Sunday, October 31, 2010

Paying it forward keeps me back

In my work as a volunteer for a breast-cancer hot line, I try to help women manage their cancer diagnosis, cope with the emotional fallout and, eventually, get on with their lives. Ironically, this work keeps my focus on breast cancer and to some degree restrains me from leaving my own diagnosis behind and getting on with my life. But I remember how grateful I was when I was diagnosed to be able to talk frankly to real people who had survived the disease. I knew I wanted to offer other women the gift I had received. And so, every Monday, I go back into Cancer World for a few hours. And when it’s over, I try not to think about it till the next Monday.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Numb and Number

And tonight I watched The Social Network and wished I hadn't returned Dumb and Dumber. A movie filled with beautiful young people, and every one a wretch.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dumb and Dumber is too dumb even for me

Because I have a low tolerance for raunch and violence and sadness in entertainment, I'm limited largely to sitcoms and romcoms and shows about nothing like Seinfeld. I have a deserved reputation within my family for picking bad movies. My kids tell their friends with wonderment that my favorite film is Dumb and Dumber. And it was true in spirit if not in fact. But last night I tried to relive my belly laughs by watching it again—and just could not stay awake. And today I returned it to Netflix half viewed. Oh, well, there's always 27 Dresses ...

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The view out my window

Too bad there's no longer a little boy in my household. That would make this view a delight. Without that little boy, it's just a clamorous nuisance that has been going on way too long!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Untouchable me

The hierarchy of airline passengers is as complex and rigidly observed as the Indian caste system. I believe these were the categories I heard tonight. No matter how you mince it, my caste is Untouchable:

First class
Executive class
Spa Alliance 
Economy Plus
Economy (Me! By the toilet! Ready to harvest the night soil!)

Working class

My dad has his set pieces, little speeches he gives to friends and cabbies alike. Often they’re well-rehearsed showcases for his views on the war or the organic-foods fad. One of my favorites is his spiel on the two smartest moves he ever made: marrying my mother (my parents fight like adders, but he’s a dedicated chivalrist) and becoming an engineer. The other day, I interrupted this now-familiar soliloquy to ask why becoming an engineer was such a good move. “My job gave me joy,” my dad responded. I asked my mom, a driven careerist before her stroke, whether her job had given her joy, and she said she couldn’t remember. So I asked a few of my friends whether their job gave them joy. And nary a one could say it did. One friend, K, said her husband’s job gave him joy—but resulted in loneliness and solitary dinners for her.

Crazy talk

San Francisco has even more visibly homeless folks than New York. And I had a couple of wacky encounters with two of them. One day I was walking up Chestnut Street and a vivacious young blonde accosted me to say “We should hang out sometime!” A few days later, on a grassy knoll not far from the same spot, a brackish young man came flying at me with fists raised and shouted, “You bitch! You deserved to die on September 11! It’s people like you the Muslims should kill, you cunt!” I don’t get the “c” word much, though the “b” word is sadly all too familiar. It kind of shook me up.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mom butt

Hanging out with my childhood friend R takes me back to my painful adolescence: the dread, the self-consciousness, the awfulness of being a kid trapped in an adult body. It must be even worse nowadays, when there are names for the conditions that were not crystallized in words then. My daughter C and her friends are ever on the alert for nipplitis, the unseemly puckering of nipples through shirts; camel toe, the unfortunate highlighting of the crotch by certain clothing; VPL, visible panty line (which thongs were invented to address); matchy-matchiness, the impression of being overattentive to color coordination; and mom butt.

But perhaps having these terms of art makes it easier to fend off embarrassment. Could defining the enemies corral them into a manageable herd?

Late middle age is another adolescence. Only now I’m a kid trapped inside a geezer body. No matter what my gym routine, mom butt is an enduring affliction. And for a woman who’s had breast cancer, nipplitiis may be a thing of the past, but there is an additional glossary of embarrassments to be mastered: pink patch, premature hair-thinning; slumpback, shoulder-rounding caused by self-consciousness not about breasts but about breastlessness; lost-lump emergency, breast-form slippage; joining the shmoos, having a belly bigger than your chest (but not as big as your mom butt).

Monday, October 11, 2010

Religious inversion

When anyone asks my religion (a rare occasion, I admit), I always answer “Yoga.” It’s a joke, but not really. Yoga is the closest I can get to dealing with issues of mortality and suffering, and my “faith” has survived some pretty grueling road tests. Yesterday, however, since it seemed to mean a lot to the ‘rents to have me go with them to church, I gave Unitarianism another try. But sitting still on a hard bench for an hour and a half, listening to unnatural rhetoric enunciated in affected cadences, made me long for the mat.

So in the afternoon I attended a fairly pedestrian gym-club “fusion” class, with none of the liturgical trappings that yoga classes often feature, and even in that bare-bones forum, I found what had eluded me on Cathedral Hill: patience, fortitude, attention to the moment and a renewal of good intentions. And that was without inversions!

