Theology: a Guest Blog

This is from my friend J in Ohio about her five-year-old:

We were driving home from Young's (Their real motto: "The Dairy with Cows") after a meeting with Julie, Josh and the three kids, and were discussing Julie's dying father, which led to a discussion of God. After a brief back-and-forth, i.e., what is God? and Is god a person? Is god dead? Jen answered obliquely: some people think God is an idea, etc. There was also a tie-in with the spiritual, recently viewed on a 1930s Disney animation "Who built the ark? Noah, Noah" and that God told him to build an ark. Then Joseph considered the whole discussion, and finally said, "I know what god is: he is a tiny person that lives inside your heart and whispers to you; god is a whisper in your heart." Then, there was more discussion about whether God was on the ark with Noah, or whether he drowned in the flood. Finally, Joseph said, "I think God died a long time before Noah was born, and that he was a ghost who lived inside Noah, and that way he was on the Ark, but didn't take up any space because he was inside Noah." Later the next day, I asked Joseph whether he had ever discussed God at school or anywhere else. He said "No, I have that same whisper inside my heart."

Everything rated

Chicago Magazine has come out with its doctors issue. Best of. I suppose there were the 10 best and 100 best and 5 cheapest before the advent of the city magazine, but it doesn't seem so. My surgeon, whom I like very much, was named, as was my erstwhile stolid oncologist. I don't know the criteria. I don't know if the judging is fair or if it could be fair. There are cafes and restaurants that are named the favorites by customers, who vote. Aren't all the invisible ballot boxes stuffed by management? I've never seen American Idol but I know that's voted on by Regular Folks. Phoning in, maybe? Americans clamor to vote on everything and everyone but their government. On that island show people are voted off. The poetry slam has rankings like the Olympics. I was looking up the phone number of the neighborhood post office the other day and Google took me to a site where people rated their post offices. I buy, therefore I rate. Furniture is rated. Professors are rated, books are reviewed and ranked, plays are reviewed, wine is rated, stores are rated, airlines are rated, cars, refrigerators, furniture, toys, dishes, maybe silverware, probably jewelry somewhere, latte makers (people and machines), politicians, probably umbrellas and tea kettles, electronics, vacations, TV shows, hotels, movies, charities, newspapers; dogs have shows. I thinking that I will start rating: sidewalks, trees, street benches. For a start. Which is not the same as naming my favorites. We define ourselves by our favorites. Men can fantasize in more detail if they know what the Playboy centerfold's turn-ons and turn-offs are. We read Dewar's profiles and the American Express celebrity ads and think we that we learn something about the celebrity who's featured. Oh, I like that too. Oh, that person is like me. I'm not alone in the universe. There's a tiny tendril connecting me to --.

Oh, Oh, it never ends

Diagnosed yesterday with fungal toe nails. I have to put special nail polish on them every night. The bottle will last about a month or two and costs NINETY-FOUR DOLLARS AND NINETY-NINE CENTS and is not reimbursed by our health insurance. Yesterday I also started Tamoxifen, a bargain at $7.50. I'd been so so so scared of it. And why not? It comes with a paper that warns: Since this drug can be absorbed through the skin and lungs, women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant should not handle this medication or breathe the dust from this tablet. It's supposed to soak up my estrogen but it can also be used by infertile women to cause ovulation. It's a shapeshifter, something for everyone. It can make you fertile, cure you of cancer, give you breast lumps or increase your bone pain. Not to mention give you cancer. Its most popular trinity of side effects: mood swings, hot flashes, weight gain. Which I can get on my own without having to take this scary pill. Tamoxifen comes from the yew, which we have in the front yard. I should just go out and chew me a branch. The way dogs naturally start chewing grass when they feel sick.

My acupuncturist had told me to try Vicks VapoRub for my toe nails, but I couldn't quite believe him. And I will put foot cream on my chest and Chapstick on my split ends. Now I look around the Internet and there is mention of the Vicks cure--it's on line so it must be true. I should follow the scientific method and put Vicks on one foot and the $94.99 toe nail polish on the other. At least it'd be a way of making the polish last longer. For more on Vicks and feet, click here.

The Exciting Day

1. The Phancy Phlebotomist

I had a blood test today on Ye Olde Cancer Floor at Fancy Hospital. The phlebotomists have always been nice and personal and usually talkative. There was one who'd had surgery for a repetitive motion disorder like carpal tunnel from gripping the test tubes. She said when she saw the hand surgeon in the hallway, her hand started hurting. There was another who always noticed my earrings when I went in for chemo. We were getting started today when another phlebotomist came by eating a shortbread cookie. The two of them talked about how tempting they were, and then my phlebotomist said she didn't mean to eat cookies and such but as soon as she sees them, she eats them. We commiserated about all the tempting foods out and about at this time of year and she told me she had to stop eating so much because she didn't want her New Year's Eve dress to be so tight on her that she looked like a whore, pardon my French. She told me she'd bought a dress on sale Marshall Field's in October or November five years ago, for $85, and it had sequins and ruffles on top and two tiers of material below her knees. It was going to be her New Year's Eve dress. But when the time came to put it on, it was too tight: Girl, she said, it looked like I had four titties and six booties.

So she didn't wear the dress that night. She's never worn it. It's still in the closet with the tags on. But she plans to. One day.

2. Whole Foods

The lady ahead of me in line told the cashier to put the food from the hot bar in a bag, and to give her the cookie. The cookie, she said, was for herself. The hot food was turkey tetrazini that she was going to give to a homeless man. He'd asked for spaghetti and meatballs and this was the closest she could find.

We say homeless and what does it mean? My undergraduates at Downtown University would use the word bum in their writing and I told them not to and I couldn't convince them I was right. They thought it was descriptive, not pejorative. I told them to describe the person instead. That way, the reader would have an image in her head. They could write homeless, but how could they know that was accurate unless they asked the person if s/he lived in a shelter? I suppose you can assume correctly that a person who is selling the StreetWise newspaper is homeless, or had to be when s/he first started hawking it. The point of selling it is to not be homeless forever, to use the selling job to get on your feet. Though at 75 cents take-home per sale, it might be a very long climb to self-sufficiency. Still, I say it: There was a homeless man...
I talked to a guy I know a couple of days ago in the Little Cafe Down the Street. I knew him from Cafe Avanti on Southport. He used to come in when he was tired or cold from selling the paper in front of the Jewel and do arcane astrology figuring. He sells StreetWise now in Evanston. He goes to the same church now as the owner of Avanti. When he saw me he told me Happy Hanukah. He said someone had stolen his books and he was trying hard to forgive them. We talked about Kabbalah and the colors of chakras. Is he still homeless? I don't know. I don't know where he lives. It sounded like his stuff had been stolen in a shelter, but he didn't come out and say that. Maybe he lives in an SRO. I didn't ask.

3. Yoga Party

Tonight my new yoga class had a party in an apartment two blocks from here. I'd been going to yoga three times a week at S Park (indoors), but when our beloved teacher J retired in August, the classes ended. Allegedly the park staff is still looking for her successor. How long does it take to find a yoga teacher in a big city? Apparently more than four months, if the people conducting the search work in the laziest, most patronage-heavy sector of local government. So I've been going on Wednesday nights to yoga at G Park, which is even a little closer to my house. The flyers about the party were handed out last week, our last class of 2007. I'd been skeptical about the party--I'd rather do yoga than have a party, but that wasn't the choice. I made a side dish, as assigned, and went. We told meeting-your-spouse/fiance stories. The yoga teacher works as a physical therapist who visits her clients at home. She was helping a man with cancer whose caretaker was a young Polish man who didn't know much English. The Pole was captivated by our teacher, by the way she was so focused on the patient she was working with, and so caring. And also that she was so beautiful. He suggested they get together. The premise was that he would teach her Polish, so she could speak to her Polish clients, and she would teach him English. The second time they went out he proposed they move in together. She assumed that he'd meant to say something else. But he hadn't. She said no. After a month he took her to her favorite restaurant and he gave her flowers and a small box. She opened the box and saw a diamond ring. She put it behind her back. She didn't want to see it. She told him it was too soon. He took her home. He kneeled and proposed to her in Polish, because he couldn't say what he wanted to in English. She said no and kept the ring for about a year. And then they decided it was time. That was this fall. They flew to Poland to see his family. She's from Taiwan. They'll visit her family next.

Story 2: When D was in high school, his family hosted a student from South America through the American Field Service. They stayed good friends. When D was divorced, he called his friend, now a doctor in his home country. His friend invited him to visit for three weeks. He did. He met the best friend of the friend's teenage daughter. That girl went home and told her mother (newly divorced) that she should meet this nice, handsome man from the United States. She did. She offered to show him around town. She gave him her card. The next morning she called his hotel room and said, Why haven't you called me yet? And she showed him around. They married about a year later and she moved here. At the party tonight, D passed around the business card she had given him when they met, eight years ago. He laminated it to preserve it. D is in the jewelry business and told our teacher he had never heard before of a woman keeping an engagement ring for a year without officially accepting it.

