Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Shoddy Bop

Red-eye flight out of SF last night, delayed by two hours. Got into Dulles with enough time to change out of my jammies into work clothes and brush my teeth in the airport bathroom. Nearly got killed by a taxi driver who was more fascinated with his sparkly, beepy, new GPS system (fully equipped with a sultry woman narrator) than the concept of actually driving. Badly in need of a new taxi driver and a cup of coffee at that exact moment, but pulled through. Now status-post full work day at the National Cancer Institute. A little worn. But still giggling over the little laughable incident I had yesterday just hours before getting on the plane...

I noticed as I was packing that I was running low on my seaweed face wash, really the only product to which I am truly loyal. I’ll sell out for a cheaper mascara or a hand lotion on blue light special, but I stand by my seaweed face wash. Something about the algae in it has me convinced it’s got magical properties to successfully combat the occasional zit I’d otherwise get as well as the wrinkles that my looming 30’s threaten to bring. Could be voodoo. But it’s voodoo that leaves me feeling fresh, clean, footloose, zit- and wrinkle-free. (So there.)

So anyway, I went to the store that sells said magical seaweed concoction. A "little known" chain store that vends an assortment of creams, shampoos, lotions, glosses, blushes, rubs, polishes etc. in an assortment of unnatural and nauseating fruit and floral scented combinations. Why anyone would want to smell like a vanilla bean with a citrus twist is beyond me. (To attract ants?) Thus, for fear of coming out smelling like a fruit tart, I tend to keep my visits to this place short and sweet. Strategically planned: I had four minutes left on the parking meter when I walked into the place. Perfect.

Upon entrance to the pungent palace, I was immediately assaulted by the excruciatingly helpful store attendant with far too much make-up on. (Surely the management didn’t suggest that she attempt to advertise EVERY make-up product in the store all at once?!)

“Would you like to try a smidge of this new vanilla bean lotion…it’s got a new citrus twist?” Miss More-is-Better asked through a pair of vermillion lips painted outside of the lines.

No thanks, I nodded. I made a beeline for the back of the store, grabbed the product I wanted and headed for the cashier. Miss More-is-Better joined me.

“Will this be all for today?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“There aren’t any other products from this line you’d like to sample,” she smiled painfully and revealed a set of teeth that had tragically gotten lipsticked as well.

“No thanks, just this face wash. I really like it though.”

“Oh, I absolutely WORSHIP it,” she crooned. Then, with a sideways smile, a smarmy wink and in a new tone that suggested I’d completely relate, “but I tried to use this face wash, and, you know, since it’s for oily skin and all, it just TOTALLY dried me out.”

Wow. Way to sell a product, lady. (I mean, seriously, did she think I was buying this for one of my greasy friends?)

I’d already signed the receipt by then, so I simply said...

“Well, since I’m about as oily as a greased-up pig at a county fair, it works just splendidly for me!”

The vermillion lips fell back down into neutral position over the lipsticked teeth. And with my seaweed face wash for NORMAL to oily skin (I checked), I high-tailed it out of the pungent palace…you know, so as not to soil anything with all the slippery muck weeping from my pores.

* * *

Right. Now off to meet up with a friend from my high school days that I haven't seen in AGES.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Serendipitous windfall

I was awakened this morning by a fierce wind (this time not my brother's) that took to exploiting the fact that one of our bedroom’s window panes has a rude tendency to smack loudly against the frame whenever the wind tells it to. Ahh, but luckily, this is just enough of a rare occurrence for me to forget about it until the next time it wakes me up and scares the bejesus out of me. My palpitations have since subsided, now that I am assured that it was not a skilled burglar repelling off the roof and trying to kick his way in, or (perhaps only slightly less likely) a mack truck driving through our northeasterly window. Not a great way to wake up though, honestly.

However, my morning was brightened just now when I opened my email and received word from my dear friends at the DIRECTOR’S OFFICE OF THE REAL CAMPO FREE INTERNATIONAL PROMOTIONS PRICE AWARD IN MADRID, SPAIN. I thought I only had eccentric billionaire business partners in NIGERIA, but apparently there are more! Why my NEW and improved close affiliates in MADRID chose to write an introductory email to me in all caps seemed a sweet, intoxicating mystery…until I read a little further and realized that my LUCKY WINNING TICKET NUMBER (WL/104) was selected in GAME NUMBER 925-43-06. Then I realized the importance of the capital letters…I’ve just won 550,000,000 Euros, so they were just excited for me. (In case you didn’t know, ALL CAPS = EXCITEMENT!!!, except when it means anger, and then ALL CAPS = SCREAMING!!! But I’ve just won tons of money, so I’m sure my friends aren’t upset with me. They're just EXCITED. Or maybe EXCITEDLY SCREAMING!!!) Either way, great news. Certainly cheered me up after my rude awakening. And the winnings will definitely come in handy for my work trip to DC, leaving tonight. What impeccable luck I have!

Skipping off to start my lucky day with some tea and a shower…


Homeslice made it safely back to Boston yesterday. (The house has since been adequately aired out.)

Monday, November 27, 2006

my good fortune

“Be tactful; overlook not your own opportunity.”

