Friday, December 24, 2010

Ghost of Christmas Past

Christmas 1974 with My Mom in Tacoma, WA

Christmas 1983 with My Baby Sister in Ridgewood, NJ

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree...

For the last three years, Gary and I have wanted to get a Christmas tree; this year, we made it happen. As I unsnapped the plastic storage container marked "Christmas" in big black Sharpie, the first two ornaments I saw were reminders of my life in San Francisco. One thing cancer makes you acutely aware of is that time is limited, which is why I decided to ask my mom for a very special Christmas present this year; specifically, I asked her to split airfare with me back to California. So this February, my best friend from NJ (Christine) is going to San Francisco with me to meet my best friend from my time working at Riordan (Diana) - it will be an incredibly special and fun-filled few days. Then, off to San Diego to spend two days with Christine, my mom, step-dad, sister and dogs. I've put off this trip for too long - I can't wait for part of my New Jersey life to meet up with my California past.

Ornaments: San Francisco Trolley and Riordan High School, SF

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Baptisms and Birthdays

Recently, Gary and I had the honor of attending my good friend's daughter's baptism. One of the things that I most appreciate about being Catholic is the ability to symbolically celebrate life's important milestones: baptism, confirmation, marriage, anointing of the sick - all of these sacraments remind us that we are not alone; our faith and community are there to help us on life's sometimes bumpy journey. It's a nice feeling - not having to brave the big bad world all by yourself.

We have plenty of these moments outside of the religious context: birthdays, graduations, proms - events that mark not only the passage of time, but also new chapters in our own unique story. Shortly after the baptism, we attended Gary's grandmother's surprise 90th birthday. What an incredible few days - seeing the grand spectrum of life's beauty in these two precious souls.

Sophia Rae's Baptism

Sara Mae's 90th Birthday

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Christmas Time In The City

Last Saturday, we had an adventure in New York City with our friends Chris and Christine. When we arrived, the guys and girls split up for the first chunk of the morning. The first order of business for the guys was a haircut for Gary; and yes, Gary goes to NYC for a haircut every two weeks. His barber (Michael) was recently featured in the New York Times Style section and, as you can imagine, has quite a following.

Gary and His Barber: F.S.C. Barber, West Village NYC

While the guys visited the barber and a rare book store, Christine and I walked over to Chelsea Market, which is an industrially designed maze of vendors - offering everything from baked goods to clothes. It is also home to a few TV networks, including The Food Network, so "celebrity foodies" are sometimes spotted wandering around.

Chelsea Market, 75 Ninth Ave

Notice the bag in Christine's hand? It's a box of gourmet chocolates from Jacques Torres Chocolates. And the coffee in my hand? That's a cappuccino from Ninth Street Espresso (best coffee in the City). These were just two little treats we picked up before visiting Amy's Bread for a chocolate croissant and an applesauce donut. After our Chelsea Market morning, we met up with the guys and walked over to Pastis for lunch.

Pastis, 9 Ninth Ave NYC

Pastis is the real deal - a French bistro with serious French food and serious French attitude...

So Christine and I practiced our pouty Parisian looks before her salad and my croque-monsieur (ham and gruyere cheese on a baguette) arrived...

After lunch, we walked to Soho so that Christine could visit her favorite yarn store (and pick out some amazing pink yarn for a hat she's making me). On the way to the yarn store, we stopped in at the world famous MarieBelle Cacao Bar and Tea Salon for two dixie-cups worth of premium hot chocolate - which cost a staggering $7 a piece (hopefully you can see them in Gary's and Christine's hands below)

MarieBelle, Soho NYC

Then we did a little shopping....

Christine Strikes a Zoolander Pose

Next - it was over to the legendary Pommes Frites for authentic Belgian fries. Pommes Frites only sells three things: 1. sizzling double fried wedges of potato perfection; 2. over twenty-six different dipping sauces for your fries; 3. drinks. In addition to sauces, you can also get your fries layered with the traditional mayo, onion and ketchup - which is exactly what Gary ordered (below):

Pommes Frites, 123 Second Ave NYC

The place is smaller than tiny, and only has two tables in the back of the bar. (Luckily eagle-eyes Johnston was able to commandeer one right away.) The best part about the tables is that they have custom built holes to keep your paper fry cone perfectly upright, leaving your hands free to dip away - as expertly demonstrated by Chris and Christine.

