Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Yoga vindicated!

So, what seemed to be pack pain exacerbated by yoga turned out to be back pain, period. My third yoga class following a pain-free hiatus and two subsequent painful classes was ... pain-free! Thank goodness. The prospect of life without yoga hardly seemed worth living. Really.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Crisis of faith

I'm having a crisis of faith. You see, I have a couple of herniated disks and over the summer I did something that exacerbated one of them. My physical therapist encouraged me to continue yoga while he helped me get the pain under control. And after a month or two, the pain was under control—but still present. Then I went to California to visit the 'rents, and I got the flu, and I stopped doing yoga for a couple of weeks—and the pain went away. Delighted, I headed back to yoga two days ago, and the pain returned. Went back again yesterday, and the pain got worse. As a true believer, I think yoga is the answer to every question the universe poses. So I'm going back to yoga today, and if it puts me in a wheelchair, well, by god, I'll do wheelchair yoga. But I do wonder what I'm doing wrong, and how I can do it right. Giving up yoga is not an option.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Things that go bump in the night

One of the awful aspects of having a life-threatening disease is the constant awareness of death and the overwhelming significance it lends to ordinary activities. I remember when I was a kid hearing the word deathbed for the first time and being delighted by the possibilities. My elder brother and I spent a hilarious afternoon coming up with silly death terms: If deathbed was where you died, then deathpanties were what you wore to die in, and deathtoilet was where you had your last elimination, and deathfood was your last meal, and deathjuice your last drink, and so forth. It was excruciatingly funny to a 5-year-old.

But it's not so funny to a 50-something. One of the things I fear about the possibility of getting a diagnosis that my cancer has metastasized isn't so much the shortening of my life, though I fear that, or the pain, though I fear that a lot, but the unremitting awareness that each action might be my last—the last book I read, the last letter I write, the last thought I utter, the last movie I see—and the heavy responsibility of choosing well and making it count. All that hyperconsciousness and hyperconscientiousness would take the haphazard pleasures out of the end of life and make the whole thing so damn stressful.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Lazy woman's yoga

Two random thoughts about yoga slacking:

1. I've been told that just being in a room where people are practicing yoga confers many of the benefits of practicing it yourself. In my experience, you don't even have to be in the room. You can turn on the tube. On mornings when I get ready for work with Inhale (Oxygen channel) playing, I lose that too-early-in-the-morning, empty-stomach, unpleasantly jazzed-up feeling and begin my day on a more copacetic note.

2. Though I hate it when I am forced to take a break from yoga, as I am these past two weeks because of my visit to San Francisco and a cold, and feel I'm losing hard-won progress, I've noticed that a hiatus from the physical practice typically results in greater limberness. Go figure.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Consoling words

The aged, demented mother of my downstairs neighbor died over the holiday weekend. My neighbor's young daughter, in the middle of exams at her veterinary school in Grenada, was distressed that she was unable to come home for her grandmother's funeral. It's no big deal, my neighbor told her daughter. "If she'd been a dog, we would have put her down five years ago." 

Friday, November 28, 2008

Imagine you're a balloon

Since I take so many yoga classes and have a curiosity about the language of the ineffable, I'm always thinking about how I might give an instruction. So here's an idea for savasana, or corpse pose, the final relaxation at the end of a class:

Imagine your body is a balloon. With each inhalation you inflate and become light and floaty, and with each exhalation you deflate and become heavy and sink into the floor.

But then I start thinking about how, as the receiver of this instruction, I would probably slip away from the guided imagery and drift off to consider all the other items I've inflated: medical gloves, condoms, silly putty, bubble gum, that weird bubble glue with the fumes that comes in a tube with a straw, guest-bed mattresses, wading pools, rubber balls, swim rings, swim wings ... and I begin to feel light-headed.


So I have an idea for a sanwich-gen video game: Elderville. In it, a woman of a certain age has to race against the clock averting eldercare disasters. It goes something like this:

--Slow-mo shuffle to assist mother in walker to toilet.
--Crash! Something has broken in kitchen, but player cannot abandon slow-mo walk till mother is safely deboarded onto toilet.
--Rush to kitchen, where father stands barefoot among contents of shattered quart jar of rice.
--Ask father to move aside (he's on blood-thinners, so cut can be dangerous), and grab broom and dustpan.
--Ting-a-ling! Bell from bathroom indicates mother has finished tink-a-ling. Tell father to stay put and rush to bathroom before mother can lurch for walker.
--Brrrring! The phone! It's probably doctor you've been trying to reach all day about medicine that's on mother's hospital-release chart but not in medicine caddy.
--Yell to father and mother to stay put, and rush for phone.
--Miss call, and rush back to bathroom to catch mother as she hurtles floorward.

And so forth, with many timed challenges, including fetch the paper, fetch the glasses, fetch the pills, pillow placement, doorbell answering, food-mishap-averting ...

Friday, November 21, 2008

The land that time forgot

I've been living in the land that time forgot, or, more accurately, the land where time has been forgotten. There is a timelessness—or, rather, too much time—in the San Francisco duplex apartment of my aged parents. For there are three time zones here: Pacific daylight savings time downstairs, where we spend most of our day; Pacific standard time upstairs, where no one has gotten around to setting the clocks back; and Eastern daylight savings time on my various electronic devices that do not automatically reset. And then there's the way one day slips into another when you're engaged in a monotonous, slow-motion cycle of tasks (shuffle along beside your mother's walker as she makes her way to the bathroom to the bedroom to the dining room to the bathroom to the bedroom to the bathroom; prepare a meal, eat a meal, wash dishes, prepare a meal, eat a meal, wash dishes), and you don't go outside for days on end. "Who needs the outdoors?" says my mother. "I grew up in New York, where nobody ever goes outside." And the lights are never fully on ("What a waste!") and never fully off (since there are many trips to the toilet in the night).

My mother struggles with aphasia—she lost her nouns in a stroke five years ago—and she can get stalled on a word for several minutes or an entire day, so thoughts start off brightly, flicker, then gutter out, sometimes to be relit later, sometimes days later. Conversations course along a verbal mobia strip, stretching into eternity.

Food, too, follows its own clock. There were so many possible origins for the bad smell that ranked up the kitchen whenever my dad or I opened the fridge that finally we spent an afternoon sniffing every item, and threw out a third of the contents. Most appalling was a plastic container of six-month-old boiled beans that emitted a sinus-clearing stench. Most dramatic was the eerily beautiful cream cheese draped with mold. 

The hierarchy of needs is inverted here. The old advice about putting on your own safety mask first, then your child's, doesn't apply. The fit are second-class citizens. The feeble come first. The weak have inherited the world. If you, say, need to use the bathroom at the same time that your elderly infirm parent does, it doesn't matter how many bathrooms there are in the house, you have to hold off till you've taken her to the loo. To do otherwise would be to risk embarrassing her, and having to clean up after your selfishness.

My father used to describe war as incredible boredom interspersed with sheer terror, and that's what eldercare is like. Repetitive mindless tasks, punctuated by the horror of watching your mother teeter in her walker, knowing her bones are so hollowed out by osteoporosis that one more fall could turn her into a sandbag. 

And so it goes for eight days a week, a Saturday-to-Sunday visit.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Night and day

You know how Silly Putty breaks when it's cold but flows when it's warm? Well, I find that my body follows similar laws of thermodynamics. After years of practicing mainly in the morning, I've begun attending evening classes (daughter away at school, no need to worry about a timely dinner or homework help), and the difference is more dramatic than expected. I didn't realize I could get my palms on the floor in Uttanasana (Forward Bend) or my soles on the floor in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog). In the morning I'm like raw spaghetti: rigid and brittle. But in the evening I'm cooked: flexible, soaking up instruction like a sauce, and wet—don't know why, but I sweat hard in my night practice. It's thrilling to make so much progress literally overnight.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Reading between the lines

A recent news story noted that Maya Soetoro-Ng, Barack Obama's half-sister, had declined to join Obama on election night in Chicago, opting instead to stay in the apartment in Hawaii where she had cared for their grandmother for eight years. She spoke of her conflicting emotions in the aftermath of their grandmother's death and Obama's election. Although she was not explicit, one wonders whether resentment figured in that mix. The Obamas typically visited Hawaii for the Christmas holidays, whereas Soetoro-Ng lived there year-round, caring for her grandmother, working as a teacher and raising her daughter. Surely she must have had moments when she felt that her brother was able to pursue his political prospects in part because he was unfettered by the caregiving role that fell to her.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ode to L, my personal fixer

In the news business, foreign bureaus traditionally have had a "fixer," a local who speaks the language and knows everyone and gets things done. Often this person is given a title that has nothing to do with his or her actual duties. They're like CIA agents. One fixer, who never had a photograph published in the magazine he worked for, was listed in the masthead as a photographer. When I was writing his obituary, I looked high and low for examples of his work. None existed. But tales of his problem-solving genius and courage under (literal) fire abounded. Often fixers are called office managers. They don't manage just the office though. They manage everything. They are the heart of the news business, consummate matchmakers, human bulletin boards synching symbiotic needs. They finesse visas, find official and anonymous sources, squirrel correspondents out of tight spots, smooth over diplomatic crises, solve every problem known to man or woman.

Well, I have a personal fixer, sort of like a fairy godmother, named L. When I was a fact checker, L tipped off the editors to try me out as a writer. When my animal-loving daughter was looking for a summer internship, L linked her up with an old friend who ran the primo animal hospital in the city. When I was trying to decide whether to have immediate reconstruction after my mastectomy, L hooked me up with a woman who'd had virtually the same procedure I was considering—with the same breast surgeon. When I was emptying out my parents' pied-a-terre and didn't know what to do with all the junk, L arrived with a friend who just loved junk, and they carted it all off in an SUV.

When my mom's troubles began, I flashed on my fixer, but it didn't feel right to call her about my problems since I hadn't had a chance to celebrate her birthday, hadn't even talked to her since she'd gotten back from her last trip abroad. 

Yesterday I ran into L in the Union Square greenmarket, and we made a date for dinner. Lo and behold, turns out L has contacts in the San Francisco Finnish community (there's a Finnish community in San Francisco?!) who supplement their Social Security by doing eldercare—preparing meals, providing transportation, running errands, keeping people company—in my parents' neighborhood. I've already talked to one of the Finns on the phone about helping my 'rents, and she says if she can't do it, she knows who can.

How does she do this? I don't know. I think it's magic.

Dental yoga

Yesterday my yoga teacher N used an interesting image to describe the way an action on one body part affects the rest of the body. "It's like a toothpaste tube," she said. "You  squeeze at the bottom, and the toothpaste rises up through the tube." So, when you're seated in, say, sukhasana (the so-called "easy" pose, with legs crossed "Indian-style"), squeezing your buttocks causes the energy from that action to squirt up your spine like toothpaste.

I'm tempted to extend the notion to spitting, rinsing, gargling ... flossing? Perhaps not.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Laying the framework

"Approach each pose as though you're laying the framework for the future of that pose," said my yoga teacher G today. By that she meant that we should exercise precision and prudence in setting up the foundation of each pose, and see each pose as the foundation of future enactments of the pose. So the foundation of vasisthasana, or side plank, is the supporting foot and hand. The next level of foundation is the shoulder and hip. If each point of support is aligned correctly (hand under shoulder, fingers spread; foot flexed, outside and sole to the floor) and the muscles are firmed, the chance of injury is reduced and the benefits—strength, balance, flexibility—are increased. The care with which each asana is executed sets the stage for the next iteration of the same asana. If you sag at the waist and round your shoulders in today's vasisthasana, you have set up bad habits and failed to cultivate strength for tomorrow's vasisthasana. And if you fling yourself into it without taking care to create the foundation and alignment structure, an injury may set back your next attempt.

As usual, yoga lessons are life lessons. In short, I kind of fucked up in setting up the structure for my parents' elder-care arrangements by allowing my effort to sag. I let time slip away. So now the tasks are much more daunting.

Please don't get married

I'm so stressed out about my parents' situation that I can't sleep and my mouth is dry no matter how much water I drink. The only thing imaginably worse than my taking a role in managing this downward spiral would be planning my daughter's wedding. 

In a real-life enactment of a nightmare, Dr. B, the "hospitalist," told me last week that my mother, who is in the hospital after a fall, has compression fractures in her spine and dementia in addition to a broken patella. She had been fitted with a long-leg cast perhaps permanently and was about to be sent to rehab. What do you suggest I do? I asked. "She needs to move in with you," said Dr. B. Never mind that I live with Other and our daughter in a one-bathroom walk-up apartment in New York and my mother lives in San Francisco with my father, or that I work full-time. 

Then I called the office of Dr. S, my mother's internist, and was transferred to Dr. S's assistant. "Oh, yes, your mother is being released into hospice," said Joy (her real name). Turns out the hospice part was a misunderstanding on someone's part. But it's a fact that my parents need some help. And they're resistant to accepting it.

I head to San Francisco in a few days, shortly after she's released from the rehab clinic, and I'll be carrying a to-do list of 21 items and counting, and some of  those items are multiples—like visit five assisted-living residences—all of which I'm hoping to accomplish in a week. 


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Obama makes my day

I've been feeling quite blue over elder-care issues—my mom in the hospital with a fractured knee, compression fractures in her spine, dementia, and concerns about her returning to the apartment she shares with my dad 3,000 miles away from me in San Francisco—but every time I think about an Obama presidency I just brighten right up! McCain may have been correct in saying the outcome of the election had special significance for African Americans, but it had special significance for a lot of white people too.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Dem bones

One of the delights of yoga is that it's like playing with one of those wire toys that you press and pull and turn inside out to form a dozen different shapes. I'm not talking about the joys of pretzel yoga. I'm talking about the ability to manipulate one body part and create a cascade of powerful effects in the rest of your body. 

Last Sunday, for instance, my teacher focused the class on thigh mucles, especially the thigh muscles of the back of the leg, in particular those of the rear leg in unsymmetrical poses. So, in Downward-Facing Dog, we firmed our thigh muscles and poured our weight out of our hands and arms and into our legs. In Warrior 2, we concentrated on firming the muscles of the straight leg and pouring our weight into it, lightening the burden on the forward, bent leg. And so on. Every asana was transformed not just in the position of the thigh but also throughout the rest of the body.

As I walked home from class, still in thigh-firming mode, I noticed that my lower back was no longer aching, my navel was tucked in, and my chest was lifted. Adjusting one small element of alignment was realigning my whole posture. 

It's like that song: 

The toe bone connected to the heel bone
The heel bone connected to the foot bone 
The foot bone connected to the leg bone 
The leg bone connected to the knee bone 
The knee bone connected to the thigh bone 
The thigh bone connected to the back bone 
The back bone connected to the neck bone 
The neck bone connected to the head bone 
Oh, hear the word of the Lord!
Dem bones, dem bomes gonna walk aroun'
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk aroun'
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk aroun'
Oh, hear the word of the Lord

Friday, October 31, 2008

What would you do?

So three weeks ago, my 82-year-old mother fell and hurt her knee, and she hasn't been able to walk since. She lives with my 85-year-old father in San Francisco, and I live in Manhattan. Several days elapsed before she told me about her fall and subsequent "bed rest." But that's nothing. When she got hit by a bus and broke her arm 10 years ago and when she had a stroke four years ago and when she fractured her pelvis a year ago—each time it took at least two weeks before she was willing to tell me. "I don't want to worry you," she said.

Because she cannot put any weight on her leg, she has had to scoot along on her bottom to get from the convertible couch in her office, where she's been sleeping since her fall, to the toilet. "It's nothing," she said. "Don't get all worked up about it." 

But Dad must be exhausted taking care of you night and day, I protested. "It's fun," she said. 

He sounds a little worn out, I said. "Oh, don't listen to him!" she said.

I told her I wanted to fly out right away so I could oversee her care. "No!" she said.

I wanted to call their best friend, the guy whose name I extracted from them the last time she disappeared into the emergency-care system. "No!" 

I wanted to call her doctor, with whom I have been in occasional touch in the past. "No!" 

I wanted to call a visiting-nurse practice to arrange a home visit. "No!" 

I wanted to call the home-care agency to arrange additional household help to supplement the aide who has been coming two mornings a week since she cracked her pelvis. "No!"

My mother is not demented. My father is not demented. And both are adamant that her wishes be respected. So he has been helping her to the bathroom, shopping and cooking and serving her meals in bed (using her old walker to wheel in her food) or helping her to bump along on her bottom to the dining room. I'm afraid that if I defy their wishes and take ordinary commonsense action, they will not tell me the next time there's an adverse event. So I have been calling every day, getting more and more agitated every time one of them divulges a new detail of how they're managing, and I've been consulting elder-care services and collecting brochures on assisted living and home care so that when I arrive on November 15, a visit that was previously scheduled, we can duke it out.

Finally, yesterday, I got a phone message from my mother's doctor, who had been alerted to the situation by the physical therapist, who had called my mother in alarm because she had missed several appointments (claiming she was "too busy"). Long story short: the doctor persuaded my mother to call 911 to request an ambulance to take her to the emergency room at St. Mary's. Great news! Less great news: the doctor was taking the day off for Halloween (!). I told my parents to bring their cell phone, and said I would also try to keep in touch by calling St. Mary's.

All afternoon and evening I waited to hear from them. I didn't want to intrude if they were being shuffled around for tests. Finally, at about 11 p.m. EST, I started calling: the home phone didn't answer, and the machine didn't pick up; the cell phone was turned off; St. Mary's had no record of her arrival and indeed was full to capacity and had been refusing ambulance drop-offs all day. 

Somewhere in the City by the Bay, an elderly couple, one utterly disabled and the other fairly feeble (heart condition, bad knees), were adrift. Dozens of emergency rooms: Where to begin? Smart idea from my sister-in-law: Call the emergency room of the hospital where my mother had last been treated—California Pacific Medical Center. Eureka!

Turned out her patella was broken and she is scheduled for surgery today. Why didn't she or my father call me to let me know where she was? "There was nothing to tell you," she said. "I told your father not to call you till after the surgery." 

What is wrong with these people?!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Yada yada yada

Lickspittle—now that's a wonderful word. And I know I'm going to find ways to work it into conversation. That's Other's Dickensian word tonight for that miserable sycophant Charlie Rose. I don't know where Other gets these words, or what causes them to suddenly surface in his vocabulary, but they're a source of great joy—and plagiarism—for me. Another delightful term he began using about five years ago: bloviate. Now you hear it all the time, but five years ago, it was a new word, and he used it first. (And I used it second.)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Another misspent day

Ever had one of those days when nothing goes right—and it all works out great? Today A and I headed downtown to get a bite to eat at the new Whole Foods and take a guided tour of the sculptures of Battery Park City. Our Plan B, in case of rain, was to see a movie at the BPC multiplex. But we got downtown too late to eat at WF, couldn't find the dearly named Teardrop Park in time for the debarkation of the sculpture walk, forgot all about the movie and ended up winklepicking for hours amid an endless parade of Halloween pixies and parents that wended through the vast atria of the World Financial Center and the Winter Garden. In the quarter-century that A and I have known each other, we've lived in each other's pockets at work, shared childrearing upheavals, taken road trips together, blabbered endlessly about this and that. So I thought I had unearthed everything there was to know about her and her family. But somehow there's always some new vein to mine, and today I struck gold yet again in mesmerizing stories A's mother had told her about her World War I girlhood. So an afternoon of intentions gone awry turned out to yield unplanned pleasures.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Get a room—but don't use mine

Hmm, who's been sitting in my chair? And who's been using my 'puter? And who's been watching my TV? I came into work this morning and noticed that my chair was uncharacteristically turned away from the door, the remote was on my desk instead of on the television (yes, I know, but I work for a media company, so it's a normal piece of office furniture), the channel was set to Fox (which I have never watched) instead of CNN, and the sound was turned up on my 'puter. Is this a money-saving measure—a corporate form of hot-bedding in which swing shifts occupy day timers' work spaces at night?