A cryptic message. Little red type on a slender white sliver of paper. Along with my lucky numbers for the day: 7, 33, 15, 17, 3, 4. This is what I pulled out of my fortune cookie while out to lunch today with two of my coworkers. Seemed more like an enigmatic set of instructions than the faux enlightenment or vague prophecy that I was half-expecting and not at all hoping for. (So why do I open these? Particularly when I know that most of the fortunes come not from wise little Chinese philosophers but from little-known non-Chinese Californian authors? Because I like the cookie and I'll read whatever's in front of me. That's why.) But alas, as instructed, I will not overlook an opportunity to revel in my good fortune. This weekend was full of it…which is different from what my usual weekend is full of (which is another set of stories entirely)…

I am not accustomed to having four days off in a row. For a surgery resident, this would usually require that (1) I personally hemorrhage more than about 50% of my own blood volume due to a bodily injury that had better not end up being my fault (otherwise my coworkers might think I did it just for a few days off) OR, (2) ofcourse, (since residency directors are not completely devoid of human pathos) a death in the family, or (3) in my present case… “pertinent research pursuits.” I consider several consecutive days off in a row to be a treasure. So, needless to say, this past Thanksgiving holiday weekend was treasured. And will remain catalogued as such.

It provided for plenty of beautiful sunrises viewable from my very bed. Despite the fact that I’ve been away from my usual clinical schedule (5AM wake ups!) for months now, I still have a knack (at times, a somewhat annoying one) for waking up ridiculously early. Some might refer to these small hours as “the ungodly hours” of the morning…but after the sunrises I’ve seen this weekend, I’m not sure ungodly is the term I’d use. If God lives in the clouds, amongst the Carebears like I used to envision as a unicorn-loving 7 year old, I’m sure he’d want a few sunrises like the ones I witnessed this weekend. Tangerines and fuscias airbrushed onto a fluffy white canvas of clouds. Absolutely jaw-dropping lovely. And for now, I get to enjoy watching these evolve into a fully blossomed morning whenever I want to.

The weekend of good fortune also allowed for hours of down time with Homeslice and The Brit…hours spent watching movies, occupying small corners of curious little bars, and conversing over several rounds of drinks. Empty calories, yes. But good stories. Good fun. Lots of laughs…a particularly good laugh at the idea that Homeslice showed up to a Halloween party a few years back in a snorkel mask with little arm floaties identifying himself as Elian Gonzalez. Priceless.

Turkey leftovers got a bit overplayed by the end of the weekend, so we planned accordingly for Sunday night. To the microbrewery downtown for yet another round. Only this time with some tapas and a flamenco show to wash it down with. I love flamenco + my boys love beer = Happiness. Despite the belligerent fraternity boy, Fratty P. McFrattimus III, sitting to our right calling out “ANDALE ANDALE ARRIBA ARRIBA!!!” throughout the entire show and distracting the dancers with the flash photos he kept taking of himself, I’d say the evening was a smash hit. (Note to self, bring injectable paralytic agent with me for future obnoxious McFrattimuses.)

The long weekend also permitted me to aquaint myself with a few more of my brother’s neuroses/afflictions/talents (all depends on how one chooses to look at it). I’ve already made mention of this “joint problem” that he seems to have developed. Incidentally, in a similar vein (which, much to my dismay, is no less foul smelling or boisterous sounding), Homeslice has also managed to become a bit of a paranoid character: “Hey, do you hear that? I think someone’s following us?” [Insert scratch and sniff fart here.] He’s become a bit overly religious for my taste as well quoting the book of Genesis ad nauseum: “He smelled it, and smelled that it was good.” [Another fart here.] And he’s become increasingly aware of some of the more rare and exceptional bird calls: “Listen…can you hear that? I hear the call of the yellow bellied sap sucker…” [Yes. Another here.] (For the latter talent for bird calls, we must give credit where credit is due...dearest Daddio. He had a knack for such calls as well.) (In other words, the art of the fart, was an aquired and critically acclaimed skill in our childhood household. Bravo, Homeslice, for keeping the dream alive so creatively.) I think this still constitutes good fortune??

Hard to say. But whatever fortune it was that brought me this weekend...I'll keep it! (Though I may need a gas mask if Homeslice carries on this way!)

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Pass the Politeness, please?

The family thanksgiving dinner I’m used to involves a distinct measure of offensive joke-telling, laughing with mouths full and wide open, the unbuckling of belts at the dinner table, drunken monologues, insult contests (“Hey, harry nutsack, pass me the yucca con mojo will ya?” “Sure, sweaty undercarriage, mind passing the platanos when you’re done?) and, because there are usually frijoles negros on our tabletop, a belching and/or farting contest. The men end up passed out on the couch in front of the TV with their hands down their pants en el estilo de Homer Simpson while the women congregate in the kitchen to tend to the seemingly XX’s responsibility to clean up the mess. (That’s old fashioned latin culture at it’s best for ya!)

Throw in a divorce, allow to ripen a few years, invite a few non-latinos over (or 15 as was the case around our thanksgiving table this year for a ratio of 5:1 gringos:latinos) and poof, the culture of thanksgiving (and all other holidays for that matter) is changed! Strange. Curious. Provocative.

