mortified. From that day forward, I never left the house without my eyeliner and something other than sweats.

Like I said in a previous blog, I do not want to look like a cancer patient. Wigs hide the baldness – which actually doesn’t bother me – it just presents an image to the public. Eyebrows make your face. Give it depth, color, shape even. I feel much better now that I am painting them on – I feel like I look like myself.

Mom got out of the rehab facility today. She should be fine. Jean’s good friend, Teresa, is coming in on Friday from the Canary Islands and Friday is Thierry’s birthday – we are celebrating with friends. Treatment went well today. My friend Ann paid me a visit at the infusion center today.  It was good to see her and it really helped the time go by. All-in-all, it was a very good day.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Money, Money

Before I was diagnosed, I used to check out the retirement calculators on various websites to determine how long my money would last. I was very concerned when they kept coming up with the age of 83. The tanking of the stock market didn’t help things. After I received my news about my cancer, I started trying to determine how to distribute my money.

Now I am in a kind of limbo, and feel like I’ve been spending a lot of money on all sorts of stuff: clothes, pocketbooks (costing way more than I would normally spend), trips, dining out. There is a part of me that says, might as well enjoy it, and if this is what makes you happy, then just do it! Like I said before, I am not one to try sky-diving, but spending comes very easily for me.

Each time I had a major crisis in my life, it seems I comforted myself by making a major, if not somewhat frivolous, purchase. When Doug passed I bought a fur jacket and a rather expensive print at a fundraising auction. I justified the purchases by saying the proceeds were going to charity. I don’t regret the jacket, and the print I can visit in Lauren’s house. When I was diagnosed in 2004, I bought a gold necklace – which I bought during a great sale at Wanamaker’s department store when it was closing, and a flat screen TV. Later I went and had necklaces made for me and Lauren at a custom jeweler in Philadelphia. But then I wanted Lauren to have something special for her 30th birthday. These expenses were all out of the realm of what I would spend on anything outside something we needed for the house. This is the extent of my “good” jewelry collection. I don’t have diamonds – at least not any you can see from a distance.

You see, I was the Queen of Thrift. Growing up, we were provided with all the basics. If I wanted anything cool I would have to buy it myself. So, I’ve been working since I was about 12 – not counting my stint as a bicycling produce purveyor. I started babysitting around the neighborhood, and started my waitressing career at 13. I lived on my own from the time I was 18, holding 3 jobs at the same time in order to pay the bills. It seems all my life I’ve kind of scrimped to be able to buy things, for the house or myself. I learned to shop sales and find bargains, but still managed to get in debt. (Now you know why poor Lauren suffered!)

When I started making good money, we were able to fix up our house, and I always had nice clothes, not designer clothes, still shopped sales, but always looked together - in a suburban way. Now I work a lot less, but still like to have nice clothes, city clothes. (What’s the difference in city and suburban dress – not sure – maybe just hipper?)

With this last diagnosis, my first thoughts were about cleaning out my closets, and the thought of buying anything new didn’t enter my mind. After the first couple of months, those thoughts changed, and I started to think about my out-of-date and a little shabby wardrobe, and started buying. I also decided I didn’t want to look like a cancer patient. Things have calmed a bit, but still I find myself thinking about the next purchase.

In all reality, I seem to wear the same things all the time. A lot of today’s styles I don’t particularly like, and they are so trendy they won’t be popular very long. The mature side of me says: Time to be more selective; buy better and less. The kid that was always denied still feels the need for more. Now there’s that little voice in the way back saying you won’t live long enough to spend it – why not just go shopping! I trust that all of these conflicting opinions will work their way out and settle on a reasonable compromise.

The week is ending on a good note. After feeling lousy all week, I’ve finally been able to leave the house and visit my mom who is still in rehab. She is doing much better and is scheduled to come home in a week. The sun is shining, the air is crisp and cold, and it was a very good day.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Presence or Presents

“Presence or Presents” reads the headline that caught my attention in the local section of our daily newspaper the other day. I anxiously read it thinking this would be a Christmas article that might reflect my views on holiday spending and gift giving, but instead it talked about a group that promoted attending church on Black Friday. A noble idea, but not what I had in mind.

A later conversation with my daughter, who wanted to know what kind of a budget we had allocated toward her clothing etc. while she was growing up, turned into a discussion about holiday gift spending, which caused me to go on a rampage, which I continue here.

Truth is that we had no budget for Lauren’s clothing, toys, etc., because when Doug and I got married we were pretty broke. He had just filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy (and was determined to pay back all his creditors), and I was about $10k in debt. For the first 5-7 years of our marriage we had NO money. The last thing we wanted to do was running up more credit card debt – which we never did, and to this day, all my bills are paid in full by the due date. Those years were not easy and we often fought over money, but we managed, saved, paid our house off before Lauren went to college and we were able to pay most of her tuition without getting loans (she paid the rest).

Yes, Lauren was clothed and there were presents under the tree, but we did not go overboard. Clothing was bought on sale or at discount stores and she did not get everything she wanted. Poor kid had no TV or phone in her bedroom until she was in her late teens. Same thing with stereos, Walkman (remember those), etc. She didn’t get a car until her senior year and even then it was a very old used Volkswagen with over 125k miles – and a manual transmission! She worked through high school as well as college, and paid (or helped pay) for those expensive, trendy items that kids need to have to be cool, etc.

I realize this philosophy sounds incredibly old fashioned, but the truth is, I believe, Lauren really appreciated what she had (and has). Today, parents fall all over themselves making sure their kids have all the latest (iPhones, iTouch, iPods, game gadgets, flat screen TVs, Wii’s). When I say kids, I am talking about children up to 15 years of age. Oh, of course, they have all the trendiest clothes from boutique stores. There is no question that these children have absolutely no appreciation for these “things”, as they are expected and are considered life-style musts that parents feel compelled to buy.

There is nothing more appalling to me than to see parents who can ill afford to spend $500+ each on their kids for Christmas, and are willing to go deeper in debt just because they feel they have to as proof of their love – for the kids – and so their kids will be accepted by their peers.  I wonder if those parents who have the money, and spend thousands on their children at Christmas, even consider that there may be alternatives that would have more of a far-reaching impact on their children’s lives and emotional (if not spiritual) well-being. I wonder if any of these parents sit back on Christmas morning as their children open up package after package, and watch their facial expressions and their attention span with each item once opened, and a few days later as the toys lay scattered and broken all over the house. Especially small children, who themselves are so overwhelmed by the number of items, that they can only focus on one thing at a time – and who soon forget about the majority of their toys within hours.

I am not a religious person. I love Christmas, I love giving and getting gifts, and I love the spirit of the season – giving and rejoicing. My philosophy on gift giving is to give something as a token of appreciation and something that the person would appreciate, use and perhaps remember me by (ego). My family decided they did not want to give gifts a long time ago (which was a hard nut to swallow), so now we throw money in a pot and have a family wine tasting, a great tradition now in its 4th year. Presence: laughing, getting tipsy, and just being together for pure fun.

None of us need anything, so it frees us to concentrate on annual gift giving to non-profit organizations.  Other things we do include picking a needy family and buying gifts for each member, or donating winter jackets for toddlers, putting gift baskets together, and once a bunch of us worked in a soup kitchen (what fun we had). There are so many families that have nothing. Some of them can’t afford clothing, food or medicines. One group we worked with was eating their meals on Frisbees. I am not trying to sound noble; I am just trying to show the dichotomy between families’ needs and wants. Presence: being aware of the needs of others.

Presence: being aware of ourselves and others around us. For those of us with children, by being present, we will be better listeners and more aware of the things that trouble and influence them. We can instill in them a sense of value and moral purpose, and help build their confidence. By being present when we are with our family and friends we will let them know they are important and how much we appreciate having them in our lives (even if it means forgetting about our differences for a while). The smallest change in our attitude may make a significant difference in our relationships. By being in the moment we can live each day to its fullest and hopefully make it a better one – and perhaps most days for you will become a good one, just like today was for me!