This yoga group is very tight. They went to Ravinia together last year. They met at a restaurant once. A few weeks ago we had people over here for Hanukah and M was saying that she thinks it's nice to have people you do an activity with but don't become friends with. She said, for example, she's glad just to see her yoga practitioners only at yoga. I had agreed at the time. At least I thought I'd agreed. Maybe I hadn't. In my old yoga class, there seemed to have been a group of Insiders who would hug J and ask about her daughter. These same people would talk before and after class with one another in a friendly, intimate manner. I wondered if they were friends before yoga. I think they were. After a few years J learned my name, and when I found out about my cancer and told her, I became one of the Insiders. At least I became Special. She sent me a get well card. My friend R (who I knew from Cafe Avanti) joined the class a couple of years after I did. I know he became friendly with a couple who came on Fridays, and he'd been to their house. I know this sounds like high school or grade school. But for a long while I was stymied by the already-set friendships in the class. It was like there was a clique I could never join.

There was one tall slim blonde in the Advanced class who one of my fellow Beginner classmates used to refer to the yoga goddess. The goddess worked as a chiropractor. And then she got cancer and it went to her brain and she died.

Here at WRU

The web is an odd thing, especially for those of us old enough to remember when people didn't have computers at home. A "personal computer" was something big that stayed on your desk in the office. Anyway, my friend D in Minnesota alerted me today to the presence of an MFA blog that mentioned our creative writing program at WRU. A person we had just decided to admit was asking whether our program was selective, what the students were like, and whether he should go ahead and write his check. I feel like I'm listening to a party line.

One interesting discussion on the MFA blog was about aesthetic diversity in various programs. I would say that most of the people in prose in our program write traditionally, but we don't encourage it. I would love to have more people write experimentally. But I think a small slice takes such stylistic risks because: 1)when you're starting out, you tend to start out tentatively, writing what you've read, and 2) if everyone wrote experimentally, then the experimental would become the traditional, so by its very nature, experimental writing is practiced by a minority.

We aesthetes value the experimental, though those of us who practice it find ourselves whining (see Sunday's post) about being marginalized. As L tells me, echoing what I tell myself: Don't write non-mainstream work and then complain that your work is not published by mainstream publishers.

That is what the university is for: to value the non-commercial. The university and the "art world" value what's new and different and risky, and not mainstream. You can look in women's magazines for the commercial, bland story. Yet thousands or millions will read cookie-cutter, sentimental stories and be touched. Are these readers' experiences not valid? Do they not bleed? They bleed, but their blood is not so interesting.


In the future we will all have cancer for 15 minutes.

The Fear

The fear, the fear always of not amounting to anything. That's one way of saying it. I fear I will not, I do not, amount to anything. Meaning I am nothing? As in the old joke about the rabbi and the prominent men of the synagogue bowing and scraping to God on Yom Kippur: I'm nothing, I'm nothing, they weep, and then a lowly schlemeil comes along and beats his breast and wails, I'm nothing, I'm nothing, and the rabbi looks at the big makhers and says, Look who thinks he's nothing.

No. Not like that. And I never thought that joke was so funny.

More like the way you're supposed to have one slip of paper in your right pocket saying you're but a grain of dirt, and in the other, one that says for you the whole world was created. So you can pull out one bit of paper when you're nothing, and one when you're feeling too full of yourself. A balance.

We are all nothing. We are all here for a moment.

Fame. Ambition. Excellence. Strive to create work as excellent at Dante's, says Donald Hall, or something to that effect. Not to be famous. Not to become known. But to create work that is sui generis. It is the work, not the life that is important. Though we confuse the art with the life, and fall in love with pitiful (we think) Kafka because of his life.

And we become bitter. For example, when we hear of a Stage 3 cancer survivor who wrote a book and will be on the goddamn Today Show and will be profiled in O, and whose book will be covered in Glamour, Family Circle, Good Housekeeping and More Magazine. I am bitter, so bitter, I am pre-emptively or not-so-pre-emptively rejected. In the spring I emailed a passel of agents about my blog-to-become-book, and they said, There's a glut of breast cancer memoirs. So how did this girl get her blockbuster? Her father has cancer. Maybe her book was part of the glut. Along with another book that has cancer and bitch in the title. I am afraid there is not room for me, that my book will not be published. J said this will be my bestseller. But J is not a soothsayer. She's a friend. G says that the Stage 3 girl is young, 36, and that we're discriminated against for being older. I suppose pathos decreases as your age increases. And pathos is doubled by each child you have. I have none. I have no bairns. I have no cancer. My cancer is encased in fancy parrafin inside Fancy Hospital, six miles away. The cancer is outside of me. I do not want any more cancer inside. Stage 2a was quite enough, thank you. But I want to be on the Today Show.

M says the best thing that happened to Joan Didion's career was her husband dying. Which she didn't bargain for or choose. She didn't say: Give me a blockbuster; I'll sacrifice my husband. And daughter.

Fate doesn't bargain.

Wasting time fits in here somewhere. The restlessness of time-wasting. The nothingness of it. The nothing-to-show-for-it-ness of it. Wasting time means that you are not making something. You are making nothing. Spinning your wheels. The wheels are empty. They're not attached to anything. They're not making anything go. They're not turning straw into gold.

Customer Service

This is a tribute to Uncle Dan's, a local chain that sells outdoor gear. But first, a short report on bad customer service. My internet wasn't working late last night or this morning. I called AT&T and after waiting, I talked to "Mark," who had me unplug and re-check plugs and asked me, Where are you? I thought he meant which room, as in: Are you in the room where the wire is plugged into the phone jack? But that wasn't what he meant. He said, No, where are you, which state? I said, Illinois, where are you? He said, The Philippines. Aha. That explained his difficult-to-understand, non-idiomatic English. I should feel sorry for him because AT&T will stop outsourcing customer service in January, and he'll be out of a job, but I felt more annoyed than anything because he wasn't helpful. I put his name in quotes up above because I think that people overseas in outsourced customer service give themselves American names. I read that somewhere. After "Mark" I spoke with someone named Dexter, who had me do a bunch of things, none of which helped. Then I was on hold for about 15 minutes, and talked to a woman who had me plug and unplug, and who told me I needed to order a new modem. And then about an hour later, the connection fixed itself. Which is what L had said would happen. This sounds rather benign and calm but I was upset about all of it. The service personnel are all required to thank you and to tell you to have a good day. You would have a better day if the company hired more people so you wouldn't have to wait so long.

But on to Uncle Dan's. Last week I went to the shoe repair place to see if the cobbler (Is that word still used?) could replace the elastic shoestrings on my Keen sandals. The woman there seemed doubtful. Then I had a brainstorm: I could go to Uncle Dan's up the street, where I'd bought the sandals in summer '06 and see if the store sold replacement shoestrings. I went there, without a receipt, just with my word, and the people there said they could replace the pair or send the shoes to Keen to get fixed. I said to send them, because I didn't think it was fair to the store to replace shoes I'd worn for a year. Today I got a call from the store. The woman said that Keen had replaced the shoes and I could come get them. We're talking a new pair of shoes for free. I mean, these shoes were worn. So I did. I tried on some winter shoes, but none fit. The shoe guy started brainstorming about other places in town I could find the shoes. And there's a nice shiny black dog who hangs out in the store on Southport. So for customer service and nice dogs, I recommend Uncle Dan's. I got my foldable Cancer Bitch sunhat there earlier this year.

Tonight was the first night of Chanukah and we rounded up a few suspects at the last minute for candle-lighting and eating of latkes. One last endorsement of a product that's good for those of us who don't have a good exhaust system on our stove, and so can't fry food without the apartment filling with smoke: Frozen latkes from Trader Joe's. Just put 'em in the oven.

Library Cancer Card

A fine day. Fine as in penalty. As in you think that the secretary of state hasn't sent you your license plate renewal sticker and then you find it on Sunday and when you go to put it on the car on Monday, there's that orange envelope under the windshield wiper, saying you owe the city $50 because your license plate expired on Friday. (And it is secretary of state in Illinois and not the DMV; the secretary's name is on every driver's license and that is why the office is a stepping stone to governor, because of name recognition.)

And fine as in you drive the nine miles to the WRU library for a book to use in class on Thursday and the book isn't on the shelf and when you report it missing at circulation, the girl asks you if you had the right call number and if it was an oversized book, which means it would be shelved elsewhere, and you say, I'm sure, and it wasn't oversized, and you don't say, When were you born? Because I was probably using this library before then. And then you try to check out a possibly useful book that was next to where the desired book should have been, and she delivers the shocking news that your account is blocked because you owe $200. Which can't be. Because faculty don't get fines. So then the finance person comes out and you tell her you renewed everything on line, and she says you can renew books just twice now, not forever and ever, and now faculty are being fined, and that your Juno account wasn't accepting the overdue notices from the library. You decide it's time to use the cancer card, especially since she has a pink ribbon pin on. She says you look familiar and you say you remember talking to her about the Holocaust and you say but you tell her you used to look different, you had more hair, before you had a chemo cut. And she says, How are you? And you say fine, and don't even feel guilty for your calculated cancer insert. Because what is cancer good for if not to help you get out of paying fines? Maybe you would have returned the books if you hadn't been so wound up with chemotherapy. And your library account is quite tangled, because you have been using the library for 33 years, with some hiatuses, and your status has always been changing: undergraduate in journalism, alum, summer instructor, graduate instructor in journalism, visiting scholar in Women's Studies, visiting scholar in Gender Studies, graduate instructor in creative writing and year-round staff member.

