Saturday, October 7, 2017

Amo Cuba

How did visiting Cuba become a trip of my dreams? Being married to a Cuban man.  He opened my eyes to a culture that was delightfully different compared to the homogenous place where I grew up in Minnesota.  His family fled Cuba in 1958 when he was 11 years old just before Fidel Castro took over the country.  I met him in 1979 when I was 22 in Manhattan. As soon as we started dating, I was introduced to a different way of life that was both new and refreshing.

It started with the food. There were no bland meat and potatos served at my former in-laws' house. I became fond of sweet, fried plantains that I mistakenly took for bananas and futilely kept trying to fry when my ex-husband--looking puzzled--asked what I was doing. "Trying to make plantains just like your mom's," I explained. That's when he laughed and informed me that plantains were a fruit specific to Latin America and could only be bought at Spanish grocery stores. How embarrassing.

On Carnival Paradise destined for Havana, Cuba
Then his mother served up the heavenly dessert, flan. I tried to make that too. But it fell apart when I plopped the cake pan upside down--displaying creamed mush that was supposed to be a perfectly molded round custard dish with liquid caramelized sugar drizzled over the top  Yum. When my former mother-in-law cooked the dish paella on Christmas Eve, I finally gave up trying to master her Spanish cuisine skills. My ex-husband and I settled for indulging in authentic Cuban food by going to Victor's restaurant on the upper west side of Manhattan.

Discovering Cuban food was just the beginning. We were fortunate to live in Manhattan's Yorktown neighborhood where Corso's, a Latin nightclub, played live music almost every night. It had a huge wood dancing floor where people sashayed to the Rumba, Samba, Cha Cha and Mambo. At weddings and family parties, I learned to dance the Merengue. My ex-husband's uncles were patient teachers and I went on to embrace all Latin ballroom dancing. After I divorced, I discovered The Buena Vista Club--a band comprised of a group of old men who kept the unique sound of traditional Cuban music alive.

I had the privilege of serving a traditional American summer meal--hamburgers, potato salad, and corn on the cob to one of my ex-husband's aunt and uncle that his family was able to fly to the United States from Cuba back in the 1980s. I will never forget when his aunt bit into a sweet cob of corn and began to cry. I asked the family if I had done something wrong, No, they all shook their heads sadly and explained she was sobbing because she had not tasted corn so sweet since she was five years old. That is when I realized how fortunate I was not to live in a country so poor.  I remember a family backyard barbecue where an uncle dug a whole in the ground and roasted a whole pig in it. Initially, I was repulsed by the sight. But I had to admit, that pork was delicious. My ex-husband's extended family were acutely aware of the vast opportunities in a capitalist country and many of them owned their own businesses--including my former spouse.

The food, the music, the dancing and the people of Cuba inundated my life for 15 years. After I got divorced, there were moments when I would suddenly be jolted by the smell of paella in Barcelona, or the sound of a Bossa Nova Samba and I felt a wave of nostalgia.

Overlooking Havana from the ship
When President Obama negotiated with the Cuban government to allow U.S. citizens to finally visit this isolated Caribbean island, I was determined to finally see this illusive country. Through my research, I decided taking a cruise from Florida to Cuba was the best way to go. I wasted no time booking a trip out of Tampa to Havana for my mom and me.

As Carnival ship Paradise approached Havana Bay with the El Morro fortress flanked on the left and the city full of Spanish architecture and 1950s vintage cars on the right, I was overwhelmed by the the moment. Finally, I would see this hauntingly beautiful city.

Havana enchanted  me with its narrow cobblestone streets and distressed architecture. The children played together instead of staring at cellphones. When I opened a bag of Snickers bars, one kid whistled and in seconds I was surrounded by hoards of children begging for the candy like I was a honeycomb surrounded by bees.

At nightfall. the city took on a different atmosphere, The buildings were lit up like Paris and music wafted through cobblstone streets. Taking the advice of our excursion tour guide, I wandered into the bar, Floridida, Ernest Hemmingway's favorite watering hole. The club is famous for inventing the dacquiri cocktal--which was quite evident because the bar was lined up with martini glasses as the bartender poured the drinks from a pitcher all night long. There was a bronze statue of Hemingway at the end of the bar with picture of him during his residence in Cuba on the wall.

After I left that bar I wandered the streets and watched feral cats scatter at every turn. I finally accepted a ride on bicycle buggy who said he would take me to dance club.



Posing in front of perfectly-restored vintage car
Havana by night
At Floridida's Hemingway's favorite watering hole



Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Autumn Breeze

It came. The news said it was arriving on Thursday, September 22nd at 10:21 am. I watched as the numbers rolled to that moment on the bottom right hand corner of my computer and gave a sigh. That was it. No more summer. Autumn had arrived.

