Friday, December 21, 2012


Lauren Rousseau's funeral was yesterday. I was there as a mourner, not a journalist, so I'm not going to go into any detailed rundown of the day. Plus, Lauren the person is more important to me than Lauren the media focus, although I never met her.

Amid all the remembrances, there were copied stacks of a one-page essay called "About My Daughter, Lauren G. Rousseau," a piece Terri wrote in 2004 for a senior sorority honors day at UConn.

"The first time I saw her," it begins, "her nose was smashed and her face was smudged with blood. I was drugged and felt like throwing up. It was the happiest day of my life." Terri proceeds to describe Lauren's feisty, smiley childhood, her "sunny disposition" and love of singing.

It was the P.S. that killed me: "I love her more than she'll understand till she has a daughter of her own."

Monday, December 17, 2012

on newtown

The Danbury News-Times broke the news on Saturday that one of the victims of the Newtown, CT, school shooting was 30-year-old substitute teacher Lauren Rousseau. The police had yet to release the names of all 27 people killed in Adam Lanza’s rampage. But Rousseau’s mother, Terri, is a News-Times copy editor.

Terri's colleague, Bob Miller, wrote the story. Bob is also a childhood friend of Terri’s longtime partner, Bill Leukhardt, a reporter at the Hartford Courant. Lauren Rousseau lived with him and Terri.

At the Courant, Bill was my first internship editor, back in 2006, and has since remained a caring mentor and friend. And Bob and I covered Ridgefield, a nearby community similar to Newtown, at the same time, so we spent hours at nighttime municipal meetings trading sarcastic quips sotto voce, as reporters do. Newtown is a story that is being covered by journalists I care about and one that affects people I know.

Friday, November 09, 2012

western medicine's blind spots

One thing breast cancer treatment has taught me is that Western medicine has its faults and limits. Yes, I probably should have realized this earlier. But my father is a doctor, and I grew up with the sense that he could fix anything, which slid into a general faith in the profession. Western medicine always solved my meager medical needs before, and Western cancer treatment saved my life. Now, though, I’m disillusioned:

Tamoxifen is the hormone therapy pill that many women with breast cancer take for five years after the initial treatment regimen (surgery, radiation, often chemotherapy) ends. Taking tamoxifen prevents estrogen from binding to cells in the body. For people with estrogen receptor-positive tumors—meaning the hormone was involved in activating cancer cells—the idea is to prevent any lurking enemies from growing and spreading.

But keeping estrogen at bay causes side effects, too, because by decreasing its ability to fulfill its normal roles, the drug is essentially inducing a temporary menopause. So, hot flashes. I’m hot most all the time. That’s not unpleasant in winter weather, but it’s torturous during, say, weeklong heat waves (I’m looking at you, last summer). I’ve heard other women say they couldn’t sit still on tamoxifen, grew depressed on it, and in older women it can cause blood clots and uterine cancer. (Fun fact: Most cancer treatments increase other kinds of cancer risk. Win some/lose some?)

Effexor, an antidepressant, is commonly prescribed to help ease hot flashes. So when I complained to my doctor, she offered to write me a prescription for a rather hefty dosage. She told me to try taking vitamin E. I didn’t want to put more chemicals into my body. There were no other solutions forthcoming from my medical team.

Then, via dumb luck, I learned about You Can Thrive, a sliding-scale wellness center for breast cancer survivors. Moments after we met, the founder took my hand, dripped a bit of peppermint essential oil onto my fingers and told me to rub it on the back of my neck. I cooled down immediately—no drugs, no unnatural interventions. I’m also using castor packs—oil-soaked cloths covered with a heating pad—to reduce the my scars’ redness and tenderness. It was recommended by a knowledgeable yoga teacher, and it’s working.

Why aren’t these simple, natural, cheap solutions common knowledge?   

