Sunday, March 30, 2008

Maggie Update

One month into chemotherapy, Maggie is thriving. She had an ultra-sound on Thursday, and she is completely clear: no tumors, no swollen lymph nodes. We're astonished and delighted. She has weathered four treatments with little more than occasional lethargy and a runny tummy, the latter easily remedied with a half-dose of Immodium. Even the dreaded Doxyrubicin exerted little untoward effect: the following day, Maggie bounced around the front lawn with Chloe and bolted her food.

Mags did lose weight about two weeks into treatment, a loss she could not afford on her already painfully thin frame. Frantic, I increased her meals to three times a day, giving her generous portions of salmon, high-quality dog food, and even rice when her stomach was a bit loose. A small bowl of ultra-rich vanilla ice cream at bedtime provides additional calories, not to mention untold pleasure. Every dog I've owned loves ice cream--they'd eat themselves silly on it given half a chance. My efforts are paying off. Slowly Maggie is gaining weight and looking more herself.

It's a cliche about every day being a gift, but so often we take our beloved pets, like our family and friends, for granted, expecting they will always be around. We know that remission won't last long, but as Rod says, we'll enjoy every extra moment we have with this lovable, affectionate dog. And who knows? Rod met a man the other day whose dog was diagnosed with the same virulent form of Lymphoma that plagues Maggie. That dog too was given 4-6 months with treatment but is still in remission a year later and doing just fine. Maybe Maggie too will beat the odds.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Mr. Beau's Work Ethic

Truth be told, Mr. Beau does not have the best work ethic in the world.  One hears frequently in the horse world of equines that "know their job" or "get the job done."  Alas, Mr. Beau is not one of these heralded beasts.

An opinionated horse, Mr. Beau lets me know exactly what he wants to do and when.  Best time for work (that dreaded word)?  Early afternoon, around an hour before feeding time. He likes to wrap things up before the other horses are brought in from the fields; that way, he can get to his feed bucket first, thereby maintaining his premier status. 

In hot weather, Beau's desires and mine especially conflict. Typical for this region, the horses are out in the pastures all night and brought in around 8:00 a.m. so they can spend the heat of the day in a nice shaded stall, replete with a box fan. As Rod frequently remarks, these horses live better than many people in Third World countries, to which I readily and guiltily assent.  Despite these creature comforts, Beau conveys his extreme displeasure with early morning rides; after all, he's been outside all night, which is clearly exhausting and debilitating.  How dare I expect him to do anything other than nap?  Of course, I think riding at 7:00 a.m. is far saner than attempting a hack in mid-day heat, especially in July and August--and therein lies the conflict.  I am sorry to confess that Beau usually wins through passive resistance, barely placing one hoof in front of the next and sighing perceptibly.  It could be worse: I know a woman whose horse grunts audibly whenever she gains five pounds, a veritable talking scale.

We're more of one mind when it comes to equine disciplines.  Beau hates flat work, especially dressage, which he regards as akin to water boarding. Taking a cue from George Bush, I explain that neither activity technically qualifies as torture, but Beau just doesn't believe me.  Put the old boy in front of a jump, though, and you get a different horse.  At Southwind, where I board him, his quicksilver transformation from slacker to workaholic has become an ongoing joke. Onlookers who have watched me urge Beau fruitlessly and laboriously through serpentines and 20 meter circles do a double take at the sight of the little grey thoroughbred, ears pricked, eyes alert, and body quivering with excitement, as he pops over rails.  Even slightly elevated ground poles do it for him.  I have to admit I share Beau's preference in this regard, but I keep explaining to him that dressage is good for both of us, sort of an equine version of taking your vitamins or doing push-ups.  He just gives me that long sideways glance, a combination of skepticism and incredulity ("you expect me to do that?).

If the weather is reasonable, which to Beau means anything below 75 degrees, he happily hacks through the woods and fields around Southwind Farm.  If it's muddy, humid, or, worst of all, buggy, then this activity goes from pleasant to onerous for both of us.  I've endured dirty looks, pinned ears, and truly stupid behavior that I know is deliberate on his part.  Don't even begin to explain to me about animals' inability to think ahead or make conscious choices.  As anyone who has ever owned a horse knows, they are capable of truly diabolical behavior. Beau can be lazy, but he's also whip smart.  If we're out on a day that is too humid, then Beau will suddenly "spook" at bushes or farm equipment he's passed previously with nary a glance.  He will run relay races with horses in nearby fields, going from a stately walk to a bolting gallop in two seconds flat.  He will, in short, make my life hell for forcing him to do other than what he wants.

So why do I keep the worthless beast?  Well, he's actually a very good all-around horse for a middle-aged woman: I don't need a wild eyed four-year-old.  Even when Beau bolts a few feet, he stops quickly.  He's sending a message, not trying to murder me, which is more than you can say for some horses.  Usually Beau takes pretty damn good care of me.  My former trainer Carol once drily pointed out (as I hung off Beau's neck in a crumbled heap), "Many horses would have taken advantage of your poor position."  Beau, however, feeling me fall forward as we cleared the jump, eased to a gentle walk and then stopped, giving me a chance to climb back into the saddle.  He did turn his head to shoot me a disgusted look, but as Carol observed, he had the grace and generosity to save his rider.

In our way, we've come to love each other deeply.  Beau nuzzles and licks me, even though he's not an especially affectionate horse by nature.  When we've had a good ride, he leans his chin on my shoulder, giving me a chance to drape an arm around his neck or lay my cheek against his. He sighs contentedly, proud that he's done a good job--on his terms, of course. Then there are the kisses I taught him, our usual good-bye ritual unless I've asked for something untoward, like flat work or, heaven forfend, riding in hot, sticky weather.  Last night, irritated at having to work in a lesson for the first time in weeks, Beau showed me his bottom, not his pretty nose when I came to say good-bye.  And not for the first time did I think about having a horse with a dubious work ethic.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Lewnes Restaurant

I've ingested more meat in the last week than in the previous six months combined! A business associate of Rod's took us to Lewnes Steakhouse in downtown Annapolis. I voiced my usual reservation about dining at an Annapolis restaurant (see previous irritable posts on the subject), but Rod wanted to eat somewhere convenient rather than commuting into Baltimore. Fair enough. All three of us had had a long, trying day, and we didn't need extra time on the road.

So Lewnes it was. To my pleasant surprise, it is a restaurant that seemingly deserves its good reputation. An Annapolis fixture, Lewnes has been around since 1921, and the building certainly conveys a homey, lived-in atmosphere. The modest menu is limited to a few surf and turf offerings: the requisite filet mignon, rib-eye steak, and crab cakes. If you're a carnivore with a conscience, you might not want to partake of their U.S. prime beef, which is raised in feed lots, not on open grassland ranges. The web site is somewhat deceptive in that regard: viewed quickly, one might miss the essential fact that Lewnes does not use grass-raised beef. I blithely ordered my petit filet mignon, thinking that the poor creature who was sacrificed for my culinary pleasure had at least enjoyed his brief life in a natural habitat. Had I known of his feedlot existence, I would have ordered fish. Lest you think that I'm somewhat fanatical in this regard, read Michael Pollin's The Carnivore's Dilemma. Never again will you unthinkingly swallow a mouthful of meat or poultry.

Despite my guilty conscience, I have to admit the meat was excellent, rich and marbled in the manner of corn-fed prime beef. Lewnes does a fine job of preparing steaks, which come to the table sizzling in butter and cooked to perfection. I ordered medium-rare, and medium-rare I got. No complaints there. As is customary in steak houses these days, sides are ordered (and billed) separately. Ours were good but not superlative, with the exception of very nice fresh spinach sauteed in a little olive oil. None of the sides were hot enough, a continuing obsession of mine. Every restaurant in the U.S. should have monthly seminars on the art of getting food to the table piping hot: when did it become acceptable to serve tepid fare?

Service was prompt and professional. We declined dessert, although we had an absolutely amazing 2000 Dunn cabernet sauvignon with dinner, an outrageously expensive wine. I can cheerfully declare that it was worth every sip, but that's largely because I was the happy recipient of an expense-account meal.

Would I return? I don't think so. I'm not that keen on slabs of meat anymore (although there was a time), and their policy of using feedlot cattle troubles me. Given the number of small farms in Virginia that are now pasturing cattle, I don't see why a local steak house has to serve beef raised in gruesome conditions. Last night I unknowingly supported the horrors of industrial farming, something I prefer not to do again.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Ella at Arena Stage

Put bluntly, Tina Fabrique was the only reason to see Ella back in January and February at Arena Stage. What a gal! And what a terrific set of pipes!

