Triple Play

1. Just 'Cause I'm Morbid Doesn't Mean I'm Sick
I've heard from a few people, worried about me because I haven't blogged lately and because I talk about my demise in a recent post. I'm fine. I have a routine oncology appointment May 2, and will report on that. I'm going to be a keynote presenter at a conference in Iowa City on Friday. I went to step aerobics tonight and was my usual clumsy self, but didn't fall. One time I fell backwards when I was sitting down and using one of those colored elastic stretcher things. They're dangerous.

2. What Price Friendship
In case anyone wondered, I've figured it out. It's the difference between the cost of a house in Wrigleyville and one in Andersonville (2 miles north). We have been looking at condos and houses because L and I are going to live together full time, after four years of marriage. He still has his house in Gary, though he stays in my condo most of the time. My condo is big but there's no room for his furniture there, or for an office for him. We're planning to sell his house and find a place where we can both have offices, as well as a guest room. A few weeks ago we paid earnest money on a brick farmhouse around the corner. It's very close to B and S; some time ago S and I vowed to stay in the neighborhood. They live down the alley from us now. We found out today that it would cost, roughly, half the selling price to rehab the place properly. So we threw in the towel. We have to have vintage (or else I'll be depressed) and we have to have outdoor space for L. There's tons of vintage north of us, but I promised S. And so we keep looking. My parents chose their neighbors when we moved into a new house in the 1960s. The three families bought the land together and drew straws to see who would be in the middle. We were, with the W---s on one side, and the S---s on the other. The families are still friends.

L and I realize that in most of the world, my condo would house 30 people. I said this to my visiting friend D, and he said: I'm glad you said it because I don't like to criticize my friends. Later he sent me an email in French that said, Property is theft.

3. 85 Years
This year again I didn't go to the homeland (Texas) for Passover. Sunday was my mother-in-law's 85th birthday so we sojourned with her in Litchfield, IL, tripling the Jewish population there for two days. L's kids came from Indianapolis: daughter, son and his wife and stepdaughter. They're all Christian. I led a short seder Saturday night for us. A friend of L's mother's came, too. I used the 1923 Union (Reform) haggadahs on hand, published the same year that L's mother was born. It didn't mention the 10 plagues. I think this is because the plagues seemed too magical to the logical Reform rabbis who felt the need oh-so-strongly back then to differentiate themselves from the superstitious Orthodox. At the seder on Saturday L asked the group: [Cancer Bitch], my mother and I are the least religious people here. Why do you think we wanted to have the seder? Our stepgranddaughter, aged 7, said: Because you're Jew-iss? L said he likes Passover because of the focus on liberation, and the way that you can make analogies with other freedom struggles. I said I like that aspect and also I like to think that people for thousands of years were observing the holiday just like we are. More or less. I'd pointed out that the haggadah was male-centric and had been published only three years after women got the vote. We had our granddaughter open the door for Elijah and look for the afikomen. If I had it to do over, I would have used a simple haggadah written for children, without verbs that end in "eth" and without so much God. In Houston I use an amalgam of texts. Sometimes we just go with the The Telling haggadah, which is egalitarian and progressive and quotes Emma Goldman. How many haggadahs can say that?


Not knowing what to do. It's a continuum. Some people know what to do and others don't. When I was young I never knew. It was as if all the other kids had learned the secret handshake. For instance: One day when I was in second grade my mother packed fried chicken for my lunch and I wasn't sure if it was acceptable in the school cafeteria to eat it with my fingers. So I opened the top of my lunch kit straight up and scrunched behind it to eat. Around the same time, kids used to ask, Are you a Texan or an Aggie? I had no idea what they were talking about, even though my mother was a Texan (alum of UT) and my uncle was an Aggie (not alum of Texas A & M ; once an Aggie, always an Aggie). I didn't even know enough to ask my parents what those terms were.

In the next decades, I've been less at a loss. For instance, now I know that there's a monitor at the airport that tells you which carousel your luggage is coming through. (Is carousel the right word?) But then yesterday I was picking up a pair of glassses that had been languishing at the optical place since forever and I also got my eyes checked. Afterward I met with the paperwork guy and made an appointment to pick up the new contacts next week and get my eyes dilated. Then the guy said, Do you want me to put it on a card for you? I said, No, I'll write a check. I assumed he meant did Iwant to charge it. But he meant did I want him to put write down the date of the appointment on a card.

