Wednesday, April 29, 2009

My horoscope nails it

"One minute you will feel like a wild horse straining to break loose, and the next moment you might feel like all you want to do is lie down and take a nap." That's my horoscope today—and it could be the horoscope of my life.

Many of my friends are in turmoil right now—quitting jobs, getting laid off, breaking up, moving to new apartments. And I know they're anguished about leaving the familiarity and comforts of an imperfect world for a strange, scary new world. Although I don't particularly want to leave Other or look for a new job or downsize to a new apartment, there's a part of me that's envious. They've been blown out of their boxes and can reinvent their lives, redecorate new homes, start fresh. I'm stuck with patching together the old pieces of my life in new ways, reorganizing the litter of a quarter-century in the same apartment, putting one foot in front of the other over and over along the same path.

Sometimes it feels like security, but sometimes it feels like stasis.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Party pooping

You know how as you get older you feel as if you've gotten better? That you have matured? That you have some distance on your life? That certain feelings are—thank God!—finished? That you have gained comfort in your own skin? Well, I'm here to say it ain't necessarily so. This weekend I experienced the kind of social anxiety I last felt at a college mixer. Other and I went to the 50th birthday party of a friend of his. When we entered, Other was greeted with warmth and "I've heard so much about you!"—and I was barely acknowledged. It wasn't that people were being rude. It's just that they didn't know who I was, and I didn't make much of an impression. Almost everyone there was an academic, and people were busily networking and reminiscing, and I think it was probably a wonderful party. But I just couldn't insert myself. I sat on the couch by myself, watching—an old, gray, breastless woman of no particular attainments, watching the real people have fun. On another occasion I could have exerted myself, befriended some other nondescript person, whatever. But somehow I just couldn't that night. Then a woman came up with whom I had chatted many times in the park when our kids were little. I asked about a mutual friend who had been diagnosed with breast cancer a year or so ago. "Oh, she's so over it," said the friend. "She's already back in Africa [where she periodically goes for work reasons]."

She's so over it? Nearly four years out from my diagnosis, I cannot truthfully say I'm over it. I've come a long way from the days when I could think of nothing else, but I am far from over it. Indeed, I have made it an integral part of my life. I regularly attend breast-cancer symposiums to hear the latest research (I spent six hours at the 92nd Street Y yesterday at just such an event). I volunteer one day a week at a breast-cancer hot line. I dip into for a few moments every day just to check in with my tribe. I think longingly of places I'd like to go—not Africa, but India, say—and it's not just the money that keeps me from buying my ticket; it's the fear of being too far from my doctors in New York.

After about two hours of eating mini-quiches on the couch, I slipped out the door and took myself home. I had spoken to almost no one, so there was no one to bid farewell. No one noticed, and no one missed me. I was invisible when I was present and invisible in my absence. It was as if I'd never been there.

But I had been there. And those words—She's so over it!—still ring in my head. And I realize, I've just got to get over it too.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Martyr for peace in the backseat

When my daughter C was going through her adolescent insanity, she often threatened to report us to the authorities for one thing or another. For grabbing her by the arm too roughly or for grounding her unfairly or for making her go to school when she didn't feel well. Those were desperate times. But thank god she refused to budge that time when we pulled over to the side of the road and told her to get out of the car. Or we'd be the subject of parenting forums across the land. Madlyn Primoff, there but for fortune (and my daughter's stubbornness) go Other and I.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Road rambling

Driving back at dawn from Saratoga Springs to New York City after dropping my daughter C off at Skidless, I was musing on the sweet magic of a million drivers—all strangers to me and to one another—in a miracle of synchrony moving in smooth concert through the vast network of on ramps and off ramps and toll booths and crosswalks and all the rest, like a wonderful wordless dance. And suddenly I was roused from my revery at the Clarkson Street exit of the West Side Highway by a cop rapping on my window. Ticketed for "blocking the box": $115.

