Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Silent Night

All is calm. All is bright. (Though there isn’t a single round yon virgin in sight. Or even a virgin, for that matter.) As I sit in the post-Christmas quiet, the ringing in my ears is just beginning to fade.

Everyone is sleeping. Which means no one is screaming. In the morning, the silence will surrender to the screaming all over again.

Within five minutes of the arrival of my family, I was reminded that the Cuban baseline volume level is several decibels (and octaves) above the Gringo baseline volume that I have apparently grown accustomed to. The Cuban volume dial doesn’t stop at 10. Seriously.

It’s a remarkable phenomenon, really. Whether someone wants to watch a movie and needs to know where the remote control is, or whether someone’s just accidentally chopped their forearm off in the kitchen while preparing dinner, it all sounds the same. It’s enough to maintain a persistent state of tachycardia.

But I love it. This is my family. Locos que son. They are mine. It’s been a good Christmas. Cardiac arrhythmia provoking, but good.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Cada cinco minutos...

Every five minutes, Abuelito needs something...



“AGUA?” Water.





Mamacusa looks at me, nerves frayed.
Then screams back at him, “Que Papi?”

“NADA…solamente para decirte que no te necesito en este momento!” Nothing, just wanted to tell you that I don’t need you at this exact moment!

If he weren't 81, she might have bitch slapped him. Instead we just giggled.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas crack

“Oye, Culona, check out my back, I think there’s a cyst or something back there I need your opinion on.” My Abuelito, El Exagerado, stood before me, fresh out of the shower, smelling like a rose. (Literally. He used my favorite rose soap.) He was wearing a long t-shirt and, one would assume, some underwear. “Mira, chica!” he insisted as he turned his back to me to facilitate the examination.

I leaned down and lifted up the bottom of his shirt. Nothing but bare, 81-year-old ass crack staring back at me.

El Exagerado, pleased with himself, erupted into a hearty laugh.

Sheesh. What an amateur my grandfather is! If it were my brother that’d done that, he would have topped it off with a fart to my face.

That’s right, the family is here for the holidays. Let the merry making begin!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Tis the season... be jolly. Except, given the subject of the last two posts, one would well know I was headed for anything but jolly. I was doing quite well in the sad department. And for the first time in my life, checking a bit into the bah humbug department. If I’d heard another Bing Crosby song about roasting chestnuts…surely there would have been a roast. But not of chestnuts.

So the last place I thought I’d willingly find myself yesterday morning was amongst the throngs of frantic holiday shoppers in Union Square…with Bing Crosby’s roasting chestnuts wafting out from every storefront.
But, I did, indeed go. Willingly. Happily, actually. (So needless to say, noone’s chestnuts got roasted, and noone got elbowed or sworn at, even. Bravo, me.) Since I last wrote, contact information for my family in Cuba has materialized, so having my friend deliver a package to them while down there for her vacation is suddenly a realistic goal again. And money is going to be a very big part of that. Hence needing to go to the branch of my bank in Union Square, the only one with an international currency exchange.

Money, medications, pictures of all of us together during my July visit, and some nice chocolates went into a little Christmas package…and my dear friend graciously took it from me midday yesterday.

I am jolly at the prospect of that making it to them.

So jolly that I think I’ll refrain from leaving the “ñ” out of the word “Año” in my Christmas greetings to a few choice assholes that I obligatorily send cards to every year. Instead I shall write it properly…

Feliz Navidad y Feliz Año Nuevo a todos.*

* 'Año' without the ñ = 'Ano.' And 'Ano' means 'anus,' or, as I like to more appropriately put it: 'asshole.' But in the spirit of Christmas, I’ll be nice even to them. (Again, bravo me.)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

To Cuba with love...(part 2)

I signaled to Dochechka and The Brit to join me inside Tia’s house. Then, without waiting for them, I stepped into the darkness behind her door. My eyes readjusted and I saw that there were two others just inside: Prima, my Tia’s niece (my Mamacusa’s cousin) and Prima’s husband, El Barrigon. We all congregated, awkwardly, in the center of the house’s front room, which was slowly registering on my retinas. Aged marble tiled floor with several missing tiles. Dingy walls. Antique, formerly beautiful furniture curiously pushed off to one cramped corner. Piles of 2 X 4’s in an opposite corner. Dust that evidenced a room never used except to simply enter and exit. I couldn’t figure out why, and it must have been written on my face as El Barrigon pointed up and began to explain. The ceiling had given way one day, and the contents of the room upstairs, complete with neighbor and all, had fallen through. That event took place about a decade prior. Suffice it to say, the use of their front room ceased then and there.

We were invited to pass through into the “livable” part of the house. Just beyond the front room, the harsh midday sun poured in from the centrally located patio and exposed the rest of the house. The layout was typical of a Spanish-style home: high ceilings, crown moldings, multiple rooms, all of which connected to the central patio. In it’s day, it must have been beautiful. But the years had cracked the moldings, browned the walls, warped and shifted the floor, aged the furniture, chipped the porcelain figurines and apparently, collapsed the ceilings. Whatever space was not otherwise occupied with a Virgin Mary statue or a cross was filled, instead, with pictures and trivial trinkets…odes and shrines to a better time. The time before the revolution. Everything here in Cuba seemed to be referenced with a “before” or “after.” And anything from the time of before was framed, hung up on the wall, and cherished.

We passed through Tia’s room to Prima’s room to the dining room where a young man, about my age, sat. Prima and El Barrigon’s son: El Curioso. He looked at me with an unexpected recognition, immediately stood up and hugged me politely. I started to explain who I was and he nodded, saying, “Si, si…la hija de Mamacusa!” He knew who I was. From pictures. There were piles of them. He led me to the stacks of photos on the worn dining room table, in the drawers of the tired china cabinet, on the shelves of the overflowing bookshelves. There, chronicled in those photos, was the American chapter of our family’s story…for those of us who “got out” before it became impossible to leave. They’d been here all along, within the walls of this aging, collapsing house, bearing witness from afar to my first steps, my childhood ballet recitals, my awful fluffy-haired high school days, my med school graduation. My moments had been their moments. They knew me. They knew my aunts and uncles and their children, my cousins. It was just too overwhelming to take in all at once.

