Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mackinac Part One: Fudge

I think to make the posts more readable and organized, I'm going to divide them up into a few parts. So to start off, a review of the fudge!

There are several different fudge companies on Mackinac: Ryba's, Joann's, May's, Murdick's, Murray's, and Sanders, which you've already heard about. It's a Michigan-wide company, although I've never seen fudge at their stores down here, and the other ones are all home grown on Mackinac. We didn't try Murray's because my parents said the last time they were up there it was terrible. I figured, no problem skipping out on bad fudge.

There are several possible problems with fudge. It can be too dry, too sugary, or too grainy. Naturally the fudge will dry out if it isn't kept properly covered after you buy it, so you have to rewrap and store it carefully. It's made on marble slabs in the store. The hot fudge is poured out on the marble slab and then the bakers scoop it up and fold it over, building it up into a long brick until it cools and holds its form. Then it is cut into slices, which you can have cut in half again when you buy it so that you can try multiple flavors. Most stores will require you to buy two halves to fill up a box. The fudge stores all sell other candy items as well - caramel corn, regular popcorn, usually ice cream, homemade candies, peanut brittle, etc.

So, here are my reviews of fudge, from worst to best:


Murdick's fell into the "too grainy" trap. We got peanut butter chocolate chip (on the left) and double dark chocolate. The double dark chocolate wasn't chocolate-y enough, and in addition both were a little dry. The chocolate chips in the peanut butter one didn't melt enough so they were kind of hard (they're only in the very center of the slice so you can't see them very well in this picture). Murdick's is probably not worth the trip if this is their typical standard of product.

May's claims to be "the family that made fudge famous." The first problem with May's is that they wouldn't cut the slabs of fudge in half so that we could try a couple of flavors. That was annoying. Their fudge was not at all dry, very soft and fudgey, but the chocolate peanut butter flavor that we tried was more caramel flavored than chocolate flavored.

The next three I have a hard time ranking in any order because they were all so delicious! It's impossible to choose between them!

We got the peppermint patty flavor. WOW. Creamy, fudgey, delicious flavor - a definite must-have if you find yourself on the island! Sanders features all kinds of other unusual flavors that are a depart from the typical chocolate, chocolate peanut butter, vanilla walnut, etc.

On the top left is chocolate peanut butter, bottom left is cherry coke, the bottom right is cherry vanilla swirl or something like that, and the top left I'm not sure.

Chocolate raspberry (which we tried a sample of and was also DELISH) on the top left, mocha cafe on the bottom left, German chocolate on the bottom right, and vanilla pecan on the top right.

Joann's wins the prize for cutest store. Unfortunately my photo didn't turn out very well, but I think you can get the idea, and you can see my parents in the picture!

And I got a nice picture of the guy cutting the fudge slabs. The other great thing about Joann's is that they'll give you any warm, melty scraps if they're available when you walk in. YUM!

Joann's also has some pretty unusual flavors:

The labels are pretty easy to read on this picture.

Here on the top shelf we have double dark something with nuts, double dark without nuts, and raspberry truffle. They also have rocky road, kahlua, butterfinger, and several sugar-free selections. We ended up getting the double dark chocolate (had a warm, gooey sample and just couldn't resist!):

And chocolate cherry and maple. Joann's was the only shop where they had plain maple and didn't require you to buy maple walnut, which is a double whammy for me. Not only do I not like nuts, but since my transplant I've developed an allergy to walnuts!

Joann's is creamy, soft, and delicious. Not grainy, not too sweet, really good flavor of everything, but the double dark chocolate was especially fantastic, much better than Murdick's.


Ryba's is practically an empire and owns half the downtown area! Their characteristic pink and brown logo and awnings are all over. They have at least four fudge shops, two bicycle rental shops, and a breakfast restaurant!

Ryba's also had delicious, soft, not at all grainy fudge. We tried the gourmet oreo cookie flavor and the chocolate peanut butter, which was much richer and more chocolatey than May's.

Of course I had to try the ice cream too! Most places carry a brand called House of Flavors, which is made in Ludington, MI, on the coast of Lake Michigan. The ice cream was fantastic! I tried three flavors while we were there: cookies and cream, black cherry, and peanut butter Mackinac Island fudge. All were superbly creamy but not too rich, had a really good flavor, and weren't too heavy either, they didn't sit like a rock in my stomach like ice cream sometimes can. The standout winner was the peanut butter Mackinac Island fudge, which had little pieces of fudge mixed in with ribbons of caramel and peanut butter in vanilla ice cream. It was AMAZING. I would go all the way there just to get this flavor again! It isn't actually listed on their website and I have no idea why, because it's amazing. AMAZING.

As a side note, a lot of the fudge places list flavors on their websites that I did not see in the stores, so I don't know if those are premium flavors that they make on request or for special occasions or what. Also, what's with all the nuts in the fudge? I'm going to sue them for discrimination against people with nut allergies!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Next stop: Mackinac Island!

I had a wonderful time seeing my friend Theresa in San Francisco this past weekend. I didn't do anything touristy at all - it wasn't the point of going, and also, the weather looked like this most of the weekend:

I worked like a maniac to finish an afghan for her before I got there, and it turned out rather nicely if I do say so myself:

Unfortunately the colors don't show up very vivdly in the photo but it's a really beautiful, rich purple, a purple-white blend, and of course white.

I was so happy to spend some time with T. It was absolutely wonderful to see her, we had a great time together, and I was just thrilled that she was feeling well enough to have me come visit. She is an amazing friend and I'm so lucky to have met her.

This weekend I'm off on another trip to Mackinac Island (pronounced Mackinaw). It's located in the Straits of Mackinac, between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, and where Lakes Michigan and Huron join. Mackinac Island is a state park where motorized vehicles aren't allowed, except for some emergency vehicles and I think snow plows or snow mobiles. It's Michigan, it snows a lot. Mackinac is very famous for its fudge. I will certainly be sampling some this weekend and reporting back! And OF COURSE I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for ice cream too.

If you've seen the movie Somewhere in Time with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, it was filmed on Mackinac at The Grand Hotel.

I'm especially excited for this visit to Mackinac because we'll be staying at The Grand! I think it will be very elegant. You have to dress for dinner and they have afternoon tea!

The hidden benefits of getting cancer: my parents keep giving me "we're sorry you got cancer" presents. Ha ha.

I'll be sure to take lots of pictures! Fingers crossed for good weather!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

On the road and treatment updates

I can't remember if I've posted yet about my maintenance chemo plan, so if I have, I'm repeating myself. Sorry! We've always had a maintenance chemo plan in the works because I have such a high chance of relapsing again. Although we hope that all the cancer cells are gone, there is no way to know how many undetectable cells might be left, and past experience (meaning the fact that I have relapsed a few times before) tells us that they are probably still there. And of course we found out in April that yes, there are in fact some bad boys still hanging around, when leukemia showed up in my central nervous system (CNS), where it had never been before. So my doctor decided it was time to put the plan into action before the leukemia started growing anywhere else.

The maintenance plan has two arms. First is the CNS leukemia treatment arm, which is an injection of a long acting version of a drug I've had many times before, ara-C, into my spinal fluid. Yes, they stick a big needle into the sac of fluid at the base of my spinal cord. Luckily I get this done under sedation so I have no idea what's going on! That's how I like it. Chemotherapy doesn't cross the blood/brain barrier very well so a direct injection into the spinal cord is the most effective way to take care of CNS involvement. I've been getting this treatment every two weeks since the beginning of May. After my treatment on July 13th, provided I am negative for CNS leukemia, we'll switch to treatment every three or four weeks and gradually space them further and further apart. This will continue for a year maybe?

