Thursday, December 31, 2009

My name is Mia, and ...

It is New Year's Eve, and all around the city, people are drinking. Other and I decided to stay home this year. Actually, I've been sitting out the drinking for more than four years now. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I scrutinized my life and found little to change. I had eaten food, mostly plants, not too much. I had not only exercised but practiced yoga—regularly. I was not too fat, not too thin.

But I drank too little water and too much alcohol. At 5 o'clock every night—and I started watching the clock in midafternoon—I had the first of two stiff drinks. I knew that women were supposed to limit themselves to a single drink, but I'm 5 ft. 10, and I figured that meant that like a man's, my limit was two drinks. And mostly I kept to two drinks, but the drinks got bigger—and stronger—as I got older. It was my reward at the end of the day, and there was rarely a day when I went without. I remember the feeling of the alcohol as it burst into my bloodstream. It was like heroin. It made my knees go weak. I passed most evenings in a mild stupor. I wasn't down-and-out drunk, but I wasn't sober either.

When I told Other I thought I should cut back, he guffawed. But I know I had a problem. I stopped drinking when I got my diagnosis. It was surprisingly easy. And having a brain that actually functions after 5 is a relief. I'm not that ambitious about accomplishing much at night, but it's nice to know that if I wanted to I could. Mostly I fill my evenings with small pleasures. I can read—and even write in this blog if I've a mind to.

Cancer may mean that I don't live my full lifespan in years, but in a funny way, it has given me a few more hours in every day.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Yoga is the hokey pokey for adults

When I was in elementary school and when I volunteered in my children's elementary schools, it was the custom for teachers to get the kids up and moving not just at recess but periodically throughout the day—to wring out the wriggles that prevented them from concentrating. Remember the hokey pokey? One function of yoga is to do the same for adults—to twist and squeeze-and-release and stretch away the tension that afflicts us all. A back injury has once again sidelined me from daily practice, and I feel as squirmy as an eight-year-old who's been sitting at her desk too long.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Who says the age of newspapers is over?

Every so often, my brother, who lives in rural California, sends me a copy of a local newspaper. The cover story of the Dec. 3, 2009, Point Reyes Light, which flags itself as "Marin's Pulitzer Prize-Winning Newspaper," was a nude protest—by a group called Baring Witness—against the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. The gist: a dozen activists arranged their naked bodies in a peace sign in Love Field. Arresting as that story was, it is the "Sheriff's Calls" column that I found most haunting. Verbatim excerpts:

Monday, November 23

BOLINAS: At 8:31 a.m. a dark-colored kayak drifted, empty and upright, off Brighton Beach.

POINT REYES STATION: At 9:05 a.m. a large black dog ran north along Highway One.

NICASIO: At 9:56 a.m. an 85-year-old woman had a stroke.

SAMUEL P. TAYLOR: At 10:23 a.m. the remains of a horse, complete with its saddle, were found in the park.

CHILENO VALLEY: At 11:15 a.m. a 70-year-old woman was found dead inside her car on a turnout.

MUIR WOODS: At 12:15 p.m. deputies were asked to stand by while a homeowner gave her housepainters their final check.

STINSON BEACH: At 10 p.m. deputies encountered people cooking marshmallows in a campfire on the beach.

Tuesday, November 24

STINSON BEACH: At 12:29 p.m. a bearded man in a wheelchair was seen wheeling backwards down hill, through blind curves, toward town.

Wednesday, November 25,

HICKS VALLEY: At 6:19 a.m. two black and white cows were walking down the road.

Thursday, November 26

FOREST KNOLLS: At 1:56 p.m. a 56-year-old had a seizure.

HICKS VALLEY: At 3:25 a.m. a cow was seen walking through the fog.

FOREST KNOLLS: At 5:11 a.m. broken toys were moved from the road onto the shoulder.

FOREST KNOLLS: At 7:37 a.m. a 56-year-old woman reported that her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend had pushed pills down her throat while she was asleep. Deputies stood by while the woman told her daughter to move out.

MUIR BEACH: At 1:58 p.m. a man reported that a gray-haired man driving a red Subaru had approached his ten-year-old son, asking for water.

STINSON BEACH: At 8:52 p.m. an 85-year-old man was suddenly unable to talk.

Friday, November 27

BOLINAS: At 2:51 a.m. deputies got a 911 call but heard only wind in the background.

Saturday, November 28

BOLINAS: At 7:53 a.m. a 73-year-old man reported that he had been throwing up all night.

WOODACRE: At 11:53 a.m. a person trying to dial 916 instead dialed 911.

BOLINAS: At 3:29 p.m. a large man who was yelling and throwing things at customers exiting the store was arrested and released.

POINT REYES STATION: At 5:33 p.m. a 12-year-old girl fell off a trampoline.

Sunday, November 29

FOREST KNOLLS: At 12:57 a.m. deputies got a call with nothing on the other end except what sounded like a woman gasping for air.


I totally get why this paper won the Pulitzer Prize.

The peace of wild things

A friend of my parents sent me this lovely poem for Christmas:

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

- Wendell Berry

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The calculus of misery

I've been feeling pretty sorry for myself: I've had a kidney infection, Other has had food poisoning, daughter C suffered a disaster that entailed parental involvement, my mother-in-law is in the hospital with pancreatitis—all in one week. It felt like my family was getting more than its share of troubles and that some other family was getting off scot free. And it was pissing me off.

Then my friend A e-mailed me that her friend J had been fighting bedbugs for the past six weeks—and it cheered me right up! I do believe I'd rather have all my troubles than bedbugs. Now I feel I owe J one. And I'm feeling life is pretty, pretty, pretty good after all.

Friday, December 18, 2009

I've got a thing for guys named David

For me, telling a joke is like driving a car: I always get lost along the way. So I have an incompetent's appreciation for good comicry (and, of course, for expertise behind the wheel). And because laughter has bought me carefree moments in troubled times, I feel a debt of gratitude to the funny people on the screens and title pages of my life. But all too often, humorists get lazy, relying on insults and sexuendo for laughs. I don't know why that stuff tickles other people. It leaves me cold. (On the other hand, a really good fart joke squeezes the bahookie bubbles out of me every time.)

My onscreen favorite is, of course, Larry David, who spelunks the bat caves of human nature to shine a headlamp on the dank guano heaps that are our most foul faults.

But there is something special about portable laughs, and for those you need a book—and for that you need another David, David Sedaris. Many humorists spin a good yarn, but if they drop a stitch, they tend not to pull out the row and reknit it. They're not perfectionists. And they make me feel a little tense, as if the whole thing may come unraveled. The remarkable thing about Sedaris is that not only is he charming and funny but he is also a wonderful craftsman. His stories have flawlessly formed arcs. He always finds the right word, never settles for close enough. And while his grammar is not perfect, it's so good that you notice when he gets it wrong. Yet with all that care and burnish, his writing never feels forced or precious. You can ride along without a care and leave the driving to him. May I recommend When You Are Engulfed by Flames?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What has big ears and a long nose?

A recent post by a sister blogger raised the question of what topics are appropriate for blogging. Is it important to steer clear of controversial subjects that might offend readers? Is it important to provide an upbeat message? To avoid negativity and whining? Frankly, these are questions that hadn't really occurred to me. My primary concern is achieving a reasonable level of truthfulness while protecting my own privacy and that of my friends and family members. And I'm finding that quite difficult these days. Some days I feel as if I'm blogging about everything but the elephant in the room. Actually, there are several elephants at home and at work. They are turning my life into a zoo! I wish I could send them back to their native lands, but they seem to have settled in for the long haul.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Other threw down the gauntlet yesterday. After I announced that I had virtuously taken the SuperShuttle to and from the airport in San Francisco at $20 a pop (including tip), saving $40 each way from what it would have cost to take a taxi (about $60, including tip), Other decided to take the plane to the train on his return from Florida for $7.50, saving $52.50. Wow! I don't know if I can beat that, except by walking.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Home aides and heroines

I have huge admiration for the underdogs of America. The underdogs I've met include such unsung towers of strength as women who undergo breast-cancer surgery and chemotherapy and radiation at filthy substandard public hospitals and struggle to feed their kids and fund their treatment on public assistance when they'd just like to lie down and die, illegal immigrants who for pittances clean the homes of the wealthy who never consider that when they get their raises and end-of-year bonuses they might consider providing the same to their household help—and the Philippina home aides who uncomplainingly care for my parents.

I simply do not know how they do it. My parents' home aides, L and R, surely do not consider themselves underdogs, for one thing. R has diabetes and and scrambled innards from a busboard injury a couple years ago, yet five mornings a week at dawn she doggedly (underdoggedly!) trudges up the steep hill to my parents' house, sweetly requests their breakfast preferences and patiently waits as they bicker over whose choice it is, then whips up waffles or eggs or whatever they decide on. While the 'rents are eating, she jumps into lunch and dinner prep, bedmaking, laundry, stopping only to bring them their coffee, the salt, whatever they desire. She raised five kids on her own, ran a family farm and started a catering service back in the Philippines. Here, she takes pride in the loving care she gives the elderly. L, the relief aide, who comes just two days a week (her two days off from providing 24-hour care for a 96-year-old with Alzheimer's), is not much of a cook, but she's a cleaner and a charmer. She used to be a dental assistant before she "retired," and clearly knows how to touch others in a loving, caring way. My mother nearly swoons in anticipation of having L give her a shower.