The beginning of fall always brings up mixed emotions in me. That episode in Sex And The City when Carrie gets up in the middle of the night to cover herself with a blanket because she realizes the heat of summer is giving way to the chill of fall really nails the feeling. In that show, she breaks up with yet another boyfriend and at the very end, she looks up at the sky and sees a singular leaf fall upon her landing at her feet. An ending has come, which means there can only be an unknown, new beginning from that moment forward.



New England Autumn
Therein lies the rub for me. I have had a long history of endings and beginnings that happened to take place in the fall. It feels as though a hot cauldron of all those memories gets stirred up inside my heart. Flashbacks of the past--both good and bad--rise to the surface of my psyche. The gentle breeze carrying those first falling leaves remind me of what I want to treasure and what I would just as soon forget

That's when I ground myself in the moment. Everywhere I turn there is an upbeat, celebratory frenzy. Because hey, if you live in New England, during this season this is the place to be. Everyone is going crazy apple picking, going to The Big E or other fall fairs and festivals. The smell of pumpkin spice is laden everywhere-in food, coffee, candles, you name it. The weather is ideal--holding in the 70s with no humidity. As they say, sweatshirt weather. And the fall foliage? Spectacular. Our signature rolling hills just magnify the impact of all those colors. As I tell visitors proudly: Out of anywhere in this country, New England, does fall best.
Looking out from my deck, Fall 2015

I know it's true because I have friends that have moved from Connecticut to Florida. A few have confessed that come fall, they miss their former home state the most of all. Of course, once winter hits, that home sickness passes. If I followed my friends and left this state, I wonder if fall would still have the same impact on me that it does today?

Then I realize that if I did leave Connecticut to be closer to my aging mother and re-connect with friends in Florida, there is no doubt that I would miss this time of year. I would be pining for those Sunday mornings drinking coffee on my deck and looking out at a magnificent vista of orange, gold and red. I know that even among palm trees, fall will always be bittersweet for me.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

After The Flood Was Gone...

Bedroom under construction
It has been four months since that fateful chilly April night when water blasted through my home like a flooding river. Even though the remodeling to repair all the damage officially finished the end of June, my place is still not completely in order.

For one, a lot of  things were destroyed. Now I have empty spaces where furniture once stood. Because that furniture stored a lot of stuff, there's no where to put it. I decided the most logical strategy to get things in order was to focus on one room at a time. Since my bedroom took the biggest hit when water burst through the ceiling like a waterfall, I started there. 

I had three pieces of old, abused furniture that I collected from a flea market and Craig's List sitting in my garage for about two years. With no furniture left to speak of in my bedroom, it seemed a great opportunity to finally tackle the refinishing projects I had planned for these pieces--all scratched, dusty and tangled in cobwebs.

Refinished campaign furniture that I bought on Craig's List
I wanted to do a  professional job. So I bought an electric sander, which had a life of its own. Every time I turned it on, I couldn't get it under control. It just kind of flew everywhere. I finally opted for a simple, manual block sander instead. Applying the stain and white paint on to the furniture had its own set of challenges. Now I know why contractors wear bandanas on their heads. If you don't, your dripping sweat will ruin the finish you are working on. Finally, I pulled out some artwork and accessories I had stored and collected over the years, and voila! I got a whole new bedroom.


Refinished bureau and chest from the Elephant's Trunk flea market


It felt really good taking those sorry-looking, old furniture pieces and giving them a second life. Plus, my car now has plenty of room in the garage. I could have gone out and bought a bunch of new furniture spending way too much money, By opting to exert a little elbow grease and creativity, I did my part to protect the environment by not throwing the furniture in a landfill.. The whole process has given me a new sense of confidence in my resourcefulness. Now it's on to the living room and kitchen!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Two Graduations And A Wedding

June. The season of dads, grads and brides. This particular month, my oldest nephew received his Master's Degree from Yale University and my youngest nephew graduated from Kent prep school. Then there was my boss's wedding, which I attended last Saturday night.
Wedding celebration with my co-workers

These life celebrations helped lift me out of a dark mood that has stood like a cloud over my head since April. The upheaval that has gone on in my home for more than two months has opened my eyes on many levels. It has been sobering. I realized that I turned my back for way too long on things that needed to be updated and repaired. I had to come to grips with the infestation of clutter that kept growing.

To make amends, I spent week nights painting doors and trim with super-white glossy paint.  I purged my kitchen cupboards and refrigerator with expired food and condiments. I got rid of scratched pans and chipped cups and bowls. I brown-bagged clothes that were more than five years old. I made Goodwill runs almost every day.