I think not.

A few months ago alcohol containers, condoms and other evidence of sexual activity were found in the so-called "privacy room," which is intended for my cubicle-dwelling colleagues to use for naps or closed-door computer use. Turns out someone in maintenance was using the privacy room to entertain his girlfriend. People were scandalized. I, however, was merely amused. Now I'm not so amused. Just feels weird to have someone I don't know intruding on my turf.

I've got my office set up for maximum concealment—my 'puter facing away from the door so no one passing by can see that I'm, well, scribbling in my blog instead of copy-editing articles, my chair facing the door so I can see who's entering, a chair for visitors next to the door so no one need penetrate too deep into the room—and it's a little eerie to think that someone has sat where I'm sitting, looked over my shoulder, so to speak, at my 'puter and watched my TV. I don't have anything to hide, really. But still.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Iggy Poop

Well, poor Iggy. When I picked him up at the vet's on Monday evening, he looked like a tattered scrap of dirty, dull, matted fake fur—diminished, demoralized, deflated. But within a few hours of being home, he began to inflate—his eyes started to shine, his body fluffed out, and he had his coat licked to a spit shine. He's still dancing in and out of the box, dropping turds and slurping away at his naughty bits, but I'm hoping that's just residual irritation from the catheter and not the beginning of a new round of troubles.

It's kind of touching, really, how much this big bully of a cat loves being home—and even weirder, loves me. Either he's grateful to me for saving his life or he's trying to ingratiate himself so I don't take him back to the vet. In any case, he's got a bad case of velcro—can't peel him off of me.

Oh, please, oh, please, oh, not-god, let this be the end of it.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What price a cat's life?

Perhaps I spoke too soon when I boasted that I was able to switch the channel from the all-cancer-all-the-time station. On Thursday I began training to become a volunteer for an organization that provides support for women diagnosed with breast cancer. I thought I was ready. Now I'm unsure. Of about a dozen women who showed up, at least half had metastatic disease or recurrences, some even after taking Herceptin (my miracle drug). I know it was a skewed population, because several of the women with more advanced disease indicated that they had been personally recruited (whereas I had raised my hand when I saw the training notice in a newsletter). That makes sense since women with direr prognoses have the greatest need for support. But being in the room with all these smart, beautiful, healthy-looking and very sick women freaked me out. I've been coasting along (more or less) on the false assurance that my wholesome lifestyle has locked the door on cancer, but obviously the door can swing open at any time. I have two more training sessions, and I'll attend them. But I'm worried about exacerbating my anxiety level by talking to women with worse diagnoses than mine. I was lucky, but I can't count on the luck lasting. Already I've lost the ability to read. Just can't focus.

Stress is a big issue right now. Iggy's back in the pet hospital with a urinary-tract blockage. I was told he was hours from death when I brought him in yesterday, his bladder the size of a grapefruit. Seventeen-hundred dollars later, he's O.K., but apparently male cats who have an episode of this condition tend to relapse. Other and I are wondering how many relapses we can afford. It seems hardhearted to put a price on a life, even a cat's life—especially since I owe my own life to the hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of treatment I've received over the past three years—but there has to be a limit, no?

Friday, October 17, 2008

I'm just saying

I don't care how much you like moms or how much you like asses, if someone says you have a mom ass, it's not a compliment. And if that person (o.k., Other) acts all innocent and what-did-I-say, that person is just being disingenuous.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Windows are the eyes of the soul

Last weekend for the first time since I was diagnosed with cancer, I washed the windows. In the back, we have industrial-weight 8-foot windows that have to be tipped out of their frames for the outside surfaces to be cleaned, and in the front I have to clamber out onto the fire escape to do the outside surfaces. It's a fairly hair-raising experience, and I haven't felt like taking it on. But three years' worth of city grime had built up a patina that reduced our natural indoor light to a grim murk. Having clean windows feels like taking your sunglasses off after forgetting you had them on. And muscling up to the chore at long last feels like a return to normalcy. Indeed, I realize that whole days go by now when I don't think about cancer much at all. Nights too. Of course, that doesn't mean I don't maintain a high level of anxiety. It just adheres to different issues. Nonetheless it is a relief to be able to turn the channel to a different drama. I was getting a little bored with the cancer channel.

Friday, October 10, 2008

You like me, you really like me

Today's online edition of the New York Times has Lisa Belkin blogging under the question "Do You Have a Favorite Child?" And it reminded me of my conversation over dinner last night with my daughter, C, who is home from college for the weekend. She asked, "Who do you think you raised best—me or J [her brother, who is 10 years her senior]"? My immediate answer was that I was too strict with J and too lax with her.

Then she startled me by saying that regardless of how she turned out, she felt Other and I had been good parents for her since she really liked us, whereas most of her friends disliked their 'rents. I know that having your child like you is not the best gauge of parenting. Indeed, it might be the worst gauge—an indicator of wussiness. Maybe it was the food at Veselka's—she had a chicken-cutlet sandwich with latkes and I a spinach salad, and we shared a slice of chocolate and peanut-butter pie, all excellent—that put her in a good mood, but I was gratified to hear that despite all our wrangling over curfews, money, academics, tidiness and everything else, she has at least some fleeting positive feelings about us. I know that at her age I hated my 'rents.

But the question of which child I parented best continues to intrigue me—and did even before she raised it. I was very strict with my son early on—no war toys, no video games, no sugar, no TV, no grade lower than a B (I think the term "control freak" was used behind my back, though in defense, I have to say that J was a very accommodating child, so I didn't have to brutalize him into submission)—but more relaxed than perhaps I should have been when he entered his teens and I was preoccupied with C and allowed him to roam wild with no curfew and no academic oversight. Although he certainly would have resisted interference on our part, he may have felt abandoned, ousted from our hearts by the "fucking moron" (as he called C). There were a couple of incidents that prompted us to clip his wings in his senior year—like the binge vomiting of a friend of his that necessitated the replacement of J's rather expensive extra-long mattress and eventually alerted us that our house was being used as a boozing den while we were at work. Incredibly, we believed J when he said his friend had eaten a "bad burger" at the school picnic. The second time, a few weeks later, when the same friend again passed out while barfing on the brand-new mattress, we called the boy's father to alert him. Astoundingly, however, when J assured us that although the friend "might have had something to drink," he himself was stone sober. We were so gullible. And after a safe passage of time, J gleefully told us how naive we had been and recounted numerous other misadventures that had slipped beneath our radar—all those nights spent at the friend's house had been unchaperoned drugfests, the afternoons spent in extracurricular activities were misspent in decadence, the allowance and lunch money all went for beer. But the kid got A's. How was I to know?

As for C, I tried to impose the noes—no Barbies, no designer clothing, no video games, no sugar, no TV, no grade lower than a B—but was sabotaged by the family of her best friend, who allowed their daughter what seemed to us infinite freedom and unlimited funds. It was difficult to hold the line on curfews if insisting that C be home by midnight, say, when she was 13 meant she would have to abandon the buddy system and come home alone since her friend T had no curfew at all and didn't want to be pinned down by C's. Also difficult to hold the line on expensive taxi rides for the same reason—if we insisted that C take the subway rather than a taxi with T, she would have to come home alone. So in the end we brought up C up like a princess in some ways, according to the ethos of T's family rather than ours. She ended up with $150 hair cuts, $200 jeans, $400 jackets, $500 handbags—and we whined about it, but we paid for them. We're getting better at holding the line now that she's in college and we don't actually have to hold it in person (or see the breach if she disregards it).

So we've been pretty bad parents in many ways—we didn't stick to our guns—but we've ended up with a couple of reasonable kids. Maybe setting the bar unrealistically high meant that when our kids fell short, they were still within range of acceptable behavior. Maybe we failed miserably as parents but our kids had good genetic survival skills. Maybe their well-being has nothing to do with us at all but with the friends they hung out with (even J's drinking buddy and C's high-roller gal pal had redeeming qualities). Maybe the story's not over and our poor parenting will prove ruinous after all.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Yogabatics, yoganastics

My friend B got very annoyed when she discovered that after completing a course of physical therapy not long ago, I had reinjured myself in a recent yoga class. "Why do you do that?" she asked, with what sounded like real anger. By "that," I guess she meant "try too hard" or "take risks."

Good question.

One answer is that I find it exhilarating to do the more spectacular—and risky—poses like inversions and arm balances. It thrills me to hang out upside down at 58 years old. I find it uplifting (so to speak) that while I am beginning to deteriorate in many ways—thinning hair, lusterless skin, dimming eyesight, etc.—I continue to defy aging by making progress in the physical practice of yoga. In the three years since my breast cancer was diagnosed, I have mastered challenging new (acrobatic!) asanas and gotten more adept at those I could do previously. It's inspiriting to see myself developing skills at my age. And it's an affirmation that despite the dreadful diagnosis, I'm healthy—flexible, strong, steady.

Another answer is that I feel the pressure of time pressing in on me. I know I won't be able to manage these gymnastic feats forever, and I want to make as much headway as I can, while I can, so that when I begin to slip, I will have longer to slide. I worry that when I am unable to access the physical thrills, yoga will lose some of its allure—and I need yoga.

