Project management

IMG_5933Lego bricks, anyone?


So, a week into spring, and what have I been up to?


Well, there’s the classic seasonal activity: Spring cleaning. Which in my house these days means opening every drawer, every cabinet, every closet, and subjecting every item to a “Stay or go” ultimatum. We need to clear out before the renovation demolition begins on at the end of May, which feels like it’s about 48 hours away, especially when I see what I have still to offload and pack up and move out, and especially when I wake up at 3AM wondering how it will all be done in time.


IMG_5929Help! Every time I open a drawer, I see a sorting project.


And yet, we’ve renovated often enough to know that it will all get packed away or dragged away or otherwise offloaded. There’s the Salvation Army and Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and there’s Gentle Giants and short term storage.  And where we live, there’s the complete benefit of being able to put some stuff out on the sidewalk and just having it disappear to a happy new home. I’m always pleased when something that still has life in it gets snatched up from the “Free Stuff” box out front.


IMG_5900My little neighborhood sidewalk library has been a beneficiary of my efforts.  I’m a major donor here.


Meanwhile, there’s the part of the decanting process, of a couple of lifetimes of living under one roof, that is as much archeological dig as anything. Take the cabinets on our first floor that have held our audio life: stereo, AM/FM receiver, CD player. Yes, there’s still a cassette player in there. Most of the shelves were filled, towards the front, anyhow, with CDs, divvied up into in categories: women’s voices, jazz, classical, movie soundtracks, Broadway tunes. Honestly, too much real estate devoted to what fits on an iPod these days. So as I emptied the CDs into boxes, looking to see which jewel cases still have the CD inside, which are extra copies, which need to be donated to the college radio station down the street or  given away…well, what was hidden behind the CDs was a treasure trove of things from days gone by.

IMG_5700Progress!  Well, except for all that stuff on the left…


Here’s just a few of the things I’ve bumped into along the way:

IMG_5938Video tapes and audio cassettes.  Really, what to do?  I suppose there’s a CD version of E.B. White reading Charlotte’s Web out there somewhere, but there’s something about the memory of listening in the car, having to flip sides every twenty minutes…long rides were good with books on tape.  Actual tape!  And no one will ever voice Templeton the Rat quite like Andy White himself.  My favorite quote, from the fairground scene: “This place is a rat’s paradise!” Amen!

IMG_5930My Filofax.  Remember Filofaxes?  Honestly, I kind of liked being able to pencil in new addresses; make little notes about who I need to send a Christmas cards to.  Now, every time I get a new phone, I’m at the mercy of the tech guy to get the actual mailing addresses transferred intact.  Hmm.  I might resurrect that portion of my little black book…

IMG_5699Parenting books.  By the boatload.  Did I really feel like I needed all these?  Apparently yes.  It gives me a great deal of pleasure to box these up and send them elsewhere.  Unless there’s a book out there about how to get your 23 year old mortgage-qualified, we’re done here.  Hallelujah!

Oh, and yes, I read “Who’s Calling the Shots?” before I knew that the author was Matt Damon’s mom.

IMG_5695Binkies.  A ziplock sandwich bag full of binkies.  Apparently I hid these from myself, as well as from whoever I suspected might not have been able to quit them cold turkey.  A mere two decades ago…frightening.

IMG_5905Don’t even get me going on photos that have surfaced…but yes, that’s our old back door neighbor, with my baby.  Who’s a junior in college these days.  Turn, turn, turn.

* * * * *

So, that’s what I’ve been up to.  Well, actually, that’s just one of my current project management assignments.  The other major one has to do with my creaky joints and ache-y back.  And hip.  And various other body parts.  Which is boring and makes me feel crabby when I bring it up, but it’s a project to be tackled, that’s for sure.  And it explains why my calendar for the upcoming week includes a PT appointment, a Salvation Army delivery, an MRI, and a Big Brothers/Big Sisters pick-up, in that order.  Oh, and a reservation for four, to celebrate my baby’s 21st birthday.







continuing education

IMG_5526“Of course that’s your contention. You’re a first year grad student.”

Remember the bar scene in Good Will Hunting, when Will berates the obnoxious Michael Bolton look-alike for making fun of his friend Chuckie?   After dismissing the grad student’s plagiarized take on colonial American market economies, Will dresses him down by telling him two things: “One, don’t do that.  And two, you just dropped a hundred and fifty grand on an education you could have gotten for a dollar fifty in late charges from the public library.”  (Expletive deleted. More than one, actually.)

Praise be, I am blessed with a fabulous public library in my neighborhood–one that lets me renew on line! so I get to save that buck fifty!  But on top of that civic gift,  there’s an even more remarkable perk of living where I do, which is this: the  never-ending, all-welcoming, free-to-whoever-shows-up continuing education that is the definition of college town life.

