Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Curds and…Wait, What?

So who is this Ted, and why is he offering what appears to be small cubes of Ted-flavored cheese?

Admittedly, it was my first trip to this supermarket, which is right around the corner but not actually on my way home. So, it's possible that Ted is their resident Fromagier, like a sommelier but for delicious aged dairy products.

This is how I imagine it works:

One night, I will be shopping in this deluxe Fantasti-Mart, which I've trekked to all the way around the corner just so I can prepare an outstanding meal for my special someone. I pick out two frozen salisbury-steak-and-mashed-potato dinners, a bottle of Diet Slight (like Sprite but not quite as good), and a Pepperidge Farm Quartet (who doesn't love those butterfly crackers?). I head over to the cheese counter, where I am greeted by an overabundance of choices. Port wine cheese log? Velveeta? Spreadable brie product?

I am seized by indecision.

As I pause, frown and sigh, on the verge of abandoning my plans for a home cooked meal, I am tapped politely on the shoulder. I turn around to find myself face-to-face with a wrinkly 90 year-old gentlemen wearing suspenders and a fedora.

“Do you need assistance,” he inquires. “I am Ted, le Fromagier. Allow me to assess the contents of your cart and I shall recommend the perfect cheese to accompany your feast.”

He thoughtfully picks up the frozen dinners, puts them down. Gently swirls the soda. Examines each member of the cracker quartet by sniffing the box. He pauses, closes his eyes, and does so for so long that I briefly wonder if I should wake him up.

There is no need.

He finally opens his eyes, takes my arm and leads me to a display of clear plastic tubs.

“I notice that you like exotic foods,” he says, waiting for me to nod in agreement. With a flourish of his hands, he passes me a container.

“May I suggest the cheese Tedbits?”

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Flight of the Nerve-wracked

Imagine it is 3 p.m. on a normal work day. The fire alarm rings across my company’s floor. What happens next is best described using a timeline:

(Click to enlarge)

I have always said that I have a sixth sense about fire alarms. If you listen closely, you can often hear a muted click right before the alarms sound in my building. So when most people are calmly working, I’m muttering, “Damn!” and grabbing my stuff.

Granted, this has earned me a reputation. At my last job, the alarms used to go off constantly. This was not long after September 11, 2001. By the time my coworkers were getting back to something like normal, every fire alarm would trigger my fight-or-flight response. And my response was always: flight.

When the Great Blackout of 2003 hit the East Coast, I was working on the 32nd floor, and I RACED down all 32 flights. This is why I don’t sign up to be the fire warden – I’m so focused on leaving that I don’t see other people. I pretty much zigzagged around all the slow people who weren’t worried by the blackout.

I have always been like this. I believe that this is biological – that my body is wired to respond easily to loud noises and perceived danger. Now, I’m not loud when I think I’m in danger. I stop. I keep track. I become hyper aware and hear every noise and constantly evaluate my current situation.

I remember a trip I took to Florida with my closest friends after college graduation. We were eating dinner at Chili’s when I looked out the window and just…stopped.

“Is that a tornado?” I gasped, as my heart tried to start beating again.

No, no, no, they all reassured me. It was probably a heavy rain storm in the distance. It was just cloudy over there. The glass was a little dirty in that area. Maybe I was developing cataracts.

I monitored that dark swath on the horizon for the rest of the meal, which I couldn’t eat.

Later, we watched the news and saw that it had been a tornado. Which my traveling companions had known, but had decided not to share with me.

However, since my platelet disorder landed me in the hospital last year, with both me and my doctors questioning my mortality, it’s like my panic receptors have been slightly altered. Loud noises still make me jumpy, and I still get concerned when alarms go off in my building, but now I can let it go. When I experienced real danger, I chose fight, not flight. Knowing that changed things.

Last week we received an e-mail that building’s management company would be conducting emergency drills. These drills always begin with the alarms being triggered so we know what they sound like and that it’s time to congregate.

When I arrived at work, my cubicle-mate turned to me and said, “Nancy, don’t panic later, remember that there’s a fire drill this afternoon.”

Five minutes later another coworker arrived. She hung up her jacket, settled in, then emerged from her office and paused. “Nancy,” she said, “don’t forget there’s a fire drill today. Don’t freak out.”

That day, I ate lunch in the cafeteria, one floor below my desk. Their drill started 15 minutes earlier than the one I was scheduled to attend. As it rang out, loud and shrill, I dropped my fork and literally jumped in my seat.