And perhaps another answer is that my tendency to throw myself into the physical challenges is a defect in my practice. A good yoga teacher counsels students to observe and accept their current state (whereas I am impatient to conquer new territory), to practice on the safe side of their "edge" (whereas I hurl myself over) and to let go of attachments to outcomes (whereas I thrive on accomplishment). So my tendency to compete, even if only against myself, is a failure to accept, a reckless disregard for risk and a clinging to the pleasures of success.

It's a failure I feel like living with at the moment. It feels so great to ... feel so great.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Wiping away the past

My wonderful yoga teacher G used a nice analogy in yesterday's yoga class, which focused on ujai, or victorious, breath, in which you constrict your airway and drag your breath through it audibly, sustaining inhalations and exhalations in equal duration. She said, "Imagine your breath as a windshield wiper, with each pass erasing the breath before it." The object: to stay in the present.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

I shoulda been a vet

It has been quite a while since I've felt the sense of accomplishment I do at this moment. When the vet told me to procure a urine sample from Iggy, my fairly ferocious tom cat, I thought he had to be kidding. Simple, he said, put Saran wrap over the cat litter, and when he pees, suck up the urine with a syringe and squirt it into a specimen bottle.

No way was that going to work.

But it did. It took a while, with Iggy hopping in and out of the box several times, freaked out by the smooth surface, and we were pretty sure he would end up peeing elsewhere. But finally he peed—on the Saran wrap. I schlupped it up with the syringe and schlepped it over to the vet, beaming with pride. Much confusion over charts ensued, since Ziggy, a black Lab, was awaiting his appointment, while Iggy's urine was sitting on the counter.

It was only a little deflating to learn that I had saved myself just $23. I'm not sure I believe it. The vet had told me that if I couldn't procure the specimen myself, he would anesthetize Iggy and insert a catheter to get it. Really? Anesthesia and a catheter for only $23? I've been paying way too much for my own medical care.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Remembrance of aromas past

Six weeks after my cold shut down my sense of smell, I can now detect odors intermittently. My nose was always my strongest sense. I need hearing aids, I wear bifocals, I have the food tastes of a child (salt and sugar—those are my only appetites), and I have peripheral neuropathy so the tips of my fingers and toes are numb. But despite a long history of nasal ailments—a deviated septum, sinus infections, allergies, a scar from a car accident that severed one nostril—my nose was strong until August 15.

Nasal acuity wasn't always a blessing. Indeed, oversensitivity to odors has resulted in a squeamishness I'm ashamed of. When I was a kid I was revolted by the smell of my older brother's freckles—kind of grainy. I could smell my little brother's boogers even when I couldn't see him picking his nose—sort of salty and rancid at the same time. My best friend in junior high had oily hair, and even if she had washed it in the morning, I found it hard to be in the same room with her by evening. My mother's perfume, Madame Rocha, was so arresting that I couldn't concentrate when she wore it. When I went to college, she gave me a bottle. I regifted it. It was too distracting. And although I love my cat Ivy, I can't bear to have her sleep with me because her tongue smells gamey.

But often odors have been a delight. I fell in love with Other partly because of the faint whiff of avocado he gave off—intoxicating. And my kids were sweetly fragrant underneath the baby-powder scent infused in all infant products. It was startling when they entered adolescence and began to exude adult odors—halitosis, b.o., gym foot—but I found those interesting rather than repellant.

So having only occasional use of my nose is something I notice. It's like living in black-and-white with sudden flashes of Technicolor. Today I smelled Iggy's turd in the cat box before I saw it. Not a great odor, but exciting to smell it anyway. Later I smelled the sweet milky coffee scent on my friend A's breath. It was nice—though it felt uncomfortably intimate, so I consciously repressed it. Right this moment I can smell Other's chicken roasting in the oven. And I know that all will be well.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Brutally Mia, an average Mia, a real Mia

Does it happen to you? When I run into someone whose name is part of an idiom, I find myself compulsively using that idiom. I cannot talk to my friend Frank without saying things like "Well, to be brutally Frank ..." And the other day, I told a colleague named Joe, who had performed some office heroics, that he was "a good Joe," which isn't bad, but I know I'm eventually going to use the phrase "average Joe" in his hearing. I don't know anyone named Dick, but if I did, I would be sure to complain about "a real dick" and "every Tom, Dick and Harry."

It's a minefield out there: "smart Alec," "for Pete's sake," "for the love of Pete," "for the love of Mike," "keeping up with the Joneses," "the life of Riley," "a prostitute's john," "going to the john," "a round robin," "a tom cat," "a tomboy," "a judy girl" ...

Sunday, September 28, 2008

More homily grits, anyone?

I was saying a few posts back that one of the things I enjoy about yoga is the anecdotal method of many teachers. Weekends are when I indulge in an orgy of yoga, and going to yoga is sort of like going to services at the Unitarian church, with its uplifting messages and absence of outright religious references (indeed, the church I attended as a child had a giant branch of driftwood instead of a cross over the altar). The yoga homilies are simple and thoroughly spelled out, usually inoffensive if occasionally a little saccharine or New Agey. Still, pleasant to mull over when you're holding a gruelingly prolonged Viribadrasana 2 (Warrior 2) or attempting the nearly impossible Tittibhasana (Firefly pose).

In my Saturday class, scene of the attempted Tittibhasana, S brought real-life experience into the studio by telling us about how she discovered several amputees among her competitors in a recent foot race. It got her to thinking that our minds, not our bodies, are what set limits for us. So in our yoga practice, she asked us to investigate what exactly was holding us back, our genuine physical limitations or our mental limitations. Uplifting but not enough to lift me up into Tittibhasana (a pose in which the weight of the body is balanced on the palms of the hands and the legs are extended over the upper arms).

And on Sunday, G urged us to take our yoga out of the studio and into our real lives, telling us about having spent hours with her daughter making flowers (Or was it fliers? My hearing is poor) for an event she was hosting and placing them in a common area of her building. When she returned to the area, they had disappeared, presumably removed by her super. She freaked out and in her disturbed state stumbled into a bench, gashing her shin. It turned out that the flowers (fliers?) had merely been placed in another area of the building, and all was well. The moral: to take some slow deep breaths and assess a situation before taking action.

Good ideas, no?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Cat ethics

When we adopted Iggy four years ago from a rescue organization, he had diarrhea for six months. Vet visits and medications and lab tests and special food for our "free" cat ended up costing close to $1,000. What with the expense and the endless mopping up (chronic cat diarrhea in a New York City apartment is grim) and the concern that whatever ailed him (parasites?) might be communicable to humans, we were at the end of our rope. At one point I told my daughter C—for whom Iggy had been a birthday present—that we might have to give him back to the rescue group or to someone who had "outdoor plumbing"—i.e., abundant acreage to sop up the mess. She shamed me by calmly responding, "Oh, Mom, I know you would never do something like that. You're not that kind of person." Well, I am that kind of person but couldn't bring myself to disillusion her.

We never found out what ailed Iggy, but one day, he suddenly acquired intestinal fortitude.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, he lost it again. He has been scooting (for the catless, that means using your entire apartment as toilet paper), barfing and peeing constantly. The vet says Iggy either has a bladder infection or is producing crystals in his urine that are painful or impossible to pass. The latter is more likely in a male cat, but the vet injected Iggy with antibiotics in a "process of elimination" (so to speak) to make sure it was not the former. If that doesn't clear up the problem (we should see improvement within four days), we'll need to take Iggy back for X-rays, lab tests, surgery, special diet, etc. In the meantime, I'm scrubbing the apartment down every morning (the scoots and barfs are nocturnal activities discovered when I step in them as I blunder to the bathroom on awakening—good morning!) and vacuuming scattered litter several times a day.

Of course, the antibiotic shot may be the cure. But if it isn't, at what point can I ethically call it quits?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The pink mists of October

As the pink mists of October—National Breast Cancer Awareness Month—close in, blurring our vision and turning our disease into a kind of designer accessory, I'd like to direct any readers I have (two? three?) to a beacon—not of hope but of the clarifying light of common sense. I don't know why it took me so long to discover Barbara Ehrenreich's essay "Welcome to Cancerland," but I've found it now and want to share it with you:


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Yogis bearing the gift of gab

I suppose all good teachers are natural-born storytellers, but I'm impressed by the deftness with which some of my yoga teachers spin a simple yarn of sometimes pedestrian events into golden themes. Three examples of everyday patter from my last three classes:

On Saturday, to fulfill part of my in-service requirement for Yoga Alliance, I assisted a senior teacher, J, in a restorative workshop pegged to the equinox. She opened with a brief history of traditions associated with the two times of year when day and night are equal in length. She identified several common fall rituals, like thanksgiving and resolution-making, and then structured her subsequent teaching around those themes.

On Sunday, G began her "virgin yoga" class by recounting a psychology experiment in which newborn kittens were reared in an environment containing only horizontal lines or only vertical lines. By the age of four months, those raised in a horizontal-lines-only environment were unable to perceive vertical lines and would blunder into, say, chair legs, whereas those raised in a vertical-lines-only environment were unable to perceive horizontal lines. She cleverly turned this into an instruction about consciously enhancing our receptiveness to challenging postures. In a sense, she said, the horizontally raised kittens didn't believe in the possibility of vertical lines and thus couldn't see them. Similarly, you cannot move into an asana if you don't believe you can, so achieving a physical posture starts with forming a mental image of yourself in the pose.

On Monday, B opened her power-yoga class with an anecdote about being approached on the street by a man with his hands raised. Naturally, she tried to detour around him, but he pursued her. To her relief, rather than mug her, he high-fived her. She turned and watched him make his way down the block, high-fiving everyone he encountered. It made her day, she said. The point: to strive for an attitude of openness and refrain from letting our expectations limit our experience.

These aren't particularly brilliant—they're just a random sample—but they point to a few of the things I love about yoga: the resourceful use of language, the striving to unite the formal practice of yoga with the rest of life, and the infusion of meaning into physical processes.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Cheating for atheists

If you're an atheist, as I think I am, the scariest thing is the notion of death as total annihilation. It may be cheating, but I've allowed myself to find comfort in a passage of Ram Dass's Still Here: "To be here for fifty to eighty years only to be annihilated at the end just doesn't make sense. Nothing else in the universe is that inefficient ... A Tibetan friend of mine, Gelek Rinpoche ... says that the universe is made of matter, energy and consciousness. How can we deny this when we encounter the existence of our own and others' consciousness every single day? And how can we assume that consciousness is annihilated just because the body, the matter, gives out? Matter and energy are not destroyed—just converted into each other. I'll bet that consciousness can't be destroyed either."

Friday, September 19, 2008

Matters of the mat

I would like to make a brief commercial interruption: The only really necessary piece of equipment for yoga is a sticky mat. In my personal opinion, a regular practitioner should have her own mat. Even if they are sprayed down after each use, the loaners at yoga studios and gyms are really not sanitary. Although the kinds of ailments you can pick up from a mat are relatively minor, who wants to get a fungus—one of the few living things that does not have a namesake asana.

In my decades of practice, I have tried a few mats. Unfortunately, the commonest ones are stinky as well as sticky, whether they're made of a synthetic or natural organic rubber. Many also start out slippery and achieve the desired stickiness only after a breaking-in period. But there is one mat that in my experience has none of these drawbacks. And that is the Wai Lana Golden Earth EnviroMat. It's a little pricey (about $40) and not easy to find (you might have to buy it online), but worth the money and trouble.

That was about 30 seconds, wasn't it?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The bottom of my handbag

I'm probably the most irreligious person I know. It's not just that I'm ignorant or that I don't believe in God, it's that I actually hate the very idea of God. I deliberately steer clear of considerations of "spirituality" or belief in a "higher power," those thinly disguised clones of religiosity, because I really don't want to hear about it. Not sure why I detest the subject so much. After all, I'm an enthusiast of yoga, which many people would classify as a spiritual practice. Maybe my resistance is a holdover from the '60s or a failure to evolve beyond adolescent rebellion against authority figures. Maybe it's my Unitarian upbringing, in which God was rarely mentioned and Jesus was considered an ordinary man with extraordinary virtues. Maybe it's my literal cast of mind: if I can't see it or taste it or smell it or feel it, I don't get it—and being told it's there just pisses me off.

So why is it that the bottom of my handbag (it's a great handbag, by the way, an Ellington microfiber purse that instantly converts into a knapsack with the tug of a strap) is littered with superstitious talismans: a green polished agate given to me on the completion of my yoga teacher-training last summer, a St. Agatha religious charm (she's the patron saint of breast cancer, whose breasts were amputated by a spurned admirer), and an amulet embossed with the image of the Buddha? Lost in the shuffle when I transferred my stuff to this new handbag: a St. Francis medal given to me by a friend, and an Indian good-luck totem made of woven horsetail given to me by another friend. And why do I wear a "lucky" shirt embroidered with the hand of Fatma, which wards against the "evil eye," and earrings with ankhs (symbols of long life) and infinity signs (ditto)?

Isn't superstition just the underbelly of religion? Or are these merely tchotchkes? Or are they the adult equivalents of an infant's teddy bears and "blankies"—just cute things to hold close?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Give me your tired, your poor

Something curious is happening in my neighborhood: the bums are coming back. When we first moved into this Bowery neighborhood 26 years ago, it was off the mental map for most of our friends. Even though it was obvious enough where it was—on a numbered street, crossed by a well-known avenue—none of our friends could quite place it until they had been here once. We loved that sense of isolation, of being off the beaten track. There was something surreal and serene about the garden we created on the deck in back and the air of quiet desolation of the ramshackle buildings in front.

Alkies festooned our stoop then. They were not very threatening—except when they tried to help me up the steps with the strollers or wanted to kiss the babies—and we were on familiar, friendly terms with several regulars in the half dozen shelters within a block or two of our house. Indeed "Mike the Bum" has been an almost parental figure to my kids, admonishing them to stay out of trouble and telling my daughter C's male friends that he will hurt them if they hurt her; one Christmas I received a silver roadrunner pin from J sold to him by Mike. "Crazy Curtis," who used to play coffee-can-lid Frisbee with great joyful balletic leaps into the street and made wonderful sculptures out of accretions of found objects like grocery carts and broomsticks and eventually had a gallery but was absolutely nuts, was the kind of sweetly eccentric uncle beloved by kids. One of my daughter C's great treasures is an octagonal hat box Curtis gave her from his trove of junk. And then there was the couple who lived in the recessed doorway of the abandoned building across the street and organized the entrance as neatly as if it were a tiny open-air studio apartment; we became somewhat chummy with them after we took them clothing and bedding and leftovers from our Thanksgiving dinner one year. I wish we had had the courage to invite them to the table.

It was difficult to know how to deal with the hordes of panhandlers. We didn't have much money in those days, but it was impossible to ignore the destitution around us. I finally developed a system of pocketing any change from purchases I made throughout the day and distributing that change until my pockets were empty. That meant I did not have to expose my wallet to view every time I gave out money, and it put a cap on the amount I distributed. Other was more generous. He gave away bills. Actually, I did too, but only to women.

There were tragic and macabre occurrences. Like the van that was abandoned one night outside our house. A disheveled woman soon took up residence in it. She had clearly seen better times: her roots were growing out, and her fingernails retained the vestiges of a professional manicure, and she wore business attire, albeit ragged and soiled. One day as we passed we noticed through the flung-open van doors that she was passed out atop a vast bed of bologna sandwiches—thousands of them. A day or so later, she and the van were towed away by the city.

Prostitutes plied their trade in the cars of the parking lot beyond our deck in the back—there were no uniformed attendants then—and we would hear howls of outrage when one got bilked or perhaps beaten. Our downstairs neighbor would sometimes charge over with a baseball bat to drive the misbehaving johns off. His rescues were not always welcomed by the women, and noisy brawls would erupt.

Then the crack epidemic hit. The sidewalk below our stoop was littered with tiny multicolored crack vials that would waft and eddy about our ankles as we walked through them. My son, then about 5, began collecting the different colors—according to lore, each color represented the wares of a different dealer. The crack whores turned tricks (for just $5 a go, we heard) in the doorways along our block. Occasionally we would pass an act in progress in broad daylight—bottoms bobbing in the shadows. The abandoned house where we'd fed the homeless couple a few years earlier became a stolen-goods depot, and there were continual fires. I often saw weapons on the street and was once followed home by a drug dealer with his knife drawn. I think I looked too nosy, and he wanted to scare me.

Then, suddenly, a few years ago, the crack dealers and crack whores vanished, replaced by celebrities and wealthy wannabes. And to longtime residents, they have been the most alien immigrants. Their decadent glamour, in-your-face cleavage, sidewalk-clogging smoking and cell-phoning, ostentatious overconsumption, party-hearty raucousness—we hate them. And it has been depressing to watch the neighborhood change to accommodate them—luxury highrises, fancy bistros, designer hotels, exclusive boutiques, fashion showrooms.

But in the past few months, I've been seeing an influx of the old demographic. And sad as I am to see people sleeping on the streets again, I welcome them too. I feel commonality with them. No matter how much money I make, no matter how comfortable my little apartment has become, I will never shake the feeling that I'm just one misfortune from the street myself, so I identify with these new neighbors.

And I'm wondering whether just maybe they'll drive out the rich, in a case of reverse gentrification (otherwise known as urban blight, I guess). Am I crazy to wish for that?

"Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Friday, September 12, 2008

From error to terror

I remember clearly the day seven years ago when error turned to terror in just a few short minutes. I was in my gym on the exercycle when the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:45. There was consternation and concern over the apparent pilot error. A few minutes later, at 9:03, the world changed forever when the second plane hit the south tower. For many New Yorkers, memories of that day have mellowed. But I distinctly remember feeling that despite the so-called national mourning, Americans didn't really care about New York. The city was too weird, too pushy, too ethnic. There was a feeling of abandonment, which has only intensified as it has become clear that the city's residents were lied to about the danger of the pollutants released into the air in the aftermath of the attacks and as localities unlikely ever to be targeted by terrorists have gotten disproportionate allotments of Homeland Security money.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Poetry of yoga

One of the many things I've grown to love about yoga is the language used in teaching it. Because yoga is largely ineffable, instructors resort to metaphor and simile and anecdote and allegory. And much of the historical literature is in the form of legends and aphorisms and sagas and poetry.

I know the New Age over- and undertones are offensive to some, and they were once to me too, but as a longtime practitioner, I've come to savor the lingo. "Open up your heart center" is a subtler instruction than "Stretch your pecs," and it feels different when you do it. Indeed, it's difficult to maintain a meanspirited, hateful, judgmental frame of mind—no matter how cranky you were when you unrolled your mat—when you are lifting and exposing your vulnerable beating heart. Unlike "Look up and cross your eyes," "Gaze into your third eye" makes you feel as if the spot between your eyebrows actually had the gift of sight. When you "breathe into the stretch," it feels, incredibly, as if air were being gently pumped into an area of tightness.

The names of the poses—the cat, the cow, the dog, the crow, the pigeon, the frog, the fish, the eagle, the peacock, the cobra, the tree, the hero, the warrior, the half-moon, the sun—are wonderfully evocative and down-to-earth at the same time. The silliness of the name "downward-facing dog," for example, lets some of the air out of yoga's holiness (as does sticking your bottom up). And consider the apt image of the tree, the name of a pose in which the feet root into the ground as the arms and hands reach skyward, swaying with the trunk to achieve balance. And of course, the corpse pose, the lazy woman's favorite, is just so ... corpselike.

Life as a fixer-upper

From time to time, ever since I was a little girl, people have taken it upon themselves to fix me up—not with a guy but with a style. There's something both insulting and flattering about this attention. Insulting because clearly there seems to be something unsatisfying about my appearance, flattering because there appears to be an assumption that a little tweak here or there would make a difference.

Thus in junior high, my best friend AS taught me to apply liquid eye liner, bruised-style a la Dusty Springfield and the Beatles' girlfriends. In high school, a very beautiful, voluptuous girl named M (can't remember her last name) took me on as her special project, inviting me for sleepovers during which she would patiently groom my chlorine-greened and -frizzled hair with special rollers, apply powder to my nose and white lipstick to my lips and dress me up in her frilly clothes. In my freshman year of college, a theater major named B face-painted me into a goddess.

But by my sophomore year of college, what remained of such efforts unraveled when I put my bra in the drawer and left it there and tossed out my mascara wand, my hair rollers, clippies and dryer, and became a natural woman. And I've pretty much been a natural woman ever since. I dyed my hair (or rather, got Other to dye it) for about a decade (I still remember my puzzlement over going gray before any of my contemporaries and then my realization that everyone else had just been quietly coloring their hair for years), but I've never been good at cosmetic culture. Makeup makes me feel dirty, creams and unguents likewise. Hair products cause my scalp to itch. Fungus phobia rules out mani-pedis. I like clothes, but synthetics make me sweat, and tight garments give me gas—I'm not kidding.

When I was younger, the natural-woman style worked, sort of, I think. Or it passed as a look at any rate. But now, without the fresh-looking skin and the abundant hair and the flawless figure, it's frumpy. Do I care? A little, though not enough to exert myself. Sometimes my daughter C will take me on—clean up my toenails, apply my makeup, weed out my wardrobe, urge me to risk the carcinogens and color my hair. And not long ago my friend RR sent me bronzer and a brush, which I used faithfully—for a few weeks. But soon enough, I fell into my old lazy ways. So here I am writing this barefoot, in a tunic T shirt bought at least 15 years ago at Daffy's, underwear from Hanes and a pair of frayed Levis identical to the ones I wore throughout college. My face is clean but bare-of-makeup pale. My nails have a few raggedy splotches left over from a long-ago afternoon in C's care. My hair is grizzled from the humidity. And I feel wistful for the days when the bloom of youth would have made this get-up o.k.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Blogging, the slo-mo meditation

I started blogging out of curiosity piqued by my friend RAK's plunge into i-sharing. What drove me on at first was that I set myself a 12-step-style challenge of 90 posts in 90 days. I've already crapped out a few times, so I won't meet that goal unless I double up on some days, but doubling-dipping feels like cheating—and then, too, even the most faithful of my readers (both of them) have their limits. I continue now because, well, I've become addicted to setting down my thoughts, no matter how random or trivial—or especially when they're random or trivial. It has become a kind of meditation.

Most meditation techniques (that I've heard of) rely on concentration on a single locus—the breath, a mantra, an image—and observing and gently dismissing the thoughts that vie with it for your attention. Since my diagnosis of breast cancer, I've had a severe case of so-called monkey mind. Guided imagery and particularly yoga have been helpful in giving me respite from the blur of impish little half-thoughts flitting in and out of my consciousness. And blogging is serving as a sort of slo-mo version of the observation-and-dismissing part of meditation. Stopping and looking full on at the fleeting, fragmentary mental activity that continually fires on the periphery of my brain, examining it thoroughly enough to translate it into words, committing it to a written record so I don't have to try to remember it—all that is helping me somehow.

So, dear readers, when I natter on about something mind-bogglingly inconsequential, know that it's in service of my sanity. I'm sorry if it's playing monkeyshines with yours.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

My shit doesn't stink

My shit doesn't stink, and neither does anyone else's these days. It has been three weeks since I got this cold, and although I've regained my hearing—or the little I had before the cold—I'm still missing my sense of smell. It's a strange absence, one that leaves me wistful. At my sister-in-law's house in rural Massachusetts, I couldn't smell the roses even when I jammed my nose into the petals and everyone around me was in raptures over the divine fragrance. I can no longer wake up and smell the coffee, though I can again hear the roar of the grinder.

The missing sense (scents?) makes it impossible for me to know whether I've got B.O. or a cantaloupe is ripe—or the cat box needs attention. For reasons too silly to recount here, I am responsible for changing the cat litter and washing the box (o.k., it was my decision to get these cats, and in order to procure them I had to promise to be the box minder in perpetuity since I had stubbornly and selfishly refused to have anything to do with caring for Other's now deceased kitty). But since I can't smell a thing, I have to ask Other whether the time has come. Here is Other's finely nuanced weather report today: "You'll need to change it sometime today, but it's not an emergency. There's a little odor, but it's not strong unless you're raking it. It's getting soggy though, and the pellets [we mix odor-absorbing tubules in with the clay gravel] are starting to disintegrate, so you can't put it off till tomorrow." Could I ask for a more precise description? Can you not visualize the exact state of the kitty toilet? And does it not make you want to wait till tomorrow to visit us?

It's ironic that I'm now dependent on others (especially Other) for odor reports, since my previously fine-tuned nose has always cast me as the paranoid sniffer-dog in our house. It was I who, days before anyone else noticed, knew with certitude that something was rotten in the state of our refrigerator. It was I who could not stop looking, despite everyone's assurances that the stench was all in my imagination, till I found the fragrant skidmark Iggy had deposited on some rug or floor. It was I who detected under the camouflage of perfume and breath mints the guilty whiff of smoke in C's hair. I was the odor police. And now I have to rely on the kindness of Other to tell me which way the wind blows.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Still here

On September 4, Other and I took our daughter C out to dinner to celebrate her 18th birthday. But it was more than just her 18th birthday we were toasting. Over the past year, she has graduated from one of the toughest high schools in the country (in addition to C, its graduates include seven Nobel Prize-winning physicists, the most of any secondary school, and five Pulitzer Prize-winning authors), passed her road test on her first try (proudly outdoing her brilliant and accomplished brother, who has failed five times and still counting), was admitted to an excellent liberal arts college (actually several)—and now appears to be making the transition to same.

But it wasn't just my daughter's achievements that I was celebrating. It was also that I was there to celebrate them. Three years ago on September 4, I found a lump beneath my right breast that turned out to be a particularly lethal form of breast cancer. Back then, I didn't know whether I would live to see any of my daughter's successes (or her brother's—and he's no slouch either, despite the failed road tests). I resisted making long-term plans, in part because it felt like tempting fate. I'm still a little superstitious that way.

I know that three years is a significant milestone—most recurrences for an aggressive cancer like mine take place early on—but I know I'll never be carefree again. I also know that cancer is no more deadly than the afflictions borne by many of my friends—high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, which can result in a far faster death. They're all crapshoots.

But as I enter checkup season—oncologist on Thursday, radiation nurse and ovarian-cancer specialist (breast-cancer patients are believed to be at greater risk for ovarian cancer) a few days later, dermatologist (ditto for skin cancer) the following week, breast surgeon a few weeks later, a general physical that I still need to schedule—I taste the fear again, the adrenaline-soaked knowledge that an abnormal blood test, a suspicious ultrasound, a tiny pimple-size growth (and who isn't covered with wens at my age?) can put me back in the wrestling ring with death.

I'm scared, but it's a forced kind of fear, like probing a cavity with my tongue to flirt with the pain. It's also prophylactic: If I'm scared enough now, the crazy side of my brain thinks, I'll get to feel foolish instead of prescient. Or I'll have built up the emotional muscle to deal with any horror that awaits me.

No matter what happens in these or future checkups though, I've had three years, and bad as they sometimes seemed, they were a gift.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Getting lost

Last night I had an experience that proved once again that I am not cut out for country life. It's not just the ticks and mosquitoes—about which I am phobic—it's the dark and silent nights. Other and I spent the night alone in the country house of our friends DP and JS in one of three bedrooms on the second floor. It was so quiet I felt as if I were wearing foam earplugs and so dark I felt as if I were wearing eye patches—only I couldn't remove the deafeners and blinders. At first it didn't bother me. But in the middle of the night I had to pee. I somehow teleported myself in the dark (didn't want to wake Other) into the bathroom across from our bedroom. Then ... I couldn't find my way back. Afraid that I would tumble down the stairs, I got down on my hands and knees and groped around for the correct doorway. I couldn't find it. So there I was in the middle of the night, 58 years old but crawling around like a baby, patting furniture and door lintels and fingering carpets and getting rug burns on my knees, trying to visualize where I was. The longer I crawled around, the more disoriented I got. I considered curling up where I was and waiting for dawn, but that seemed insane even to me. After about 15 minutes—really, that long—I found myself back in the bathroom. I reached up and turned on the light just long enough to aim myself toward the correct bedroom, where I launched myself back into bed. Lying there, trying to calm down, I was washed by doubt that I had installed myself in the right bed. I reached over and touched Other to reassure myself. There he was, fast asleep. He'd slept through the whole drama. So much for experts who recommend complete darkness for optimal sleep. I'll take the melatonin-crushing ambient light of city life anytime.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Buying retail

I have scrimped and saved, bought wholesale or on sale, sent my kids to public schools, encouraged them to wear hand-me-downs, bought them toys at Odd Job, got our books from the library, avoided buying what we couldn't afford, put off renovations, collected furniture off the street, lectured them on thrift. My daughter C has always hated the cheapskate in me. Buying bargains made me feel rich, but it made her feel poor. So finally, we have sent her to the Barneys of colleges—and we're paying full freight. She seems bewildered, and perhaps a whiff suspicious. What's the catch? There really is none. We just want her to accept the gift, not turn it down, feel rich at last.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The delivery

Just as it was in giving birth to my daughter, the transition was hard but the delivery was easy when Other and I dropped C off at Skidless yesterday. All day (all summer, truth be told) we had steeled ourselves for the traumatic parting, and then—nothing. We hugged goodbye, and she and her new friend EM walked off together to dinner, as Other and I headed for our car. Bewilderingly uneventful. But a little sad, because unlike childbirth, delivering your child to college means you go home with empty arms. Fortunately for us, we had our own dinner plans—at the country house of longtime friends who had just dropped their two daughters off at school. So we were in sympathetic company. We stayed up till midnight talking kid. Hope I got it out of my system. I'm looking forward to having space in my brain now for some new thoughts that have nothing to do with parenting.

