Story, overheard conversation #1

There once was an East European Jewish woman who had survived the concentration camps and immigrated to the US. She married, had three sons, lost her husband. The last 10 years of her life she suffers from skin cancer, and eventually hires live-in help, a (non-Jewish) immigrant from Eastern Europe. The woman with cancer grows close to this woman, who reminds her of her sister who died in the Holocaust. She tells her sons she wants to leave her house to this woman. When she dies, the sons are in agreement. They tell the caretaker: Our mother wanted you to take the house. It's yours.

She refuses. All she wants is to get her pay and move on to the next client.


What is the explanation?

That the caretaker could not imagine herself as anything beyond a caretaker, could not disrupt her life by inheriting a half-million-dollar house?

That she was afraid that the surviving family would fight her for the house, after all?

That she wanted to keep doing her honest work, and nothing more?

That she felt she didn't deserve it?

We don't know.

There is I.L. Peretz's (1852-1915) famous story of Bontsche Schvayg (Bontsche the Silent), a poor, miserable, oppressed Jew in the shtetl who never complains. He comes to Heaven and is offered anything he wants. What he chooses: a warm roll every morning, with butter.

This is a tragedy--he could have wished for world peace, for the end of suffering, the reader thinks--but he was so beaten down that all he could imagine was the hot roll. He is not a martyr to be admired--he's a beaten-down soul to be pitied.

The story has been widely translated. You can read different versions of the high points here.

The poor are always with us. Jewish beggar, Lower East Side, 1933, by Lightman... Painting above by Valadon

In Memorium

[photo by Terry Armour]

How can a 36-year-old die of colon cancer?

Chicago lost journalist Carlos Hernandez Gomez Jan. 17. Peter Sagal, host of "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," had this to say:

I am a nervous, self-doubting fellow, and sometimes reacted with less than equal enthusiasm to CHG’s kindnesses. It seemed odd to me that someone I didn’t know well would express such happiness and interest in my company. I thought that this was some kind of flaw in him. I realize, now, the flaw was mine, in my misplaced sense of propriety, my doubt. What can you say about someone who greets the world, and the people he knew — well or not — with such outlandish pleasure, except we should all need to strive to be more like him. Starting now, before we lose anyone else we need.

Read more and listen here.

January 2010: Cancer Bitch discovers foot straps

Again I am clueless even though I get as much instruction as everyone else. At rowing practice recently I realized, O, the straps are supposed to be tight around your foot, O, you’re supposed to adjust the foot-holder so that the bottom part is snug around your ankle, O you’re supposed to push against the strap when you push off from the balls of your feet and from the ankles.

I’d made my strap loose before, I’d not known how to determine the length of the footholder. All of this is obvious and seems like it should have been obvious. But it was like I had the pieces but didn’t put them together right. I would make the strap fairly loose, wondering why exactly we had to strap our feet in. My time was really good today, our young coach J said the other day, you're flying, you’ll have to get a new 20-minute average.

What is it about me that takes so long to understand the obvious? There was a column some years back in the SF Chronicle by a woman who was unfit for the world or a failure at living. She would write about how daunting it was to renew her driver’s license.

Then there is the narrator of Deborah Eisenberg's short story Days: I have always wondered, up until this moment, whenever I have heard them mentioned, what tube socks are. Now I realize...They're SOCK TUBES, and they are the only sort of socks that make any sense, because you just stick your foot into one any old way and leave it there, and the sock, not your foot, has to adjust. The feelings of confusion produced by the term "tube sock" are not, I realize, due to the nature of the tube sock itself but rather to the term's implication that all socks are not tube socks and the attendant question of why they are not.

In high school we could paint on the walls of the Newspaper Shack. There were two young Surrealists who were a year younger than I was/am, and they wrote on the wall things like: Man discovers hand, 1936. Their trademark call-and-response was: Who is the Real Snake? Yes. One was Mormon and looked like an IBM employee from the early years and talked about the upcoming missionary work. The other was lanky and stooped with long blond hair and later had a girlfriend with curly blond hair and they spent all lunchtime on the old old couch, oblivious to everyone else. Causing us to chant: She offered her honor, he honored her offer, so it was honor, offer. This all relates somehow to the de-familiarization of the familiar and more importantly, vice versa. And to late discoveries.

Wealth can make you optimistic and healthy, or is it vice versa?

Here comes another study about attitude and health, this time reported in the journal Circulation, and then in the
Washington Post. The happier women were less likely to develop heart disease and 14 percent less likely to die from any cause than their pessimistic counterparts. Those with a high degree of "cynical hostility" were 16 percent more likely than all others to die during that same period. The happier women also took better care of themselves and were more likely to follow doctors' orders. But even the lead author of the study says that optimism is associated with better health; there's no clear proof that it causes better health. More research is necessary. Of course. Though the investigator goes so far as to say that negativity is toxic.

Which came first?

But what's cynical hostility and what's sarcasm and what's dark humor that gets you through the day? In a wonderful and awful piece about his late wife Sheila Schwartz, author Dan Chaon writes: Most people don’t like a sarcastic cancer patient, actually. It’s scary, and we discovered, as the years of her illness progressed, that even our dearest friends were reduced to platitudes.
Schwartz died of ovarian cancer more than a year ago.

But we here at Cancer Bitch Central love the sarcastic cancer patient. The sarcastic patient is telling the truth, busting through platitudes. Sheila would read mushy gushy articles about the gifts of cancer and say sardonically, I’m missing out on all these great opportunities for personal growth.

As Shelley Lewis writes in Five Lessons I Didn't Learn From Breast Cancer (And One Big One I Did): If you think cancer is a gift, don't come to my birthday party.

Disparity in full

I just found a link to the entire Sinai Urban Health Institute study on the widening disparity in health between blacks and whites in Chicago and the nation. (It's worse in Chicago.)
As they say, read it and weep.

For historical perspective, you can read One Thousand Homeless Men (1914) and If Christ Came to Chicago


I can resist everything but temptation, St. Oscar Wilde told us. How true, how true.

But here is a list of things that I was exposed to in the last couple of days and did *not* eat or drink and then what I did eat in parens:
Class: fancy rain forest organic chocolate (sushi)
Unicorn Cafe: brownies, cookies, tiny chocolate rectangles made in the rain forest (lentil soup, latte w/ rice milk)
Bourgeois Pig: scones, cookies, bars, cake, ice cream, hot chocolate (latte, sandwich)
Frida's: cheese enchiladas w/ mole sauce (tilapia, chips, margaritas)
Barista Coffee House: scones, muffins, cakes, cookies (cucumbers, red peppers with hummos, latte)

How pathetic, how privileged. Is this interesting to anyone?
Is this like saying: Here are the people I *didn't* kill today?

I rowed today (inside) and we each did 500 meters five times as fast as possible and I was the last one rowing. Which is not the point. It is the opposite of the point, which was to be the first one finished.


Cancer Bitch is slightly traumatized (if that's not an oxymoron). She admits she did gain 30 pounds in her 40s, but she thought she was still sort of in the normal range. But today she went to the Y to meet for the very first time with a personal trainer and the trainer gave her that thing to hold in front of herself that looks like white binoculars except there's plastic where the lenses would be. It feels a little like a dousing tool but it supposedly sends out fat-seeking beams that report back to the device with a number. And that number corresponds to designations and according to the number, Cancer Bitch was designated as obese. How could this be?

[Bathsheba by Rembrandt]

Her friend G once said that women retain the image of themselves as they were at 30. Cancer Bitch wonders if this statement is accurate, first of all, and second of all, for the rest of someone's life. If you're 80, do you still think of yourself as you were at 30? When she was 30 Cancer Bitch had a very little bit of cellulite. When she was 28 she did aerobics and felt that she looked OK. But it has been a long time since she was 28. Does she think of herself as she was at 30? No. And she has a couple of items of clothing from yesteryear that she keeps around because she hopes one day to be able to wear them again. She will.

CB has not had sugar (well, not had foods that have a lot of sugar, like candy, cookies, cake, muffins) since December 28 and she has been rowing indoors with her rowing team (which welcomes new members, with or without rowing experience). Shouldn't that count for something? CB also thinks that a person should get credit for the foods she's exposed to and does not eat. That, too, doesn't seem like too much to ask, but the problem is there is no one to ask because, in her lights, there is no god or divine Mind running things, things just are. So buck up, Cancer Bitch. This is not the best of all possible worlds.

Alas, during CB's travels in November (Omaha, Houston, Atlanta, South Florida) she carried suitcases up and down stairs, which put pressure on her knees so now she can't jog or even do the elliptical without her knees hurting some. But her new personal trainer says she will give her exercises that will strengthen surrounding leg parts and help her knees. CB also picked up her suitcase and stored it in the overhead bin a few too many times and has some muscle pain in her back. She hopes it is muscle pain and not metastasis in her ribs. Yet there is this terrible terrible part of her that wants what they call "mets." How could this be? Metastasis is one more step toward death. Is it the dark drama of it she wants? She knows that only this thanatos-loving part of her wants...thanatos, death. She heard on the radio that teens under 15 don't understand the finality of death. Maybe CB is so immature that she is like a 15-year-old. Yet she has thought about death all her life. She is tired of writing about how she has always thought of death. But she does not want that warm oblivion. Or cool. She imagines it dark like a deep deep purple, a forever-sleep.

Cancer Bitch knows that she is a Holocaust Girl, a person obsessed with the Holocaust. She coined the term and wrote the book. But she also wants to live and be strong (Hello, Lance Armstrong) and turn that fat into muscle or into nothingness. She wants the fat to disappear. How odd that parts of your body can disappear. She likes the flier that promises: Lose 150 pounds of ugly fat instantly. It's a flier advertising martial arts for women. (See, you push the guy away.)

For many years Cancer Bitch was tall and gangly. Her mother said she could be a model. Once where she was in her early teens she met with a modeling agent who looked at her and then ran her hands along her sides and said that she had the shape of a coke bottle. This was not a good thing in a model. CB was too short to be a model, too, but the agent didn't even bother with that. Over the years CB has become more triangle-shaped. A pyramid. A delta. This is not a good shape to be, even if we didn't live in a fat-obsessed society that oppresses women who do not conform to the unhealthily thin Hollywood ideal. Cancer Bitch will work on her muscles and cardio and she hopes one day to be a coke bottle again, but one with some umph to her. She will challenge you to an arm-wrestle, even.

Thanks, Time Out

In the current issue of Time Out Chicago, Jonathan Messinger writes:
Best book for someone who likes the idea of the Oprah Book Club but thinks they’re too cool
The Adventures of Cancer Bitch by S.L. Wisenberg (University of Iowa Press, $25)
Wisenberg’s book about being diagnosed with breast cancer—culled largely from her blog of the same name—manages to dodge much of the maudlin retrospectivity of crisis or illness memoirs. Instead, the reader gets a sense of the immediate reactions and turbulent emotions experienced by a patient as news and developments filter down from doctors.
Read more: