Brave: New World?

Not so much, sorry to say.

My husband and I choked back the bile that leaps into the throats of the middle class when the person behind the glass at the movie theater says, “That will be $50, please,” and took our girls to go see Brave this afternoon.

I couldn’t resist the previews — that mane of wild red hair, the bow & arrow, the dramatic, swooshing cloak.  A kids’ Katniss Everdeen, perhaps?  I was probably more excited than my daughters.

The movie did offer a couple of notable departures from the traditional Disney story format, but sadly, too many action-for-action’s sake sequences and plot shortcuts made this latest Pixar flick somewhat saggy and draggy.

We first meet the heroine, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald, a Scottish actress who might be familiar to Harry Potter fans as the Grey Lady from HP7  Pt. 2) when she is but a wee lass, a princess on an outing for her birthday.  She receives a bow and arrow from her father just before the royal family is attacked by a ferocious bear.  Merida’s mother, Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson), whisks the child away on horseback while the king fights the great beast.

When we next see Merida, she has grown up to be a sassy, willful teenager.  Merida infuriates her mother when she publicly challenges the royal tradition of the local clan lords presenting their first born sons to compete for the princess’ hand in marriage.

During the ensuing fight with her mother, Merida tears a tapestry depicting the royal family and runs away into the woods.  There, she meets a witch who gives her a spell to change her mother, and then the adventure begins.
The rest of the movie explores the broken mother-daughter bond and what must be done to repair it.  I had expected the mother to die in the usual Disney fashion during the bear attack in the opening scene, but instead, the movie breaks new ground by having Elinor live to become the mother of an ungrateful, feisty adolescent.  Refreshing, for Disney anyway.

The movie’s most poignant scenes were of the two main characters trying to reconnect under great duress.  Without giving too much away, my favorite moment was when Merida has to interpret her mother’s non-verbal communication during a tense moment back in the castle.

But these moments were minimized by unnecessarily long scenes of bear chasing, bear fighting, dudes fighting and the kind of Disney clowning and pandemonium that starts to feel condescending after awhile.

My 8-year-old daughters didn’t like the bears and fighting and found those scenes scary.  They weren’t so scared that they had to leave the theater, but the scenes were upsetting enough to distract them from the film’s deeper meaning and from their appreciation of Merida as a gutsy heroine.

Visually, there were many beautiful and artistic moments.  The luminous blue Will-o’-the-wisps that lead Merida through the forest are very fetching, as are a number of the matte illustrations of Scottish landscapes.

The poster above is an example of the look of the moodier scenes, aptly accompanied throughout by Patrick Doyle’s pretty score that includes songs by Mumford & Sons and Scottish singer Julie Fowlis.

If I don’t have to comfort my daughters from bear nightmares tonight, then I just might bring up the movie with them tomorrow to discuss the journey of Merida and her mother.

You had me at the chocolate

I confess it: I love Valentine’s Day.  I love the red outfits people wear, Valentine socks, Valentine cookies, vintage Valentines, making Valentines, corny Valentine jewelry, all of it.  It’s all an excuse to say, “I love you” to folks you care about, and I don’t see a problem with that.

And I loved Google’s Doodle today:

I always laugh to myself when people say that Valentine’s Day is a Hallmark holiday.  It’s only a Hallmark holiday if you buy Hallmark cards, people.

Me?  I made each of my daughters the heart pop-up card on this Robert Sabuda page (they were duly impressed and said that I should consider entering the talent show at their school because of my pop-up card making talent), and I got them each a pair of neon canvas sneakers from Target.  They were thrilled when they saw those too, and I felt very Valentiney as I drove to work wearing a big pink scarf, thinking of my girls in those day-glo kicks.  Cutie pies.

The only thing missing was my hubs, who is finishing up the last leg of a week-long series of back-to-back engagements in California to promote his book and his artwork.  He and I usually find heart-shaped Valentine cookies to share, and that’s about all we do for Valentine’s Day.  No Hallmark cards, no flowers, nothing elaborate.  No expectations.  Simple and sweet.

The week without him wasn’t too bad except for missing him, but I did have a really bad day over the weekend when my daughters wouldn’t stop fighting.  They had friends over, and even that didn’t stop them from being at each other’s throats, no matter what I said or did to try to get the day back on course.  Definitely not cutie pie behavior.

The mom of one of my daughters’ friends came to pick up her daughter and must have seen my sadness.  She comforted me by telling me that her kids fight too, and I did feel better.  Until my girls started fighting again.  It was a long day.

Then, today, when I came home, I saw a little package between my door and the screen door.  I opened it and was delighted.  Inside, I found a card from the mom who had seen my frustration over the weekend.  Under the card, in a poofy cloud of tissue paper, there was a little box of chocolates that said “Enjoy” on the lid.  The card offered kind words and a directive to enjoy the chocolates myself.  So I did.

Really, what’s not to love about Valentine’s Day?

Pedal on, sister

Sometimes I miss my California friends so much that my lungs hurt.

When this happens, I take comfort in the fact that I am so much closer to many old friends and to family, too.  But this past summer, an old friend left Philly.

She is not terribly far, but just far enough so that I can’t grab coffee with her or make a last-minute plan.  We can still chat on the phone late at night after the kids have gone to sleep or when she is out walking her dog.

She was brave to scoop her family up to make a new start in a new place.  Watching her use her characteristic spunk to gather her life, kids, pets and belongings up and move them reminded me of why I liked her the minute I met her, years ago in the early 1990s.

One day, during her last week here in Philly, when I was at her house helping her with a few odds and ends, I suddenly turned around and saw her beloved bike on the curb.  I had been looking for an old, knock-around-town bike on Craigslist, but for some reason, I felt funny asking her if I could have it.  She said that she was getting a new bike and that it was time to part with this one, even though it had been her faithful steed for years.

Finally, I saw that she really meant to leave the bike on the curb for someone else to take, and I asked her if that taker could be me.  She said that yes, she would love to leave her old wheels with someone she knew, and hey presto, the bike had a new rider.

Triumphant, I drove the bike home.  I hauled it out of the car and showed it to my husband and my daughters, all of whom were happy to see my new-to-me bike:  torn seat, some rusty parts, but strong and with good bones.  And a bell!  And a rack on the back for one of those panniers!

I dug out my helmet and hopped up on that bike.  I rode it up and down the street like a little kid, shakily at first.  But as they say, you really don’t forget how.  I felt fabulous, the wind in my hair, zooming along while my girls cheered.

I can’t believe it’s been so long.

Whew! Got the shots

My daughters got the first of their two H1N1 shots in school yesterday.

I didn’t realize how anxious I was about H1N1 until my daughters came home from school with Band-Aids on their little shoulders and I felt a weight lift off my shoulders.

When the news of the virus first hit, I tried to stay calm and to think that all the excitement about the virus was just media hype.  Just recently, though, I read a post in my favorite New York Times blog (the blog is called Well) and learned that doctors “are seeing a lot of infections with a virus against which children have no immunity, and which has already caused more deaths in children under 5 than we would see in years of regular seasonal flu.”

After reading the above, I started to get a little nervous, especially since one of my daughters has asthma and the other has reactive airways.  The daughter with asthma is prone to pneumonia.  She’s been in the hospital twice for pneumonia, and believe me, it’s no picnic.  She pulled through it fine both times, but it’s still very scary.

So as soon as the vaccine became available in our school district, you better believe I signed my daughters up.

I know folks are concerned about the small amount of mercury in the shot.  I am concerned too. But I have a different attitude about these kinds of things since I had cancer.

Our environment is poisoned, our planet is poisoned, our bodies are poisoned.  I do not believe that we can escape it for the time being.  I believe that we can only pick lesser evils at this point; for example, I try to eat organic when I can because it’s the lesser of two evils.  But, as far as the mercury in the shot, well, I can pick between the small amount of mercury in the shot or the whopping dose of very, very powerful steroids my daughter will have to take if she gets pneumonia again.

The steroids rip her stomach up, giving her stomach aches, and then they make her aggressive for a few nasty days.  Once, to my horror, my daughter — hepped up on steroids after another bout with pneumonia — clocked her sister a good one on the jaw in the pediatrician’s office.  I was naturally mortified and tried to explain to the doctor that my daughter didn’t usually punch her sister unprovoked.  He looked unimpressed and simply said, “I call it ‘Roid Rage. It’s a very real thing.”

You bet your sweet patootie it’s real.  Which would you choose?  To me, it’s a no-brainer.  We’ll take the shots, thank you very much.

A little mercury in the shots, yeesh.  I can only imagine what’s in our tap water.

New York City, where the Internet is paved with gold

Dwayne and I celebrated our anniversary last week — 8 years of marriage and 11 years of unwedded bliss before that, so, effectively, 19 years together.


To celebrate, this past Saturday, we left our daughters with my sister for the afternoon and then with my mom overnight, and we headed to New York City to play.

We were very excited about our hotel room at the Crowne Plaza in Times Square.  We were able to book the night for free because of an awesome promotion Holiday Inn offered this past summer — for every two nights in a hotel in the Holiday Inn chain, you get one night free.  We earned three free nights by staying in Holiday Inn Expresses all across the country.  We loved them — clean, good service, often a pool and, last but not least, free Internet.

