Covid Scare

For the past three months, I’ve been working on a book, the biography of a local entrepreneur who made good. He came from Europe in the early 70s with his family and over time opened a number of stores that proved very successful and have made him wealthy.

We meet once or twice a week and I interview him. I listen to the details of his life in Europe, his first jobs in New York, and the slow ascent to success. I like him. I’ve known him many years and have been privileged to enjoy his friendship, so this project is special.

Our meetings usually are held at a local restaurant where we sit, maskless, across from each other. I order tea, he has coffee and a bear claw pastry. I record his remembrances on my phone, and then send the audio files out for transcription.

We were supposed to meet this past Monday and he didn’t show up. This has never happened before. I called him and he apologized profusely. He was sick in bed with a serious fever.

To make a long story short, my friend has contracted Covid-19. He texted me the next day to say the test had been positive.

Ten minutes later, I was on my healthcare provider’s website, feeling slightly foolish. How many days since I’d seen my friend? Had he appeared normal? I couldn’t remember whether he’d been coughing or not, but it seemed likely. And he did appear sort of pale, but that could have been the diner’s fluorescent lighting.

I made an appointment online to be tested the next day. That night, I felt a tickle in my throat. Was that a symptom? What about the sneezing? I’d been sneezing in the morning for a couple of weeks and thinking it was allergies. In the dark and from the safety of my bed, I tried to analyze every discomfort, no matter how small. I obsessed over the fact that I am more likely to succumb to Covid than are many others. I have cancer and am going through immunotherapy. I am older, diabetic, overweight, and my immune system has been compromised.

The next morning it snowed and I slipped and slid to the Tyson’s Kaiser Permanente clinic. Q-tips were rammed up my nostrils. On the drive back home, I sneezed constantly and depleted my car’s supply of napkins stolen from Panera.

Test results would come within 48 hours. I checked my email every ten minutes.

At 7 a.m., the next mornhing, a message from Kaiser appeared but I couldn’t download it. I signed in and out of their site three times before an email titled Test Results appeared. My stomach did a somersault. I took a deep breath, held it, clicked on the message.

Test negative.

I printed out the mail and read it again. Moments later, a nurse called me to tell me my test were negative, but that I should be wary and report any symptoms.

I celebrated the verdict by eating a large, salted pretzel and drinking too-sweet coffee. It stopped snowing.

The next day, my friend texted me to say he felt much better and his temperature was normal. I spent several hours working on his book.

I’ll have to write a Covid chapter.

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One Fine Day

My friend Sameer wrote a book, One Fine Day. There’s nothing unusual about this; I have a number of writer friends who’ve written books. That is after all, what we do. But I think this work is special.

I first met Sameer in the hallway of my apartment building. He was walking slowly, oh so slowly with the assistance of a cane, from his door to the elevator. I think I held the elevator for him as he made his way there. He thanked me, and I commented that it looked as if he’d gone through a rough time. He nodded, smiled and said, “Catastrophic hemorrhagic stroke in my cerebellum.”

He got out—slowly—at the first floor. I rode down to the garage. At the time of our initial meeting, I’d just gone through yet another cancer operation and was feeling sorry for myself, but it was obvious that Sameer’s woes were far more overwhelming than mine.

A couple of weeks later, we met again in the hallway. We exchanged a bit of information. He asked what I did and I told him I was a writer. His eyes lit up. “Really? I’m writing a book myself!” We decided to meet in the near future and have lunch.

Sammer Bhide, I learned, had been levelled by his stroke when he was 47. At the time, he was married with two kids and lived in a Washington, DC, suburb. He’d spent a month in an induced coma and there were serious doubts that he would survive. If he did, most doctors thought, he would be severely impaired.

During lunch at a nearby Lebanese restaurant, he told me a ghost writer was helping him with the first draft of his books, and it would be more than just a recollection of his stroke and his healing. He wanted it to be a treatise on gratitude. He had survived, he told me, and wanted to help people faced with situation similar to his, be they medical, emotional, or mental. His life had changed drastically in an instant, and his survival would depend on his ability to seek acceptance to what he called a new normal.

Over the last few years, I’ve helped people with their books—with plotting, character development, pacing, and all the other fine points that make a work readable. During the next couple of months, Sameer and I met for coffee and spoke often about writing, and I was impressed with his dedication to the task. Eventually, he asked if I’d go over the manuscript and come up with suggestions.