I wish I could muster the same enthusiasm for the book which, according to the Arena Stage web site, was "conceived by Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison." That verb is telling: conceptions, if properly formulated, eventually become creations, but Ella, alas, resists the happy translation from idea to artifact. Half-baked, it is very much a "conception," not a finished play.

In all fairness, the lackluster script cannot solely be blamed on Ruggiero and Garrison (and who, by the way, is sufficiently benighted to name a child "Dyke"?).  At bare minimum, a bio-drama (like a bio-pic) requires a memorable personality dropped into an interesting cultural moment; shake 'em both up, and you hopefully get a nice cocktail of dramatic conflict. While the Big Band scene that forms the backdrop for Ella is colorful, the singer's life wasn't and therein lies part of the problem. Yes, Ella Fitzgerald had a tough start in life, but so did many others during the Depression; and, sadly, her inability to realize lasting love is hardly unique. She was a craftswoman: technically brilliant and artistically inspired, she became her sound. Just mention "Ella," and people smile in recognition, instantly hearing her unsurpassable renditions of Gershwin and Cole Porter. Like Sinatra, she was truly sui generis.

A distinctive vocal style, however, does not a story make, and Ruggiero and Garrison, desperate to infuse some life into the book, impute to Fitzgerald a feminist consciousness that allows her to critique, loudly and sassily, the lot of women or the unjust times. At points, I expected Tina Fabrique to break into "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," not "Miss Otis Regrets." It's extremely peculiar, not to mention wildly anachronistic. There's little evidence that Ella Fitzgerald was anything other than a well-mannered, hard-working lady.  Even by Depression standards, she was no Emma Goldman.

There are other peculiarities: the script has Fitzgerald taking swipes at Sinatra, hinting at ill treatment by Ole' Blue Eyes. Sinatra, though, not only acknowledged his indebtedness to Fitzgerald, attributing his phrasing to her characteristically syncopated style, but also professed admiration for the woman and absolute regard for the musician. Just watch the two of them perform together in this 1967 television special: three minutes into the medley, Sinatra sits on the floor, his back to us, generously yielding the stage to Ella's extraordinary scat solo. When the camera pans to Sinatra's face, we see wonder, not disrespect. They would go on to tour together with Count Basie in the 70s; a superstar, Fitzgerald was certainly under little compunction to perform with anyone who treated her poorly, even Sinatra.

The script similarly transforms Norman Granz, Fitzgerald's manager, into another exploitive, unfeeling white male in a vain attempt to imbue her life with the tragic overtones of Lady Day. In actuality, Granz felt strongly about civil rights and refused--even in the fifties--to let restaurants or hotels discriminate against his performers, one of the reasons that musicians like Ray Brown, Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald remained his life-long clients and friends. It goes without saying that the many awards, accolades, and honorary degrees heaped upon Fitzgerald are never mentioned since they ill accord with Ruggiero and Garrison's representation of Ella the Downtrodden.

Despite her rough start, Fitzgerald actually achieved success early in life, and she maintained a busy work schedule for over forty years. Industriousness, while commendable, is hardly the stuff of high drama, with the result that Ruggiero and Garrison, desperate for conflict, take extraordinary liberties with a well-documented life. In this day of Wikipedia and You Tube, it's easy to pull up basic information or clips from concerts and television, putting additional pressure on writers to justify artistic license. Clearly, art is not biography--nor should it be--but departures from history should add up to something more than tired cliches.

Happily, Fabrique's big, lush voice, backed by a superb combo, dominated the evening and compensated for the lackluster script. Fabrique made the smart decision not to channel Fitzgerald; rather, she reinterprets, paying homage while making the songs her own. In so doing she avoids the creepiness of Kevin Spacey doing Bobby Darrin in the recent film, Beyond the Sea (2004). With Spacey, I found myself simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by his musical reenactment. The voice was eerily right, but the body was so wrong--as if a zombie had taken over Darrin. Fabrique thankfully does not attempt a literal impersonation, freeing us to appreciate her artistry rather than marvel at her mimetic abilities. Overall, Fabrique seems like a pretty good actress: I fault the script for giving her little to do other than strut, complain, and lecture between sets. Arena would have been far better served by a cabaret show; rather than shackling Fabrique to this third-rate script, why didn't they free her to do what she clearly excels at--sing?

Old Stein Inn, Edgewater

I must admit that German food does not often present itself to us as an inviting culinary prospect. Last Friday night, though, it seemed the perfect anodyne to howling gales and pelting rain. Envisioning sizzling bratwurst and foaming German beer, we ventured over the South River Bridge into the hinterlands of Edgewater, a sleepy community off Route 2. Even by Edgewater standards, the Old Stein Inn is remote: its location managed to elude the customarily infallible GPS on Rod's car.

Was it worth the visit? I still haven't decided. The inn has a cozy, predictably Bavarian feel, and it appears to be a great favorite with the locals. Service was efficient and pleasant, and the food hearty and plentiful. I had a glass of a dry German Reisling, a nice accompaniment to tasty wiener schnitzel, red cabbage, and spƤtzle. Rod ordered smoked pork chops (kassler rippchen), which were flavorful but dry. Far better were the sauerkraut and German potato salad that came as sides. Rod also tried a slice of the black forest cake, which proved to be as bad as I feared. Frankly, none of the desserts, which were shown to us beforehand on a platter, looked especially appetizing. This had to be the worst black forest cake I've ever tasted, the chocolate cake bland and the frosting tasteless and greasy. One forkful was more than enough.

I suppose my hesitation has more to do with the national cuisine than the actual preparation, was which sufficient, if not noteworthy. At the end of the meal, as we waddled away, I remembered why I rarely eat food like this: slabs of meat, with sides of potatoes and cabbage, seem a thing of the past. What was once good hearty fare for farmers and laborers is absurdly protein- and calorie-laden for those of us who work in an information economy, tethered as we are to desks and computers. By contemporary standards, I'm fairly active (horseback riding; Pilates; elliptical trainer); even so, I hardly require a substantial Bavarian meal. At the same time, I must admit that we slept very well that night, even though high winds noisily lashed the house. Maybe there's something to be said for the occasional foray into satiety.


After a hiatus of several weeks, I've returned to blogging.  Life got in the way: a terminally sick dog, a chronically lame horse, and a far too demanding job.  

Maggie, our sick pooch, occupied much of our time in February. Fine one day, she couldn't keep anything down the next.  The first well-meaning but doddering vet prescribed antibiotics. (Query to husband: how will the dog keep down antibiotics if she's upchucking mere water?) By the third day, Maggie was admitted to hospital and put on an IV drip.  Little changed.  By the sixth day, the vets decided to do exploratory surgery, suspecting a blockage of some sort.  We imagined a golf ball wedged in her guts, a decayed remnant from the days when our neighborhood used to be a golf course, many decades past.  We were dismayed to learn the culprit was the size but, alas, not the stuff of a golf ball: the offending tumor was removed, along with a section of the large intestine.

Maggie was given a 50/50 chance of making it through the weekend.  She went into surgery early on Friday morning, the 8th of February.  By Sunday we began to hope.  A few days later, emaciated and weak, she was released back into our care; that same day we learned the tumor was malignant. Maggie was diagnosed with lymphoma, an incurable cancer.  She would live another 4-6 weeks at best unless we intervened with chemotherapy, something we had never imagined undertaking with a pet.

We asked for further testing.  It seems that poor Maggie can't get a break: the tumor was staged as large T-cell lymphoma, the most aggressive kind. Even with chemotherapy, she will most likely live 4-6 months from the time of diagnosis, giving her until the end of spring or beginning of summer.  Of course, she could once again beat the odds.  As the oncologist noted, she was sufficiently plucky to survive the surgery, and she just might make it until the end of the year.

We're now two treatments into chemotherapy.  Initially, I was opposed, but our family vet urged me to reconsider, arguing that Maggie was a good candidate given her resilience and relatively young age.  And I couldn't stand Rod's misery.  He was fond of his old terrier Scruffy, but Maggie is something special, the canine love of his life.  Smitten from the outset, Rod has doted shamelessly on this lovable albeit occasionally difficult dog.  He just can't let her go--not yet.

So far, so good.  Except for a bit of lethargy, Maggie has sailed through chemo.  We're even seeing a bit of the old bounce.  Last night she drove a herd of deer from our lawn and swaggered back into the house, immensely proud of her efforts.  This morning she stares belligerently out of the cathedral window, growling warnings to wayward crows.  I'm worried about the fourth treatment, when she will receive doxorubicin, a brutal drug, but I'm trying to take it a week, nay, even a day at a time, no easy task for someone of my anxious and admittedly controlling nature.