And she gives you a break, letting you check out the book that was near the book you wanted, and processing an MIA report on the book you wanted, and telling you you need to return three books to the library (Help me help you, she says), which you will do on Thursday when you go to class. And alas, if you want this book you'll have to go to the public library downtown, and there it's often the case that the books are not on the shelf even though they haven't been checked out.

Of your overdue books, there is one on Israel, one on French and German Jews in the Enlightenment, and one on travels in 19th century Texas. They all have to do with Jews, you tell her. And they do, even though Jews aren't mentioned in the latter book. It would take too long to explain. Though you were about to, because it's interesting and you don't get a chance to talk about your research interests all that much.

And you have two books that have been sitting on your dining room table for a long long time and they belong to the public library of Chicago. This is why you buy books. And you think of the Grace Paley story, Wants, about a woman who is returning books to the library that are 18 years overdue, and she writes a check to cover her $32 in fines. "Immediately [the librarian] trusted me," Paley writes, "put my past behind her, wiped the record clean, which is just what most other municipal and/or state bureaucracies will not do." You decide to send a copy of the story to the financial librarian, because, after all, she has an English degree, which she earned from your division, the night school.

Teaching One-Breasted

Today was the second and last day of the workshops led by my students. I had to fill in for one of them for about 30 minutes today. I was wearing a long-sleeved hot pink shirt that clearly hugs my right breast and left non-breast. I'd been wearing it all day but hadn't spent much time in front of a crowd, though I had made quick announcements all day. I felt like there was something obscene about revealing my lack of breast in public. Which is interesting. I think revealing a nipple is officially obscene, and that's why go-go dancers have to wear tassels. Or used to have to. I looked all this stuff up years ago, when I was writing about Playboy--an article which, alas, never saw the light of day because my vision of it was different from my editor's. Anyway, pubic hair is or was obscene and that's why exotic dancers wore merkins, which are wigs that cover the pubic hair. Which is absurd. I don't know why pubic hair is obscene in the first place, because it's the stuff that covers the genitals. But I digress. I feel like I'm flaunting my one-breastedness, while at the same time I feel defiant: Hey, world, this is what breast cancer looks like. If one in seven or eight women will have breast cancer at some point in their lives, and if some of these women (I don't know what percent) will have a breast removed, cut out, slashed and scooped, amputated, what have you--then it seems that one-breasted women would therefore be fixtures in our grocery stores, offices, restaurants, classrooms and so on. Of course, they are all around us but they're wearing prostheses. Or they've had reconstruction and have been restored to double-breastedness. I don't know what percent opts for reconstruction. I don't even know if I'm going to opt for reconstruction.

You might say that the women who are padding one cup of their bras are opting for privacy. Or you could say they're being dishonest by covering up the results of surgery. You could also say that their breasts are a lot bigger than mine, and you'd be right. My remaining breast is small, and so it's easier for me to go without a bra, and easier for me to escape notice. How defiant would I be if I had a flatness on one side, and on the other side had a breast the size of a child's head?

To be perfectly accurate, I must say that I'm not flat-flat-flat on the left side. I had a skin-sparing mastectomy, so there's still a little roundness along the edges. I was floored a few months ago when a friend of a friend admired the image of Sarah Bernhardt on my close-fitting t-shirt, and then asked, as the conversation turned to cancer later, if I'd had surgery. Maybe he just wasn't a breast man. Maybe he was so entranced by the picture of Sarah that he didn't notice the asymmetry of the surface on which she was displayed.

So maybe no one noticed.

Now is when I should say that a pink ribbon that's fashioned out of plastic or fabric or metal or ceramic is much easier to look at than the half-empty chest of a real live woman. And that the widespread pollution that leads to cancer is what's truly obscene, and that my poor innocent body, which has been cut open and sewn back together, should be considered anything but.

Cancer Bitch Preening

I am licking my paws in self-satisfaction and lifting my nose in the air. I am quite proud of myself. This is the third year in a row that the grad students in my teaching seminar are holding a weekend of free creative writing classes for the public. I came up with the idea my very own Cancer Bitch self and it is a very nice thing for everyone involved. No one pays a thing. The students get the experience of creating and teaching 50-minute classes to strangers, and the strangers get the free classes. This year someone on staff did the messy work of taking registrations and putting the class lists on a spreadsheet, making much less work for me. I had to get up at the crack of dawn this morning (7 am) to get to school by 8:45 but I enjoyed the novelty of being up so early. I was surprised at all the cars on Lake Shore Drive. Where were they going at 8:30 am? Breakfast? Services? Of course I imagined they were all on the way to our program, The Apprentices.

I like very much being in the middle of everything. In the middle of the hallway of the university-owned mansion where the classes are held, sitting at a table and listening to the class going on and grading papers. The floor is hardwood and there's molding on the walls and fancy lighting fixtures hanging down and one room that's a sort of 19th-century parlor in greens and reds. Is it the bustle I like? The feeling of being in the middle of where things are happening? Is it all about control, that I like feeling: This is mine!? Do I like receiving appreciation from the day's students? I like being in the mansion, and being the person in charge. During the week when I happen to go to the mansion, it's filled with people doing their jobs and THERE IS NO DESK FOR CANCER BITCH. There is no place at school for me to display my etched crystal teaching award. I used to have a cubicle on the top floor but I hardly ever used it so it was snatched away from me. I have a cabinet in the back of the cubicle. Downstairs right now there's an empty room, partitioned in two, and I want to claim the back section. I want to sit in a desk back there and have the rest be a lounge for the grad students. The problem is the students come only at night, half of them to another campus, so the lounge wouldn't be populated. That is too bad.

In the mansion this time of year there's a little light-up Xmas village on a window sill. My friend T imagines an authentic Dickensian city, complete with prostitutes, pickpockets and paupers. As soon as someone can figure out how to market that version, I'm sure we'll see it in stores.

Losing Days and Years

Once I asked an E.B. White scholar why White's essay, "Once More to the Lake," is so much anthologized and taught, and he answered: Because it's the best essay in the English language. Or something to that effect. Which may be why I'm calling it to mind. I guess a great piece of writing is one that you call to mind to encapsulate your own experiences, among other things. White writes about going to the lake in the summer as a boy and going back as a father, and that slippage that happens in which everything about the place seems eternal, and he doesn't know any more if he's the boy or the father or what year it is. That same feeling is in Thorton Wilder's "Long Christmas Dinner." It all takes place at, well, a Christmas dinner table, and it's populated by generations of a family. The members grow old and die (walk offstage) and different ones (who look more or less the same) come to the table and grow older. Some repeat the phrases of the elders. When we come together for a holiday, the same place, the same people (more or less), it's like one long event, punctuated by your life outside. Last week I stayed at the preposterously spelled Hilton Lincoln Centre in Dallas, which used to be the Double Tree, just like I've gone for we don't remember how many years. At the gargantuan buffet there was the same ice sculpture of a turkey and the same thawed shrimp and crab claws as in years past, and I remembered my great-aunt E heaping her plate with shrimp, and others remembered our cousin C piling everything on his plate, back before he became glatt kosher and stopped eating *anything* in non-kosher places. It was gradual: He'd just eat vegetables, and then just drink water, and then just come and not ingest anything. Aunt E died several years ago, and, eerily, after she died, I received a new year's card from her. Inside was a note from her daughter explaining that she'd found it on her mother's desk. C is still alive and well, but in Israel this year with his new bride. He called while we were at table, and the phone was passed around. After dinner together Friday night at a place called Celebration, which I claimed never to have set foot in before, and which everyone said I'd been to, some of us went back to the hotel. One of the little cousins, M, said he remembered when the hotel had large ceramic lions. I do, too. The place is decorated now in wavy-line Retro, but used to be Large-Scale Asian, which was rather attractive and plush but absurd. When it was the Double Tree, we used to get a dense chocolate chip cookie at check-in. When we were sitting in the lobby and talking, M and his brothers were telling stories about their father, and they seemed to be the same age their father was when we were sitting downstairs at dinner not that many years ago. But it's not the memories that unnerve me; it's the gaps in memory. I don't have clear memories of the last Thanksgiving I spent in Dallas. Two years ago I went with L to his mother's. The year before that, I spent many fruitless hours at O'Hare waiting and finally took a taxi home at about 4am. My bag, on the other hand, made a round trip to Dallas. The year before that? I must have been in Dallas. Was that when the Hilton was the Double Tree? I don't remember. Or was that the year we met in Houston? That year my little cousin (first cousin once removed) J was a freshman at Harvard. He just graduated in May so that was 2003. My last Dallas Thanksgiving had to have been five years ago. Then there were bar mitzvahs in Dallas, which feel the same, more or less, as the Thanksgivings, same basic players. My father's side of the family meets in Houston on the other feasting holiday, Passover. The memories of those gatherings overlap, too. We take pictures so that we'll remember. Photos as aides-memoires. You always hear statistics like: people only use one-tenth or one-fifth or 2 percent of their brain capacities. Does that mean that we have the capacity to remember more than we do? I used to know everyone in my senior class of about 750. I wonder if I'd looked at our very horizontal class picture every day, would I still recall everyone's name? The real question is, Why would I want to?


I went to Dallas for Thanksgiving, where my great-grandfather settled for reasons lost to the mists of time. He was a blacksmith. There will be a family reunion there around Xmas, and for some reason I can't remember I exhorted all my relatives to attend. Now in order to show good faith, I need to go, too. I tried to recall why I wanted to go, aside from finding out about cancer in the family, but I don't think there's much interest in that. I probably don't need it, since I don't have that gene mutation. Anyway, I realized the reason I want to go is to find out why Great-grandfather Max R ended up in Dallas. There was the very strangely-named Industrial Removal Office, which existed to remove Jews from New York City. It was founded by German Jews who were afraid that if there were too many greenhorn Eastern European Jewish riffraff (such as my ancestors) around the city, speaking Yiddish, gesticulating, and being Orthodox, they would destroy all the hard-won assimilation points that the earlier immigrants had earned. (OK, they also wanted the new immigrants to have jobs.) This is how the removal service worked: Agents of the IRO would travel around the hinterlands and find out what sort of workers were needed in various towns. Maybe Atlanta needed a cobbler and three tailors. The guy would report back to New York, which would send out a new immigrant cobbler and three tailors post-haste. The IRO was founded in 1901, which was after Max R had settled in Dallas, so the records of the IRO won't help us. Maybe the other R relatives at the reunion will know something. My aunt said that she heard that the Rs set out for the Far West from Texas in Conestoga wagons, that the Rs were the scouts at the head of the line. This is laughable, considering that our family motto is Not So Fast. But maybe the ones who went West were fast, and left the cautious ones behind. We shall see. I am more timid than most of my friends, but to my family, I'm Amelia Earhart. I came North at 18, thinking it was East. It took me several years and as many plane rides to realize that Chicago and New York City were not in the same region.

These are the little cousins, the ones a generation in front of (behind?) me. Some of them are ruby- and white-eyed from the flash. Three little cousins weren't there. In the napkin-covered baskets are squares of excellent corn bread--not sweet like the Yankee style.

War Scars/Bartleby and Bontshe

Yesterday I had a meeting with two people whom I knew, but not that well. One of them had had cancer and would always ask me, in routine e-mail correspondence, how I was doing. I would always ask her about her former cancer and she wouldn't answer. But yesterday we started talking about our cancers, comparing acupuncturists and port scars and oncologists. She told me about misdiagnoses and general mishandling of her disease at Central University Hospital, we'll call it. She had a rare form of cancer that only men in their sixties and seventies are supposed to get. She was quite ready to talk about her treatment. Now it's been six years and she's out of the danger zone, apparently. I had a student who had breast cancer, ran a marathon a few years later and then a year later (this year) I heard she was dying. I sent her a card. I was too uneasy to call. I was afraid it would be awkward. I haven't heard how she's doing. I check the obits on line every so often, to see if her name comes up. It hasn't, so far.

So we go on. I went to my acupuncturist today and he did the routine needling and cupping. I taught my last short story class at Intellectual University. We had student reports and student work and didn't have time to talk about Bartleby, the Scrivener. This is something I hadn't thought of: "He just dies ever so passively, ever so politely, passing into the next world leaving no blood on anyone’s hands." He is a gentleman down to the end. I don't think that's the essence of the story, though. I think the essence is how a man can be so beaten down by the system, by the walls (as it has been pointed out) bearing in on his office window, by the impersonality of industrial capitalism (in that way, no blood on any specific person's hands). But if you do examine his politeness and passivity (which is not the same as passive-aggressiveness or passive resistance), you might be reminded of I.L. Peretz' Bontshe the Silent, who asked for nothing on earth, and when he dies and goes to heaven, asks for nothing more than a hot roll and butter every day. The heavenly beings rebuke him for his modest request. In one translation from the Yiddish: "...slowly the judge and the angels bend their heads in shame at this unending meekness they have created on earth."

In one sense, Bartleby wasn't meek. He wanted to be passive, he wanted to do nothing, he wanted to live in his employer's office, he wanted to refuse. He was able to live as he wanted (according to his own narrow concept of desire, or simply his concept of what was possible) up until a point. His employer let him live as he liked, until the employer was embarrassed, until others were outraged. But Bartleby was meek in his desires. He had stopped desiring as others did, and required only the bare necessities. His desire had dried up so much that it could express itself only as a preference "not to." He could only respond. He could not utter that most elemental phrase that babies learn instinctively: "I want."

Return of the Bitch

Cancer Bitch has returned from her Midwestern tour, which began with a midnight ride to Iowa City and then continued with a daytime (mostly) ride to Ripon (pronounced RIPn), Wisconsin, where her visit was announced in the local paper as well as in the larger one in nearby Fond du Lac. Now she is home and complaining. Her hips hurt. A little. She thought a few weeks ago it was from doing lunges but now she believes (having quit doing daily lunges as part of her daily yoga, which she also quit) it has to do with long-term side effects of Terrible Taxol. Her knees hurt a little, too. She has sent a message to the oncology nutritionist and will report on her findings.

In Iowa City, besides her official business at the NonfictioNow conference, she met with old Red (or Pink) friends from the Iowa Socialist Party, S and R. S is a longtime temporary worker in the Iowa City public library, and his house with R is filled with library discards. It is filled with many other books and papers and with cats. There are also more than 50 boxes of tea. There's a little cancer corner, and from there she was offered a number of items. She took Rose Kushner's "Breast Cancer: A Personal History and Investigative Report," which Kushner wrote partly because she couldn't find any books about breast cancer. How times have changed in 30 years, and partly because of Kushner's ground-breaking book. On the one hand, it's sad that the library discarded Kushner's book, but on the other, it must mean that many other books on breast cancer are in the library and seem more relevant to the librarians and patrons.

Kushner was a member of the Ashkenazim (European) Jewish folk, and she died in 1990, of breast cancer that metastasized.

Your Cancer Bitch is way behind in everything because of her trips, and she leaves Thursday for a nearby university, where she will lead a workshop on writing about your cancer. All fun and games, tra-la.


Cancer Bitch has been traveling. She spent Friday-Monday in Philadelphia, having promised herself that after chemo she would take a mosaic workshop with Isaiah Zagar, whose insider-outsider artwork she loves and admires. And she did just that. She is now writing her speech for a panel discussion Friday morning in Iowa City about spiritual memoirs and so is going to have these pictures stand in for her experience. She will write about her trip later. The first picture is of Cancer Bitch at Zagar's Magic Gardens. Below that, Cancer Bitch and others are applying acrylic paint to glass. Below this text is a picture of a non-Cancer Bitch working on a mural that Isaiah designed. Sort of. He made sweeping brush strokes of human and animal figures and attached large pieces to the wall. Cancer Bitch and others glued on the pieces of mirrors and tile and slapped on the pink grout.

Toys R on Us & the Bad Oncologist

Monday I met with my friend C from the Bay Area, in town to give a lecture and to celebrate his father's 80th birthday. After being an adjunct lecturer and a freelance editor for many years, he's finally gotten a job as chair of liberal studies in a university. He is an inspiration to us all. He's considered full time but just has to work 30 hours a week. That is truly inspirational. All this is an answer to the question: What can you do with a Ph.D. in English?

We had coffee and then he went with me to Tom Thumb Hobby & Crafts in Evanston, because I wanted to look at outdoor furniture to put on my head. I'm working on a proposal for an art installation called Chemo/Lawn and part of it will be made up of pictures of such things on my lawn-like head. I bought two miniature trees, a swing set, slide, see-saw and picket fence. I don't know how I'll get the fence and trees to stay up. I sort of jokingly/seriously said I'd use chewing gum. The sales clerk said that it doesn't come off. I said, Peanut butter is supposed to work. And he said, On the Simpsons, they tried peanut butter and oil and nothing worked. I said, That's a cartoon!

How can people get household hints from cartoons? I mean, it's one thing to get political news from the Daily Show, but at least Jon Stewart is a real person. Though Jon Stewart isn't his real name.

Now on to the Bad Oncologist. As a scientist deciding what potions to give me, he was probably good. Or excellent. Let's say he was excellent. But as a person, not so good. My psychiatrist, the Effusive Shrink, had told me early on that some of my anti-despair medicines would mix badly with Tamoxifen. I mentioned this to the first oncologist while I was in the middle of chemo and he waved me off, saying there was plenty of time yet. The Effusive Shrink had to call him twice before he called her back. Flash forward to the Girl Oncologist, who made me wait while she looked up drug interactions. She found one, with Cymbalta. She said she'd talk to the Effusive Shrink about substituting Effexor. I met with the Effusive Shrink today who said that another anti-nihilism drug that I take, Wellbutrin, also mixes badly with Tamoxifen. Our plan is to taper off the Cymbalta and start slowly on the Effexor. Then we'll substitute something else for the Wellbutrin. In the meantime, I don't want to start Tamoxifen because then I won't know whether any side effects I have are from the Effexor or the Tamoxifen. But see, if the Bad Oncologist hadn't waved me off, we could have started this back in May. Though we were also waiting for the results of my genetic testing. Or rather, I was thinking about genetic testing then, though my surgeon had said it wasn't necessary, and I finally got the testing in July. If I had the BRCA gene mutation, I'd probably get my remaining ovary removed, and then I'd definitely be in menopause and I probably wouldn't be taking Tamoxifen. So I guess the oncologist was right to wait.

How disappointing to realize that there's no one to blame.

All Her Life or: Can You Spot the Southern Lady in This Picture?

My mother came in last weekend to Cancer Bitch World HQ. (See photo take by L on porch of CB World HQ.) My mother would have flown in for every chemo treatment, but I wouldn't let her. I asked if she would help me with my clutter, and she agreed. So we spent most of Saturday and Sunday going through the carved wooden buffet I inherited from my grandmother. That's where I keep photos. We filled some albums and threw a lot of pictures away. At first she tore them in half (no going back) but then we just threw them out. It is hard to throw photos out. That's why I needed her there. We pasted some pictures in my baby book, which she'd apparently lost interest in after my first full sentence. She's been diligent about collecting pictures in albums, though--I don't mean to imply that she ever lost interest in recording moments of my life. The book cover is puffy white moire taffeta. I think that's what it's called. It has those whorls and stripes like planks of wood have. The cover says: All Her Life, in pink script, and there's a painted rose with a painting of a little blonde baby sitting inside the flower. It was copyrighted in 1955, the year I was born.

The first thing in there is a congratulatory card for "that basket of joy/The stork just delivered to you!" It's from the local alumnae of my mother's sorority at the University of Texas. This was before sex education in college. Or high school.

My mother didn't fill in the details of our trip home from the hospital, so that page is blank. On the next page is space to put the names of visitors. I filled this in probably in junior high, when I found the book and asked my mother for information. Nine people are listed. Two are alive: my mother's older sister, and an uncle on my father's side. The very first person listed is my mother's friend who died about six years ago of ovarian cancer. My uncle came to visit with my aunt (my father's youngest sister), and she died a few years ago of lung cancer, the kind people get when they don't smoke or haven't smoked for a very very long time. My father's only brother died of lung cancer, the kind that smoker's get.

My baby book expects women to play sports, to go to college, have a philosophy and a career, get married and have a home and children--all reasonable, even progressive assumptions for mid-century. It doesn't necessarily expect the baby to be Jewish. The first clue is a page with an illustration of a baby on it. She's wearing a long white gown edged in pink. There are spaces for my name, its meaning, date, place, officiating clergyman, godmother and -father, notes and those present. What was the occasion? It doesn't say, but I think it's safe to assume it was something that starts with c-h-r-i-s-t. The book finally declares itself on page 22, asking for notes on the baby's first Christmas.

My baby book tells me my first road trip was to Dallas in 1957. My first bus ride was to the San Jacinto Battleground with my kindergarten class. (I remember that. I remember kids chanting, Nixon, Nixon is our man, let's throw Kennedy in the garbage can. And vice versa.) My first train ride was to Dallas in 1958 and my first airplane ride was to New Orleans in 1974. Notes: "Very good traveller, doesn't need dramamine-is very cheerful." That's in my own handwriting.

I discovered my own hands at about two-and-a-half months. I first smiled at about six weeks. I first recognized my mother at about three weeks. I first sat up at about six months. Do I spot a trend? There's more than a whiff of retrospect here. Apparently my mother mother didn't run to the baby book when I reached these milestones.

I had chicken pox in 1959, measles in February 1963, mumps (both sides) June 1964--all this in my mother's hand. In my own: "Pnemonia [sic]-Feb. 1969-was a very good patient." Should I add "Breast cancer, Jan. 2007, very good patient"?

Listed pets:
Gregg, 1963- dachshund
2 Goldie-goldfish
Tater, Latke, Sherice, Squeaky-hamsters (I got the original two for Chanukah)
Pretzel, Prince-dogs
April- 1/2 beagle

It does not say that my mother, in one of her worst days in the 1960s, backed her car over Prince. (Didn't your mother kill your dog? my cousin S asked me the last time I saw him.)

As I said, the baby book expected me to have a career. On page 46 there's a picture of a young woman in a blue dress, red hat and white gloves, pondering five gift boxes. They are labeled: Secretarial, Creative, Selling, Manuel [sic], Scientific. Should she go for the guy, Manuel?

Three pages later I'm supposed to be a bride. Then have (in this order) a honeymoon, first home, sports, club activities, first baby. Then have 50 wedding anniversaries. If a parent and daughter were to diligently fill out the pages of this book, they would create a record of a whole life, some kind of whole life. The pages peter out after marriage. Life no longer revolves around the girl-child. It's time for her to start filling out others' baby books, in which she'll have a supporting role.

The reason my mother didn't fill this book out, I think, is that we don't normally think in large blocks of time. We put the photos of the first birthday party into an album, and next, the pictures from the beach two months later, and then of the family trip to Dallas. We don't think to take one photo from each event or year or decade and paste it into a baby or any other kind of book.

But what if we did? What if every New Year's Eve we printed out a couple of representative photos from our desktops and put them in a book, a book with a finite number of bound pages? Is that too frightening to contemplate? This book is called All Her Life. When you get to the end, you're daid. Or sitting in the nursing home, with no one thinking to take your picture or record your first dentures, your first wheelchair, your last meal cooked for yourself, your last wisp of short-term memory. No, there's your golden anniversary, a page for notes, and then it's curtains: "This little book--a happy souvenir/Of all my life--is ended here."

Welcome to the Dollhouse; Cancer Bitch Embarrasses Herself and Others

Today I passed by the dollhouse furniture store where I bought the lawn furniture (see photo below). I went in looking for accessories to put on the table, but the problem was they didn't have any more of the lawn furniture on sale so I had to guess at proportions. I had told the saleslady the other day that the furniture was for my head. This time I didn't mention it. This saleswoman seemed used to waiting on people who were specific and serious about what they wanted. Never did she say: Oh, why does it matter, it's just a dollhouse.

I guess if she felt that way she wouldn't work there. I almost bought a miniature pot with (fake) cactus in it and also a little tea set. It is amazing how detailed the little dishes and boxes and jars are. It is a completely different world. Dealing with these things can put you in a different place. I imagine it can be a form of meditation. I knew of someone who had "a nervous breakdown" (I've never been sure what that meant) and part of her recovery was working on dollhouses. But how can you not think of Ibsen?

In other news, tonight I received a teaching award from the continuing education division of WRU. First there was a reception, during which I had my second Very Hot Flash of the Day while standing near some hot hors d'oeuvres. Luckily I was had on Hot Flash Defensivewear (silk scarf around my hairline, tied in back) to catch some of the sweat. As I was standing around I saw a person come into the room with my exact hair do. I had to talk to her. I assumed she was a sister chemo-head and I felt immediate affinity. Even her salt to pepper ratio was very much like mine. I went up to her and said, I had to talk to you because your hair's like mine. She said, Is your haircut intentional? and I said no. And then I don't know what happened. Did someone else swoop in? I lost her. I felt immediately stupid. I felt that I had insulted her: No one would have hair like ours unless she couldn't help it. I didn't get a chance to finish talking to her, to say, It looks good on you, I don't think it looks good on me.

I had a class at Intellectual University at the same time as the WRU awards ceremony, so I had asked my class if we could meet later. The students had very nicely agreed. The ceremony was supposed to end at 7:30, and class was going to start at 7:45. I figured I had plenty of time for a half-mile cab ride between the campuses. Of course the talks by various WRU personnel took longer than scheduled. It was getting to be 7:10 and we were one speaker behind. I had shpilkes. L came for the ceremony and told me I should just leave. But I wanted to stay and hear nice things said about me. L called the IU office for me to leave a message but no one answered. Miraculously, several self-sacrificing personnel cut their talks short so that we got just about on schedule. First the distinguished teacher of undergraduates got his award. He was from Europe, with a thick accent, and had received a number of teaching commendations. Then it was my turn, and I came up to the front of the room, and looked down as I was being lauded, then shook the associate dean's hand and took my award in a blue box. The European had said a few thanks so I just said I wanted to repeat his thanks and invite everyone to the free workshops my students will be giving in December. Then I sat back down as the distinguished teacher of noncredit programs was named and praised As soon as he was applauded, we made our exit. He had started to give a little speech. I had a little, really little speech prepared in my head but I had thought enough is enough, I gotta git.

And I got to my classroom at IU by 7:42.

But I was addled. Why o why couldn't the people keep on schedule? I have to remember that when I teach. Usually I do end on time, but occasionally we go over. I read somewhere that when you steal someone's time, you're a thief. Corny as that sounds.

In the blue box was an engraved piece of crystal and on top of the blue box was an envelope with a check. Which was unexpected and very nice. Thank you, WRU administrators and students. The nice thing said about me was that I challenged students more than they had imagined. Or something like that. Students nominate faculty for the award, and then the deans look up your teaching evaluations and discuss you and decide who gets honored. I was pleased to get the award, even as I suspected it was a sympathy vote. My friend P said that students aren't sympathetic. I hope she's right. I have been teaching college for 21 (!) years and still I get insecure. And of course I still make mistakes. In class tonight at IU we went off on a tangent about which ethnic groups worry a lot and a student got lost in the muddle. I was leading the way on the tangent. In a distinguished manner, of course.