I know many rural and suburban people are astonished by the sheer bigness of New York, but as a longtime New Yorker I am continually stunned by the bigness of places like Saratoga Springs—huge houses surrounded by immense lawns, vast shopping malls amid enormous car-gobbling parking lots, automobiles the size of school buses. New York seems very human-scale by comparison. And much as I long to explore the world outside of New York, I'm always kind of grateful to return home to my humble little apartment on my funky potholed street—and get the damn car back to the rental office.

Speaking of which, doesn't it seem kind of unfair that when you rent a car you have to decide upfront whether to take the $30 bring-it-back-empty option or the $8-per-gal bring-it-back-with-a-mostly-full-tank option? It reduces a car rental to gambling. Why can't you just bring it back with whatever's in the tank and pay market value for the gas needed to top it off for the next customer? Why turn it into a punish-the-bad-guesser game?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Idolatry and idiocy

I personally don't find it particularly astounding that the now famous Susan Boyle would turn out to have a wonderful voice. What I do find astounding is that the sight of a sweet-mannered, homely, middle-aged woman provoked eye rolls and lip curls—and amazement that anything of value could come out of her mouth. What are we—12?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The frenemy years

Many catchwords of my daughter's generation ("awesome," "hook up," "chill") are vague, lazy locutions—as were those of my day ("groovy," "off the wall," "get it on"). But one word now in currency seems specific, efficient and useful. And that word is "frenemy."

As I read through my old journals and letters and marinate in the resentments of my 20-something years, I see not just that I was surrounded then by frenemies—friends I hated—but also that I myself was a frenemy. I was hungry for platonic love, but untrusting, quick to judge, easily hurt. In short, I was unlovable—at least with the kind and degree of unconditional love I required.

In the journals and letters, I blame the difficulties in my relationships on others, but it is transparently clear that the problem was mine. And the evidence is ample: Busy with her many guests at her birthday party, my frenemy GH failed to adequately acknowledge my presence and my present—and the bitterness lingered for years. In response to a wheedling letter from me to my father asking for a job for a friend, my mother wrote angrily that by approaching my father only, I had slighted her and failed feminism—and she was right, but I tore her letter into pieces, then scotch-taped it back together so I could save the proof of her irrational, impossible irascibility. Most poignant are the epistolary remains of my relationship with my sister-in-law and frenemy E, who later killed herself. From the effortful care with which she chose each word rings out her fear of enraging me with faulty love. She may have been psychotic from time to time, but she was heroic in her struggle to sate my neurotic neediness.

I feel heartsick that I am stuck in the present and unable to go back into my past and mend—or prevent—these rifts. I was telling my friend J about my sadness and frustration last weekend, and she said comfortingly that the point is to learn from the past, not to fix it. And she is right, of course. But the era of frenemies is largely over for me. The lesson comes too late.

I still have a few frenemies, but mostly they are leftovers from my terrible 20s. I continue to have friends who are imperfect and who sometimes let me down or upset me (as I do them), but my expectations and resources have changed, and I seem more able to love them unconditionally, deficiencies and all.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Mom job evaluation

I've always thought of myself as a kind of dragon mother—breathing fire at the slightest infraction of the ethical code I imposed on my kids, rigidly enforcing my ban on sweets and weapons, ferociously demanding good grades. So it was eye-opening the other day when my daughter C told me she had been telling a new friend about me. "What did you say?" I asked, fearing the worst. "I told him you were a milk-and-cookies kind of mom," said C. Really? Sometimes C's generosity of spirit just floors me! Why didn't she trot out a list of grievances as I would have done about my mom when I was her age? As I do sometimes now at my age ...

Saturday, April 11, 2009


I used to be a straight-ahead, confront-the-issue kind of person, but nowadays I sometimes prefer denial. Take my countertop—please. About two years ago, we pulled out the stained kitchen-floor tiles and the rotting butcher-block countertop and replaced them with beautiful, all-natural limestone and granite, respectively. Maintaining them is a little fussy, but Other seems to have taken ownership (he cooks, he cleans, he's Otherman!).

Then about a year ago I began reading reports that granite can be quite radioactive. As one expert said, "I've seen a few that might heat up your Cheerios a little." I took that one head on, and managed through many phone calls to reach the New York state scientist who tests granite for radioactivity. (Sometimes it helps to have a reporting background. I know that if I devote enough time to it, I can find the best expert for anything.) I told him the variety and origin of our granite—and he said it was totally safe. So I've been humming along cheerfully, enjoying our pretty kitchen, enjoying Other's good cooking.

Then yesterday I read a report on a breast-cancer discussion board that granite is dense with toxic heavy metals ...

I used to be house-proud, but I'm paying for it. Now I'm house-humbled.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Lessons from a misspent youth

A month after I unearthed a box of old journals and letters, I am still engaged in the pitiless task of reading through them. I have learned many painful things about myself and others, and I still don't quite know what to do with this enormous trove of treasure and debris.

The diaries, in particular, are troubling. They reveal such an ugly side of me that my impulse is to get rid of them as fast as I can so no one else can ever read them. But they so clearly spell out certain errors I've made in life that I am tempted to keep them around so I can remind myself of the futility of certain paths of action or, particularly, inaction.

I spent much of my 20s feeling miserable and aching for someone to save me. I wrote bitterly and daily about the behavior of friends and relatives who I felt had let me down. There was Other, who lacked drive. There were the 'rents, who were critical. There was my younger sister-in-law, who was distrustful and unloving. There were my friends from college, who were judgmental and opportunistic.

Someone—I think it was Freud—said that every character in a dream is an aspect of the dreamer. And there's a parallel in my journals. It's patently clear 30 years after I wrote them that every complaint I made against anyone was a thinly veiled point of dissatisfaction with myself, and that the solution to my unhappiness was not that the people around me should change but that I should change. Somehow I was paralyzed—and I was furious with the world for failing to get me up and running.

I tried to convey this vital lesson last weekend to my daughter C, whom we sometimes refer to as "the princess" for her penchant for getting others to run her errands for her, among other things. I told her about the momentous lesson I had learned from reading my diaries. "It's really important that you take responsibility and do things for yourself," I told her earnestly. "People either won't do what you want them to at all or won't do it the way you want them to, so ultimately you'll be frustrated." Not so, said she smugly. "I find that a surprising amount of the time, you actually CAN get people to do what you want." So perhaps this is one of those lessons best learned by the teacher and not the would-be student.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

I'm flying!

The gym I belong to—the unfortunately named Crunch—prides itself on offering new forms of traditional exercise classes. Most of the innovations involve silly equipment (circular yoga mats for Lyrical Yoga) or unbearably loud music (The Ride), but there's one class that is actually magical: Antigravity Yoga "Wings."

The equipment consists of floaty nylon hammocks hung from the ceiling of the yoga studio. Stretch them out, and lie on them for Savasana, or corpse pose. Or bunch them up, and wrap your legs around them monkey-style and hang upside down. It may sound like a cheap gimmick, but it actually makes sound yoga sense. In its funny passive way, the hammock acts like a teacher giving an adjustment. In Savasana, for instance, being swaddled by the hammock encourages you to let go of muscular tension. And in suspended Adho Mukha Vriksasana, or handstand, the lift of the hammock prevents you from sinking into your lower back. Plus, the hammocks have all the eerie, simple beauty of a Cristo installation.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Mia is M.I.A.—and that's a good thing

I don't think it would be too much of a stretch to say that just about everyone who gets a cancer diagnosis indulges in magical thinking of one sort or another. Atheists make deals with God. Scientists read causal connections in mere correlations. And many people become superstitious.

In my case, superstition took the form of clinging to my cancer paraphernalia—the mediport the surgeon had placed under the skin of my chest to facilitate the delivery of chemo drugs, the cotton scarves and hats I acquired to cover my head during my eight months of baldness, the "cranial prostheses" (wigs) I wore to work. I feared that the hubris of ridding myself of these cancer-treatment accoutrements would bring on a relapse. And indeed it has been my experience in life that as soon as you throw out a dowdy dress, an old proof-of-jury-service voucher, an ancient folder of tax documents, that style comes back into fashion and an untimely jury summons arrives in the mailbox—along with a notice of an impending IRS audit. So why should it be any different with cancer?

It isn't, but as in the rest of life, shit happens—sometimes for the best. Although I had planned to hold on to my mediport for, like, forever, it became defective after a year and had to be removed before I had finished my year-and-a-half-long treatment. I got the remaining infusions in the back of my left hand (it doesn't hurt as much as you might think), and my veins held up. I'm not sure what happened to all the cotton scarves and Rasta hats I accumulated. They used to drift from the hall shelf onto the floor, and at a certain point I must have crammed them into my closet or thrown them out. Too bad if I threw them out, because I still think wistfully about a certain oversized aqua scarf with "om" in Sanskrit calligraphy that I bought on eBay.

As for the cranial prostheses, I gave one wig away to a friend of a friend who needed it for an art project, but I clung to the remaining one as protection against ever needing it again. As long as I have it, I thought, I won't need it.

The wig—a model named Mia—came from a long line of authentic-looking synthetic wigs by Amore. Perusing the catalog at the wig boutique was like—I'm just guessing here—going to a brothel and picking a sex partner. There was Brandi, Jennifer and Tanya, Regan, Tatum and Tova. Insurance paid $400 each for dear little Mia and her identical twin, waifish bobs with nicely variegated caramel-and-ash-blond highlights, though a friend with alopecia later directed me to a Fundamentalist Christian (don't ask) website—joshua24—that sells Mia for $119 (not necessarily a bargain for the insured patient, however, since insurance companies don't always cover website purchases).

When it came time to replace the original Mia, I was tempted to go with the longer-tressed Jennifer, but in the end I stayed loyal to Mia. In the unlikely event that people had been duped into believing that Mia was the real me, I didn't want to blow the ruse by growing three inches of synthetic hair overnight. And there was something in me that craved a consistent physical identity, even one not as pretty as Jennifer. There had been much awkwardness in elevators over the transition from real hair to wig, with people seeming not to recognize me or complimenting me on my new hair style (it had not been possible to find a wig as frowzy and frizzy as my real hair, so sleek, well-groomed Mia was a startling improvement). And I wasn't eager to endure another round of second takes.

I hated Mia. She rubbed me the wrong way—literally. But I needed her in order to go out in public. One of the humiliations of cancer is that unless you camouflage your plight with a wig, strangers invade your privacy simply by looking at you. Sometimes that led to heartwarming overtures, but mostly it led to rude stares or embarrassed turnings-away. So I covered my head. Scarves and hats were reserved for home and gym. Otherwise, I wore Mia. She protected me from unwanted attention. I protected her too. Iggy was hungry for her, and when Mia sat on her stand, I kept my door closed to fend off an attack.

When I was brave enough to go out with my short gray mouse-fur hair and no longer needed Mia, I threw her into a drawer. Every so often, in search of something else, I'd come upon her and get a frisson. Off my head and off her stand, she looked like a gutted animal, like something Iggy might bring in from the garden.

I really didn't need Mia anymore. I kept her because I was afraid of letting her go—and letting the cancer back in. But when I learned my friend K had uterine cancer, I knew I would send her Mia. So, yesterday I packed up Mia, the wig stand, the brush and the instructions and Fedexed them off to K, and they're winging their way to her now.

I didn't get a relapse while I had Mia. I know there's no cause-and-effect relationship, but I'm ashamed to admit that there's a secret childish part of me that believes there is. I'm not scared anymore that without Mia, I will get cancer again. For the moment, I feel free and unencumbered. And I superstitiously hope that Mia will protect K as she did me—and not just from strangers' stares.