The Great Christmas Cookie Caper

In many ways, my mom and dad were very brave, remarkably tolerant parents, bless them. For instance, perhaps against all common sense, I was allowed to learn how to cook, by myself, by the age of seven. It wasn’t Cordon Bleu cuisine, but I could manage quite edible scrambled eggs, bacon, French toast, and even pancakes without burning down the house. The deal was that I could mess up the kitchen as much as I found necessary, but I had to clean it up afterwards.

At the age of ten, I decided it was time to try something more complicated, something that involved chocolate, something ‘from scratch’ — that exciting phrase that meant a cook had truly arrived. Cupcakes from mixes and instant pudding from boxes no longer satisfied my ambitions. Somewhat unwisely, I chose to try an old recipe that my great-aunt May had cut out of a newspaper decades earlier for chocolate meringue pie. No instant anything. A single pie crust was involved, which of course stuck to my hands, but managed to fit the pie pan nonetheless. I also had to learn to separate eggs. The egg yolks went into the chocolate pudding, along with the melted baking chocolate. The whites went into the meringue. I liked the culinary balance of that. It seemed at the time that cooking chocolate pudding from scratch took an eternity of stirring over a hot stove, but I pressed onward, and magically, about a year later, the pudding thickened. The final results — rich, dark, melt-in-your-mouth pudding, topped with fluffy clouds of meringue, perched in a flaky, albeit uneven, crust — were a revelation. Subsequently, I could only sneer at boxes of Jello instant pudding and store-bought pie. There was no turning back.

By the age of thirteen, I was an old hand in the kitchen. And that grand opportunity for culinary excess, Christmas, was around the corner. I found an ad in a magazine for a lovely set of copper Christmas cookie cutters, with a recipe book for various options, including decorated roll-and-cut sugar cookies, plus a set of frosting tips and a pastry bag for decorating them. I sent in a money order, and about three weeks before Christmas, my package arrived. The cookie cutter shapes were supposed to represent an international theme, with designs from various European countries. That added to their cachet, in my opinion. No snowmen or bells or wreaths or even Santa shapes. Instead, a reindeer for Finland, a fleur-de-lis for France, a windmill for Holland. I’ve forgotten what countries the other shapes were supposed to represent, but one can make some educated guesses.

The following Saturday, I decided to try everything out. Wisely, my mother decided this would be a good time to get out of the house and do some grocery shopping. The cookie recipe stated that the yield was for 2 to 3 dozen cookies, which hardly seemed enough, so I doubled it. Later, it occurred to me that perhaps the yield prediction was based on using much larger cookie cutters. In any case, I proceeded to assemble my ingredients. I was reasonably organized about it, and since the cookies only took about 7 minutes to bake, I had quite a production line going along the kitchen counter, with a rolling and cutting area, a baking sheet area, and a cooling rack area. Very soon, I ran out of counter space, so I began to move racks of cooling cookies to the dining room table. Six or ten racks later, the dining table was full, so I placed the last few dozen cookies to cool on the credenza in the living room. I’m not sure how it happened, but some sort of biblical miracle appeared to have taken place, and I ended up far exceeding the expected cookie yield. By the time my mother arrived home from shopping, there were 12 dozen cookies cooling all over the house.

With a full brown paper grocery bag in each arm, my mother shoved her way through the back door and into the kitchen. Not unlike Mary and Joseph, seeking accommodations in Bethlehem, she surveyed the kitchen counter and realized there was no room at the inn. She was not overly alarmed at that point, and deftly took a right turn into the dining room. And halted.

I still endeavored to be a considerate child then, and rushed to her side to wrestle a grocery bag from her arm.

“Um, I, um, ended up with a lot more cookies than I thought I would,” I said, somewhat unnecessarily.

My mother remained speechless for a very long minute, while several emotions played over her face. We made our way into the living room, where my mother looked at the credenza, then at me, then back at the dining table, then at the grocery bags, and back at me again. I’m fairly certain of the gist of the conflicting thoughts running through her mind at that moment. They were not new thoughts. One of them was, “I should be used to the way her projects take over the house by now.” Another was, “Well, I’ve got to hand it to her, she’s ambitious.” Still another was, “I don’t know where she gets it from. She doesn’t take after me.” The final amalgam of these thoughts produced an expression of bemused resignation. I’d seen this look many times. As usual, I didn’t know whether to apologize or grin.