This fancy liberal arts college C's going to is a little like a gated community. It's cut off from the town by sprawling lawns and grand landscaping and an invisible shield of security cards and codes. Like a fairy-tale princess raised by peasants, she alone has keys to the ivory tower she now inhabits. We low-born parents can enter only at her indulgence. Indeed, if we were found wandering the campus unattended, we would be evicted by one of the 70 guards installed to deal with riffraff like us. She is fed, fostered, mentored and given as her magic wand an i.d. card with which she can fulfill every whim (or at least every whim chargeable at the college store). We are left behind in the dust of the great juggernaut that is bearing her onward to the glory of her intellectual flowering. Goodbye, sweetheart. Think of us sometimes. Try not to look down on your rude beginnings ...

Friday, August 29, 2008

Yoga and death

One of my teachers once described yoga as practice for death. I'm not sure precisely what she meant, but it feels true to me. Indeed, the final and most important pose in every practice is savasana, or corpse pose, in which you lie supine on your mat, often with a blanket draped over you (like a shroud), and release all your muscles, allowing the (dead) weight of your body to sink into the floor. As in meditation, you focus your attention on your breath and resist the temptation to scratch, fidget, adjust your limbs. Slowly, mysteriously, you begin to detach from your physical self. Dispassionately, you observe itches and twinges almost as though they were happening to someone else. And as you lie there, relaxed, dispelling discomfort with your breath, and accepting any residue that remains, you begin to feel that this might be something like death—and, incredibly, you can handle it.

For the year or more during which I was undergoing intensive treatment for breast cancer, I was beset with relentless anxiety about dying—except during yoga. The deep, slow breathing alone helped calm me on a physiological level. And the twists and stretches and flexes seemed to wring out the nervous energy that otherwise coagulated in my gut as dread. Letting go of any "goal" for each posture and focusing instead on the process, the actual experience, allowed me to yield to the present. Being fully in the present freed me (temporarily) from my fears about the future—particularly my fear of death.

In addition, there was something about recapitulating the movements of thousands of generations of yogis before me that made me feel as if I were part of an ageless process, and ageless myself—like a rock or a drop of water or air, eternal. And strangely, it was comforting instead of terrifying.

Maybe that's just me. And even I, enthusiast that I am, can achieve that equanimity only for moments at a time. But those moments are delicious and leave me hungry for more.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Namaste, Om, Hare hare and all that ...

There is probably nothing that makes a person say yech to yoga like the various vocalizations that are part of a typical New York class: Namaste, om, the call-and-response chants, the odes to Hindu gods. I, too, feel queasy about opening my mouth and making a joyful noise. First of all, I'm tone-deaf, so I can't carry a tune—not even a monotone—and I'm embarrassed about that. Second, reciting foreign words in a sing-song feels silly. Third, voicing hymns to gods, particularly ones that I do not personally worship or that I associate with cults, feels false, even creepy. But I think this is my problem, not yoga's. And I'm trying to get over it. I think I'm succeeding.

In yoga, chanting has become for me a way of breaking free of ordinary restraints, including my own resistance. When I open my mouth and let loose a sound that I aim to be more or less in the same range as that voiced by the rest of the class, I let go of my self-consciousness and take a leap of faith that the practice I'm embarking on is not about performance or being judged but about throwing myself fully into the experience before me. Every time I join the others in singing om, say, it's a commitment to take yoga on its own terms.

Om-ing has other functions as well. Singing om together synchronizes a group of individuals and gets them on the same wavelength—literally. A great roar of om vibrates the brain—in a good way—of everyone in the studio. And the communal singing—and vibrating—breaks down the barriers between the mats by serving as an acknowledgment that everyone is united in the yogic quest. The syllable om is thought to incorporate all other sounds and is said to be the sound of the universe. When we chant om at the beginning and end of each class, we unite not only with our contemporary classmates but with yoga practitioners throughout time as we resonate to the song of the universe. I do it with pleasure and conviction now.

The devotional call-and-response chants in Sanskrit are a little more problematical for me. Aside from the difficulty of synchronizing my wayward voice with those of better-tuned folks, I find it odd to mouth the sounds of a foreign language, which is essentially meaningless to me. However, I understand the principle. Sanskrit is thought to be the oldest language in the world—some say it is so old that it is the tongue of the gods—and it is the liturgical language of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, and the one in which the major yoga texts were written. So we chant in Sanskrit for the same reason the Catholic liturgy is delivered in Latin or Jewish prayers are sung in Hebrew: for authenticity, to be as close to the source as we can be and to prevent the dilution and inexactness that come with translation. I force myself to participate. Many aspects of yoga that I initially resisted have come to be profoundly meaningful for me. I figure this may too. I give it a chance.

Then there are the incantations of gods' names. Like the asanas, which call into play opposing forces—flexion and extension, downward rooting and upward lifting in the same pose—the gods typically embody dual characteristics. Shiva, for example, is viewed both as the destroyer and as the clearer of obstacles. By intoning the gods' names, we are not so much praying as acknowledging our own complexity and calling on the best expression of our innate qualities. Or not. This is where my enthusiasm for yogic ritual fails. I just cannot make myself wail "Hare Krishna" or "Hare Rama." Just can't.

But one day I may. I've come a long way. And I know I have a long way I'm going to go.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Seen one mutant, seen 'em all

I hope this doesn't make me a racist, but I just can't tell mutants apart. Doesn't matter if one has holes in its face and another is a blue giant and another has pointed ears and a snub nose—they all look the same to me. And as I move from frame to frame in the graphic novel I'm trying to wade through, I can't remember whether it was the Comedian who died or Rorschach or who. So I have to keep backing up through the pages to the beginning.

"Watchmen" was on a best-100-books-ever-written list, so I thought I should read it, but I seem to have lost some kid instinct for this stuff—if I ever had it. Deepest I ever got into comics was a couple of forbidden Archies. It's really hard to figure out who's talking, and who's thinking, and what frame comes after what frame. Plus, the plot is gruesome! The whole exercise is a little more strenuous than I expected. However, I'm convinced there's some value in mastering this strange genre, though I'm not sure what.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Transition—a labor of love

In childbirth, there's a period that is notoriously painful during which the cervix dilates to its maximum expansion and the fetus moves into the birth canal in preparation for being expelled. This is the time when even women who had been adamant about natural childbirth cave in and plead for drugs, anything to kill the dreadful spasms. The intense contractions are not infrequently accompanied by trembling, vomiting, irritability, despair, hysteria, disorientation, hormonal surges of overheating and chills. The extreme pain induces hallucinatory experiences. When people compare the agony of, say, kidney stones to childbirth, they are talking about this stage of labor. And its name is transition.

When I told my friend H about the emotional paroxysms our family has been enduring as we prepare to send C to college, she likened it to the transition of childbirth. And it's a wonderful analogy: the pain, the nightmarish aura, the wrenching separation of child and parent, the catapulting of the child into a new world and a long trajectory of growth and discovery, the slow healing of the bedraggled mother (and father). And the blessed brevity (we hope) of this anguishing passage from past to future.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

If it's Sunday, this must be a sermon

There's a common misconception that yoga is all about stretching. Not. First of all, it's important to remember that yoga isn't, primarily, a physical practice. The asana practice is just one—and not even No. 1—of the eight "limbs" of yoga. Second, the asana practice aims for strength in equal measure to flexibility. For any muscle that is being extended, there is a muscle that must be flexed to facilitate and support that extension. Indeed, injuries occur if a muscle is yanked into maximum stretch without the reciprocal contraction of a complementary muscle. To safely and effectively stretch your hamstrings (the muscles at the back of your thigh), you must firm your quadriceps (the muscles at the front of your thigh).

One of the core "scriptures" of yoga, Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, is a compendium of short, pithy, sometimes enigmatic aphorisms—a strand of pearls of wisdom. One sutra, "Sthira sukham asanam," can be translated as "Asana is steadiness and ease." In just three words (in the Sanskrit version), Patanjali gives you yoga—and health—in a nutshell. Every position must combine strength (steadiness) and ease (relaxation)—or flexion and extension. Together, these produce balance. Strength, flexibility and balance are the foundation of physical health. If you've ever been to a physical therapist, you've probably been assigned exercises that increase strength as well as those that increase flexibility. The yoga practice is like physical therapy for your whole body.

Of course, since yoga is not all about the body, the principle of Sthira sukham asanam applies to other domains as well. Steadiness, flexibility and balance are pretty much the definition of mental as well as physical health. However, whereas in the body you can identify specific muscles to be flexed and others to be released, the mental sphere is subtler. And therein lies the beauty of yoga. Like a metaphor, the physical practice spells out in concrete terms the elusive intangibles you're seeking in your mental life. Having the concrete image helps you find the counterpart mental "muscles" that must be worked to achieve emotional balance. It's like an osmotic process, in which the wisdom achieved in the physical sphere effortlessly seeps into the mental sphere. That may be one reason you step out of yoga practice exhilarated, light, hopeful.

Converts? Anyone ready to accept yoga into her heart (and onto her mat)?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Intrusive thoughts

Finally, I'm feeling better—and not just feeling free of physical pain but also feeling emotionally exhilarated by the return to health. Perhaps only another cancer patient—or another hypochondriac—can relate to the relief of having your body do what it's supposed to do: fight disease, repair the damage, get you back on your feet.

