Thursday, July 31, 2008


When I started this blog, I intended to record my thoughts about breast cancer and yoga—the two most powerful factors in my life these days. But I keep getting sidetracked. And today once again I am sidetracked—or should I say sidestalked?—this time by a review in the Times of a book by a stalking victim named Kate Brennan: (sorry, I haven't learned how to make hyperlinks, so you'll have to cut and paste).

I was stalked in the early '70s, before anybody had heard of stalking.

As one of about three dozen women students at a formerly all-men's college, I was lavished with more male attention than I was accustomed to. One boy whom I knew only slightly walked barefoot in the snow one night from his dorm to mine to declare his affection. Another picked me up every morning for my 8 o'clock astronomy class. I was invited to every party. I never ate alone. It was heady stuff for a girl who was not in the In crowd in high school, and I reveled in it—most of it.

I didn't revel in the attention of one young man—we'll call him W. In my sophomore year, I began finding odd totems outside my door: roses, a bird's nest, scraps of poetry. Mutual friends told me they were left by a guy who had conceived a massive crush on me. At first I was flattered, and I tried to figure out who he was. On a campus of 2,000 students, I was sure I must have seen him. Anytime a guy looked at me with interest, I wondered if he was W.

I didn't think about him much, though, since I had many distractions. But mutual friends kept telling me how infatuated he was. He told them I was his muse, his Beatrice, his Dulcinea. They told me that he was too shy to introduce himself but that he lurked outside my dorm and spied on me through my window. That creeped me out. Who wants someone watching them scratch and pick their nose and walk around in their underwear? They told me he was so besotted that he couldn't eat and that he survived on 20 cups of coffee a day. They seemed to think it was incredibly romantic, and they seemed to enjoy being messengers, reporting to me his reaction to things they'd told him about me. Someone told him I was seeing a dentist in town for a problem with my jaw, and he visited my dentist to try to get more information. He enlisted all his friends—and he seemed to know everyone I knew—to find out more about me.

Then a note written in blood was left nailed to my door. I can't remember what it said, but his choice of ink was disturbing. I started to worry. Then friends told me he was writing a novella about me (though not in blood). At some point someone showed me a copy. It was not a complimentary portrayal. My character was depicted as a cold, rejecting bitch. At a student-faculty party, an English professor asked me whether I was pleased to be W's muse and what did I think of the novella. I told him I didn't really like my role—in real life or in fiction. He called me "heartless."

Although part of me was intrigued by W's obsession, part of me was upset by it. For someone who professed to his friends to be passionately in love with me, he seemed to hate me. I never knew when he might be in the bushes outside my window, so I felt I had no privacy. My room was overheated, but I kept the windows closed and the curtains pulled at all times. And I still had no idea who he was, although he seemed to know everything about me.

Finally, in the spring of that year, a meeting was arranged. It turned out W was no one I'd ever laid eyes on, a nice-enough-looking guy with curly brown hair and doggy-brown eyes and a kind of breathless way of speaking. He looked like Warren Beatty. It turned out his brother lived in Jackson Hole, where I was going to be working that summer, so we agreed to get together then. In the meantime, he had been chosen to be valedictorian or class speaker—I can't remember which—and he dedicated his address to "the rattlesnake of the Rockies"—i.e., me. I didn't feel like a rattlesnake, but my fellow students seemed to think it was a huge compliment.

He did come to visit me in Wyoming, and took me to stay in his brother's trailer for a night (nothing happened). We didn't have much to say to each other. But I was young, and in the early '70s I often found myself in uncomfortable situations with people I didn't know well, so I didn't think much of it. Later, I heard, he told people that I had been cruel, that I had tried to seduce him and had humiliated him because he hadn't been able to "get it up." That wasn't true. I felt wronged by his spreading lies about me. He didn't know me, yet he felt free to invade my privacy and represent me in ugly ways.

After that summer, he seemed to lose his infatuation with me. I'll never know what drove him to create a fantasy life with me at its center. Eventually he married a religious Catholic girl and had a couple of kids. He practices law somewhere in the South. Maybe he's normal now. But looking back, I wonder.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Flies in the flowers

By now everyone's read about the disappearance of the honeybees: no one know where they've gone, or why, but scientists blame the usual modern suspects—cell-phone towers, high-voltage transmission lines, stuff like that—for disorienting them. So the last place you'd expect to find refugee bees (refubees?) is the city. But we have a bumper crop of bees on our deck this summer. From early in the morning till deep into the evening, they're glued by the dozens to the sweet-pepper bushes and the Buddleia. (Iggy, the big bully, is used to preying on the stingless wood borers, and when he catches a honeybee, he looks confused and wounded—stung, in a word. These guys may be picturesque and fuzzy in their yellow-and-black jackets, but they fight back.) 