The first thing I noticed was, indeed, Sameer’s gratitude. He insisted on thanking all the people who had helped him—physicians, nurses, assistants, rehabilitators, the whole gamut of specialists in the US and in India who’d cared for him. He thanked his friends, dozens of them, some of whom had escorted him to India and back to the States. He thanked his wife and his children, and I learned that he’d gone through a divorce while he was healing. He thanked his mother, and his mother’s neighbors and friends in Mumbai. He thanked so many people that I suggested he consider doing an epilog where he could name all the people to whom he owed a debt of gratitude. Sameer opted to get treatments encompassing both Western and traditional Eastern medicine. The descriptions he offers of the treatments received in the US and in India make the book worth reading.

One Fine Day is officially coming out next week. Look for it on Amazon. It’s a good book, a guidebook, really, on how one can prepare for and embrace their new normal, whatever it is might be, with positivity, grace and gratitude.

I hope you’ll read it. It’s well-deserving of a wide audience.   

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When I was a tiny kid, an infusion was a benign beverage, chamomile or peach tea, that my great aunt Tatie—the one who slept with her hat on–drank in the early afternoon as she nibbled on sugar cookies and told tales of colonial Africa.

Now an infusion is a cocktail of unpronounceable drugs administered via an IV to bolster my immune system against cancer. Times have changed.

Today was my third immunotherapy session; I’m halfway through the process. I’m in the medical version of a Barcalounger. In the station next to mine, an elderly man moans rhythmically while across the aisle, a woman works her cross-word puzzle.

When the drug—Pembrolizumab—hits my system, I get a rush of heat, like walking into a sauna. I close my eyes and the warmth ebbs. The side-effects are entirely endurable—fatigue, some nausea, itching. The nurse, a small, thin Asian woman, chirps as she works, a model of efficiency. I am amazed by the amount of stuff she discards: five pairs of latex gloves, some 20 feet of IV tubing, two sets of needles, a half-empty bag of saline, and various bits and pieces whose uses are mystery.

The moaning man is now talking on the phone in Arabic. His phone is on speaker and faraway voices take turns asking questions. There are old voices and young ones and a crying baby is brought to the phone so we can all hear it wail. The man says inshallah a number of times. After a while, he hangs up and begins moaning again and I inshallah that his whimpering stop. God hears me and it does.

An hour later, I am talking with the oncologist who tells me most of my chemistry is normal, save my calcium, which is borderline. Next week, I am scheduled for a cystoscopy, which will thread a small camera up my urethra and into my bladder to see if the cancer there is receding or progressing. Immunotherapy offers a 30 to 40 percent chance of improvement in my condition. I can’t do the standard chemo anymore because my body has become intolerant to the chemicals used.  

I walk back through the infusion center. The old man’s eyes are closed and he is moaning again. I say, “Salamo Alaykum,” one of two expressions I know in Arabic. His eyes open, he smiles and nod.

I feel better about having inshallah-ed him earlier. 

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Le Jour de Merci Donnant

For decades prior to his death, Art Buchwald’s column Explaining Thanksgiving to the French ran in The Washington Post on Thanksgiving Day. Art is no longer with us and the Post no longer carries it,  so here it is.

This confidential column was leaked to me by a high government official in the Plymouth colony on the condition that I not reveal his name.

One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant .

Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims ( Pelerins ) who fled from l’Angleterre before the McCarran Act to found a colony in the New World (le Nouveau Monde ) where they could shoot Indians (les Peaux-Rouges) and eat turkey (dinde) to their hearts’ content.

They landed at a place called Plymouth (now a famous voiture Americaine) in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower (or Fleur de Mai ) in 1620. But while the Pelerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pelerins, and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them. The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pelerins was when they taught them to grow corn (mais). The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pelerins.

In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pelerins’ crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more mais was raised by the Pelerins than Pelerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges.

Every year on the Jour de Merci Donnant, parents tell their children an amusing story about the first celebration.

It concerns a brave capitaine named Miles Standish (known in France as Kilometres Deboutish) and a young, shy lieutenant named Jean Alden. Both of them were in love with a flower of Plymouth called Priscilla Mullens (no translation). The vieux capitaine said to the jeune lieutenant :

“Go to the damsel Priscilla (allez tres vite chez Priscilla), the loveliest maiden of Plymouth ( la plus jolie demoiselle de Plymouth). Say that a blunt old captain, a man not of words but of action (un vieux Fanfan la Tulipe), offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier. Not in these words, you know, but this, in short, is my meaning.

“I am a maker of war (je suis un fabricant de la guerre) and not a maker of phrases. You, bred as a scholar (vous, qui etes pain comme un etudiant), can say it in elegant language, such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers, such as you think best adapted to win the heart of the maiden.”

Although Jean was fit to be tied (convenable a etre emballe), friendship prevailed over love and he went to his duty. But instead of using elegant language, he blurted out his mission. Priscilla was muted with amazement and sorrow (rendue muette par l’etonnement et la tristesse).

At length she exclaimed, interrupting the ominous silence: “If the great captain of Plymouth is so very eager to wed me, why does he not come himself and take the trouble to woo me?” (Ou est-il, le vieux Kilometres? Pourquoi ne vient-il pas aupres de moi pour tenter sa chance ?)

Jean said that Kilometres Deboutish was very busy and didn’t have time for those things. He staggered on, telling what a wonderful husband Kilometres would make. Finally Priscilla arched her eyebrows and said in a tremulous voice, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, Jean?” (Chacun a son gout.)

And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes and, for the only time during the year, eat better than the French do.

No one can deny that le Jour de Merci Donnant is a grande fete and no matter how well fed American families are, they never forget to give thanks to Kilometres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.

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The First Infusion

The first immunotherapy session was anticlimactic.

Two days before, I had been tested for Covid, an unpleasant and exceptionally long 30 seconds during which a hazmat-suited nurse twirled Q-tips into my nostrils. This was my third test and I have not gotten used to the procedure. A day before that, I’d given up a half-pint of blood to be analyzed. I arrived at the clinic early, prepared for a bad time as my prior experiences with BCG chemo were, towards the end of the treatment, downright unpleasant.

The nurse, a young Hispanic woman, was solicitous. We talked about side-effects and I told her I was particularly concerned with ear and nose hair loss. It’s difficult, when wearing masks, to read another person’s expression. I know I was smiling, but her eyes remained blank. She nodded and assured me that hair loss-anywhere-was rare with this particular medicine. I was likely to be fatigued and have gastro-intestinal issues and maybe experience some joint pain. If I became nauseous or short of breath, I was to contact the clinic immediately.

I sat in the medical version of a Barcalounger. Next to me was a lady with snow-white hair who glanced at my tee shirt and asked, “What’s Cancer Can Rock?” I told her it was an organization that gave musicians with cancer the opportunity to record a song for posterity in a professional studio, and have it mixed by a Grammy-winning producer. She thought about it for a minute and nodded her head, said, “My great-grandson plays guitar.” Then she returned to her crossword puzzle.

The nurse took some blood, sent it to the lab and twenty minutes later told me my calcium level was low. I remembered dried figs were good for that and promised to buy some on the way home. She hooked me up to an IV, sticking a needle in the crook of my left arm, then told me to wait. The pharmacy would be mixing the chemicals to be infused and it might take a short while. She handed me a print-out on Pembrolizumab (who comes up with these names?) and I read once again about the potential difficulties with the drug.

When my dosage arrived, she ran some saline to make sure the tube going into my arm was clean and clear, then connected the plastic bag of Pembrolizumab. Minutes later, I felt a small rush of heat go through my body, as if my temperature had suddenly risen. This went away after a few minutes.

I sat in the Barcalounger close to an hour, drank a couple of cups of coffee, played a word game on my phone, read emails, and sent messages. Then I dozed off.

When it was done, we made an appointment for three weeks hence. On the way home I bought figs and tried to determine if any part of me felt different. I tugged at a nose hair and it stayed in place.

So far, so good.    

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I Voted

I voted yesterday. I got to the polls shortly after they opened at 1 p.m., and already the line waiting to enter the McLean community center stretched and wound 600 yards. The sky was the color of dead fish and spewed an intermittent misty rain. Everyone wore masks and kept a distance between those behind and those in front. It took two hours, from start to finish, shepherded by volunteers, one of whom recognized me from my World Bank days.  

A lady in an ill-fitting red wig handed out Republican ballots instructing conservatives how to vote. A rail thin elderly man wearing both suspenders and a belt—a pessimist, I gathered—did the same for the Democratic ballots.

The voters were overwhelmingly white, as is McLean. This was not a social event. It was not a cheery crowd. It was stoic, determined, and mostly silent. There were no protestors with or without firearms, no police, no one trying to shift opinions. Neither were there camaraderie and idle conversation. The voters looked just short of grim. They had a job to do and were willing to stand and shuffle for two hours to exercise their voting privilege.

I had been obsessing for weeks about voting. I had registered early and considered going to the Fairfax government center until a friend told me the wait there was five hours. That was longer than my body would tolerate.

I desperately wanted my vote to be counted, though. I had voted in the last presidential election safe in the conviction that a blonde buffoon could not possibly be elected, and I was wrong. Now my stomach turns when I think of the damage done to this amazing country over the last four years. I now firmly believe that another Trump term will damage the US beyond repair. The number of people willing to sacrifice their afternoon to stand in line showed me I’m not the only one riddled with angst. Still, I worried about the quotidian, about going to the toilet, about having left my umbrella in the car. About being at the right place at the right time. About what I would do or say if challenged. My concerns were unfounded. The man in front of me asked if I’d save his place in line while he went to the bathroom. Minutes later, he returned the favor.

We shuffled forward, the distance to the center’s doors counted in feet and minutes. I filled out the ballot, listened to the volunteers’ instructions, slid the thing into a scanner. There. Done.

I left with a deep sense of relief, smiled at the people still in line. My illegally parked car hadn’t been ticketed. The sun broke through the clouds. I went to Starbucks and got an espresso and a donut. Life was good.

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A New Direction

I have decided to leave my cancerous bladder, still-healthy prostate, and nearby lymph nodes, where they are, which is to say inside my body. The operation I was considering on the advice of my oncologist was simply too complicated and hazardous. The removal of several organs from my innards held no charm and promised an extremely long convalescence and recuperation. It would require at-home aftercare for an indeterminate amount of time. Plus, I don’t have good luck with surgery. Twice, I woke up during operations, much to the consternation of the attending surgeons. I can assure you this is not a pleasant experience. More recently, what was supposed to be a simple cataract surgery somehow went wrong and now, after three additional procedures, my left eye is essentially blind and I can no longer drive at night. So I think keeping razor sharp implements away from my mid-section is probably wise.

What I have opted for is immunotherapy using a drug called pembrolizumab. This is a relatively new process endorsed by the Food & Drug Administration in January 2020. It claims to work well on the type of cancer I have, which is called ‘BCG-unresponsive, high-risk non-muscle invasive.’ I am unresponsive to Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) treatment perhaps because it was invented in France, and I am French. If this is the case, I am not amused.

This being said, I may have jumped from frying pan to fire. The list of immunotherapy’s possible side-effects is a full page long, and a video offered by my provider as an informative 90-minute tranquilizer did nothing of the sort. I learned arthralgia–joint pain–is a possibility, as is vitiligo, which can affect the pigmentation of your skin.

I’m fortunate, though, that the infusions will be only once every three weeks, and last less than an hour. Having had friends whose chemo sessions lasted far longer makes me realize that though my illness isn’t much fun, it could be far, far worse.

It’s occasionally hard for me to count my blessings. I have a tendency to ask, “why me” when the question should be, “why not me?”

I wish I had answers to one, or both, questions.

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Joyless and Loveless

By Elayne Griffin Baker

There’s no literature or poetry in the White House. No music. No Kennedy Center award celebrations. There are no pets in this White House. No loyal man’s best friend. No Socks the family cat. No kids’ science fairs. No times when this president takes off his blue suit-red tie uniform and becomes human, except when he puts on his white shirt-khaki pants uniform and hides from Americans to play golf. There are no images of the first family enjoying themselves together in a moment of relaxation. No Obamas on the beach in Hawaii moments, or Bushes fishing in Kennebunkport, no Reagans on horseback, no Kennedys playing touch football on the Cape.

I was thinking the other day of the summer when George H couldn’t catch a fish and all the grandkids made signs and counted the fish-less days. And somehow, even if you didn’t even like GHB, you got caught up in the joy of a family that loved each other and had fun. Where did that country go? Where did all of the fun and joy and expressions of love and happiness go?

We used to be a country that did the ice bucket challenge and raised millions for charity. We used to have a president that calmed and soothed the nation instead dividing it. And a First Lady that planted a garden instead of ripping one out. We are rudderless and joyless. We have lost the cultural aspects of society that make America great. We have lost our mojo, our fun, our happiness. The cheering on of others. Gone. The shared experiences of humanity that makes it all worth it. Gone. The challenges AND the triumphs that we shared and celebrated. The unique can-do spirit Americans have always been known for. Gone. We have lost so much in so short a time.

Vote Democratic all the way down the ballot on November 3rd.

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Hello! Kindly advise if your company has the license or capability to execute a mutil (sic) million contract supply project for the Government of Algeria. kindly furnish me your response. Thank you and treat very urgent. Looking forward to an early response. Ali Hassan. (Text of an email received twice in four minutes.)

Ooh! Ooh! Me! I want the mutil million contract with the Government of Algeria. They speak French n Algeria! I’ll be a natural there!.