Nearly three years after my diagnosis, cancer still colors every moment of my life. Each little ache (today I've got a sore area on the right side of my lumbar spine, a tender spot on the irradiated side of my chest, a bruised feeling on the bottom of my right foot, painful neck glands, a little gas—and that's just today) generates an ominous question mark: Is this the symptom that will change my life forever?

And it's not just the aches. In yoga class this morning I think, Will I be able to get the same succor from these familiar routines if I get a recurrence? Or will the magic have worn off or be undermined? If cancer spreads to my bones, will I be able to practice the physical asanas? I know they're just one aspect of yoga, but to me they're vital in dissipating the nervous energy I'm afflicted by. Nagging my daughter C to do some chores to get herself ready for college, I wonder, If I get sick again and, say, die, will my kids be o.k. without me? At the health-food store, I debate whether to get C a sweet treat, knowing that my having had cancer raises her risk of getting cancer, and many nutritionists believe avoiding fats and sugars offsets risk. Later, at another health-food store, I'm tempted to get myself a treat. I resist that temptation but then succumb to another craving when I get home. Was it worth dying for those few spoonfuls of ice cream?, I berate myself. I find a couple of great T shirts—ones that obscure my flat-chestedness—at a street fair and buy them, then wish I hadn't since not only is the cotton they're made of not organic (and we all know that cotton accounts for 25% of the world's pesticide use) but they're also made in China. Should I throw them out?

And those are just a few droplets in the continuous stream of intrusive thoughts that plague me on a good day. Indeed, I was actually congratulating myself today on how far I've come in breaking free of obsessive thinking. Will I ever be normal again?

Friday, August 22, 2008


I've always thought I'd want to live to be 100. But with my breast-cancer history—and the toxic treatments that paradoxically saved my life but will probably shorten it too—I doubt that I'll enjoy that kind of longevity. In any case, I can see how the aches and discomforts of ordinary aging might kill the desire to see each new day.

It's alarming how quickly pain erodes the will to live. One two-day bout with flu and sinus headache, and I was ready to throw in the towel. I feel a bit better today but chagrined by my weak spirit. This time I actually took the comfort meds—Dristan, Day-Quil, Sudafed—though they didn't do much good, and I felt plenty sorry for myself, all alone in my room, quarantined from my family, knowing I was a disgusting sight as I honked and snorted and sopped up the snot, my nose red from chafing, my eyes rheumy, my hair plastered unattractively to my scalp in clumps.

Would I really want to live to be 100 feeling like that?

Thursday, August 21, 2008


One thing I don't get: Why doesn't the pain of an ailment match its seriousness? I have a trivial little flu, and I feel as if my skull were giving breech-birth to my eyeballs, every molar were abscessed and my ears were having angioplasty with weather balloons. On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd put my pain at about 8. By contrast, the malignant breast tumor that could have killed me generated zero pain.

In a day or two, this flu will abate and I'll be able to see it as one more uplifting proof of the body's ability to heal itself. Right now ... I'm not there yet.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Bad memories make good memoirs

Over a rooftop dinner (whole sea bass with wasabi, lemon slices and flowering scallions wrapped in foil and grilled, avocado-and-bell-pepper tossed salad, fresh corn-on-the-cob, and lime-and-agave-syrup-ade) with neighborhood friends JS and GW, the talk turned to eccentric parents—Louise Bourgeois, my own mother, JS's mother, the parents of Jeannette Walls in The Glass Castle. In that vein, more or less, JS told the story of a 15-year-old girl she knows who was about to be orphaned, and not one of the 12 siblings of her terminally ill mother was willing to take her in. JS drew the girl aside and told her, "Take notes—they will come in handy when you write your book. Bad memories make good memoirs." The girl was (according to JS) much cheered by this suggestion.

I thought it was excellent advice, so I passed it on to my daughter when she arrived a bit later. C appeared confused. "But I had a happy childhood," quoth she. Are there sweeter words in the parental universe?

A great dinner all around!

Monday, August 18, 2008

The ghost of X.Y. High School

So once again I was a no-show at my high school reunion. This was a biggy—the 40th anniversary of my nongraduation. The fact that I didn't join the procession in 1968 to get my diploma (I took off for Colorado as soon as classes ended) tells a lot about my attachment to the school and the tenor of the times. As I told my friend RR, who attended both the graduation and the reunion, I had only half a dozen friends in high school. I know what happened to three of the six people I cared about (including RR), and the other three were no-shows too, so if I had gone I would have felt as if I were at someone else's high school reunion.

But the flurry of e-mails (How did they ever find me, 2,500 miles away? Was it you, RR?) did rouse memories of what it was like to be an Out-crowd teenager in Silicon Valley in the '60s. I felt like a ghost haunting the halls of X.Y. High School. The casual cruelty of the In crowd ("Wow, I like your tan," sneered a blue-eyed, bronzed, blonde surfer girl when I returned to school pale and wobbly from foot surgery) was too predictable to deeply wound. But there were self-inflicted wounds of mortification: my too-big body; my sparse, shabby wardrobe; my hyperactive sweat glands; by jewfro hair (looked like pubic hair—on my head); my overeager smartness; my secret feelings of inadequacy relative to my honors-class cohort. If I hadn't felt conspicuous because of all those things, I would have felt invisible. I was a giant nobody.

And I pretty much remained a nonperson my freshman year at an all-women's college. Not until I transferred to an all-men's college did I begin to feel three-dimensional. (Ironic to find your sense of self in the very situation that's commonly thought to sabotage it.) And even though it was something of a blow after college to re-enter the real co-ed world where people weren't universally knocked out by my incredible beauty or my novel turn of mind or my sparkling personality, I haven't lost my sense of self again. Nonetheless, I guess I'm still not sure enough of my 3D solidity to take the chance that some suburban princess might wave her wand and render me invisible once more.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Revelations from the mat

When I was a student writing papers for school and when I was a reporter writing articles for a newsmagazine, I would sometimes go to bed anxious because I couldn't figure out how to finish whatever I was working on. I needed a unifying theme or a killer punch line or an apt example or a clever title or a tricky transition or a dynamite tie-it-all-together conclusion—sometimes all of the above. I would worry about going to sleep without finishing the job. But sometimes, magically, I would dream the missing parts, and when I woke up, if I wrote them down quickly, before they evaporated from memory, they were—incredibly—perfect.

Sometimes in yoga, something similar happens. I'll come into my practice twisted with anxiety or guilt or anger or stress or some unresolved conflict. In the course of stretching, twisting, flexing, releasing, inverting, balancing and focusing on my breath, I'll notice that a physical technique I'm using has a psychological counterpart. Instead of yanking on my feet in a forward bend to stretch my tight hamstrings, for example, I'll notice that if I back off and micro-bend my knees, my hamstrings will ease. And suddenly, it will come to me—right there on the mat—that I can apply the same principle to some unyielding situation I've been confronting in my home life, perhaps a standoff between myself and my daughter C. And it will work: a little flexibility not necessarily on the issue that is straining our relationship will dissolve the tension.

Or standing on my head, I'll realize that some conundrum I've been puzzling over suddenly makes sense if I examine at it from another vantage point, turn it on its head, look at it upside down.

Or I'll realize that in wrenching my spine into a deeper twist I'm compressing my vertebrae rather than opening them, so I need to concentrate on straightening my spine rather than torquing it, and somehow that will clarify to me that in my personal life I need to let go of a goal, relax and focus on the process.

So much of what you aim for in yoga is just a concrete corollary of the more subjective qualities you strive for in the rest of your life: balance, flexibility, strength, stability. And practicing these skills in the physical domain of yoga hones their counterparts in the mental sphere of work and the emotional arena of home.

So yoga becomes not just acrobatics at the gym. It's life itself.

Try it. Really, you'll like it.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Cancer and the uplift of down dog

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer I was not only stunned but also a little hurt. I was stronger and healthier than any of my friends. I ate vegetables and exercised daily. O.K., I drank more alcohol than the single glass a day a woman is allotted, and smoked till I was 30—but still. I had done my part. Why had my body betrayed me by harboring an enemy like cancer?

I felt like a cuckolded wife. But unlike a woman whose husband has cheated on her, I couldn't just throw the bum out. So the process of recovery required not just surgery, radiation and chemotherapy but also help in coming to terms with a body I no longer trusted. I needed a really good therapist.

I did find a really good therapist—she hypnotized me too, and I'll give you her name if you need her—but in large measure, yoga was my therapist. Breathing into my terror; scanning through every muscle, organ and limb; stretching, twisting, squeezing, releasing—I examined my body from the inside out.

I grew stronger, more flexible than I had been before I got "sick." While I was in treatment, I did my first handstand, my first freestanding headstand, my first side crow. My body began to belong to me again. I realized that far from betraying me, it had done its best to resist the advances of the enemy. And it was doing its best now to fix the breach. We were a team—my body and me—and we were collaborating to regain our health.

The progress I made in my physical practice was psychologically comforting. It was proof that my body—and the rest of me—could change, could heal. I might feel hunched and weak and heavy and tired as I dragged myself to yoga class, but I would walk home upright, with a light step, strong and energetic.

Even a single pose, reiterated, revealed my body's remarkable malleability. My spine might feel stiff and unyielding in the first down dog of a sun salutation (a series of poses repeated several times as a yoga warmup), but by the fifth iteration, it would feel limber and alive. If my body could alter so radically in mere minutes, I realized I was capable of monumental change long-term.

Now instead of feeling betrayed by my body, I feel grateful for its wisdom as revealed to me through the practice of yoga. At the moment when I was most alone and in danger, yoga threw me a lifeline by showing me my own resilience.

Doesn't that make you want to at least try it?