Of course, a few dozen bees on an isolated deck in New York aren't going to stave off the looming nationwide pollination crisis. But here's the interesting thing: in among the honeybees are a lot of flies. In fact, we often have flies in the flowers during the summer. So that's gotten me to thinking. Maybe it's not as appetizing to have flies pollinating our fruits and vegetables, but does it really make a difference what creature transports the pollen? Do we even need bees? Maybe we should just face facts and pile up our fields with shit and stinky garbage. Could pollution be the solution?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Beauty and the beast

So here's what it's like to walk down the street as my daughter C: Tall, slim, with honey-blond hair, she's universally perceived as a beauty. The man at the plant store perks up when he sees her, and says, "Can I help you with that?" She's carrying a tiny plant, which she can clearly manage on her own. "Why did he want to help me?" she asks, confused. She walks into the Apple store, and three employees elbow each other out of the way to see what she's interested in today—O.K., it's a service-oriented company, but still. Men smile at her as they approach her; they turn around to ogle her when they've passed her. She doesn't notice. When she was 14, she began collecting the business cards of modeling scouts who tried to sign her up. Sure, she was flattered, but she also thought it was funny. 

Here's what it was like to be me when I was a teenager: Tall, slim, with honey-blond hair, I felt like the "big lummox" my mother called me when she was angry. I started to hunch over when I reached my full adult height at 14. I was way taller than any boys my age, and it wasn't considered an asset. The tallest girl in my ballroom-dancing class (what sadist signed me up for that?), I was once selected—me in my gargantuan saddle shoes—to dance with the shortest boy in the class—just to prove that it could be done, that size didn't matter. It did matter, and we proved it. As I walked home from the library with my nose in a book, men driving by shouted sexual insults at me. I didn't know what the insults meant, but I knew they were dirty—and not complimentary. 

So how on earth would I know how to parent someone like C? 

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Modern medicine: A+

Two emergency-room visits, a doctor's-office appointment and a hospital stay in a four-day span should be fodder for plenty of gripes about personnel, service, treatment, whatever. But our experience at NYU was surprisingly positive. Hot, smart docs! Empathetic nurses! Prompt delivery of narcotics! Sounds like porn for hypochondriacs. Aside from the cafeteria food and the uncomfortable facilities for families, there were only two flies in the ointment (sorry, poor choice of idiom):

1. The elevators at NYU hospital are like the Holland Tunnel at rush hour—all the time. Everyone complains. Ten-, 15-minute waits—really. It wouldn't be so bad if doctors and patients had an express service, visitors a secondary one, but there's a buildup of tension knowing that the doctor is being held up in traffic right there in the building. If I were a benefactor, I'd skip the new wing and donate some more 'vators.

2. The registration in the emergency room needs fine tuning. On Other's second admission, which should have been a snap since all his information was already in the system, we had to wait precious painful minutes because one of two clerks was on her break—reading the newspaper at her desk in plain sight. Now I know every worker needs a break, but it's inhumane to clerks and clientele not to have breaks take place out of sight. To be writhing in pain waiting for someone to finish reading the funnies is enough to make a person go postal. And when we were finally checked in by the nonbreaking clerk, Other in horrible agony, the clerk kept interrupting the sign-in process to crack jokes with a colleague as if he were a department-of-motor-vehicles worker, say, instead of an emergency-room gatekeeper who was the last barrier to the morphine drip. Not that the DMV doesn't trigger the urge to go on a shooting spree, but, hey, you can always leave.

But that's it. Nothing else. And today Other is frisking about with his old mischievous froggy grin doing chores with all the cheerfulness that relief from pain can bring. And we're thinking modern medicine is a wonderful thing.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Home—and life is fun again

Other and I are home at last—he stented and antibioticked and claiming to be more comfortable (hard to tell since during the period of his worst, most writhing agony he told an emergency-room intake nurse that on a scale of 1 to 10, his pain was a 3). 

Rushing him around to the emergency room and the hospital and the doctor's office gave me a taste of his life over the past three years as he's partnered me through breast-cancer treatment and followup. Not much fun sitting for hours on the edges of gurnies, flagging down doctors and nurses for this or that, hanging out in grubby waiting rooms and hallways, standing around in recovery cubicles—it's clear the medical community doesn't want family members tagging along (which seems shortsighted since I'm a very helpful person—did any of the nurses want to take off Other's shoes and socks when he was in too much pain to bend over? or tie his gown so his backside was covered? or hold his urine cup when he was trying to give a specimen? I think not). 

I read somewhere that airports were designed to be uncomfortable to discourage loitering. I assume the same is true of medical facilities. Last night I was invited to stand with my son J in a utility corridor to await the transport of Other from the operating room to the recovery room. We waited—on our feet or propped against a derelict table—for an hour. We kept doublechecking to make sure that where we were standing was where we were supposed to be standing, and incredibly it was. J pointed out, however, that despite the shabbiness, there's something cosy about hospitals—they're like college campuses in that everyone's really smart, and someone's always awake working on some project or other, so you've always got company.

The worst of the whole partnering-a-patient role is that you never know whether you're doing enough. Especially when, shortly after being admitted, the patient tells you, "You should go out and have some fun now." Have some fun? 

