Lolita in Chicago

Last night I went to Women & Children First to hear Fatemeh Keshavarz speak about and read from her book, Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran. I went by myself and didn't know anyone. I wore my Bad Girls of Breast Cancer t-shirt and rode my bike from yoga. The program got a late start. Iranian-Americans (I presume) were milling around, mostly black-haired and speaking Persian/Farsi. Several had very black hair. I'd been told (in my hair days) that my hair was black but it was/is really dark brown. These women had black hair. I wondered for the first time if people can tell how dark my hair is from my disappearing eyebrows and my dark stubble. But let's talk about Iranians, Cancer Bitch. I'd been looking forward to the reading for weeks because I'd liked reading Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi, but the more I thought about it, and talked to an Iranian activist about it at a rally, the more I suspected it. I'd come to the conclusion that it was so popular here, the darling of book groups, because it makes us feel good about American and English classics. That they matter. (And it appealed to book groups because it was about a book group, which was reading, perhaps, some of the classics the US groups had read.) For years American writers envied the Samizdat writers behind the Iron Curtain, because the forbidden word was powerful and sought-after. Popular. Relevant. (After the Wall came down, serious Eastern European literature became as irrelvant as American.) Here fewer and fewer people are reading and now here came a book that told us that Great Gatsby was important. It had LEGS. Iranians argued about it. Nafisi read our literature and reflected its relevance back to us. The relationship of Humbert Humbert to Lolita, she told us, was the same as the ayatollah's to Iranian women. They were objects, symbols, not known. I thought that was interesting. A thought I never would have come by on my own. I admit I read aloud her trial of Gatsby to a class I was teaching on Gatsby. How wonderful that people were arguing fervently about the novel. And it all came at a time when US intellectuals were criticizing their country. How bad could the US be, though, if it, and its loyal friend Britain exported great literature?

Keshavarz critiqued Nafisi's book on several counts. She accuses Nafisi of buying into stereotypes, of presenting the Oriental as the Other. She also criticized Nafisi for not talking about the US's role in placing and supporting the shahs. I feel a little loose here because I haven't read Keshavarz's book yet and I loaned out Nafisi's. Jasmine and Stars is a slim book, from a university press. I don't know how much play it will get. How much play do books get that criticize best-sellers? I don't know. Are they accused of riding on the coattails of what they criticize?

Part of what she read last night was of childhood, the lost world. That's become familiar to me from reading a few other Iranian-American memoirs. All seeming a bit too rosy by now. I talked to a woman afterwards who was telling me about the books written by Iranians still in Iran. What's been easy/attractive about reading the stories of Diaspora Iranians is that they are our guides. They bridge the strange with the familiar. Would it be easier or more difficult to enter in the Iranian-in-Iran world? I told this woman I was working on a Muslim-Jewish poetry anthology and later I asked her for titles of books in translation by Iranians. She named some Jewish books. I didn't have the presence of mind to tell her that I wasn't looking just for books by and about Iranian Jews. I didn't want to be perceived as narrow, but I also don't particularly want to read about Iranian Jews and hundreds of years of Iranian-Jewish history. I just am curious what writing from Iranians in Iran sounds like.

I asked Keshavarz a question that had been buzzing around in my head for a time: Why are there a number of memoirs by Iranian women in the Diaspora and so few by men? Are women writing more or do publishers perceive that their books will sell better, because they are the veiled, or would-be veiled? She didn't have a clear answer. But she said that women are writing a lot (the majority, maybe? of authors) in Iran and that they are the clear majority of university students. The literacy rate in Iran is 80-something percent, she said, and many American books are available in translation. It's not so isolated as Nafisi paints it.

It seemed that everyone in the audience knew one another. They all talked to one another after the reading, often in Persian/Farsi. I knew that I came to the reading with a different motivation and feeling than they had. I didn't have insider information. No one questioned my right to be there, or asked why I was interested in Iranian writing. I suppose I was strange enough in my bald head and Breast Cancer Action t-shirt. I guess the question is why there weren't more non-Iranians there. As there were when the Persepolis girl spoke about her graphic memoir. Which was an international sensation. Why it was is another question. Novelty, partly. Point of view, of a child looking at the revolution. Quality? Uniqueness? I bought it but haven't read much of it so I can't say yet.

Fancy O Fancy

I had an appointment at 10:30am yesterday at Fancy Hospital for blood test (to check that my white count was high enough for chemo) and then chemo. I had a memorial service to go to at 3pm in Hyde Park and figured I could stop at the nearby Seminary Co-op Bookstore beforehand, which is having a members-only sale, and that I could also arrange to see my Hyde Park friend Miz P before or after. My chemo escort was my out-of-town friend D. We got there at 10.35. The cancer waiting area was packed, like a crowded gate at O'Hare for a group trip to Lourdes: Bald heads. Scarves. Baseball caps. Canes. Wheelchairs. The guy at the counter said the wait was about 20 minutes, and that I didn't have an appointment with my oncologist. I kept asking the guy at the counter when my turn was and he said they were backed up. At one point he said he'd go back and ask then find me and tell me. He didn't. Around 12-something a nurse came out and called my name. Apparently I'd had an 11am appointment with the oncologist. A nurse-practictioner checked me out and then the doctor came in. He was downright bubbly: asked me how my weekend was. Usually he sticks straight to business. I said good, how was yours? He said good. More importantly he said that when I start on the Taxol, in three weeks, I can have it every two weeks instead of every three. So if all goes well I'll be through with chemo at the end of July.

This is good. Also scary, because then I won't be poisoning any cancer cells any more. I'll be defenseless. Not really. But it feels I'm losing armor.