Frankly, the entire visit was an onslaught of overwhelming. Just moments prior, on the other side of door, these people were just characters in my grandfather’s
tales. Characters whose lives, admittedly, I knew little to nothing about. What I learned that day over hours of talking, laughing, crying…truly changed my world. Changed my identity.

I sat down opposite my Tia, who beamed back at me with
a smile that was uncannily familiar, and we stayed up til nearly 2 am disturbing everyone’s sleep with our chatter. She wanted to know about everyone. So I filled her in. The weddings, the kids, the achievements. The death of her sister three years prior. I’d been the one to explain to my grandmother her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. I’d been there when she decided to go home to die rather than stay in the hospital. She’d spent her last days in her own bed, surrounded by family, blissfully in and out of the delirium of renal failure. She’d slipped away painlessly. Tia was comforted to learn this. She hadn’t been permitted to leave the country to go to her sister’s funeral.

Before El Curioso had turned in for the night, he’d chimed in with a stream of questions about the world and the US.
What are the states like? Is there really a difference in culture between the east and the west coasts. What do we think of our president? Does everyone love Madonna as much as they did here? Funny, the People magazine that Dochechka had purchased for the plane ride had a few pictures of Madonna. We brought it out and handed it to him. Wide-eyed, he gleefully accepted it and spent the next few hours studying the pages and then studying them again.

They don’t get People magazine in Cuba. Among a few other things. Things like: The internet. Consistent power and water. Beef. Chicken. Toilet paper. Ownership of their house. Rights to form associations or accumulate wealth. (Whether one is a doctor or a gas station attendant, the monthly salary is the same: the equivalent of $20.) The privilege to stay in any of the country’s hotels. (Not that they have the financial means to stay in one anyway.) Free speech. A choice in whether or not to swallow the force-fed propaganda. (There is no avoiding it, as if it isn’t on one of the three television stations, it’s printed on the cover of the sole newspaper, or broadcast on one of the two radio stations.) A way to leave the island other than to marry a non-American foreigner or take to the water.

Viva el socialismo! With its free education…if one wants to call history as written by Fidel “education.” Free health care…if one wants to call no access to basic medications and treatments “health care.” Rationed food…if one wants to call the mealy bread and the abysmally limited ration of beans, rice, and vegetables “food.”

This is life in Cuba. Why anyone, if given the chance to escape, would come back to this voluntarily is beyond me. And yet that is exactly what Tia did. In the early 90’s, she’d been given a rare traveler’s visa to see her sister in Florida. She stayed for 6 weeks. Soaked in the liberty. Fattened herself on the seemingly endless amount of fresh food. Talked shit about Fidel in more than just a whisper without looking over her shoulder. Laughed because there were things that were actually funny, not because things were so miserable that she would cry if she didn’t find something to laugh about. It was all there, documented in the stack of pictures. Why didn’t she just stay? Claim political asylum like all the rest? Why on earth did she come back? When I asked her this she looked at me square in the face with a resolution I recognized. Then, with her wiry, malnutritioned finger, she quietly pointed to Prima, who now laid fast asleep on her sagging mattress next to El Barrigon. Then she pointed to El Curioso, also sleeping. Familia.

I looked at her frail, cachectic frame, at the fire behind those sunken eyes, and in the night time silence of her cramped and crumbling house on this prison of an island, I saw her for the angel that she is.

Or rather.
The angel that she was. In this life.

When I first started writing this yesterday, I thought it was going to be a story with a som
ewhat happy ending. A fellow surgical resident and good friend of mine had just decided to go to Cuba for vacation at the end of this month and she’d graciously asked me if I wanted her to hand carry the package I’d been trying to send to Tia since I’d returned. I’d tried first, in my ignorance, to mail the package (laden with laxatives and vitamins for Tia, anti-inflammatory pain medication for Prima’s arthritis, pictures from our visit, a few new shirts for El Curioso, and money [hidden within a double layered envelope that I convincingly hand crafted to try and evade the Cuban government inspectors that would invariably search the package]) from the US. I learned that sending anything other than books was not allowed. Then I tried from Mexico. The post office advised against it at the time because for some reason, all mail sent to Cuba recently was being returned. Then I tried from Canada. It left without a hitch from the post office…only to return a week later with a notice of having violated the 2kg maximum weight restriction for packages. Finally! The package would make it. And now that it was going by hand, I could include more money. And maybe even a few silly, trivial Christmas presents.

But this evening, I received word, through neighbors with a phone who called Tia’s only living sibling in the states, my grandmother’s brother, that Tia passed away this morning. It’s unclear the cause.
But one thing that is clear is that the government has wasted no time in reclaiming the home that had been assigned to Tia for her use. A house that Tia has lived in for decades. Now that she is no longer breathing within its walls, it belongs once again to the government and Prima, El Barrigon, and El Curioso need to vacate the house. Th
rough our weak and inconsistent lines of communication, I’ve learned they plan to go to Havana. But where in Havana? Now I’ll have no way of knowing how to get anything to them.

In all of my adult life, I’ve never known a pain like that of having to leave Tia and the rest of them in that house this past July with little more than a stack of money and a People magazine.
It wasn’t even a comfort to know that the money amounted to half a year’s salary for one of them. I wanted so badly to bring them back with me. To pack their starved bodies into our suitcases and stow them on our plane. But instead, I had to hug them goodbye, which I did tearfully and repeatedly, and get back into the rental car to leave. Truly the hardest thing I’ve ever had to talk myself into doing. Truly the most pain I’ve ever felt.

This is no less painful.

My only comfort is the idea that for one of them, things are better now.
My angel Tia deserves it.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

To Cuba with love...(part 1)

When I think of my seventy-seven year old great aunt, my Tia, I picture the smallness of her life and feel, with unwavering certainty, that she has been cheated. A woman with a spirit as large as hers shouldn’t have been caged as she has been. The confines of her existence have been determined not so much by any bodily pain her untreated gallstones, incisional hernia, or her fractured hip ever caused her but more by the simple fact of her geographical location.

