Saturday, September 29, 2007

Guess I Can Always Take the Stairs

For close to two years now, I have been trying to make peace with the fact that my life is seemingly stuck in that murky place called limbo.

Until I am finished with school, and until my dad is back on his feet, I am in professional no-woman's-land—unable to figure out the next phase of my peripatetic career.

This is hard enough for a planner like me—I like to know where I'm headed, how I'm going to get there, and what the weather will be like along the way. Not knowing these things upsets my equilibrium, weighs me down, and stresses me out.

But even when I can summon my inner Zen master and embrace the unknown and unknowable, it takes me only so far.

Because eventually I meet someone new, and that someone inevitably asks the dreaded question:

"So, what do you do?"

This, ladies and gentleman, is the opening for what is commonly called the "elevator speech"—the pithy, no-more-than-30-seconds-long summary of one's existence that, professional networkers will tell you, is the key to getting a job, a date, a great apartment, an audition, a record deal, a story assignment, a book contract, or whatever it is that you most want or need at any given moment in your life.

The idea is that you never know when you might find yourself face to face—at a cocktail party, on the subway, in a waiting room, or even on an elevator—with that one person who might change your destiny. Rather than be caught flat-footed when the magic opportunity arises, you're supposed to have your elevator speech at the ready at all times.

The speech comes in handy even when you meet people who can't make all your dreams come true, just as a shorthand form of introduction. And this is where I get stopped up.

Case in point: Today we met a couple who are moving in around the corner from us. We talked about the neighborhood and our respective buildings, and then came the point in the conversation at which we each said what it is we do. I have yet to find a way to answer that question that doesn't involve an asterisk and an explanatory footnote. I think I mumbled something unintelligible about being almost finished with school.

What I wouldn't give to be able to say something succinct, about which I was truly enthusiastic and proud—the way Zach says, simply, "I'm an actor."

I'm sure it will happen . . . eventually. But for the moment, I don't even know what to put down on my tax return, let alone how to identify myself to a stranger at a cocktail party (a situation I've faced at least twice in the past month).

With Zach's and my college reunions coming up next spring, I've got a finite amount of time to come up with a viable spiel.

And "cancer veteran" is not going to cut it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Special Skills

At the bottom of Zach's acting résumé, he has a section called "Special Skills" that lists the specific dialects he's mastered and other assorted aptitudes that might turn a casting director's head. If he played the banjo or was a ventriloquist or could juggle fire, this is the place he'd advertise.

I don't have a "Special Skills" section on my résumé, which is already too long and disjointed for its own good. But if I did have a "Special Skills" section on my résumé, I'd be able to update with a new bit of miscellany. Right after "can spot a typo at 20 paces" and "able to eat prodigious amounts of ice cream at a single sitting," I'd have to add "can administer IV fluids to unsuspecting cats."

That's right.

Normandy (aka Norm), our 16-1/2-year-old, sheds-with-the-best-of-them cat, has been having kidney problems of late. Nothing dire, fortunately, but serious enough that we need to treat her with fluids. Notice the word "we" in the preceding sentence.

I guess some people in this situation choose to take their pets to the vet two to three times a week to have the fluids administered professionally, but that's not a tenable situation unless a) your pet enjoys visiting the vet and b) you have a supply of disposable income at which I could only marvel.

So . . . I went to the vet, where I learned how to give IV fluids.

Then I came home and—despite excellent help from our neighbor and local cat wizard, Sara—abjectly failed to apply that lesson (chiefly because unlike a human faced with a phlebotomist, Norm did not elect to walk over, sit down, and stay absolutely still in the vicinity of the needle).

Now we are implementing Plan B, in which a different vet tech comes to the house, corrals the cat, and coaches me through the process of hanging an IV bag; uncapping the sterile needle; finding the right spot in Norm's back; "committing" and then sticking her with the needle; opening the line so the fluid flows in; closing the line when the right amount has been dispensed; re-capping, removing, and safely disposing of the used needle; attaching a new needle for next time; and, most of all, getting over my guilt at literally stabbing this sweetest of cats in the back.

The corralling part is actually worse than the back-stabbing part, if you can believe it.  You know what they say about herding cats?  Well, herding even one is a challenge where Norm is concerned.  She is fast, geriatric though she may be.

The house calls are a temporary measure.  The idea is that, over time, we'll be able to do this ourselves, without a coach.

I'm sure I'll eventually get the hang of it—technically and emotionally.

But wow.

I never thought I'd say this, but I would so much rather be on the other end of the needle.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Little Bit of Empowerment

It may not surprise you to learn that, as a general rule, I don't put up with a lot of crap.

One of the things that falls under my definition of "crap" is egomania.

Another is power-tripping (not the same thing).