Back to my narrative. I was hungry and cranky and sleepy and don't even remember how I got back to the blood-drawing people. Did one of them come out, too? Anyway, they were scolding me (nicely), saying that the counter guy hadn't put the right paperwork in the box for them, that whenever I had to wait more than 20 minutes, I should come back through the door (ignoring the people at the desk), and let them know I was there. There's a second waiting area behind the door, with magazines such as CURE and HEAL (Coming soon, HEEL: for good dogs who get cancer) and a librarian who comes around and straightens out the end-of-life brochures. The phlebotomist said I needed to report my wait so she had a supervisor come in and get my name and info. Then she sprayed what's called "cold spray" on my skin and plunged in the needle or whatever it used to get liquids into the port. She drew my blood and I had to wait to get my blood components divided and read, and my white cells were fine, ready for the fight against the chemo poison, and then I was put in a room with a real bed. D pointed out how I could adjust it, the head up, etc. "My" nurse was there, always very friendly. This part, she told D, is only 20 minutes. Which of course is ironic. If Fancy had been working like clockwork, I could have gone from blood work to oncologist to chemo and out in an hour. Instead, it was about five. No memorial service. Which was too bad, but then again I had noticed at about 11 that I was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. The service was supposed to be a celebration of life, but I thought my shirt would be too much. I'd either have to go home and change or pick up a shirt at a cheapo place on State Street. D wouldn't switch with me. We kept eying people coming in the waiting room, wondering if I could take their jackets. The nurses wear long, light disposable coats, but I would have stood out even more in one of those and people would have asked me medical questions about the deceased, whom I'd never met.

Instead, when we left Fancy we went to to get wholesome food at a salad bar. (A salad bar! I forgot I'm supposed to eschew them because of the chance of infection.) Then D went to see some other friends. I figured I wouldn't have time to meet up with Miz P. I went to the Newberry Library Bookstore, an outpost of the Seminary Co-op. I managed to find some interesting books (the classic Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones, The Din in the Head: essays by Cynthia Ozick, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, which I realized later I should have tried in French first) and I waited for L and his out-of-town guest R. We had a drink in the beer garden of a bar. I had half a small snifter of Lagunitas Brown Shugga beer, cut with a glass or two of water. We continued our gastronomic experience by going to the dining room of a local cooking school, where my friend N is finishing her coursework. The menu was prix fixe, and the food was very rich, with cheese or cream or coconut milk or butter, butter, butter, in every course. Reminds me of the prix fixe dinner I had last week with WRU writers. N was once a WRU writer, a journalism grad student of mine 22 years ago, fresh out of Yale and New York City, and I was a first-year teacher, freshly escaped from the Miami Herald, where I was thought to be non-mainstream, which was not thought to be a good thing. N was a wonderful writer already, and married, and soon had two boys and three books and writerly occupations. And an ex-husband. Now she started at the beginning, having spent three weeks (I think she said) learning to cut vegetables in all the French permutations while learning the French vocabulary. She made the appetizer tarte, consisting of leeks, corn and mascarpone (cream by any other name is still as fat). It was very good, and she wants to open a restaurant in Evanston. Her concept sounded yummy.

Oh, and just as I had after the last prix fixe dinner, I threw up. I have to remember I can't take rich food any more. I should have asked for more salads and no dessert. When will Cancer Bitch learn? But I do recommend the place. As long as you're not in chemo.

Today at Atheist Torah study (see The Blessing below) the kohain had a great line. We were reading about how you could eat deer and gazelle, but not sacrifice them. Gazelle, he said, that's the original Jewish fast food.


The week was framed by death of parents, starting with a funeral on Monday. Friday I stopped by the home of a colleague of L's. Her mother had died; the service was private, but her home was open for what we call "shiva," but others might call an open house. She and her partner are Jewish, and they have adopted and raised two African-Americans. The parents are white. I mention race because the daughter came in later than expected that afternoon. She had been stopped by the police. It may have been a case of DWB, driving while black. She said the cops told her that she resembled an accused murderer. They asked about her last name, saying, That's not a black name. She explained that she was adopted. They brought her in and another cop said she didn't look like the suspect they were looking for. I suppose she can't sue for false arrest because she wasn't arrested. Perhaps for police harassment? Her parents are activists, the type who would know how to pursue such things, if they were inclined. What business is it of a police officer whether someone's last name "matches" her race?

I have a memorial service on Tuesday, for the parent of another colleague's of L's.

A month or so a student gave me a bouquet for helping him with his thesis. One stem of orchids has survived all this time, two fuchsia-and-white dendrobia at the bottom, and buds on the top. My mother-in-law told me that if you spray the buds with water they'll blossom. I tried it and it's true. The top ones have opened. Now, I hate when people make analogies between Nature and Life, but here I am about to do it myself: The bottom flowers are like an earlier generation. By the time they die out, the new flowers are out and they have no knowlege or relationship (OK, add anthropomorphizing to my list of sins) to the older flowers, so they are not saddened by their demise. OK, this is the way I've thought of it: Ashkenazi Jews name their babies after relatives who have already died. I'm named for my grandfather. I feel no sadness at his death, because it preceeded me. I remember once in grade school trying not to laugh at something, biting the insides of my cheeks and trying to think of something sad: the death of my grandfather. But it wasn't sad because I hadn't experienced the loss. That is my simple point. And you turn the loss into a gain when you use the name for a new person. Turning sadness to joy. I should see birth as a wondrous thing but all I see when I look at an infant is a lot of trouble. Time, trouble, sleepless nights. That's why I don't have children. And someday my name will go to a relative who isn't here yet. A child named Cancer Bitch.