Googling worst-case scenarios, calling friends whose husbands have had kidney stones, gathering documents and lab reports, trying to figure out whether it's good or bad to spread the word to friends (it's an awkward phone call: "Hi, how are you? Other has kidney stones. Just wanted to let you know")—you try to get all your ducks in a row for whatever comes next, but of course you have no idea what might come next, so those ducks quack around aimlessly.

Despite all we've been through in the past four days and despite our steely determination to anticipate the next crisis, we're just as clueless as we were when we began. Relying on luck to trump ignorance.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Sissyphean boulder rolling ...

After three agonizing days, Other was finally admitted to the hospital today to have his kidney stones removed. At first the urologist had tried to schedule the surgery for Tuesday, four days from now, because despite the fact that everyone knows that stones are the most painful condition known to man, having them removed is considered elective. I told the urologist I absolutely couldn't take Other home to suffer for four more days "because his pain is not controlled by percoset." Apparently I had stumbled on the Open Sesame words that enabled the urologist to recode the surgery from "elective" to "emergency"—which meant it could take place immediately. But wait. Once Other had been admitted to the hospital and the prepping had begun for the OR, he spiked a fever, and now he's slated to come home tomorrow to complete at least a week of antibiotic treatment before he can get the fucking stones out. We're bummed.

So I've been spending quite a bit of time the past three days learning hospital culture. First of all there's the color coding of personnel. Maroon seems to be the lowest caste: orderlies and nurse's aides. Green is next: nurses. Then blue: residents. Then white: real docs. Until you figure this out—maybe everyone else already knew this, but I had a Eureka moment when it became clear that people weren't just wearing their favorite color—it's hard to know who does what, because almost everyone takes temperatures and asks personal questions. People you've just met ask, When did you have your last bowel movement? and When you urinate, do you feel as if you've emptied your bladder? These are not your usual ice breakers.

Then there's the cuisine. I know it's a cliche, but it still seems weird to serve the unhealthiest food in the world in a place where people go to get well. Don't these people read? Who chooses that menu? Somewhere someone's actually deciding to serve that bad-tasting, bad-for-you food. Why does that person still have a job?

Then there's the paradoxical numerical imbalance between personnel and patients. When you include everyone in every color of uniform, there seem to be far more care givers than care recipients. Yet—here's the paradoxical part—there's not remotely enough care to go around. There is never a helpful person handy when, say, you need to get another slug of morphine or when the lady in the next cubicle is crying, "Help, help, someone, please help me."

And finally there's the weird phenomenon of people who look like children making life-and-death decisions for people who appear to be their elders. How do these young doctors and nurses get to be so smart and so sophisticated and so confident so young? I myself can't decide whether to change the case of a noun or insert a comma without consulting a colleague, and these kids make unilateral decisions that determine who lives and who dies. And they don't seem tortured by the responsibility. They're another race entirely, different from you and me. 

Thursday, July 24, 2008


Is there anything sadder than the sight of a 61-year-old man crouched on the bathroom floor in front of the toilet, cooling his forehead on the tiles, after vomiting up his pain medications? No, there is not, especially if you know, as I do, that the cat box inches from his nose is rank and needs changing. And especially if you've read the emergency-room handout, which I have, describing the profound pain of "renal colic," a.k.a. kidney stones.

Seeing my poor Other prostrated thus called to mind the phrase "worshipping the porcelain god," one of many terms of art taught to my son J by his swimming teacher in elementary school. I loved Steve—that was his name—and so did J, for treating the boys in his charge as if they were his frat-brother equals. Ralphing, tossing your cookies, hurling, horking, spewing, blowing chunks, yawning in Technicolor, retching, throwing a street pizza, upchucking—I wish could remember them all. The pure delight on J's face as he recited what he'd learned during the day's swimming lesson (the actual water skills were secondary; it took him months to get his face wet) was a thing of beauty. Somehow Steve's indoctrination of 10-year-olds seemed so ... wholesome. And all those great words have come in handy, I'm sure, since J has inherited his father's weak stomach—as well as his weakness for spicy, greasy foods. 

I, too, kind of like those naughty words—still. Which reminds me of something I've recently been musing about: that I haven't really changed in 50 years. I'm just a child trapped inside the body of a crone. I'm a little more adept at concealing my feelings (no more tantrums) and eking out patience (though I still sometimes eat dessert first), but it is my circumstances, for the most part, that have changed—I own an apartment, hold down a job, raised two kids—not I. I live in a grownup world and dress (sort of) like a grownup but haven't really developed since my teens. Indeed, my kids often exhibit greater maturity than I do. Which leads one to wonder, where do they get it?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

ER, the reality

Today I had planned on—and particularly looked forward to—devoting Under the Stinkwood to reviewing my friend R's monologue debut, but, alas, fate had another plan, and I spent the day in the NYU emergency room with Other, who was struck in the middle of last night with a kidney stone. Although we got home late this afternoon, there was no way I could leave him to attend R's event, since he has yet to pass the stone and has been puking when he drinks the water he was told would help break it up and move it out. (Turns out the ER feels its mission is not to treat ailments but merely to take away the pain.) So I will review ER instead of R. 

ER, the reality, is actually quite similar to ER, the famous television show: dreamy attending doctors, winsome nurses, overeager interns, swashbuckling EMTs, double doors bursting open every few minutes to set in play a new drama—or bit of comic relief. The only thing missing was the fucking. That probably happens too, but I didn't see it myself.

The cases were quite colorful and, I'm grateful to say, not especially gory. Other's first "roommate" (patients were consigned in pairs to curtained chambers more like cramped dressing rooms than actual rooms) was an Asian gent whose face was entirely covered with brown splotches, which made me a bit squeamish since I naturally worried that they might be the (contagious) reason for his ER stay, but it turned out he was in a diabetic collapse, made difficult to treat since he didn't speak English and resisted injections and food. It was looking pretty dim till—simultaneously and independently—his two sons and an interpreter arrived in a noisy eruption of Chinglish.

Then we were moved to a room with a boy whose chest was hooked up to electrodes. We watched the monitor blink landscapes of his pulse and heart rate (or are those the same thing?). The doctor took his father aside and said sotto voce, "There's nothing wrong with his heart. I recommend you take him to a psychiatrist or a psychologist," and gave him some referrals. A few minutes later, the doctor returned to discharge the boy and asked the father if he had made arrangements to see a "specialist." The father said, "Yes, I'm taking him to a cardiologist on Long Island." 

Next door to us—or, rather, on the other side of the curtain—I heard a doctor say, "How old are you? 101! Wow, 101! Let's get those pants off and take a look." 

And there was more, but it has been a long day, and I worry it could be a long night, since Other still hasn't passed the damn boulder ...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Maternal wisdom

My mother has given me little advice over the course of my life, so the few words she has offered have a kind of written-in-stone endurance. The other day I was groping among the snarled spools in my sewing-machine drawer for the right color to hem a skirt, and I knew with absolute clarity what it should be—"Always go a shade darker than the fabric," quoth my mother—but I couldn't find the precise tint. So I gave up and threw the damn skirt away. Probably would have made my ass look too big anyway.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Home sweet abattoir

We are among the luckiest of the lucky New Yorkers. We have outdoor space—a thrilling 400 square feet of deck, right outside our living-room window through a pair of French doors. We've created a little miracle of a garden there. The syrupy fragrance of petunias and sweet pepper masks the stale beer-and-ashtray odor from the bar next door. But there is trouble in paradise. When we got our cats, we decided it would be cruel—and way too difficult—to keep them indoors. We knew there were risks. Our inherited cat, Josephine, once lunged for a pair of cockatiels ingeniously caged in a window frame across the airwell and plunged into a deep bed of pigeon shit three floors below—and survived (she died several years later at the age of 17). But mostly it seemed to give her pleasures—the ability to sniff the wind, sunbathe, bite leaves—that few city cats get. So when we got Ivy six years ago, we had no qualms about allowing her full access. And she didn't abuse the privilege (she's a little "slow"). Giving the same air rights to Iggy when we adopted him three years later seemed a no-brainer. And at first when he was just a frisky kitten, all went well. Then, about a year ago, he set out on a killing spree. Now every day or two we hear weird flump-flump noises under the couch or behind a curtain, and we know it's a half-dead pigeon in its last throes. Or we hear nothing, but some uncanny intuition tells us to look under the couch or under my desk, where we see piles of feathers and the most poignant inedibles—flightless wings, say. Occasionally we see a drop—no more—of blood. We don't see him actually eat these creatures, so we can't figure out how he does it with so little spillage of fluids—or, ick, maybe there is spillage, and he licks it up. Now, the occasional culling of the pigeon herd, I could see, but what we are witnessing now is ethnic cleansing of "rats with wings" (as Other's father used to call them). It's hard to confine a cat used to his freedom, but we're now trying to do just that. We keep the French doors shut whenever we leave for the day; we can rescue birds when we're at home. But he still finds things to kill—waterbugs, house centipedes, flies: Is there anything more macabre than a cat "with a buzz on"? Or one with little twiggy legs wriggling from his mouth? I don't like vermin, but I don't like hosting this unstoppable murder rampage either.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

In brief

What's the deal with toothbrushes these days? The ceramic, wall-mounted toothbrush holders that are standard equipment above the bathroom sinks in most New York City apartments haven't changed much in the 25 years I've lived here. But the handles of the toothbrushes in drugstores have ballooned for no good reason that I can discern. What used to be one of those happy matches of thing and storage that I took for granted is now one more source of frustration in cramped city living. No one I know has extra counter space to accommodate an extra vessel in their bathroom, so toothbrushes are laid across the holder (instead of being popped neatly into the holes), and that prone position makes them vulnerable to any careless gesture. A toothbrush that has been knocked into the thicket of hair and cat litter that carpets the corners of our bathroom or—worse—into the spat-tered bowl of the sink is not one I'm inclined to use again.

Why are toothbrush makers doing this to us? What is the logic of making something that doesn't fit? Is there something I'm missing? Doesn't this bother other people? Why aren't people talking about it? Why doesn't someone do something out it?

Saturday, July 19, 2008


People often tell me they don't know what to say to someone who has cancer, so they say peculiar things or have uncomfortable conversations in which the illness hovers but is not mentioned—or they avoid the person entirely. I know just what they mean. I suffer horribly from foot-in-mouth disease—and I've been the person who was avoided entirely (longtime colleagues who pretended not to recognize me in the elevator at work, friends who knew the situation and never called—you know who you are).

Yet there were many, many people who somehow said and did just the right thing when I was struggling through cancer treatment. Other was outstanding. Not only did he accompany me to all my early medical appointments (later, when they became more routine, he allowed friends to fill in for him) as assiduously as if they were his own but he also googled, brainstormed with friends at work, kept depressing statistics from me (10% survival rates for liver metastases, which briefly seemed my lot) while pressing promising studies on me, helped me make the critical decisions (lumpectomy? mastectomy? second opinion? third opinion? weekly Herceptin or larger doses every three weeks? reconstruction?). But most important, he lived with me every day, cooking huge wholesome soups on chemo day so I would have lots of fluids to flush out the poisons; hauling me to my feet and forcing me to take a walk on Day 4 postchemo when I felt like nuclear waste; pretending that sharing life with a bald, breastless, pasty-faced whining crone with mouth sores and chemo acne was just what he'd always wanted to do; and never faltering in his expressed conviction that I was going to be fine. He still thinks (or at least says) I'm beautiful—in the face of massive evidence to the contrary.

My kids C and J were good too. C asked me what she could do to help, and when I told her it would be great if she could get her school act together so I could focus on treatment, her GPA went from a C to an A (more or less) practically overnight. When my hair fell out, she told me I looked pretty good for a bald woman. And when my toe nails failed to grow back after being lost to chemo, she helped me buy manicure tools and then used them to scrape away the calluses and cuticles to unearth the missing nails, all the while insisting that, really, it wasn't that gross. Treasured words: "It would be disgusting if you were someone else, but you're my mom, so it's fine" (honey, that's precisely why it would be disgusting). J came over every two weeks to give me Neulasta shots. He knew how since he injects his cat with subcutaneous fluids (or something like that). He refrained from flinching at the prospect of inserting a needle into his mother's thigh. Both of them expressed a desire to go to chemo with me—and actually showed up when I arranged it.

Then there was AN, who went with me to virtually every doctor's appointment and procedure that Other couldn't make. She picked me up from my initial "surgical biopsy" (code name for a lumpectomy); helped me interview my radiation oncologist, taking verbatim notes; went with me to my breast surgeon to witness the removal of postmastectomy surgical drains (those mothers are a foot long!); distracted me with jaunts to the countryside; massaged unguents into my nail-deprived, cracked, neuropathy-numbed feet (some people say it with flowers, but AN uses her fingers)

HB, who sweated alongside me once or twice a week in weight-lifting and stair-climbing workouts, insisting that she was doing it for her own good and calling me to set it up when I didn't call her; giving me foot rubs (she and A should open a pleasure palace for foot-challenged women); making me strip down for full-body massages that dissipated that feeling of being "untouchable"; and forcing me to go skinny-dipping with her (just like a normal person!) the summer after my mastectomy

LG, the incredible human bulletin board who put me in touch with a friend who had had a nearly identical breast-cancer saga (right down to the same surgeon) several years earlier. L also generously offered to decipher my inscrutable insurance correspondence—and handed over filing boxes, folders, index cards and full instructions when I decided to go it alone

RK, who spent a full day shopping for headcoverings with me, and the other members of my women's group who listened to my whining week after week and kept coming back for more

SG, who spent lunch hours with me when I was in chemo

BC, who accompanied me to chemo and previewed books so I wouldn't stumble unawares on plot twists of death by cancer (such a cheap literary device—and they always get the medical details wrong, since they really don't care about the women they kill off that way, but don't get me going); and distracted me with movie dates

TES, who introduced me to live theater, enlisting me in a bargain-ticket organization, and shopped for lunch for me every Saturday (when I worked Saturdays) so I would be sure to eat something nutritious

BS, my no-b.s. yoga teacher who insisted I go to class even when I felt shy about my bald head (wigs don't stay on in inversions)—"Who cares what anyone thinks!"—and told me uplifting stories about her mother's 50-year survival from breast cancer

BDD, my boss, who told me to arrange my work schedule according to my treatment needs and not to worry about the job—and hired a stunt double to cover for me, even though I turned out not to need it

RR, who traveled 2,500 miles from California to spend a weekend with me to celebrate the end of treatment

DP, who motored down from Boston to take my mind off my troubles by turning me into a tourist in my own hometown

MK, a friend who had breast cancer—twice—and showed me by example that cancer could be survived and gave me great advice ("If you don't like how you look bald, stop looking in the mirror"), helped me pick out my wig, pulled strings to get me an appointment with my surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, and kept meeting me for lunch even though the conversation (on my part) was pretty obsessively and hypochondriacally one-track, consisting largely of my exhorting her to cull her memory for minutiae of the symptoms of her recurrence

JFG, aka "the cruise director," whom I met in the radiation chambers at NYU. Three steps ahead of me, she led me through radiation (giving me detailed written instructions on everything from burn creams to radiation bras) and has held my hand ever since through recurrent bouts of hypochondria

MBP, who sent me oatmeal-raisin cookies ("Cookies are the best medicine")

MLBDW, who screened books to steer me away from downbeat cancer messages—and mailed the good ones to me

My mom, who reassured me that breasts were a disposable embellishment—not worth worrying about if, say, you had to part with them

ES, my office roommate, who was there when many of the phone calls bearing bad news arrived and responded with sympathy and affection

GDB, who gave me zip-up shirts that enabled me to keep my shirt on when I got chemo infusions in the port in my chest

And zillions of other people who said hello, asked me how I was, told me I looked good, offered simple encouragement. It didn't take much to cheer me up. I was hungry for any exchange that just affirmed I was still among the living—an affirmation I needed after running into someone I knew in the elevator who refused to even say hello (what the fuck?).

Friday, July 18, 2008

Not for the squeamish ...

The other day at work I was startled to find an unflushed used tampon in the toilet of my usual stall. I always use the luxurious room-size stall for people in wheelchairs since there are no people in wheelchairs on my floor. I've come to think of it as mine, so I was surprised that someone had intruded in my territory.

But the bloody spectacle cheered me up: there is at least one good thing about getting older—no more periods. While most of the women around me at work are still wrestling every month with the miserable routine of rags, plugs, cramps, odors and spills, I'm as free as a 10-year-old. Indeed, being in menopause makes me feel younger rather than older.

I still remember my first menstrual period. I was 14, and although I had been informed of the facts of life and had been given a package of Kotex and had friends who had begun menstruating long ago (one in third grade!), I nonetheless panicked and thought I was dying. My mother (not the most sympathetic parent in any case by the time I'd reached my sullen teens) was out of town and our "babysitter" (my brothers were 9 and 17, so we were hardly babies) was a totally useless cranky old lady. Somehow I managed to stick the tails of a pad into the teeth of the belt (remember those precursors to the thong, crone friends?). But it never was easy. I had slippery lumps that slid off the pad, floods that ran through it and around it, and cramps that well prepared me for the horrors of childbirth. Until I lost my virginity, I couldn't wedge in a tampon (a doctor diagnosed an overgrown hymen and prescribed graduated cones to stretch the opening, but it sounded so painful—and weird—that I didn't do it). And even when I finally was able to use tampons (thank you, Joel), they didn't begin to sop the flow. I tried everything that came on the market, including sea sponges (they had to be boiled in vinegar after each use—how convenient is that? and does anyone really want to use those pots for cooking afterward?), little rubbery cups called Tassaways, which held a lot of fluid—until they caved in when you were least expecting it, dumping the full contents into your underpants and down your leg (I see there's a new, reusable version called Diva cups now, but my daughter C thinks they're "creepy") and Rely tampons (which were the only devices that really worked—until they were taken off the market following a rash of toxic-shock syndrome). I cannot count the number of "accidents" I endured and how many clothes I ruined. An additional, one-off humiliation took place when my older brother showed one of my used pads to a friend of his (he's a great brother now, but I still find it hard to forgive him that breach).

My mother didn't believe in mentstrual cramps (how can you not believe in menstrual cramps?), so my horrible pain usually resulted not in loving ministrations but in skepticism and scorn. Finally, in my senior year, the high school nurse called my father to have him pick me up and suggested he take me to the doctor, who prescribed Darvon. It didn't cut the pain, but sometimes it put me to sleep. And I achieved a certain popularity in college from dispensing it to people who were having bad acid trips—it supposedly brought you down gently (I wouldn't know since my acid trips were universally glorious). Warm baths helped a little, but it's not always convenient or appealing to take a, well, bloodbath. Port (fortified wine) helped, but I didn't like the taste then. And so it went for 15 years. Then I had my son J—and my cramps disappeared! The flooding continued till I stopped menstruating five years ago, but for the miracle of a cramp-free life I will always be grateful to my son.

Then there were the bear wars: when I was in my late teens and early twenties, newspaper stories began appearing with some regularity about menstruating women being attacked by bears. This was during my nature-girl period when I spent summers in the Colorado Rockies and Wyoming Grand Tetons. It never failed that a camping trip precipitated the onset of my period—even if I'd just finished one. This triggered crises of mess-management and pain control plus sleepless nights straining my ears for bear sounds.

So when I discovered the bloody waters left by my "secret sharer" a few days ago, I realized that although that there are women who mourn the loss of their "womanhood"—and I try to understand their grief—I am not one of them.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Next year the chador

Yesterday I went shopping for a summer skirt. All my old ones are ankle length and dowdy. But, alas, the ankle-length, dowdy tied-dyed rag I was wearing looked better on me than the dozen or so spandex knee-length numbers I tried on.

And here's the trial faced by women of a certain age: every year the prevailing fashion is to reveal more, while every year pride requires that a new body part be obscured. I'm slim (and my eyesight isn't that great), so I come late to this knowledge. But I've fully arrived now. First it was my dimpled bottom that had to be loosely and amply draped to conceal its texture. Then my thighs had to have 100% coverage—no more shorts. Then my knees, which bulge at the sides, could no longer be put on view. Since my mastectomies nearly two years ago, my chest has been a continual condundrum—a tug-of-war between comfort and vanity. Last year my daughter pointed out that my upper arms were—"sorry, Mom, you wouldn't want me to lie to you"—unsightly in their flabbiness. My back, with its keratoses and other barnacles of sun damage, has long been off-limits. Now even my calves have grown shapeless and lumpy. My feet, with their chemo-damaged nails and bulbous bunions, are disgusting. And my hair—it never really came back after chemo, and the few strands that did are gray—is an outright mortification. I can't bear to look into the mirror—or my bald future. I deal with these various deformities—except the latter—by brushing them under the rug, in a sense: I dress like a nun (or an Orthodox Jew, says my daughter).

Yet, strangely, even as the appearance of my poor old battered body grows daily more humiliating, I continue to increase in physical strength, stamina and flexibility. At 58 I'm able to hold yoga poses longer and move more deeply into them with greater precision than when I was far younger. I keep anticipating that I'll have to back off and settle for a thrill-less elder-yoga devoid of handstands and arm balances, but that's not happening—yet.

So, if current trends persist, I'll be doing yoga in a chador when I'm 90.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The animal years

Twenty-seven years ago my son was born, and I turned into an animal. Gradually I've returned to my human state, but I still remember the animal years, when my primal nature ruled.

He arrived two weeks early. I was in a theater lobby about to see March of the Falsettos, created by an old college friend, Bill Finn, when my water broke (10 years later, when I was pregnant with C, Bill's next extravaganza, Falsettoland, was making its debut, but I was afraid it would bring on premature labor, so I missed out on both plays). I didn't have enough money for a taxi, so I begged the guy at the ticket window to cash in my ticket. He stalled but eventually relented. The friend I was with asked me whether she should go with me or stay and see the show. I said, No, don't waste your ticket, go see the show. Incredibly, she did. Now if it were me, and there was a choice between seeing a baby being born and seeing a play ...

Since my water had broken, I knew I would be giving birth within the next 24 hours. Once the membrane is ruptured, bacteria can enter the womb, so if labor doesn't progress, the doctors take over. At the Maternity Center, my midwife, Gene Cranch, laughed when she saw that I had brought baby undershirts to embroider. "You won't be doing much of that," she said, the first clue that labor might not be a walk in the park. In my prenatal classes, the trope had been that it was "hard work—that's why they call it labor." In fact, labor was more like death throes. It felt as if my body were being blown apart in slow motion, with these weird trancelike moments between explosions. After 12 hours of excruciating contractions, I finally got the urge to push. I had been told it would feel a little like having a bowel movement. In fact, it felt exactly like having a bowel movement, and I tried to hold back, not wanting to "poughkeepsie" in public. Just as Gene started to cut an episiotomy, I was hit by an irresistible urge, and little J—feeling just like a huge turd!—blasted halfway across the birthing table. He was about the size of a large Cornish game hen, and his hair was crimped in tiny finger waves. At first I was stunned and maybe a little disappointed that he seemed to have my curls instead of Other's glossy black hair. Once the afterbirth came out (it was filled with multicolored tubes that looked like electrical wiring), my entire escutcheon had to be stitched back together. Other was asked if he'd like to cut the cord. He turned a little green but did the deed. And a few hours later, we were sent home to our seventh-floor walkup on Thompson Street with this tiny baby we didn't have a clue how to care for.

It didn't take long to learn. I couldn't bear to let anyone hold my beautiful golden boy (turned out the gilt was jaundice and he had to be hospitalized and placed under "bili" lights for a few days to help his immature liver metabolize bilirubin), and when my milk came in, the hunger to hold him intensified. When I nursed him, it felt as if the fluids in my body were rivers rushing to the sea. It was totally bizarre—in a good way—that he could find sustenance by sucking on my body.

Some people get postpartum depression. I got postpartum mania. I couldn't sleep. I stayed up at night cutting up my old T shirts to make baby wash cloths. I taught myself how to use an Afghan hook to crochet him a little rainbow jacket. I wept admiring the calligraphic whorl of his navel, the little rosebud of his penis. In short, I fell in love. And for 10 years, until the arrival of his little sister, we were passionately in love (somewhat to the alienation of Other).