“Did you see me?” I asked my lunch buddy.

“Yes,” she said. “That was HYSTERICAL!”

I took a deep breath, picked up my fork and continued eating.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

So long, farewell!

My hematologist cleared me for take-off this past Friday – I won’t see him for another four months. According to my chart, “Nancy is doing well and looks like she is cured.”

I’m cured? Hallelujah!

It’s a very nice feeling, after more than 15 months of ongoing stress, to know that my ITP could be gone for good. And that if it does come back, we can do another four-week treatment of Rituxan with a reasonable expectation of success.

My hematologist gave me one last IVIG infusion before I start getting them at my immunologist’s office. I can’t lie – as fond as I am of the amazing nurses, it was a great feeling, settling in to the recliner and thinking, “One last time. I’m almost done!” Since my hypogammagloblulinemia is permanent, we’ll always have to boost my immune system with infusions, but that’s a lot less scary than my low platelet count was. Immune system deficiencies can have long-term consequences, but won’t send you to the hospital in a dramatic fashion.

I popped my customary pre-meds, Benadryl and Tylenol, around 9:30 a.m. By 10 a.m. I had already inflated my travel pillow, the Benadryl was in full effect, and I was ready to sit back, relax and nap during the next 3 hours of treatment.

Not so fast…

I had received an e-mail on Wednesday, informing me of an important departmental meeting at 10 a.m. on Friday that I needed to “make every effort to attend.” So I got a call-in number, dutifully dialed it at 9:58 a.m., and popped in my stereo headset so I could listen.

I heard most of it. Or, I thought I did, until I got to work that afternoon and asked what had happened during the last five minutes, when I was pretty sure I had already started sleeping. (My first clue was when I opened my eyes at 10:30 a.m. and the line was silent.) The more they filled me in, the more I realized I had probably heard the first 10 minutes, if that, and the last 20 minutes had floated along the edges of my consciousness. I had heard the meeting much like one sees the highway on a long drive – it was there, but you can’t really pick out anything specific afterwards.

Oh well, I tried. And at 10:30 a.m. I was still too groggy from Benadryl to think about anything. I just turned off my phone, adjusted my pillow, and dozed happily while the IV drip-drip-dripped away.

The best part?

In celebration of my final (for a while) hematology appointment, I was sent off with a prize – a Camouflage Barbie Band-Aid:


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Pucker up!

I'm a single gal living in the city, and it struck me that St. Patrick's Day would be a good opportunity to advertise my availability to the single guys. I've mentioned that people often assume I'm Irish, even though I'm not. So I thought I'd capitalize on that with a new lapel pin:

Maybe next year.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Go on, take a swing

There's one sure test to determine if a New York City neighborhood is safe – look at the bars on the apartment building windows. Bars on the first floor are common everywhere, since it’s so easily accessible from the street. However, if the buildings look like modified jails from the ground floor to the penthouse, you probably want to find a taxi and hightail it out of there. (Unless you're apartment-hunting and have less than $1,000 to spend per month. In which case...welcome home!)

Safe doesn't necessarily mean upscale. I live near a billion restaurants and an adequate commercial district, but it’s more about the good commute than the chichi shopping. It's an interesting, family-oriented, multi-ethnic neighborhood, attractive and functional but not particularly beautiful. Which suits me perfectly.

When I come home in the summertime, I pass old ladies sitting around card tables in front of their stoops, playing games and chatting. Fruit markets are open until 2 a.m., so those same card-playing ladies shop for cabbage and cantaloupe at midnight. There's a little cafe restaurant near the subway, and no matter when you step off the platform, there are groups of little old men drinking dark, bitter Greek coffee and arguing excitedly.

There are plenty of young people, too. I live near a school, so I often stroll to my train in the morning alongside parents running behind schedule, dragging children and Dora the Explorer book bags as they attempt to beat the bell. And I love Halloween, when the kids dress up and go store-to-store, asking for candy. In New York, people don’t have access to apartment buildings (besides their own), so stores assume the sacred candy distribution duties.

I never feel unsafe. When I walk home late at night, I keep my keys in my hand because my keychain is pepper spray. I’ve never had to use it, though.

(I’m actually a registered weapons owner with the State of New York. Pepper spray must be bought in person at a licensed location, at which point you fill out a form and give them a copy of your legal identification. It makes me feel kind of lethal.)