The Blessing

My accountant had asked me if my cancer made me believe in God more. She was assuming that I believed in God some. No, I told her. Although I have returned, mostly because I have more free time, to Atheist Torah Study. At least that's what I call it. I can't guarantee that the others are atheists, but they're irreverent and don't believe that the Torah is the divine word. Atheist Torah Study is held in a blank conference room in a university not far away. The past three times there have been three or four of us at the table. One is an ordained rabbi, who insists that he didn't originate the study sessions, he didn't organize them, and he doesn't lead them. He knows the most, though. Today one professor told this story:

The other day he'd been in his office when a man stopped at the open door and asked if he was a kohain, a member of the priestly class. The professor's name is a variant of Cohen and his name was on the door. (In Judaism, we assume that people named Cohen and the like are descendants of the temple priests.) The prof told him yes. The other man was very religious, with tzitzt hanging under his shirt. He was a buyer-back of textbooks; that's why he was roaming the university hallways at this time of year. The man asked if the prof would give him the priestly blessing. The prof is not that religious, though he belongs to a progressive synagogue. He nevers wears a yarmulke (skull cap) but that day he had one in his pocket because of something having to do with his wife, his car and his glove compartment--one of those explanations that takes too long to delve into. He also knew the priestly blessing. I'd never heard of the priestly blessing, but then I'm from the tribe of Levi, according to my family. The prof started to recite the blessing for us, and it sounded familiar. He said he knew it from going to services. When he dropped his daughter off at college, he said he'd recited a line to her. So the religious man was blessed, he thanked the prof, and that was it.

We joked a lot about it, the rabbi saying that the kohain happened to have had the yarmulke in his pocket that day for a reason, conjecturing that the man had disappeared into the air afterward....

Technically, my husband L is a kohain, though he is a true atheist who says of organized religion, Nisht fur mir (Not for me.) A couple of years ago he came with me to a family bar mitzvah, where he met my religious young cousin. This kid is a born-again, or a baal teshuvah (a non-Orthodox who became Orthodox). The cousin was excited to learn that L was a kohain and told him that he, L, cannot ever become extremely drunk because the messiah could come at any time and L would be needed at the synagogue within 20 minutes. I mentioned this at Atheist Torah Study and the question raised was, Is the 20 minutes so that he can round up an animal to sacrifice? The only handy animal around here is squirrel, and that's not one of the official sacrificial mammals mentioned in the Torah. I know that from study.

Today is the first day of Shavuos. We should stay up all night studying Torah and eating blintzes. When I lived in Iowa City I planned a big Shavuos gathering. I called the local supermarket looking for frozen blintzes, which are traditionally served on the holiday. The guy thought it was an obscene phone call. I ended up making them from scratch.


I went to a funeral today, my third in the past year. In Jewish law, one of the best things you can do for someone is help with the burial, because that person can never pay you back. I knew of the custom of the assembled people lining up to put earth on the grave, for that very reason. I didn't know that you were supposed to stick the shovel back in the pile of dirt and not hand it to the next person. The reason, the rabbi told us, is because we are supposed to be reluctant in this task, reluctant to bury this person who was just among us. I didn't know the person who died. I knew his son and daughter-in-law. I'd met his ex-wife, though I hadn't realized they were ex. When I told the son (my student) that I had cancer, he said something like it feeling like I was family. He'd been in two of my classes and I'd supervised his internship. His family sent me tulips in the hospital. So this seemed to be the thing to do, to continue this circle of participating in important events in each other's lives. What kept echoing in my head is a line from an NPR commentary, one in the "This I Believe" series. I think I heard the commentary twice. The line was: Always go to the funeral. I think that is fairly good advice. Close to it, or even more important is: Always send a card. L is very good at composing bereavement cards. He's very good at finding the right words. I still remember the people who sent cards after my father died. Not that many people did. He died right after I'd come back to town after a year away. H and L made a donation to their synagogue in his memory. Of course tons of people sent my mother cards and letters, but I'm talking about people here, who didn't know my father. My cousin's husband sent a nice note about his impression of my father, whom he'd met once, at his wedding to my cousin.

For many years I did not understand why my parents' friends--people I didn't know--had sent me presents on my bat mitzvah. I figured it out when I read The Gift by Lewis Hyde. He talks about gift theory (maybe dumbing it down), about how gifts define community. Then I was able to see that the bat mitzvah gift was more than one gift, it was a gesture in a 75-year chain of gestures and connections. It wasn't 75 years yet then, as it is now. But 75 is right; my father's family moved to Houston in the early 1930s, and some of the people they met early on were still close. Not to mention the relatives who had been part of my grandparents' lives. I still have a letter that one of my father's friends wrote me on my bat mitzvah. It was about the friendship of the families. That man recently died and my mother went to the funeral and then to the shiva in the daughter's house, which, incidentally, is where my good friend C used to live. It looked very different, my mother said. Here, I have the letter, in my Nonfiction files, under the man's last name. He wrote: "Your father and I went to school together and have remained close friends over the years. Unfortunately we (you and I) have not gotten to know each other as well as I would have liked. It is not unusual in this busy fast moving world of ours for good friends to see little of one another in comparison to the time spent together as children and young adults. As each takes on additional responsibilities, less time is available for `get togethers.' You will discover this when you get older. Then you will realize that a great many of your friends remain close to you even though you do not see them as often as you would like."

The most amazing thing about this letter is that he wrote to me as an equal. He thanked me for including his family in the bat mitzvah and after-party. I had nothing to do with his invitation. My parents invited their friends and our relatives, and I invited my friends. I know someone who told her daughters that a wedding is for the mother. I don't agree. I think it's for the community.

How Not to Be Intimidated

I don't know how. I am reading submissions for our little literary magazine and I am cowed by a cover letter from someone with several books who sent us a travel piece and informs me (not really me; the letter should be addressed to me but it is not) that two similar pieces of hers have been published in fancy places. Prestigious magazines. Unknown to most people but well-regarded among us in the MFA set. I like the piece but I can't tell how much I like it because I should like it, how much I like it because I want to snap it up before a fancy magazine snaps it up. I don't love it. I don't feel like calling friends up to say, You must read this. But her essay made me want to visit the country she was writing about. I learned from it. But it didn't tell enough about her heart. Do all pieces of personal nonfiction need to do this? It's also written in present tense, which is annoying. But who am I to tell her that? I am the editor (more or less) she sent the piece to. After all. That's who. She doesn't even know I exist, didn't care enough to look up my goddamned name on the masthead.

I keep thinking about the writer who sent an account to me (addressed to me) a few years ago at this very magazine, and I thought it was boring and I rejected it and lo and behold later it turned up in the Missouri Review and then Best American Essays. I still think it's boring. Should I have accepted it because it had the whiff of Prize-Winner on it? The idea it explored was interesting but it was hard to get into, the writing at the beginning was working against the piece. The beginning was slow. The rest of it wasn't so great, either. But it was about medicine, so that made it interesting. In theory. Jeez, and now this person has two books of essays, is an M.D. and Ph.D. And I am just ol' Cancer Bitch with two books and one breast and one-and-a-half eyebrows. Neither of my books was praised, as hers were, in the New York Times and Washington Post. Not only that, she's probably at least, at least, 10 years younger than I am.

The ol' Desiderata, which we memorized and tacked up on our walls in the '70s, back when that Medical Bitch was only knee-high to a stethoscope: If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter.

Well, guess what? It was already too late then.

Free Dinners & Free Dinners

Too rich for my blood. I had a lovely free dinner last night with professors, all writers, and all excited about teaching. We decided to exchange syllabi later. The menu was prix fixe so you felt the obligation to order dessert. I did. We all did. I could have ordered more lightly, but there was much butter butter everywhere. My appetizer was two crab cakes with avocado chunks and skinny potato strings. Then I had acorn squash stuffed with risotto. Then sorbet. For some restaurants, butter is the new butter. When I went to bed I got up and threw up. I'm lucky that the chemo hasn't made me nauseated but it has mangled my digestive system. I was so afraid of nausea, because it's ever constant. So this is better than nausea. But I have to watch myself.

An example of reckless but self-conscious usage of butter: The soup of the day was cream of fennel. It was served with a tall pat of butter in the middle of a bare bowl. Then the soup was poured over it.

This defiantly lavish use of butter. I know it's defiant because we all know about animal fats and cholesterol and good fats and bad fats. Our fair city has banned foie gras and is thinking of banning trans fat, like New York (I think) has. This use of butter is a reaction to the self-satisfied substitution of olive oil. For a time there was olive oil to go with your bread everywhere. Now it's back to butter. Retro-smug. Retro-rebellious. This has something to do with the proliferation of cupcakes, and predictably, in New York, of cupcake wars. Every bakery now has cupcakes, even in our fair city. The truly retro never stopped making them. The self-consciously retro are selling them for $2+ apiece, with a wink at the past. Not your mama's cup cakes. They don't say that. But they're not. They're the wise but indulgent person's cup cakes. With real butter, not Crisco or lard (truly evil things). Natural. They're natural and pretty and we know they're bad for us but that's part of the charm. Everyone knows. This knowledge gives them a shimmery frisson of the illegal. Hey, psst, want some with pink icing?

My subsidized dinner was with Day School folks and a visiting writer, a friend of mine. I am with the Night School. The difference between Day and Night is the difference between... night and day. You saw that one coming. The Day School people have full-time contracts. The Night School people are all part time. As I told a prospective student yesterday who wanted to meet me during office hours, I don't have an office. I wrote this to him on email. He wrote back: That sure cuts down on office hours. I called him when he was in the gym and he went outside and we talked, I on my home land line. Though this isn't to say that the Day School people never teach at night. They do. Then they are Day people moonlighting.

The Day people can be tenured. The Night people are always hanging. Tenured, from the verb to hold. We are slippery, we Night people. We slither, frictionless, through the groves of academe. We can break bread with the Day people, we can partake of their largesse, and then we slink our way to another institution and then back, as if we know where we're going.

Foot, Horns, Feathers

I was making plans yesterday to get together with my friend R, who I hadn't seen in several months. I don't have hair, I told her. She said, I'll recognize you. Then, joking, she added: Why don't you wear a red carnation in your cleavage? I said, I don't have cleavage. She said: Oh no.....

At dinner we talked about my ears, lately revealed to the public. She knew from anatomy study that the tops are called the helix. She said that human ears should be more curved to serve us better but they aren't. For some reason evolution hasn't caught up to them. Or vice versa. I told her about the lizard with horns that gets in its way while climbing. Another friend doubted that a lizard could have such ungainly and troublesome horns, that the species wouldn't have survived. She said that her study of nature has shown her that such seeming maladaptations usually have to do with mating. For example, the lyrebird can barely fly because of its long, heavy feather tail but it can attract a mate with that same tail. Perhaps it's the same with peacocks, though I do know they fly.

Which brings us, of course, to cancer. Why has cancer survived? Why have people susceptible to cancer survived? I think that's a horse of a different color. New studies show that so much of breast cancer is caused by contaminants in the environment. (In all fairness, I have to add that Susan G. Komen For the Cure, which I've criticized, funded the studies and will spend $5 million more on researching environmental causes of breast cancer.) Which brings us to this question: Why have humans survived who are destroying the environment? Somehow destructive tendencies are favored by evolution. Maybe Malthus was right.

Cloak of Invisibility

When I'm in familiar crowds now, I know that certain people won't recognize me. I don't blame them. My hair was my outstanding feature: thick, dark, wavy. People (who know who I am) are telling me that they're seeing my face for the first time. Revealing more of myself has made me seem less myself. When you see more, you know less. Thus I am rendered strange. I am rendered different. I am rendered, in a way, invisible.

Not so invisible that I could go around asking people what they thought of me or my writing. That would be too strange. That is the fantasy--that we could disguise ourselves and see what people say about us, or "kill" ourselves off and witness the funeral, a la Huck Finn. Or was it Tom Sawyer? When I was younger (29) and my hair had no hint of gray, I disguised myself or passed myself off as a 19-year-old college sophomore and went through the paces of sorority rush. I wanted to see what it was like. I was being judged, but at a safe distance. I had the power. You could say I was re-enacting an event, but I'd never been through rush before. After two rounds, I was busted, but I didn't confess.

Most everyone loves the idea of being a spy, of changing identities, lighting out for the territories and changing our names and lives. Maybe there aren't second acts in America, but there are third and fourth and fifth ones. What became of him or her? we ask. We're not asking exactly, Who did she become? but that might be close.

