Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Hope for the Emperor of All Maladies

One word scares the hell out of me. Cancer. It scares a lot of us. Here are just a few people who have left this world because of this dreaded disease.

You've heard about my mom in lots of posts, and Mary Jane, Patricia, my grandmother and most recently, V.J., the Whimsical Whittler.

Since I wrote that post, dear Gretel, in the upper right corner, has been added to that list. I can't really write about that yet. And of course, last week marked the anniversary of blogger Diana's passing.

You'll also see my aunt, Grace, and my high school friend Gail here. All gone. And they aren't the only ones. Parents, siblings, children and spouses of good friends, college pals, one-time colleagues and more. I might not have good photos of them or my "grid" may be too small -- but they all matter and live in my heart.

But this picture tells a different story.

You might know some of them and you may or may not know their stories. But these are the men and women who have either kicked cancer in the butt, are fighting a very hard fight to kick it or courageously deal with whatever lies ahead. They are all ages. Their cancers have ranged from skin and thyroid to breast and eye, and lots of others. Their stories are all different. They are doctors and artists, business professionals and teachers, hair stylists and environmentalists. But today, at the moment I hit publish on this post, they are here.

They have had tough fights, each and every one of them and some are still fighting. For some, cancer has been something from their past -- they are five, 10, 15, 20 years past their last treatment. So far, fantastic.

These men and women have stories that could change tomorrow, next month, next year, years from now. But then really, don't we all? With my family history, I never know what the next appointment with the doc will bring or what they might spot on the next mammogram. And aside from that, there's always the proverbial bus that can change any of our lives at any moment.

It's this second picture I do my best to hold onto when I hear of cancer hitting the life of someone who matters to me. My mother died in 1977 from breast and ovarian cancer. I was 25. She was sick for three years.

Times Have Changed

Things have changed a lot in those 35-plus years since then. Detection methods have increased and research is encouraging. Technology is better, surgical methods are different, medications -- still rugged to tolerate -- have improved efficiency and results. Consequently, life expectancy has increased.

And so has quality of life. Yes, treatment can be brutal. But because so many treatments are more effective, life after can be improved.

That second photo gives me hope, not only because there are so many faces there -- but that they are just a few of the faces I know who are strong, courageous, tough, determined men and women who said, "I'll fight." And for many of them, they made that statement long ago.

They are amazingly inspirational to me, not only in their cancer fight but because of how that fight translates to any challenging disease or malady. They are my heroes. And so, too, are those who care for them -- the family members, nurses, doctors, neighbors and friends.

When you love and care for someone, supporting and taking care of them is just what you do. It can come at a cost. Stress, exhaustion, the constant struggle of finding the best information, the best care and treatment takes an enormous amount of energy. And the rest of the world doesn't stop for it. One still has bills to pay, a job or children to attend to, a house to clean. If you've ever been the caregiver for any reason, you know that.

Some of my cancer friends aren't pictured here. Why? They simply don't talk about it. I have one friend who told very few people of her diagnosis. She had a surgery and it was successful and that was that. The world needn't know.

The Ultimate Success Story

And then there is Eulah. Eulah was my next door lake neighbor from the time I was a teenager. The "hostess with the mostest," huge, big heart and a wonderful person. And no, she's not here with us now. She died when she was 101. Oh, and her cancer was some 40 or 50 years before. Talk about success story.

I hate this disease and I always will. And I pray for a cure and even more efficient treatment and detection. Understanding this, too, is important for we all have a role to play.

The TV Series

Recently I've been working with the public television station I retired from to assist with community engagement for a new series called "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies." Ken Burns, whose mom died when he was 11, is the executive producer and it is based on the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee and directed by Barak Goodman, who has a slew of awards to his credit.

The series will air on public television stations nationwide on March 30, 31 and April 1. But there is a wonderful website HERE with inspiring stories and much more about the film. I encourage you to visit if you have a curiosity or experience with this disease or simply want to know more.

The Story Wall

And one other thing -- there is a terrific "Share-Your-Story" wall on the site. The stories may well help other people deal with what you may have in the past, either as a cancer patient or survivor, physician, caregiver, family member or friend.

I urge you to share your story there, too. It's easy to do (if you're a blogger and used to a blog set-up, it's a piece of cake!). There is a spot that says "station code." If you watch public TV on WKAR in mid-Michigan, I hope you'll share WKAR as your station code, or your local PBS station if in another area.

My Mother's Prognosis Is Not My Prognosis

My friend Patricia died from cancer about 15 years ago and she, too, was the daughter of a mother who died from cancer. When she got sick, she kept saying "Our mothers' prognosis doesn't have to be our prognosis" and she fought for many years, living a full life in the interim, marrying and having a lovely family that was her world.

Things have changed since then. They'll keep changing. I haven't had that diagnosis and I hope I never do. But should that day come, I will hold Patricia's words close to my heart. Someday we can only hope there will be a cure. Till then, knowing and understanding, helping others, asking for help if we need it, is the best we can do.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Teaching English to a Cat

The other night Lizzie and I were was watching "The Miracle Worker" on TCM. It's one of my favorite films, and in fact, the touring stage production was my first experience seeing professional theatre (at the ripe old age of 10). (Well, I was watching. I'm not so sure about her.)

It sent me on a childhood quest to learn all I could about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. My passion for the play included working crew for it as one of my earliest college experiences. (Let me say that cleaning up scrambled eggs from the end-of-act-one food fight was not particularly fun!)

As I was watching the film I was fascinated with how Annie Sullivan was trying to teach Helen both the words and the connection of the words to their meaning, finger-spelling over and over, saying the words aloud, even though Helen couldn't hear, touching her hand to the doll or door or spoon.

Let me tell you, this method does not work with cats.

They appear to have better things to do.

And I don't know why, really. All they do is sleep, eat and watch birds. Can't they learn a little? They are being raised in an English-language environment where those words are heard over and over. And OK, their brains are different and smaller and maybe they can't handle all those words. One thing is certain. It bores her.

But I'm not sure Lizzie Cosette is the tastiest kibble in the treat bag when it comes to brains. She's about three. I think she does know her name (when she chooses to acknowledge it). But I'm having a heck of a time getting her to understand "toy" or "fetch" (or even "bring") or chase.

When we're by the bird window she does seem to get excited when I say "Birds!" and run to the window. But I'm pretty sure it's the whispered, gaspy tone of voice. "Birds, Lizzie! Look!" The exclamation marks are key.

She'll sit on two legs for her food when I say "Releve, sil vous plait" or "Uppity Downie." It has nothing to do with the words. Only the bowl above her head.

Rewards don't seem to help either. She's rather bored by the whole educational focus on vocabulary.

No one ever accused Gypsy of being the Alan Turing of the cat world, but I could inject the words "Fancy Feast" in any tone, in any conversation and he would look up with sparkly eyes. It made for a great photo cue -- no cheese for him!

Well, most of the time the eyes were sparkly. Not always! On occasion they looked at me with disdain.

And his sitting was A+!

So, if anyone has any hints on this matter (apart from taking Lizzie's little paw and finger-spelling "toy" into it), pass 'em on. Or tell me to get a life, she's a cat, after all. But right now, I'm not holding my breath waiting for her to say "Wah. Wah."

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Moment In the Woods

"Oh, if life were made of moments, even now and then a bad one...
But if life were only moments, then you'd never know you had one."
               The Baker's Wife (Stephen Sondheim lyrics)

I've been waiting to see "Into the Woods" for months. I first saw the previews this summer and was a bit appalled at how Disney was selling it. You'd never know it was a musical. With a minute's worth of special effects and quick clips of people in fairy-tale dress, you'd think it was a Harry Potter sequel. I had terrible thoughts that when people discovered it was one of Stephen Sondheim's more complex moral allegories -- and a musical on top of that -- they'd stay away in droves.

But Meryl Streep is a trump card. And, because not everyone can sing Sondheim well, the cast was built with capable voices and personalities who could deliver the lyrics clearly so every word was understood. The film has been doing good business, which makes me glad. I may even go see it again.

The Plot 

"Into the Woods" takes the familiar fairy tale characters of the Brothers Grimm, like Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and others. He adds in the story of a witch with a curse placed on her head and a childless baker and his wife, wraps the story with intriguing and sometimes thought-provoking songs and weaves it all into a story that deals with searching for your dreams.

The first half (or act) of the film involves that quest, following various characters into the woods where their lives intersect. Life in the woods is dangerous. There are wolves who will devour you (consider the danger in this case to be your internet stalker or your neighborhood sex offender in modern terms.) In the film he is played with squirmingly delicious malevolence by Johnny Depp. You find things you need to realize those dreams. And, you may lose them -- either through poor decisions or perhaps just because fate steps in. You must be aware on your walk through the woods, keep your eyes open.

In the woods the Baker and his wife learn of witches with spells (it was a witch and spell that sent them there in the first place), princesses who long to be released from their tower prison and another who wants only to be free of her stepmother and go to the festival to meet the prince.

And yes, there can be happy endings. 

But what happens when you get what you want? Every single one of us knows that life isn't so clear cut, so clean and neat. We have the struggle. We may get our prince or that long-awaited child. Life is good. But is it perfect? Does it stay that way?

Happily Ever After?

If one wants to dig deeply, there are plenty of elements of "Into the Woods" that translate to real life. Think of the kids in Joplin, celebrating prom and moments after, a tornado disrupts their world, leaving families without homes, a job and perhaps their loved ones. Consider those affected by any disaster -- or even a terror attack as the one we saw last week in Paris. Even if the circumstances aren't collectively huge, what about the family who must face the unexpected loss of a family member, a job, a home -- or more than one thing at a time. Life is fine -- and then it crashes around us.

"There are Giants in the Sky," Sondheim reminds us. "Big, tall, terrible giants in the sky." And as quickly as our lives can come together, they can fall apart. And then what? How do we move forward when what we love or what we worked so hard to have is lost? Is it the surviving that makes us strong? Or is it the pulling ourselves back together and preparing to face another day. Can we do it alone or will we better survive if we can all help one another move forward?

Or, as the lyrics for "No One is Alone" remind us, "Someone is on your side, someone else is not. While we're seeing our side, maybe we forgot, they are not alone. No one is alone." Those words offer multiple meanings, serving to reinforce the idea that we can work together in times of adversity. They also offer a reminder of tolerance for other beliefs -- and the equally powerful reminder that those with beliefs different from ours have others on their side.

If all that sounds a little grim, remember -- this is a movie musical based on a fairy tale and produced by Disney. The movie's more profound moments are blended easily with comedy and plenty of music. Consider the princely brothers longing for their unattainable women (Cinderella and Rapunzel) and the "Agony" they feel as they try to one-up each other in the misery department. Trust me -- there is nothing grim about this moment! (No pun intended!)

The casting is solid. In addition to Streep's perfectly over-the-top performance and Depp's evil wolf, Emily Blunt (nominated as Best Actress in the Golden Globes) and James Cordon (soon to be the new Late Night host) hold the multiple stories together as the Baker and his Wife. Chris Pine is the handsome prince, raised to be charming -- not sincere. Rounding out the principals are Lilla Crawford (a gluttonous Red Riding Hood), Anna Kendrick and Christine Baranski (Cinderella and her stepmother) and Tracy Ullman as Jack's mother. Daniel Huddleston is a suitably feisty "Jack."

A note on special effects -- Rick and I had a discussion on this one. We've both seen the play. He found the effects of the movie distracting and too much, drawing focus away from Sondheim's lyrics and James Lupine's screenplay (quite faithful to the play with a few cuts and minor changes). He has a point -- there is a lot to see. But I compare special effects to space movies or films like "Inception" and from where I stood, not a problem.

Taking kids? Not the little ones, I think. They won't get it and they might be scared. If you can get your tween and older kids there, do. There is much to learn. And, as Streep reminds us, "Careful the things you say, children will listen; careful the things you do. Children will see and learn." (I've heard good reports from families going with their 10-15 year-old kids and the kids enjoying it.)

For more about the conversion of the play to film, wikipedia offers an well-cited article, including the point that all cuts and changes were approved by Sondheim and music and lyrics were written to accommodate the changes.

Posters from the film copyright Disney.

Friday, January 9, 2015

A New Angel and a Remembrance

There's a new angel today -- and how I wish there wasn't.