As we traveled across the country, the Internet was crucial to keep up with e-mails and Facebook and to check different routes and drive times on the map.  And it was free!

Even though we were only gone for about 24 hours this past weekend, we still wanted free Internet so we could hang out in the hotel room a little in order to discuss a long-overdue website for Dwayne’s artwork, cartoons and writing.

Romantic, I know.  But we never get to have uninterrupted, well, anything when we’re at home.  There’s always something happening, and we have never gotten around to getting Dwayne’s website up and running.

After a long day of walking around, drinking lattes, holding hands, chatting, hanging around Times Square (what a weird place, with the M & Ms store and the Hershey store — huge stores dedicated to candy and brand paraphernalia) Rockefeller Center and Greenwich Village, we finally headed back to the hotel, where the check-in line was outrageously long.  I complained and asked them to bring out another front desk rep, but nothing happened.  A bunch of empty computers at the front desk and only two employees to handle the long line.

Whatever.  We finally got our room.  Dwayne logged onto the Internet, we talked about his website, and then we headed out for a walk and some dinner.

The next morning, I saw a piece of paper under the door.  Assuming that it was the express check out form, I leaned down and picked it up.  It wasn’t express check-out directions.  (There wasn’t express anything at this particular hotel.) It was a bill fo $19.50 for Internet access.

I was stunned.  Really$19.50 for Internet access?  I was sure that Dwayne would never have logged on if he had known that the fee was $19.50, so I asked him, and he was equally stunned.  He swore that he had not seen a charge for $19.50 when he accessed the Internet.

Since there was no express check-out, I had to go back and wait in line again.  When I got to the front, the desk clerk pointed out that I had a balance of $19.50.  I told her that I didn’t want to pay it because 1.) my husband hadn’t seen any indication of charges, 2.) the fee was outrageous to begin with, and 3.) we stayed in hotels in the Holiday Inn chain all across the country in the summer, and we never had a charge.

The front desk clerk was very snippy with me and told me that the only way to login to the Internet was to accept the charges. She said that there was a place to accept “the terms.”  I told her that my husband could read and that he said he never saw an indication of any charges, and she tilted her head to the side and blinked hard, once, and didn’t say anything, as if to suggest that, no, in fact, my husband cannot read.

Then she said that she was sure that the notices of the charges were clear because — get this — most hotel guests see the charges and call the front desk to check and see whether $19.50 is really the charge for Internet access.

“They call you because the charge is outrageous!” I snapped back triumphantly.

But no, there would be no triumph for me that day.

“And besides,” I added, “We stayed in Holiday Inns all across the country, and they never charged us for Internet access.”

“This,” said the perky clerk emphatically, “is New – York – City.”

“Is it more special,” I asked her, “to get on the Internet in New York City than, say, in Kansas City, Los Angeles or Boston?”

She didn’t answer me and gave me the same head tilted, single blink and pushed the bill toward me.

Welcome to New York City, folks, where the Internet is paved with gold.

Apparently, my cancer is travelling to the East Coast

Now that I live in Pennsylvania, I have to find new oncologists, of course.  Recently, I spent a stunning amount of time on the phone getting registered with the docs at the University of Pennsylvania.  The doctors there in the breast cancer center are named “top docs” in a number of places, and they’re known for their cutting-edge research.

I feel confident that I’ll be in good hands.

After the lengthy registration process, I was finally on the phone with one of the new patient coordinators.  I found out that I can only see the doctor once I have exactly the medical records that they want.  I am supposed to provide them with letters from the radiation oncologist and the medical oncologist and also charts from chemo.  The charts give detailed information about the chemo treatments I received.  I also have to provide imaging from 2007 (before I was diagnosed) and 2008, which is when I was diagnosed.

But then the lady told me that she also needs my original biopsy.  My stomach lurched.  My biopsy?  I flooded with panic, and then I wasn’t even sure why I was panicking.  I know I was upset that I’d have to do all the sleuthing and phone calls necessary to coordinate what I imagined was a Herculean effort to get slides of tissue samples from my original biopsy in January 2008.

I still remember the day of my biopsy quite clearly.  It is not a happy memory.

Then I found out that I had to get the slides from my surgery too.

I pictured a huge package of dry ice with slivers of cancer stuck on glass slides, making its way across the country to my home.  My new home.  My cancer free home.  My cancer free life, dammit!

I asked the new patient coordinator why the doctors wanted my slides.  Apparently the doctors like to do their own pathology on the slides, and then they send them back.

Then I really felt sick.

I imagined that they’d find something on the slides to indicate that all the original pathology was wrong and that I had the wrong chemotherapy, the wrong surgery, the wrong everything.

I felt thrown off for the rest of the day, with this vaguely ill haze hovering over me.  The thought that there are cancer cells — my cancer cells — out there, travelling back to me, was overwhelmingly sad.

I don’t want those cells anywhere near me.

Of course the doctors want to be thorough.  I get it.  And I also get how lucky I am to have access to doctors at all, especially such excellent ones.  When I am not anxious, I do remember to be grateful.

So, today I steeled myself and made the calls.  It took approximately 60 seconds to set up.  Apparently, they don’t send a huge package of dry ice.  They send dry slides with the slivers of cells in preservative.  Naturally, the woman who coordinated everything was not surprised by my request; she arranges for slides to be shipped all the time.

In a few days, I’ll have a box of cancer waiting for me on the porch when I get home from work.

And believe me, I do know how lucky I am to be griping that the cells will be on the porch.  At least they are not in my body.

Hair detergent, or What Happens When You’ve Lost Too Many Brain Cells

Today I was chattering along with my husband as we headed to Target to get a few necessities for the week.  We were trying to make a list, and I remembered a conversation we had earlier in the week, when my husband said that we were running low on our daughters’ shampoo.  So, I asked him whether we still needed “hair detergent” for the girls.

That’s right, folks, I couldn’t muster up the word for shampoo, so I called it hair detergent.  The look on my husband’s face was priceless.  He didn’t want to laugh at me, but he couldn’t help it and cracked up.

Those of us who have been through chemotherapy talk about something known as “chemo brain.”  This is, essentially, the aftermath of the poison they mainline into you, with hopes that the medicine kills all the lurking cancer cells before it kills the host, namely you.

Chemo brain is loss of brain cells, I guess.  And lately I’ve been wigged out that I got it bad!  Or is it just age?

Who out there on these internets has had any kooky moments like this lately?  Am I suffering from chemo brain, or is this just something that happens to folks in their 40s?

Let me hear about your “hair detergent” moments if you’ve got ’em.  Soothe my sorrowful brain cells with the salve of some funny stories.


The new house we are renting has a lawn, a side garden, and a tangle of ivy in the back yard.  My mom and a friend of hers came to help me get the side garden going, but I have been on my own to unwind the ivy tangle in the back yard.

Mind you, I cannot stand yard work or gardening of any kind.  I don’t like bending over to weed, I don’t like sweating and not being able to wipe my brow because my hands are filthy … I don’t like any of it.

But I had a little revelation the other day.

I started working in the back yard after taking my exercise walk, so I was already hot and sweaty.  I had decided to tear out a bunch of the ivy in order to create an eating space and a little pathway that leads from the back of one neighboring house to another.  I want to line the path and the eating area with bricks and to fill everything in with gravel.

It’s probably too ambitious, but it sounds like it could be a nice place for my girls to hang out with their friends, so I feel motivated to do it.

When I started to mercilessly tear out the ivy, my gardening shears made a funny noise, not at all like gardening shears should sound against the earth.  I suddenly felt like Dorothy when she’s going along the ground, looking for apples, and she suddenly comes across the feet of the Tin Man.

Turns out that my shears were tapping stone, not earth.  I pulled back some of the ivy to reveal a huge flagstone underneath.

All told, there were six flagstones, and together they made a tiny patio that had been buried under all the ivy.  The little patio was just where I had envisioned one.  I marveled at the fact that a previous renter had made a patio in the same spot I had picked and that some other renter or renters let it all grow over.

All of a sudden, I didn’t mind yard work all that much.  The next hour slipped by like watercolor, as I continued tapping my shears to find the edges of the flagstones.  I ripped up the slabs of dirt covered with ivy to and finally emerged dirty and covered with mosquito bites.

But I felt proud of my patio excavation and, after I swept the new patio, I looked proudly at the table and chairs I placed there.

For the first time in my 42 years, I had a glimmer of understanding about why people find solace in yard work.

Just a year ago

I just re-read the e-mail I sent to myself and to my husband the night before I had surgery for breast cancer.  My surgery was exactly a year ago tomorrow.

After writing and sending that e-mail, I remember sending it off and then going to bed.  In the morning I had to wake up quite early and take a shower with an anti-bacterial soap.  

I reported to the registration desk and said, “I submit myself to the care of the hospital.”  I had rehearsed this over and over in my mind.  It felt important to say this for some reason, but I had to practice it because  I was so frightened.  Maybe it was comforting to have an element of choice in the whole thing: I submit myself.