Cuba. Before July, all I knew of it was what years of my grandfather’s seemingly bloated, biased and impassioned stories had deposited in the recesses of my mind. It was a place of opulence and unimaginable beauty, where movie stars from the world over would vacation, where the best cigars on earth were made, and where my entire family is from. Once upon a time. Now, as of 1959, it was a place decaying from the inside out thanks to one individual: Fidel. No matter how my grandfather’s stories about Cuba start out, they always end with that simple conclusion.

I decided I had to see it for myself. So, in July, The Brit, Dochechka and I went. Cuba, a mere 90 miles south of Florida….and yet, ideologically and politically, worlds and ages apart. Communism and an embargo have widened the divide from 90 miles to an infinite expanse of shark-filled waters. I felt somewhat guilty flying in…knowing that I’d be able to just fly right back out…and leave when I’d had enough. Leave, as my mom, dad, aunts, uncles, and grandparents did in the early sixties. But I felt that it was important for me to see the stories in real life.

I was surprised to discover for myself that my grandfather, the great exaggerator, had not exaggerated. It was beautiful. If one looked past the collapsing Spanish colonial architecture, the peeling paint, the filth, the beggars…one could imagine unparalleled beauty. Long ago. But now, indeed, it was decaying. Decaying as anything would if left for decades without a single day of maintenance. And that was just Havana.

In Matanzas, on first impression, it seemed slightly better. As we roamed the numbered, nameless streets for Tirrey entre Calle San Juan Bautista and Calle San Francisco (the street names my mother had given me), I felt hopeful that maybe my Tia’s house wasn’t in as bad a shape as some of the Havana homes. Also, I grew increasingly and somewhat nervously hopeful that she wouldn’t mind an unannounced visit from an American relative who she’d never met before. She didn’t have a phone. So there was no way to inform her of our visit beforehand.

After finally encountering a gentleman old enough to remember the names of the streets before they were numbered, I found her door. One unremarkable door in a line of many tall, narrow doors…all with peeling paint and tired knockers. I raised my hand to knock and paused, heart in throat, suddenly confronted with the idea that I was connected with the stranger on the other side of the door. It was a surreal feeling. And it seated itself in my churning stomach. I looked behind me to my right at the government bakery just at the corner and realized everyone inside was looking at me. A pasty white girl with a newly acquired sunburn, clearly not from around here, about to knock on la viejita’s door. I turned my back to them and knocked, sheepishly. No answer. I looked back at The Brit and Dochechka, both waiting in the rental car, and shrugged nervously. I knocked again. Nothing. A little harder. Still nothing. The nervous churning in my stomach gave way to disappointment. I couldn’t believe I’d come all this way and she wasn’t home...

I stepped over to her neighbor’s door, which was propped open and knocked there. A shirtless, weathered old man appeared from behind a sagging wall and looked at me quizzically. I pointed in the direction of my Tia’s house and asked, in Spanish, if she did, in fact, live there and if he knew where she might be right now.

He looked at me and asked, “Familia?” I nodded yes.

He smiled, “Americana?” Yes. We exchanged smiles as he told me that la viejita (the old lady) was home, but that she was very hard of hearing, so I just needed to knock harder.

And so I did. I put all my effort into it. And waited. I looked over at her neighbor who waited outside his door, reassuring me that she’d come. Just give her time. Minutes went by. Then, finally, I heard a weak voice from behind the door, “Quien es?” Who is it, she asked.

“La hija de Mamacusa.” The daughter of Mamacusa, I said into the crack of the door.

The door slowly opened, and for a moment, all I saw was darkness. I heard her voice say, comically, “Bueno, quien en el carajo es Mamacusa?” Well, who the fuck is Mamacusa? Yep, with a mouth like that, she was definitely family.

Then she stepped into the sunlight. I was immediately taken aback. For a moment, it was as if my late grandmother had stepped out from behind the door. A skinnier, more fragile looking version of my grandmother, but a striking resemblance nonetheless.

I fumbled, as I stared at her with a growing lump in my throat, for the words to describe that my mother is her dead sister’s daughter, “Mamacusa es la hija de tu hermana.”

She looked at me more closely, curiously, then connected the dots of relation a second later. Tears. Hugs. Smiles and exclamations of disbelief. And an insistent invitation to come inside

(to be continued…)

Monday, December 18, 2006

Gluttony and Charity

Like Ebony and Ivory. Who knew they could go together so well?

Despite the Muppet show at the airport on Saturday, I did manage to make it back to SF in time for the Dessert and Wine Party that The Brit, our roommates, and I hosted at our house. (Or should I say…I made it back to SF in time to be the maid of honor in that wedding…wink, wink.) I even had time to throw together my famous Cuban flan (for…errr…the wedding reception of course)! A fabulous time was had by all. Hoards of people came to partake of the desserts that The Brit crafted over the course of the week (his dessert-making skill is one of the reasons I date him…he had me when he made Winter-Spiced Molten Chocolate Cakes two years ago). [See below for list of desserts and links to their recipes.] Also, I am happy to report, this year’s party did not go without the holiday tradition of at least ONE couple banging each other senseless in our Christmas-candle lit guest bathroom while a bunch of “innocent bystanders” waiting for the bathroom stood less-than-discretely by the door to listen. Yes. A good time was had by all indeed.

What’s more, we started a new holiday tradition: collecting “suggested donations” at the door for a charity. This year’s charity, Habitat for Humanity. With all the people that came, most of whom gave happily (some of whom we had to beat senseless and then feed mercilessly), we managed to raise $723.00. We like our friends. I think Habitat will like them too. Good job all!

Dont’cha wish your boyfriend cooked HOT like this…

Chocolate Caramel Walnut Torte
Frozen Grand Marnier Torte
Poached Pear Tart with Caramelized Pistachios
Toffee Crunch Caramel Cheesecake
Orange Blossom Cheesecake with Raspberry & Pomegranate Sauce
Raspberry, White Chocolate & Almond Trifle
Pistachio Crème Brulee with Sour Cherry Sauce
Strawberry Baked Alaska
Spiced Chocolate Torte wrapped with Chocolate Ribbons
Chocolate Peppermint Ice Cream Cake
Cuban Flan (If I told you the secret recipe, I’d be forced to destroy you.)

Saturday, December 16, 2006

On airport etiquette...

I believe airports, particularly the ticketing counter personnel, can turn otherwise normal, sane individuals into crazed, maniacal, screaming lunatics on a serial killing rampage. I’d go so far as to say that I think they just might be able to dishevel the bow tie of even the most obsessive compulsive, anal and piously well-mannered oncologist at the Breast Cancer Symposium I just attended. And a disheveled bow tie, for someone with OCD, is arguably worse than serial killing. (As long as the killing is done neatly and in multiples of three.) I’m happy to say, though, that I stopped short of doing anything that would deserve life in prison this morning at the ticketing counter. I understand that while airport personnel have control over many things (like which atrocious shade of blue eye shadow they wear or whether you’ll actually be flying anywhere on the day you expect to), I can also appreciate that there are things that are outside their control (like the weather in Salt Lake City or, apparently, the degree and authenticity of their politeness). For this reason, I always try my best to remain polite even when the airport staff “has no choice” but to be impolite to me. But the shit storm...oh the shit storm from the other equally frustrated passengers this morning! My eyes have not witnessed a flinging of feces like that since my last trip to the monkey exhibit at the city zoo which, incidentally, was a very long time ago. Unfortunately, much of it was well deserved, as the display of rudeness on the part of the airport personnel was nothing short of astounding.

For the sake of propriety, and because I’m just a good girl, I don’t care to disclose the name of the airline by which I was mis-handled this morning. (But just to give you a hint, it’s name starts with a “D” and ends with an “elta.”) I arrived an hour and a half early for my flight back to SF through Salt Lake City…a flight I picked specifically to make it back with ample time to help The Brit out with the last minute details of the holiday dessert and wine party we’re hosting tonight. As a side note, this is the third annual holiday dessert party we’ve hosted, and like last year, 100+ people have RSVP’d to come. The Brit and I usually spend the evenings of the week preceding the party in the kitchen together making ten different gourmet desserts. This year, The Brit had to fly it solo in la cocina due to this last minute trip I had to take for work…something that weighed heavily on my mind as I took my place in line to wait for a self check-in monitor.

My turn came up and I approached the monitor. Despite all my efforts, my flight number kept coming up as “nonexistent.” Wait a cotton-pickin’ minute….I checked my itinerary just to be sure. Yup. I had the right flight number. Hmm. I flagged down an attendant behind the counter, who rolled his eyes at the burden of having to take the three steps needed to reposition his corpulent self closer to my monitor. (In retrospect, the first sign that things would go badly wrong.) I explained the situation to him and asked politely if he knew why I couldn’t retrieve my ticket info on the self check-in monitor. He asked what my flight number was. I repeated it for him. Then he smiled smugly at me (you know the smile…the closed-mouth grin while the eyes are closed) and said, in a tone one might use with a kindergartener, “That’s because your flight to Salt Lake has been canceled. Go get into that line over there.”

And that’s how I became person #35 in line to speak to a ticket counter person for a new ticket…just in time to witness person #2 in line self-destruct into a hysterical, babbling buffoon. She’d apparently just missed her flight due to waiting too long in the line….and everyone was gonna hear about it if it was up to her. (And, apparently, she’d decided it was up to her.) Oh jeez. This didn’t look promising. I inched forward in line for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, after several close encounters with hurdling logs of feces from the growing line of unruly wanna-be passengers behind me, I got to the front. I stepped forward and explained my situation. I got another smug smile from the She-Devil behind the counter (seriously, does this airline pull these people aside and train them how to perform this?) who then told me that what I really needed to do was go get in line behind another 30 people to use a TELEPHONE to call an airline agent to rebook a flight. This was quickly turning into a moron-run circus. What was the friggin’ point of my waiting all this time in this line?

“You’re kidding right?” I asked her, genuinely confused. “Isn’t that what you do here at the counter? Book tickets?”

Smug smile. “Most of the time, yes. However, today, we’re asking that those who were booked on the Salt Lake flight that was canceled call the direct line to speak to a ticketing agent.” She started to look behind me, as if to call the next person in line.

“Well, Pam,” I said, after a cursory, but deliberate, glance at her name pin, “most of the time I don’t mind waiting in three different lines in one morning. But today, I’m going to draw the line at two, and ask that you find me a new flight to SF.” I smiled smugly back at her. Closed eye for a closed eye. (Mine without blue eye shadow, though.)

She-Devil threw daggers at me with her now opened eyes. She paused, opened her mouth as if to say something. Then closed it. Then hesitantly began tapping away at the keyboard. She produced a flight to the east coast that would connect to a flight to SF, getting me in just in time for my morning coffee tomorrow. The anger started to erode the epithelial lining of my stomach. Making it to my party was starting to look like a bleak possibility. She looked at me apathetically and began to nod, about to explain that this was all she had available…and in this moment, I summoned the teenager within me. The teenager who, primed by years of probing questions from a mother with a Hispanic brand of motherly curiosity, developed an imagination that inspired some world-class lying. (I have since outgrown the need to lie. My mother is still “curious”, but adulthood has equipped me with new methods for dealing with her questions. Honesty. But surely I could be permitted one little fib today…)

“I’m the maid of honor in a wedding tonight in SF. I need to get there before 5 pm. So, that flight won’t do…I guess you’ll just need to look for flights on a different airline.” My, how easily we fall back into old habits!

She-Devil sighed while nodding and smiling smugly, only momentarily unlocking her gaze from the computer screen to perform the fleeting closed-eyed grin. (She was really quite talented, in retrospect! Such swift multi-tasking!!) After many calls and lots of typing, she found a flight through another airline that would get me back into SF at 3pm.

And that’s how I ended up being person #45 in line at a different airline’s ticket counter…

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

On airport security...