My nephew graduates from Kent School
But all this extra work wore me down after awhile. Where had the fun in life gone? Two graduations and one wedding helped me get my happy groove back. It is amazing to see my two nephews step into adulthood armed with such great education. The Yale graduate will continue towards his PhD at Yale in mathematical engineering (whatever that means). His girlfriend is studying at Yale to become a doctor. I have always been amazed by Alex's high IQ and drive, but it is a pleasure to see how it has transformed into solid economic security for him since he works at Yale, too.

His youngest brother, Davis, has grown into a polished young man thanks to attending Kent for two years. Davis is also driven to make his dreams come true as a hockey player.

 I have had the privilege to witness how my company supported my boss, who is gay, when she became engaged. Management hosted a wedding shower for her at the office. I was one of nine people from work that attended her wedding. It was a wonderful experience to see 185 family and friends celebrate two women in love and share their joy--without condemnation.

I expect the flood renovation to be completed in about two weeks, which means I will finally be able to bring my house back to order. It's been a tough go over the last two months.  So thank you June, for bringing some joy back into my life.



Monday, May 30, 2016

...And Then Came Summer

It's so typical, the way spring arrives here in New England. We wait and wait for the first signs of this fickle season because it's pretty much unanimous among all of us that winter lasts way too long. One day the weather will be completely on point.  Warm, sunny. All you need is a jacket or sweater. You see the buds on the trees, the grass greening. When you look up at the sky, you can feel the warm beams of sun on your face.

But then the next day, it's back to the same old weather--cold, damp, gray. Not for nothing, many New Englanders joke that spring lasts all of two weeks. It usually gives us these short bursts of seasonally-correct teases and then, bam! Summer arrives. This year, summer was perfectly timed by kicking off during the start of Memorial Weekend with 85-90 degree weather. Ten days ago my heat was still blasting and now the air conditioning is running round the clock. That's how things roll around here this time of year.

The inconvenient part of summer arriving, is that I can't access most of my warm-weather clothes since they are buried in the back of the garage that houses all my earthly belongings. It has been two months now since the flood, and construction lingers on. I'm still crammed in my tiny guest bedroom with my resilient cat that is clearly handling the whole mess better than me.

The white dust that stubbornly hangs in the air and covers everything, everywhere is concerning me. As soon as I get in the house, my throat constricts, I get a dry cough and  my voice gets hoarse. What to do? The foreman of the renovation assures me we are coming to the home stretch. The demolition, the rebuilding of the walls and ceilings, and even the painting is all done. What's left is some electrical work, and finally, the installation of hardwood floors. I am betting this will take another two weeks.

In the meantime, I continue to shuffle mounds of stuff around. I am always searching for something. Most likely, whatever I am looking for is in any number of heaped garbage bags. They are scattered everywhere. The things I am looking for no longer have their usual place. It pushes me into this low-level panic mode. So I try to create order however meagerly--like keeping the kitchen  and bathrooms spotless. Then I convince myself that this is nothing more than a major spring cleaning that is long overdue. Lighten up! This too shall pass.

But then I get pissed because summer is unofficially here, my favorite time of year. Do you think I want to spend this fleeting season trapped in my house decifering through all me shit, putting all the pieces of my domain back together again? Hell, no. That will be scheduled for rainy days and after daylight hours.

I refuse to let this minor catastrophe ruin my summer. I will go to the pool, go to the beach, enjoy sitting out barbecuing, and generally having a good time outside
The mess will have to wait, because yay! It's summertime.


Saturday, March 12, 2016

Celebrating Life & Eight Years Cancer Free

Today marks eight years since the day I found out I had breast cancer. I vividly remember the call I received from my doctor telling me I had the "garden variety" of breast cancer--carcinoma. That was the good news. It wasn't an aggressive disease like triple-negative breast cancer.

The bad news is that the lump in my left breast was over five centimeters--the size of a golf ball--which indicated it had probably spread to my lymph nodes. That indeed proved to be true. After the biopsy and scan results came in, the breast surgeon announced my ultimate diagnosis; Stage 3 locally-advanced breast cancer.

The implications of that diagnosis made me realize that if I had waited six months to get my annual physical, the cancer would have probably evolved into Stage 4 breast cancer in which case I most certainly would have been dead by now.

Doing what I love at The Elephant's Trunk flea market
I know what you're thinking. How could I not have felt such a large tumor?  The fact is I had large, dense breasts. When my doctor showed me where the lump was, all I could feel was a subtle, ridge. buried deep into the underside of my breast. Honestly, I had no clue. That illustrates how insidious breast cancer can be. You feel perfectly fine, Then comes this suspicious lump. I will admit it, I never bothered checking for lumps regularly and I did miss getting a mammogram the previous year.