When I went into the surgery preparation area, one of the nurse assistants gave me a hospital gown and one of those poofy things to cover my head.  Even though I had chosen a clean bandanna to wear, I still had to take it off and wear the hospital cap.  I felt vulnerable and demeaned, being rolled through the hospital corridors with my bald head showing through the sheer poofy shower cap.  (They were taking me for a radioactive injection that would light the way to my sentinel lymph node to test just that one for cancer — it’s a technique they use to determine whether they’ll leave your lymph nodes in or take the rest out.)

When I got back to the surgery prep area, the nurse came in and asked whether I wanted anything.  I told her that I felt sad without my bandanna, and she promptly dug through my belongings and gave it to me, tossing aside the silly hospital hat.

She made me feel good.  Not too much that happened after that made me feel good, but that nurse really reached out to me and helped me so much.

I still can’t bring myself to write about the specifics of the surgery I had.  I am not sure why, but I just can’t.  There is a strong part of me that wants to, in order to help the community of women

who are going to have breast cancer surgery tomorrow and every day after that.  I think I will write about it in time.  

Here’s an excerpt of some of what I wrote exactly a year ago tonight:

“I’m actually not sure what else to write.  I am sad, but I know that I have cancer.  I keep trying to figure out a way to think myself out of it, but I can’t.  Ever since I got the diagnosis six months ago, I have been waiting to have the cancer cut out of my body, and so I look forward to the surgery because there is a significant part of me that is scared to death. … I will do everything I can to fight the cancer returning or from reforming itself into a new cancer.  I trust and believe that my body can heal and that it will heal and that it can and will fight cancer.  I also believe that my body needs some help from Western medicine and technology, and I’ll take that too and add it to the arsenal. … Mostly, I feel lucky to have life-saving surgery.  And that’s really the bottom line with all of this — I will have life-saving surgery tomorrow, and that’s really the most important thing.  

Everything else is just frosting.”

Now, it’s a year later, and my family and I are embarking on a completely new journey.  We’ve moved across the country in order to raise our darling girls near extended family.  Already we’ve had wonderful gatherings with family and old friends.  My girls run around outside in their little yard (we had an apartment before, and now we are renting a house) searching for worms, slugs, bunnies, bugs and birds.  They live a few houses away from their cousin, who is just a year older than they are, and they have already had lots of fun times with him.

I had a dear friend tell me recently that the anniversaries during this, my first year out of treatment, would be difficult.  She was right.  They are difficult.  But I’ve also had a chance to enjoy lots of frosting, and I’m so grateful.

Ahhh, Maine

Last year around this time, I was finishing up chemotherapy and trying to think of ways to explain to my children that soon, I’d be going to the hospital for surgery.  Practically everyone I knew was going on some sort of lovely vacation.  But we weren’t going anywhere, of course.

I tried not to feel sorry for myself.  I am well aware that there are many, many people everywhere who cannot afford food or housing, let alone a vacation.

Last year, though, struggling through cancer made me feel so far away from my family and old friends.  I adore my California friends, and ironically, their unyielding support and love made me realize just *how* far away I was from my East Coast folks, many of whom I have barely interacted with for 12 years.  

There was a specific moment one day last spring, when I was in the midst of chemo treatments — I looked out of the window of my apartment, and I saw the fire raging in the San Gabriel mountains above our town, not so close that I feared that we’d have to run for our lives, but certainly close enough where I feared for my asthmatic daughter.  

Watching those giant flames lick up over the ridge that separated the wilderness from civilization, I thought to my bald self: “I’m from Philadelphia.  I’m done with this.”  Luckily enough, it timed out so more info

that my husband was also ready to return to our roots, and here we are today — living on the East Coast.

One of the benefits of living on the East Coast is that we are closer to Maine, where my grandfather owns a cottage about halfway between Ellsworth and Bar Harbor.  I have been going there for nearly 40 years, since I was a very little girl.  My heart and soul grew up there, I’m quite sure, on the rocky beach below my grandparents’ house, where I was allowed to play for hours and hours, collecting rocks and sea glass.

At night, my sister and our summer friends would play poker for toothpicks, and we’d do a bunch of nothing, just as children should do in the summer.

I yearned desperately for Maine when I was undergoing chemo.  

After two weeks of crazed unpacking at our new home in Pennsylvania, we left to come up here to Maine for a dear friend’s wedding, and I have gotten to see my daughters romp on the beach as they collect treasures.  They met a couple of friends this morning and did a bunch of nothing with them, just as children should do in the summer.

It’s so good to be here, hanging out with old friends and watching my girls send out flexible tentacles to the beach, the wildflowers, the lobster buoys, the old farmhouses, the glorious sunset.