Then we walked around for a while, and took in the sites before making our way back to the West Village.

All day we had sporadically noticed people in Santa Clause costumes. It was a little weird - but we heard there was a parade or something, so we didn't really think too much of it... that is until we got closer to our car, which was parked by NYU. All of a sudden, literally thousands of drunk college kids dressed like Santas were everywhere... pouring out onto the streets, eating burgers in Five Guys, outside the bars smoking, inside pizza parlors - everywhere you looked there were swarms of intoxicated Santas.

We pulled out our trusty iphones to try to figure out what the heck was going on and learned that we were in the midst of "SantaCon" 2010. Basically, SantaCon is a silly Santa prank that started in San Francisco in 1994 - in which thousands of people descend on a location wearing Santa gear. Apparently it is a craze that has spread all over the world - they even had 70 thousand Santas in Moscow in 2006! Who knew?

Picture of SantaCon 2010 by my cousin who was there!

Believe it or not, by the time we reached the West Village, it was dinner time. Luckily, Gary and I knew just the place we wanted to take our friends: Scarpetta in the Meatpacking District, owned by celebrity chef Scott Conant - who became famous, in part, for his simple but amazing spaghetti with tomato and basil dish.

(Internet picture of Scott Conant and his signature dish)

After enjoying some of the best pasta in New York City was time to head home.

You may be wondering how I held up after all this eating and walking? Well, as far as the eating, for the most part Christine and I limited ourselves to small samples of whatever it was that we had ordered - but still, it was a lot of food and I have been fighting serious nausea all week. The walking was fine until the next day...when it hit me like a ton of bricks. I still feel creaky - almost a week later. So I guess you can say it took a bit of a toll, but it was a great day - one in which I really lived life to the fullest with some of my favorite people in the whole world.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Mother's Wisdom

"If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn't lead anywhere."

My mother, a polio survivor and 2011 Equestrian Paralympic hopeful, pictured here with her former - much beloved - equine partner Pan Pan

Friday, December 10, 2010

Emerson and the Icebox

I don't trust people who don't clutter their refrigerator doors with cheesy travel magnets, birth announcements, postcards and left over fortunes from bad Chinese take-out... refrigerators are empty canvases - patiently waiting to be turned into feel-good mosaics of inspiration and memories.

The latest addition to my own hodgepodge collage is an Emerson quote, which is too good not to share... "Finish each day and be done with it. you have done what you could. some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. tomorrow is a new day. you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Family Thanksgiving

Gary and I celebrated Thanksgiving this year with my entire extended Italian family (with the exception of my sister and mom - who we "skyped" in from San Diego, CA via laptop computer). The meal was a typical 5-course Italian holiday dinner:

Antipasto (my contribution - pictured)
Primo: lasagna
Secondo: organic turkey (Griggstown Farm)
Contorni: yams and marshmallows, two types of stuffing, green beans, breaded asparagus, spaghetti squash, mash potatoes, cranberry jello, stuffed mushrooms
Dolce: cannoli, chocolate cake, pie (apple and blueberry), cookies, pumpkin cheesecake

The nicest part of the dinner, however, wasn't the incredible food - rather it was the people around the dinner table who made it a day I'll always treasure - Gary, my uncle, my aunt, my grandparents, my cousins...we were all together, in one place, simultaneously sharing memories and making them.

Of course, one dinner table topic of conversation was my health - everyone wanted to know: is the cancer gone? I guess you could say that I'm in remission, since technically that means that you aren't showing signs or symptoms of the cancer. Remission, however, does not mean "cured" - even if you do not show signs or symptoms, cancer cells may still be growing like crazy. Also, my neuroendocrine system has been forever effected as a result of the cancer- and fevers and pain are still a daily struggle. So I guess I just don't have a solid answer. There is part of me that wants to say, "yup - 100% A-OK, don't worry - nothing to see here - everything is perfect"... and then there is the other part of me that wants to say, "it's too early to tell so don't leave my side for too long"... Regardless of what the cancer may or may not do in the future, right now - I am so very grateful for the time I have.

