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.