We all gathered around the three conference tables we’d lined up, shoved together and covered with green tablecloths (all in various stages of fading) to a menu that was all-American (with the exception of the Cuban Pernil a la Criolla that I couldn't resist making):

Yam Frits with Saffron aioli*
Baked Artichoke dip with Sourdough baguettes*
Tossed Green Salad
White Bean Salad*
Roasted Spiced Winter vegetables*
Green Bean Casserole
Sweet Potatoes baked with marshmallows
Cornbread rolls
Macaroni and Cheese
Mashed potatoes
Cranberry Sauce
Pernil (Roasted Pork)*

Pecan Pie (2 different ones)
Apple Pie
Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

*Cooked by me, and thus, of estimable taste and quality. Well, except for the artichoke dip...note to self, pick a different recipe next time.

The congregation was polite…chewed food remained behind courteously closed mouths, belts stayed buckled, jokes were overwhelmingly squeaky clean (certainly there was no mention of sweaty or harry anything), and Homeslice’s joint problem seemed to temporarily wane. Conversation centered around food, work, and weddings…Ms.Artsy and Banana (my two friends from college) both got married earlier this year (The Queen’s Own was actually Banana’s wedding photographer!) and, ofcourse, Daddio and Italiana are aiming to get married in May 07. At one point, Homeslice, who’d somehow managed to seat himself at the newlywed and about-to-wed end of the table looked like he needed a rescue. I was making conversation with Italiana, so I deployed The Queen’s Own (who, suffice it to say, among other things, has a “knack” for talking right through awkward silences…hence one of the reasons why he’s been deemed [by me] The Patron Saint of Thoughtfulness, Generosity, and Talking Too Much). Needless to say, he recovered the situation splendidly.

All in all, an extremely polite thanksgiving event. While I enjoyed that this new culture allows for some of the XY’s to help out in the cleaning duties, I must say, I kind of missed the drunken monologues and the dirty humor. But, as I rejoined The Brit and Homeslice with a new round of beers in our favorite dive bar yesterday, I was just in time to enter a conversation on the importance of trimming pubes (I believe the words “putting green” were used) and thought…ahhh yes, back to the status quo. Thank goodness!

Great SF weather on Thanksgiving Day.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

T-Day minus one

On this Eve of Thanksgiving, all things are falling into place for tomorrow…

The turkey quietly sits, chilling, in it’s cooler of a coffin…awaiting its final destiny: an olive oil and salt rub down, a cramming with sausage stuffing, and a really long sauna.

The pork has been marinating in onions, garlic, naranja agria, lemon, salt and pepper since Monday night. The contents of the entire refrigerator are now saturated with the aromas of the marinade. (Mmmm, blueberry yogurt with hints of garlic anyone?)

Immediately following our house dinner of delivered pizza and a variety of cabernets (one of which was my favorite Argentinean wine at the moment, the Crios Cabernet Savignon), Captain Organico and his mom commandeered the kitchen for the construction of pumpkin pies.

Rattie and Vinja have headed over to Rattie’s apartment after dinner to work on an apple pie and homemade macaroni and cheese.

Dochechka’s gleaming clean kitchen awaits its honorable duty.

Homeslice has been taking it easy this evening…turns out he’s developed a rather serious joint problem since I saw him last. He’s called upon my skills as a physician multiple times today alone…

“Hey, sis, my elbow is really bothering me…check this out, whenever I extend my elbow like this…”

He then demonstrates how, upon extension of his elbow, a rather mighty and thunderous wind seems to simultaneously erupt from his backside. A putrid smell immediately follows. He then chuckles, pleased with himself.

A little later… “Hey, sis, my knee’s been cramping up all day…check this out, whenever I flex my knee past 90 degrees, it’s inexplicable really, but…”

And the vicious, smelly cycle repeats itself. It’s a horrible affliction. As a general surgeon, I'm pretty useless to him...he really should get that checked out by a primary care physician.

The Queen’s Own has been collected from the airport this evening. Along with tales of gutting old moldy houses and roofing a new home, he comes back armed with horror-filled stories about the continued state of New Orleans post-Katrina…still much to be done there, he says. I am encouraged to hear that he was working alongside volunteers from all over the world. It never ceases to amaze me when people are giving of themselves. One of the many things to be thankful for, I suppose. It's good to have The Brit home again.

Daddio, Italiana, the rest of the Captain Organico’s friends and family, and two college friends of mine along with their husbands are all set to arrive tomorrow afternoon for what will surely be a gluttonous celebration.

I’m sure it will be lovely. (Fingers crossed!!!)

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Fun is...

Wine and cheese with Dochechka and Homeslice with a clear evening view of the Golden Gate Bridge through Dochechka's dining room window.

Stories of Doch's Peru trip.

Incan ceramic gifts and hand made fuzzy slippers.

Sillyness and giggles over dinner in a nearby quaint restaurant with an excrutiatingly uppity, albeit cute, waitress.

Simple. Sacred. Cherished.

Only one missing: The Brit. Home tomorrow from Louisianna.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Lower your windows, Homeslice is back in town!