I was a spy one other time. The summer before graduate school I took a part-time marketing job in an architecture firm and worked on a novel the rest of the time. One of my duties was to go to the public library and search through the annual reports of local companies and school districts, in order to find likely clients. I'd also call these clients: Hello, I'm (Cancer Bitch) and I'm doing a survey for OWP Marketing about architecture firms. Do you have a firm that you work with? OWP were the initials of my employers. Sometimes the person on the other end would ask, Who are you working for? I forgot how I was supposed to respond. I assume that I was supposed to be as vague as possible and never confess.

In fifth and sixth grades, we also conducted surveys. You would get a friend of yours from another school to call a boy you were interested in. She would say, I'm doing a survey. Please rate these girls as potential girlfriends, A, B or C. Your name would be buried somewhere in the middle. She'd ask him to rate cuteness and personality, too. You'd know the results the minute your friend hung up the phone. And the boy knew that his answers would be made public.

How did we come upon this sophisticated marketing technique at age 10 and 11? I still remember that J rated me high in personality. He hadn't been surveyed on my account, but I was pleased to have the information. It was really his blond neighbor C who I was interested in, with whom I slow danced (several times) one Saturday night. I thought that meant we had an understanding. I'm still waiting for him to call. I wouldn't have dared to survey C; he was a grade older, and maybe unfamiliar with such ploys. Each grade had its own culture. Now we all have web sites and can count our visitors (at least theoretically; I don't know how to track them) and can look up our books' statuses on Amazon and read our students' evaluations of us and get our friends to contact the radio station to praise the Cancer Bitch series. I knew a feature writer at a major paper who wanted to become the dance critic. Every time she wrote a dance review she had her friends write letters to the editor praising her review. And it worked. And then she got breast cancer and it came back and in 2002 she died.

The Mothers

The Mothers have come and gone, and the sun is shining brightly on this warm, breezy day. The mothers are mine and L's; last year he came up with the idea of having both of them here for Mother's Day weekend. They'd only met once before, and yesterday and today they said they liked one another, and we believe them. My mother is an elegant Southern lady; L's is an earthy Midwestern enthisiast. I claim that she's an Animist, believing that inanimate objects are sentient beings, but L says I exaggerate. She says of many things, such as sweaters, scarves and baby blankets: That is a friend. That was a friend. L had a receiving blanket called Cover. She has a lovely little picture of him holding it. He also had a Teddy, whom he allegedly buried and who was never found, but was replaced. L does not remember what happened to Teddy. He may have decomposed by now.

I had to nap Saturday and Sunday afternoons so L took the ladies to the Niki in the Garden exhibit at Garfield Park Conservatory (below), to see Magdalena Abakanowicz's giant headless sculptures at Roosevelt and Michigan, and on a wildflower walk at the Heron Rookery in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. As I said, I slept a deep chemo-sleep. I'm finding that I'm zonked out for more days after each chemo treatment, as predicted.

My friend M was in town for a bar mitzvah, and she came here Saturday afternoon and night. She looks more like my mother than I do, and is more ladylike than I am. An observer would probably think they were related. V (the local V) and her husband J dropped by. He had returned from the markets of Dakar, Senegal, with a scarf for me. It is large and red and black, anarchist colors, he pointed out, and he was apologetic that it was too large for my head. But I had taken informal head-wrapping lessons in an African import store in Hyde Park last month, and I knew how to twist and tuck. So I spent most of Saturday evening wearing a large turban. I felt like I should be singing, "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair." But L said it looked good.

The Tanzanian kanga cloth I bought in Hyde Park has bright blue, yellow and black markings and a proverb in Swahili that says God is good or wise or something like that. I also bought a soft blue hat in the store. I still had my Mohawk then. I told the store owner that I was going to lose all my hair. She asked why and I said I had breast cancer and was going through chemo. Oh chemo is not good, she said. Chemo is poison. When she realized I was determined to continue my treatments, she asked me for my name so she could pray for me.

A number of people are praying for me. As the archetypal Jewish mother says, It couldn't hoit. (This is the context in which I've heard that line: The son proudly treats his immigrant mother to a Broadway show. In the last act, the hero crumples to his death. The mother stands up and yells, Give him chicken soup! The audience tries to shush her and explain it's just a play. She in turn shushes them and yells, ever determined: It couldn't hoit! I think this is mildly funny.) I do not believe in any of those studies that show a relationship between others praying for you and healing. The studies seem flawed. If you yourself are praying, that's another matter, one that has to do with repetition and tradition and comfort and belief. Even being part of a placebo group can make you feel better, because you believe, as Jerome Groopman has pointed out; you have hope. Placebo: I shall please.

L doesn't know this, but I started reciting the Shema to myself at bedtime several years ago. I'd quit at some point after my childhood. I know that God doesn't exist, but I know the prayer exists and has existed for a long, long time. I suppose I'm an animist for believing that the prayer itself has a soul.

The Watcher Watching Herself

The idea of a blog. A web log. A ship's log. A ship's log was impersonal. Three knots. Ten knots, fifteen hundred, the wind, the stars, the waves. Thunder. All that. Fate and nature recorded and the little bark's progress along the vast indifference, matey. Now a blog where I record what's personal in an impersonal forum. But everything is personal now, exposed, web-cammed. I want to write about reactions to my Cancer Bitch debut on the radio, but it seems to be so much like a dog reporting on chasing its own tail. What everyone thinks of the dog chasing its tail. I met with an essayist yesterday who told me about a lizard that has such big horns that it clutches them while it's climbing and gets caught up in them, impeding its own progress. The lizard apparently doesn't realize that the horns are its own. The dog must realize that the tail is her own. There are nerves in the tail, after all. I heard a 1987 interview with Oliver Sacks yesterday on Fresh Air in which he talked about a man who disowned his own leg. Something in his brain had shifted so that he couldn't recognize his leg as his own. He saw it as other and ugly. It was not a part of him.