It saddens me a little to look back. I know that at the age of 27, he has long forgotten those early ecstatic years. He doesn't remember the hours we spent lying together on the daybed reading Dianne Wynne Jones or the treks we took all over lower Manhattan looking for fans (he had an autistic obsession with gyres) or the car trips to amusement parks or the art projects or the card games or the ... He seems to remember mostly being sidelined by his (spoiled) little sister. It's as though the love affair never happened. I still love him, but it's no longer reciprocal. I know that's normal. He's not supposed to love me that way anymore. He's supposed to find adult love elsewhere. And he has—a couple of times. And I'm glad. I want him to be happy. But I also feel just a tiny bit jilted. (Was that how he felt when his sister was born?) He's a good, dutiful son. But I'll never be able to recapture the wonderful wildness of the early years. He's just not that into me. He's moved on.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Five days on Bustins

Foxes in the woodlot, fairy houses in the forest, fireflies flickering among the roadside shrubbery, furious itches from the angelic-looking but devilish white-mantled brown-tailed moths, sunsets, sunrises, a few rounds of Spite & Malice with a couple of island matriarchs—in short, a week like any other on Bustins Island. Not perfect—my back went out the night before I left—but rich. Bustins is like a crossword puzzle that I keep scratching away at: figuring out who's related to whom (and just about everyone is related to everyone else) and how, patching together the island history, filling in the holes with gossip and hearsay. This year the island was still buzzing about the fire that took one of the cottages down to ash in about an hour last year. A wedding party had been staying there, and the bride and groom lost everything. The next day, relatives sifting through the rubble discovered the couple's wedding bands, a miracle recorded in the local newspaper:

So, for one couple the fire added a spark of drama to their love story. But for another, the fire felled the charred timbers of a failing marriage. According to one account, J, who was on the mainland the night of the fire, returned to the island to make sure his wife T was safe. He discovered her not at home but in the bed of D. T and D have now fled, leaving a good deal of whispering in their wake. I'll miss T, a warm and friendly soul ...

What surprises me is not that people know everyone else's business on an island with just 100 or so resident families but that not everyone knows everyone else. There are times when a bit of head-scratching and brain-storming are required when an old codger spins a yarn: "You remember him. He's the one who had the cottage on Rum Row before he bought the ..."

Another thing—not so surprising—is that you begin to notice that although people talk about the island as though it were a utopian community, held together by love and happy memories, in fact there is deep and hurtful strife at every turn of the road. So there's a weird mismatch between the walk and the talk. But for us, still considered newbies after 11 years of renting, the island is a delight. Each year I buy another placemat or two, hand-drawn maps of the cottages with dates and owners' names, in hopes of mastering the history and the lore during the winter months away. And each year I go back for more.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Ten passions—ten? really?

My friend R has just returned from a five-day retreat focusing on the theme of happiness: remembering what you are passionate about and trying to find ways to make that a priority in your life. She seems, well, happy. So I am intrigued. But it's hard for me to remember lost passions, let alone make them a priority, because I don't think I have ever had any.

The retreaters made a list of 10 things they loved doing and then looked to see if the one at the top of the list was truly No. 1 or whether there was something they'd left off the list that should be on it.

I am cowed by the notion of coming up with even, say, five passions, let alone 10, and the passions that come readily to mind—my children, my yoga—I dwell so intensely on already that I think it would be unwise to make them more of a priority. My children would rebel. My yoga could probably handle it.

There are things I enjoy: eating, shopping, crossword puzzles, movies, reading, socializing, writing. And then there are my addictions: and other cancer-related blogs. No passions. Am I allowing myself to be derailed by a question of semantics? I don't think so.

My friend H and I spent Fourth of July together watching the fireworks and talking about our lives. H's marriage broke up after she discovered that her husband had been leading a double life, living part time with another woman and colluding with their mutual friends, including her best friend, to keep it a secret from her. Her beautiful sons are not doing well—one has dropped out of college and seems to be dealing drugs, and the other, after a year of chronic truancy, is in a private residential high school for troubled kids. Through it all, H has tried to live in accord with her values while at the same time being alert and tough enough to avoid being taken advantage of by her kids or her ex. On the Fourth, she said matter-of-factly, "I think I'm losing the will to live." She meant not that she was on the verge of taking her life (unless I misunderstood her) but that her attachment to her life was diminishing. And I feel something of the same phenomenon. It's not that I'm depressed. I just feel a certain lack of, well, passion. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing. Though it doesn't feel like a particularly good thing either. It's just a new life stage.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Uncooperative co-op

So I live with my Significant Other and our daughter in a small co-op in the NoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. Each floor of our building is occupied by a different family, each of whom pays maintenance of $1,250 to a nonresident building manager who takes care of our bills and oversees our taxes. Only it turns out that lately only two of the five co-op members have been paying their maintenance. Two families are four months in arrears, and the third is two months behind. That's $12,500 of unpaid maintenance; our bank balance is reduced to a mere $2,000—not enough to cover expenses. Other and I were horrified that the delinquency was so widespread—more than half the co-op members! But when I spoke to one of the delinquent members, he seemed quite unconcerned—and said it made him feel better that he was among the majority. Something's wrong here ...