Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday, February 25, 2011

Cold rainy nights like tonight are the times when I wish our fireplace worked. It’s original to our house, which started out as the artist studio to the house next door, built in the 1920s. Although it’s managed to withstand many an earthquake through the decades and is beautiful to look at, it is unreinforced brick without a fire box, and we’ve just been chicken to ever use it. After enjoying the ambiance of a fireplace at someone else’s home, I come home thinking about how much a usable fireplace would add to the atmosphere of our “big room.” But then I remember the breath-taking estimates we got years ago, and go back to lighting the candles that provide a surrogate glow in the hearth.

Truth be told, without Akemi home, I usually am holed up in my room, and even more so these past few weeks. When it rains, though, I like to read or take my computer out to the “big room” and listen to the rain really come down. With the first chemo “holiday” today in a month, I felt that I’m starting to be able to concentrate and think again. Anyone who has gone through chemo will tell you that “chemo brain” is frustratingly real. So while I have some operating brain cells, my rainy night project was to go through all my test results and chart them for analysis and reference going forward.

Now that that’s done, it’s time for another rainy-day tradition in our home: “hurricane” popcorn from Hawaii, seasoned with furikake with senbei.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Today's Los Angeles Times headlines tell of Moammar Kadafi's regime crumbling in Libya, the Obama administration discontinuing legal challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act, and rising oil prices threatening economic recovery. But let's focus on the truly important cover story: Caltech's basketball team snapping a 310-game losing streak to win its first conference game in 26 years.

Surely my father is part of a Beaver basketball alumni celebration beyond the veil. Dad lettered in basketball at Caltech, as well as football and track. Growing up, whenever someone would brag about their father's athletic accomplishments, I casually would mention that MY father was a three-varsity sport letterman. They'd be impressed and then I would play straight man to my own joke, adding after an appropriate pause, ". . .at Caltech."

Dad said there was, shall we say, alot of opportunity to participate in sports at Caltech during his undergraduate years, especially because it was not long after World War II, 1947-1951. Where else could someone about 5'6" play collegiate basketball? But Dad also was a fast runner. When he and his brothers were teenagers on a work release from the Poston II internment camp, he chased and caught rabbits with his bare hands for dinner. And he could really jump and leap. He was a natural at the high jump, long jump, and hurdles.

The one school sport I ever participated in was junior high track. My PE teacher thought I had a natural form for hurdles, which pleased Dad no end. He coached me to clear the hurdles in an efficient way. He loved watching my three brothers play basketball, whether for school or for SEYO. Alan was the one who was serious about high school football. Among the Kamei grandchildren, Thomas, Bronson, and Akemi have played basketball. Thomas set high school records for cross country and was the captain of his cross country team, and Carly is our current track representative.

Dad taught me some Caltech cheers. I only remember one: "Cosine, secant, tangent, sine/Three point one four one five nine/CIT, CIT, CIT/Caaaaal Tech!" When Caltech President Jean-Luc Chameau and Nobel laureate Robert Grubbs joined other fans to storm the court after Tuesday night's win, Dad undoubtedly was leading a cheer, too.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sunday, February 20, 2011

In the summer of 2009, I was USC’s representative to a one-month leadership program for senior women university administrators. Held on the beautiful campus of Bryn Mawr College outside of Philadelphia, this institute was no summer camp. Forty-seven of us from universities and colleges throughout the country were together from 7 am for the start of breakfast through 9 pm when we were done with a speaker, group assignment, or workshop – and then we had readings and “homework” for the next day, six days a week. Out of the month, I only made it into Philadelphia twice: once for church and once to visit the Museum of Art.

That’s all to say that the program expected a lot out of us and that it was an intense experience. Fortunately, if one has to be sequestered with 46 other women, at least these were incredible women. It’s amazing how well we all got along, how much we came to respect one another, and how close we became. I was never part of a sorority in college, so my HERS “sisters” are the closest I have come to having sorority sisters.

This coming summer when I have a board meeting in Chicago, I already am planning to detour a couple of hours to see one HERS sister at the University of Iowa. And I can’t wait to get back to New York to eat at the restaurant run by the husband chef of another sister. Someone periodically will activate the group email with a question or announcement, and that’s our chance to hear each other’s “voices.” One goal of this institute is to help us have our own “old girls’ network,” and I marvel that I now truly have friends from Rutgers to the University of Alaska.

The three other women who came from the LA area and I gravitated to one another while at Bryn Mawr and we have stayed close. We get together every six months or so to get caught up on each other’s lives. Yesterday at our brunch, the others shared their office trials, tribulations, and triumphs. . .and then Elizabeth asked, “Well, Susan, how is work for you? How is everything going?” And I said, “Well, work is fine. . .but here is what really has been going on for me.”