Since the lump in my breast was so big, my course of treatment dictated that I undergo chemotherapy first in order to shrink the lump followed by surgery to remove it. To make matters worse, when I had undergone the MRI to discover how far the cancer spread, they found another pea-sized lump in my right breast. This meant that I had to undergo the most aggressive treatment possible.

Here's how it went down: Twelve weeks of chemotherapy followed by surgery, which included a mastectomy in my left breast and a lumpectomy in my right breast. Eight weeks of radiation. Four months later, the road to breast reconstruction began. Because they were not able to get clean margins in my right breast, I had to undergo another mastectomy as well.

Then there were complications with reconstruction during surgery on my left side due to radiation. I ended up having three subsequent surgeries, with my last "tweaked" procedure done July 2011--more than three years after my initial diagnosis.

It was a long road. After that, life shifted into normal gear--with a difference. I embraced it more. Above all, I sought opportunities to have fun--to enjoy the privilege of being alive. That meant that my passions and interests no longer took a back seat. The things I loved to do during my spare time were explored immediately.

For instance, I have always loved scouring through tag sales and flea markets and I always liked decorating my home, I kicked those hobbies into high gear. I spent more time refurbishing old furniture and updating my home. I am constantly re-painting, rearranging, and revamping everything in my environment. Then I started refinishing sorry, old furniture and flipping them
for profit on Facebook tag sale sites.

The point is, it really does matter that you take time to enjoy life doing the things that you love. After all, you were given a second chance. Don't waste it.




Monday, February 29, 2016

Applying For Disability Benefits With Breast Cancer

Blogger's note:  I an pleased to accept Bryan Mac Murray's article which answers so many questions that women battling breast cancer ask me. Bryan, thank you for being a guest blogger.

Disability benefits are only “automatically” available for breast cancer under certain circumstances. The cancer must be advanced, recurrent, or resistant to treatment. In all other cases, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will need to see additional proof in order to find you disabled by your cancer and/or cancer treatments.
While cancer and cancer treatments are certainly disabling, they don’t automatically meet SSA disability requirements. This is because disability benefits are only available if you have an impairment that causes long-term or permanent disability or if you have a terminal illness.
Medically Qualifying Under the Breast Cancer Listing
The SSA maintains disability listings for conditions that automatically qualify for benefits. Breast Cancer is among these and appears in the SSA’s listing of conditions called the Blue Book under Section 13.01. To meet this listing, your cancer must be one of the following:
  • Advanced, inflammatory carcinoma
  • A metastatic carcinoma that has spread to lymph nodes
  • A carcinoma that has returned after treatment
Other types of breast cancer can also qualify under this listing by closely matching one of the situations listed above.

Compassionate Allowance for Terminal Breast Cancer
Highly aggressive forms of breast cancer and those that are advanced, recurrent, and no longer responsive to treatment fall under the SSA’s Compassionate Allowances (CAL) program. CAL-designation ensures your application is reviewed quickly and that the medical evidence required for approval is minimal.

Qualifying Without Meeting the SSA’s Disability Listing
If your breast cancer doesn’t qualify through the Blue Book, you may still be able to get approved for benefits. Just be prepared for your application to initially be denied and for your wait for benefits to be longer.
You’ll need to request a second review of your claim and reevaluation of your medical evidence, but you should also be prepared for the possibility that you’ll be denied a second time. If denied again, you can appeal the decision and have your claim reviewed by an administrative law judge.
You may wish to consider seeking assistance from a disability advocate or attorney from the start if you know you cannot meet the SSA’s disability listing for breast cancer. An advocate or attorney can help you build a strong case and can assist in arguing your claim at an appeal hearing, if one is necessary.

Applying for Benefits
Disability benefits are available through two programs SSI and SSDI. Each program requires a separate application process.
  • SSDI applications can be submitted online or at the local office.
  • For SSI however, you’ll need to interview with an SSA representative at the local branch. He or she will complete your SSI application for you.
No matter which program you apply for, you’ll need:
·         details of your work history, education, job training, and previous job duties.
·         contact information for all your doctors and other healthcare providers.
·          financial information, including all sources of income and support as well as any assets you hold.  
Consider taking copies of the medical records you have with you to your local SSA office or submit those copies via mail just after completing your online SSDI application. Although the SSA will have you fill out consent forms that allow them to access your medical records, you wait for a decision can be shorter if you provide medical documentation directly to them at the time you apply for benefits.