You have exceeded limit of your email account, Helpdesk requires your quick regeneration survey to create space. Click link below to upgrade: You need to upgrade for new space otherwise you will not be able to send or receive message.
Helpdesk Support. (Text of an email received at least once a day for the past month.)

Oh no! Here’s my password and social security number! Please don’t turn my email off!

It’s a sad state of affairs when the scam artists get so lazy they can’t come up with anything original. I want to tell Ali Hassan that I now understand why his country is in such a sad state. If Ali is the best swindler Algeria has to offer, there’s little hope for the country.

Yesterday I got a Facebook friend request from Anna Downs, a pretty young American stuck in Ghana because of Covid-19. Anna needed me to vouch for her, which I could do with my bank routing number. If I could lend her enough to buy an airline ticket to Canada, her parents, who owned 3M, would reimburse me in full and, to show their undying gratitude, also bestow upon me many shares of highly valuable 3M stocks. This sounded like a win/win deal, but when I tried to reach Anna, her Facebook page had vanished.

Even more promising was a message from a couple of months ago from Irina L, who sent along a photo of herself in a very skimpy outfit. Irina was 22 years old and, to put it succinctly, comely and possibly surgically enhanced. She was writing from her Latvian village because my friend Joe (everyone has a friend named Joe) had given her my name and email address. My friend Joe thought I was just the man to help Irina out of a bind.

Irina, it seems, had done all that was necessary to come to America. Her papers were in order, and she’d purchased a one-way airline ticket to get to New York. But the situation in her country had gone from bad to worse, and now the airlines wanted another $500. Could I help?

I wrote back to Irina asking for more info. What kind of visa did she have? Tourist, student? Was she asking for refugee status? Irina said she had a green card visa—something I wasn’t familiar with—that would enable her to apply for immigrant status shortly after her arrival in the US. And then I noticed Irina’s mail seemed to be coming from an NGA IP address. Hmmm. How had Irina traveled so quickly from Latvia to Nigeria? Was it possible that Irina was actually a Nigerian scammer? No, really? How disappointing.

I wrote Irina an accusatory email, basically telling her/him to get stuffed, although I used a different word.

Irina’s offended response the next morning read: Dear Thierry, Please stop all commubinicating (sic) with me. You are not a very nice man.

I’m crushed.

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This is for my friends. They have listened to me bitch, whine, moan, and make myself otherwise ridiculously pitiable (or perhaps pitiful) over the last decade as my health took a nosedive and my perception of mortality sharpened.

Thank you.

I have very few friends and too many acquaintances. The latter take me to lunch once and tell me about their own health issues, or those of their late Aunt Pearl, a saintly woman who underwent the torments of hell without once complaining. I take this to mean that in their company, benign conversation is far preferable to talk of woes and fears, and so wax euphoric about the kale salad and baked artichoke hearts on the menu.

My friends, on the other hand, have listened, often with pursed lips and furrowed brows. They have not given me spurious advice (“Have you seen a doctor?” asked one acquaintance), or suggested I travel to Mexico to see the holistic shaman who successfully treated the cousin of their secretary’s mother. They have encouraged me to have two half-pound Big Bites with chili from 7/11 following surgery, if this was my wish, then did not utter a word of counsel after I related that this post-operation meal had not in the least agreed with me.

One drove me a dozen times to and from surgery, and gently humored me when I came out of it completely loopy and stoned. He spoke with the doctor after the operation and endured being thought of as my aging gay partner. He has filled my prescriptions, driven me home, and then called later in the evening to make sure all was well.

My friends often don’t say anything at all about my health unless I bring the subject up. Then they ask intelligent questions and suggest practical solutions. They don’t get annoyed when I tell them I really don’t like Zoom, or any other remote-viewing mechanism. They stay in touch even if Covid-19 has made person-to-person encounters difficult. There is little to be gained by recounting the sorry tales of one’s declining years, yet when I do, my friends endure my perorations.

Personally, I think there’s nothing more boring than listening to someone else’s health-related stories. Yes, there are funny ones, like the surgeon who, after my third bladder cancer operation, called me and said, “Hello Mabel! How’s your ankle?”, and there are horrible ones,  like the nurse who accidentally sent me a letter suggesting I quickly get my affairs in order as I had just a few weeks to live. I tell my friends the same cancer jokes several times and they always laugh.  I was once asked by a vague acquaintance what sort of cancer I would prefer to have. I answered, “Ovarian.” My friends still find this hilarious.

So this is for my friends. You know who you are and I love you all.

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