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.