The second arm is geared towards the rest of the leukemia that might be hanging out anywhere in the rest of my body. I'm getting a drug called azacitidine (brand name Vidaza), which I get for five days in a row one week a month. The infusion of the drug itself only takes ten minutes, but of course I have to get my blood drawn, wait for the results, wait to be called back to infusion, wait for the drug to come up from pharmacy.... it ends up being a two to three hour thing. I always bring a book or Sudoku or crochet or something else to occupy myself, but even so the waiting is ridiculous! The Vidaza infusions will probably also last for about a year and we'll be gradually increasing the dose to kill more cancer cells.

Luckily these drugs haven't affected me too much. They're quite mild, actually. I only had a little big of nausea after my first round of the intrathecal chemo (the spinal chemo), and on weeks when I get both the intrathecal chemo and Vidaza I'm more tired than usual, but otherwise I'm eating and doing things and feeling pretty good. My blood counts drop a little bit and my liver enzymes go up a little but that is to be expected.

My biggest problem has been with concentration. On weeks when I get chemo I feel completely unable to focus and very ADD. I can't sit still, I can't concentrate very well on one-on-one conversations, I get bored easily and need new activities all the time. It lasts for about 5 days. I had been blaming this side effect on the intrathecal chemo because it's a direct drug injection into the CNS, it seems like a big "no duh" that it would affect brain function and concentration. This week though I've felt pretty normal! So either my brain is getting stronger and conquering the nasty chemo, or the real problem is the Vidaza, or the combination of the Vidaza and the ara-C. I'll have to see what happens in a couple of weeks when I get both of them. "Chemo brain" - the difficulty concentrating, difficulty analyzing, difficulty with memory, etc - is a well documented side effect of chemotherapy and for some people can last a very long time or even be permanent.

This weekend I'm heading out to San Francisco to visit Theresa. My parents are coming along too because I'm not sure how much she'll feel like having visitors and if she's not up for seeing me I'll at least have people to do some sight seeing with! I haven't been to San Francisco before so it's kind of exciting. We're leaving tomorrow and coming back Sunday morning, so it's going to be a very quick trip and there definitely won't be much time to play tourist, but it's fun to have a little getaway!

Have a good weekend everyone!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Book Recommendations

I love to read and right now I have lots of time to read. Here are some books I've enjoyed over the past few months. Another day I'll do my all-time faves.

The Georgia Nicolson series by Louise Rennison - I've already written about how much I love these totally mindless pieces of fluff. Think Bridget Jones set in high school. I find these books hilarious. I just finished number 7 in a series of 10 and I'm already sad about the eventual end of the series! Seriously, if you're lookin for something light, enjoyable, and wanting to laugh at angsty teenagers being ridiculous, these books are amazing.

The In the Merde series by Stephen Clarke - amazingly enough I'd never read these before, and now I don't know what took me so long! They are hilarious books about an English guy who moves to France and has all sorts of encounters with the French language, French bureaucracy, and French people that anyone who's lived in France will be familiar with. Not so sure how funny they would be to someone who doesn't know the French language or hasn't spent time in France, but they are highly recommended in any case.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows - this book was sent to me, in English, by someone in France. I just think that's funny. This is an epistolary novel about the German occupation of the Guernsey Islands. I love the tone in which it is written. The characters are unique and amusing, the story is touching and funny, and it will stay with you for a long time. Obviously there are some sad and shocking events, but overall I loved the book and tried to read it slowly so that I wouldn't finish it too quickly.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson - I liked this book much more until the ending. The ending almost gave me a heart attack, it was a very startling break from the tone of the rest of the novel. Until the ending though, I liked it a lot. The story itself is very interesting, though the humor is pretty dry. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to everyone. The book begins with the death of Major Pettigrew's brother and the possibility of reuniting two valuable guns that his father divided between the two of them when he died. The gun becomes a symbol of the Major's attempt to maintain the traditional values he was raised with in the face of a changing world that has become all about materialism and money. He also has to confront racism in small town England. Check it out for yourself.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot - this book is absolutely fascinating. Normally cells have a set number of times that they will divide, and then they die. Having immortal cell lines that don't die is very important for scientific research. Henrietta Lacks was a black woman with an extremely agressive cervical cancer who "provided" the cells that became HeLa, the first immortal cell line. HeLa cells have been used to research a huge variety of things including the polio vaccine and cancer treatments. Nearly every lab in the world that uses cells in their research has at least some HeLa cells, including my mom's lab. This book is about Henrietta Lacks, her family, the history of cell culture and many bioethics laws, and the ethical issues raised by her case. I highly recommend this book. Everything is explained clearly and concisely so even if science isn't your thing it's easily understandable.

