Sunday, August 28, 2011

Beth and Judy's Excellent Adventure

We hit the highs and the lows (in terms of elevation), we happened upon a new culinary obsession and we spent as much time on the water as I could manage during Beth and Judy’s visit to San Francisco. Also, they get now why I committed post-season treason last year, forsaking the Cardinals to become a Giants fan, and they know why I want to run away and join a circus.

Our first stop was the top of Twin Peaks, two adjacent hilltops with an elevation of about 920 feet that provides a panoramic view of all the magic here. Twin Peaks is in the center of the city, just above my apartment. (You can see my house from there!) We didn’t walk up – though many people do, all the time. I’m working on that, a couple of blocks at a time.

Our first boat trip was a cruise of San Francisco Bay on the Red and White Fleet, which takes you out under the majestic Golden Gate Bridge and back, circling Alcatraz on the way. Last time I did this, with Cheri, we got wet from the spray because we were on a small fishing boat. This trip was far more sedate, which keeps you dry  -- but does limit the fun factor.

Another day, we boarded the Duck, an amphibious vehicle driven by a big-hearted, wild and crazy guy who sports a Mohawk and wears a fake beard in homage to Brian Wilson, the Giants’ legendary closer. It’s fun to rock out to the music the driver plays on the ride through town and to watch people on the street break out in smiles and even dance moves, but the best part is when the Duck heads into the water and takes you out to McCovey Cove. That’s where all those people sit in kayaks or on party boats during ball games, hoping for a splash homer. Passengers get to drive the Duck in the cove, and that’s fun, too.

Other bodies of water we visited include the serene Bolinas Lagoon, an 1100-acre tidal estuary that reflects the sky. Just as Judy and Beth were lulled by the beauty of the lagoon, I told them what lies directly below the water: The San Andreas Fault. Then it was north to Tomales Bay, a 15-mile-long inlet (see photo above) with gorgeous views. Small restaurants featuring oysters and al fresco dining dot the road, while hawks and turkey vultures wheel overhead. Beautiful!

We rejected oysters and opted instead for open-face grilled cheese sandwiches made at the Cowgirl Creamery. These heavenly cheese toasties, as they are called, start with a thick slice of hearty bread, toasted and then topped with maple mustard, caramelized onions and the company’s Cabot Clothbound Cheddar cheese. A quick trip under the broiler and voila – a mouth-watering sandwich that haunts your dreams for days to come.

We first tried toasties at the Sidekick, the Cowgirl Creamery’s restaurant counter at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. There, the clerk was willing to top the toastie with pancetta. In Point Reyes Station, where we ordered our second round of toasties, pancetta was not permitted. Yesterday, after a ferry ride to an art festival (sea glass jewelry, colorful Polish pottery, fine metal work, intriguing etchings, excellent photography and a glass of sparkling wine with Emmeline Craig at her booth) in Tiburon, I actually ordered yet another toastie. I ate half and then, simply stuffed, handed the box with the second slice to a homeless guy across the street. He was thrilled.

Other great meals here included upscale Mexican at Colibri just off Union Square (we just said no to the $10 caipirinhas), coffee and scrumptious peanut butter cookies at Café Reverie in Cole Valley, a Le Sol pizza from Bambino’s and homemade lasagna and spinach salad at my house prior to a Scrabble game in real time, which now seems harder than playing on Facebook.

We did just a bit of shopping – fine art at Emmeline Craig’s studio in Bolinas, dried pears and a whale tail tee-shirt at Toby’s in Point Reyes Station, tie-dye socks at the Haight Street Sock Shop in Haight-Ashbury, new Keens for Judy at the Sports Basement near the Presidio and new boots for Judy at the Merrell store in Union Square. A few blocks from Pier 39, we popped in at the Musee Mechanique, which houses more than 300 player pianos, mechanical animations and novelty slot machines. That was magical on a small scale.