It’s a well-known fact, now, that as airline passengers, we are no longer permitted to bring our liquid explosives in our carry-on luggage. Well, I suppose this isn’t entirely true. Now we just need to be economical about it. We’re allowed to bring liquids, as long as their quantities do not exceed 3 ounces and as long as they all fit into a clear, quart-sized Ziploc baggy. I kept this in mind this morning as I assumed my place in the security line at the airport. The militant She-man guarding the x-ray machine barked at us to have our baggies out for inspection. So I complied by putting my face wash along with my entire makeup case into the Ziploc bag. She-man eyed my Ziploc. Dissatisfied with the contents, she unzipped the baggy and probed into my makeup case.

“What’s liquid in here?” she growled. In my sleepy haze, one that She-man only somewhat successfully snapped me out of, I still had the good sense to see that her mustache was due for a bleaching.

Too tired to care about the physical properties of my make-up (as it was 6 AM), I pointed only to the foundation.

"Um, NO!!" she retorted. She then proceeded to inform me, with scientific certainty, that I was mistaken. In fact, my mascara is liquid as well. Touché! She did, indeed, have me on that one. Oh, mascara, how you deceive me with your viscous properties!!

She then proceeded to investigate my face wash, which, admittedly, was in a 4.3 ounce squeeze tube.

"Um, Mam, this is more than 3 ounces. I'm going to have to confiscate this."

"But the tube is clearly more than half empty." Her mustache was starting to bug me now. (Note to self, schedule flights later in the day so as to have the resilience to deal with mustached She-men.)

"Sorry Mam," she was clutching my sacred face wash.

"Mam," I mimicked her tone, snatching the tube from her She-man hands. Then I did a Vana White demonstration for her, "There is quite clearly less than three ounces in this 4.3 ounce container. I'd like to keep my face wash."

We then proceeded to have a back and forth battle of a conversation, the maturity level of which was reminiscent of the tennis match fights my brother and I used to have when I was 6 and he was 4. "Mom, Homeslice hit me!" "No I didn't!" "Yes he did!" "No I didn't!" "Yes he did!" "No I didn't!" "Yes he did!" "No..."

Mom usually resolved those with a smack. One for me. One for Homeslice. This match, over the face wash, was resoved by the He-man head security guy. I wish he would have smacked She-man. No such luck. He did, however, plainly see that there was less than 3 ounces in my 4.3 ounce container. So, I got to bring my face wash with me. I resisted sticking my tongue out at She-man as I glided through security and settled, instead, for a barely audible "Nana nana boo boo!!"

As I boarded the plane to San Antonio, Texas, a last-minute impulse trip my boss orchestrated to send me to the annual Breast Cancer Symposium, I reached into my purse to hunt for my ticket (to confirm my seat number). I realized then that I'd forgotten to include my lip gloss in the plastic baggy for She-man's interrogation.

Lucky for her (and all of my fellow passengers), I decided to use the sparkly, rosey-hued, papaya-flavored liquid for good rather than evil.

No sooner had I snuggled into my "spacious" economy class seat and successfully wrangled my laptop bag under the seat in front of me (not an easy task), I looked up and saw Steve Young. A bit random! Perhaps only slightly more unexpected than that, he was looking straight at me.

He paused for effect. In fact, he stood there in all of his you-know-you-recognize-me-because-I-am-none-other-than-the-great- Steve-Young glory for a moment too long. (In my humble opinion.) When he decided the moment had sufficiently marinated in the stale, stuffy, artificially scented air of the economy class cabin, he asked, "Would you mind trading seats with me and my son?" He pointed to his circa-5-year-old son and continued on, indicating the emergency exit row seats behind me, "He's not old enough to sit in the exit row. If you wouldn't mind, of course. There's more leg room!"

"Oh, of course!" I said as I stood up to achieve my intimidating 5 foot, one-and-three-quarters-inch presence. "I often find that with my stature, I do need that extra leg room."

He smirked the smirk he probably routinely smirks for his autographed promo photos and then proceeded to watch me struggle to unwrangle my bag from under the seat in front of me. (Not any easier coming out than it was going in.)

So, I sat down in the exit row, Steve Young and his son sat in the row in front of me, and Steve's go-to guy sat next to me. The "excitement" of having a "super" star on our plane might have diminished somewhat over the course of the trip if Steve's sidekick next to me didn't have his head so far up Steve's ass the entire flight. He seriously spent the entire duration of the flight perched excessively forward in his as to achieve maximum closeness to Steve, I imagine. My attempts to nap were repeatedly interrupted by continual exclammations of Steve's brilliance and ingenuity. "YES, Steve! SUPER! Oh, Steve, that's a FANTASTIC idea! Gee whiz, STEVE, what would we EVER do without you?? May I wash your feet for you?? Perhaps hand-feed you your cheese nips while I fan you with peacock feathers??? Accompany you to the bathroom and wipe your bum with my nose?"

After about half an hour of this guy's ass-kissing, I started contemplating exactly how I might use my sparkly, rosey-hued, papaya-flavored lip gloss for evil rather than good.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Battle of the Baby vs. Cell Phone

This morning we had our weekly Tumor Board meeting, a multidisciplinary get together where we gather to discuss difficult and challenging cases. Or, simply put, it's a chance for all of the great, academic minds of radiation oncology, hematology oncology, pathology, and surgical oncology to spout and pontificate, some more self-righteously than others, on how to deal with the unfortunate 45 year old woman who has two different histologic types of breast cancer in opposite quadrants of the same breast. What to do? Two separate lumpectomies with radiation? Or Mastectomy? Over the course of each meeting, I usually learn a thing (or five)...and in the very least, I ALWAYS enjoy watching the battle of the minds. It’s not unlike watching a WWF wrestling match…only in place of the greased-up, steroid-fortified body builders, picture the wrestlers as pasty, white, bifocaled, bow-tied nerds with massive egos. Great fun.

So today started out like any other Tumor Board…Medical Doctors, Surgeons, Nurse Practitioners, Social Workers, Statisticians, Pathologists, Radiologists, Medical Students, Residents. We all filed in. To minimize the distractions, everyone traditionally turns their pagers and cell phones to vibrate as they cross the threshold. Today was seemingly no different. That is, until Baby came in…perched on the hip of his mom, one of the nurses that works in the office.

