Monday, October 5, 2015

Think Before You Pink

Today would have been Verna’s 51st birthday and she died from breast cancer, so allow me to rant about October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I hate breast cancer awareness. Who isn’t aware of breast cancer and how it has affected our mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, friends, and children?

We don’t need more awareness; we need more money for research especially into metastatic breast cancer, the rates of which have basically not changed over the years.

Instead of blanketing everything pink—from football goalposts to baseball bats to ribbons and balloons everywhere—why not look at the ways in which we can reduce the incidences of cancer that are often attributable to products from companies who tout their high level of awareness?

For example, the Personal Care Products Council in concert with the American Cancer Society hold free workshops and donate free beauty care products for women with cancer. However, many of these products have either been linked to cancer or have been shown to thwart breast cancer treatments, according to Breast Cancer Action. Methylparaben, for example, has been found to interfere with the cancer drug Tamoxifen.

The organization that raises my ire the most is Komen, probably one of the most well-known cancer “awareness” organizations on the planet. But less than 20% of the money they raise for their host of well-known activities goes to breast cancer research. They promote pink drill bits for an oil company. As the Washington Post reported, “More than 700 chemicals are used in the process of drilling and fracking for oil and gas. In a study of about 350 of those chemicals, researchers found that up to half can cause health problems, including nervous, immune and cardiovascular symptoms. More than one-third can disrupt the hormone system. And a quarter of the chemicals, such as benzene and formaldehyde, increase the risk of cancer.”

Another example, noted Amy McCarthy in Bustle, is Campbell Soup, “In 2012, Campbell’s Soup became the target of significant criticism after it turned many of its famous soup cans pink to support These pink soup cans, most contaminated with bisphenol-A (BPA), a suspected carcinogen with scientific links to breast cancer, helped generate over $800,000 in donations to in 2006. At the same time, Campbell’s was selling millions of cans of soup, generating over $755 million in revenue across all the company’s brands. In 2012, Campbell’s made a big announcement that they would be removing BPA from cans. In what many health bloggers called a great victory, Campbell’s managed to punt the issue until at least 2015, likely because they still don’t know how to produce close to 95% of their canned goods line without using BPA.”

So spare me, please, all these efforts to pinkify the universe with often well-intended concern for breast cancer awareness. My wife died five years ago, five weeks shy of her 46th birthday, and breast cancer continues to be pervasive in part because corporations and companies make cancer-causing products. And not enough money is being allocated to find a cure. How many more wives and mothers and daughters and sisters and friends have to die before we think before we pink and start doing the right things?

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Let the Sun In

There Miguel and I sat, just to the right of home plate, in the View Reserved section of AT&T Park on a glorious Indian summer day, watching the Giants' tribute to the retiring Jeremy Affeldt on the final day of the 2015 regular season. Affeldt spoke last, after tributes from the president of the Giants, and the manager, and one of Affeldt's best friends on the team, pitcher Matt Cain, and Affeldt said, "Parents, make sure to let your children know you are proud of them."

Then he shared the story of how when he was 12 years old and sitting with his father in Oakland Coliseum, where the A's and Raiders play, he turned to him and said, "Dad, some day I'm going to pitch in this stadium."

And his father said, "Son, go for it."

Tears were welling in my eyes at this point.

Affeldt continued. Ten years later he was walking through the centerfield gates onto the field and he called his father. "Dad," he said, "remember when we sat at Oakland Coliseum and I told you I was going to play here someday and you said that I should go for it? Well, I'm here dad."

The phone suddenly disconnected. Affeldt dialed back and his mother answered. "What happened to dad?" She said, "He dropped the phone because he was crying."

I reached over as Affeldt finished his story and rub-patted Miguel on the back. "I am proud of you, Miguel." I am hard on him at times as he has begun the process of applying to colleges, but I like the young man he has become.

I felt exactly how Affeldt was feeling as the tributes washed over him in view of his wife, their three sons, his parents, sister, and in-laws: blessed.

Later in the day, Maya and I went to clean up Verna and her mother's gravesite in honor of Verna's birthday tomorrow. As we pulled into the parking lot, Maya said, "It's really sad when someone young dies, like Alex," she nodded in the direction of the grave bearing his name in huge letters stuck into the ground.

"How did he die?" she asked.

I hesitated because I knew the answer and wasn't sure I should share it. "He killed himself," I said softly.



"I'd never do that," she said. "There are so many places I haven't seen yet."

At that moment I felt blessed again, by Miguel and Maya, the people they are and will become, and by the love that Verna and I shared to create them.