On the one hand you could say that language itself is such a miracle that it's amazing that we can communicate with one another even approximately. On the other, I bet the Aggie vs. Texan kids would have known what the optician was talking about.

The Archivists

The university archivists came by today to Cancer Bitch Central, toting a box containing flat pre-boxes, plus a luggage cart. They filled up one and a half gray acid-free boxes, made from a flat pre-boxes. They took papers I wrote in college, syllabi from my college years and from my teaching (at the same place--Well-Regarded University), some photographs (of a campus landmark, of a tiny park that's now a fancily landscaped), satirical newspapers created by summer high school students on campus. It seems almost comical, these two guys ringing the bell and going through my papers. Taking what could be junk and treating it well. Or else it seems sinister. (I read too many accounts of Nazi soldiers coming into people's houses and rifling through belongings.) But I brought the archivists' visit on myself. L and I are thinking of moving, are moving toward moving, and I am a packrat, and I have trouble throwing things away. I will pay $7 to send a box of taped interviews and papers to strangers (at the Tamiment Library, something I did earlier this year) but I cannot not throw out the same material, for free. The university archive (at Well-Regarded University) is always emailing its faculty, reminding us to save and send for posterity. (Motto: When in doubt, don't throw it out.) So that is why I emailed them, offering my wares. I also offered my personal writerly papers, but the archives said I wasn't famous enough (said this nicely, of course, talking about limited space, etc., etc.). I felt some regret at letting my coursework go, but I can visit it whenever I want, during business hours. At least I can visit once the stuff is catalogued, and I can speed up that process by writing a bio and sending it in. The archivist told me to look at bios on its site for models. I have and I see that there was a prof who tried to enter Tibet in 1922. After being turned away, he sneaked in, dressed as a "Tibetan coolie," and then wrote a book, To Lhasa in Disguise. He is represented by five boxes of goods at the archives. As I read the bios of the other donors, I feel pretentious. There's no one else as young as I am, and I'm not young. I also had cancer and have a pre-cancerous blood disease. Part of my motivation is the possible imminence of my demise. I think: This will be one less task for L. Though it's just the tip. I still have six four-drawer file cabinets in my office at home. The archivists took just about half a file drawer plus a slice from a box of college stuff. I have files and files of journal entries and accounts of my dreams (boring; but after toting them around for 30 years, I'm loath to throw them out) and letters and even faxes. I have my bat mitzvah speech and notes my friends passed to me in 7th grade, and comic strips I drew featuring talking French pastry, and research on the Weimar Republic, back when you had to go through everything so painstakingly via newspaper indices and microfilm and -fiche.

My work will help future researchers who want to write on the history of journalism and liberal arts education. My papers will be catalogued and tucked away, not too far from the Leopold-Loeb ransom note and other treasures.

Some day soon I will go through the letters in my file cabinets, and, yes, the dreams, with the purpose of winnowing. I didn't give the archivists copies of two papers--the one on Weimar and one on Salome in fin-de-siecle art and thought, though I did hand over all the other research papers as well as my journalism papers. I like the idea of my papers living beyond me, even though some of them are embarrassing (dumb title; stupid mistakes; bad grade). When I was in graduate school, we were told that copies of all the stories and poems we workshopped were sent automatically to the university archive, the idea being that at least some of our peers would become famous. When I took an NEH seminar on biography, we often talked about the surfeit of information. The problem of the future, we said, will be that surplus--too many documents, too many photos, too many home videos. How will researchers be able to sift through and weigh? What will our family members, not yet born, appreciate having and what would they rather not be bothered with?

Homeland Security

L and I have just returned from Texas, where we had a three-day celebration of my mother's 80th birthday, and then we drove to San Antone to visit his friend J, who used to work with him. Yesterday we walked up and down along the river, which is brackish and greenish (and not just from St. Patrick's Day, I don't think), but nonetheless has ducks and fuzzy brown ducklings and a cormorant or two making homes in it. We chose a nuevo-ish Mexican restaurant it seemed to me; it calls itself a Texas bistro) for dinner and L and J sat down at an outside table but I stopped to see why about a dozen people, including several waiters, were staring at the water. Turned out that a duckling had a pink snake-like object in its mouth. Some people thought it might be bubble gum; others, candy; others, a real snake. I thought about throwing something at the duckling so that he'd release it (in case it was bubble gum) but I didn't. I just stood and watched helplessly as the duckling gobbled up more and more of the object. I don't think candy would hurt a duck, but I think that bubble gum would do damage. I doubt any studies on this have been performed.

In Texas it was spring, with balmy weather and bright green grass and geraniums, floods of pansies, tall bright snapdragons--and azaleas, on their way out. And the state flower, the bluebonnet, and other wildflowers, Lady Bird Johnson's legacy. We saw very few lizards at first, which disappointed me, but then L and I walked around before the brunch started and for some reason found a lot of lizards on the cement borders of flower beds in front of the restaurant. I recommend Masraff's if you are looking for lizards.

My mother hadn't wanted any fuss for her birthday but she relented and it turned out she loved the events, which my sister, for the most part, had arranged. A friend of hers said, I hope I look as good as you do...when I'm as old as you are. She said it to be funny, of course, because they're almost the same age. We would all do well to look as good as my mother does. See photo below.

It was the first time I'd been to back for almost two years, since I stayed in Chicago last Passover instead of flying to Texas, like I usually do; I'd started chemo and and didn't want to expose myself to airplane germs. On this trip everyone told me how wonderful I looked, which may say more about how they expected me to look than how I do look. L keeps telling me to keep my hair short, and he was sure to pass along any compliments he could gather about my hair-do.

Here is a picture of me at the brunch. I swear I didn't have this much gray before chemo.

In San Antonio, J had thought that we'd gone to Houston to celebrate my birthday, so she had a birthday card for me and made a chocolate eclair cake for me. She put a little green candle in it and turned down the lights and she and her husband and L sang happy birthday to me. It was very nice.

We were both happy to be home tonight and we walked around the neighborhood. It was cool and not too windy. Yesterday was opening day for the Cubs, and there were still signs in the window at nearby Murphy's Bleachers, letting people know they could come to the bar from 5-9 a.m., when Mike & Mike from ESPN radio would be broadcasting live. I kept thinking the "a.m." was a typo, but a man standing outside smoking told us that people had indeed come to the bar that early in the morning; they were disappointed because the bar couldn't serve beer until 7 a.m., he said. The ESPN web site tells me that people were lining up at 4 a.m. and ventured that they "may have had some Bud Lights in their system already."

In San Antonio in a few weeks Fiesta will begin--a huge, 10-day festival. The Cubs are our continuing fiesta, and even their constant losing doesn't dampen the party. We humans need to gather together for a cause that is that is larger than ourselves, and for many people that thing is the Cubs. A baseball team is benign enough. It could be worse.

In Houston Sunday night, after the cousins and aunts and uncle had left for the airport, and I was returning photos to my mother's albums (we'd put a bunch of pictures in frames and set them on the brunch tables), I felt melancholy. Partly because it was so quiet after three celebratory days with a crowd of family. Partly because in going through the albums I'd seen pictures of so many people who had died--my father, my maternal grandparents, my father's mother, cousin J, Uncle C and Aunt M, cousin B, Aunt S, Aunt B, so many of my parents' friends, and on and on--and I'd looked at photos of cousins and aunts and uncles when they were so young, so very young. I was so young. And partly because a number of people at the brunch were my mother's friends I'd known forever and some of them weren't in great shape. I felt Time as an antagonist, a strong, unstoppable force like wind or earthquake. And just as indifferent. And at the same time I wondered how long the photo albums would stay in the family, how future generations in general will deal with their inherited surplus of tangible memories. Who will be able to name all the people at my father's 60th birthday party? And who will care?

In San Antonio, J brought out a shoe box to show me. It was filled with letters her father had written when he was serving in the navy just after World War II ended. He was 19 and on a destroyer in North Africa. And then he came home, married her mother, and they had J. He died in a car crash when she was a baby. Because his life was so short, because she doesn't have memories, everything he left was precious.

We were in Texas at the peak of wildflower season. Because of Lady Bird, the highways are lined with bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, evening primroses (which I call buttercups), a deep red species of phlox. This is what Lady Bird wrote, five years before she died: "My heart found its home long ago in the beauty, mystery, order and disorder of the flowering earth. I wanted future generations to be able to savor what I had all my life." In the comment section of her on-line obituary in USA Today, some people ridiculed her beautification crusade. Yes, it's true she didn't speak out against the war in Vietnam. But she also didn't do nothing.