Monday, May 21, 2012

Friday, April 06, 2012

wig shopping

The young women filling the crowded salon on a recent Monday afternoon were engrossed in the intimate conversations with stylists that make haircuts just as much therapy as a coiffing. Their chatter bounced off the mirrors and converged into the high-pitched hum that Beth* and I walked through en route to a wig sale in the back. As I followed my friend, I noticed that the hairdressers weren’t touching the clients’ actual hair—they were all cutting wigs, resting on head-shaped holders, some newly purchased.

Welcome to Cedarhurst, one of the “five towns” on the border of Long Island and Queens, where the mannequins in the Benetton window all conform to Orthodox Jewish modesty standards and there is a restaurant called Sushi Metsuyan, Hebrew for “excellent.”

Behind screens that would prevent men walking by the salon from seeing wigless women through the front windows were two long tables stacked with crates full of wigs of all lengths and colors, all made from human hair. There were full wigs, which created a complete, standalone hair replacement, as well as “falls,” the back half of a wig meant to be worn with a wide headband or a hat. Beth selected a couple of falls, gathered her own wavy, brown hair into a low bun, and prepared one of the many headbands she’d received at her wedding shower the day before to cover the seam of the wigs she was about to try.

In the ultra-Orthdox tradition, married women hide their hair in front of men outside their immediate families. This tradition can manifest itself multiple ways: some women wear hats that hide the top of their own hair. On the other end of the observation spectrum, Hasidic women wear ugly wigs covered with ugly hats, calling attention to the fact that what you’re seeing is absolutely not theirs. Beth, and most of the women we passed on the streets in Cedarhurst, fell in between, wearing wigs that the uninitiated would read as their real hair while still keeping their actual locks tucked out of sight.

Some of those women, mostly in their 20s, rifled through the wig sale bins. They grabbed a few possibilities and then, vying for space at the mirrors behind the screens, tried them on, primping the wigs, discussing different styling possibilities. One young employee wandered around in a long, wavy wig half pulled back in a butterfly clip. Most wouldn’t be able to tell it wasn’t her real hair, except for the price tag hanging against her neck. It takes time spent in the Orthodox community to learn the wig tip-offs—straight-hair wigs hang a bit too heavily, without a glossy lock out of place; wigs never show gray roots and, most tellingly, the bangs are not growing out of the wearer’s scalp.       

I know all this solely thanks to my friendship with Beth. I was raised a Conservative Jew and spent years attending religious school three afternoons a week, perpetually getting separated from my best friend when we weren’t paying attention. When I entered high school, my mom said I could quit Hebrew school if I joined the swim team. Done. Beth, on the other hand, would never wear a swimsuit outside of an all-female environment. Her clothes always cover her elbows, knees and collarbones.

We met midway through my freshman year of college, when I decided to try copy editing at the school newspaper. Beth was the copy boss on my shift. We chatted between checking athlete names and comma usage, soon getting around to that evergreen subject, siblings. I have one younger brother. What about you? I asked her.

“I have 10 younger siblings,” she said, not uncommon for religious Jewish families. She dealt with my shock with unwavering class, and we bonded through late newspaper production nights and a shared devotion to punctuation, novels, and Diet Coke (I’ve given the latter up, which makes her shake her head, disapproving). But she never disapproves of my curiosity about why a college-educated feminist would practice a tradition in which women are considered a distraction to men. Orthodox women must dress modestly, hide their hair and sit behind screens in the synagogue. I wonder why men penalize women for an apparent inability to control sexual desire. I’ve also wondered about how gay Jews avoid these temptations in such a single-gender environment; Orthodox Judaism considers homosexuality wrong, so same-sex attractions are not part of the calculus.

Beth, an academic with a liberal intellectual life, never dismisses my concerns and doesn’t always disagree with them, either. But being thoughtful about faith is not the same thing as wavering in her devotion, and though I question many of her traditions, I never question the beauty and the strength of believing in something, even when it’s hard. It’s a loyalty that years of religious school can’t instill, and it makes her the treasured friend I can call at 3 a.m. So even though I think it’s bizarre to walk around twirling $800 worth of someone else’s hair, I was there for her, scrutinizing the shades and thickness of different fall wigs.

Beth wasn’t excited about any of the ones at that first salon, so we walked to a second salon a few blocks away. It was quieter there, and the man who dealt with wigs had to be called in to help us. An older guy in a plaid shirt and no yarmulke, he said he’d grown up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, another area with a large Orthodox population. He started working in a salon as a child, he told us and, too young to cut actual hair, his boss started him on wigs. Some 40 years later, he’s an expert. He found falls that matched Beth’s exact hair color and gently eased them around her scalp while fielding my questions about how to conceal her hair without a visible bun bump.

“Are you paying such close attention because you’re going to cover when you get married?” he asked me. Beth grinned at the characteristic wide-eyed glare I shot him in response.

“No,” I told him. “I’m paying close attention because this is fascinating.” He nodded, and then we refocused our attention on preparing Beth for the next phase of her life, and our friendship.    


Saturday, March 31, 2012


New job new job new job! I'm an associate editor at the Columbia Journalism Review. My first piece for them is here. Two other recent published bits, at, are here and here.

Unrelated: I was going to find someone to pay me to rant about how people shouldn't desert Komen even though yes, their actions vis-a-vis Planned Parenthood were despicable and yes, they emphasize screening much more than scientific research when it should be the reverse. But someone else did it first.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

same old story

Since Barnard College announced a few days back that President Barack Obama would be the school's commencement speaker this year, I've joined fellow alumnae in rejoicing in our school's lucky opportunity. Barnard—a prestigious women's college in a city with a disproportionate amount of media—is indeed the perfect place for Obama to address the war on women's health, which is gaining steam in Washington just as he prepares to run for reelection.

The reaction in Columbia University's undergrad community, on the other hand, has been a storm of insults and ill-will passing between undergraduates at Columbia College, the storied liberal arts school at Columbia University, and Barnard, which is both an independent women's college and another of Columbia's four undergraduate schools. (The other two are the School of General Studies, where older students can matriculate, and the engineering school.) The issue is that Obama is a Columbia alumnus, and his decision to speak at Barnard reads as a snub to many Columbia's students and a coup to Barnard's. Pair those perspectives with a long-standing legacy of teenagers shit-talking one another across the Broadway divide between the campuses, and there's fodder for bottomless horrid Internet commentary. 

This old issue—as an undergrad in 2006-ish, I wrote a story about the Barnard-Columbia relationship, and it was ancient history then—wouldn't be news except, as the White House realizes, things that happen at New York City institutions are covered in publications with national audiences. So when The New York Times published a story yesterday headlined "After Barnard Gets Obama for Speech, Tensions With Columbia Bubble Up," people noticed.

And by people, I mean the website Jezebel, which ran a post today quoting some of the evil name calling found in the comments of a couple campus publications. (Other local pubs, like Gothamist and The Village Voice, also published pieces, but Jezebel's made me angsty.) The post scolded Columbia and Barnard administrators for characterizing the unpleasant sentiment to the Times as a small slice of the student body ranting in the wee hours: "It's pretty fucked up that Barnard's president would dismiss the comments as the ramblings as '19-year-olds,' given that 19-year-olds are the people spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend the college over which she presides," they wrote.

But the presidents, Deborah Spar and Lee Bollinger, are right. The anti-Barnard bullshit—the quietly pervasive sentiment that Barnard students were back-door entrants to Columbia University who steal College students' spots in classes and nab all the men—abates after about sophomore year, as students mature and realize that they really are a part of one big, diverse intellectual community. One of my best friends from Columbia spent two years living in Barnard dorms. I took one of Columbia's core curriculum courses (not technically open to Barnard students, but I have my methods) and thrived there. Five years after graduation, my college friends and I reminisce about our joint college experience regardless of which schools we attended. The fact that Obama's politically-strategic decision would be seen as a snub and then ignite vitriol really is because undergrads are young and immature, and they lack perspective. Like all of us before them, they'll graduate and enter the (shitty) job market and realize that a.) they're still starting their professional lives at the bottom and b.) they're doing so with brilliant, driven, amazing people from all sorts of backgrounds and all sorts of colleges. Then they'll put on their grown-up undies and be thrilled with the opportunity they had to spend four years in a place that the leader of the free world would consider a plum location to make a statement.  