“Maestro’s Enchantment,” the current show at Teatro ZinZanni, was magical on a much grander scale – plus, Susan joined us for the evening. ZinZanni is a bit Cirque du Soleil, a bit cabaret, a bit comedy club and a gourmet five-course meal, which all adds up to a wondrous theatrical evening. The headliner right now is Yevgeniy Voronin, a world-class illusionist who I saw at the show in 2003, when Joan Baez played Madame ZinZanni. Maybe Voronin recognized me as a groupie, maybe not, but this time he came to our table, kissed my hand and slipped me a little note.

Relax -- it was not a personal note, or even an invitation to join the troupe, though 15 minutes into the show, I had already decided I want to work there. I’ll keep you posted.         

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Heading for 90

“Clear a place in the sand for me where I can hide my head.”

That’s from a poem I started during disturbing times several years ago. I never added to that first line, as it seemed to say it all. Now that I have decided not to go for genetic counseling to learn whether I have a gene identified with a higher risk of breast cancer, I thought at first that the line from my poem may apply.

Some background: I have had breast cancer twice, in 1995 and in 2009. I’m the first in my family. We have always specialized in other insidious diseases, but not breast cancer. Anyway, I’m fine now and “heading for 90,” as my kind-hearted surgeon advised me almost two years ago.

A week ago, I interviewed a doctor for a freelance article on Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, which is in September. He works where my St. Louis doctors work, and I asked him if he knew them. He did. I said that these fine individuals had cared for me both times I had breast cancer. This doctor, a geneticist and gynecologic surgeon, then told me that with a history of two primary breast cancers, one when I was 47, I meet the national criteria for genetic counseling and possible screening to see if I carry genes associated with breast cancer.

Last Monday, I made an appointment for genetic counseling. You supply your full health history and that of your family, and at the appointment, the counselor helps you decide whether to schedule the $3,000 blood test that tells you about your genetic makeup. Depending on your level of risk, insurance may pay for the test.

Next I contacted my doctors in St. Louis, who said they doubt I have the gene. I contacted my oncologist in San Francisco, who said she doubts that I have the gene -- but apologized for not informing me about the option of genetic counseling and screening, as I do indeed meet the criteria.

Next came a couple of days floundering in the waters of uncertainty.

Intellectually, I was intrigued with the idea of genetic screening. After all, knowledge is power. Emotionally, I was already viewing the counseling appointment as a black cloud in my future. What if the counselor recommended screening? What if the screening showed I have the gene? What would I do with that information? What would the information mean for my future?

When you have experienced the elemental fear that a cancer diagnosis brings, you tend to get anxious about anything associated with it, including the annual mammogram and routine follow-up visits with the oncologist. That deep-seated anxiety, always at hand, sometimes spills over into other areas of life, so you have to be vigilant about not walking on eggs. Life is more fun when you break all the eggs and whip up some French toast, omelets or a quiche with bacon and onions.

I pondered what genetic screening might mean to me, to my son and his wife, to future generations. I talked to friends, including other cancer survivors. I read Dr. Bruce Lipton’s “The Biology of Belief,” a book about epigenetics, which is the study of genetic changes caused by environment, rather than DNA. I considered the odds of having to hear what could be soul-sapping information.

Then I remembered: I don’t do odds.

When I co-authored “Chemotherapy & Radiation for Dummies” and when I gave speeches all over St. Louis every year for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I always quoted Han Solo. In the first “Star Wars” movie, at one point Han Solo is trying to maneuver the dilapidated X-wing fighter through a field of asteroids. Ever helpful, C3PO starts to rattle off the odds of the plane making it through the field.

Han Solo turns to the droid and yells, “Don’t tell me the odds! NEVER tell me the odds!”

In this very blog, two years ago when I was trying to sell the condo and move to San Francisco, I wrote: “I do not have fulfilling relationships with numbers, especially scary numbers, so why learn them? If you learn them, won’t they just flit around in your brain and drive you crazy?”