I’m proud to say, I arrived early at the airport today to pick Homeslice up. (Actually, his landing was delayed half an hour due to the thick fog and I arrived about five minutes after his original arrival time…but if we’re talking net time here, I was 25 minutes early.) (Shut up. I’m never early. Just let me have this.) So I spent a good portion of my lunch break today parked in my car, listening to NPR, waiting. I caught the tail end of Neal Conan’s “Talk of the Nation” segment and learned something that truly shocked me. Fox Corporation announced today that it was canceling its plans to publish a book and run an interview with OJ Simpson. Both the book and the interview would have been entitled “If I did it,” the idea being that in both, he’d give a hypothetical account on how he might have murdered his wife and her boyfriend, you know…if he were going to have done it. [If I were in a movie, and I were drinking coffee, this is the part of the movie where I would have spit out my mouthful of coffee in disbelief. But I was neither starring in a movie or drinking coffee…so I settled for waving my arms around animatedly.] I’m not sure what shocked me more…the fact that this concept even got off the shooting blocks and into a well-developed plan or the fact that Fox Corp, a network that never seems to miss an opportunity to stoop to newer and lower levels of immorality [Exhibit A: the show “Who wants to marry a millionaire?”], actually canned the whole thing! The former is, to say the least, a rather ill-conceived idea…and the latter is frankly, just refreshing. Apparently, Fox was getting so much friction about the whole thing from smaller affiliate stations that were planning to not air the special that Fox actually responded appropriately! What a concept! It’s not too often that I say this without disdain, but “Bravo, Fox!” Just as I was about to start foaming at the mouth about the fact that some thought this was perfectly good news-worthy journalism and how this is just poor, forgotten OJ’s way of getting back out there in the limelight…my phone rang. Homeslice had arrived. Woo hoo! I said a small prayer that every other network and publishing house follow Fox’s lead and refuse to put this crap out into the world…then off I went to collect my brother.

We had a lovely lunch at a restaurant near the house…I chose the lasagna, he chose the duck leg. (It’s a rare occasion, but today, he chose more wisely.) We caught up on the family opera (latest news, Daddio’s elopement off now, wedding back on), his recent work trips to Germany and Switzerland (in which he mostly learned how to say “May I have another beer?” in three different dialects of German), my work (the astoundingly endless amount still to be done in cancer research). He had me laughing to the point of a headache over his story of how he got robbed while in Mallorca a few years back by a German couple with a toddler and infant in tow. Too much catching up to do and not quite a long enough lunch break. As I drove him up to the house to drop him off and head back to work, he skillfully and triumphantly deployed a bouquet of aromas (one of which was surely the recently consumed duck confit) from the lower end of his alimentary canal…I lowered the car windows and thought to myself…ahh, it’s good to have my brother back. (Wait a minute…I have to smell him for a whole week??)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Thanksgiving strategery

Turns out it takes a lot of strategery to plan a meal for 20 people. With the annual celebration of that-moment-in-time-when-the-
enough-to-enjoy-a-bountiful-feast-with-them fast approaching (aka Thanksgiving), and 20 people slated to be at our house for the gluttonous ingestion of ridiculous amounts of food (aka the “giving of thanks”), a little planning is required.

So, Captain Organico and I sat down last night to skillfully craft a plan. There are five roommates in this six bedroom house, four of whom will be giving thanks in conjunction with various members of their visiting family. The Queen's Own and I are serious about cooking…and Captain Organico is serious about organics (Exhibit A: see untouchable collection of assorted organic fruits and vegetables, one of which is kale, in his exclusive refrigerator drawer). [He’s also serious, I am learning, about Thanksgiving. Being all American, and all.] [The Queen's Own and I are British and Cuban, respectively, so we just want to eat.] So, as to prevent the cut-throat competition for the stove top and the oven (because I WILL jab ribs if anyone gets in the way of my roasting spiced winter squash and fennel), we had to plan, plan, plan. What developed was a complicated matrix with timetables and stick figures and codes and legends. Brilliant. [Cue angels singing.] Then we threw the matrix out. We realized that what we really needed was two more stoves, and neither one of us was going to make it to Sears before Thursday. SO, because Captain Organico’s life giver (mom, in from Texas) is willing to do the 25 lb turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes I surrendered the kitchen to the turkey crew and resolved to craft my Cuban pork roast and other assorted gourmet goodies in Dochecka’s kitchen. (She’ll be back from Peru on Tuesday…I’ll welcome her back with the news that I will be camping out in her kitchen cooking food she will not get to enjoy since she is working that day.) (Ehh, leftovers always taste better anyway.)

So, T-day, we are ready for you. Well, now I just have to go buy the ingredients and start marinating the pork. Then I’ll be ready. Well, almost. I don’t believe anyone is ready for what will ensue when you put Captain Organico’s conservative family in the same room with an opionated Cuban and published author of many editorials (my father), his fiancé (who my brother and I barely know) and a bunch of my liberal friends and roommates…with lots and lots of wine and food. This could be interesting. Verrrrrry interesting.


Word has indeed come that Dochechka is alive in well in the jungles of Peru. Mamichki, you can take a nap now.

And previously mentioned hypothetical email fiasco failed, to my surprise, to elicit a hypothetical shit storm. I am relieved. (Hypothetically.) Enjoyable Thanksgiving day encounter imminent. (Hopefully.)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Coño Carajo!

