Tuesday, November 30, 2010

In one ear and in the other too

This week, two people (one was my son) told me I looked like a lesbian (not that there's anything wrong with that), and several others called me Sir (not that there's anything wrong with that either).

I began life as a tomboy and bloomed in the flower-power era and never progressed beyond my hippie style. I never permed or straightened my hair or shaved any body parts or mastered makeup or found the perfect bra. And the bohemian look worked (at least I thought so) until I got breast cancer.

But without my breasts and my wild-'n'-crazy hair (it grew back sparse and gray after chemo), I no longer have the usual female markers. So I've been working harder to broadcast accurate gender information. I've been strapping on breast prostheses (seriously uncomfortable) and applying makeup (not very expertly) and wearing girlier clothes (pink shoes!). It's been a lot of thankless work, and I'm sick of the whole charade.

I was whining to my friend B this weekend about my efforts and my failures. "You don't need all that stuff," she said. "All you need is earrings." Wha?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Boobs talking boobs

Here's the conversation (roughly) I listened to on the radio this morning:

Male announcer No. 1: So did you hear about the German guy who's suing his girlfriend because he paid for her to get a boob job on the condition that she stay with him for at least a year?

Female announcer: And she left him?

Male announcer No. 1: Yeah, and he'd made her sign a contract that she'd pay him back for the boobs if she didn't stay with him. So he's suing her for breach of contract and demanding that she return the implants.

Male announcer No. 2: If that was my girlfriend, I'd pay for one boob and make her live with me for two years before I'd buy her the other one. That way no one else would want her and she'd be stuck with me.

Female announcer: Ew! But you'd have to look at her for two years with one boob bigger than the other.

Ode to 87

For me, driving is what war must be like: long hours of boredom punctuated by bursts of mortal fear.

The limitations you experience behind the wheel are as fundamental—in good ways and bad—as those you face in life: the imperative of staying with the crowd to avoid censure, the blind spot that results from your own presence, the inherent danger of a journey of any kind, and, for me, the sense of undertaking a task that taxes my skills but feeling successful no matter how many mistakes are made as long as I don't kill anyone.

Safely home from driving my daughter back to school.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


Life is change, the Buddhists say. Which makes New York feel quintessentially Buddhist. Where are the whores who just a few years ago plied their trade along lower Third Avenue? Where are the crack addicts who stored their stolen goods in an abandoned building on East Fourth Street? And most sadly, where are the Andean pipers and drummers whose melancholy mountain music once wafted surreally through every urban landscape from the bowels of the subway to the spires of the skyscrapers? They've taken their wooden flutes and their brilliant serapes and their glossy black butt-length braids—and vanished.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Where did I ...?

Here's the answer to the question I ask myself every day:

There are seven, count them, seven pairs of reading glasses in this picture, which I swear is unposed. I came across the assemblage this morning when I was looking for my ... oh, never mind.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Faux-bedbug hell

There's a species of little kid that simply cannot abide uncomfortable clothes. My daughter was so allergic to seams over her toes that socks were virtually an impossibility in kindergarten. My kindergarten son, on the other hand, adored the constriction of neckties and sports jackets.

I'm afraid I have never outgrown my youthful aversion to clothing that rubs me the wrong way. So when I get home from work, I rip off my work clothes and put on my nightie. And once in my nightie, I climb into bed. I love my bed. It is to me what a charging plate is to a cordless phone. I run out of juice if I don't unite with it.

My bed is my sanctuary. So it was extraordinarily stressful to wake up last weekend with a line of insect bites down my right ribs. You see, I've been on a few planes in the past few weeks, and I live in a city where it's estimated that 1 out of 10 households has bedbugs, and I work on a floor that recently had several areas of infestation. So it didn't take a big mental leap to arrive in bedbug bedlam.

The next day I woke up with a line of bites down my left ribs. Other and I lifted the mattress, pulled up the sheet, examined the seam of every stuffed thing in the house for "fecal smears" and molted skins, and vacuumed—twice—even though the house wasn't dirty.

The next day I had a bite on my leg, but I saw—and killed—the mosquito that did it.

Throughout, I slept no more than an hour or two a night, spending my considerable waking hours planning how I could exterminate the bugs while sparing the humans in my house. I printed  instructions for a home-made bedbug monitor invented by a Rutgers student that uses dry ice and double-bowl cat dishes. I Googled the names of sniffer-dog operators.

And then ... there were no more bites. Of course, it's possible that my six bedbugs are sleeping off their vast meal and will shortly come back for more. Or it's possible one now-dead mosquito ruined my life for three days.

Monday, November 15, 2010


I've never had an eating disorder, but I do have a little media-bingeing problem. And so it is that I spent much of my weekend watching "The Big C" in a bulemic fashion: gorging on 12 episodes of it and then purging myself by telling everyone how much I hated it. If only I could get ahold of the latest season of "In Treatment," I could call myself a gourmand.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Is it just me?

