Monday, February 25, 2008

Come On, Everybody

Remember Breast Cancer Self-awareness Month?

Remember when I said I'd return to the subject of exercise? (Maybe you don't. It was back in October, after all.)

Well, I'm returning.

Now that I'm on a roll on the food front, I'm trying to tackle the other half of the equation. This has been going on for a couple of weeks, but I didn't want to mention it until I had a little bit of momentum behind me.

In October 2006, I joined the local Y. I did it because the Y has a pool—not a common amenity in these parts—and I was told that swimming would be a very good way to rehab my left arm after I finished physical therapy.

My first dip in the pool was a humbling experience that inspired an as-yet-unpublished post called "Goofus Goes Swimming." Seriously.

Now, more than a year (and very few intervening visits) later, I've signed up for the Y's free Personal Fitness Program. The concept is fairly simple: it's a combination of education and accountability.

You start by meeting with a trainer who shows you how to use all of the equipment in one category—in this case, cardio. Then you commit to putting your newfound knowledge to work, 30 minutes at a time at least three times a week. You sign in every time you work out so that the trainer can monitor your attendance.

After three weeks, you and the trainer meet again, and you go through an orientation on the next set of equipment. Then you're on your own for another three weeks, and so on, until you've incorporated upper-body machines, then lower-body machines, then free weights.

The idea is that in 12 weeks' time you will have mastered all of the equipment in the gym and be in the habit of exercising regularly. At that point, you should be able to create you own workouts, with enough variety to keep things interesting and challenging indefinitely. You even get an official certificate for completing the program.

I'm just beginning my third week of the program, and things are going well so far. I've put in some time on the treadmill and on the stationary and recumbent bikes, and I'm gearing up to get reacquainted with the elliptical machine. If I really get on a roll, I may even try the modern-day version of the stairmaster—but I don't want to get ahead of myself.

One thing that's very clear already is that I've got to expand my workout wardrobe. I don't even have sneakers at the moment, so my hiking shoes are being pressed into service. (And if you think they normally live up to their name, I've got a post for you called "Goofus Goes Hiking.")

Monday, February 18, 2008


I had the briefest of dreams about my father last week.

I have been waiting, and hoping, to dream about my dad for nearly three months now—waiting and hoping to see him again and to hear his voice.

I had imagined what it would feel like to wake up from that dream, and I thought it would be like getting a big hug—fleeting but very real and very comforting.

When it finally happened, it was over so quickly that I could barely remember it. No more than a flash, really.

He said something about being out of the hospital, and I could see that he was standing up, fully dressed—in regular clothes, not hospital garb.

That was it.

At least that's all I remember.

I hope he will come back again soon.

I miss him.

And I could use the hug.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Paean to Lisa

I spent a good chunk of last weekend getting caught up on my medical bills and insurance claims, an arduous process not unlike doing our taxes—if we did our taxes 10 to 15 times a year.

I updated my big honkin' spreadsheet (currently up to Row 436), did a bunch of forensic accounting, and made three stacks: bills to pay, claims to file, and calls to make.

Some of the calls were to doctors, but most of the issues I needed to resolve required a call to our insurance company. And most of those were not the straightforward "why haven't you reimbursed me yet?" variety.

Instead, the questions required the person on the other end of the line to painstakingly page through a couple dozen different claims and sort out one big bookkeeping mess (theirs, not mine).

About six months ago, when the mess first began ("Claims? What claims? We didn't receive a whole stack of claims totaling $1,011.15, all neatly packaged with an explanatory cover memo. How long ago did you send them?"), I got very, very lucky.

Not because my stack of claims had been lost in the mail.

But because I got a very friendly, competent, and thorough person on the other end of the phone.

Someone who empathized with my distress at having lost months of claims-processing time because of some U.S. Postal Service screw-up.

Someone who promised to personally shepherd the claims through once I re-sent them.

Someone who was kind enough to call me when the duplicate claims arrived, just to put my mind to rest.

Someone named Lisa (her real name).

Lisa also reviewed each of the 42 individual claims once she received them and then proactively called to tell me why about a dozen of them would be rejected and what I needed to do (send further documentation) to avoid that.

So I knew that when I had follow-up questions about those claims, and a few others, it would be in my very best interest to get Lisa on the line.

It took a couple of attempts, including a brief conversation with a different—and very defensive—customer-service representative (these are not her exact words, but they convey the gist: "Why do you need to speak to Lisa? What's so great about Lisa? I can do anything Lisa can do!") but I succeeded.

Here's why she lived up to my expectations:

1) She remembered me.

2) She remembered the whole situation.

3) She asked me how I was doing, with genuine concern and interest.

4) She gave me a blanket invitation to send all of my claims directly to her attention, without checking with her in advance each time.

5) She answered all of my questions, clearly and efficiently.

Oh, and she did all of this while suffering from a migraine.

This is the kind of person Oprah should know about—the kind of person who should be sent on an all-expenses-paid fantasy vacation, only to come home to a brand-new car and a completely redecorated home and a big sack of money sitting on her kitchen table.

Does anyone know Oprah?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Still More Treats

I'm not sure whether I've mentioned this or not, but until very recently I had been—for a couple of months, at least—juggling five different part-time jobs. I'm working on reducing that to a reasonable number—say, two—with the ultimate goal of trading up (down?) for a single, full-time job.

Friday was my last day at one of those part-time jobs, the one where cupcakes are the means by which birthdays and farewells are commonly celebrated.

Because we'd just had a cupcake-festooned send-off for two colleagues the previous Friday, I was not expecting to be fêted in a similar style. I wasn't expecting to be fêted at all, in fact.

And I certainly hadn't planned on having February Treat Number Two just three days after February Treat Number One.

But then the enormous cupcakes appeared, and the lovely guy who had been my boss said, "I hope these qualify as one of your two monthly treats. . . ."

I defy anyone to demur in that situation.

I certainly didn't.

There were more than three dozen cupcakes arrayed in front of me. As the guest of honor, I had to make the first choice.

It was not an easy call, but I chose the Devil Dog Cupcake. Just in case the picture above doesn't convey the full depths of decadence represented by this confection, let me recite for you the official description:

Rich chocolate cake . . .

filled with whipped vanilla buttercream . . .

frosted with vanilla buttercream . . .

sprinkled with mini chocolate chips . . .

rolled in chocolate crumbs and . . .

and . . .

finally(!) . . .

drizzled with dark chocolate.

It's two days later, and I think I'm still in sugar shock.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Speaking of Treats

I was surprised and delighted to be included among the day-in-the-life bloggers mentioned today on "Shifting Careers," Marci Alboher's fabulous New York Times blog.

Of course, becoming a cancer patient is not the stuff of anyone's career plans, but for those who were railroaded into this particular line of work, I hope "Breach" can assist in some way.

If you're toiling in the typing pool of cancer—my best analogy for going through treatment—check out some of the older posts for a big dose of empathy and maybe even a little advice. You may not need or want a cancer mentor, but if you do, I'm here.

And if you've gotten that big promotion from patient to veteran—hooray!—then please consider me the friendly new colleague down the hall. I hope you'll make a habit of stopping by my "office" and, of course, sharing your experiences and insights when you visit.

Either way, my very first post, "Ground Rules," and the rest of the "Oldies but Goodies" links over there on the right will give you some background and help catch you up.

Hope to see you again soon!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

February 2008: Treat 1 of 2

Last night, Zach and I had dinner with two former colleagues of mine. We went to Otto, a very casual Italian restaurant that tends to be a crowd pleaser because it has great antipasti, really creative (and delicious) pizzas, a handful of solid pasta dishes, a seemingly endless wine list, and—here's where I come in—delicious homemade gelato.

The meal and the company were fantastic—lots of catching up, a very lively political discussion, and plenty of tasting things off each other's plates.

It was a perfect occasion to indulge in one of my two monthly treats. Check out the dessert menu to see what I mean.

I opted for a trio of gelati—vanilla, milk chocolate chip, and dark chocolate—with warm chocolate sauce drizzled on top.

It rocked.

Monday, February 04, 2008


Do you remember the famous episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine is despondent over the fact that her favorite form of birth control—the Today contraceptive sponge—has been pulled from the market? She goes all over town in search of any remaining sponges and ends up buying a whole case of them.

But once she has a stockpile, she has to face the dilemma of when to dip into her very limited supply. Hence the critical decision as to whether a prospective sexual partner is "spongeworthy," a term that instantly entered the pop-culture lexicon.

I've been thinking about spongeworthiness of late because of a similar phenomenon in an entirely different context.

Back in October, when I decided to really focus on what I ate, I adopted a three-prong austerity diet: nothing fried, no junk or processed food, and no gratuitous sugar. I abided by these rules for an entire month, during which I received the first normal results I can remember on my cholesterol and triglycerides tests.

With that momentum behind me, I decided to stick with the plan, with one variation: to keep temptation at bay, I'd allow myself the occasional treat. For these purposes, "treat" meant anything that broke one of my three rules.

I thought a lot about how often to permit myself to indulge. Once a month seemed too austere. Once a week was appealing, but I feared it might easily slide into two or three—or seven—times a week.

I compromised at twice a month, which I thought would be a sustainable practice. And, I'm pleased to say, it has been exactly that.

The good thing about giving myself this limit is that I really think about what I want my bi-monthly treats to be. And here's where the "spongeworthy" analogy comes in.

Many times I'll be confronted with something that in the past would have been difficult to resist. For example, at work last Friday we had both gourmet cupcakes and homemade chocolate-chip cookies as part of a farewell for two colleagues. Earlier the same day, my sister dropped off 42(!) boxes of Girl Scout Cookies that I had sold to co-workers on behalf of my two nieces. That meant that people all around me were breaking out the Thin Mints and other delectable varieties, with lots of sharing going on.

I have to say that I honestly wasn't tempted by any of it.

No, really.

In the first place, I'd rather use my allotted treats on ice cream—my all-time favorite food.

In the second place, Friday was February 1, and I just couldn't see indulging on the very first day of the month.

The cupcakes were decadent and gorgeous, and the homemade cookies—still warm!—smelled incredible. So I thought for a moment about digging in. But neither was truly treatworthy. Not when I thought about all the amazing ice cream and gelato out there. And especially not when I knew that Valentine's Day would surround me with all manner of decadence in just two weeks.

It's been even easier to eschew the smaller temptations I encounter every day: the candy and chips and mediocre French fries that are practically inescapable in my daily travels. If I have to choose between the instant gratification one of them might provide and the guaranteed satisfaction that ice cream will bring—even days or weeks hence—it's just no contest.

At some point I will probably branch out a bit and incorporate some other treats into the rotation.

Maybe white-corn tortilla chips with homemade guacamole.

Or truly exceptional frites, piping hot and salty.

Or possibly a warm slice of devil's-food cake.

À la mode, of course.