A third—and this is the one that's most relevant at the moment—is the completely avoidable screw-up.

Unavoidable screw-ups, unpleasant as they may be, are just a fact of life. Sometimes things just happen, and you pretty much have to D-14.

But screw-ups that could have been avoided—by planning ahead, or not cutting corners, or simply telling the truth—those just burn me up.

Always have.

And, wouldn't you know it, one of those happened to me the other day.

I had an appointment with one of my doctors—an absolutely lovely man who has to be closing in on 80—scheduled for 11:45AM on Monday. I made the appointment three months ago, when I wasn't working, and the middle of the day seemed like a perfectly convenient time to get myself to the Upper East Side.

Fast-forward 12 weeks, and I'm temping in midtown. Now the middle of the day isn't quite so convenient, what with travel time and getting paid by the hour and all.

So before I head out for the appointment, I call and ask whether the doctor is running late. Because whenever I go to see him, there's usually a delay. Partly this is because he is old-school—he does the whole exam himself, rather than delegating things like blood-pressure readings to a nurse, and then he sits down and has a chat with you in his office. And partly it's because pretty much every doctor in private practice runs behind schedule these days.

As I said, he's a lovely man, and I am very satisfied with the care I get, so I've made peace with the fact that I have to waste good quality time in his not-so-comfortable, not-so-interesting waiting room.

When it's my own time I'm wasting, it's a sacrifice I can afford to make. But when I have to call in my hours at the end of every shift and fill out a timesheet in quadruplicate, well, then, it's not exactly my time, and I can't really afford—literally—to be so cavalier with it.

Hence my so-how-far-behind-are-you-guys? phone call at 11:15AM.

I was more than surprised to hear that the doctor was on time, so much so that I had to rush out of the office so that I wouldn't be late myself.

I ended up arriving at 11:50AM and finding a full waiting room, where I sat for the next hour.

A couple of other patients got up and hassled the receptionist about the wait, but I was very Zen about it. At first.

Then I started rehearsing in my head the speech I was going to give the doctor, about how much I liked being his patient but that sitting in his waiting room, where a revolt might break out at any moment, was not exactly a pleasant experience, and that I couldn't devote half a day to the cause every time I had a quarterly check-up.

I spent a while refining the speech, trying to find a balance between acknowledging the unforeseeable delays while rejecting the standard-operating-procedure long wait, and trying to be clear that my complaint was not with him as a doctor but as a manager of his office and staff.

Finally, after my talking points were as refined as they were going to get, I realized that I had already been away from work for an hour and a half and that it would take me almost another 30 minutes to get back. I had said that I'd be taking a long lunch in order to see the doctor, but two hours was pushing it.

And then it dawned on me that I was not powerless in this situation.

I did not have to accept an interminable wait.

I could exercise my free will.

So I got up and, unlike some of my fellow patients, very politely explained that I was unable to wait any longer. It was hard to get the receptionist's attention because she was juggling phone calls and the appointment book, but the nurse heard me.

She must have thought that this was some kind of negotiating tactic, because she tried to tell me that I was next and that a room would be open soon.

I told her that it no longer mattered, because even if the doctor could see me right that very minute, I no longer had time to get undressed, be examined, get dressed again, and then sit down with him in his office for the usual post-exam chat. Doing all of that would easily be another 30 minutes, plus I'd have to spend time paying my bill (the doctor doesn't take insurance) and making a follow-up appointment three months down the road, and soon I'd have spent more time away from the office than at work that day.

The nurse didn't know what to make of this.

I wasn't bluffing. I wasn't irate. I wasn't irrational.

She didn't know how to respond. I think she even said as much.

I explained that I had tried to avoid exactly this situation by calling before I came, but that I'd been told that the doctor was on time. By then I was pretty sure that it was this nurse, and not the receptionist, who had taken my call.

"He was on time," she protested.


How does that work exactly?

You're on time at 11:15AM but an hour behind schedule at 11:45AM?

Is that some kind of reverse-time-travel trick?

I expressed my skepticism—politely, calmly, but firmly. In return, I got a torrent of "I can't control the doctor"-type excuses—the same excuses I had heard her give the other, not-so-polite patients a little while before. I started to feel like a passenger on an inexplicably delayed flight, when all you really want is for someone to apologize and give you a straight answer about why you are going to miss your cousin's bat mitzvah or your friend's wedding or your connecting flight or whatever.

Kindness and truth go a very long way in this world. I'm surprised more people haven't figured this out.

I stood there for a moment, waiting for the receptionist to free up so I could try to reschedule the appointment, but she was wrapped up with a complicated—and irate—phone call.

Eventually I gave up and said I'd call later on, and I started walking for the door.

The nurse must have thought this was another negotiating tactic, because she called me back, saying that the receptionist was trying—in pantomime, it turned out—to give me a new appointment. The poor woman could not extricate herself for even a second from her phone call, so she turned the appointment book around and pointed to an opening at 8:30AM on Thursday.

I looked at it, then at her. I didn't have my calendar in front of me, so I shrugged my shoulders. Finally, I just nodded and left.

I raced back to work, skipping lunch and deducting two fruitless hours from my timesheet.

What's funny is that I had actually tried to reschedule the appointment a couple of weeks earlier but was told that the doctor was fully booked for the next two months. I didn't think it was prudent to delay that long, so I stuck with the original date. I was fully expecting that waiting those two months would be the consequence of my decision to walk out on Monday's appointment, and I was prepared to do that. Instead, I got a better time the very same week.

What's even funnier is that yesterday, as I was walking up the block where the doctor has his office, my cell phone rang with a blocked ID. It was 8:20AM, and my immediate thought was that there was some kind of family emergency.

It wasn't.

It was the nurse from the doctor's office. Apparently I had gotten the appointment time wrong—what I thought was 8:30 was actually 8:15. (Just before the phone rang, I had been chastising myself for arriving 10 minutes early, knowing that that time could have been much better spent—asleep, for example.)

The nurse was calling to find out if I was actually planning to show up for the appointment.

Because I was five minutes late.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

And Counting

Today is the one-year anniversary of my dad's surgery, the one that ultimately led to the complications that have had him hospitalized for 341 of the past 365 days.

He is slowly, slowly, s l o w l y improving.

He is gaining weight and getting stronger.

He is making jokes and enjoying company.

He is following baseball and football.

He is smiling at photos of his grandchildren.

He is, as he has always been, a good sport.

But he is also bored and frustrated and beyond ready to go home.

Because a year is a very, very long time.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Breast Cancer™

October is still three weeks away, but the ramp-up to Breast Cancer Awareness Month has already begun.

I was in a Bed Bath & Beyond store last week and walked past a whole display of pink-tinted kitchenware.

Next month's issues of women's magazines are hitting the newsstands, their covers trumpeting breast-cancer features.

And my mail, both real and virtual, is sprinkled with invitations to benefits and other events.

Of course I support anything that brings us closer to a cure, to earlier diagnoses, to better treatments, to greater understanding and more sensitivity.

But I must confess that a part of me has trouble with the marketing juggernaut that breast cancer has become.

As much as Coke or McDonald's or Nike or Apple, breast cancer is a brand.

It has a logo.

It has spokespeople.

It has merchandise.

It has sponsored events.

It has celebrity endorsements.

It has a trademark color.

It has one of the best P.R. machines around.

It has a designated month.

Not a day.

Not a week.

A month.

It doesn't have a jingle—yet—but it does have an anthem in Melissa Etheridge's "I Run for Life."

It even has a postage stamp.

I know that a lot of good—in the form of funding and awareness and increased screening—comes from all of this, and I am truly grateful for that.

But I am also dismayed at the fact that we live in such a consumer culture that our idea of fighting a disease is buying pink M&Ms®, or pink lipstick, or a pink blender, or one of dozens of other pink products that nobody needs but that somebody finds a way to sell.

This is how we choose to alleviate suffering?

By going shopping?

If you need a blender, by all means buy a blender.

But if you want to fight breast cancer—if you want to hasten a cure, or bolster early detection, or enhance medical care, or just make life a little easier for someone with the disease—do something else.

Find a worthy cause and donate directly.

If you want to do it in October, that's great.

You can even use a pink pen to write the check.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


We heard last night from a friend whose sister was just diagnosed with breast cancer.

This happens with some regularity, but it always stops me dead in my tracks, because I know how awful those first hours and days can be.

There's so much happening, all at the same time, with such urgency, that it can be hard to catch your emotional breath. Breaking the news to family and friends, reading up on the disease, networking your way to good doctors, and finding helpful predecessors to talk to—all while still in shock—is a dizzying, exhausting process.

In an effort to pass along helpful information as quickly as possible, I pulled together some links for our friend and sent them off right away. But it dawned on me this morning that what a newly diagnosed person really needs is a one-stop shop, an aggregator of all things breast cancer, with links to every conceivable resource, all designed specifically for the newly diagnosed. You know, immediate technical support.

There could be some kind of easy interface that asked for basic data—diagnosis details (if available), age, geographic location—and then pointed the visitor to the most important information for those first hours and days.

This probably exists in some form in lots of different places, but I don't know of any single place that calls out to all newly diagnosed folks. It would need to be the Google of cancer resources—the place you would know to go without having to think about it.

I need to think more about this—and, of course, do a hard-target search of what's already out there—but this feels to me like something that could and should be done.

More to come.