Here are some of the things that I did NOT do when I was diagnosed with breast cancer: 

* Flirt with my doctor

* Show my breasts unasked to my doctor (and later to a couple of police officers)

* Refuse treatment out of hand

* Take on extravagant home-improvement projects and invite the contractor to charge me double

* Deliberately pour red wine on my old couch

* Fill the bathtub with fake blood and pretend to be dead to scare my son

* Buy a new red sportscar

* Tell a fat girl that she could be either fat or bitchy but not both, then offer her $100 for every pound she loses

* Launch into a chain of cartwheels

* Barge into a neighbor’s house without knocking and scream at her for not being friendlier

But those are some of the things the protagonist in "The Big C" does in the pilot. Am I just weird?

Inquiring mind needs to know

Is "The Big C" the gut-busting comedy it was billed to be? Hard to imagine, but I like to keep an open mind until the stink of shit slams the door.

Friday, November 12, 2010


With multiple sclerosis, a colostomy and a knee-replacement-gone-wrong that resulted in an amputation (and you thought you had troubles!), my mother-in-law must live in a nursing home. Despite every effort to keep the place clean, cheerful and sanitary, the air has a whiff of feces and urine, and the ambiance stinks of sadness. Hoists and wheelchairs transport aged bodies to bed, bathroom and beyond.

It’s like a sick science experiment, where nutrients are spooned into one end of an alimentary canal and caught with diapers and pans from the other end. There are a few working brains among the dozens of bodies that exist there in suspended animation. And those brains exude a mist of wistfulness and longing—for some dimly recalled self, for the grandchildren and great grands whose photographs beam from bedroom walls, for a phone call from an adult child and, above all, for a visit from anyone at all. 

Sometimes the ones with brains vie among themselves for the status of most beloved. One will introduce her adult daughter to everyone she passes, flaunting that she has a relative who loves her enough to visit. Another will announce loudly that her son arrives in a few days for a weeklong stay. Another will brag—and this boast trumps all others—that when her relatives come, they pay their own way.

I used to long for longevity and feel cheated by my cancer history. Now I wonder if I am not one of the lucky ones, whose body and brain will die in synchrony.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The in crowd

My friend H’s mother lives in the same Florida nursing home as my mother-in-law. So H and I decided to fly down together.  On the plane, H was saying that her mother always felt that my mother-in-law was “popular” and she was not. Ah, we clucked, how sad that such adolescent insecurities persist into old age. Later I was making plans with my mother-in-law and a friend of hers to go to dinner, and they made sure to arrange for a third friend to join us so that our table of four would be prefilled and no one they didn’t like could join us. Ah, I thought to myself, how sad that such insecurities continue to be justified.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Cancer sucks, but so do a lot of things

I hate it when people say cancer made them a better person or was a blessing in disguise or ... But I cannot deny that there have been some fringe benefits to my illness: the get-out-of-jail cancer card (along with the ever handy chemo-brain-made-me-do-it voucher) and the honorary degree in medical science—but most of all the cancer friend.

I met J in radiation chambers. I had been rebuffed in the waiting rooms of doctor's offices and chemo clinics often enough that I wasn't making any overtures. But J reached out to give me a crash course in Radiation 101—and even wrote my notes for me: where to get a free radiation bra, what unguents to use on my burnt flesh and, most generous, her phone number and e-mail.

Since then she has given me crash courses in other areas of her peculiar expertise: how to raise my children (she doesn't have biological ones but earned her chops from eons of volunteering in after-school programs), which '70s sitcom that familiar-looking actor starred in, how to create a high-culture experience out of a low-brow cruise.

Now she's teaching me a lesson I don't want to learn: how to survive a mortal shipwreck. No, she's not dying of cancer. But her brother is. One brother has already died of the rare intestinal malignancy, and now the other brother is dying of it too. Alzheimer's took her father last year, and her mother is slowly  slipping beneath the waves of dementia. That leaves J, who herself is none too steady on her feet, to haul the masts and bail the ballasts—whatever the hell you do in a shipwreck, she's doing it.

Oh, and the ship's going down in Florida, and her crew is in New York, so she's all alone in the stormy seas of family. And has been for nearly a year. So what do you do when you're shipwrecked and surrounded by gnashing sharks of fear and loneliness and sadness? You get out your handy-dandy camera and start snapping pictures of the flora and fauna. You learn how to drive so you can have a secret life. You sign up for quilting classes and make a quilt for your dying brother. You join Gilda's Club, because Trouble is everyone's middle name there.

But mostly you just make do, because you have to.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Precision is important

Lately I've been taking yoga classes with an Anusara specialist who teaches in her Union Square loft. This teacher has very acute alignment-spotting skills and is direct and matter of fact in correcting wayward form. She was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying "Precision is important." I think she was embarrassed by that prosaic statement, but it has stayed with me. It's so simple, just three words, easy to remember, and really the core of what I need to focus on in yoga--and in life. Anyway, I've been enjoying this class, and at first I was perplexed by my determination to be there every Monday. Yes, she's a good teacher, and, yes, it's helping me, I think, to do yoga more safely, and, maybe, my back feels a little bit better, and Mondays are convenient for me. But it's more than that. Last Monday I looked around and realized that every single one of the 10 or so other students had gray hair or hair that was clearly dyed to cover the gray. I had never noticed before how OLD my fellow students were. Usually I'm the oldest person in any yoga class I take. But in this class, it's possible that I'm the youngest. And I had never noticed because these elderginis are so strong and adept and alive. What a relief! Hovering, unspoken, in the back of my mind had been the fear that someday I might be too old for yoga. Not.