“I’ll just clear some of the cookies off the dining table,” I offered. “They should be cooled by now.”

“Oh, never mind. We can just put the bags on the dining chairs,” she said. “You don’t have cookies on the chairs, do you?”

“Uh, no.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Here, take this bag and put the milk in the refrigerator.”

Eventually, the groceries got put away, and the cookies got carefully arranged in layers on a couple of large trays, between sheets of waxed paper. Naturally, I had to clean up the kitchen, which took some considerable labor, and we had to eat dinner that night. So, I thought it wise to postpone the decorating portion of the program until Sunday afternoon.

Decorating 12 dozen cookies turned out to be less entertaining than I thought it would. At first, it was splendidly fun whipping up butter cream frosting, separating it into little bowls, dyeing it different colors, and trying out all the decorative frosting tips. Tucked in amongst this array, spread across the entire dining table, were little containers of cinnamon hearts, colored sugar crystals, and chocolate jimmies. Each cookie, like an art canvas, required a gesso foundation of plain frosting, onto which I applied various realistic details.

My mother strolled through the dining room from time to time, glancing at my progress.

“How much butter and sugar have you gone through?” she asked at one point.

“Uh, I think maybe a couple of pounds,” I said.

“Of each!?

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Well, I hope you realize this is coming out of your allowance.”

I managed to decorate about six dozen cookies, with judicious breaks for tasting them, before my hands started to cramp up. I took another break and ate a few more cookies — they were delicious, I admit — but my will and imagination were faltering. I had to throw in the towel for a few days.

It took about another week to finish decorating them all. I had to give up on the notion of artistic purity, and convinced a few of my girlfriends to help me out after school. At first, they were delighted at the prospect, but I discovered that their enthusiasm wavered much more quickly than mine, after perhaps a dozen or so cookies. I won’t say that I came to hate Christmas cookies. They were my creation, after all. But by the last dozen or three, my girlfriends and I lapsed into making rude jokes about them. And admittedly, those final cookies were not the creative masterpieces they might have been.

I also discovered that there was a limited number of potential cookie recipients in my immediate circle of friends and family. No one really wanted more than a dozen or two. Between snacking and gifting, I managed to dispatch about six or eight dozen of them. I was so tired of them all by then that I didn’t want to keep any more of them myself, a decision with which my mother heartily concurred. In the end, about a week before Christmas, my father drove me and the final four dozen cookies to the local hospital, where they were accepted perhaps more enthusiastically than the fruitcakes, fudge, and pies that other festively-minded citizens had already pressed upon the staff. “We’ll bring these to the children’s ward,” one of the nurses assured me. “Kids don’t really like fruitcake.”

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Bye-Bye, Pinktober: A Futuristic Send-Off

So, I was thinking, where is all the pink crap likely to end up anyway? You know, like, a hundred years from now…

New York Times, October 30, 2113:

Archaeologists working at a dig in a Texas landfill have come upon a strange layer of pink artifacts, including weapons, appliances, clothing and other peculiar items, believed to be part of a failed subculture estimated to be nearly 100 years old. Several teeshirts, covered in oddly sexual slogans, have been submitted for carbon dating. Historians researching the immediate area stated that the landfill is located close to what is believed to be the original site of a long-defunct organization called the Susan G. Komen Foundation. “In the early 21st century,” stated one archaeologist, “it was apparently believed that encouraging corporations and manufacturers to produce and sell pink merchandise would somehow lead to a cure for breast cancer. Ultimately, it was discovered that much of this merchandise contained carcinogens that in fact contributed to the disease. There is still much to discover about this now-extinct cultural anomaly.”

Archaeologists comb through a Texas landfill.

Well, we can only dream…

Apologies to for tarting up their ‘Meet the Archaeologist’ photo.

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It’s Personal, and One Day Is Not Enough

Today is Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day, the one day in this month of pernicious pinkification set aside to acknowledge the Elephant in the Pink Room. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m aware of MBC every damn day of the year…

Because I have this list…

Five years ago, shortly after I was diagnosed, I found my way to an online peer-support forum for people with breast cancer. It’s no exaggeration to say that it saved my sanity. Alone, at home, often in the middle of the night, enduring and trying to recover from treatment, the women and men I met on this forum were always there, sharing bad jokes, outrage, anxiety, as well as affection, cogent advice, compassion, and generosity. One of those forum-friends was Diane.

This was the autumn of 2008, when the fallout from the U.S. and global financial crisis was crashing down around our ears. I was one of the ‘lucky’ ones, relatively speaking. I had a job with health insurance and disability insurance and paid sick time. A lot of my sisters and brothers on the forum were not so lucky. One of those unlucky forum-friends was Diane. The following tells the tale:

“As we watch politicians & bureaucrats argue about the best way to help home-owners keep their homes and prevent millions more Americans from losing their jobs, some of our friends on the forum are living with the real consequences of the U.S. financial crisis. Diane is one of those friends. While she and her husband have been waiting weeks for word on whether they can refinance their mortgage and prevent foreclosure, Diane’s husband was laid off from his job, just one week before Christmas.”

Some of us decided to try to help. I already had a website (for my photography), so I offered to add a fundraising page with a PayPal link for Diane and her family. The above was taken from that page. Within days, we raised over $1400. The money allowed Diane and her husband to pay their bills for the month, including the mortgage, buy Christmas presents for their young sons, and give them time to find a non-profit group that helped them refinance their home. Her husband was also able to find another job.

Eventually, Diane’s breast cancer returned and metastasized. In February of 2010, Diane died of metastatic breast cancer.

A few years ago, the phrase ‘fearless friend’ was coined. I believe that perhaps my late friend and sister bitch-blogger Rachel may have first mentioned it in a blog post. Someone with a better memory than mine (!) might enlighten me in a comment. In any case, it gained a hashtag and quickly spread among those of us who participate in the #BCSM Monday night Tweetchat. A fearless friend is someone who does not have metastatic breast cancer, but who pledges herself to step up and support her friends who do, however she can. There’s a large subset of us fearless friends who have also been diagnosed with breast cancer ourselves but, so far, manage to stay in the land of NED (No Evidence of Disease). I’m not sure how fearless I truly feel much of the time. But for me, being a #fearlessfriend means being a friend in spite of my fear — fear for my friends with mets, fear for my friends who have recurrences, fear for all of us who’ve had this diagnosis, who could develop mets in the future. In another February, in 2012, Rachel died. A week later, I went to her funeral.

There’s nothing quite like soul-searing loss to amplify your feelings of helplessness and futility. You want to DO something, anything, to keep it from happening again. I knew I could keep blogging — and I did keep blogging — but I wrote in a haze of heartache. I so admire the drive and commitment of many of my friends in our cyber-community whose grief over Rachel’s death helped drive them to push harder for real awareness of MBC. They’ve managed to agitate, advocate, go to conferences, write articles, publish books, start groups, raise money for metastatic breast cancer research, enriching and enlarging our e-community. The circumstances of my own life, however, did not permit me to take on any further commitments. But I still wanted to do something. So I offered my geekitude to METAvivor, one of the organizations Rachel most admired and supported, and launched their blog in April of last year. It didn’t seem like much, but it was something. Blog-Admins-R-Us. Please visit our baby. There’s a great post there today, written by CJ, that we hope will be the first of several this month.

As usual, the run-up to the corporate merchandizing field-day known as Breast Cancer Awareness Month started early. As usual, there have been even more execrable, tacky and tactless fundraising campaigns and pink products than there were last year. Some of them truly beggar belief. One of the most idiotic is ‘No Bra Day,’ which happens to be today. Nice timing, asshats. If the saying, ‘there’s no such thing as bad press’ is true, then NBD was a rousing success, since it raised the ire of many of us bloggers, who were not shy about articulating our collective disgust in the blogosphere. My friend the Feisty Blue Gecko summed it up for many of us. Personally, if I go without a bra in public today, I plan to clip my prosthesis on the outside of my shirt. That ought to raise some awareness.

Another friend, AnneMarie, who advocates, agitates, tirelessly kicks butt and blogs at Chemobrain, stumbled upon yet another astonishing fundraising notice this year. I didn’t really want to include the jpg, but you probably wouldn’t believe me unless I showed it to you.

I don’t even know what to say about this myself. What’s the message here? Breast cancer might kill you, but at least you can go out with a smile on your face? Yeah, right. It’s times like this when I wish I were better at channeling Rachel, who would no doubt come up with some apposite snark.