But then, I’ve maxed out on inversions this week: this week I’ve attended three “antigravity” yoga classes, which use nylon hammocks hung from the ceiling as props to enable you to get deeper into poses. You insert various body parts into the sling of the hammock, which steadies you and perfects your alignment. For inversions, you gather the fabric into a thick rope and monkey-wrap your legs around it and suspend the rest of your body in inverted free fall. It’s like traction, only better. Your blood and all your other fluids flow to your head and rinse it out. It’s a little dizzying—like going through the spin cycle of a washing machine—and the pressure on your legs and sacrum can make you feel as if they’ve been put through a ringer, but it’s thrilling, and cleansing.

I didn’t get that from church.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Blue devils

San Francisco is about halfway through an assault by the Blue Angels, stars of the Fleet Week air show that takes over the skies and sound waves every afternoon for four days. These nasty little buzzers roar through the Marina like a swarm of angry wasps. I know the whole display is supposed to inspire pride and patriotism, but mostly I feel sympathy for the enemy.  

(Image borrowed from

Friday, October 8, 2010

Family secrets—no more

Last night my mom and I were joking about the improbability of Jews in my father’s family: Why would a Jewish guy moved to Presbyterian Harrisburg? And another family secret popped out: Turns out my father’s mother’s sister was married to a Jew—and he was murdered. My late great uncle (is that right or was he a cousin or once removed or ...? ), a shoe-store owner named Richard Goho, married my grandmother’s sister but had an affair with a female employee with 11 children. When he tried to end the affair, his mistress shot him to death. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

That patchouli you smell isn't pot

For the first time in two years, my presence in my parents’ home is  superfluous—in a good way. I booked two weeks since previous visits have often been too short for me to manage the backlog of tasks, but really two days would have been adequate to fulfill my parents’ practical needs this time. I think we’re all a little mystified about why I’m still here. The correct answer: my plane ticket out isn’t till next Friday.

Idle hands are the devil’s playground, as an old boyfriend used to say. So I’ve begun to stir up some dust by attacking the hygiene problem. The home aides keep the visible dirt down, but the smell of mold and mildew is patchouli-strong in places. So yesterday I took apart the downstairs linen closet, which was particularly offensive, and rewashed everything that could be washed and aired out everything else on the deck in the sun and scrubbed the walls with Lysol. Not 100% odor-free now, but better.

My brothers and I have been talking to my parents about having a cleaning service come in regularly to dust and vacuum the house and swab down the bathrooms. My parents, naturally enough, are somewhat defensive. “We don’t do anything to make it dirty,” my mother said. “Why do we need that?” She’s forgotten the truly dispiriting thing about housework: that you have to keep doing it even if you’ve led a soil-free life. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A trip down Amnesia Lane

I’m in San Francisco visiting my aged parents, but this time they are in relatively robust health, so instead of meeting with social workers and hanging out in hospital corridors, I’m mostly (cross my fingers, knock on wood) running a few errands and taking yoga classes and visiting with a few friends. 

So yesterday my childhood friend R and I took a trip down Memory Lane. As we caught up and reminisced, she drove us down to our old hometown in what is now Silicon Valley. Once mostly blond hills freckled with scrubby oaks, it is now thick with McMansions. Main Street, once a drab, dry little street with secret pleasures (the bead store, the yardage shop), now smells lush with money but fails to feel alluring (“nice” clothes, tasteful restaurants). 

Could I possibly have attended that high school and felt that turmoil behind those featureless walls? Behind that spread-eagled ... eagle? Could I possibly have lived in that upmarket house that breathes wealth? (I know for a fact that we never, not once, flew an American flag.)

I was hoping for an “Up” moment, in which a glimpse of my childhood would foretell my adulthood, or vise versa. But the big surprise was my failure to recognize the landscape—at all. It wasn't that it had changed. It was that it held not a smidgeon of familiarity. 

And visiting that alien place has left me with a weird, empty feeling. If I didn’t live there, where is the place I lived? Or did I live at all?

From Jew-ish to Jewish

I've always been a bit marginal as a Jewess. Like Steve Martin in The Jerk, I didn't find out I was Jewish until I moved from rural Los Altos Hills to New York City when I was 25 and discovered that my maternal relatives in Manhattan ate in Chinese restaurants on Christmas. Now it turns out that it is not only my mother's family that is Jewish but my father's too. Last night at dinner he told me that his mother's father had emigrated from Germany to America, changing his surname from Kleinbaum to Smallwood in transit. Of course, that wouldn't actually make me more Jewish, since Jewishness travels through the female line, so even my father's mother was merely Jew-ish, since her mother was a shiksa. Still, it makes me want to hang fortune cookies on the Christmas tree this year.

Monday, October 4, 2010

You CAN go home again

But you may not recognize it. This is where I grew up:

This is where I went to high school: