Bye, bye, Blago

And so we have a new governor, a more stable one, though he's been known for years as a gadfly.
When Eichmann was on trial in Jerusalem, the joke was that the worst sentence he could get was to live in Israel without proteksia (connections, patronage, contacts).
I think Blagojevich's sentence should be that he has to spend the rest of his life in Springfield, or Springpatch, as L and his colleagues call it.
Our ex-guv hated going to Springfield--it's as if he didn't know that was the capital when he ran for the office. He explained that he needed to spend time in Chicago because that's where his family was. (Apparently they couldn't travel to the capital, either.)
The very worst would be if he had to eat horseshoes for the rest of his life.
Horseshoes are a Springfield delicacy: toast topped with meat, french fried potatoes, cheese sauce and who knows what else.

Guest blogger Ruth Pennebaker on the Coyness of Tata Savers

Photo of a coy girl

Ruth Pennebaker, of, wrote this piece today, which I wanted to bring to everyone's attantion. So here it is:

A few weeks ago, in a not particularly bad mood, I unloaded on a website called Save the Tatas. It’s all about chipper, cute little bumper stickers and T-shirts, I opined, that trivialize breast cancer and make me want to pull out a sledgehammer. To me, the problem is that breast cancer isn’t really about breasts (or tatas); it’s about death.

More recently, I got what I have to believe is a well-meaning comment from one TM, somebody who sports a Save the Tatas bumper sticker and hasn’t yet run into me and my sledgehammer. Here it is:

Though I understand your concern, I believe you may have mistaken the purpose of “save the tatas”. Yes, breasts are nice to have, but when faced with cancer, they are nothing. You stated, “Cancer in your breasts doesn’t kill you; it’s simply where cancer can start. You stop worrying about your breasts really quickly — and start worrying about sites where the breast cancer can metastasize. Places like your liver, lungs, bones and brain that are a bit more vital than your cleavage. Places where the cancer will kill you.” I could not agree with you more. However, I believe that ’save the tatas’ is directed more towards gaining funds to find a cure for breast cancer, and not actually saving the breast once cancer has been diagnosed. If a cute, catchy phrase will encourage other people to donate their money to find a cure, then lets come up with cute, catchy phrases. I truely am sorry for you and those who have already lost their breasts to cancer. But, I will look beyond myself and place a sticker on my car in hopes that a cure will be found before too many other women are affected.

Oh, dear. Time to breathe deeply and count to 10. Think blissful, peaceful thoughts and concentrate on world harmony! Inhale newness and life, exhale conflict and lingering malevolence! Aspire to a higher state of being, of acceptance, of love! Then –

Oh, shut up. Save it for your 5:45 yoga class, you nirvanic twit.

Again, I do think this comment — and probably the moronic bumper stickers and T-shirts, as well – are basically born of good intentions, if not good grammar and proper spelling. Maybe they raise all kinds of money for breast-cancer research and prevention. Maybe their checks, unlike their tatas, don’t bounce. We can always hope, can’t we?

But I do wonder about a couple of things. It’s possible that I’m the only breast cancer survivor on planet earth who is deeply offended by STTT. But frankly, I doubt it. (Cancer Bitch, where are you when I need you?) In that case, why in the world adopt a slogan that antagonizes at least some women who have been most affected by this dread disease?

And, please, for God’s sake, spare me your pity for my bilateral mastectomy. I thought I had made that clear: I don’t pity myself and I don’t want anybody else’s pity. The fact is, I have been overwhelmingly fortunate. I’ve survived 13 years and am beginning to contemplate social security; I’ve lived to see both my children grow up; I’ve aged enough that I can no longer die young.

Unlike my friends Martha and Cindy and Clare and Roxy and Alice, I have had a future. Sometimes, I feel as if I am aging for all of us, trying to do the best I can for the rest of them, to honor them whenever I can with my own imperfect, but (so far) salvaged life.

But somehow, with the Tata people, it always gets back to breasts and a wink and a nudge. Why be serious about life or death or illness, when you can be cutesy? It’s so easy to whistle in the dark when you’ve never really been there.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

What's so funny about cancer (books)?

Here's a piece I wrote (with a few changes) for The Chicago Reader. It is way way way way shorter than it needed to be, but the Reader's news hole has shrunk and its parent company has filed for bankruptcy. I am thinking of expanding it for a Jewish magazine, since so many cancer memoirists are Jewish (secular, Ashkenazi). I want to see what's Jewish about their memoirs. In the meantime:

What’s So Funny About Cancer?
Breast cancer memoirists all seem to agree that laughter is pretty good medicine.
By S.L. Wisenberg

January 8, 2009

Breast cancer rates may be down in the U.S., but the literature of breast cancer metastasized at a steady pace in 2008, continuing what one scholar has called “a veritable torrent.” Breast cancer memoirs have become such staples—reliably displayed during Let’s Wave Pink Ribbons for Breast Cancer month—that it’s hard to remember a time when women didn’t document their journey from onset through the catalog of treatments to restored health, stabilization, or imminent death. But it wasn’t always thus.

True, British author Fanny Burney wrote to her family about the agonizing mastectomy she underwent—without anesthetic—in 1811. And Katharine Lee Bates (whose poem “America the Beautiful” became the famous hymn) wrote to friends in 1915 about her partner’s breast cancer and death. But neither of these works was published in the author’s lifetime. It was only after World War II that prominent American women went public with their tumors. Marion Flexner, wife of a well-known doctor, wrote “Cancer—I’ve Had It” for Ladies’ Home Journal in May 1947, breaking a taboo by refusing to euphemize her condition—and even inserting a little slapstick with a passage describing “roving boozies”: prosthetic breasts that escaped the confines of a bra and fell to the floor.

Humor is a component of most of the more recent breast cancer memoirs I’ve read, too, and I’ve been thinking about why. Laughter diffuses stressful emotions, of course, and humor is a near necessity if these books are going to appeal to cancer-free readers. But it’s mandatory, often, for the health of the memoirist herself: “Cancer humor is like a Zen laugh,” muses Katherine Russell Rich in her 1999 book The Red Devil: A Memoir About Beating the Odds. “[I]t’s a way of gathering back forces, a means of breathing in absurdity, darkness, and pain and blowing them out in one great, joyous guffaw. It is, finally, a form of power, laced with machismo. Fuck you, death. I laugh at you.”

In the same spirit, Joyce Wadler writes in My Breast (1997) that having a disease with an uncertain outcome made her “the dream girl of every uncommitted man in New York.”

A number of the memoirs include a final chapter in which the author reflects on the gift of cancer—how it brought meaning and depth to her life. Fortunately, that view has spawned a comic backlash. “If it is a gift,” writes Shelley Lewis in Five Lessons I Didn’t Learn From Breast Cancer (and One Big One I Did), published in 2008, “don’t come to my birthday party.” And cartoonist Miriam Engelberg refutes the soul-purifying attributes of cancer in her “memoir in comics” from 2006, Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person.

I’ve also noticed that most of these books contain a noncancer story, the purpose of which may be to establish the writer as a unique person with a unique life—not just, as Lewis puts it, “a tumor in a skirt.” Betty Rollin’s First, You Cry (1976, updated 2000) is also about leaving her husband. Geralyn Lucas (Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy, 2004) wants us to know she was 28, and had been working as assistant story editor at 20/20 for less than a year when she was diagnosed. And in the richly colored graphic memoir Cancer Vixen: A True Story (2006), Marisa Acocella Marchetto describes her life as a shoe-loving fashionista, working cartoonist, and fiancee/wife of a chic restaurateur.

Then there are the women living pleasant-enough lives in the title locale of Kelly Corrigan’s 2008 The Middle Place, where she was trying to negotiate her roles as mother and daughter when she found the lump. The author of this fall’s Cancer Is a Bitch: Or, I’d Rather Be Having a Midlife Crisis, Gail Konop Baker, was trying to keep up her confidence as a writer, and not lose her identity to marriage and motherhood. The book also becomes a memoir about her dead brother. Meredith Norton, the lone African-American among last year’s breast cancer memoirists (Lopsided: How Having Breast Cancer Can Be Really Distracting), was living a confused life in Paris with a Frenchman and a toddler, uneasy in the new language and culture and assiduously not fulfilling her promise. They tell their stories with mild humor and warmth, forming a lake for the cancer story to swim in. Lewis' book tells her story, while blending in (not all seamlessly) interviews with tough women--artists, politicians--who haven't let the cancer stop them.

Enid A. Schwartz, a nurse and breast cancer survivor, wrote her dissertation, “The Use of Humor in Coping With Breast Cancer,” in 2006 for Walden University (and published it as Humor in Healthcare: The Laughter Prescription). Most of the uses she lists are commonsensical: Humor can be an outlet for feelings that are taboo or painful. It’s a way of getting perspective, an effective defense when “facing difficulty, feeling overwhelmed, out of control.” It can decrease sadness and fear, help you form bonds with others, decrease tension around you, help you see the ridiculousness of the situation. Laughter can buffer stress better than crying.

But there are times when a patient needs to be sad, Schwartz says. Rollin writes self-critically of her frantic chattering after surgery: she referred to herself breezily as a “titless wonder” and talked about the operation at social events. Then she realized she was using humor to hide her sadness from herself, to keep from feeling the loss. Norton calls herself the perfect patient, with her huge veins and easy jokes. She notes that the hair she’s losing in the shower has formed a pile near the drain “the size of a Pomeranian.” But then she realizes she’s bald, and that isn’t funny.

Sometimes you can feel the forced humor seeping through the page, covering up true emotion: Sprightly, stoic, and vain, Lucas describes weighing her options for breast reconstruction. One method involves taking fat from her buttocks to fill in the breast shape—but she doesn’t want to “lose a piece of ass.”

There’s absurdity galore, to which humor is the only viable answer. Audre Lorde is told that she should wear a prosthesis when she comes to the doctor’s office because a half-flat chest is “bad for morale.”

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer I decided to try not to read anything by people like Lorde, who’d died of it. (Thus the quote above is second-hand.) I found out that Engelberg did after I read her cartoon book. I made an exception for ovarian cancer casualty Marjorie Gross. I’ve loved her 1996 New Yorker essay “Cancer Becomes Me” ever since I first came across it, in my pre-cancer days. She wrote for Seinfeld, and her piece crackles: “So I had a hysterectomy, and they found a tumor that they said was the size of an orange. (See, for women they use the citrus-fruit comparison; for men it’s sporting goods: ‘Oh it’s the size of a softball,’ or, in England, a cricket ball.)” Among the positive things about having cancer, she counts no one asking you for help them move.

Laughter comes from unexpected comparisons. In The Wounded Breast: Intimate Journeys Through Cancer (2001), Evelyne Accad, a University of Illinois professor, quotes the gallows humor of Ania Francos, author of the 1983 novel Sauve-toi, Lola. The narrator has lost her hair to chemo and is looking at herself in the mirror. “I started having a laughing fit,” she says. “Just then, my sweet mother entered the room, with . . . my Aunt Rivke. Of course Aunt Rivke [a Holocaust survivor] says: ‘So you’re off to the gas chambers, are you?’

“And we both were doubled over laughing. My aunt couldn’t stop rocking back and forth; she was almost crying.

“‘If you could have seen us at Auschwitz, when we were all together, naked, shaven, tattooed. There were some who started crying, but . . . we began to laugh, and I mean laugh!’”

As George Eisen says in Children and Play in the Holocaust: Games Among the Shadows: to play in the midst of evil and death is defiance, a “disposition to oppose one’s annihilation.” It’s an escape of the mind when the body is trapped—whether by soldiers, walls, and crematoriums, or disease.

S.L. Wisenberg’s own memoir, The Adventures of Cancer Bitch, will be published by University of Iowa Press in March 2009.

The Critic(s) Speak

From the most recent issue of Kirkus Reviews:

Wisenberg, S.L. THE ADVENTURES OF CANCER BITCH Univ. of Iowa (Adult NONFICTION) $$25.00 Mar. 1, 2009 ISBN: 978-1-58729-802-8

An ongoing blog about the author's experience with breast cancer is transformed here into a deeply personal, often darkly funny memoir.

Wisenberg (Creative Writing/Northwestern Univ.; Holocaust Girls, 2002, etc.) takes the reader from January 2007, when she was diagnosed, through surgery, chemotherapy and recovery, closing with a postscript in June 2008. This is not just a survival tale. The witty, opinionated author, a brusque intellectual and a self-described "Costumed Activist," freely shares her likes and, more often, her dislikes, both serious and petty. She has harsh words for the indifference of some in the medical establishment and for corporate-sponsored pink-ribbon campaigns that fail to sponsor adequate research into the environmental causes of cancer. She also scorns women who wear stiletto heels. Readers who want to know more, or to view photographs of the mammary-shaped baked goods at her Farewell to My Left Breast Party, can go to the Cancer Bitch blog. Wisenberg doesn't scant the disconcerting physical details about drains, scars and chemo, and she's equally open about her fear, suffering and depression. Rather than her breast, surprisingly, it's her hair loss she obsesses about. Eschewing wigs and turbans, she has a friend paint swirling designs and "US out of Iraq" in henna on her scalp, an act that says a lot about who she is and how she sees herself. Mostly though, she writes about carrying on her daily life during a stressful time: lecturing, reading, taking yoga classes, dining out with her husband, visiting friends, observing the Jewish holidays. The entry titled "What Is Mine," which names peoples, animals, places and things the author likes and identifies with, seems a tad self-indulgent. Not so "An Accounting," which illuminates and moves as Wisenberg sums up what she has learned from her experience.

Tart and scary.

Gone Fishin'

I've been in California since Xmas Day. I came for the MLA convention in San Francisco, which is the largest collection of humanities professors in the country. Maybe the world. Usually it is very uptight and filled with people scratchy in suits who are nervous about their upcoming job interviews in cramped hotel rooms. Many people hate coming to the MLA. I always like it because it's like being able to sit in on a bunch of different classes. There are tons and tons of panels and though some of them are quite boring and narrow (and you have to be very very careful not to be swayed by the clever titles), some are quite interesting. It was at an MLA years ago I first heard of the writer Dawn Powell, who was coming into a posthumous renaissance.

This year I did a presenation on William De Morgan, who is known today as a wonderful tile artist (see above photos), but was known in the last years of his life as a best-selling author. It was one of the two William Morris panels and I got to hang out with the Morrisians, who are goofy and smart like the kids I hung around with in high school, but more knowledgable. (I thought that college would be full of goofy and smart kids, but I was wrong. It was filled with the pre-professional, but that is another story.)

The best overheard quote from the convention: You see, all postmodern buildings are designed for humiliation.

(The worst thing about the quote is that it seems to be true.)

We are now in Point Reyes Station, in a cabin (not primitive) that L rented on the web. He and R and C are out hiking on the beach. I am inside where I can see Nature through the big windows: a hill and trees and another hill (or mountain) behind that. L picked this place because it is walking distance to Town, and I need a Town when I vacation. There is an espresso place, but it is sort of in an open-air garage, and I can probably sit there for a while if I bundle up. Last night we saw stars stars stars, which makes you sad when you think how they're obscured in the city. I just read The Mistress' Daughter by A.M. Homes, picking it up on a Free shelf outside the Point Reyes library yesterday. Homes talks about her grandmother, who thought the sky was pure black until she was 15 and got glasses. We sat outside for hours last night on the little porch outside our cabin, huddling near the clay stove and watching the fire and talking.

This is a fancy little town, with four kinds of fresh mushrooms at the supermarket, locally grown wool hats for $65, local organic unpasteurized milk (in bottles, cream on top), but also a Saloon where in the afternoon people gathered and talked to one another as a group, making it seem a local hangout. There is yoga at 6 every night behind the largest cute store. L notes that there's a ruggedness to the place, which is true, making it different from Cape Cod or Lake Forest (IL).

Yesterday in Town we saw a hand-written sign about free hair mats. Next to it was a round mat of dark hair hanging on the outside wall. I looked it up on the web last night and saw that a Bay Area woman has been collected hair from salons, sending the hair to Georgia, where it's woven into mats and sent back, and then she's been given them away as motor-oil absorbers. They're also used to clean oil spills. The greatest thing is that they can host mushrooms (donated by my friend B's brother, who is a famous mushroom man) and decompose.

Thus is the new century. In the 1980s we made art from hair, now we are improving the planet with it. There is hope. Si, se puede.