Good News, Sort Of

U.S. cancer rates are on the decline, a group of private and public scientists announced today. In further good news, the AP reports: "New breast cancer diagnoses are dropping about 3.5 percent a year...." It's either because fewer post-menopausal women are opting for hormone replacement therapy, or--here's the punchline--fewer women are getting mammograms.

That's probably at least one reason that there is more breast cancer in developed countries than developing: because women in the Third World are less likely to have access to the machines that detect early cancers.

So what does it mean? I don't know. If we ever get national health insurance, and the rates soar, we'll know it was the access problem. And then what? Maybe we'll look at pollution and the human effects of the -cides: herbi- and pesti-. That's why I call this picture of my head Chemo/Lawn.


Hmm. Now the University of Michigan has found that certain women with estrogen-positive breast tumors were not helped by the nasty chemo drug Taxol. These women had tumors that did not express a protein called HER-2. This is a crude rendering of the findings, which you can read about here.

What does this mean for Cancer Bitch? That's always the question, isn't it? Otherwise, she would be Cancer Sweet-One. Cancer Bitch just looked at her pathology report and read the notes she took at the first meeting with the oncologist, and saw that she was borderline HER-2 negative. So she sort of expressed the protein. The Michigan study found that "women whose tumors were HER-2-negative and estrogen-receptor-positive had no additional benefit from" Taxol. Which, as loyal readers may remember, was the drug that made my bones ache, and after that, the stuff that was supposed to help the ache flung me into the valley of despair.

To further complicate matters, I didn't have one of the drugs in the usual chemo triumverate of ACT (Adriamycin, Cytoxan, Taxol) because it was feared that C might be dangerous because of my blood disorder. (High platelet count, in layperson's terms.) Which reminds me of the story of the little old Jewish lady who went to her first live theater performance. She saw the lead actor fall to his death on stage and she jumped up and shouted, Give him chicken soup! Her embarrassed, American-born son tries to explain acting to her and at the same time to shush her, and she insists, undaunted: It couldn't hoit!

So I guess that's the notion when it comes to giving Taxol to Cancer Bitches whose HER-2 status is borderline.

Where does that leave you, dear reader, if you happen to have had cancer that fed on estrogen and that didn't express (secrete?) HER-2? Ask your oncologist, says the article in Science Daily. Don't jump to conclusions, say the scientists, based on our conclusions.

News Flash

This is an update on the continuing Cancer Bitch Quest for unflavored protein powder that contains neither soy nor bovine growth hormones--because those things just encourage the kind of tumor I had. They whisper sweet nothings into my little normal cells, saying, Come on, bloom out of control! Cells, go wild!

I want my cells to continue their staid and regular mitosis and meiosis, I want them to be normal, so I just placed an order with, which claims that its whey protein powder:

"comes from farm-raised, pasture-grazed, grass-fed cows not treated with the synthetic bovine growth hormone rBGH."

Let us ruminate on the blissful ruminants merrily chewing their uncontaminated cud just so they can supply pure whey to cancer bitches everywhere. In truth, the cows are making milk for their calves. But we won't think about that. We don't know any calves.

Too bad for you, calves.


Days like this I think I'm manic. I've been sleeping a lot probably still because of chemo, and I keep sleeping later and later and then I have to get up early some time and I screw up my inner clock. Last night I went to bed late but this morning I couldn't sleep. I got up early (meaning, in the single digits). I drank decaf and milk. I met with a client and had an iced latte with rice milk. I wrote emails. I am helping arrange practica for students. I am the middle-gal, writing to the student and to the person helping arrange the classes. I'm feeling that I'm writing too many emails. Do the receivers discern my franticness? Do they think I'm irrational, beyond caffeinated? A student is helping me organize a party for grad students at WRU (Well-Regarded University). In the past we had alcohol we bought ourselves. We're finding out this was illegal and we could have been liable if someone had--we don't even want to think about what someone could have done. Gone beserk at the party, after the party. Been a danger to himself and others. If we served alcohol to someone arrested later for DUI, could we be arrested under the dram- shop ordinance? I don't want to think about it. Nothing bad happened last year or the year before during or after the parties. I am the middle-gal here, too, going back and forth from the student who's helping me and who's hearing from caterers about not following the rules, to the administrator who knows what the rules are. When I don't get enough sleep I am hyper. I am drunk on not-enough sleep. I lived like this for most of high school. Diet Dr. Peppers, No-Doz, five hours a sleep a night on weeknights and a visit to the opthamolologist: Why do I have headaches? Always a lump in my throat because--well, partly because I was nervous and irritable from not enough sleep--and partly because that is my nature. See many posts below about pills I take now to keep melancholia and despair at bay. Those pills were just a glimmer in an R&D researcher's eye back when I was in high school. On weekends I would sleep 12, 14 hours. I stayed at school until 2am working on the semi-weekly school paper. We worked in a separate little building (one of the "shacks") on campus, which had a Selectric typewriter, printing machine, couch, fridge, and a closet in which a stray cat had given birth. The editors had keys and I was an editor. The main school building closed at 10pm or so. Once we went inside the building for the bathroom, and set off the alarm at about 1am and the cops came. Several cars of 'em. Probably all of the cop cars that existed in the little suburb where the school was (surrounded by the city; our school was part of the Houston Independent School District). We had to call the principal (on the pay phone) to vouch for us to the police. He did. He knew us. We went home. We were outraged but amused and contained. When the other editor and I went away to (the same) college, the principal gave us $20 so we could go out for a nice meal.

In high school I was miserable because of the anxious lump in my throat, and because I wasn't accepted into an Ivy League school (Both L and I were wait-listed at Brown, in different years; and we're both still waiting for our numbers to come up), but those aren't terrible things. The afternoon of my 18th birthday I skipped school and smoked dope for the very first time with my boyfriend and his friend at a playground near an elementary school. We weren't caught. One night I sneaked out my bedroom window and smoked dope and hash with this boyfriend and I wasn't caught. (And I didn't get high. I'm impervious.) I drank beer with girl friends during lunch and we came back and played a very giggly and spirited volleyball game in gym and we weren't caught. On Saturday nights we had parties at the houses of friends whose parents were out of town and we didn't get caught. We didn't know you shouldn't drink and drive. The admonition hadn't been invented yet. We drove to Fredericksburg near Austin for Oktoberfest. The drinking age was 18 and all of us were 17. At the fest I got so drunk I poured beer down the front of a (male) friend's shirt on purpose. (We're still friends.) The summer after graduation (or else the next) I had a party and when it was over a friend wouldn't wake up on the living room couch. The rest of us decided around 5am we had to get him up and out so my father wouldn't come across him on his way to breakfast. Somehow we maneuvered this friend into his car and we followed him as he slowly, very slowly, drove home. How could we? But nothing bad happened. A few years later he realized he was an alcoholic and quit drinking. But not in high school. Excess wasn't recognized as such then. Except there was a boy who was going to be a doctor and he got very drunk and rammed his car and became paralyzed. We don't know what happened to him next. At all.

Literature about Cancer

And I mean literary literature, not brochures and such. Next month I'm going to be speaking at a cancer colloquium sponsored by Nearby Big Ten University (NBTU) in an adjoining state. I'll be holding forth in a public library, so I thought it would be good to have a handout of titles of good prose & poetry about the cancer experience. The web site below has a great list of genu-wine literary cancer literature. If you have favorites (that aren't listed on the NYU site), please list 'em in the Comments section. Thank you kindly from Miz Cancer Bitch.

Four Legs & a Tail

Or: The hunt for the right oncologist
My original oncologist, my first and only, is deadpan but with no humor. I found him increasingly hard to talk to. He also didn't return my shrink's first call about possible drug interactions (didn't get the message, oh well) and he was dismissive about the clinic's not booking me for my last chemo treatment. When I told my shrink I was going to switch doctors, she said she hadn't wanted to tell me before, but she'd heard this guy was difficult. My friend M from yoga likes her oncologist a lot ("I tell her all about my personal life") but I looked the doctor up and she doesn't specialize in breast cancer. My student B likes her oncologist a lot ("We just talk about writing") but he's at another hospital. My friend T likes her crusty female oncologist in her early 70s, but I thought I don't want crusty. I want soft, even on the outside. And since I'm going to be seeing an oncologist for the rest of my life, I don't want to start with someone near retirement. I asked my surgeon's nurse for suggestions and she gave me names of two female oncologists that she found easy to talk to. One had no publications. The other, according to the web, is interested in breast cancer, colon cancer and genetics. Since my grandfather had colon cancer (twice), I thought she'd be a good choice. She also smiles in her picture and looked young and open. My friend P made inquiries of her friend who's a chaplain at Fancy Hospital, but I was getting confused with all the options. I decided to go with the breast-colon-genes gal with the curly hair. By chance, she showed up at my genetic counseling appointment where I got the results. She seemed friendly.

It seems everyone these days has an oncologist. And we just accept. One in eight. That's fine. That's how it is. And some of those one in eight will die of breast cancer. Oh well. Tie a pink ribbon 'round the old oak tree, to remember me by.

The appointment was Friday. I thought I would take myself afterwards to the Shedd Aquarium to see the lizard exhibit. I'd been meaning to see it since I love lizards (I grew up chasing green anoles through the bushes), but during the summer the lines at the Shedd were out the door. It makes me happy to watch lizards. L urged me to ride my bike (he's always urging me to ride my bike) to the hospital and that way, I could take the lakefront right to the Shedd. That sounded good. I'm always afraid to ride my bike because I imagine my death by car-crush at every moment, but once I get on it, I'm fine. I hadn't ridden that far for a while. It was an easy ride, about four or five miles. L and I arrived at Fancy at the same time and we took the elevator up to Ye Olde Cancer Floor. The receptionist said the wait would be about 20 minutes. After less than that we were shown to the examination room. I took off my t-shirt and put on the hospital gown. It had a safety pin in it. Not just a safety pin, but one bent at the top, as if it had gone through the wringer a few times. There is nothing safe about having a safety pin on a hospital gown, so I threw the pin away.

The physician's assistant came in and seemed alive and interested and knowledgeable. We talked about my hot flashes, which she took seriously. I told her about the three anti-despair medications I'm on, and told her my shrink had concern about an interaction with Tamoxifen, which it was clear I was going to be taking. Then she left. Then we waited. Then we waited. Then the nurse came in and said the oncologist was coming, but she was delayed. I asked why. Could be she had to give bad news, she said. I told L, Aren't oncologists always giving bad news? but even as I said it, I knew that wasn't so. I'm hoping to never get bad news from an oncologist. But it's true, if you're seeing one, you know you're already in trouble.

Two hours after the time of the initial appointment, the curly-haired oncologist came in. She made the mistake of asking how I was. I told her. I said I was annoyed at having to wait so long. She said she was sorry and that she'd spent 15-20 minutes looking to see how Cymbalta interacted with Tamoxifen. I said, Aren't all my medications listed in the computer, so that you could have looked it up already? Believe me, I said this in a calm way. She said she doesn't have time to consult with patients' charts two days before an appointment. She looks at them right before. She said that there aren't studies about Cymbalta and Tamoxifen because Cymbalta is new, but Effexor, which is similar, has been studied and it seems safer. (Effexor is also supposed to help with hot flashes, but she said if Cymbalta wasn't helping them, Effexor probably wouldn't either. Tamoxifen is also known to bring on hot flashes.) She said she would see if my psychiatrist could make the change. She gave me a prescription for Tamoxifen but told me not to start taking it until I heard from her or the physician's assistant. She touched me on the leg when she walked in and while she was talking to me. It seemed a little scripted. (Touch patient to establish humanity.) I asked her about Vitamin E for hot flashes and she said that it had the same success rate at the placebo, but I could try it. I asked if E was safe because the oncology nutritionist had told me not to take it any more. The oncologist said, You just shouldn't take it during chemo. I said, She was talking about after chemo, because there have been reports of cardiac problems. The oncologists brushed that aside. You'd think people who worked down the hall from one another would agree. I guess not. She said it's not clear that I'm menopausal and that I should take another FSH test, either then or later. I said, Well, I was going to go somewhere, not wanting to tell here I was counting on seeing the Komodo Dragon. I realized I wouldn't get to the aquarium before it started to close. So I decided I'd take the blood test then.

I'm not sounding angry, because my anger has dissipated. But I was still angry that she was late. After she left, L said I shouldn't switch again. You've already burned one bridge (oncologist #1), he said. I don't want to keep having appointments with new oncologists. He left and I got the blood test. The phlebotomist was friendly and she said she recognized me. She talked about surgery she'd had on her thumb. It's common with people who take blood, she said, because of repetitive motion. What exactly? I asked her, and she said she's always using her thumbs, to pick up tubes and so on. Or did she say the injury was common in nurses? I don't remember. In the hallway I saw the very very nice nurse-phlebotomist who always commented on my earrings. She was so very friendly. I was surprised that she remembered me. Is that all I want, someone to remember me? I want an oncologist who remembers all the little facts of my case. That's what I want. I'm assuming all the ones at Fancy Hospital have the same access to medical studies and research. I'm just trying to pick the softest medium for the message.

Afterwards L called and asked how I was. Angry, I said. You can be a little angry, he said, but you shouldn't be very angry. I can be however angry I want, I said.

I decided to stop at the dog shelter, so that I could at least see some animals. (There are cats there, too, but who would want to see cats?) I was on my way there when I saw my friend R, whom I'd run into downtown the day before. She loves dogs and came with me to the shelter. It smelled and there were no hounds, only terriers and shepherds and labs and a mix that had that disturbing Rottweiler jaw. I have to admit, the Jack Russell was cute. It's upsetting to see how small the cages are. R made a donation on the way out. Your Shabbat tzedakah (charity), I commented. She asked if it counted if the recipient was animal and not a person. Oh yes, I said.

What a Friend We Have in Cheeses?*

I mentioned yesterday that I was looking for organic whey powder at Whole Foods. The oncology nutritionist said to have more protein (I don't remember if this had to do with both cancer and losing weight, or just the latter.). She suggested whey. I've been mixing it with organic yogurt and organic ground flax seeds for breakfast for a couple of months. Then I started worrying that the whey might contain recombinant bovine growth hormones (rBGH), which are exactly what I don't need. Nobody needs them, but cancer bitches with estrogen-positive tumors really don't . Monday the supplement gal at Whole Foods said that none of the store's dairy products contains BGH and that the brand of whey that I buy, Jarrow, is very clean. (I had my doubts; Whole Foods is pretty waffly about whether its U.S. cheeses contain rBGH.) Jarrow's web site says that the goats that provide the company's goat milk protein are free range and hormone free. Jarrow doesn't make the same claim for its cows. You'd think if the cattle herd is leading a free and pure existence, the company would be sure to let us know. Monday night I wrote for more info. Today, Tuesday, I received a response from Jarrow: "Thanks for your inquiry. Our goat milk protein would be the only choice because growth hormones are not used in goat milk production. We are unable to know for sure with cow's milk whey protein because there is no accurate test that can distinguish between what is natural and what is synthetic. You might look for organic whey protein, which cannot contain GH by law."
I have looked for organic whey protein and haven't found it. I will have to order the goat protein.

So the gal at Whole Foods was wrong. Caveat cancer bitches.

Another option, theoretically, is to ingest organic hemp protein powder, which is readily available. But have you ever seen unflavored hemp protein powder? It looks like henna. I mixed it with yogurt and couldn't eat it. It's dark green. If you live in the Chicago area and would like a nearly-unused jar of hemp protein, gratis, let me know.

*This is apparently a common misapprehension and parody of the hymn. My friend Jennifer Berman has a cartoon that doubles the pun. The cartoon show a couple of people walking towards some bottles of juice (with arms and legs) trying to foist pictures of cheese onto passersby. One person says to another, "Oh no. More juice for Cheeses."

Cancer Bitch Turns a Corner & Runs Into a Wall

Tonight I looked in the mirror and thought to myself, You are cute. I think I have just passed the awkward Sluggo stage and am now a boyish woman in a shorter-than-crew cut. I even have most of my eyebrows back. I am surprised that in all this time, no one's thought I was male. I did have girly-feminine designs atop my scalp and I usually wear two earrings, not the lone little hoop that often signifies Cool Male Who Dares to Pierce One Ear. But approached from the left, I am flat-chested. Then again, I do have a female voice. Today at Whole Foods, for example, I stopped at the Customer Service desk to ask about organic whey protein and the woman at the counter referred to me as a woman. Which I am, of course. But if she could tell, how come other people couldn't tell I was female a few times when I was in my full-tressed glory? My head could have also signified a different identity; last month I met a young person who asked me if anyone thought I was gay because of my short/non-existent hair. I told this young person that only at the Whole Foods I might have been eyed a few times by women, but probably because it's right next to a new LGBT community center.

I choose my words carefully here. I met this young person and I was dying to know this person's gender-- I, who was all prepared to have people ask me whether I was male or female, and to respond tartly: Why does it matter? Yes, I wanted to know whether this short, slight person-- with about 1/8-inch-long hair under a cap, body swallowed by a baggy long-sleeved white shirt tucked into loose pants--was male or female. Why? Why is it so disconcerting not to know? Why couldn't I just have a conversation with a Person? Years ago, a friend and his then-wife returned from seven months in Provincetown. I remember the erstwhile-wife saying she'd been taken aback by all the gay men in P-town. This is what she said bothered her: She was used to speaking to men in a certain way (flirtily, I guess?), and being noticed by men in a certain way, and these men (in stores, for example) were responding differently (or maybe she said not responding). This surprised me. I didn't think I expected as much as she did from men in casual encounters. But I'm not very flirty. Sometimes, though, I feel my eyes widen when I'm speaking to a man who's in possession of stereotypically male expertise--mostly having to do with appliances and automobiles. I guess I sink into the O, what do I know? housewifey mode. I am stereotypically female when it comes to home repairs and hardware, and I'm not proud of this dumbness. But I come by it honestly. My mother didn't change ceiling light bulbs, and as for my father--changing light bulbs was the extent of household expertise. That and killing cockroaches. L changes the difficult high light bulbs because when I use the extender thing I break the bulbs. I kill silverfish and roaches myself. I let spiders out. The other day at the dentist's I noticed a spider, and he caught it in a cup and I let it out on a planter on Michigan Avenue.