They were, like all of you, stunned and practically speechless (not completely, because, after all, these are HERS women, who can handle anything). And their first question, as with many of you, was, “how is your daughter handling this?” With them, I didn’t feel I had to be falsely cheery and gloss over the realities. In fact, Naveena is particularly knowledgeable and empathetic, having supported her brother through a two-year serious siege of non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma a number of years ago. She continues to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society; one of the most fun outings I’ve had this past year was the Indian dinner her mother cooked for a LLS fundraiser at her brother’s downtown LA loft.

So they were a good group with whom to try out the disappointing Friday news that my IgM blood protein level, the indicator of lymphoma presence, has gone up, and not down, since the last test at Christmas time. Friday’s test result definitely was not what I was hoping for. My doctor is on vacation, so I haven’t heard from her yet, but I’m now anticipating she will insist on at least a couple more chemo cycles. My Boston bone marrow biopsy indicated very positive initial response to the chemo, but it seems I’m still a ways off of even partial remission thus far.

They reminded me, as I’ve been reminding myself this weekend, that this is a long-haul proposition. Friday’s IgM level is just one data point. I could not have imagined when my dean recommended me for the HERS program and asked me to apply that I would gain such good friends out of the experience. I’m glad they join you as part of the large circle of those who care and keep up the Greek chorus of positive words and spirit.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I couldn’t let this day close without paying tribute to George Shearing, who died yesterday at the age of 91. I love his work. Of course there’s his “Lullaby of Birdland” and his arrangement of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” One of my favorite books to play through is his “Interpretations For Piano” collection: “Blue Moon,” “I’m in the Mood For Love,” “Taking a Chance on Love,” and my absolute favorite, “Over the Rainbow.” I’ve included these pieces as background music for many a party and wedding reception. Thank you, George; your music lives on.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Monday, February 14, 2011


My valentine to each of you is my “Elegans Champagne” camellia. Thank you for all the love you share with me!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Food journalist and cookbook author Mark Bittman advocates creating a personal “flexitarian” diet for healthier eating. Chemo and diabetic genes have forced me into taking serious stock of what I eat, and I’m a few months into my own concocted regime.

To recap, my chemo-related dietary constraints have added up. No ascorbic acid, which interferes with the effectiveness of the Bortezomib, at least for the first few days after an infusion. I didn’t realize how much citrus I usually eat, nor how often it pops up, like mandarin oranges in Chinese chicken salad. And you have to watch out for ascorbic acid in other non-citrus fruits, berries, vegetables, and juices. The Bortezomib generally causes digestive distress. After I eat, my stomach churns and hurts, leaving me to cope with hours of gastrointestinal protests. There’s the ever-present “metal mouth,” changing the taste, in some cases drastically, of everything I eat. And then there’s my glucose levels.

What this has meant, for example, is no tomato sauce, no ginger lemon tea, no blackberry smoothies, no lime sparking water. I’ve mostly eliminated simple carbohydrates, processed food, and anything that screams of sugar; it’s all about whole grains and brown rice; a lot of apples, Asian pears, and grapes; and roasted colorful vegetables. No pizza with students. Although I could not resist a mint Milano cookie sitting around the office after a reception the other day, Trader Joe’s nuts and dried fruit packets have replaced goldfish crackers, and popcorn is the occasional dessert.

Akemi has referred to all of this as “one Birkenstock,” as in “I’m one Birkenstock away” from food militancy, but for better or worse, going “one Birkenstock” is helping and working. My glucose levels are stable and normal, even on the low side. The stomach aches are just a part of life right now, but I’m generally more comfortable. And all the water I’m drinking has got to be good for me.

What saves me from a sense of deprivation is the “flexible” part of “flexitarian”—cutting yourself some occasional slack, says Mark Bitman. So I don’t worry about the white rice in sushi and with curry, won’t pass up the French bread in a French restaurant, and will have real dessert with company.

Cooking and selecting foods creatively to avoid menu monotony has been challenging. But as some of you may have noticed just once or twice perhaps, I respond to challenges, so I’m managing fine. The other night, a spinach, mushroom and goat cheese omelette accompanied by thin frites sprinkled with a confetti of finely chopped parsley hit the quirky dietary mark. The trio of profiteroles made it a feast, marking one treatment closer to a hopeful conclusion.

Would that diet alone could overcome the other side effects: energy lows, itchy skin, brittle hair, inflamed veins, sleeplessness, puffiness. Platelets and white blood cell count are down and out again, following past cycle patterns. I got realistic to anticipate not being up for work on Mondays after Friday treatments and have cleared them for the time being. One more treatment, and then my IgM blood protein gets tested again. I gotta hope for a dramatic reduction, or else the case will be made that I need to keep going. I keep staring at the cover photo of my February Bon App├ętit magazine, “best-ever brownies,” and keep hoping I can try the recipe soon. If my IgM level cooperates, you all come over and help me eat a celebratory tray of them.