A Pre-Dinner Read
Three Generations: my grandmother, aunt and cousin

Watching Thanksgiving Football
Three Generations: my grandfather, uncle and cousins
Bonus: a picture of my great grandfather and his father playing bocce ball

Double Bonus: Gary!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Evolution of Toys

I bought a new car; it is the first new car that I have ever owned.

It is green ... the kind of green that prompted my grandmother, the day after she first saw it, to write me an email asking permission to name it the Green Hornet; permission granted.

When I picked up the Green Hornet from the dealer, I was struck by the irony of the situation; here I was buying a brand new bright green car while simultaneously teaching Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in senior honors English. Gatsby is a symbolic novel, and may be best remembered for the green light at the end of Daisy's dock, which serves as a beacon for Gatsby's romantic, albeit naive, optimism. The 1920s American automobile is also used in symbolic fashion as a metaphoric vehicle for rebellious self-indulgence - speeding past landscapes of the materially wealthy and spiritually poor until all that is left is a blur of moral irresponsibility. In the end, Gatsby's rose-tinged longing for the past spectacularly crashes head-first into an ash-grey wall of reality, constructed from the burnt-up reminents of the American dream.

As Americans, our fascination with "stuff" starts at an early age. When I was growing up in the 1980s, every kid wanted a "Green Machine" - a three wheeler by Huffy with serious pizazz. Thinking back, I can almost hear those oversized black plastic wheels chewing up driveway concrete, and the joyful squeels of excitement from rider and onlookers alike. I think somehow we have misinterpreted those childhood memories - we remember the toys more than the experiences, and try to regain those innocent delightful feelings by acquiring things rather than enjoying moments.

Cars can be symbols for traveling back to the past or hurrying into the future; both trips however have the same destination: to transport us away from the hurts and insecurities of the present. So as I set out for new adventures in my Green Hornet, I will try my best to drive toward a place of fresh possibilities rather than following detours back to a land of worn-out dreams.

"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther ... And one fine morning -- So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past" The Great Gatsby

Friday, November 12, 2010

PC Students Join the Fight Against Carcinoid Cancer

PC Students Advocate for Carcinoid Cancer Awareness

Last year, I made the difficult decision of sharing my Carcinoid cancer diagnosis with the students, faculty and staff of Paramus Catholic High School (PC), where I teach 11th and 12th grade English. Since then, the outpouring of care and concern from the PC community has been overwhelming; and when I mentioned that this year was the first ever Worldwide NET Cancer Awareness Day (WNCAD), my students were eager to advocate for an increased awareness of this rare disease. Below are just a few of the ways that PC joined the fight against Carcinoid cancer:

Paladin News Network Anchors

Every morning, the students, faculty and staff of Paramus Catholic High School tune into a live broadcast over Paladin News Network (PNN) for prayer, the pledge, and announcements. During the month of November, the students of PNN decided to help raise awareness about neuroendocrine tumors by delivering their telecast in front of a greenscreen featuring zebra stripes and a Carcinoid Cancer Awareness logo.

Paladin Awareness Cancer Team Table

On November 10th, the students of PACT - PC's cancer awareness club - set up a table outside of the cafeteria to distribute information about NET cancers. They also created and administered a quiz on Carcinoid cancer, which over 300 students took in order to win prizes such as zebra striped pins, stickers, and bracelets. PACT also decorated their bulletin board with zebras and facts about Carcinoid cancer.

792 Signatures: WNCAD Proclamation

In addition to student-sponsored advocacy, on November 10th my colleagues in the English department took a break from vocabulary, grammar, composition, and literature to talk about my story and encourage students to sign the WNCAD Proclamation, which acknowledges the need for increased awareness about NET cancers and better access to treatment for Carcinoid cancer patients. Because of their efforts, we gathered 792 signatures in a single day.

Our school's mascot, a Paladin, is a knight of uncommon valor and virtue who fights injustices in the world - I'd say that the students and faculty of PC have certainly lived up to the Paladin legend through their incredible efforts in supporting the Carcinoid cancer community.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Wait is OVER: WNCAD is Here!