Why is it that Hispanic men feel so compelled to always name their first-born son after themselves? Why? For crying out loud, why? [yelp] [whimper] Machismo? Narcissism? Fear of assassination before the family name can be carried on any further? Whatever the reason, I say, it should cease! Really, now, it only leads to confusion. Like, say, mix ups in who gets who’s birthday cards, bills, porn magazines etc in the mail. Or who should answer when mother calls for said identically named person to come in from the playground for dinner. OR, worse yet…it leads to a sister sending an email intended for her brother to her father instead. (Just a hypothetical, ofcourse.)

Which leads me to another thing that really chaps my caudal end (which is big, so that’s a LOT of chapping)…the fact that once a message has been electronically sent, it cannot be unsent. The message, the words, the sarcasm that was intended to remain safely and privately between confidants gets put out there to echo dissonantly in the series of tubes that make up the internet. (Well, you know, hypothetically speaking.)

Dearest Brit, just so you know, there will be no sons named The Brit. (Sorry, but then again, you’re British anyway, so probably not afflicted with the ‘I-must-brand-my-son’ gene.) (Either way, just know it ain’t gonna happen.) ("Ethan" is a perfectly fine name for a first-born son, I say.)

Oh joy.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

science shmience

Only nerds and geeks would go to the Academy of Science museum on a Thursday night for a fundraising event involving margaritas, electronica and Humuhumunukunukukuapua'a. So, ofcourse Vinja, Rattie and I went. (Naturally, to make fun of all the aforementioned nerds and geeks.) (Which we did.) (But considering that between the three of us, there are two engineers and a doctor, we weren't exactly ruining our street cred by being there.) Oh, and by the way, Humuhumunukunukukuapua'a is a fish that sounds like a pig. Useless piece of trivia. But if Jeopardy calls, we'll be ready.

I must say, with a margarita on an empty stomach and electronica thumping just loud enough to vibrate the dinosaur eggs on makes for a fun (nerdy) evening. I would argue that one hasn't lived until they've spent a slightly intoxicated evening in a dimly lit museum/aquarium/petting zoo turned club. Seahorses are cute in any circumstance, but a margarita and some base certainly help oinking fish make a LOT more sense!

I wasn't kidding. (Damned oinkers wouldn't pose for a pic.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Peru, Disasters, Relief and Such

With Dochechka gallivanting around Peru on vacation without me (that heartless ho!) and the Queen’s Own gone to Louisianna to do a week’s worth of Hurricane Katrina relief work with Habitat (have I mentioned I’m dating a saint?), I am left to fend for myself with the latest family opera. Well, not really, I DO have three other roommates and my brother IS coming in from Boston on Monday. (But we’re splitting hairs here, aren’t we?)

Just when I could use a laugh, I got a call from Mamichki this evening. My Russian Jewish mother. (After a threshold number of friendship years with Dochechka, Mamichki and the rest of the family have deemed me “Russian-by-proxy.”) (Oh, and also, “Jewish-by-Proxy”…good thing, too, Lord knows I could stand to throw another religion into the mix.) Anyway, I knew why she was calling. I could just imagine her bunkered up in her apartment, wringing her hands, checking her email every five minutes. Still no word from Dochechka.

“Have you heard from Dochechka?????” she blurted. THEN she said hi. (I wish the accent translated into written form. It’s my favorite.)

“Not since Monday…but I’m sure she’s doing fine.”

“I have not heard from her in four days and she said she was a gonna email me but she hasn’t and I worry for her hip because it is painful when she walks and (breath) she was gonna write but nothing so you haven’t heard from her since Monday, well, if you hear from her, anything, you will call me?”

I always love that…the demand with a question mark on the end. Suggests that I have a choice. But I have no more choice in how I should answer than I did when I was 13 and my Cuban mom would ask me questions like: “You’re not smoking cigarettes or skipping school or anything like that, ARE YOU???” No, mom. And yes, Mamichki, ofcourse I will call when I’ve heard from Dochechka.

I chuckle to myself as I swear by my first born child that I’ll call her.

[Doch, write soon. If you don’t, our Jewish mother will start calling me Q5 min.]

As I got off the phone, just for kicks, I went into my archived voice mails and listened to perhaps my most favorite message I’ve ever gotten. Ever. Mamichki’s message to me on my 29th birthday this past June…

“Hi Dochichki. (Dochechka and Dochichki both, aside from being my nic names for my best friend, mean “daughter.”) This is your Mamichki. [Loud giggles from Dochecka in the background.] Happy birthday to you!! I…wish you…all...everyting what ya wanna. Best tings in da world! I kiss you…many, many, MANY times!! [kiss] [kiss] [kiss] [kiss]"

I love my Russian family.

On an entirely separate note, the view from the house today was not too shabby.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Holy Crap!!!

I think Poltergeist-inspired nightmares single-handedly destroyed two things for me when I was seven: sound sleep and clowns. I still think clowns are just downright creepy because of that movie. But I think I’ve just seen the adult equivalent of the scariest movie ever. Jesus Camp. Seriously frightening. It’s a documentary about Evangelical preacher Becky Fisher’s summer camp for kids. I think I spent the entirety of the movie with my jaw dropped…in utter disbelief. One of the summer camp kids was quoted as saying that he was born again at age five “because he just wanted more from life.” WTF?? Most disturbing thing about it all: it’s real. Fisher really does preach to children, children that have been guided in by their evangelical parents, that Satan is after them, that this way (and only this way…which is her way) is the only right answer, that they need to wage a war with all of those who are not believers. (She somehow also managed to include the sidenote that if Harry Potter had been around in the Old Testament, he would have been put to death!) Within seconds of starting her sermon, she has six and seven year old children with hands stretched towards heaven, bawling, repenting their sins, and speaking in tongues. My jaw is still open. It makes me think of the bumper sticker I once saw: “Dear God, save me from your followers.” Makes me want to go out and smack one on my bumper, actually!

The only problem…I consider myself to be a spiritual person. I find myself at Grace sitting amongst the Episcopalians with a certain degree of regularity…not just because it’s a beautiful church (medieval with lots of arches and stained glass, replicas of the Ghiberti doors out front) but because it’s accepting, liberal, controversial. The sermons are given not just by Episcopalians, but by people from numerous other faiths. Weekly forums are held on topics, religious and non-religious, like gay marriage, stem cell research, the state of Islam today. And the main guy, Rev. Alan Jones…I think the reason he appeals to me is because his sermons address real life…he asks questions about what it means to be human and flawed…quotes the likely and even the most unlikely characters (like Winnie the Pooh, Adolf Hitler, Pablo Neruda)…assures me that it’s ok to have questions about faith. Thank goodness for that!

Questions…I’ve got plenty of them. The religious ping pong I was made to play as a child probably didn’t help much. My Catholic mom resorted to follow my Baptist preacher of a father into his brother’s church…until I was 7. That’s when my parents separated. My brother and I were thrust into the Catholic church after years of Baptist Sunday school and I went through the very confusing ritual of taking first communion. I liked it at the time because I got to wear a pretty white dress. But I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I was used to my uncle or my father passionately screaming scripture from the pulpit, and here, people were whispering quietly and politely, taking wafers into their mouths, holding hands. And why the hell was Mary here all of a sudden? I thought this was about Jesus!? That’s ok though…turns out I didn’t need to understand it…my parents got back together. No more wafers, white dresses, or Mary. No sooner had I taken my first communion with the Catholics, I was taken back to the Baptists and submerged in a “cleansing” pool of water. My uncle baptized me. (And he held me under the water for a little too long, if you ask me.) We stuck with the Baptists for a while…and then the military took us to the predominantly Roman Catholic country of Panama. I went to a few of the masses with my high school boyfriend. I didn’t understand it any more than I did when I was seven. So I quit religion altogether. I went away to college and my parents tried out a “nondenominational” church for a while. Not for me. None of it seemed for me. Especially since it all seemed like a load of piping hot crap anyway…particularly when my uncle, the very preacher who baptized me, divorced his wife, his child and his church for a life full of the very sin he screamed from the pulpit about. Hopefully, God is as forgiving as my uncle used to say he is.

Now, as a scientist, I find religion a particularly befuddling question. I have no answers. Only questions. When I think of the complexity of this world and where faith might fit into all the starving, sinning, and suffering that goes on in us and around us…the last thing I think is that a child should be made to grasp it all. I can’t even grasp it for myself…I hardly think the kids in Fisher’s Jesus Camp can either. That much I know.

For now, Grace appeases to the confused child in me…the one standing out on the corner wondering whether to go into the First Baptist church, Second Presbyterian church, or the Third Whatever church of Whomever. Appeases me because if it’s ok for Rev. Jones to quote a communist within the church’s medieval walls, then there’s room for me and my questions too…

Keeping quiet
By Pablo Neruda

Now, we will count to twelve
And we will all keep still for once on the face of the earth
Let’s not speak in any language
Let’s stop for a second and not move our arms so much
It would be an exotic moment
Without rush, without engines,
We would all be together.
We would all be together in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea would not harm whales.
And the man gathering salt would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
Wars with gas,
Wars with fire,
Victories with no survivors,
Would put on clean clothes and walk about with their brothers in the shade doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about.
If we were not so single minded about keeping our lives moving,
And for once could do nothing,
Perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness
Of never understanding ourselves
And of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
As when everything seems to be dead in winter
And later proves to be alive
Now, I’ll count up to twelve
And you keep quiet
And I will go.

Thursday, November 9, 2006

A shiny almost-new liver…

...someone got one last night. A forty-
something year old liver. From a forty-
something year old man who collapsed inexplicably at home. He was rushed to an area hospital, but the point of irreversible damage had been reached. He’d ruptured an aneurysm in one of the blood vessels of his brain. He was pronounced brain dead by two independent neurologists. His family came to a consensus, one that I’m sure was difficult, to donate his organs.