All it takes is a little effort to figure out what’s happening when. There are panel discussions and performances and screenings and exhibits, every day.  There’s science and literature and sports and politics, more than you could ever make room for on your calendar.  A week doesn’t go by that I can’t find something worth checking in on.  I will never tackle multi-variable calculus or organic chemistry on my own, the way Matt Damon’s character did, but I suspect Will Hunting would still appreciate my lifelong effort to  educate myself, free of charge.

Here’s just a few of the topics I’ve been schooled in lately, for less than the cost of an overdue library book:

IMG_4922Every year, an extraordinary artist is selected to deliver the Norton Series of lectures at Sanders Theater.  This year’s luminary is musician Herbie Hancock.  Here he is, delivering a talk on breaking rules: how to, when to, why to.  On his short list for great rule-breakers: Igor Stravinsky, directing from the screen above the master jazz pianist.  “Don’t break the rules just for the sake of breaking the rules; break them because you have to, to tell a story that couldn’t be told without changing the template.”

IMG_4909My book group chose the book My Promised Land for discussion in early February.  I lugged my copy around with me for weeks beforehand, reading  and rereading passages and chapters, always with a pencil at the ready.  I highlighted hundreds of lines, and turned down dozens of corners, because so much of what I read was news to me.  Truth be told, I would never have picked up this book if it hadn’t been thrust upon me.  And I am hugely grateful that it was, because it filled a gaping hole in my threadbare understanding of the Middle East. The more I read of modern Israel’s complicated and troubled history, both ancient and modern, the more I wanted to know.  And the more I learned, the more I cared. This book moved me to tears.  What author Ari Shavit delivered to me, through his decades of research and  his poignant interviews and his powerful writing, was an understanding and an appreciation deep enough to weep for a place I’ve never seen and hardly, truly, ever met.

After New Year’s, when college was back in session and I was cramming to get to the end of the story before my book group convened, my younger son texted me to say, “Did you see that the guy who wrote that book you’ve been carrying around since before Christmas is speaking tomorrow afternoon?”  No, I had not seen those posters, dear son, thank you for letting me know! I wrote back.  And that’s how I got to hear Ari Shavit describe how he came to write this deeply personal history of his homeland, so evocatively and unflinchingly.

I took seven pages of notes at his talk. They’re penciled in my copy of his book, starting on the back inside cover and covering every blank space I could find between the end papers and the final chapter.

IMG_5226Meanwhile, Katherine Boo, gifted writer and chronicler of life in the slums of Mumbai in her Pulitzer prize-winning bestseller,  Behind the Beautiful Forevers, was also on my book group’s reading list.   Again, my fellow readers put a writer and a topic on my plate that I would never have chosen on my own.  Again, I count myself lucky to have had the chance to delve into a work that so massively increased my knowledge about a world I knew not of.  And once again, lucky for me, Katherine Boo came to town to give a talk on the subject of her immersion into the granular realities of a world built on monsoon mudflats and un-recyclable refuse, on fear and desperation and hope. That she was speaking to design students was a bonus, as she made brilliantly apparent her profound belief that these worlds deserve the attention of a new generation–one that might be able to make a difference.

IMG_5158As she spoke of her journey into the life of the Annawadi slum, Boo shared images of that world and its inhabitants.  Many of the pictures and videos had been taken by the children whose lives she had reported on, youngsters who were quick to master her camera.  The images gave a vivid sense of the place she chronicled for three years, as well as the people who claimed her in that process.

IMG_5527Okay, this one wasn’t free.  But I’m grateful to have Diane Paulus in my home town,  doing the work she does at the American Repertory Theater,  and I’m more than happy to open my wallet and discover what she’s been up to.  The photo above is from the ART’s recent musical, “Witness Uganda.”  The play is based on the real life experiences of a young out-of-work New Yorker named Griffin Matthews (center, above; author, actor and ardent believer in the power of good intentions), who discovered that an act of community service had turned him into a pawn in a Ugandan school-building scam. While still in Uganda, and by way of trying to figure out what to do next, he met children–many of them AIDS orphans–who yearned for the education they were being denied.  Matthews’ play was born as a fundraising tool for his own Ugandan school-building foundation.  It may well become a Broadway musical, given Diane Paulus’s Midas touch.  But whether “Witness Uganda” makes the great white way or not,  I suspect the true feat of this work of art will be a greater good, by making some useful noise, shedding some light, and providing help that actually helps.

So, I may never earn an advanced degree to show for my efforts, but I feel a lot more informed, a little bit more a  global citizen, every time I check in and show up, right down the street from where I live.

here’s what I know so far, so far

IMG_4099This photo is just here to remind me how full the moon was, back when I started thinking about writing this post.  It took more than the usual dose of pondering, to figure out what I wanted to say.

And so, here I am, in the calm after the storm of my bad news mammogram detour of 2012-13.  I’ve got a full head of hair, both darker and grayer than before, but hey, it all came back.  And I remain enormously grateful for the care I received, and for the family and friends who warmed my heart with good cheer along the way.  Sure, I’ve got some health issues I’m dealing with these days, but as one of my docs noted last week, my joint aches and pains aren’t even vaguely malignant.  And this I know for sure: compared to what I was worrying about last winter, my medical concerns today are strictly garden variety.