Cancer Bitch definitely on the air Thursday, May 10

I will be reading selections from this blog on WBEZ, 91.5 FM, the NPR Chicago affiliate, starting tomorrow morning, Thursday, on the program called 848.I t's on NOT AT 8:48, but between 9 and 10 am; the show is repeated from 8-9 pm. I should be on the first half of the program. The tentative plan is to have my readings every Thursday. We shall see. For those of you out of range, you can listen on-line or at least learn about listening on-line here:
You can always suggest Cancer Bitch to your local NPRstation.
In case you feel moved to tell 848 that you LOVE Cancer Bitch, you can fill out the comment form here:

Thanks for reading.
Shameless yours,

When the Obit is More Fun than the Front Page

I was going to write about fashion and art and whimsy (and death and depression and cancer) inspired by the obit page, but then I read something really scary and important on the NYT front page. It's about doctors being paid ("rebates") to prescribe and administer anti-anemia drugs at unsafe levels for cancer and kidney patients. According to the Times, "Critics, including prominent cancer and kidney doctors, say the payments give physicians an incentive to prescribe the medicines at levels that might increase patients’ risks of heart attacks or strokes. "
I'm lucky so far--I've had borderline anemia but my hematologist told me to take generic ferrous sulfate from the drug store. My hemoglobin counts are OK, as of Monday. I'm lucky too because this article is blasting out while my hemoglobin counts are OK. If the situation weren't so tragic I would enjoy this twisted quote: "Johnson & Johnson said yesterday in a statement that its rebates were not intended to induce doctors to use more medicine. Instead, the rebates 'reflect intense competition' in the market for the drugs, the company said."

Now for the lighter side: Isabella Blow, who I hadn't heard of until I read her obit, in the Chicago Tribune today, died at 48. That's tragic, too. But her life sounded fun. She was a British fashion editor who was being treated for cancer and depression. What struck me was that before a meeting with the crystal company Swarovski, she "wore a crystal-encrusted lobster hat to suggest new possibilities. Swarovski crystal heads soon began appearing on designer dresses and shoes." Or at least that's how I first read it, and imagined animal heads on shoes, an idea which seemed daring in its delicacy. Like Cinderella's slippers, if Cinderella had had the power to choose. Then I realized they was crystal beads.

Now looking around on-line I see that Blow may have killed herself. New York Daily News gossip columnist Ben Widdicombe said yesterday (Fashion news gets there faster.) that fashionists "are questioning the official cause of death, given as cancer." New York Times mentioned a 2005 suicide attempt, a jump that ruined her for high heels. Can you be balanced and eccentric and fun in one life?


1. Competing bitches
I'm starting to think more and more of this blog as a potential book. I just found out that
Da Capo Press is publishing "Cancer is a Bitch: Reflections on Midlife, Mortality, Motherhood and Marriage" by Gail Konop Baker in October 2008. Does that mean that I should axe my title, "The Cancer Bitch Diaries"? I thought of "Cancer Kvetch," but that lacks gravitas. Any ideas, reactions, comments?

2. Public bitch
This weekend Cancer Bitch made her first paid public appearance without hair. I spoke to an audience of strangers (seven students, a professor, and a fellow presenter) at a program on the business of writing at Intellectual University. Beforehand, in the hallway, I saw a number of people who I hadn't seen for a while. I intimated to some of them that chemo had dictated my new henna-head, but didn't tell everyone. Of course I would have answered directly if anyone asked me directly about my lack of hair. I managed to slip in the name of this blog into my presentation; I wanted people to figure out that cancer had led to my latest head-fashion, that this isn't my idea of the most attractive face I could put forward.

3. Peevish bitch
I'm fascinated by memoirs by Iranian women. I guess it's because Iran has been shrouded in mystery and Iranian women have been shrouded in chadors. I've read at least a half dozen of them. The first was Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey, a travelogue by Alison Wearing, a Canadian. That doesn't count. The first real one was "Saffron Sky: A Life Between Iran and America" by Gelareh Asayesh, who was an intern at the Miami Herald when I was. I remember her as amazingly beautiful and uncomplaining about having to sit and listen to the police radio for crime news. I've read a number of memoirs since. I was immediately skeptical of Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books," because it paints American and British literature as be-alls and end-alls. The book seems to exist in order to make Americans feel good about our literature. (I admit I read aloud from the book when I taught The Great Gatsby.) There's a new book, "Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran" by Fatemeh Keshavarz, which criticizes Nafisi for stereotyping Iranian women. I'm planning to go to Keshavarz's reading May 30 at Women & Children First to see if she addresses my concerns. But that's not the peevish part. This is it: I'm reading a memoir by an Iranian woman, who will go unnamed. The book is supposed to be poetic. I'm feeling bad because here's someone writing a bestseller in her second or third language, and she's ten years younger that I am. Both treasonable offenses. And as I go along, I notice that she misuses words. She is not adept at English. Didn't anyone else notice? Apparently the reviewers didn't. So I am alone in my peevishness. And peevish about that.

4. Chemo bitch
My third chemo session is tomorrow. P is accompanying me. She will grade papers and I will read the above unsatisfying but still interesting Iranian memoir.

5. A confused bitch
The latest piece I like by an Iranian-American woman is the short "Iranian Women" by Mojdeh Marashi in "Let Me Tell You Where I've Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora," edited by Persis M. Karim. It consists of three very similar scenes of secular and religious women eyeing one another on the street. Cancer Bitch likes repetition. As in reggae. As in Philip Glass. As in drumming. Gregorian chants. And certain poetry, like the pantoum. And in Etel Adnan's "Paris, When It's Naked," which I discovered and bought at Small Press Distribution in Berkeley. I remember walking to SPD. It was both a warehouse and a store. From its website I can't tell whether you can still go into SPD and buy books. You'd think a person would be able to tell, but it such things can be difficult in the 21st century. You try it.

The Holter (Not Halter)

We are falling apart. And L's employer is paying for it. L is taking a Holter monitor test. Not wearing a halter, as I thought. Holter is the guy who invented the monitor, attached to L's belt during the day and put in a shirt pocket at night, to record everything his heart is doing and not doing over 24 hours. The cardiologists want to rule out arrhythmia, which is not good for thrice-a-week basketball players, or anybody else for that matter. L is irritated because electrode wires are stuck to his chest and the adhesive is itchy. I offered him an Ambien for tonight but he says that only works for three hours. He had a margarita at El Jardin tonight and that relaxed him some. The restaurant is fairly quiet when the Cubs fans haven't taken it over. We shared an order of vegetarian tamales. I hope they are vegetarian. They are called that, and I hope that lard is not used to make the outer masa portion. When I was first a vegetarian I was vigilant, grilling waitstaffs but now that I eat fish and chicken, I don't always want to know.

L asks why this level of detail about him is necessary. Comments, anyone?

He is pressing tape against my scalp then pulling it off to see if loosely-held stubble will come out. This interests and amuses both of us. We are like monkeys checking one another for lice. At least he doesn't eat the hairs. That is what we call evolution.

Our Continent and Then Some

Tuesday I lay in bed in my nightgown until 7pm, resting and reading Saving the World by Julia Alvarez, which is an interesting but flawed novel. It is made of two stories--one about the life of a Julia Alvarez-type (her age, her background) writer, and the other about the adventures of a a 19th century Spanish orphanage director who helps spread smallpox vaccines in the New World. The writer, we're told, loves in different ways her husband (romantic) and an elderly neighbor (platonic), who is dying, but I didn't feel the love in either relationship. I did feel it in the historical story. And though the novel's shape is fine, you can see too easily the gears of the plot. Certain plot elements seemed to have been dropped in from above. I bought the book Monday night in my neighborhood used book store, Bookworks. I'd read mixed reviews, and I can see why. I'd wanted to read it, though, because I have worked for 16 years, off and on, part of the time in Berkeley, on a book about a performance artist who is researching a certain legend from the Holocaust. The book has taken on many forms, all of them unfinished, even though two sections of it were published. I never felt comfortable recreating scenes from the past, as Alvarez has done. I can't seem to inhabit it enough, or to be confident enough to be able to recreate all the interiors and carriages and streetscapes of the past. I wrote an essay in Berkely in 2005 that uses some of my research. It's going to be published soon. The trouble with using all the research to create fiction is that I want to keep my distance, or rather, I can't help keeping my distance. In the essay, I can swoop into the past, but briefly, and always aware of my swooping. Which is why my friend Miz P said to me, about seven years ago, You're a nonfiction writer. So I thought that was the answer. Then.

I got dressed Tuesday finally to go to dinner at B and S's house. Our friend L the II was visiting from Australia. He says typical Australian humor is poking fun at your mates. So I was more audacious than usual about insulting people who were there and at one point S and I laughed until I was teary-eyed. Later she touched up my fading henna. Besides the half-block excursion to dinner, I didn't leave the house all day. I didn't walk my three miles. I didn't go to the immigration rally downtown. I felt guilty but I didn't feel like going and I would only be going so that I could say I'd gone if anyone asked me. I made excuses to myself: my stomach has been upset for a few days, I need to rest, I HAVE CANCER. I don't know how effective it is to use the cancer card with yourself. I needed L to tell me that I should rest when I feel like it and he did. I want to be in favor of everything the rally was in favor of, but I don't honestly know where I stand on immigration. I suppose deep down I believe everyone should be able to live anywhere, but the earth would tilt because so many people would come to the US and Europe. I do believe the US has some responsibility for the economy of Mexico, but I don't believe, as I heard Rev. Slim Coleman say on Friday, that the US is responsible for the factors that pushed Elvira Arellano, the illegal immigrant who has found sanctuary in his church, to come here. The US, he said, devalued the peso and dumped cheap corn on Mexico's markets, driving down the price of corn in Mexico, which her family planted and sold. It can't all be the US's fault. But if I were to hear someone blaming everyone but the US, I would think the US was culpable. (Now that I read what Slim Coleman said, in my own words, it sounds reasonable.) I don't think it's right that Arellano is sending her eight-year-old son all around the country to make speeches. But maybe that's what he wants to do. Maybe he feels helpless otherwise and is proud to speak on behalf of his mother. As I said, I don't know where I stand in immigration--amnesty for more than 12 million, which would encourage millions more?--but I should stand somewhere.

At the Office of the County Assessor

Today I did something I'd been putting off for at least three years, to my own detriment. I went to the county assessor's office and signed forms that say that I deserve the homeowner's exemption on my property tax bill because I am the homeowner. I've been the owner of the condo since 1998 but because so much time has elapsed I could only recoup for 2002 onward. I can't get the rest back. The positive way to look at it is that at least I'm doing this now. I had sort of thought I'd gotten it fixed a few years ago. I never look at the tax bill because I pay taxes through the mortgage company. So let this be a lesson to all of you.

First I was surprised that I could walk into a public building without being stopped by a security guard. If I were a terrorist I would go after government buildings such as the City and County Building. I'm glad that no terrorist thinks like me. Second, I was surprised that I didn't have to wait. I imagined sitting for an hour or more. At the assessor's office upstairs there was a counter and chairs and numbers to take. I was number 99, and 96 was lit up, but a woman behind the counter took me to her desk right away. I was surprised to be at someone's desk. She was very personable, asking if I had a cold. I didn't, it's just that my nose runs whenever I'm outside. I think it's because the chemo has killed my nose hairs. My eyes tear, too, and I think that may be because I'm losing some eyelashes. She'd had a cold and was still coughing a little. She had very short hair and I wanted to ask her how she liked having such short hair but I didn't. She saw I had the proper papers to prove my ownership and she said, Someone must have talked to you already, someone must have talked to you already. Crooning almost. Her birthday is four days before mine. Both Sagittarians. She said, Do people think you're me? I thought she was being playful because our birthdays are so near one another. I said, Maybe. Then I realized she'd asked if people think I'm mean. She said people think she is, because she's honest, but they say she's rude, and she says, I just tell it like it is, I'm frank, and they say, Frank and Rude are cousins. She punched up my condo's PIN number on the computer and changed the name of the homeowner, and for each year from 2002 on up she said, are you ready to see the magic screen? And then it displayed my refund for that year. She went off to copy some papers and two desks over a clerk was oohing over a taxpayer's baby, who was about a year and a half and all dressed in white. The clerk was throwing her up in the air and the baby was laughing. My clerk told me that the woman had just adopted three children; this, after already raising children who are grown and living on their own. It was all very sweet and relaxed, with a few other workers crowded around the baby. The office seemed generally easy-going, with murmurs everywhere and no one rushing around. I thought it was quite lovely but on the other hand there were about five people waiting at the counter, stony-faced. It didn't help that the waiting people were all white and the clerks were all black. The group around the baby kept talking about the terrible twos and threes and how kids are so smart these days.

When my paperwork was done, my clerk gave me copies of forms and explained I would be getting refund checks within 30 days. I know I will have to ask my accountant how to square this with the IRS, since I deduct some of my property taxes and mortgage. It will be a mess of more forms. The clerk said, You can buy something for yourself. You can go on vacation. I'd told her how I'd thought I'd have to wait forever, and she said it's like going to the dentist and finding out you don' t have to get any work done. I had my blue hat on. Another clerk had told me she liked it. I kept it on the whole time. The clerk was so personable I was afraid of getting too close by explaining about cancer and chemo. For some reason, I don't mind telling distant people about it, like the bank worker the other day-- a man I don't quite approve of because he doesn't read books, and didn't know anything about socially-conscious investing--but my cancer seemed too personal to reveal to this woman, who was so warm and open. You'd think it would be the opposite but it wasn't.

Barking, Berkeley, Hyde Park

I haven't written for a while here. To quote from that great American philosopher, Snoopy, if you don't have something to say, there's no reason to bark.

I have a philosophy about barking, real barking. I think that dogs bark for the same reasons people honk their horns: to express anger, disapproval, excitement, fear and happiness, and to greet. When I was young, there were Jewish teen groups and each group was named for a Jewish leader, and each group had colors, mascot, song and a honk that the kids would blare out when they passed by another kid's house. I guess that's ritualized honking, comparable to canines' barking at the moon?

Saturday night I went to a potluck dinner for poets, mostly. Our hostess has a dog called Sir Barksalot, named, she explained apologetically, by her son when he was about eight. The dog looks like a short German shepherd with a round face and big puppy feet. In fact, he's a 12-year-old husky-spaniel. We told dog stories. I told a second-hand story about a dog I know in Berkeley. She is very spoiled and white and fluffy. Her name is Lulu, short for Lumiere. I nicknamed her Princess. She has several beds and bowls inside what I called the Big House. I rented the garden apartment/carriage house in back. It's one large room that used to be a gallery. This is the story: One day Lulu went with her mistress, R, to a birthday party. People were gathered in the living room and then someone went back in the kitchen and discovered that Lulu had reached up to the counter and was eating the chocolate cake. One guest ran in, very distraught. She was screaming because she was planning to bring a big piece of the cake to her husband. Later everyone found out that this woman was having an affair, even bringing the man home to meet her children. No wonder she was hysterical about the cake. Her plan to bring some to her husband was fueled by guilt. The poets thought I had been at the birthday party, and I don't blame them, because it is a rather detailed story to know second-hand. I heard it from R. The cake was chocolate but Lulu was not harmed by it. I had experienced Lulu's thievery first-hand already. I was sitting on the patio between the Big House and my little place and I saw Lulu run past with a brown frisbee in her mouth. It turned out to be a loaf of organic whole wheat that I had left on the counter, out of her reach, I'd thought. This was before I heard of the cake-snatching from the counter.

I spent part of the last two summers in Berkeley. I wrote in my little house and in the cafes along College Avenue. Last summer I walked a lot. I walked three and four miles, but often my destination was the Cheese Board in what's called the Gourmet Ghetto, so I didn't lose weight. Besides cheese, of course, the Cheese Board cooperative sells bread and rolls and muffins, and a different kind of pizza every day. You stand in line for your slice/s and then you sit there shifty-eyed at one of the metal-grille tables and listen to live jazz. You're shifty-eyed because there are homeless people everywhere, especially outside the Cheese Board, and you talk to them or not, or give them money or pizza or not. And whatever you do, you still feel ashamed to have looked up the pizza of the day on your computer before coming there; could there be anything more indulgent than that?

The key to understanding Berkeley is the concept of guilt co-existing with indulgence. There's a hip Jewish magazine called Guilt & Pleasure. That's not the same; pleasure is a word from our grandparents' generation: Such a pleasure, such nakhes fon di kinder, pleasure from the children. I studied for two other summers in Berkeley, in the 1990s, thanks to the National Endowment for the Humanities. One evening I was very depressed so I went to a city council meeting. The topic at hand was giving out vouchers to homeless people. Did it take away from their freedom of choice and thus their humanness if you gave them a coupon for food from a local store instead of money that they could spend on anything they wanted, including booze and drugs? Since, this issue has surfaced in other communities--locally, in Hyde Park, home of the University of Chicago, which is a mecca of guilt and ... hard work? Not pleasure, not indulgence, but self-righteousness? Not that, either. In Hyde Park people live in lovely brick apartments with nice wooden floors and long hallways and they believe in truth and beauty and scholarship and they complain that there isn't a decent grocery store nearby and they are more likely to have been mugged than their friends on the North Side. In Hyde Park there's an old saying that there the middle class blacks and whites unite against the poor. Maybe Hyde Park is just a pool of guilt, period. And yet, flocks of parakeets have decided to live there, all year long, in the outdoors. Guilt and improbable spots of beauty?