Maya and I then ambled to the grave marker and cleared away the dirt and strands of grass, poured out the water from the plastic flower holders, replaced the worn flowers with two plastic bouquets of roses, straightened up the remaining talismans, and, following Jewish tradition, I then found two stones and placed them on the edge of the grave, to show I was there.

We said happy birthday to Verna and I said, "It's still sad Mommy is not with us."

Maya didn't say anything. I was also thinking how fortunate I am to have Miguel and Maya and how proud Verna would be. Her blessings are my blessings.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Pump Us Up!

My brother and I were talking yesterday about our kids, and how his three boys are sports mad even though he never played sports as a kid. His eldest, who is 12 1/2, has already shown amazing progress as a distance runner in races with kids and adults; his middle son is particularly adept at baseball, soccer, and basketball; and his youngest, only five, throws a baseball with enough acumen to land him in some major league bullpens.

I have always loved sports, still root for the Red Sox and the Giants and was overjoyed when the Warriors won the NBA title, and I cycle every day and have even completed four marathons (in a galaxy long, long ago), but my talent in any athletic area has been fairly south of mediocre.

Miguel can easily out-drive me off the tee in golf. I may have a slight edge in putting, but he looks like a golfer, I, like a hacker. He surpassed me on the basketball court a couple of years ago, stuffing my shots and out-gunning me to the hoop. He is faster and almost as savvy.

Just the other day, in view of a horrified Maya, Miguel and I wrestled in her bedroom, and he pinned me down on the bed and I could not break free. The torch had been passed.

So my brother and I were ruminating on where the athletic skills come from, because we know the genes were not passed on from us. Unless, we said, there is something hidden in our family's DNA code of which we are unaware. The passion for sports I understand as it applies to Miguel. I can be a rabid sports fan, my dad is an uber sports fanatic, and I still love cycling in Marin County and hiking in California.

But we are gobsmacked to explain why Miguel is the incoming captain of his high school golf squad or Scott's son nearly won a 3-mile race last year where he was one of the younger entrants. Athletic ability may be genetic to a degree, but it clearly was harvested on the mothers' sides when it comes to my brother's and my kids.

Now it turns out Maya wants to strengthen her upper body for gymnastics. Her instructor suggested I help her do pull-ups on the bar across the door frame in Miguel's closet. I told Maya we could do pull-ups together. I could always use some (more) muscles and definition in my arms and chest. And, who knows, maybe Miguel will let me have a wrestling rematch.

Friday, October 2, 2015

31 Days

I haven't posted anything here for more than a year. I'd love to blame writer's block or working a full-time job or having to make wholesome lunches and dinners or being in love for the past seven months or my twice weekly calls with my father or having to take out the garbage every Thursday night or grocery shopping or...

I might just be a little lazy and very afraid. Afraid to fail, afraid my writing just isn't good enough, afraid, afraid, afraid.

So I committed to write for all 31 days in October and--boom--I missed yesterday.

While there are plenty of hot-button topics to choose from (Trump, Hillary, the Pope, guns), I decided to play it safe and go with memories.

I saw Ringo Starr and his all-star last night at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco. At one point, I was standing, swaying slightly to the music, as Ringo sang, with the entire audience, Yellow Submarine. I felt myself smiling. I was transported back to 1964 when I was five, at the height of Beatlemania as the four lads from Liverpool swept through the United States. I remember singing She Loves You on the phone to my grandmother, who was proud of me even if she probably knew little if anything about rock and roll.

There was the Beatles cartoon show on Saturday mornings and the red plastic Beatles guitar, with the faces of John, Paul, George, and Ringo etched in black on the maestro instrument. There were endless hours listening to the Beatles' albums and cassettes, and then delving into the mysteries of their music. There was even the hoax surrounding Paul's death.

I lived in New York City, as a college student at Columbia University, in 1980 when John Lennon was shot and murdered outside his apartment building, a building I used to run near when I did my daily jaunt in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side.

The Beatles, who I consider to be hands down the greatest rock and roll band of all time, have always been part of my life, even if John and George are gone. And Ringo may be 75 (though he looks as if he's 50 and could run a marathon) and sounding musically rough around the edges and in between, but he is still Ringo Friggin' Starr, one-fourth of the the most amazing rock and roll quartet I have ever experienced.

So work is stressful and Miguel is applying to colleges and Maya is a girl scout and wants to play the violin and loves gymnastics and my life is busy, busy, busy, but for one night I just listened to the music of my youth and I felt very, very good. And maybe it won't inspire me to write more, but it did get me going.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Four Years. Out.

Verna died four years ago today. I clasped her left hand in both of mine and watched her chest rise and fall, rise and fall, until she took her last breath at four minutes past midnight. Tears filled my eyes as I lowered my head to her hand. I was numb.

Four years later, I am still numb and shocked and sad without Verna. I am also blessed with two children I adore, a supportive family, and a village of friends who have simply been amazing.

Four years later, I can honestly say it’s been the best and worst of times. Watching the kids grow up and hit those memorable milestones without Verna always brings me to tears. I constantly wish Verna is at my side most during these moments. When Maya “graduated” from preschool and shyly said into the microphone that she hoped to be a “doctor someday and a rock star.” Or when Miguel walked proudly down the aisle during middle school graduation and I furiously snapped pictures of him.

The older they get the more the impact her absence has on me, and I constantly wonder how it affects them. I wish she’d been here to celebrate with Miguel as he got his driver’s license and first job or when Maya rode her big girl 24” bike around our park. She’d have been proud of Maya, who has struggled somewhat with reading and math, when she came home yesterday
with a perfect score on her first spelling test in 3rd grade.

Last summer, as Miguel, Maya, and I biked 150 miles in the altitude of Colorado from Silverthorne up to Vail Pass and down into Glenwood Springs over five days, I thought of Verna, who loved cycling, all the time. At one point, as Maya was riding on the trailer bike behind me, she said, “Why did Mommy leave the planet so soon?” her profound words filled with such melancholy that I almost cried.

Most days, though, there are no tears, just life. I put my head down and just barrel forward as I go through my daily routine of making meals, working, chauffeuring kids. I wish I could say I have learned some deep lessons about life. Yes, I know it’s important to make each day count, but the reality is life is hard and frustrating and maddening and some days you just want to curl up on the couch and stare at Sports Center.

What I have learned about myself is I constantly need to monitor my moods. When I am tired, especially after work, I need to count or breathe before I react to my kids. I’ve also learned that life is a blessing. Verna used to same thing even after she was diagnosed. Even with all the crap she dealt with, being robbed of breastfeeding Maya (as she’d done with Miguel), losing her breasts, and having such an acute sense of mortality, Verna still felt blessed. And I do, too.

But I can still see Verna frolicking with me in the crystal clear blue-green waters off of Cabo or biking across the Golden Gate Bridge in the summer of 1990, two weeks after our first date. I can hear her laugh, see her smile, remember her soft skin, and almost feel our hands clasped together.

It’s probably just a coincidence that Verna picked as our wedding song “Unchained Melody”, from the movie Ghost, about a young woman, Demi Moore, who is able to contact via a medium her recently murdered husband played by Patrick Swayze.

Moore aches for one last moment with Swayze so the medium, Whoopi Goldberg, channels Swayze as the couple share cosmic intimacy. I would give anything for that opportunity.

From the last verse of the song:

Oh, my love, my darling
I've hungered, for your touch
A long, lonely time
Time goes by so slowly
And time can do so much
Are you still mine?
I need your love
I need your love
God speed your love to me.

Monday, July 28, 2014

July 28, 2014

Twenty-three years ago today, on a typically fog-shrouded San Francisco summer day, before 105 people, a few of whom actually crashed the ceremony at Golden Gate Park’s Rose Garden and reception at the Cliff House, I exchanged marital vows with my best friend, Verna Mercedes Wefald.

I am flooded with memories without having to watch the video, shot by my friend, Brad, who is now the director of technology at San Domenico School in San Anselmo: Struggling to tie my bowtie and swearing, “I don’t need this shit,” before my brother calmly stepped in and hooked it together; stretching the plastic runner across the grass with my father before the ceremony; gazing at Verna as she nervously recited her vows. We’d written humorous and serious ones. In one I promised to only buy three unique ties a year and she vowed not to always eat off my plate.

Verna looked—as always—gorgeous, and I couldn’t believe how blessed and fortunate I really was. Quiet and determined, she was a perfect complement to my gregarious and obnoxious side. And she was passionate about politics and dance and exercise. And fun to be with.

Our ceremony started nearly an hour late, because of a mix up with the flowers, but by then it didn’t matter. After nearly losing it over the bowtie, I was basically relaxed and excited. And just a little nervous.

More memories: my great-uncle Norman shouting out, “Don’t do it,” as Verna and I signed our wedding license in the park after the ceremony; my mother downing two glasses of champagne on an empty stomach at the reception and giggling her way through the cocktail hour, which is sadly ironic now given that she has severe Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, wears diapers, and can longer walk or even feed herself.

The reception was a non-stop party filled with endless dancing to classic rock, Dom Perignon (for Verna and me), delectable entrees, a carrot and chocolate wedding cake, and both of us being hoisted high in chairs as people circled us to Hava Nagila and other Jewish melodies.

After our final song, Stevie Wonder’s Jungle Fever, we retired with several members of the wedding party to the upstairs bar at the Cliff House. An hour later, I was ready to leave and be alone with Verna. She didn’t want the magic of the evening to end. When we finally got home, we shared a bath and I pulled out at least 100 bobby-pins from Verna’s hair in what was one of the most romantic moments of my life. We reminisced about the entire day as I piled up the pins on the edge of the tub.

For the next few years we celebrated our anniversary with dinner at the Cliff House. In 2009, not quite seven weeks before we found out her cancer had returned, Verna and I sipped drinks in the remodeled Cliff House and then walked down the hill for Taco Tuesday at the Park Chalet, where we celebrated with Miguel, Maya, and Verna’s father. It was the last time we went out for our anniversary.

Just a year later, with the original wedding party, except Verna’s mother, in attendance, we renewed our vows outside our two-bedroom townhouse. Miguel was the co-best man; Maya was one of two flower girls. Verna recited her vows and then had to sit during the outdoor buffet we’d sponsored on the street near our home. By seven o’clock she was asleep for the night, exhausted by the cancer that had riddled her body with constant pain.

Five weeks later Verna was gone and July 28 would never be the same.

I started today by saying goodbye for a week to Maya who is with family outside San Luis Obispo and ended it by playing nine holes of golf with Miguel. I ache for Verna, but I am still very blessed.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

When Mommy

Arms behind her, Maya holds one book in her right hand and one in her left. “Pick a hand,” she says.

I peak and see a Barbie book in her right.

“Left,” I say and she pulls out two books.

“Which one?”

I pick the one on top, When Mommy is Sick by Ferne Sherkin-Langer, about how a ten-year old girl copes with her mother being in the hospital again. It was one of the books recommended by Maya’s hospice therapist after Verna died in 2010.

I start reading about how the girl is sad because her babysitter slathers the jam on too thick and cuts the bread in triangles, not squares like her mother; how she refuses to draw or participate in class but, at her teacher’s suggestion, draws a picture of herself and her mother; how she loves having her friend’s mom push her on the swings, but still misses her own mother; how she makes a calendar and counts off the days until Saturday when she and her father will get to visit her mother.

The story ends as the mother comes home and pushes her daughter on the swings, makes her a sandwich with just the right amount of jam and cuts the bread in squares, and later reads her a bedtime story.

I am happy for the girl but sad for Maya. I start thinking of Verna and all the special times she and Maya spent together in four-and-a-half years: blowing bubbles in a park in Arizona, the smile on Maya’s face stretched a million miles; snuggling in bed to read; cuddling on Verna’s hospital bed to do sticker books together.

A tear rolls down my cheek as I realize yet again that Maya’s Mommy won’t be coming home. I finish the book and Maya looks over at me.

“There’s water on your face,” she says.

“I was crying because I miss Mommy.”

“Me, too,” she says.

“Mommy loves you so much,” I say. “I think she loves you and Miguel more than anything. She was so excited to be a mommy.”

“I am so glad she found you,” she says. Then she pauses. “How did she find you?”

“We worked together and I asked her to go see Wynton Marsalis with me (something Maya and I are going to do in March),” I explain.

“And then you asked her to marry you?”

I giggle. “I couldn’t ask her to marry me after our first date.”

“When was your first date?”

“July 21,” I answer, and I remember, of course, that it was in 1990, not quite 24 years ago. “I asked her to marry me two months later.”

“And what did she say?”

“She said, ‘Sounds like a good idea’,” I say.

“And then you kissed?”

“Yes,” I say, “and then we kissed.”

I picture the moment, lying together on my bed in a four-bedroom flat on  19th Avenue in San Francisco, after an evening with my mother, who was not happy that Verna was Catholic, and thinking about asking her to live with me but knowing she never wanted to do that again. So I blurted out, “I was thinking of asking you to marry me.”

I shut off the light. I get my book light and clasp it to the back of Thank You For Your Service, about physically and emotionally wounded veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before I start reading I say, “Mommy loves you and Miguel so much.”

Ten minutes later as I get up to leave, I hug Maya tightly and say, “I love you so much, Maya.”

“I love you, too, Daddy.”