Meanwhile, less than two weeks ago, on September 30th, there was another funeral. It was live-streamed from England. It had been arranged by the long-time partner of another woman I’ve known for five years, whom I also met on the peer-support forum, and later, kept in touch with on Facebook. Her name was Jayne. She was a gentle, unfailingly kind, completely dear human being. Her breast cancer recurred, then metastasized, and finally took her life.

Just yesterday, there was a funeral for Angie Suttles. For fifteen years, she endured breast cancer, reached out to countless individuals and groups, shared her time and her story, and worked as a regional leader for Livestrong. She was known to many of us online, through social media and through her blog. Her son Caleb was kind enough to keep us informed, allow us to participate in a video he created with our messages, and arrange for the live-stream of her service.

Bloody hell. The longer I participate in our amazing community, the longer my list becomes. Some on the list are recent friends, some are friends I’ve known for years now, some are patients I’ve treated over the years, some have been relatives. There are friends who weren’t on the list when I first knew them, but are now. Friends who have died. Friends who are hanging in there, hoping their current treatment will keep their mets at bay. Friends who keep working, at least some of the time, and friends who have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. Friends in pain every day. Friends who try their level best not to let metastatic breast cancer subsume their identities. Friends who laugh, make art, write blogs, cause trouble, who advocate, educate, kick major ass. Friends who take care of children, parents, spouses in spite of mets. Friends who have lost mothers, sisters, and other loved ones to mets. Friends I’ve met in person, friends I’ve met in cyberspace. Friends I communicate with daily. Friends I love, adore, admire, learn from, snark with, laugh with, share stupid photos of my cats with. Friends I worry about, cry for, rage for. Friends I don’t want to mourn for.

Am I truly fearless? Not really. But I hope I’m at least a kind and conscious friend, and a decent clinician. I can’t always do much, but I can do that. And I can refuse to let fear rule my head and heart. I can speak out and write and draw and make jokes. I can treat my patients with a fuller knowledge of what they might need. And be grateful for how much my life has been immeasurably enriched by every single person on my list. What’s a little fear compared to that?

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Fifty Shades of Pink — and Still No Cure

Really, I don’t even want to be writing this post.

One of the most heart-rending blog tasks I’ve had to do this past week is to re-categorize a few of the links to blogs on my blogroll, to reflect the fact that the women who write them have been diagnosed with mets since I first connected with them in the blogosphere. That stopped me in my tracks. And my list of bloggers with mets keeps getting longer.

It’s no wonder, then, that I’m so sick of the explosion of corporate merchandising known as ‘Breast Cancer Awareness Month’ — aka Pinktober — I resent even acknowledging its existence. But I’ll force myself to post some random observations, a few facts, and some links.

As usual, I will avoid shopping in certain places for the next month. The above collage is comprised almost entirely of photos I took myself on one particularly hideous October Saturday a few years ago, as I ventured forth to do a few errands. If anyone would care to tell me how selling pink Chia heads (yes, I really saw them; they are in the center of the above banner) has contributed to figuring out what causes breast cancer or how to cure breast cancer or how to prevent anyone from developing metastatic breast cancer and dying of breast cancer, do let me know. I’m always eager to advance my knowledge.

A casual friend of mine recently launched a small fundraising initiative with a friend of hers. They are selling tiny pink cat tchotchkes to raise money for our local breast health center and a local breast cancer support organization.

Our local breast health center is a pretty good place, all in all. Friends and colleagues and patients of mine have been treated there. The friend who launched this initiative was treated there. The center has had patient navigators for a few years now. The center welcomes patient feedback about their cancer experience and acts on that feedback. Their navigators bust their butts. One of them had breast cancer herself and I marvel at her energy. I believe very much in supporting local entities, and our breast health center is certainly one worth supporting.

However, I confess that the name of this fundraising initiative made me cringe. It’s called ‘Kitties for Titties.’ I don’t think this friend has read my blog, and if I run into her in the next month, I’m not quite sure what I will say if she asks me to buy a pink kitty. I may be a snarky bitch here on the blog, and I’m often snarkily bitchy WITH my friends. But I really try not to be snarkily bitchy TO my friends. Most of my friends feel the same way I do about Pinktober, but clearly not all. The ones who don’t represent a bit of a dilemma. On the plus side, I’m pretty sure that most, if not all, of the money raised, which is $4 per kitty, is being donated to the stated causes. Certainly no one is getting a six-figure administrative salary out of this endeavor, like certain other Pink Pushers I could name. But, well, they are pink kitties. Little chubby kitties. Sort of like ‘Hello Kitty’ kitties. When you see them, you’re supposed to think they’re cute. So, I’m not sure what the message is, really. Because, you know, I’ve always thought that breast cancer is way un-cute. And then there’s the titties part. One of the euphemisms for women’s breasts that I hate most is ‘tits’ or ‘titties.’ Not sure why. Maybe it’s because most of the times I’ve ever heard it used, it’s been uttered by asshat, objectifying slobs, fantasizing about snagging a quick lay.

I know, I know. What is my problem, huh? I mean, normally, I don’t object to trivializing a life-threatening disease, not to mention the women’s body parts affected by that disease. And surely it would be gauche to point out that a large percentage of women treated for breast cancer no longer have either one or both of their original ‘titties,’ because, well, they were more interested in saving their lives than keeping their diseased breasts. But, hey, that’s probably just me feeling like Grumpy Kat.

And then there’s the current kerfuffle playing out in Congress. Basically, the Republicans in the House of Representatives want to repeal the Affordable Care Act in exchange for passing a stopgap funding bill to raise the debt ceiling temporarily so that the U.S. can keep paying its bills. Meanwhile, some of the initial provisions of the ACA are in the process of being enacted, with lots of attendant hyperbole, hysteria and misinformation promulgated by those who oppose it.

So, in response to the naysayers, I would just like to point out a few things. The ACA abolishes the practice of denying health insurance to people with pre-existing conditions, and cancer, last time I checked, is regarded as a pre-existing condition. So, I’m all for ensuring that I and thousands of other American citizens can get and keep our health insurance. Also, people with metastatic breast cancer and no insurance can get Medicare coverage, even if they are not 65. Several diseases, including cancer, are included under the ‘compassionate allowance’ provision for Medicare coverage through the Social Security Administration, through which people with mets can also apply for disability income. It’s good to know that there is still some compassion left in Washington, D.C., despite Congressional evidence to the contrary.

Meanwhile, back in the land of the Pink Peril, there is still only one day in Pinktober set aside to acknowledge metastatic breast cancer. It’s October 13th, for those keeping score at home. That’s one day to acknowledge that, worldwide, about 458,000 women and men are still dying of MBC every year. One day. Pathetic.

Maybe it’s me being Grumpy Kat again, but this points to the central problem with Pinktober. It seems to me that the main reason why the public needs to be aware of breast cancer — or any cancer, for the matter — is because people die of it. But awareness of breast cancer is so last century at this point. What we need is cogent, accurate awareness about breast cancer, awareness about its causes; awareness about the continuing inadequacies of mammography, still the most prevalent screening tool used to detect it; awareness about the life-altering and lifelong collateral damage caused by getting treated for breast cancer; awareness about how and why it metastasizes and how to prevent it from doing so; awareness about the financial, physical and emotional toll that all cancer patients live with forever; awareness about what it means to live with metastatic breast cancer and to wonder how long your current treatment will continue to keep the beast at bay. None of this is cute, pink, fluffy, sexy, or ultimately even about losing our breasts.

By my criteria, most of what passes for breast cancer awareness during the month of October scarcely passes muster. Much of it is pure baloney, or worse, disseminates misleading statistics and woefully inaccurate information. Most of it is an industry, a corporate merchandising opportunity, that provides little tangible help to those who are dealing with breast cancer. And still, in the U.S., despite the fact that 30% of those diagnosed with breast cancer will develop metastases, only 2% of the millions raised for breast cancer research goes to researching metastatic breast cancer.

And that much-vaunted cure certain folks have promised? Nowhere in sight.

If I listed every pertinent link I could think of, I’d have an encyclopedia. So, here’s a few. Also, check out my blogroll if you want the unvarnished truth from those who live with mets.

Breast Cancer Action
Breast Cancer Consortium
Living With Metastatic Breast Cancer — A Global Survey
Metastatic Breast Cancer Network and METAvivor’s blog
National Cancer Institute Clinical Trials Search Tool

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