I love my parents and appreciate their sterling qualities and the uprightness with which they have conducted their lives, but after two weeks of serving them, I feel desperation. That may be in part because they're my parents and not my clients, but it's also because I simply do not have the strength of character possessed by their home aides. I cannot wait on other people, cannot put their needs first, cannot slow my own pace to accommodate theirs. Thank god the home aides can! I worship their kindness and fortitude and pray that they stay on.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

I want to play

When I was in San Francisco, I visited a young friend who had moved there from New York. And she introduced me to a wonderful writing game called collaborative fiction. It's a great sprawling gazillion-dimensional world, where a mediator designs a basic plot, and then a dozen players put it into action, creating characters, writing scripts and action sequences, making it all happen. It can take days—or years. It's like the Sims, only with words—lots and lots of them, and well written—in addition to avatars.

For the first few days after she showed me how it worked, I was hungry to play it too—either join her game (she could use me for verisimilitude, since her current game is populated exclusively by 20-somethings!) or enlist writer friends and set up my own game. I've finally resigned myself to the fact that this is yet one more thing that's for the kids, not for me.

Kids have all the fun, it sometimes seems: texting, Twittering, iPhoning, iChatting—and now this. I mean, I could do all these things too, but who would I do them with? When I told my friend B that I secretly craved an iPhone, she looked at me as if I had lost my mind. "What would you do with it?" she asked. Everything! I thought.


I knew AW for only a brief time. We shared a shift as volunteers on a breast-cancer hotline until a few weeks ago, when her metastatic disease flared up and she moved away to be closer to one of her adult children. A few days ago, I tried to call her and couldn't reach her. Yesterday I learned she had died at the age of 86, many years after her initial diagnosis. Even in the short time I knew her—less than a year—AW taught me some valuable lessons by example:

1. Carry on with your commitments, no matter what, even if your legs are so swollen and inflamed with lymphedema you can barely shuffle in your walker, because "what am I going to do, sit around at home and feel sorry for myself?"

2. Read like a madwoman. Borrow books. Lend books.

3. No matter how often people inquire about your obvious discomfort, change the subject to ... fiction. Disease is boring. Fiction is interesting. "I just finished this. Want to read it?"

4. Take the lead in staying in touch with old friends. Call them, sympathize with them about their troubles. Do not dwell on yours.

5. Reach out to the newbies. Resist feeling threatened by their (relative) youth and their, say, computer skills. Take advantage of those skills. Let them log your calls for you. And let them listen in on your calls and learn life lessons from you.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The check is in the mail—and the hell with it

Although my mom has lost much of her eye for detail—the fine points of writing out big numbers on a check, say—she retains a good sense of the big picture. When I worried aloud about whether the home-aide agency would accept a check where the figure and the spelled-out number didn't match, she was nonchalant. "They need me more than I need them," she said. And she's right.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Mad with power

My kids have never listened to me. My warnings and wheedlings have fallen on deaf ears. I've never been good at carrying through on threats of punishment, so, really, they had little to fear in defying my wishes. I once (once!) spanked my daughter, and I was the one who ended up in tears.

But there is one arena in which I hold them hostage: my ability to embarrass them in front of their friends. I can invoke terror simply by withholding a promise to "be nice." I'm always nice. Really. But they're never sure I won't go rogue and utter the one sentence that will prove excruciating to them. Actually, there are lots of sentences that can make them writhe, and therein lies the problem. I have so many to choose from! And then there are my clothes: my frumpy shoes, my penchant for hippie splendor and, paradoxically, my mousey drabness.

Oh, and their father! He's less embarrassing to look at. But his sexplicit language makes us all squirm. What a perv!

Now this ability to inflict mortification is only occasional, since most of their friends are already known to us and familiar to our peculiar ways. So it's only when a new friend arrives on the scene that I come into my full power. There is an opportunity on the horizon. I am a genuinely well-meaning person, so I'd like to use this power for good. But how?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Curb for cancer

Everyone's got a gratitude list this time of year. And here's mine: Curb Your Enthusiasm. Curb got me through chemo four years ago, and I'm still chortling—though a little sadly after watching Episode 10 of Season 7. I've got the hiatus to get through before I can roar afresh. Pretty, pretty, pretty good.

Another wild carousel ride

My Yahoo! horoscope yesterday said I was due for a good time and could look forward to an evening with loved ones playing Pictionary. I believed it. After all, I was heading home to my "real" family. I got up at 3:30 a.m. in San Francisco with visions of happy times ahead. I kissed the 'rents goodbye and hauled my big-ass suitcase to the curb. It was filled with empanadas that had been prepared a few at a time by the endeavorous Philippina home aide throughout the previous two weeks and frozen to survive the flight.

The first leg, to Dulles, was smooth. The second, to JFK, was bumpy. The final stop, at the baggage carousel, was a no show.

What the fuck! This is the second time in two trips that the same damn suitcase has been lost. But I know the drill. I went to the office, made a fuss, filled out the forms, got a promise it would be delivered this morning before noon and headed home to if not Pictionary—or Scattergories, our favored game—lots of hugs and, yes, happiness. Finally got to sleep at midnight—and my cell phone went off at 2:30 a.m. I was sure it was a heart attack or a seizure on the West Coast, but no! It was the misguided delivery service bringing my bag to me at 2:30 in the fucking morning. Call me ungrateful, but I wonder, In what universe is it an act of responsibility to deliver your lost suitcase at 2:30 a.m.?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

An apology for being so mean

That last post seems so mean, and I don't feel mean at all. What I feel is anguish and fear. Here are two formerly competent people, proud of their accomplishments, respected in their professions. They were good democrats in the upper- and lower-case sense of the word. They lived their beliefs, fulfilled their own potential and worked to help others do the same. They led blameless, worthy lives. Yet their pleasures in old age are few and their troubles many. I'm scared of what will happen to them as they spiral on down, and I'm scared of what will happen to me as I try to keep them company on the descent, and I'm scared that I will end up in their shoes 20 years from now.

And in order to have Thanksgiving with the family I was born into, I'm missing Thanksgiving with the family I chose, and I feel a little sorry for myself. It was my decision. And I'd do it again. But they live in San Francisco, and I live in New York, and when I am in their world, I am absent from my own. After nearly two weeks' absence, my own life, the one back in New York, seems like a dream, distant, perhaps imagined, and I am desperate to rush back and grab it before it vanishes.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Elderville revisited

Oh my god, these old people! These two old geezers are more difficult to organize than 30 ADHD kindergartners on Redbull. First they lose their pencil, then they lose the paper they were working on, then they forget what it was they were doing in the first place. That's if they don't get into a fight along the way. And when these two oldies start to fight, they take out the nukes! The one with the damaged brain is a shrewd tease, and the one with the weak heart bellows and stomps around in a fury. There's a stroke and a heart attack hanging on every salvo.

As the end of my stay in Elderville draws near, I taste the familiar anxiety. Oh, please, I beg the god I don't believe in, please don't let anything happen to prolong my visit. Just keep them healthy until I'm in the air. I'll do anything. Just don't make me live their life a moment longer. It's a nightmare: the unbalanced checkbook about to topple from a Jenga of errors, the three-week-old leftovers, the 50-year-old resentments, the things that are remembered, the things that are forgotten. Oh, the irritation! Oh, the pain! They think they are alive, but they are in hell.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Reverso world

Gosh, these are strange days. My mom writes a check for "seventy-ten" dollars instead of "seven hundred and ten" dollars and refuses to rewrite it. "I'm just going to send it, and that's that!" she says. What should I have done? I gave up. She's bigger than I am, even though she's about a foot shorter now. I even brought it down to the mailbox for her.

At work, everyone my age (50s and 60s) has been forced out in the layoffs—except me. Rumor has it that I've been spared by the cancer card. I'm surprised I can still play it. I thought it had expired.

My dad was a failure—in a good way

Like many people, my dad has a lot of set pieces—little speeches he rolls out from time to time that are polished by repetition. They are not at all conversational. They're more like mini-performances. They pretty much beg for applause. And you do feel like clapping when he's done.

He's a retired engineer, and in addition to encouraging every single human being from the age of birth to dotage to go to Caltech (cheapest engineering school in the country according to the latest Kiplinger's!), he likes to talk about how engineering is all about failure. Like buzzards, engineers flock to a disaster—a flood, an earthquake, a building collapse—because engineering is essentially a war against the forces of nature—wind, water, fire, earth movement—and the only way to win the war, or at least your next battle, is to be there for the post-mortems.

That mini-lecture inevitably leads to an instruction for my dad's memorial. He says he wants to have a basket and a pad of paper at his service, with a sign reading "Second Opinions." His friends (and enemies) can write down his failures and place them in the basket, and they will be read aloud.

So what are his failures? Well, for starters, he flunked out of Lehigh his sophomore year. That led him to enlist in the army. In the army, he was repeatedly assigned KP duty as punishment for going AWOL to search for gold in the desert (another failure: he never found any). In fact, his penchant for disappearing resulted in a demotion to private a week after he was promoted to corporal. Though he never again made it beyond PFC, he ended up being a pretty good cook. In Europe, when ordered to cover his officer while the lieutenant went ahead to scout out the territory, a tiny fellow in a German uniform rose up through a trapdoor between my dad and the lieutenant, and my dad fired—but failed to kill the enemy soldier, who turned out to be a 14-year-old kid. Later, my dad failed the state structural-engineering test on his first try. Then the roof of a bowling alley he'd designed collapsed because of diseased timber. Then he was defeated in his run for the state senate on a fair-housing platform. And so forth.

If nothing else, his failures have a zestier flavor than his successes: the endless drone of accomplishments, military medals, design awards, prizes that somehow seem meaningless and even dehumanizing in the face of death. No?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Zip it

Note to self: Shut your big fat mouth. Has there ever been a moment when it was better to blurt than to keep it in the vault? Ever? No. Not in the flurry of rumormongering over layoffs at work, not in the stress of dealing with cranky old parents, not in the crises over daughter C's various escapades. I have never, ever felt better after betraying a friend's confidences, letting off steam or "sharing" with other parents. Never happened. Not once. Yet the temptation continues. As do the lapses.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Here's to long friendships

Is there anything nicer than the pleasure of an afternoon spent luxuriating in an uncomplicated friendship? I spent several hours yesterday with someone I've known since my age was a single digit. There is not much we haven't discussed (I think). Thanks, R, it was lovely.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Will I be deleted? Or will I be stetted?

It is layoff season again in publishing, and I am really squirming this time. If I get guillotined in the rush to cut "head count," as they call it, I will be poor and have to marry Other just to get his health insurance. If I survive, I will lose my mind because our departments are merging, and he will be my boss.

When we first moved to New York, we had no money, lived in a 350-sq.-ft, seventh-floor walkup in a tenement in the honky-tonk section of the Village and survived on air. I had three tiny shelves for my entire wardrobe, and they were mostly empty. I think I owned a pair of jeans, a handful of T-shirts and half-a-dozen undies. Never have been into socks or bras. We borrowed books from the library and went to free events around town, walked everywhere, ate rice and beans, and partied with our equally threadbare friends. Part of me longs to return to the simplicity of that hippie bliss. But I know I can't. I need health insurance and money for the part the insurance doesn't cover. I've got to pay C's tuition. I'm squeamish about borrowed things, including books. And I don't want to be dependent on my kids in my dotage.

So I'm pathetically, abjectly hoping I still have a job when I get back from my trip to SF, and ever so slightly wistful for a world without work.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

No exit

One thing about having cancer is that you quickly come to know many other people with cancer, and inevitably one or another suffers a recurrence, so even when you're back on your feet yourself, you still don't get to leave cancerworld, no matter how hard you grope for the exit. And alas, one of my dearest friends has had a new diagnosis and is in the hospital for yet another surgery before embarking on her third regimen of chemotherapy in just 10 years.

The weird thing is, awful as this new diagnosis is, I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to spend long, languid afternoons with her as she recuperates in the hospital. She sent her husband off upstate to see their daughter in a play at college, so I've spent the weekend keeping her company at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, shuffling around the corridors with her and her IV pole and reminiscing about our pasts, shared and separate. Somehow, in the overheated air and plumply upholstered comfort of the patient lounge, we close our eyes to the miseries that lie ahead for her (chemo in the veins and in the abdomen, losing her beautiful hair yet again) and loll in the spacious present.

Just four years ago, I couldn't have put aside my anxiety about the future, but I've become inured to impending doom, or maybe just more determined to take pleasure when and where I can, or maybe it's a special form of chemo brain that has blocked off the lobe that's able to look ahead with any clarity. Whatever it is, I'm glad I had it for today.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Money, money, money

When a person of my acquaintance began throwing great wads of cash at designer accessories and speaking unironically about how retail therapy made her feel good, I was quite alarmed. In fact, I have been hysterical at times, worrying about her inability to hold on to money, her need for glamorous things, what it implied about her values and her mental health. I thought of extravagance as a special problem, unique to her, or perhaps peculiar to her generation.

So I felt the relief of recognition when I read in Middlemarch, which was first published in the 1870s, about the spendthrift Fred Vincy, who on his way to settle his obligations borrows and barters and digs himself deeper into debt.

Sadly, such characters rarely prosper in their passage through the pages, and their inability to handle their finances usually betokens fatal weakness.

But that's in literature. In life, anything is possible, no?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Fruitful obsession

Last night in my continuing effort to get more than four hours of sleep, I tried something new. Usually I push my brain from thought to thought, searching for something soothing to focus on. But since just about everything in my life is worrisome these days—job uncertainty, loved ones with life-threatening illnesses, an adolescent daughter who presents endless absorbing dilemmas—I rarely find a good "resting spot."

I know that I have a kind of worry ceiling. That is, although I worry about many, many things, there is a limit to how much I can worry about any given one. So, cancer, terrifying as it is, takes me only a few steps further into anxiety than, say, my daughter's occasional smoking. Nonetheless, I am capable of distinguishing—and adjusting my anxiety levels to some degree—between serious troubles and life's mere imperfections.

In the wee hours of last night I began to worry about the pears in the fruit bowl: They're getting a little overripe. Will anyone remember to eat them before they spoil? Aha! Even I could tell that this was a trivial concern. Rather than move on to a worthier anxiety, I decided to luxuriate in this petty one. Fruit flies! Brown spots! Liquification! Waste! I embraced them all—and slept eight hours.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


I'm helping a young woman from a Chinese-speaking family edit her college-application essay this afternoon, and I think I've come up with a metaphor for her to use in pruning out the excess: See an essay as a jigsaw puzzle, with a place for each piece that's in the picture. Any piece that doesn't complete the picture has to be jettisoned. Any piece that doesn't notch with its neighbors must be moved to the spot where it fits perfectly. Sort of works, though jigsaw puzzles generally don't come with extraneous pieces—and essays do.

And as long as I'm on the subject of metaphors, I keep thinking of yoga as a kind of origami for the body—folding, creasing, flattening, involuting, convoluting, everting, inverting, pronating, supinating.

I've fallen in love with my practice again—obviously—even though I had a "bad" substitute teacher today who chided students for not understanding her sloppy instructions. Note to self (and sub): If your student isn't getting it, perhaps you need to figure out what YOU are doing wrong as a teacher. Maybe that's a metaphor for communication in general.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Pop quiz

"NED" means no evidence of disease, and women speak of "dancing with NED." A "pCR" is a pathologically complete response. The "new normal" refers to the adjustment to living with a cancer diagnosis—and whatever fallout you suffer from treatment—forever. "Foobies" means fake boobs. "Exchange City" is getting expandable saline implants exchanged for permanent silicon or saline implants. "Rads" are radiation treatments. "Mets" are metastatic deposits. And the glossary goes on and on.

You enter a new world when you have breast cancer, and you must learn the vocabulary that identifies the landmarks. Despite all the hospital dramas I've watched in my 50+ years of television, the medical terminology—and the concepts behind it—was overwhelming. The slang, like any jargon that presumes membership in a secret club, was irritating. I'm in the club, but it's a club that I didn't choose to join, one with members I didn't hand-select, and I just hate the secret handshakes, even as I perform them myself.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The coven

"REAL WITCHES dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and they work in ORDINARY JOBS ... '[But] a REAL WITCH is always bald ... bald as a boiled egg ... A REAL WITCH always wears a wig to hide her baldness. She wears a first-class wig. And it is almost impossible to tell a really first-class wig from ordinary hair unless you give it a pull to see if it comes off ... Mind you, these wigs do cause a rather serious problem for witches. They make the scalp itch most terribly. You see, when an actress wears a wig, or if you or I were to wear a wig, we would be putting it on over our own hair, but a witch has to put it straight on to her naked scalp. And the underneath of a wig is always very rough and scratchy. It sets up a frightful itch on the bald skin ...'" According to The Witches, by Roald Dahl, witches constantly sneak their hands underneath their wigs to scratch their itchy scalps. The rims of their nostrils are pink and curvy, and they have a distorted sense of smell. They have deformed feet, which they hide in pretty shoes ...

The other evening, I was at a lecture for women with metastatic breast cancer, and midway through, I realized that at least half the women around me in the audience were probably wearing wigs, since most women with metastatic disease are on chemo for life; and they had pink nostrils, since chemo causes the nasal passages to shed their cilia-like hair and become irritated; and they probably had distorted sense of smell and taste (perhaps causing little boys to smell like dog droppings), since chemo does that; and they probably lacked toe-nails, since chemo loosens nails; and ...

But witches created by modern medicine also have special powers. And there was a whiff of that in the auditorium as well—ferocious determination to survive, fierce intelligence and curiosity, a no-bullshit sensibility.

So, scary and sad as it was to be in a coven, it was thrilling too.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Stupid 'puter pricks

Oh, dear, I did that stupid thing where you see an e-mail and click on it even as you know you shouldn't, and the spiders and vipers come pouring out of Pandora's box—warnings of viruses and identity theft and file destruction. The message was addressed to me from claiming I had not paid for an item I had won on eBay and threatening me with negative feedback. I knew that I hadn't bid on anything on eBay, and I knew that even if I had, a bona-fide seller would contact me through eBay and not directly. The subject line was accusatory, and it raised my defensive hackles. And even though every neuron in my brain screamed, "No!," my finger said, "Yes." And now I'm waiting to find out whether my iTouch will live up to Apple's reputation for fortification against such attacks or whether I will lose all my lovely downloads—a year's worth of This American Life podcasts, a half-dozen movies, my carefully created address book, all those kirtans and Bob Dylan relics, and my e-books (Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, George Eliot's Middlemarch and Lewis Carroll's Alice) ...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Alas, poor Sammy! I knew him

When my daughter C left for college, she left a lot behind—brokenhearted parents (and perhaps a boy or two), piles of clothing, heaps of shoes and boots, and several critters—a hamster, a turtle and two cats. C was a minimalist in animal husbandry. The turtle, unnamed, was fed maybe once a week, its water changed ... I'm going to say never. Dear little Sammy the hamster was fed a couple times a week, its wood shavings changed maybe once a month—in a good month—and it was hauled out regularly to be mauled by C and any young visitor not put off by its urinous odor. The cats—well, Other and I took over their care long before C's departure.

The weird thing is, Sammy and the turtle thrived—or at least survived—under C's neglect. When she left in September, Other took over Sammy's care, and I undertook the turtle's. Sammy's cage was kept spotless, his water and kibble and treats refreshed regularly, he was cuddled and adored—and he developed tumors all over his body. For a month we watched him deteriorate. When Other tried to clean his cage not long ago, Sammy, presumably blind by then, screamed in fear. Have you ever heard a hamster scream? It stops your heart. I called the vet to find out about euthanasia and was told that it would be $90 for an exam and $60 for the hemlock. The price was a shock, but it was the requirement that this poor old creature be subjected to the unnecessary handling of an "exam" that decided Other and me to let Sammy die a "natural" death. I think we did the right thing, but it was pretty awful watching, and took surprisingly long: perhaps a month from the onset of his lesions to his final breath.

Other let C know in a note: "Dear Piglet, Sammy died last night, and this morning I pushed his body out to sea on his favorite ice floe (actually, my favorite--a clean white bag on the corner of Lafayette and East 4th). He had slowed down markedly over the past few days, and by Saturday he had curled into a ball in the corner of his cage, breathing so slowly that it was almost imperceptible. Recently I have tried to create a kind of hospice environment--overflowing food bowl, fresh water, all the carrots and apple he could eat--but it was clear that the quality of his life wasn't great and that he's lucky to be off the old 'wheel.' He was a great hamster. Lots of love, Dad"

Monday, October 12, 2009

Marching down the middle

A few weeks ago, the New Yorker ran an article on e-reading, and I was galvanized to convert my iPod Touch into an e-reader. Incredibly, I was able to complete the project, which consisted mainly of following instructions—never my strong suit (hence my otherwise inexplicable inability to cook the simplest meal)—largely on my own. Even more incredibly, hundreds of classics turn out to be available free for the downloading on Project Gutenberg. On the advice of a friend who is addicted to George Eliot on audiotape, I chose Middlemarch as my debut e-novel.

And I am loving it. I love not having to hold the book open, which—I know this sounds pathetic—gets tiring, though you don't notice it till you stop. I love reading against an illuminated background, which confers a movie-like excitement. I love the magical potential of having a library's worth of books on a device smaller than a matchbox. I love the security of knowing I'll never be forced to read out-of-date women's magazines on a couch in a doctor's office ever again. And in particular, I love George Eliot. A few samples:

"Here and there a cygnet is reared uneasily among the ducklings in the brown pond, and never finds the living stream of fellowship with its own oary-footed kind." Yes! A description of my feet that captures the whole clumsy mess. I am indeed an "oary-footed kind"!

And then there's a vague waffler who is one of those people with "glutinously indefinite minds": Is this chemo brain?

And finally, the dilemma of my life, put compactly: "She could not reconcile the anxieties of a spiritual life involving eternal consequences, with a keen interest in the gimp and artificial protrusions of drapery." I have done away with "artificial protrusions of drapery," what with my mastectomy and all. But that "keen interest in the gimp" and other worldly distractions plagues me and keeps me from being a serious person.

Monday, September 28, 2009


One of the features of my insomnia is that I sometimes wake up with a word on my lips like a fragment of a dream, and it keeps repeating itself like a song for the hour or two it takes for me to fall asleep again. And sometimes the word will divide like a cell, and two words will then repeat themselves, then three words, and you get the picture—a symphony of mental distractions that can keep me awake far longer than the brief surfacing into semi-consciousness that healthy sleepers experience. Last night, the initial word was facacta, which spawned altecocker, which led to meshugganah. Perhaps it was my unconscious offering an orchestral salute in Yiddish to my Jewish roots in recognition of Yom Kippur.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Know-It-All

I just finished a very silly book called The Know-It-All, about a guy who reads the Encyclopedia Britannica in order to become the smartest person in the world. It was a bit of a slog, but there were a couple of passages (out of nearly 400 pages) that struck me.

A fable recounted to the author by a family friend: "This [Middle Eastern] potentate called a meeting of the wise men in his kingdom, and he said, 'I want you to gather all the world's knowledge together in one place so that my sons can read it and learn.' The wise men went off, and after a year, they came back with twenty-five volumes of knowledge. The potentate looked at it and he said, 'No. It's too long. Make it shorter.' So the wise men went off for another year and they came back with one single volume. The potentate looked at it and said, 'No. Still too long.' So the wise men went off for another year. When they came back, they gave the potentate a single piece of paper with one sentence on it. A single sentence. You know what the sentence was? The sentence was: 'This too shall pass.'"

An excerpt from the encyclopedia entry on Tolstoy referring to Anna Karenina's brother Stiva: "Stiva, though never wishing ill, wastes resources, neglects his family and regards pleasure as the purpose of life. The figure of Stiva is perhaps designed to suggest that evil, no less than good, derives from the small moral choices human beings make moment by moment."

Friday, September 4, 2009

Fourth anniversary

It is my daughter C's birthday—she's 19—and a kind of birthday for me too. Four years ago on this day, I found the tumor that turned me into a prematurely aged gray-haired androgene and sent me on a path into a dark forest filled with spooks and shades. I'm in a clearing now, enjoying the light of health, dancing with NED (no evidence of disease), as they say. But I know that the next visit to the doctor, the next blood test, the next MRI could send me back into the woods.

My daughter's celebrating her birthday with her friends. My birthday is a quieter affair.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Sleepless in Manhattan redux

Lately my chronic insomnia has reached a new peak. Unless I take a pill, sleep is a four-hour deal for me, with another four hours spent trying to calm my panic about various worries. In the past when I've had a worsening of my night life, I've tried to rest my mind by focusing on something soothing, something going right in my life. But lately there is not a whole lot of that. Of course, it's all in how you look at things, but with two sisters-in-law with cancer (head-and-neck and uterine), a brother with colon cancer, a close friend with late-stage uterine cancer, a son with real estate woes, a daughter with a penchant for out-of-control spending and a lawless approach to curfews, frail parents (my mother just had a grand-mal seizure last night) a continent away, a job situation that looks direr by the day, cats that throw up and smear excrement—there's no place pretty to look. Except for Other, snoring peacefully beside me. If he would just stop snoring ...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Yoga bliss

It's hard to explain to skeptics the deep visceral appeal of yoga, how it's different from ordinary exercise. Today my wonderful Sunday yoga teacher put it in broad terms. "When you do the stair master, you try to zone out," he said. "But in yoga, you try to focus fully on your body and your breath."

He described the physical practice of yoga as laying down impressions, so that each time you enter into a pose or sequence, you move deeper into it. And because you are fully focused on your body and your breath, the impressions are engraved in your mind as well.

So as you walk the path of yoga, you're not just following it, you're laying it down as you go.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Use it or lose it

I got a little shock about a week ago, when my physical therapist (whom I like a lot) gave me my walking papers and said I should proceed on my own with the exercises he'd given me. "I'll continue to improve, right?" I asked, since I'm still in a lot of pain at night from several herniated disks, and I haven't returned full tilt to yoga. "Yes," he said, "but you really need to adjust  your expectations and focus on maintaining rather than progressing. After all, you're well ahead of other people your age in terms of what you can still do." What! Are they even allowed to say such discouraging things?

His well-meaning comment cast a pall over my week. Would I never be able to do, say, the peacock? Or the turtle? Or any of the other poses that keep me up at night figuring out how precisely to approach them? I know yoga is not about the physical practice. But the physical practice provides some wonderful thrills, and I'd hate to forgo them. 

Then I read two very encouraging pieces of research: one from the journal Skeletal Radiology, suggesting that for runners, "continuous exercise is protective, rather than destructive" to knees; and the other from the New England Journal of Medicine, suggesting that weight training, once thought to trigger lymphedema in breast-cancer patients who had had lymphedectomies or radiation, actually helps prevent lymphedema. 

These studies aren't precisely at odds with my PT's comment, but they threw me into a much better frame of mind, one that allowed me to return to yoga feeling I was engaged in a healing practice rather than a pointless one.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Mia's World

Every once in a while when I'm rolling along in what I assume is a shared reality, I suddenly discover that I'm all alone in Mia's World, not hanging with all the people inhabiting the real world. For instance, Other and I, along with C sometimes, have been going to B Island for a dozen years. There is no running water, no electricity, no landline-phone service, no television, no stores, no cars on B Island. We cook, eat, swim, kayak, read, sleep, hang out with friends—and that's about all. Without the ability to shop on a daily basis, a dramatic transformation takes place: consumer cravings slip away over the course of a week or two. Much as dirty begins to feel clean and isolation begins to feel cozy, having nothing begins to feel like having something special. This is one of the key experiences of being on the island—the sense of contentment that flourishes when the cravings disappear. I assumed this was what everyone was going for.

But! I suddenly realized that we do-withouts are in the minority. Most of the regulars on the island have boats—and drive them much as suburban landlubbers drive SUVs. Landfall—with its stores and cars and other conveniences—is just a rev of an engine away. So, what exactly are these other folks savoring about the island? Everyone is passionate about the island, so there is some magic that they're responding to. But what precisely is it?

Monday, August 3, 2009

I Ishi (and you Ishi too)

One of the few raunch-free references in Michael Tolliver Lives, by Armistead Maupin, which I read during my longer-than-anticipated journey to Maine, was to Ishi, the last of the Yahi, a native people of California who were massacred during the Gold Rush. Ishi, who was discovered in a state of starvation in Oroville in 1911 and taken to UC San Francisco to be studied by anthropologists and placed on display as a living museum piece, became an object of enormous public curiosity. He was dubbed "the last wild Indian," and anecdotes about his habits and skills and demeanor were regularly reported in the press—until he died four years later of tuberculosis—and became fodder for numerous books and movies and even a stage play.

My instinctive empathy with Ishi reminds me of my response and others' to earlier feral loners, like the Wild Child of Auvignon and Mowgli, the little boy adopted by wolves in Kipling's Jungle Book. I suspect the bond we feel with these social isolates reflects our deep, usually well-buried sense of aloneness and of the fragility of social connectedness. Who doesn't feel, in some way, on most days, that they are members of a lost tribe, cultural orphans, misplaced persons?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Vacation, part 2: Reading rainbow

In among the light motifs of island sunrises and sunsets, night skies and fireflies, there was a literary leit motif to my vacation this summer. B Island is a buttoned-up kind of place where bad language and PDAs are frowned upon and fretted over, and the island library is reliably staid. But even in this conservative outpost, as in the adulteriferous conservative movement at large, racy currents rage beneath still waters.

It all started at JFK. With seven hours in a dreary airline terminal waiting for my one-hour flight to Maine, I clearly wasn't going to survive on a skimpy Monday New York Times with its too-easy-even-for-me crossword puzzle. Airport book kiosks are a stunning case study of catering to the lowest common denominator, so when I saw a paperback by Armistead Maupin, I grabbed it, thinking it would be a quaint sequel to his charming '70s San Francisco Chronicle serial, Tales of the City.

It wasn't. Or rather, it was a sequel, but it was hardly quaint. It had, among many other points of interest, graphic descriptions of three-way ass-fucking in the Viagra-popping viral-loaded Baghdad by the Bay.

So when I finished it on B Island, I was consterned that someone might pick it up and start browsing and freak out. I asked Other if we should burn it. He was worried that it wouldn't burn completely in the wood stove, and our landlady would find it among the ashes. He suggested we discreetly slip it onto the paperback rack of the library. I was scared we'd get caught, though I toyed with the idea of inscribing it with the name of the primmest islander or the most vicious gossip and leaving it on a roadside bench. In the end we decided to carry it off the island when I took Other to the airport (he was leaving a couple days before me), and he would dispose of it. But alas, he accidentally left it at the counter of the parking-lot office when we picked up our car. I was embarrassed to go back to retrieve it, especially since the parking-lot operators are hand-in-glove with the gossipers of the island, but Other had also left a serious read, Elizabeth Costello, that he wanted to finish. So I nipped in and as unobtrusively as possible removed the two books from the counter, where they had remained all day, and put them at the bottom of my suitcase when I got back to the island.

Islanders might be shocked by graphic gay sex. But I in turn was shocked by a hetero sex book I found in the cottage. It was raining, and I had read everything I'd checked out of the island library, and I was bored. I spotted on my landlady's shelves a Judy Blume book for adults. I read very few best sellers, so perhaps I'm a little naive about what popular fiction consists of these days. I remember the Judy Blumes I read to C in elementary school. Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing and Freckle Juice were pleasantly down to earth. Summer Sisters was downright earthy. All sex all the time, coy euphemisms for body parts, only the thinnest veneer of a plot, not much else.

Is this what ordinary people read?

Vacation, part 1: Jet blues

To Whom It May Concern:

I would like to register a complaint re my flight (or nonflight) on July 27 (confirmation no. N17QS1). Flight 668 from JFK to PWM, which was supposed to depart at 10:55 a.m., was first said to be delayed and then finally canceled at about 12:30 pm, purportedly because of mechanical failure. Passengers were assured that they would have no trouble flying standby on the subsequent flight, 604, which was to depart at 1:43 pm. In fact, there was no seat for a single standby on that flight. We were then booked for Flight 606, departing at 5:29 pm. We were assured that our luggage had gone ahead, on Flight 604, and would be awaiting us in Portland. In fact, when we finally got to Portland more than seven hours after we were originally scheduled to arrive, our luggage was nowhere to be found. It arrived the next day. Because I had missed the last scheduled ferry to the island where I had rented a house for the week, I had to pay $100 for a special boat to deliver me to the house. My husband, who had arrived in Portland two days earlier, was forced to spend his entire day rushing between the airport and the dock in South Freeport trying to arrange that special boat. I missed a day of my vacation. So did he. In addition, I wasted at least $25 on airport food. And although I tried to be pleasant, reasonable and accommodating throughout the ordeal, I was treated with startling rudeness and misinformation, as were the other passengers.

What I would like to know is, how are you going to compensate me for a seven-hour flight delay, $125 in extra food and transportation expenses, a lost day of vacation for both me and my husband, and the delay in luggage delivery?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Battle of the Amazons

There's a stinky little fillip many women get along with their breast-cancer diagnosis—an invitation NOT to join the club. If they have DCIS (very early stage) or lymph-node-negative or hormone-positive cancer, they are deemed by some women to be not sick enough to play with the big girls, and they are cast out and ostracized. I read about this cliquishness all the time on the breast-cancer discussion boards and hear about it from my DCIS friends, who have found themselves unwelcomed at support groups.

A breast-cancer diagnosis is a trauma, period.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


What's a sedate old lady like me doing up at 4 in the morning, you might ask. Well, I'll tell you. I'm living the life of an 18-year-old—vicariously and badly. That is, she has the fun. I have the worry and fatigue. Delightful as it is to have C home for the summer—and it is wonderful indeed—I am remembering the downside tonight: the late hours, the worry, the cell-phone turned off. Will I ever be able to truly let her go? Not as long as she's in sight.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Beginning again

Lately my ordinary clumsiness has become more pronounced. My handwriting has deteriorated. The actual content of what I write fails to hit the nail on the head. I drop stuff. I have to throw away sewing projects—and cooking projects too. At first I thought it was the inevitable downward slide into age-related feebleness, or residual neuropathy with a side of chemo brain. And perhaps it is. 

But I'm thinking that the solution is a return to what yogis and Buddhists call "beginner's mind," an attitude of openness and absence of preconceptions. In yoga, a wide-eyed beginner is superior to a seen-it-all adept.

So I'm trying to approach even the most mundane tasks afresh, as though I were learning them for the first time, slowing down, paying attention to all the details, refraining from multitasking. Not easy for a Type A-minus woman with a to-do list extending into next year. But I'm trying. 

And I'm trying to apply the same method to yoga, which I'm re-entering after another herniation-induced hiatus. Go slow, pay attention to details, watch the transitions, get it right—but forgive myself if I get it wrong.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Birthday fatigue

Has this ever happened to you? You're all excited because you found the perfect birthday present (a $150 Le Creuset frying pan) and the perfect birthday card ("You really are a bastard") and you're taking your kids out to the perfect restaurant (Soy & Sake, a kitsch-vegan eatery for the vegan) for a perfect birthday dinner. And the kids spend the entire two hours trading stories about what a shitty parent you were: the time you spanked (once, and you stopped when she cried), the degree to which you hyperbolize (reportedly a lot—but I stand by my story that I was summoned to rescue one unnamed child from a friend's home, where he was screaming in terror from, no lie, a fruitfly), the abusiveness you allowed one child to commit against the other (uttering the words "fucking moron"), the unequal degree of permissiveness you imposed (which set the scene for one child to get drunk with his friends every Friday afternoon—and vomit on the very expensive mattress I had bought him and then had to replace—while I was at work, which resulted in the hiring of a chaperone for the other till she was 14), and so forth. They were serious, and it made me feel so tired—the ungrateful wretches.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Whither the words of yesteryear?

How come no one "bloviates" or engages in "transgressive" behavior anymore? The continual iteration of those terms was irritating, but I'm getting really sick of "artisanal," the new It word, and feel wistful for them now. 

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Now I'm really screwed

Working while chemo-ing would have been impossible were it not for my friends on the job. Two of the most loving and helpful have summer birthdays. So in the spirit of payback, I impulsively volunteered to host a small birthday dinner. Big mistake!

First off, I don't cook. Sandwiches test my limit (how much mayonnaise?). Salads are possible (even I can run water over lettuce leaves and then tear them up). Meat is not on the table (I once tried to make a hamburger, and it was deemed so spectacularly inedible even by my very obliging son, that he left it untouched on his plate and never asked for one again).

Second, each of the birthday girls has a dealbreaker food proscription. One can't eat raw vegetables. The other can't eat garlic or beans. No biggy about the beans, but no garlic? Even I know it's not possible to cook without garlic.

Third, these friends plus the other invited guest are sophisticated foodies who have many, many times feted me with sumptuous feasts. So the level of discernment is high.

I feel like I've wandered onto the set of a reality show. And broadcast time is tomorrow at 6. I'm going to have to be really, really nice to Other for the next 36 hours.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Blame the victim

When I first got to New York, I met a young woman who had been raped four times within a single year. The first time, she said, her friends were sympathetic and supportive. The second time, they were aghast as well as sympathetic and supportive. The third time, they asked her whether she was dressed provocatively or was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In short, they blamed her. The fourth time, they simply didn't believe her. 

I'm beginning to feel that my family's endless litany of troubles is testing the sympathy and credulity of my friends and colleagues. But I swear, it's all true. 


This week my friend's father died, my son lost his job—on his birthday!—and my younger brother was diagnosed with colon cancer. What is going on here?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Infinity in all directions

My friend JB pointed out the other night that although we humans worry a lot about the infinity that follows our death, we are not at all concerned about the infinity that preceded our birth. 

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Is this going to jinx it?

Remember the way you felt when your child was first born, and it seemed like the purest, most innocent, most guileless creature on earth? And everything you did pleased it and made it break out in those toothless beatific smiles? And it was ecstatic just to see your face? And a little smugly,  you thought you had created this perfect being and wondered what other parents did wrong that ruined their children and turned them into such awful wretches?

And then as your child got older, it got naughtier and less thrilled with your every move and always seemed to be wanting something more? And you began to feel as if you'd botched it, but you couldn't figure out how. And eventually, by the time it was in its teens, it hated everything about you and was embarrassed to be seen with you. And even though you now knew that this was normal development, it made you feel like a failure. How could you have started with a being so perfect and happy and ended up with one so difficult and miserable? What on earth had you done?

All of that happened to me—twice. But the little miracle that occurred with my son a few years ago is now taking place with my daughter. She is becoming a beautiful, pure, cheerful, confident person. She is reverting to the delicious goodness of her infancy. I'm gradually beginning to trust her again, feel less wary of unpredictable moods, less prone to the worst kind of wee-hour terrors. It's as if she's been reborn—and maybe this time I won't fuck it up.

Monday, July 6, 2009

A weekend in the country

Sure, there was the dog drool, the obligatory tick walk, the oversweet scent of Skin-So-Soft (and the certain knowledge that it has never, ever deterred a single mosquito). But then there was the earthy smell of dirt after a rain, the psychedelic-green carpet of grass, the cadres of tree trunks marching as deep into the woods as the eye could see, the absolute silence and pitch darkness of the nights. And there was the pretty-darn-impressive county fireworks display—enjoyed while eating "fried dough" (these country folk call a spade a spade!)—and the sky-haute cuisine served a maison by our hosts D and J. 

Monday, June 29, 2009

Sleepless in Manhattan

The first time a baby sleeps through the night is a landmark for its parents. They note it, revel in it, remember it. The earlier the baby does it, the more precocious it is presumed to be. Sleeping through the night is a baby's first real-life accomplishment—assuming it actually happens.

But what about the grownups? I don't think I've ever slept through the night as an adult. I wake up, pee, listen to Other snore, worry about the coming day, think about what I'm going to wear, suddenly flash on the answer to yesterday's unfinished crossword, get hit with the sinking-stomach feeling remembering some task undone or botched at work, listen to the inane drunken chatter of the smokers outside the bar next door, nurse my grudges. In a good night, I sleep maybe six hours in hour-and-a-half dozes.

The chiropractor I've been seeing suggested that since my back pain is worst in the morning, I consider getting a new mattress. He says he wakes up eight hours after he goes to bed, and he wakes up in exactly the same position he assumed when he lay down eight hours earlier. He has never taken a sleeping pill. He told me this three weeks ago, and I've been puzzling over it ever since. Really? Really, someone can do that? 

Or does everybody do that? Am I alone in my sleepless nights?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Beware the Ped Egg

I'm sure I'm not the only woman who has fallen victim to the addictions of the Ped Egg. You start by just doing a little surface buffing, so to speak, only to be sucked in to the flesh-eating pleasures of gouging out those calluses. I was nearly bone deep tonight before I realized there was blood on the blades. Even then, it was hard to tear myself away. And the little pile of sawdust inside the egg—so satisfying! 

Friday, June 26, 2009

Note to self: shut up

So there I was at the rents' house. Some friends of the rents stopped by, and they asked me how my visit was going. "Oh, great!" I said, "I found a driver for my dad and a new doctor for my mom, and I arranged for a notary to come to the house and witness the signing of the durable power of attorney, and I found a barber for my dad and took him to get a haircut, and I got the OT to meet with us and tell us where to put grab bars, and I found a skidproof bathmat, and I think I've found someone to buy their car!" 

Suddenly I realized that the guests were glazing over. 

And that's the weird thing about eldercare. It's not very interesting. I'm sure there are people who would accuse me not just of being a bore but also of valuing my accomplishments over the pleasure of the rents' company. But getting shit done becomes an obsession. The whole rental enterprise seems precarious to the point of capsizing. Going to visit them is like participating in a supermarket sweepstakes, racing against the clock to secure the situation. Stressful and exhausting for the caregiver, but no one wants to hear about it.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The golden years

In case you are wondering how you will spend your glorious retirement years, I will tell you. I have seen the future, and it is this: You will spend nearly every waking hour losing shit, arguing with your spouse about who lost it and where, then finding it. You will do this over and over until it drives you mad. And if you subscribe to two newspapers and get a lot of junk mail, your lost-and-found madness will be increased exponentially. It's a little bit of hell right here on god's green earth.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

College, that bastion of learning

Overheard in the frozen-food section of the Key Foods at Avenue A and East Fourth: "Seeing people hurl used to be a regular everyday kind of thing in college. Now if I see someone hurl, it's like, 'What the fuck?' "

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Waiting for a good laugh

I just came across a condolence note I'd written to the daughter of a friend who died a few years ago, and in the letter I recalled that my friend always said, "Remember, a year from now you will laugh about this." What excellent advice! Now if I could just remember it in the heat of the moment. Or perhaps it makes things all the funnier, and I'll laugh all the harder, if I don't remember in the moment.

Shiksa pays a shiva call

Shiksa pays a shiva call—sounds like a joke, doesn't it? Guy walks into a bar ...

I was a little nervous heading off for my first real shiva call—for T's father. Was I dressed appropriately? It's not easy for me to pull together a sober ensemble from my wardrobe of this-and-that rags. But I found some shmattas (!) that seemed to go together—black linen pants, a rayon shirt, a bit of drapery to obscure any infelicities. Hardest were the shoes: I can no longer inflict the sight my discolored, peeling toenails on others, so sandals are out of the question. But I found a pair of flats that matched, and as long as I kept the soles to the floor, no one could tell they had holes. Then there was the fruit platter I had been assigned. I felt sad not making it myself, but the risk of blunder was too great: Are mangos tref? Whole Foods would know the answer to this and other questions—and do a better job of assembly. How long to stay? Too short, and it might be an insult. Too long, and I might be a bore.

But in the end, it was a party! As the friend who by no virtue of her own had been a witness to the death (well, sort of—I was too busy eating to notice that he had died), I seem to have become an honorary family member, beloved by all. Admiring the ladies' hats in old photographs of T's relatives—who could have been my own, so much do '50s styles trump family resemblance—hearing stories, seeing mutual friends, running into an old therapist of mine (T's sister had recommended her back in the days when I was struggling with teen troubles)—and eating all that fabulous food.

Shiva continues for a couple more days. I'm tempted to take my meals there till it's over. But maybe that would be overstaying my welcome.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Living with the wolves

First, let me say unequivocally that I love my daughter C and am thrilled to have her home from college. 

Second, let me say unequivocally that having her home from college is like living with the wolves—the werewolves. She has a special diet that consists largely of ground beef, tortilla chips and ice cream. Offer her a vegetable or piece of fruit, and she will back away in fear. Are you trying to poison her? She sleeps during the day and comes fully alive only after dark, and should you awaken her during daylight hours, you will hear a hoarse growl emanating from her snout. Then there is the hygiene thing—foodstuffs buried amid the designer clothing on the floor, dirty glasses sticky with soda (I hope it's soda) littering the desktop. She has the metabolism of a carnivore as well: no unnecessary movement unless it's dinnertime—or party time. 

I'm tired of being an adult human.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Euphemisms aren't always wrong

I've always hated euphemisms for death like "passed away," but that's precisely what my friend T's 95-year-old father did last night. Remarkably (to me, at any rate), I was there when it happened, but it was so gentle and subtle a death, that neither of us noticed precisely when it happened. Actually, there may have been a reason for that. The flossy Union Square Cafe provides dinners at the hospice where he was being cared for. So T (who had asked me to keep her company) and I went to the "family room" to have a lovely meal of vegetables, rice and polenta while the nurse cleaned her father up. When we returned to the room, we noticed that his head was turned away from us but thought nothing of it. A few minutes later we went back to the family room for dessert (bread pudding with whipped cream and fresh strawberries). When we returned he was in the same position, but this time T had a feeling he wasn't breathing. And indeed, he wasn't. Unless it happened in one of the two 10-minute intervals when we were out of the room, his "passing" was so quiet, we were unaware of it. He "slipped away."

That seemingly peaceful end was preceded by a decidedly less peaceful 10 days of pain, agitation, delirium. When his doctor asked him if he was ready to "let go," he said, "No, I'm not ready. There's no room for me in heaven." Then two days ago, he stopped drinking, a sign that he was in "transition." 

Interestingly, "transition" is a word that's also used in childbirth. It refers to the frantically, nightmarishly painful period before the "pushing" phase begins. Like "labor," it is a word with a neutrality that belies its horror. In birth classes, we were told that labor is called "labor" because it's hard work. Such a lie! It's called "labor" because if they called it what it really is, women would never have sex—with men.

In the case of T's father, however, transition marked the end of his struggle and the beginning of his release. The euphemisms were apt.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A picture worth a thousand words

So I was reading at my desk and had just clicked on a link to a woman's mastectomy-art site when my boss walked in as this photograph blossomed onto my screen. She uttered not a word.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Fifty-nine and still wrestling with my outer teen

Middle age is, fashion-wise, the evil step-mirror of adolescence. Just as my poor (and I do mean poor) teen self had to figure out an image to present to the world on a pauper's budget, incorporating cultural grace notes (well, on a good day that term might apply) and tribal insignia into the personal style I was building, identifying who I was and who I wanted to be, what my body could carry off and what I would be wise to give up on, how many ruffles and flounces a tall girl could wear without looking like a giant baby, now I'm monitoring how much skin (I'm down to ankles and wrists now) I can realistically show, whether those puffed sleeves make me look like I'm wearing my nighty, whether it's time to give up the boho look that served me so well and obscured so many imperfections for so long.

It's a tough process, and I don't have the advantages of youth this time. Now it's not just about finding enhancements. It's about hiding the truth—and doing so without the loose flowing garments that now make me look a little goofy. 

I pass some young beauty on the street and think, Oh, I'd like to get that skirt, only to realize that it's not the skirt, it's the girl. Harem pants may look adorable on an art student, but they'd make me look like a lunatic. 

Fashion is like eating. Unlike drinking or smoking, which you can give up altogether, you've got to wear something no matter how high-minded you are, and it's going to say something about you, so you've got to make some choices. And the choices are difficult—and getting more so all the time.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Who's Steve Kindel?

I'll admit it: one reason I remember Elsie so fondly and so often—just one reason—is that she gave me a cake recipe that I make about once a month. I'm a terrible cook, but this cake comes out perfectly every time. In fact, when I tell people I'm a terrible cook, if they've had this cake, they think I'm guilty of false modesty. Elsie was nothing if not generous, so I know she wouldn't mind if I spread the sweetness. Here it is, in her own words:

Elsie's Apple Cake, by way of Steve Kindel

1 cup of oil
1 1/2 cups of sugar—I mix brown and white sugar
3 eggs
3 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla
3 cups of peeled, sliced apples—I use Rome, Delicious or McIntosh
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup raisins

Beat the oil and sugar together; add eggs, beat until creamy.
Add the vanilla.

Sift together the flour, salt, cinnamon and baking soda.
Stir thse dry ingredients into the batter

Add the raisins, nuts and apples.

The batter will be quite stiff.

Spoon batter into a buttered, floured angel's food or bundt pan.
Bake at 350 degrees for an hour or so.

Farewell, Elsie B

The other day I found out I'd lost an old friend. Elsie B. Washington died at the age of 66 of cancer and multiple sclerosis. I hadn't seen her since she moved to Oakland nearly 20 years ago, though I often tried to track her down when I was in the Bay Area visiting the 'rents. None of our mutual friends seemed to know what had happened to her. Turns out she'd been living in Yonkers, just a few miles from my apartment in New York, for a while before she died. Wish I'd known.

Years ago, Elsie and I and a couple of male colleagues used to have lunch once a month at a Japanese place across the street from work and pool our money to buy lottery tickets. It was Elsie's idea and an example of her foremost characteristic—optimism. And sometimes—rarely—we won, usually about $10 a person. The financial stakes and winnings were negligible. The fact that Elsie had selected us to share her luck was the real piece of good fortune for me.

A white woman with a child and a couple of married white men, all of us from expensive private colleges—we might seem to have had little in common with a single black woman from the Bronx. And we didn't. Elsie was by far the most accomplished of us. She was a gifted writer who wrote a couple of nonfiction books, one on sickle-cell anemia, another on relationships between black men and black women. Perhaps most famously, she held the distinction of writing the first black bodice ripper—Entwined Destinies—under the pseudonym Rosalind Welles. She's probably the only one of us who will merit an obit in the Times (

Growing up in white secular suburban California, I hadn't had a lot of friends like Elsie before. I was quietly (I hope) fascinated by her blackness and her urban, Baptist upbringing.

When I look back, though, it wasn't her accomplishments or her race that made me treasure my friendship with Elsie. It was the example she set of not getting bogged down. I know she faced difficulties in her life, but she just didn't dwell on them. Grueling work assignments, crappy cubicle with migraine-inducing fluorescent lighting, cranky editors, the daily humiliations of being a grunt in a status-conscious company—she seemed to know where these annoyances belonged in the hierarchy of importance: beneath her notice. She had perspective. I think of her as having her eyes on the horizon, not in the sense of ambition but in the sense of taking the long view.

Alas, the long view, in Elsie's case, wasn't long enough. Sixty-six years old. 

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Really silly post

I'm sure I'm not the only person who mulls over bizarre trivial questions. At the risk of mortification, I'll share some of mine:

In our house the litter box is right next to the toilet. As my cats and I companionably hunker down together, I am aware that people sometimes train their cats to use the toilet. It makes me wonder whether I could use the litter box. Jonny Cat Maximum is pretty good stuff, though the whole pellets-between-the-toes thing might get old fast. I'm a good squatter. Yogis say squatting is much more effective for elimination ...

Where does a penis go when a man crosses his legs? Does it go under or between his legs? And if so, doesn't it hurt? I've had penis pity since I was a child. It seems dangerous to have this soft protrusion that could get slammed in doors. If I were a man I'd wear a jockstrap full time.

Very young women apparently are capable of falling in love with very old men. (I'm trying not to be cynical here.) Is it possible for a very young man to fall genuinely in love with a very old woman? Or, say, a youngish man with an oldish woman? I've seen Harold and Maude, but does it ever happen in real life? I personally don't have anyone in mind—really.

Is there some particular feature that causes women but not men to be perceived as unattractive as they age? I've heard it said that women become more like men as they get older, so maybe it's the disjunction between our gender and our appearance that is off-putting. Maybe older women should start cross-dressing to preserve their appeal?

There, I feel better now. But you probably feel worse!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Trivializing cancer

Something has been bothering me for a few weeks now. It was reported to me that a certain science editor in declining to run a particular cancer-breakthrough story explained that cancer is no longer interesting because it has been turned from a terminal disease into a chronic one. I don't know if the person who told me this was an accurate reporter, but the notion that cancer is a chronic disease and that that means it's no biggy bugs me. First of all, it's the lucky ones who get the chronic forms of the disease. Second, the chronic form predictably leads to an early death, which means it's still a terminal disease. Third, living with a chronic disease means a life of chemotherapy, radiation, scans and scares. You try living like that.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Puja on my deck

Having a spacious deck in cramped New York is a wonderful thing. Of course, as with any other blessing, there are mitigations: used condoms, bloody syringes, pigeon poop, cigarette butts—the flotsam and jetsam of urban life—that descend from on high. This morning I awoke to find the planks littered with a new debris: lovely, pearl-white rose petals.

The thing is, we don't own any rose bushes.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Adventure in dreamland

In real life, I haven't owned a car for 35 years (my last car was a Dodge Dart with a vanity plate that read OBJET—get it?). But last night I was driving my SUV with a carload of my daughter C's friends, when a wild snapping rodent began racing frantically around the vehicle. Somehow I caught it. I identified it as a badger, though it was more like a ferret in its proportions and had ratty, fox-red fur and a long, flat, needle-toothed snout. It kept getting away, and I had to keep catching it amid the shrieking of the girls and the snapping of its sharp yellow teeth. (I seemed to be both driver and passenger, so miraculously navigation was not at issue.) My arms were scratched and bleeding, and thoughts of rabies flickered through my mind, but I was too busy trying to capture the little biter to dwell on the danger to me. Finally, we got it home to our apartment, and someone managed to stuff it into a large pickup-sticks tube and put the cap on it. Meanwhile I poked through cupboards to find some nonprescription catfood it might like (my cats eat a special prescription food that smells nasty). I never managed to feed it, but did give it some water with a syringe. Eventually we all piled back into the SUV, taking the crazed little beast with us, and let it go in a vacant lot that we realized with a twinge was about to be razed for construction.

Now normally I wouldn't try to remember a dream. After all, I have many every night. But this was a particularly vivid one. And I've been watching Season 1 of In Treatment. And then, there are these odd little bite marks on my shins this morning ...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Living in a world of pain

I'm living in a world of pain. It's not my pain. It's everyone else's. My friend B returned yesterday from the funeral of a cousin who died in his 40s of cancer and heads off tomorrow to escort her sister home from the hospital where she's undergone electroshock therapy for depression. My friend R is standing vigil over her 96-year-old mother, who has such severe osteoporosis that she broke her leg turning over in her sleep. Her leg has been set, but now a mass has been discovered in her innards. Meanwhile, R and her husband are separating after 25 years of marriage, the loft they've shared must be vacated, and she must find a new, cheap apartment for herself and at least one of her two dogs. Then there's my friend T, who is requesting a retirement package from work so that she can devote more time to providing hospice for her aged father. And let's not forget my other friend B, who at age 65 lost her job—at the company she helped found!—and hasn't been able to find another one.

I wish I knew how to comfort these dear friends, all of whom took care of me during my cancer ordeal. I know I'm supposed to listen, to bear witness. I don't really know how to do that. I mean, I do listen, and I do observe, but how to I make that into a comforting experience for my friends? And isn't there something else I can do?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Denial and dementia

Do these people not have a brain in their heads? First the old woman breaks her knee and drags herself on her butt between bed and bathroom, refusing to see a doctor for three weeks because "it doesn't hurt." As a result of the delay in seeking help, the patella heals in two pieces, and even though the two pieces have now been wired together, the thing will never work exactly as it used to. Then the old man bangs his shin against a cupboard and gets a big ugly hematoma. Go to the doctor, I plead. "It doesn't hurt," he says. Six weeks later, he's got a crater the size of a dessert plate that's not healing. He has to get it debrided every day and may have to undergo skin grafts. What is the matter with these people!

The old woman—O.K., my mother—cheerfully reminds me that she's been insouciant all her life about physical ailments, and just as cavalier about her kids' health as with her own. "Remember when you got those terrible chicken pox?" she says. "And they turned into big black spots that never went away?" Yep, I remember. Hurt like hell when she finally took me to the doctor and he burnt them off.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Affairs of the office

Used to be that the company I work for was a den of iniquity. People drank, smoked and had sex on their office couches with people who were not their spouses. A lot of folks were pretty much staggering after about 5 p.m., ashtrays overflowed and the hallways reeked of cigarette smoke, and you had to knock really loud before entering an office to avoid the risk of seeing a couple en flagrante. Mostly the flagrante stuff happened between male bosses and female underlings. It was sexist and broke up a lot of marriages—and resulted in more than a few new ones.

It's much tamer these days, maybe because cubicles predominate and all actual offices have glass walls. There may be some drinking, but no one passes out at his desk anymore, and if someone wants a cigarette he has to leave the building to smoke. Frankly, it pisses me off. The smokers get to take time off from work several times a day and breathe some fresh air (well, it's all relative, since we're in New York after all) along with their nicotine, while I'm chained to my desk all day—but I digress. And there's a lot less tittering because there's apparently less to titter about.

But a few years ago, the tittering arose anew. Two people who shall be nameless were rumored to be having an affair. Both were married to other people and had children. The evidence, which was widely circulated and heehawed over: they were frequently seen leaving or entering the building together at odd hours, sometimes looking flushed and rumpled. They were together way more than their work duties required, and sometimes they seemed to be positively drooling over each other in public. Eventually both left the company for reasons unrelated to their alleged affair.

Now rumors have arisen about another "work couple." But the evidence in this case, again widely broadcast among the staff, consists mainly of the observation that they are never, ever seen together, proving they have something to hide and are as guilty as sin. This evidence is considered solid proof by those who offer it and many who receive it.

So I'm just wondering, if you wanted to keep your affair private, should you be discreet or hang it out for all to see?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

What to watch, what to read?

I've been having a little entertainment crisis in recent years. Don't know if it's the cancer thing, though that certainly has exacerbated it, but I can't seem to watch movies or read books that have frightening or painful imagery. They make me unbearably anxious. In our culture, that can really restrict your options. No action films, no war movies, no melodramas of any kind. To accommodate my limitations, I've been watching a lot of crap, like He's Just Not That Into You and I Love You Man, and reading a lot of magazines, all of which is enjoyable but not particularly nourishing. Yoga texts—anatomy and philosophy—appeal to me more in the abstract than in practice. I can snack on them for a few minutes at a time but can't settle in with them for a lengthy feast. And most novels are love stories, which, though compelling, are not relevant to my life as a 59-year-old with a partner of 37 years. Surely there is a genre suited to ladies of a certain age and disposition. I've probably just overlooked it ...

Thursday, May 7, 2009

My own private archaeology dig

After weeks of sifting through the midden of my youth, I'm ready to begin shredding the humiliating journals I kept in my 20s and my early attempts at fiction. It seems contradictory to blog about destroying those proto-blogs, but there it is. One day I may return this blog to the atman of the ether. But for now, I want to distill some of the material from those sad years:

*I have always thought of my writing talents as second-rate and viewed my student papers and early fiction and journalistic efforts with painful embarrassment, and that embarrassment formed my self-image and limited my horizons. However, it turns out that my papers and articles were largely excellent, and my instructors' and editors' comments were strongly encouraging (the fiction is still, well, embarrassing). Examining this evidence, I am struck that it was not for lack of talent or support that I failed to thrive. It was something else that held me back. It was fear of taking a chance and of risking looking foolish.

*Back in December 1975, as Other and I packed for our move to New York, he said to me, "Let's be sure to remember to get out of the city before we're too old to move. New York is a terrible place to be old in." I'm not sure he was right, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't feel that way now, but if it's true that New York is a terrible place to be old in, we'd better start making an exit plan, and it will have to be a very good one to entice me away from my friends and my beautiful deck and the convenience of being able to get anywhere by foot or by train and the availability of a dozen cuisines within a block or two and a health club across the street and ...

*In 1980 I went to Egypt and formed a close bond with a fellahin named Ali, who was one of the workmen I oversaw in a project to clear the tomb of Rameses XI in the Valley of the Kings. His patience, willingness to submit to hard work and acceptance of his austere life seemed magical to me. It occurs to me now that he was my guru.

*The head of the expedition, an Englishman named JR, explained to me, “There’s a pattern in Egypt whereby the young men with talent or special intelligence become restless in their early 20s. They don’t want to leave their villages, but they have no vent for their frustrated energy and ambition. They turn wild. They begin to carry knives and drink and get into fights. Then the older men talk them into getting married. Soon their wives get pregnant, and the young men have family responsibilities and forget their frustrating ambitions. They bend their backs to the care of the next generation.” At the time, I was fascinated by this piece of anthropological analysis. It seemed exotic, specific to Egypt. Now I look back and realize that this is the story of my own life. I was restless and resentful in my 20s, unable to act on my ambitions. I picked fights with Other and blamed him for my unhappiness. Then I got pregnant with my son J, and for the next 28 years all that blocked energy was channeled into him and later my daughter C and the necessity of earning a living to support them. I have led the life of an Egyptian here in America!

*And finally, no need to go into detail or give examples here, but the wince-worthy evidence in the box suggests that I would do best to refrain from writing about sex or bathroom functions. Nuff said.