Now, let me just say…I’m not a huge fan of babies in meetings. Ok. I’m not a small fan of them either. It’s not that I’m anti-baby, but, in a meeting such as this, it’s just not appropriate. They tend to coo and gurgle (or worse, scream and cry). And if they don’t do that themselves, they tend to illicit coos and gurgles (and goobie goobie yummy wummy shmoopie poopie noises) from all the XX’s in the room. Either way, they’re a distraction. And, frankly, Mom is usually so preoccupied with making sure Baby is sufficiently entertained in the all-adult meeting to glean anything from or contribute anything meaningful to the meeting. (Though, I do believe Mommies have bionic auditory capabilities that may counterbalance the distraction of having Baby with them. Being currently equipped with a womb that is being hormonally maintained in a state that is unsuitable for baby growing, aka being on birth control pills and thus NOT presently a Mommy, I cannot comment on the bionic mommy ears.) (And, for the record, I do understand that things happen…babysitters cancel, or babysitters get stuck in traffic, or babysitters get eaten by the dog. I get it. So we roll with the punches.)

So, enter Mom with Baby. To Baby’s credit, he seemed perfectly pacified by his pacifier and, frankly, was sitting more quietly than most of the adults in the room. Just when things settled down and the meeting began, Mom shifted in her seat and, in doing so, accidentally pressed what was likely the belly button of some soft wooly baby toy stored within her baby bag. A muffled nursery rhyme tune poured into the room from within the bag. Mom was mortified. But the damage was done. The toy just needed to play out its song. About 15 seconds into the nursery rhyme, meeting going on unimpeded, Dr. Snooty McProperPants (one of the particularly self-righteous MD’s in the room) leaned over to the already embarrassed mom and, without even the slightest effort to cover up her feigned attempt to look unsmug, said “Is there something playing? Could you make it stop?"

Mom shrugged helplessly. Dr. Snooty McProperPants peered condescendingly down over her designer glasses at the annoying child and his musical baby bag. The nursery rhyme ended seconds later. Baby remained seated, oblivious, content, and quiet on Mom’s lap. Meanwhile, at the front of the room, two docs were verbally duking it out over the fact that there isn’t sufficient data to support recommending a treatment that is not currently standard of care for the woman with two different breast cancers in the same breast…

Then all of a sudden, and I love this part, a shrill and meeting-interrupting cell phone ringtone erupts from the embarrasingly expensive bag of none other than Dr. Snooty McProperPants. Let’s overlook the fact that it was a bad, tinkly, dissonant version of Bach (one that I hardly think he’d approve of) and just bask in the sweet, sweet ironic glory of the fact that it was disturbingly loud. Louder than the baby. Louder than the baby toy. Dr. McProperPants scrambled to find her phone. Twenty long seconds later, she found it. And ANSWERED IT…and proceeded to have a not-so-hushed, but entirely snooty and quite-the-opposite-of-proper conversation, apparently with her lunch date, on where to meet for lunch.

Mom peered over the top of Baby’s head at Dr. Snooty McProperPants. I just wish she would have said “Could you make it stop?”

I believe we should chalk one up for the baby?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

spoiled rotten

This morning's sunrise from our bedroom window...

...taken by The Brit (after I nudged him to get up and take a look at the bloody sky!)

Friday, December 8, 2006

me and my juicy caboosy

It was only a matter of time ‘til I wrote about it…the one thing about my corporeal self that I wish I could change. Some would wish for clearer skin, a straighter nose, bigger boobs, fewer wrinkles… Me? I’m a simple girl. I’d just settle for a slightly smaller bum. (Without having to give up cheese, though.)

Let’s talk about the birth of the Culona* Complex.

My first memory of my hinie being of any sort of interest to anyone was at the ripe age seven. Ballet class in upstate NY. My instructor would circle around the studio with a long stick. One day she gingerly smacked my behind with it and said, “Tuck it in!” Huh? I already was tucking! Further tucking while attempting to stand straight would require flexing my knees. I so desperately wanted to be a ballerina, though, that I tried it. The attempt was rewarded with a stick to the knees. What was a girl to do? [Insert ominous, foreshadowing lightning strike and thunder clap here. The complex begins.] I talked to Mamacusa about it. She sighed in understanding and said, “Ahh, yes. Your culo.** It was the hardest thing to push out in labor.” Thanks Mama. Culona Complex Defining Moments 1 & 2.

Next up: High School. Hormones + the utter importance of other peoples’ opinions + a clear ignorance of the fact that tweezers even exist (seriously, my eye brows were OUT of control) = the petri dish in which a healthy culture of teenage insecurity grows. Even for the most confident of individuals. And particularly when one has a father that says things like: “We should take some of that ass of yours and put it where your tits are supposed to be.” I know I’ve quoted him on that one before, but it’s a statement that still echoes through time to disturb me even in my adult life (particularly when I’m trying on jeans with little to no spandex, otherwise known as: the bane of my existence). CCDM 3.

My family has called me "La Culona" for as long as I can remember. (Though, to their credit, when I got my MD, it became "La Doctora Culona.") CCDM’s 4 – 50.

College. In between o-chem and biochem and physiology for my major in Biology, I was taking enough ballet, jazz and modern to fulfill a minor in Dance. So picture me, a 20-year-old culona, in a leotard, in ballet class. Then picture my 200-year-old ballet instructor who, upon commanding everyone in class to make a ¾ turn, looked at me through her cataracts and said, “…except for you, dear. We wouldn’t want the audience to have to see that derrière of yours, now would we?” CCDM 51.

Med school left little time for dating, but on occasion, I got out there. I used to date, do, hang out with an artist who, from time to time, would draw me. It was funny to watch his eyes go back and forth from me to the paper. I could always tell when he got to my butt. He’d let out a heavy sigh and mumble, just barely audibly, “…the impossible curve.” CCDM 52.

Since then? I’ve heard it all:

“Damn, girl!! You built like a sista!”

“That could take all night!” (That one from my brother, in reply to my sarcastic command to “Kiss my ass!")

“Damn girl, you got DOOKIE!” (This one truly confused me, as I always thought “dookie” referred to excrement. And I was pretty damn sure, at the time, that I wasn’t wearing a diaper full of shit. But whatever.) CCDM’s 53-55.

So there you have it. I’ve got somewhat of a complex. And no amount of cardio, carb cutting, yoga, or miracle butt creams are gonna get rid of it. Despite the fact that J-Lo, for a fleeting moment in wafe-dominated time, made it cool to be bootylicious, and despite the fact that spandex is now a more essential part of denim (thanks to the gluteally gifted Brasilians)…the complex persists. Don’t get me wrong. I know it could be worse…I could have two heads or four nipples or a rectovaginal fistula. But, I’m sure you can understand how I’ve arrived where I am today. I care about my buns in the same way that I’d care about a gigantic harry wart on my nose, or in the way that I’d care for an ugly child of mine. They’re mine. What can I do about it other than accept it?

Which brings me to today. Walking back from parking my car after lunch, in my peripheral vision, I see a van pulling up to the curb nearest me. I look over. An African American “gentleman” peers out from behind a descending driver’s side window.

What I thought he was going to say: “Excuse me. How do I get to Masonic Street from here?”

What he actually said: “I KNOW you eat’cho rice ‘n beans, girl! DAMN!”

What I actually said: Nothing. Speechless, I rolled my eyes in disgust, grunted to myself about how men are pigs, and scurried back to my office.

What I should have said: “Why yes. In fact I do. But I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly.”

*Culona = Spanish for a gal with a large ass.
**Culo = Spanish for ass.

The drawing featured above was an unsolicited caricature drawn of me by a Cuban sidewalk artist who was so compelled by my voluptuousness as to sketch me right then and there. CLEARLY he has no sense of scale in his art as, and anyone who knows me can attest to this, my boobs aren't nearly that big. Not even close.

Study your anatomy, then talk amongst yourselves…

Just as I was about the step into the shower this morning, I realized my car was parked on the “Friday” side of the street. I swear, the topic of street cleaning always occurs to me at the strangest moments. Anyway, I threw on my long house robe and scuttled outside in my Chinese slippers to repark. As I made my way to my car, a gust of wind tugged at my robe front, and, well…let’s just say, if my early morning neighbors were enjoying their AM coffee by their windows, they got a little show. (Sadly, I got no tips.) It immediately occurred to me that perhaps next Friday, when I go through this ritual again, I should put on some underwear first.

Which is precisely why I’m appalled at all of the media chatter about Britney’s recent genetalia exposé debacle. What’s all the fuss about? Apparently, she’s been caught prancing around town with her “vagina” in full view on more than one occasion of late. This I learned from The Brit yesterday, much to my surprise. (Surprised because neither one of us can claim to have, shall we say, a finger on the pulse of Hollywood. At least not as closely as say, the wrinkled, albeit neatly manicure, finger of the repeatedly nipped and tucked Joan Rivers.)

There are a few points I’d like to make about Britney’s ladyflaps:

First of all, if you don’t want to see them, stop shoving a camera in her crotch.

Second of all, regarding the use of the word “vagina” to describe which part of her anatomy we are all being blessed with a panoramic of…I can assure you, unless she is also walking around with a speculum stuck up there, we are not seeing her vagina. More likely her labia majora. And perhaps, but only with a telephoto zoom lens, a good angle, and some planetary-aligning luck for being in the "right" place at the right time, only then perhaps her whole vulva. But certainly not her vagina, people. (Anatomy is fun. Study harder.)

Third of all, if Britney were embarrassed about being so exposed, it would have occurred to her, as it did to me this morning, to put on some friggin’ underwear. The fact that she hasn’t can mean only one thing. She wants you to see her snatch. Wooptidoo. Chics expose their beavers all the time in Playboy (and plenty of other equally reputable mags). I’m sure some of them have children at home too. Are we slaughtering their coochies as publicly and caustically?

So there. Look at it in all it’s hairless glory and appreciate it for what it is. Or don’t look at it. Either way, who cares.

Right. Off to go fight breast cancer. (Shall I wear underwear today? Hmmm...)

Thursday, December 7, 2006

beautiful evidence

I spent the entire day today in a conference room two floors underground in the basement of a downtown hotel listening to a geek give a talk on presenting data and information. You’d think I’d be fast asleep drooling on my handout by midday. But I wasn’t. Neither was Captain Organico (who smartly invited me to fill the spot his sick coworker was leaving open). And neither was anyone else for that matter.

That’s because Edward Tufte is one really entertaining geek. No flash. No fuss. He essentially just stood at the front of the packed conference room and delivered.

The reason I dug him…he calls for minimizing the distractions in a presentation, maximizing the content, and most importantly, for achieving credibility in data presentation.

“The single biggest threat to the credibility of a presentation, outside of lying and censorship, is the cherry picking of evidence.” One of his good niblets. Too true. I see it all the time in medical journals. Which is appalling and unethical.

“Icons are retarded.” Another good niblet. This one he mentioned when ranting about how design doesn’t make content any better. In other words, don’t replace your data with symbols. Just put your data out there.

Whether you’re a NASA engineer presenting on what went wrong in the 2003 spaceflight of shuttle Columbia, a music lover diagramming the history of rock and roll, an artist trying to design a personal webpage, or a doctor (ahem) presenting an interesting patient case, the information in Tufte’s talk applies.

Check him out.

*To The Queen’s Own, who went to Tufte’s talk last year and has not shut up about it since (I’ve mentioned he’s fond of chatting, right?)…I see what all the chatter was about. You were right. Me gusta.

*To Captain Organico’s coworker, thanks for being sorry you were sick today. (Hope you feel better soon.)

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Adios Mr. Leprechaun (and Mr. Rumsfeld)

Contrary to popular belief, Leprechauns aren’t always Irish. Some of 'em are English. Surprised? I didn’t know this either, until The Brit walked into my life…donning nearly decade-old black leather shoes accentuated with atrocious gigantic silver buckles. (Lucky for him, he has dimples that distract one from looking at his shoes too much.) I thought, early on, about the pros of dating a leprechaun. There are many, as it turns out. Rainbows. Endless Lucky Charms. (They’re magically delicious!) Three wishes. And I thought maybe, just maybe, I’d find a pot of gold somewhere! But, alas, after two years of dating…I’ve yet to reap any of the benefits those hideous shoes implied I might. And when The Brit pulled them out of the closet the other day to wear in public, I recoiled as I looked at them…their rubber soles coming unglued from the front end of both shoes. Uh uh.

When I told him these shoes needed to be incinerated and then flown out to space (or put into a time capsule to be laughed at by our children in the future), he looked at me incredulously and said, in earnest, “What’s wrong with them? They’re REAL leather!"

Real leather, perhaps. But more importantly, real ugly.

So yesterday after work, under the guise of “Christmas Shopping,” I cunningly directed him to a great shoe store where we found replacements not only for the leprechaun shoes but for another almost-as-detestable pair as well.

Fire up the incinerator. Get the space craft prepared for lift off.

Also replaced today, Donald Rumsfeld by Robert Gates. Let's hope this new secretary of defense is as dramatic an improvement as The Brit's new shoes are.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

British Salsa

Our first attempt to get The Brit acquainted with latin dancing was humorous, to say the least. One particularly inspired Sunday night, we headed down to a club that I’ve been to several times before. On the drive, I gave him a briefing on what to expect: an offensive excess of make-up, spandex, and cologne…tacky decor that more or less distracts the patrons from the fact that they’re in a warehouse…cramped, sweaty dance floors that threaten one’s safety…and above all, very good live latin music and some very, very talented salsa dancers. The latter was an understatement, The Brit quickly discovered. Upon arrival, he took one look at the dance floor, already a complex tangle of furiously spinning torsos, arms and legs, took a second look at me and…gulp. Wide eyed, he stared, eyes darting from one spinning couple to another...

“WOW! Did you SEE what they just..."

“HOLY CRAP!! Look at THEM…"

“OH DEAR. I’ll NEVER be able to do…"

“Well, I can’t exactly be bothered to try THAT, now can I?"

Shock. Disheartenment. I think I actually saw him look along the edge of the dance floor for the track lighting that supposedly illuminates in an emergency to guide one to the nearest exit. (He travels a lot for work, so he gets the schpeal from the flight attendants a lot.)

So, I made the administrative decision to hit the bar first. He needed beer. STAT. We each had one. And then he had another. He’d attempted, once before, to overcome his British brand of rhythmlessness*, by taking a series of hip hop classes…from what I hear, it didn’t go too well. (These said classes occurred in the pre-me years…not to be confused with the post-meeting-me years, aka “the best years of his life.”) The Brit savored his second beer a little bit more slowly, perhaps while still looking for the track lighting…still planning his exit strategy. I smiled at him, reassured him, pried the empty beer bottle from his hands, and guided him slowly to a corner of the dance floor. That night, a couple beers later, he learned the basic step and one basic turn. It went well. I thought. Turns out we didn’t go back for months. (Perhaps the heavy cologne and the offensive spandex turned him off.) (I don’t know about that though…he tends to not mind when I wear offensive spandex.)

It wasn’t until our trip to Cuba, that he really decided it was important for him to get to know this part of my culture. My Cuban immigrant parents taught us first-generation American kids what was important growing up: la familia, iglesia, café con leche, musica, and bailando. Dancing. We danced in the kitchen while we cooked. While we did the housework. While we washed the car. I danced right through my adolescence and into college where I actually minored in dance.

Despite the gaping difference in our levels of experience, The Brit was willing to take the challenge. And he has. We’ve been to several classes over the last few months; we went last night, in fact. And I must say, for a person who is so clearly not a natural, his persistence and enthusiasm have kept him coming back. (Well, either that or the beer.) (But we have beer at home, so, assuming it’s the enthusiasm.) (Or maybe it’s the offensive spandex afterall.)

It’s been an interesting exercise, for me, watching him learn. Movement is, we hope(!), something that can be taught and learned. In my profession, we bank on that. When I was interviewing for my surgery residency position, not once did someone ask me how good I am with my hands…not once did they ask me to demonstrate how I handle a needle driver or a forceps or how I tie knots. It was assumed that if I didn’t know already, I could be taught these movements. It seems like a nutty assumption…what of those people who are just plain clumsy? …those who can’t make the connection between a verbal instruction and a physical movement?…what of those poor pre-pubescent boys out there who just don’t know how to make their first move on a girl? The answer is simple. Any ballerina or surgeon (or teen male) knows it. Diligent practice. It’s what surgery residency directors the whole world across bet on. This, I kept in mind when The Brit bludgeoned my right toe in salsa lesson #2. [Only slight hemorrhage.] He just needs practice! (But really, OUCH!)

So we practice. And we count out loud. He gets this furrowed brow when he’s trying to anticipate the next step in a sequence…his eyes shift up and to the left, like he’s thinking really hard, his lips part slightly and he counts under his breath. (If he were a baby and his face were turning red, I’d think he was taking a poo in his diapers…that’s the level of concentration we’re talkin’ about here, folks!) If he gets the movement right…this slow smile erupts, eventually his dimples follow, and his surprised eyes shift to mine as he happily continues on with the basic step. It’s a funny look because it reads: “Hey, look what MY body just did!!”…as if he had no choice in the matter, and his limbs just magically did what they were instructed to do! If he gets the movement wrong, he comes to a complete halt, groans, and usually gives whichever body part deceived him a disciplinary slap. Then he carries on. He always carries on.

The toenail has since healed. The bludgeonings are diminishingly life and limb threatening. And The Brit’s evolving from the complete novice dancer to a seasoned beginner! Bravo, mi salsero gringo!!

We’re still working on his ability to hear the timing in the music…but, alas, this is what practice is for!

All in all, one of the many reasons I adore my Brit.

*Disclaimer: The phrase “British brand of rhythmlessness” does not imply that all British are without rhythm. (For instance, Benny Hill had impeccable timing. Sporty Spice as well.) This brand gets filed in a category along with the American, Canadian, and Scottish brands, for example. The Cuban, Brazilian, and African brands of rhythmlessness, though documented, are extremely rare, and usually due to genetic mutations that occur either because of random chance or cross-breeding with, say, British, American or Scottish genes.