But I am moving away from the uncomfortable subject of the young person of uncertain gender.
I introduced myself by name just so s/he would be forced to do the same. Wilily, this young person answered with a name that was neither male nor female. In fact, it wasn't a regular name. Later in conversation I found out that the person was a pre-op tranny, born a girl, identifying as male. And only 18. OK, that explained everything, I was no longer uneasy. I solved the mystery. But there's still the mystery of why I was uneasy in the first place, why I needed the answer to the question: What are you?

And I know that we classify people, and that we want to know the gender of the baby in the passing stroller, and even the dog walking by on the leash. And I know that I want to ask, Where are you from? each time I hear an accent. But why? Because we have certain ideas about what constitutes male and female, and male and female characteristics, and what it means if the person speaking to us is from Poland or Germany (Ossie or Wessie?) and I know I bring certain assumptions if I know my interlocutor is Jewish.

I won't answer this now because I can't. I will only say that in the summer of 1992 I was in Krakow and I was looking for the building where a Jewish girls' boarding school had been housed before the war. It was now a school for the deaf. There was a caretaker couple that was not hearing-impaired, but they didn't speak English and I don't speak Polish. We made do in pidgin German, and using gestures and drawings. I managed to understand that the granddaughter of a former student had visited, and that the couple was going to let me in and look around. School was out for the summer. They asked me, Was sind Sie? What are you? American, I answered disingenuously. I knew that wasn't what they were asking. But I wouldn't tell them I was Jewish. Why? Because I didn't want them to know. Or to know for certain.

Genes and Hormones

As I suspected, I do not have a BRCA gene mutation, more common in Ashkenazi Jews than the general population. That mutation predisposes the bearer to breast and ovarian cancer. The very very cheery and and rushed genetic counselor gave me the news Thursday. She's still waiting to see if I have a certain other mutation responsible for breast and uterine cancer. I need to get her one more piece of information before she can tell me that I'm a suspect. And if I am? I guess a hysterectomy will follow. Does this never end?

Recently I talked with a woman I know about professional/academic matters and then she said, You're my age, aren't you? and I am, and she turned the talk to menopause and hot flashes. Hers sound worse, only because she doesn't have a partner, so that she's been on dates when she's broken out in a sweat. At least I don't have to be embarrassed about them when I'm with L. How many times have I asked him, Is it hot in here? And we know the answer: No, it's just me. That, more or less, is the title of no fewer than four books about menopause. I think I'm still fascinated by the oddness of the flash. I'm like a kid who keeps saying: You know what? That's what! How many times have I implored L to touch my clammy scalp just to feel its sponginess? And he doesn't like to do it because of the clamminess. The attribute that gives amphibians a bad rap.

What could be the evolutionary advantage of the hot flash? I can't figure it out. I found an article that explains that motherless children are more apt to survive if they are cared for by an older woman without her own children. That makes sense. But surely there must have been some women through time who lost estrogen, yet remained free of hot flashes. Unfortunately, those women wouldn't still reproduce, so that's a dead end. I try to cheer myself: Could it be that menopause symptoms were more extreme back in antiquity? What if there were once scads of menopausal women who were so irritable and ferocious that they killed their offspring? The genes for the worst symptoms would have died with them. So we should be grateful now, huh?

The macrobiotics folks point to soy, which is good for easing hot flashes. Except if you had a breast cancer tumor that was estrogen-positive. In that case, you have to avoid soy because it's too close in form to estrogen. So I am soy-less and flashing. It helps to fold a scarf into a band and to wear it at my (low) hairline and tie it at the back of my neck. That way the fabric absorbs the sweat. Or at least keeps it from dripping into my eyes. Tonight I wore a tie-dyed bandana and S called me Tom Sawyer.

(I typed "Tom Sawyer" and "sweat" into Google and found quotes from Huck, such as: "Looky here, Tom, being rich ain't what it's cracked up to be. It's just worry and worry, and sweat and sweat, and a-wishing you was dead all the time," and just thinking about how I could be foxy and twist the quote some to make it relevant to menopause made me embarrassed...and sweaty.)


I look like Sluggo, Nancy's pal in the comic strip. My hairline is lower than my tattoo-line was, and I look like a Neandertal.* My tattoos are mostly faded. I want to get someone to rewrite the US out of Iraq on the back of my head. My scalp still shows through the hair. My eyebrows are growing in but I still use pencil to darken. My eyes are close together (an oculist told me, and it's true) and I think it's more pronounced now that the tattoos are gone. I am vain and obsessed. I think about 50 percent of the time about my hair/non-hair and the rest of the time about food, students, writing, the world brutality du jour, cancer coming back. Not in that order. The order keeps changing. I suppose I should be thinking about the Cubs' major win. They are Midwest division champs of the National division. Or something like that. Only 11 more wins and they are world (US and Canada) champs. I applied today for a fellowship from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation. I regret never writing to him. He has been dead about 20 years. A friend of mine wrote to Meridel LeSueur and kept up a correspondence. I regret not sending my books to Grace Paley, who would have read them or not, but at least she would have been aware of them. A critic wrote that Paley wrote English as if it were Yiddish and someone once said that about my work. She was much much closer to Yiddish speakers and inflection than I've been. I interviewed her over the phone and then met her here, but before I had any books. I didn't mention my breast cancer on the personal statement to the Isherwood Foundation. I would have if it were for nonfiction writers, but it was for fiction, so I put my best fiction foot forward. I almost wrote: I was diagnosed with breast cancer in January and finished chemo this summer. I am writing a nonfiction book about it and that takes time away from my fiction so I need money to buy time for my fiction. That was all I could think to say so I didn't say it. Other than: I had breast cancer, feel sorry for me and send money. My time may be short. But think of all the writers with AIDS who may be applying. Breast cancer seems like chump change. At least my kind of. It is garden-variety-ish, and that is why my oncologist (soon to be my former) seemed bored with it. Or maybe he is without affect. I will see the new young female oncologist on Friday. The old oncologist seemed indifferent to my case. He didn't call my shrink back to talk about drug interactions and when they did talk (after she called again) she asked him about monitoring of something or other in my liver and he brushed her off. I want an oncologist who at least feigns interest and goes through the right motions. Is that too much to ask?
I have tried to find pictures of Sluggo on line to link to, but it's hard to find good ones. In most, he's wearing a hat. I remember him as being nearly bald, with stubs all over, and a low hairline. But in this comic, it's not so low.
*"Neanderthal" sounds more natural, but I want to sound smart, so I'm spelling it without the H. Mr. Neandert(h)al was not available for comment.


It's always dangerous to make absolute statements (such as those that include "always"), but I will venture: Everyone loves secret code. That's what's so magical about speaking a foreign language.

I went to a French-language gathering last week. It was at La Creperie, and when I arrived there were about 20 people sitting outside at a long table. I went to sit down in an empty chair and a man gestured toward me and said he liked "l'ecran." My screen? What was he talking about? O, "le crane," my cranium, my scalp, meaning the message on my head: US out of Iraq. I'd thought it was too light to read. I told him I had the tattoo because I'd lost my hair. He didn't ask where it had gone. He was a very good and quick speaker of French, thanks to a French ex-wife. I realized I hadn't spoken French since December. I spoke rather rustily to him and to another guy who arrived, looking like a lawyer in a yellow tie and suit. And he was--a lawyer. I say I'm a writer and people say what do you write and I tell them I'm writing about cancer. What kind? asks the lawyer. Breast, sein, I say, and to make sure he's understanding me, he touches his chest. I am telling this stranger about my breast cancer and my recordings on WBEZ, and I'm feeling I wouldn't be telling him all this in English, so easily. Of course it's not easily tripping off my tongue. The gears are creaky. I read a William Maxwell story in which he talks about a man and his wife who want a child, and the wife is unhappy as a 1950s housewife without career or children, and they take a French class and say to one another what they can't say in English. Then their life goes on, after that brief opening up. I'm amazed at what one reveals in French, but at the same time on this very blog I've said many an intimate thing to--anyone--n'importe ou (anywhere)--who can find this square of zero-dimensional cyberspace. But it's different in person, isn't it? But in French in person it's not real; it's not English, doesn't matter what you say, and everything is interesting if it's said in French, because it's French, you have to struggle a little, to comprend. Pay that extra attention. French not real the way that travelers unfold the bills from their wallets and say, How much is this in real money?

The waitress came to collect money and the lawyer was asking her for change (in French) and she couldn't understand him. We were in a haze of French, speaking French, speaking in a familiar but foreign language to strangers. And we thought the world could understand us, because these people we'd never ever seen before could.

Makes you believe in the believers in Esperanto, who would craft a universal language and we would all be able to speak to one another, to speak the same language, as it were, and there would be no more strife.

But there were civil wars. Still are.

But the Jew who started Esperanto already had a universal language at hand: Yiddish.
Don't be afraid of Yiddish, Kafka told an audience once. You will understand it more than you thought you would, because it is like German. (Don't be afraid that you'll turn into your grandparents because of it.)

Old joke: What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
What do you call someone who speaks three languages?
What do you call someone who speaks one language?