What is WNCAD you ask? Only the first ever Worldwide NET Cancer Awareness Day (Nov 10th). Wear zebra print (or at least black and white) tomorrow to show your support for the Carcinoid Cancer community.

"Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one." ~Jane Howard

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bike Race in Thompson Park

10/31/10: Thompson Park, Jamesburg NJ

I do not know how to ride a bike. When I tell people this, inevitably the next question is: "Can you swim"? I never got the connection between the two sports - but yes, I can swim.

While I have never balanced on two wheels, one of our dearest friends, Chris Gozick (orange jersey), is a top-notch cyclist who competes all over the State. On Halloween, Chris was racing close by, so it was the perfect excuse to go spend a beautiful day outside with Gary and my best friend Christine (Chris's wife) ... we even got an added bonus when our friend Alastair joined us with his new rescue bull terrier, Frank.

Spending time with Gary in the crisp fall air, with our friends and Frank, obliterated any lingering aches and pains October had been harboring, and left me refreshed and renewed - ready for anything.


"The greatest healing therapy is friendship and love." - Hubert Humphrey

Monday, November 1, 2010

Halloween Treat: Dinner at Elements

Elements, Princeton NJ

Gary and I love amazing food, and have flown everywhere in search of it; from celebrity-chef-owned restaurants like Moto in Chicago that use molecular gastronomy to create avante-garde cuisine, to historical restaurants like The Olde Pink House in Savannah that improve upon quintessential comfort food. For obvious reasons, we haven't indulged in such gastric delights in a long time.

One of our favorite restaurants in New Jersey is Elements in Princeton. When we learned that they had a tasting menu during the month of October to celebrate their 2-year anniversary, we decided to take the dive back into fine dining.

If you've never eaten at Elements and you live anywhere near New Jersey - go. Firstly, the space is unbelievable; they actually transformed part of a garage into an architectural marvel. Secondly, the food is incredible. Dinner was perfect, and I've done my best to remember all seven courses, listed below.

Amuse Bouche - Champagne, Coconut-Broccoli Cream Soup, Winter Barley Salad
First Course - Hamachi Tartare with Cilantro
Second Course - Squash Soup with Corned Beef and Cabbage, and Caraway Ice Cream
Third Course - Pacific Halibut with Chopped Geoduck, Toasted Pumpkin Seeds, Broccoli, and Pumpkin Puree
Fourth Course - Wild New Jersey Mushroom Risotto with Mushroom Froth
Fifth Course - 48-hour Short Ribs with Red Potatoes and Kale
Sixth Course - MY FAVORITE - Bacon and Eggs
Seventh Course - Pumpkin Cheesecake with Gingerbread Sorbet
Complimentary Dessert - Chocolate Plate (6 homemade chocolates...the best being caramel peanut-butter filled dark chocolate truffle)

"Bacon and Eggs" at Elements

Ok - that sixth course deserves a pause and further description. It is the chef's signature dish that serves as a bridge between the savory and sweet courses. On one side of the plate is a hollowed out eggshell with three layers of gooey goodness inside: the bottom is brioche French toast, the middle is bacon custard, the top is maple foam with smoked sea salt. On the other side of the plate is a mini French toast with homemade bacon and bourbon maple syrup. It's insane.

Although my appetite is much smaller than it used to be, I took my time and managed to at least savor a little of everything. It was an absolutely wonderful night.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Jackie-O Surprise

I did not go to school on Thursday because I was attending a coach's mock trial training. When I returned Friday, I found a mysteriously wrapped present and card in my teacher's mailbox in the main office. Curiously, I opened the card and found that the present was from a friend and colleague of mine at school. I quickly tore off the wrapping paper to reveal - what else - but a Jackie-O "First Lady" Edition Bobble Head! It was one of the nicest, most special cards and gifts I've ever received, and I will treasure them always.