And yet…there’s this thing that happens, when you’ve faced a cancer scare.  Inevitably, some noteworthy study hits the news cycle, about what you just went through.  And trust me, it’s not anywhere near as much fun as reading the Sunday travel section about vacation spots you’ve already visited.  No, the stories that bubble up to the top of the media pages these days about cancer care (no stories about cures, I’m sad to report, and few stories about prevention, beyond “Eat more kale”) tend to make a person who’s been down that road question…well, everything.

Starting with the detection piece.  I’ve told practically every woman I know to insist on getting 3D mammograms.  It was a 3D image that found my tiny lump and sent me down my treatment path.  The mantra was repeated as well-documented fact: early detection is key.  Finding breast cancer early and catching it before it spreads is the name of the game. A slam-dunk no-brainer, it seemed.

Except that one recurring tidbit of “new” news left me wondering if early detection was truly the key to everything.   Does knowing sooner actually save lives, or have medical practices simply ramped up the success rate by “curing” us of non-lethal lumps? Why haven’t the odds of survival from the really scary breast cancers, the ones that metastasize and invade other body parts, improved significantly, with early diagnoses?  How many years will it be before that spot on a film image can be positively identified as an ornery, take-no-prisoners tumor gone rogue, versus one that’s just bobbing around in the shallow end of the cancer pool, never to reach its malignant potential?  When will we be more usefully informed, beyond what we know today?

IMG_4323This photo I’ve inserted purely for visual joy.  Though, now that I think about it, an image like this one might provide a useful lesson in perspective.

“Here’s What I Know So Far” is the name of this blog.  It started out as a subject line for the emails I had, back and forth, early on, with my beloved.  Between the mammogram and the biopsies and the surgery and various tests, the definition of What I Know So Far became a bulging file folder of data.  I learned, for example, that from a cohort of four sisters and a mother, one’s family circle can collectively go 4 for 5 in the breast cancer derby, but can still all come up blissfully negative on the tests for scary genetic mutations that drive women to harvest their eggs and offload their reproductive plumbing.  It’s the sort of information that starts out as a “phew!” and ends up leaving a person (that would be me) wondering, “Well then, why?”  What were we all exposed to, back in the day? Was it the DDT sprayed on the blueberries that we scarfed from the side of the road?  Was there something in the lime dust that settled all over our neighborhood, from the kilns down the street?  Too many Diet Pepsis drunk out of plastic bottles, too much aerosol cheese? Was it the glue vapors hanging in the air, back when my brothers made model airplanes, or the second hand smoke from my parents’ cigarettes? How will I ever know?

Bottom line: there’s nothing to be done about the facts you don’t have.  You can only go on what you know so far, however imperfect the current information may be.

I got the mammogram callback, I got the tests, I got the surgery.  While I was lying on the operating table getting lumpectomied, my surgeon biopsied some cells from my sentinel node, site of the presumed next stop for any breast cancer cells with a wanderlust component.  Alas, my little breast lump had already dispatched some of its friends to my armpit.  And with that, “In situ” were words that didn’t apply.  We were not being overly cautious, and I was not about to be over-treated.  We had a situation here.

So, as I sit here typing, what do I do with the realization, the weird relief, that nothing I’ve done seems to have been uncalled for?  My plan of attack was based on the best information available.  I didn’t get a radical mastectomy, like my mother did 35 years ago, back when the known facts of breast cancer were even fewer and farther between.  But I also didn’t spend much time pondering a wait-and-see option, or checking out alternative treatments.   What I banked on, and am relieved by, is the knowledge that the surgical, oncological and radiological plan that was set into motion to rid my body of cancer was a combination of the best options available.  With what my doctors knew at the time.

With what we all knew so far.

The tasks that lie ahead for researchers are the same ones they’ve been tackling for decades: that is, how best (how most safely, how least invasively) to rid the human body of any sort of cancer, and how to prevent cancers from spreading to other organs and body parts.  Oh, and while you’re at it, dream big, and see what you can do to prevent cancer from striking in the first place.

No small feats.  But also, no room for make-believe success stories.

As for what I went through, there will be better testing down the road, including screenings to determine when and how often women need mammograms, based on one’s genetic makeup and family history.  There will be further fine-tuning, to upgrade best courses of treatment, dosages and delivery methods.  All these improvements will make the trauma of a lousy mammogram result just a little more tolerable, and a whole lot more successful, bit by bit.

In the meantime, my friends, here’s my continued, if somewhat revised, entreaty: Have these conversations with your docs.  Get answers to the questions: Am I at risk? Should I get that baseline examination? Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater on mammograms, and don’t let years go by before you schedule the one you were due for six months ago.  Accept the fact that there’s no perfect information. But find out what you can, and do right by your health, with what there is to know. So far, anyway.

IMG_4324Chuck Close, from far enough back to see the whole.

Sometimes you have to stand back to see the big picture, and to figure out what you know.