I've come to not like January so well. It seems that at this time of year we say goodbye to so many. I just learned of the death of another wonderful human being today, and coming next week and two weeks after that, the anniversaries of two dear friends. And I worry every day about several others whom I hold close to my heart, dreading the phone call or email or Facebook post that shares sad news.

I didn't know Vaughn (V.J.) Rawson well. I knew his wife much better, and even she wasn't one of the "intimates" -- one of those with whom you are in contact on a regular basis. But I had been to their amazing home several times for holiday gatherings and to see their remarkable woodcarving.

If you have followed The Marmelade Gypsy for any length of time, you may remember my posts featuring their work. V.J. carved the most magnificent Santas, snow people, Halloween figures and Dickens characters; Stephanie would paint them. They were known as The Whimsical Whittler.

They had been featured in national magazines, had some of their designs marketed to Midwest for mass production and had their work included on the White House Christmas tree.

For some, cancer is in the gene pool. For others, it's one of those things we never really know. But V.J's fight was long and valiant, his creative legacy large.

His final battle is over and my heart is very sad.

Sad, too, as I remember the anniversaries of blogger Diana ("Oh") and my friend, Mike Lewis. Diana's eloquent, delightful blog posts always enchanted me and when we met in person, I was thrilled that she was everything she was on the blog -- and more.

Mike was a friend from work whose heart was enormous and his dedication to friends incomparable. I can't think of him without a smile as he enriched our hearts -- and made many a tough day far easier to bear.

Both left huge holes in my heart. I mourn for their families and hope they know that these people they knew far better and far longer than I are not forgotten.

Tonight I look for a new twinkling star -- and know that V.J. is in fine company.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Starting the New Year

Well, by the time this post goes live, the new year will be well-started.I will have celebrated, wrapped, baked, dined, sipped, shared, decorated, undecorated (no, probably not), and smiled a whole lot.

So, what does the new year bring for me (besides a few months of very cold weather!)?

In 2015 I will continue the freelance work I've started with WKAR (my former employer) working on activities related to an upcoming PBS mini-series called "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies." We'll be hosting a screening and panel for this important and fascinating program and I'm looking forward to (and enjoying) all the contacts I will be making and have already made. Then comes another project called "Talking Money." Or "Thinking Money." I'd better figure that one out before I dig in too deeply!

I've finished the first two books of 2015 and hope to top last year's reading list with more titles (although I will have to say -- 2014 had a lot of pages!) Both of these books -- "Lost Cat" and "Parisian Cats" had wonderful illustrations and such charm, it was hard to turn the last page!

Yes, I will be back on the spinning bike at the gym. I find I really enjoy bikes that are anchored to the floor! I am still dealing with some painful tendonitis in my arms -- a reaction to the medication I took when I was sick in December, so we'll take the gym gently. The doc warned me about the potential for tendon rupture. That and the eliptical are my gym friends till it's warm enough again to be outside!

I am signed up for art workshops and more workshops at Southern Exposure in the spring! Yay! So, there will be plenty more posts on that wonderful spot.


I'm looking forward to getting a little bit "colorful" and play in paint and glue again!

I'm am eager to try lots of new recipes from my cookbook and recipe collection. (This photo is my friend Jane's collection -- huge and vintage!)

And, look for more posts on the Cork Poppers with our wine tasting recommendations!

I'm planning on clocking in some movie time (especially with the pre-Oscar nominations!) and have already seen and fallen in love with "Into the Woods." But then, it's Sondheim -- not everyone's cup of tea, but more than certainly, mine. Look for a post on that very soon!

This year the basement (or at least the stuff going to charity) will be done. I'm so tired of hating to go down there!

There are art projects to finish and new ones to start, poetry to write, photos to edit, more photos to take. There are places to go and friends to play with, flowers to smell, treats to bake!

I've tried hard to focus on a guiding word for the year. Last year I chose "Now." And, for the most part, I held pretty well to it (except for the dreaded dungeon). This year I have been back and forth between several. Quiet. Balance. Gentle. They've all been in the running.

Or maybe it should be "Time." Finding the time to do it all...

No matter what, Lizzie and I will be around to see what the new year brings. (Right now, she's hoping it will bring her dinner. Soon.)

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