Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Big C and Me

The incomparable Linney 
Though it made me cry from a pit in my heart, I think The Big C: hereafter was a stunning production.  When the series began in August 2010, I watched because I wanted to see how television was going to handle cancer — a fact of everyone's life in some way. Not a person reading this won't have lost a family member, friend, coworker to some form of cancer and know someone or someones living with it.  

So over two years ago I began watching Laura Linney's portrayal of Cathy Jamison — a newly diagnosed cancer patient with an aggressive form of melanoma.  I love Laura Linney, always have since I saw her in Absolute Power and then You Can Count On Me and so many others, but — her performance was a tour de force.

I don't use that phrase but it's a phrase that accurately describes how the actress uses her trademark strength and vulnerability to embody Cathy as she lives the last years of her life coping with her disease, her regular work & family lives, and trying to figure out what living she needs to cram in before she can't anymore while still being winningly hopeful that she will do everything she can to beat it.

But at the end of that September, a month after the Big C started, art imitated life when  my sister-in-law was diagnosed (overnight) with a brain tumor — glioblastoma to be exact.  What Ted Kennedy had.  And in this bizarre way, while I watched the show, simultaneously Robin lived her life with her cancer.  

Amazingly, Robin managed to have two years of terrific living — she got married to a terrific guy, traveled extensively, enjoyed her lovely home, did things with family and friends, had her first grand baby — alongside two craniotomies, a gamma knife procedure, bimonthly MRIs, radiation and chemotherapies.  The last six weeks took their toll and denied her the wonderful kind of life she'd been living, but thankfully she didn't linger.

I felt the same about Cathy Jamison.  The decision to truncate the last season fit the abruptness of loss that comes when cancer takes over.   After the humor and the accomplishments of seasons 1-3, we watched Cathy get sicker and struggle with more physical disabilities as the Big C progressed.  Season 4 — The Big C: hereafter — took us through her loss of job, shrinking options, transition to the tranquility and stark reality of hospice and — when the insurance ran out — finally bedridden back at home, surrounded by family, friends, meds and a caring hospice nurse who understands it all and has no baggage to crowd how and what she gives to Cathy in her final days.

The incomparable Robin, beautifully optimistic
It was a brave and wonderful way to use TV which for better or worse — has always been and will be — the most pervasive educator of all.  Through the realism of Linney's portrayal (supported by Oliver Platt, Gabriel Basso, John Benjamin Hickey, Gabourey Sidibe, Kathy Najimy, and even in a cameo, creator and writer Darlene Hunt), we the viewers experience Cathy's declining life filled with love, sadness, pain, humor, and closure (she had a difficult father too) and we get to see her gentle transition to whatever lies hereafter.  Television at its best.

In the most ironic of ways, The Big C so mirrored what happened to Robin that I do believe if asked to sum up her too short life, she would've said what Linney's character Cathy says  —  

Lucky me.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Love of My Sister

Now that she's gone (and been gone for over eight long years) the loss of my sister becomes more profound every year.  The lack of her presence is palpable and eaves a gap that I seem unable to fill. Though my dearest friends work to replace her love and support, still there is a gap that cannot be closed.

Past the picking on me and her annoyance at having to "watch" us while my parents worked (which was always) and have me tag along when she didn't want a little kid underfoot, my sister was my unsung guide.  She was always there offering help, steering me gently, guiding my direction, and cheering me on.

Donna was a master at gift-giving.  She was always on the lookout for something that would please somebody else.  When she died her house was filled with "gifts."  Her gift closet spilled over into a room, into the garage, under her bed, and cramming the tops of every closet.

When we moved and I was starting eighth grade in a town where everyone but us was affluent, my sister — almost eight years my senior — took me shopping and bought me two new outfits for school. A Villager A-line wool skirt and matching cardigan in two colors, tweedy mauve and tweedy heather blue.  The skirts were lined with invisible side zippers.  The cardigans were edged down the front in matching grosgrain ribbon.  She bought me two button-down collar "man-tailored" white shirts. She even bought me penny loafers, cordovan penny loafers, and put in two bright copper pennies.  These outfits — Villager or John Meyer of Norwich — were the height of fashion and what everyone was wearing in Seventeen magazine.  My parents could not afford these luxuries but my sister was working, earning her own money and she chose to spend it on me.

Another time, in 8th grade I was going to my first dance and Donna took me to this very swanky, hip boutique clothing store, Sealfon's.  This was when the very concept of a "boutique" store was in its infancy.  I remember how shocked I was at the store's interior — so completely unlike the department stores (Alexander's or Korvette's) where we shopped — there were tabletop displays and mannequins and birdcages draped with jewelry and it was like being in a small museum of sorts where everything was so interesting to look at that I could hardly see the clothes!  It was Donna who found and bought the dress with its white stand-up princess collar and long sleeves, empire waist tied with a fuchsia grosgrain ribbon (grosgrain was big back then) and then a short and full stiff cotton chocolate brown bottom striped with white. I know, it sounds pretty awful but at the time it was smashing in a Carnaby-Street-Mod way, and looked great on me.

Though I didn't know it at the time, Donna was giving me far more than the clothes — she was giving me the confidence to face the unknown in places I didn't feel I belonged.

It was to be the pattern of our relationship for the rest of her life — she would always be supplying me with what I needed, whether it was the remnant piece of carpeting for my first studio apartment or the expensive spices I couldn't easily find or afford once I moved down south.  A box would arrive in the mail and inside would be all the things she  thought I could use or would like.  (And she was ALWAYS right.)  A beautiful piece of pottery.  An outfit or two for the kids.  Five bottles of ground coriander.  A gorgeous box for storing things in.  A picture frame that proclaimed "Love To Shop!"

But more than all the material things, more than the objects was the absolute unconditional love and support she showered on me through every one of my life's transitions.

Whether it was trying to get a boyfriend, going off to college (first in my family), starting a new job, getting my own apartment in Manhattan, finally getting married or becoming a mom and feeling overwhelmed with twins — Donna was ALWAYS there cheering me on, giving me advice, laughing about the challenges, commiserating about our screwed-up family, and kicking me in the butt when I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself and get on with it.

I was lucky to have her in my life for 50+ years and it's only since she's been gone that I've come to know how much harder and lonelier my life is without her.  

Hidden in my freezer, on the top shelf of the door, behind another package of something, is this bottle of ground coriander. It's the last of the stash my sister sent me, probably eleven or twelve years ago, long before she was bedridden.  I never plan to use it.  I just like having it there.   Despite the distance in time and space, when I'm missing her the most, I can open the door, reach inside and feel the gift of her love.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

And the Top Five Political Films Are...

I love movies and wanted to share my top five films about politicians.  Here they are — leading up to Number One...

#5  Primary Colors (1998) takes us on the roller coaster ride of a political campaign with fictitious Governor of a southern state Jack Stanton as he runs for his party's candidacy for the Presidency.  John Travolta as the candidate is awfully close to a Bill-Clinton-act-alike — with his strategic and loyal partner of a wife (whom he deceives) and a campaign fraught with shenanigans and plenty of young naive political junkies who believe in their candidate.   Kathy Bates is especially obnoxious and strangely ethical.

#4  Take Ryan Gosling and George Clooney (not bad in the looks department) supported by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Wood (none bad in the acting department) as players in the Ohio Democratic presidential primary and you've got The Ides of March (2011).  In the beginning of the film, a New York Times reporter (Tomei) tells the eager, ambitious campaign press secretary Steven (Gosling) about his idol the Governor, "He will let you down.  Sooner or later."  And it's sooner not later.  This is a film where the ugly underbelly of politics is front and center and scene after scene as it gets seamier and seamier, you grimace and cringe but still — you keep watching.

#3  Early on in Meryl Streep's career, after Julia, the TV mini-series HolocaustThe Deer Hunter, and Manhattan, she did a little film written by and starring Alan Alda, The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979) where he convincingly portrays a popular US Senator (long-married to an intelligent wife, Barbara Harris, who hates being a political spouse) who isn't just seduced by the young, beautiful lawyer Streep plays, but — as the tagline for the movie cautioned — "There are many ways to be seduced. Fame. Power. Love. Joe Tynan knows them all."

#2  Do you notice that Joan Allen always plays a really principled person in films?  It's no different in The Contender (2000) where she's Laine Hanson, a savvy Senator who is thrust into a nomination for the Vice Presidency and ends up pushed between a rock and a hard place when stories surface that cast doubt on her past and everyone is pressuring her to confirm or deny her sexual behavior but she, she holds firm and refuses to engage in the dirty politics of the day.  There are loads of villains played by Sam Elliot, William Peterson, and others but Gary Oldman is especially evil and Joan Allen exceptionally pure.

#1  Maybe it's because it all happened in my time or that I knew the story from the daily newspaper headlines, nightly newscasts, and the televised hearings, but Watergate was seminal for me and marked a huge turning point in our nation's collective psyche when we stopped trusting our government and sadly started questioning the integrity of the presidency. The number one for me is  All the President's Men (1976) — a real political thriller with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman that drags you along on a harrowing Alice-in-Wonderland scary journey as two stylistically opposed reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, team up and famously track down the story of our century — that was all true.

Okay, so I know I've disappointed/upset/enraged some of you out there by leaving out one of YOUR favorites, so do post and let me know what I've missed! Now I KNOW I'm going to disappoint/offend/enrage some of you out there by leaving out some film-favorite of do feel free to post your comments on what I've missed!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Why I Love, Love, Love Trader Joe's

I know there are those of you out there that can't get to a Trader Joe's and for that, I'm sorry for you!  But for those who can, these are my favorites...what're yours?

Let's start with the incredible selection of wine with prices that can't be beat for the quality.  I'll skip over the "Two-buck Chuck" (now $2.99 a bottle) which can be really good much of the time (well, at least the cabernet sauvignon is usually good) and just dive in to the varieties from Epicuro — the Salice Salentino, Nero D'Avola, Aglianico and now a Primitivo.  At $5.99 a bottle, these wines are luscious and incredibly affordable.  

Now that you've got the wine uncorked, treat yourself to a first-course featuring prosciutto which is available in these affordable 4 oz packages and best is that the paper-thin slices are separated by sheets of paper making it really easy to peel and wrap that prosciutto around cheese, melon or figs, serve on a bed of arugula ("rocket" for $1.99 or organic arugula for $2.49) and dress with a simple vinaigrette.  (This arugula is so good it won't last long.)

Buy the Thai Red Curry Sauce and it'll be the quickest and the easiest dinner you'll ever make.  Just get boneless chicken, cut it into cubes, turn the frying pan on medium high with a very slight bit of oil (not olive) and sear the chicken very quickly. When it's browned on all sides ( and we're talking not even ten minutes), lower the flame, pour on the sauce and when the sauce is heated through — you're done.  Now you can make jasmine rice, udon or soba noodles, steam some broccoli and dinner is complete.  Really — 30 minutes from start to finish for the entire main course.  And for the vegetarians and vegans out there — cook cubes of firm tofu instead and it'll be just as delicious.

When you need another grain for a different meal, buy a bag of Harvest Grains Blend — a combination of pearl couscous, orzo, baby garbanzo beans, and red quinoa.  Another quick and tasty side, it's ready to eat in 15 minutes.

When dinner's done — time for something sweet.  I suggest one of their Dark Chocolate Bars. My favorite?  Caramel with black sea salt.  Rich, dark, salty chocolate with buttery sweet caramel sandwiched in-between that oozes out when you break off a square and slide it into your mouth — you'll be licking your fingers as you work your way through the bar and at $1.99 for three ounces, you can get a bar for every person at your table.  

And while you're shopping, give yourself a treat and pick up a bag of the Ginger Chews, they're great to have in your bag or in the car.  

Better make that two.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Place To Hide

I don't know what year the house we grew up in was built — but even then it was an older single-family house with a living room, dining room, and kitchen on the first floor and three bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor.  Originally it must've been a house without indoor plumbing because it seemed as if the bathroom was plunked into a bedroom and someone stuck the tub, toilet, and sink around the perimeter of the room and left a big empty space in the middle. Sometimes when my brother and sister were picking on me — relentlessly — I locked myself in that bathroom until our parents came home. The only other thing on the second floor was a door that opened to another full flight of stairs up into the dark and dusty attic.

The attic was one huge unfinished space crowned by a peaked roof with exposed criss-crossed rafters. The rough brown wooden planks ran the length of the house. There was a single window on three sides that brought in some light, but the space was full of stuff you had to climb around and you were always in danger of getting huge splinters from just about anywhere. Still, at times it was the safest place in our house.

I loved that attic.  I loved the old suitcases, boxes and trunks with old things, worn things, used things. Clothes and papers, old toys, photographs that weren't ours. Things that no one really cared about but me.  Up in that attic you were removed from the world below.  You could hear the shouting and the banging but it was muffled and seemed far enough away.

This isn't our attic but (thanks to Wikipedia) if you minus the plastic pipes and
the finished floor and those extra posts, and add in lots of junk, it will give you a bit of the feeling. 

Once when we weren't supposed to be up there and my brother and I were scrambling down those stairs, we tumbled. In the fall, at the bottom of the stairs where they turned, his foot kicked in a small triangular-shaped piece of wood and when we went to replace that board, there, hidden inside was a wad of cash!  It's hard to remember but I think it was at least a hundred dollars which at the time seemed an absolute unbelievable fortune!

Now, my place of refuge was not just a place to hide but a place to explore for buried treasure!

Luckily, every cloud must have its silver lining.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Can Hearts Fly?

I went to my Nia class and during the cool-down, lying flat on my back on a mat in the darkened room.  I did as instructed and pressed my shoulder blades deep against the floor.  With hands clasped softly above my head, my chest opened to the ceiling, I felt the expansion of my ribs and there — in that quiet room, splayed open — I felt my heart fly out of its cage and sail above me.  It was light and quietly, liltingly, drifting above me in that darkened room.

A heart with wings was something that never seemed plausible to me. I'd never felt a heart so light that it might fly.  

During my childhood and into my early twenties, my heart had been heavy. Heavy, heavy, heavy.  Laden with worry and fright.  I had food, I had clothing, I had shelter.  I wasn't physically abused in any way  but emotionally I lived in a day-to-day state fraught with tension, walking on eggshells, trying to avoid the next impending explosion. 

Weekly eruptions of frustration and rage were our norm. Without much provocation the storm would quickly, very quickly envelop the house.  It might begin with raised voices, loud yells and then  only one voice — shouting, screaming in anger — culminating in a slammed door or at times, a fist or a foot through a door or a wall.  

Never feeling calm or happy or safe.  Always anticipating the next big bang that would topple the bit of happiness and sanctity that I came home from school with  I held on to that feeling of security as long as I possibly could — until the volcano that was my father started churning and rumbling and pops of rock would spew from his beet-red face, until his lid blew and hot lava covered everything in sight.

The attic was a great place to hide.