This is where I come in. About four times a month, I take a 24 hour shift of call for a group of transplant surgeons…I basically carry my pager around in anticipation of a call from one of the surgeons who needs an assisting surgeon to help “procure” organs should a donor come up. Two sets of hands are needed to procure livers, kidneys and pancreases. So I am the second set of hands, the assisting surgeon. I take these calls for a number of reasons. One. The two-year research hiatus from my surgery residency that I started in July doesn’t include the usual hustle and bustle of hours on end in the operating room. It involves lots of reading, lots of “researching,” lots of data collection, lots of writing, and only some interaction with patients (to the extent that I need to recruit them into clinical trials). But no operating. So as not to get OR-sick (like homesickness…well...kinda) I decided to do this work with the transplant surgeons. Two. It’s extra pay. If there is anything that most people don’t know about medical education…it’s that it’s expensive. I’m in more debt than I care to acknowledge. And if there’s anything that most people don’t know about surgical residency, it’s that it doesn’t pay well. So the extra money helps. Three. It’s interesting. I do not aspire to be a transplant surgeon when I grow up to be a full on, board certified, grade A beef surgeon. (Why, is a whole other story.) However, the idea that organs can be removed from one person and placed into another is something that will never cease to amaze me. Four. It holds a near and dear place in my heart. The Brit’s sister and father both died untimely deaths and both were organ donors. This all happened well before I started dating The Brit, and yet, I feel like they are among us, in the living, in a way. Strange, perhaps. And yet, strangely true.

It’s a bizarrely sublime thing, transplant surgery. Sublime because it gives people a second chance…diabetics with such horrifically far gone disease that their kidneys have failed, recovering alcoholics whose livers have been exhausted, countless others with countless other diseases. Second chances. A beautiful concept. And yet bizarre…because it’s incredibly morbid. Survival of one relies upon the death of another. It’s the juxtaposition of loss and gain, bad luck and good luck, death and life, sadness and overwhelming joy. It forces the collision of two worlds (that of the donor and the recipient) that would have likely otherwise never intercepted.

Actually, it forces the collision of a lot more than just two worlds. One donor tends to provide organs to multiple recipients. And the production that’s involved before the “match” involves a whole cast of behind-the-scenes individuals. On the donor side, there’s the physician who calls the transplant network who sends out the transplant coordinator. Often perceived as the “vultures” that hover around the “almost dead” in our ICU’s, these people often get the hard end of the deal. They’re just doing their job, but to the friends and family members of the potential donor it’s appalling what they’re asking…imagine your brother’s just been hit by a car and 24 hours later he’s pronounced brain dead and some person you’ve never met quietly approaches you with a card asking you to consider giving away his body parts. You can see how one might think that person an insensitive, intrusive vulture. But time, as the potential recipient knows, is of the essence. For the family of the donor, it’s never a good time. For the recipient, there’s never a better a time. On the recipient side there’s the physicians and nurses and social workers providing care for that person until they are transplanted, IF they are lucky enough to get transplanted. That brings us to the list, and all the people that go into making the list of who deserves which organ and how urgently. Toughy. Glad that’s not my job. I just show up when the powers that be have found that the blood types and body types (size does matter) between unfortunate person A and fortunate person deserving of second chance B are compatible. I show up at the hospital and there is a van waiting to take me and the other surgeon to whichever hospital the donor is located. If the donor is close, we drive. If not, we fly. We travel with all that we need…our special surgical instruments and catheters, the “coolers” in which we plan to bring each organ back, cold preservation fluid. It’s a big production.

Now for the operation. The procurement of the organs. The “harvest” as some casually refer to it (though, truthfully, that sounds a bit too agricultural for me). As the donor was wheeled into the OR last night, I took a good look, as I always do, at my patient. Looking past the tangle of life-sustaining IV’s, catheters, and endotracheal tube, I saw an otherwise normal looking 40-something year old man. But, poor guy, he wasn’t normal. Heart beating. Lungs oxygenating his blood, ventilating off the carbon dioxide (with the help of the ventilator). Kidneys making urine, which was spilling out of a catheter into a collection bag. But no “life.” Not a whiff of sedating drugs in his system and he was completely nonresponsive. Pupils fixed, dilated. No motor responses. No reflexes. No independent respiratory drive. For as many times as I’ve assisted in a procurement, the bizarreness of operating on a “patient” like this never seems to pale for me. To me, a “patient” is a person who I’m treating in some way, caring for, helping, healing. (Isn’t that what we all go into medicine to do? “Help” people?) Big picture, sure, we’re helping someone, probably many someones, with his organs. But zoom in on the picture, in that OR last night, and we were hardly “treating” this 40 something year old guy. Nothing, except maybe a time traveling machine, could help him now. And perhaps that’s how we justify removing his organs. And remove them we did. Patient prepped and draped, Dr. HG and I stood down by the abdomen while two heart surgeons, who’d flown in from Washington State, stood up by the chest. They made their incision first, down the middle of the chest, and we connected the top of our midline abdominal incision with the bottom of their sternal incision. Sternum sawed open. Retractors in. And there…full visibility of all that is normally tucked away under skin and bone. It’s anatomy more beautiful than DaVinci was ever able to capture in all of his pencil drawings. The reasons I became a surgeon are many, but anatomy is certainly up there. The heart surgeons went about their business of getting ready to take the heart, while we went about the business of taking the liver and kidneys. Lots of careful dissection. Identification of important structures. Catheters into the aorta and the inferior mesenteric vein. Clamp. Clamp. Preservation fluid is run through the catheters to flush the liver and kidneys out (numerous reasons for the preservation fluid, one of which is to remove the blood which would clot). Liver out. Kidneys out. Each into their own little basin with icy preservation fluid. Dr. HG steps away from the operating table to a separate back table where he readies the organs for their respective destinations. I am left with the patient, who by now is heartless, liverless and kidneyless. All monitors are off. The anesthesiologist is gone. It is an eerily silent moment in the operation. And I still have work to do. In the bothersome quiet, I dissect out the iliac arteries and veins (they are used as “extensions” for when the liver is sewn into the recipient, as sometimes, the vessels going into and out of the donated liver aren’t quite long enough). The vessels go in their own container of preservation fluid. And then, with two long sutures, I close the incision. Drapes off. Except for the incision, the slight concavity in his abdomen, and the silent monitors, not much looked different. But it was. Much different.