In defense of numbers, I like knowing that 76 percent of Baby Boomers worry about money and that one in four seniors struggles with poverty -- so says the AARP. That means when I fret about money, I’m behaving normally for my generation. Worrying about numbers related to cancer risk is something altogether different.

No matter what a genetic screening test may show, I am aware every day that I have already had breast cancer twice. I also am aware that a woman who is 65 today has a 50-50 chance of living to 85. And I know that worrying about money causes stress and that stress sets up a bad environment for genes -- and that could prompt disease. Do I really need to know anything more?

As I stood at the bus stop on my hill late last week, I was blasted with chilly 25-mph winds from the ocean, which is just three miles from my apartment. “Blow away the worry,” I yelled at the wind. (Odd behavior is not just tolerated in San Francisco. It’s standard.) I added, “Blow away the worry and the fear and the obsession with all numbers!”

Friday night, I decided to cancel the appointment for genetic counseling. I also decided I will not accept any more writing assignments that deal with cancer. This morning, I realized that these decisions have nothing to do with hiding my head in the sand.

This is all about heading for 90.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Power Out, Spanish On

When the power went out suddenly today, I quickly shut down my computer, where I was in the middle of writing a newspaper article. I called my upstairs neighbor to ask about his service, got the number for PG&E from him, called and reported the outage and let everyone in the building know the time estimate for restored power.

Then I put on underwear and shoes. Was I expecting the building to be evacuated? I don’t know. It just seemed like a good idea to get out of my pajamas (my usual work ensemble) and look better.

Once properly attired, I decided to dust, in preparation for a small dinner party here on Thursday. Usually, I dust at night. I call it Dusting in the Dark, and it works. In spite of the power outage, it is not at all dark in the apartment – the sun is shining and my huge wall of windows allows in plenty of light. I could only hope I would dust as efficiently as I do in the dark.

So I dusted. I emptied the dishwasher. I cleaned the kitchen counters. I rounded up trash. I did not try to clean the glass shelves in the bathroom, because there is no window in that room and even I do not dust in total darkness.

Now the apartment looks swell and I would like to get back to work, but without power, the desktop is dead. Thank goodness for the laptop! I can at least (at last) put together a blog entry, which at least two regular readers have been clamoring for.

What have you been doing, they asked. Working. Playing.

And learning Spanish on the bus.

I love the Muni bus system here. I can go anywhere, have a great time and be dropped off at my door a few hours later. Traveling by bus does take time, especially on three-bus trips, but so what? One trip, even a trip calling for three buses or streetcars or trolleys or subways, costs $2. I will not have to park when I get where I am going, and I will not lose the sweet parking spot I have for my car. Oh, I do drive -- from time to time. Six weeks ago, I spent $36 on gas, and I still don’t need to fill up.

Besides, I am learning Spanish on the bus.

(A quick digression here – when I saw the sign reading “pozole” at my favorite neighborhood restaurant, I didn’t need any translation. When I had surgery almost two years ago, my friend Diane Duke Williams made pozole (aka posole) for me and ever since, it has been my favorite soup. The restaurant does a great job at it (and Diane, alas, is far away) so I have informed the Hispanic chef that I would dine on pozole every day if it were on the menu that often.)

Anyway, most of the signs on the buses are in several languages, so the English translation is readily at hand. One familiar sign dictates that the front seats be vacated for seniors and people with disabilities. “It’s the law,” reads the sign.

 That’s “Es ley” in Spanish.

I was on a bus (not in a front seat, as plenty of older people were on the bus that day) when I saw my favorite sign. The sign is in the window of a large discount clothing store that closed some time ago. “Show your style,” reads the sign. Underneath, it is translated into Spanish: “Anuncia tu estilo!”

That’s even more fun in Spanish than in English.

Anuncia tu estilo!

That ought to be a ley.