Anyone else have any book recommendations? I'm almost done with The Immortal Life... so I need some new ideas for books! Preferably happy, not too dramatic books. I have enough drama in my life, I don't need to read about anyone else's drama.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Internet personalities

If you've ever tried to learn a foreign language, you're familiar with the idea that you can become a different person in that other language. You don't "sound" the same. It's harder to make jokes or your sense of humor may just not make sense to native speakers, it can be difficult to string a coherent sentence together, your tone of voice changes, your vocabulary is more limited and you make grammar mistakes so that you sound like a small child instead of an adult... the list goes on. Eventually with time, practice and immersion in that foreign language you will be able to express yourself as you would in your native tongue but it is not easy to reach that point.

This isn't actually a post about how far my French skills have fallen and how I need to practice more often, although those are both true facts. I was thinking about another medium through which we sometimes have trouble expressing ourselves, and that is the internet.

It's no longer weird to meet people on the internet, like it was back in the day when we first got AOL at my house and my parents wouldn't let me use chat rooms. They were right, of course, but I thought it was terribly mean of them because my friend was allowed to use chat rooms at her house. Everyone meets on the internet these days. Almost everyone can be found with a Google search. The question is, what picture of ourselves are we presenting to the world on the internet? How do we communicate ourselves, our personalities?

Take me, for example. I have never met the majority of people who read my blog in person. I imagine that you all keep coming to read this because you like me, otherwise you wouldn't waste your time here! But if we were to meet in person would we actually get along? You might find that I'm totally different in person than I present myself as on my blog! I like to think that this blog represents my personality and I strive for a more or less conversational style when I write my posts, but I really can't judge how I'm perceived by other people, can I? In person you might find me totally annoying. Maybe I'm so socially inept that it's awkward to spend any amount of time with me. Maybe I have strange mannerisms. Maybe I make a lot of stupid jokes. Maybe I'm just stupid (I really hope that isn't true!). No matter how much I think this blog is a more or less true representation of me, there are of course pieces that are missing, and pieces that can't be known without actually meeting someone face to face.

The same rule holds true for twitter, facebook, and of course internet dating. It makes sense to date on the internet: you can find someone with common interests and goals and whatever. It just seems that it's so easy to lie on those websites and represent yourself as someone else. Take profile pictures, for instance. I would bet that most people pick the one picture taken 5 years ago where they look like a supermodel even if since then they've gained 300 lbs and developed a disfiguring fungal growth on their face. I have never done online dating but I fully admit that if I were on a dating website that's what I would do. I'm still mostly bald, I'm not about to put a picture of my bald self out there for everyone to ignore. I can make myself feel bad enough without having anonymous jerks on the internet do it for me! And what about those intangibles that aren't communicated through dating profiles? I doubt there is a box to check for "inability to feel compassion" or other personality quirks that might be deal-breakers.

What if the personality you present on the internet is much more annoying than your real personality? I think about people - well, one person in particular - who when I was on twitter used to complain constantly about everything. Now I have a bad impression of this person and I have no idea if it's a correct impression because I have only met them once. But I'll tell you what, I have very little desire to meet them again because of the personality they presented on twitter.

Do you think your internet footprint represents who you are? Do you keep your personality concealed online or do you let it all hang out? Do you think you'd like me in person?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Self medication FAIL

Note to self: do not stop antacid medication ever again.

I've been taking a medication called protonix to control my acid reflux for oh, four or five years now. When the news came out recently that certain antacid medications can increase the risk of bone fractures, I decided all on my own (because I'm basically a doctor) to see if I could survive without it. I'm already at a high risk for developing osteoporosis because all of my different chemotherapy and radiation treatments have put me into premature menopause, so I thought it would be a good idea to minimize my risk of fractures even more. I am a calcium fiend, which helps with the bone density and breakage problem, but it's still a good idea to take steps to minimize the risk, right?

One long, horrible week of a burning esophagus and throat later and I realize that was a terrible idea. I'm back on the protonix, and I guess I'll just talk to my doctor about the whole acid reflux and bone breakage problem. That is why he went to medical school, right?

I have to admit I'm a little disappointed. I'm usually correct about medical stuff. It's a little bit of a blow for my honorary MD. Well, it was worth a try.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

If you knew you were dying, what would you do? What would you regret?

This is a topic I've thought quite a bit about in the past, and it's on my mind again since reading Theresa's incredible post. If you knew you had only a few weeks or months to live, what would you do? What would you regret not having done?

I do not consider this to be a morbid topic. I think we should all keep in mind the things we really want to do in our lives and with our lives in order to live our lives to the fullest and profit the most we can from being alive. It's like a bucket list, but with a bit of a more restricted time frame. Instead of "before I die" being a hazy end point, the end is in sight and you have a very restricted time frame for accomplishing things. This is why it behooves us all to take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself.

Thankfully, I don't think I'd have too many regrets. That is due in large part to my philosophy of taking advantage of every opportunity, of going after what I want, just taking advantage of life in general. That's what I did when I lived in France. First of all, I lived in France, I traveled to many of my top places to visit, I became pretty close to fluent in French, I lived totally independently and took care of all of my shit in a foreign language, I liked my job, made great friends, and of course ate wonderful food. I guess I might regret not having been there for a longer period of time, but the two years I spent in France were pretty fantastic. No complaints here.

I know I would regret not having been in a relationship with a man who really loved me. I can't seem to get guys to really like me and want to stick around for extended periods of time. I know I would be sad about that.

I think knowing what to do with your time left would be the hard part. Obviously the most important would be to let everyone I love know how I feel about them and to spend as much time with those people as possible. I would probably want to take a trip somewhere, either France or Northern Michigan, to say goodbye to those places and the people in France. I'd have to plan for the end - what I'd want to happen at my funeral, who should be invited, where I should be buried. Who I would give my stuff to. Writing goodbye letters, writing an announcement in French that my parents could send to the non-English speakers. I'd have to make a list of all of my passwords and sites to update for when I passed.
What would I want to accomplish though? Would I go crazy trying to read all the books I could or watch movies I'd never watched? I think I'd want to spend a lot of time outside, feeling the sunshine and wind on my face, breathing in fresh air. Would I want to write a book?

And how would it feel knowing that the end is approaching, that soon I wouldn't be able to do any of these things? Would I feel calm and be able to let go? Or would I fight it tooth and nail, struggling to stay alive and keep feeling and doing things?

I know I would struggle. I know I wouldn't be able to accept my doctor telling me I have no options left. I will fight and get treatment as long as I can draw breath to say I want more treatment. But I hope too that if it ever got to the point where there really wasn't anything left, that I really did have to say goodbye, that I would be able to let go with grace and dignity.

What about you? What would you regret not doing? What would you want to do in your last few months on Earth?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

New look for summer

The new picture is of Canet Plage, which is in the south of France near Perpignan, where I spent ten days as D's guest in her family's apartment two years ago. The apartment was right across the street from the beach and we had gorgeous weather the whole time I was there. Unfortunately I can only sit on a beach for a few days before I start going stir crazy so I was kind of bored a lot of the time, and because of my various medical issues I can't just sit out in the sun for hours, so the amount of time I could spend on the beach was restricted anyway, I was always sous parasol and wore kind of a lot of clothing. Despite being so close to Spain, Perpignan, Collioure, and Carcassone we only took a couple of day trips to other cute little towns in the area (Banyuls sur Mer and Villefranche de Conflent), but it was really nice of her to invite me in any case. It's never bad to spend part of your vacation on a beach in the south of France!