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

more important than pinktober

Happy Eating Disorder Awareness Week! I didn’t realize it was that time again until a breast cancer-related Twitter acquaintance—we had bonded over disgust at a moving truck emblazoned with pink ribbons—mentioned it. (Go unpack that sentence for awhile.)

The annual campaign, spearheaded by the National Eating Disorders Association, seeks to educate the public about anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Their official clinical forms affect a small percentage of the population, but I would argue that no female exits adolescence without a taste (sorry) of eating disordered behavior. The week gets less attention than Pinktober, both because it’s a quarter as long and because statistically fewer people suffer from eating disorders than from breast cancer. It’s also less socially acceptable, somehow, to discuss mental illnesses than it is to discuss reproductive organs even with the deep, Puritanical aversion to women’s bodies that persists in American discourse (the current contraception wars and the vaginal ultrasound bill presented in Virginia, following up on the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s attempt to defund Planned Parenthood are just the most recent crop of examples).

Both boobs and mental illness need to be acceptable public topics, and I’d argue that Eating Disorder Awareness Week is even more vital than Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Most everyone with the misfortune to be in the breast cancer club, as patient or doctor, agrees that the pink vomit should be replaced with targeted fundraising for scientific and clinical research. EVERYONE is aware of breast cancer. We couldn’t be more aware. Spending money on awareness feels insulting to patients undergoing treatments that would have been recognizable to their grandmothers.

Eating disorders, on the other hand, remain misunderstood. There are a couple good writers who have published accessible work about the realities of the disease, Harriet Brown and Amy Liu among them. But without a close connection to someone suffering from an eating disorder, most people still seem to think it’s an extreme diet. Not so. Sufferers would eat if they could. It’s a tricky, insidious condition more akin to alcoholism—a complex interaction of genes and environment, manageable with comprehensive treatment and then continued vigilance. Until this is a discursive given, slather on the awareness. Nobody should die of hunger, be it from lack of access to food or lack of ability to eat it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

"N.Y. Times Reporter Dies In Syria, Body Carried Across Border By Westport Native"

Apparently, the takeaway on NYT reporter Anthony Shadid's death by "America's Oldest Continuously Published Newspaper" is that the hometown of a colleague is as important as the tragic loss.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

bc: not as fun to chat about as yoga

So, a convergence of maddening breast cancer-related news in the past couple days (now that the yoga bloggers have calmed down about Ayn Rand and body wrecking).

It seems that the Komen foundation has pulled funding from Planned Parenthood, ostensibly because PP is under congressional investigation but really because—along with mammograms and breast health education for its primarily lower-income patients—the organization offers abortions. It's upsetting that the most visible BC cure organization would deprive women of life-saving screening in the service of social conservatism.

In other A1 New York Times news, a new study shows that, thanks to a lack of standardization on what "clear margins" means for lumpectomy surgeries, some women have undergone unnecessary second procedures to take more tissue. Again, disturbing. How complicated can it be to decide that a cancer-free margin means a patient doesn't need to be subjected to a second grueling day of surgery? Conversely, in what universe would blatantly unclear margins be OK and the patient sent off with remaining cancer cells?

Thank goodness my surgeon is a badass whose judgment I trust implicitly since, minus uniform standards, it's up to individual providers to make sure lumpectomies are effective and successful.  

Saturday, January 07, 2012

more nyt histrionics

Can yoga wreck your body? Well, sure. If your alignment sucks, or your ego gets in the way of a mindful practice. Or if you're practicing karandavasana in headstand form next to a wall in your bedroom and somehow manage to fall sideways and wedge your legs between your old sleep away camp trunk and your closet door. But other than that, I wouldn't worry about it.