When I got home last night, I looked up the American Heritage Dictionary definition of patient:

pa·tient n. 1. One who receives medical attention, care, or treatment. 2. Linguistics. A noun or noun phrase identifying one that is acted upon or undergoes an action. Also called goal. 3. Archaic. One who suffers.

Our donor did suffer an untimely death. A ruptured cerebral artery aneurysm…death was his unfortunate fate, with or without his organs. Perhaps his family will suffer less knowing that he helped so many. I hope so. Now begins the afterlife.

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

the language of grief... universal. I discovered this today as I sat in a sun drenched pew of a flower filled Jewish Memorial Chapel this morning and listened to a service for a friend's father done partly in Russian and partly in Hebrew. My Spanish and my English were completely useless to me, and yet I could feel the grief in the foreign words. In the tone. In the tears. No translation necessary.

My best friend, Dochechka, is a Russian, naturally, in the years that I've known her, I've gotten to know her troop of friends. One of our mutual friends' father collapsed at one of his friend's dinner party this weekend...he passed away right then and there, in front of his wife, in front of his friends. He had a cardiac history...had a procedure done (either a bypass operation or an angioplasty) years before. And then, this past Friday, had a repeat cardiac catheterization to make sure the arteries in his heart were holding up. He was told he was fine, that all looked well. The next day, he died. A devastating and dramatic loss.

One of the many things I've come to appreciate in my life and in my work, one thing that was highlighted today especially, is that, for all of our they differences in age, language, culture, religion, sex, sexual preference, socioeconomic status, geographic location...we are truly all the same. In the matters of love and loss, the language is no different. It's a small detail. But a huge detail. The kind of detail that if more people payed attention to, the world might be a bit different.

Rev. Alan Jones, at Grace Cathedral one particular Sunday, quoted Ernest Hemingway's statement that "Life breaks all of us but some people grow at the broken places." It struck me as a good way to digest and work through the pain of loss in this life. Grow at the broken places. It will take time, but I think my dear friend and her family, will eventually.

Thursday, November 2, 2006

working from home...

...before July, this was quite a foreign concept to me. Working from home is not one of the usual perks of a profession in surgery; to the contrary, I'm accustomed to spending around 80 hours a week IN the hospital. Operating is one of those things that you simply need to practice...and aside from the dicing and filleting I do in my kitchen, there isn't a whole lot of operating that goes on at my house. But, since July, I've been on my research hiatus...a 2 year stint I've inserted in between the 3rd and 4th clinical years of my 5 year residency. Yes, it will bring the sum total years of training to 7 years, but it's worth it. Worth it because the breast cancer research is interesting, meaningful and worthwhile. And worth it because the 40 hour work week gives me a bit more time to read, get to know my old friend Sleep, chew my food more thoroughly, see my friends and family, and rediscover the hobbies that I used to do more often...before I became a surgery resident.

So today. I woke up and, from my bed (where The Brit had left to go to work over an hour before), looked out of the huge window and saw white where the city usually is. The view of SF from every north- facing window in our rented house on the hilltop, on a clear day, is absolutely spectacular. The brand of spectacular that inserts a sort of refreshing pause into whatever kind of day I'm having...everytime I look at it, day or night. The fog has its way with our view, though...and it certainly has its moods. Thin. Thick. High. Low. Hovering. Lifting. Blowing. Lingering. This morning it was thick. And wet. The perfect kind of day to work from home.

So, a few long luxurious snoozes later...I put my cozy pink robe on, brewed my favorite black current tea, selected Sigur Ros as the soundtrack for my day (perfect rainy day mood music), and went about the business of getting to work. Read several articles on the pathologic assessment of breast cancers after preoperative chemotherapy...Rajan et al, Ongston et al, Carey et al. Ate english muffin. Made progress on a manuscript I've been working on. More tea. Stretched legs. Folded laundry. Worked on a short presentation for a data meeting tomorrow. Daydreamed a bit...mostly about what kind of dance I'd choreograph to this one particularly good Sigur Ros song that was playing. Fog lifted. City revealed. Down the hill for some grocery shopping with Vinja (roomie who also happened to be working from home today). Home again. Chatted with Vinja over a lunch of macaroni and cheese (good rainy day comfort food). Emailed and IM'd a bit. Back to the manuscript.

All in all, very productive...for a day spent working from home. A new favorite simple pleasure of mine.