Making Strides Against Breast Cancer

On Sunday, October 24th I joined some of our students (PC Cheer Team and PC Cancer Awareness Club) for the "Making Strides Against Breast Cancer" 5k walk at Bergen Community College, which is the biggest event in North Jersey helping to raise money and awareness for Breast Cancer patients and survivors. Similar walks are held all over the country during October (Breast Cancer Awareness Month) and there were over 5,000 walkers who turned out for our event - including about 50 kids from our school. It was a perfectly crisp October day, and the sea of pink-clad walkers looked like a beautiful ribbon winding through the brightly colored fall trees. The event raised over $546,000 in donations for cancer research.

Pictures: (top) a group photo of our students who participated in the event; (bottom) I walked with two of my lovely seniors - who are both captains of the varsity cheer team

To Read News Article About the Event: "Thousands make the walk in Bergen County to help breast cancer suffers" - Click HERE

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Carcinoid Cancer: Recurrence Rates

I just read an article from the Annals of Surgery entitled "Carcinoid Tumors of the Appendix" that estimates there is an 80% chance that I will have a tumor recurrence since my initial Carcinoid tumor was bigger than 2 cm. The article only confirms what I have been hearing for the last few weeks from my friends in the Carcinoid community. I found several more reputable medical journals that all have the same statistic, so it's safe to say that 80% is a pretty good estimate of what I'm up against.**

I know that percentages are just calculated odds, and some people beat them. It's a little deflating though to think that my first fight with Cancer may have only been the beginning. I know that I have the best doctors in the world, and the most supportive friends and family anyone could ask for... but sometimes, I feel a little rushed to hit the "Rewind" button and just get back to the way things were before my diagnosis.

I never want to alarm people or cause problems, so I pretend a lot. I pretend my joints don't hurt so badly that sometimes (like today) I can barely walk or move. I pretend my fevers are gone, and I'm sleeping well. I pretend I don't need nausea pills anymore, and all my "plumbing" is humming like a well oiled machine. I pretend I'm not worried that I still may be dying. Dr. Nash has made it clear that there is really nothing to do but wait - nothing will relieve the lingering aches and pains and anxiety; no magic pill or treatment can erase all that's happened to my body as a result of the Cancer - so what else is there to do but pretend that everything is fine? After all, isn't hope just another form of pretending?

I know that I should be celebrating the gift of a second chance, but to tell you the truth I sort of feel like a wimpy kid with a shiny new bike who has to ride home past the neighborhood bully everyday. It would be so nice if the bully just went on a family vacation for a while - at least until I got a little faster, a little stronger, and could outrun him. I guess if I do have to face him, I should remember to "fight like a girl" - and win.

** UPDATE: After I posted this, my sister (who is in medical school) reviewed the medical literature and said that the statistics were not given enough context to support a generalized 80% recurrence rate - which is great news! I have tried to find something concrete about recurrence rates without success... If anyone has good resources on recurrences of Carcinoid tumors of the appendix (greater than 2cm) following a right hemicolectomy - please forward them!

** UPDATE: I saw Dr. Nash in April 2011, and he estimates my recurrence rate to be as low as 10%

Great bumper sticker I saw on the way home...

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Covered Bridge in Kent, Conn.

"Autumn, the year's last, loveliest smile." - William Bryant

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Lunching in New England

Downtown Kent, Conn.

On our day-trip to Connecticut, Gary and I had lunch in "downtown" Kent at The Millstone Cafe, which is all about "celebrating honest food, mindfully prepared, locally sourced.” Everything they make is from local farms and delicious. We were so excited to see that they had Tempeh hot-dogs on the menu, which we ordered only to find that they had run out. So instead, we ordered a fantastic, earthy barley, feta and kale salad, which Gary was later able to duplicate at home.

Great Picture Hanging in the Millstone Cafe

For dessert, we walked down the street to "Belgique" - a Belgian chocolate shop nestled in a small Victorian carriage house. The owner of this gem is the real deal, and worked for Queen Elizabeth and the White House. We ordered two hot chocolates with Chantilly whip cream, which were rich and dreamy, but their chocolates -- so fresh they require an expiration date -- were hands-down the best I've ever tasted.

Then, with hot chocolates in hand, we strolled through a bag-book sale (you pay $5 for a bag and fill it up with as many books as the bag will hold) and wondered down some train tracks to photograph a picturesque farmhouse. It was a pretty amazing day.