But something I saw this morning made me reconsider how safe I feel at home. On my way to work, I stumbled on this gory scene:

A piñata mauling!

I’ve heard it’s the first sign of a neighborhood in decline. Worst of all, the police hadn’t even responded by the time I saw it, even though the piñata was slaughtered beyond recognition and the thieves had obviously made off with all of the candy.

I’m mostly upset about the children who might have seen it.

And the fact that I didn’t get any candy.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

À votre santé

Today was grim. Without going into too many details, my coworkers and I had a difficult day.

I kept hearing people say, “At least I have my health.”

I thought, thank goodness that’s true for me…today. My hematologist confirmed on Wednesday that my treatment worked, and that I could start seeing him annually after one more check-up in July. This means I’ll go back to monthly immunoglobulin treatments for my immune system disorder. I’m so relieved!

If I lost my job – and you never know, with the way things are looking – I would worry about money, just like everyone else. But I have to admit that right on the top of my list of concerns would be my health. Because I have learned that it’s precarious. I was unemployed once before and couldn’t afford both COBRA and my rent. So I decided to keep the roof over my head and look both ways a few times before crossing the street. If I’m out of work again I won’t have that choice. I’ll need health insurance to guarantee I have access to a lifesaving treatment that I can never stop taking.

However, at least my job isn’t making me sick. Somewhat related to my last post is a great interview by Dick Gordon on American Public Media’s The Story. He spoke with Carol Espen, a former aerobics instructor:

Back in the 1980's, an aerobics craze swept the country… Carol was in New York trying to make a living as an actress, but teaching dance classes on the side. Soon she was teaching aerobics, doing close to 23 classes a week. It didn't take long before Carol's feet started to hurt, and then her hips, but she kept on going because by then teaching aerobics was her career. It took her four years to admit she was in such pain she needed to see a doctor. At 44, she had her first hip replacement, then several years later, the other one. Many doctors today recommend low impact exercises. Carol joins many other victims of the aerobics craze who are now suffering for their enthusiasm.

As stressed as I get at my job, it will never precipitate my needing hip replacement surgery in my early 40s.

So that’s one thing to be happy about.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fun with Dick and Jane

Between the rain, the hour we all lost on Sunday, the apocalyptic economy and the pre-Spring slump, everyone seems a little worn out. If I made New Year’s resolutions, I’d have broken them at least a month ago.

Some of us, however, last longer than others. Take my neighbor, for instance. We’ve never met, but I’m pretty sure she has more willpower than I have ever had. This apocryphal woman finally broke her resolution, and it only took 25 years or so.

There is a ledge near the mailboxes in my building. The mailman leaves packages there, but neighbors will occasionally leave free stuff – books, clothing, bungee cords, to name a few things I’ve seen. Not much surprises me anymore, but I came home the other day and saw some items being offered that straddled the line between junk, kitsch and antiques:

Can’t you just imagine the life these VHS tapes led before being cast out onto an apartment building ledge? The day that this neighbor decided to start exercising, strapped on her shiny leotard and slouchy leg warmers, and did her first stretch-one-two-three with Jane Fonda? How, even after Jane went out of style, this neighbor found her true love – Richard Simmons?


Just hearing his name brings back memories of gym class at John Adams Middle School. We would stand in rows as Richard Simmons blared over the loudspeaker. We had to follow his exhortations to jog, stretch, and pump our fists while shouting, “I…AM…SOME…ONE!” Once in a while, he would encourage us to sing, “You can do it, get up and start to move it!”

It doesn’t matter if you’re the head cheerleader, dating the quarterback of the football team, summering on Martha’s Vineyard and hosting the cast of The Hills at your birthday parties. You simply can’t be cool and chant affirmations at the same time.

If you doubt me, just try it.

Or should I say: “JUST…TRY…IT!”)

I think that my neighbor came home one day and decided that life was too short to throw on vinyl workout clothing and cry with Richard Simmons. Maybe she realized that even Jane Fonda left high impact aerobics behind years ago. Perhaps she opened the apartment door, decided that walking would be great exercise, and left the VHS tapes on the ledge as she made her way to the sweet outdoors.

Or maybe she got a DVD player.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

[My] Blood is Thicker than Water...Finally

A film was released recently that, as someone with a hematological disorder who also happened to be born on February 14th, I immediately recognized as my own personal biopic:

I haven't seen it, because I have a feeling that the storyline in my head is probably superior to the horror flick that they concocted. Does their movie have Paul Rudd as the valiant hematologist who saves my life and introduces me to my future husband, also played by Paul Rudd (as a totally separate character, because marrying your doctor is unethical)?

In any case, my real life hematologist -- unfortunately not Paul Rudd -- suggested a pretty serious treatment for my platelet disorder. I had four infusions over four weeks, and was told that I would know if it worked by early March.

And now I know...it worked!

I am so relieved and thrilled. And yet I feel a little unsettled. Like I don’t trust it. Because it has been a long year in which we’ve tried different treatments and my count has rarely been stable for more than a week or two. So even though my number is the highest it’s been since I was diagnosed, I think it will be a few months before I believe that this is a long-term solution.

At this time last year I had a platelet count of 4,000 and was flirting with the possibility that my next paper cut would send me to the hospital. Now, I am at an extraordinary 330,000 – chock full o’platelets, one might say – and I couldn’t be any happier.

In fact, you could punch me and cut me and I’d be just fine!

Please don’t, though.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Spoiler Alert!

Taken, starring Liam Neeson, was so ridiculous that I exited the theater afterward by walking through one of the giant, gaping holes left by what passed for a plot in this movie.

Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a former government spy who has retired in order to rekindle a relationship with his daughter, Kimmy. She is a 17 year old played by 25 year old Maggie Grace, who must have been told to act approximately 13. She wears sparkly, rainbow-covered clothing, gasps and jumps and giggles a lot when she gets good news, and generally seems to have held onto that pre-teen naiveté that the filmmakers must have hoped would make her actions semi-plausible.

Mills reluctantly allows Kimmy to spend the summer in Paris with her friend Amanda. Kimmy’s mother sees nothing wrong with her daughter going to Europe alone, and has even booked tickets for her daughter to follow U2’s concert tour so she can “experience life.” As a groupie, perhaps?

The two girls arrive in Paris and are immediately charmed by Peter, a local who shares their cab and invites them to a “college party.” Kimmy has doubts, but Amanda not only agrees to meet him later, but gives him their address, and then tells Kimmy that she’ll definitely be sleeping with him. For her stupidity in leading the innocent astray, she clearly must die.

And she does, but not until after she and Kimmy are stolen by Peter’s Albanian bosses. They sell tourists as sex slaves because importing Eastern European girls has become prohibitively expensive. (Damned economy!)

Mills quickly mounts a mission to rescue his daughter. With a little help from his former spy friends, he figures out who has her, and then spends the rest of the movie killing people until he and Kimmy are reunited.

I don’t have a problem with ass-kicking, older men, which has become a trend over the last few years. Hollywood has resurrected yesterday’s action heroes in order to milk their franchises for one more movie. Ford revived Indiana Jones, Willis lived to die harder, and Stallone limped onto the screen with a contemplative Rocky. In this movie, Neeson really sells his identity as a well-trained mo-fo you don’t want to mess with.

However, it’s all the non-ass kicking plot points that tripped me up.

Mills goes to the apartment where the kidnapping occurred. Even though he gets into the building, he has to enter the apartment by slinking across the outside ledge and breaking a window. So he’s a former über-spy who keeps phone tap equipment on hand, but he doesn’t know how to pick a lock?

He susses out the site of the Albanians’ working girls and sees Kimmy’s jacket, then rescues/kidnaps the girl who has it so he can question her. They go to a motel, where Mills sobers her up with the IV bag of anti-narcotics medication he apparently travels with, so she can tell him about the house in “Paradise” where she met his daughter. All she can remember about it is the red door.

Thank goodness it’s the only building with a red door on Rue de Paradis.

He finds newly stolen girls chained to beds and loaded with drugs (including the once-perky Amanda, now dead), and tortures a man to find out where Kimmy has gone.

After some lengthy machinations which involve Mills killing everyone he talks to or looks at (with no interference by the inept French police), he makes it to the sale. Kimmy is paraded out in some kind of diamond bikini as the final, but best item, because she is “pure.” She is then bought by a sheik, who has her dressed in filmy, bridal white lingerie and brought to his yacht’s stateroom – just before Mills busts in to save her from being defiled.

Ultimately, the movie wants to have it both ways. Kimmy is old enough to fill out that diamond bikini and 4-inch stilettos. However, she has to act young enough that the audience buys her innocence, without being disturbed that the character was written and acted as a 13 year-old girl.

Taken doesn’t pull it off.