The Essential Guide

The mice are wily. You can see why scientists use them all the time. I set a trap with Nutella and put it in the mouse drawer. Nothing, but less Nutella. I put a blue poison pellet on top and the pellet was gone. I wedged in a little piece of the pellet. That was gone too. Then I got some cheese and pushed it under this little vent on the plastic platform of the trap. This morning I checked and the trap was gone and there was blood about five inches away from where the trap had been. I figured we'd caught the mouse and L had thrown away the trap and mouse.

For some reason I opened the drawer further. There was a mouse in the back of the drawer, with his feet caught in the trap. He looked at me with his big black eyes. He hopped around. I knew I had to kill him. I called L and he said he'd heard him jumping around but figured he'd die soon. Thanks a lot. He advised me to put the mouse and trap in a plastic bag and bang it against the concrete. But that involves getting dressed. I knew I had to put the mouse out of its misery.

First I covered him with cardboard--an empty cracker box that I made flat. I was thinking I should get a hammer to smoosh him with but then decided a big book would be better.

This was probably the first time I've used the Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors and Publishers, 14th edition. I recommend it highly. This is definitely an instance when the spiral-bound AP Stylebook, which I use more often, would not have been as useful.

What Scar?...

...I asked my husband L today on the phone. He'd asked me if I remembered showing everyone my scar last night. I thought it might have been the scar from removing the port.

It wasn't that scar. Apparently, under the influence of demon rum (or rather, tequila) I flashed my mastectomy scar twice. Were people horrified? I asked. He said no.

There were six of us at the table at Fernando's and a couple carafes of margaritas. Today M reported that I kept asking him, Do you want to know a secret? but I told the same one or two over and over. I didn't ask what I told him.

I hadn't been this drunk for about 10 years. It made me realize why people drink, why frat boys have frat parties and people go to bars and sling back the beers. Because you get giddy and nothing matters and you're out of control.

And then you have patches of memory.

Did we have flan? I asked M. We had. I remembered two shared dishes of flan and I remember ordering shrimp veracruz and I remember the food coming but I don't remember eating it. M said that his girlfriend L told me that I didn't need reconstruction.

Alcohol unleashes inhibitions. Does this mean that I really want to show my scar? Perhaps. I was thinking of that Beauty Out of Damage photo and wondering if I should have a picture like that of myself on the cover of my book. How would that go over at WRU? I wonder. And the more appropriate photo would be of the back of my head, where you can read US OUT OF IRAQ.

But let's get back to the scar. I'm usually the only one in the locker room at the park district building when I change for step aerobics. I've wondered what the reaction would be if someone saw me. I'm sharing a room with Miz P at an upcoming conference. I've imagined myself asking her if she'd like to see the scar. I think the scar is interesting. I've wanted to see friends' scars but thought it impolite to ask. I saw a mastectomy scar for the first time at the former Women's Gym, about 20 years ago. One of the proprietors had cancer and it seemed to me then that she came back to exercise a week after surgery. It couldn't have been that short a time, but it seemed like it. I was impressed that she'd returned to quickly and that she was healthy enough to go on like before.

I read somewhere about a woman going topless at a swimming pool, so that you could see the scars from her double mastectomy. The other women complained. You must cover your breasts because they are sexual. Right? But if the breasts are erased, is the erasure too sexual, too?

There's an odd new Canadian project on line sponsored by Schick and Rethink, a breast cancer charity. It's got the horribly coy title of Booby Wall, and it's picture after picture of women's breasts, sent in by the women themselves (supposedly). I saw two photos of the one-breast-and-scar combo, and one photo of reconstructed breasts without nipples. The campaign is to get women, especially young women, to Touch, Look and Check (TLC) their breasts. "Booby" connotes sniggering and disrespect. At least it does to me. How many idiots did it take to come up with this concept?

I will not be uploading pictures of my breast-and-scar. To see my chest, you'll have to come to the locker room. Or wait till I'm once-in-a-blue-moon drunk.

Artemis in the City

N.B.: This post is not about cancer, just death. And it's probably not that interesting, either.

For Chanukah, L's kids got us matching pajamas, coordinated robes, a six-month gift certificate for Netflix, and four bags of flavored popcorn. We had some of the popcorn and put the rest in a kitchen drawer.

I was in the kitchen the other night and I thought I heard a rustling. It came from the popcorn drawer. I opened the drawer and found loose popcorn, and holes in the popcorn bags, and, of course, mouse droppings.

For years we've had a cardboard box sitting on the kitchen floor. It was put there by an exterminator and inside was a mouse trap. I noticed a tail coming out of it.

I cleaned out the drawer and set a trap there. Next day there was a dead mouse in the trap and I gingerly put it in a bag and threw it away. I bought more traps from the Walgreens on Broadway.

No one showed up.

In the kitchen and office we have little black boxes that the exterminator also put there years ago. Yesterday we noticed that there was a bird seed scattered around it, and then today, I heard little crunching noises coming from it. Apparently this is poisoned food that the mice are attracted to. The plan is for them to take the poison back with them to the nest. In my office this afternoon I heard some crunching and it seemed to be coming from the little black box. Then I spotted a little gray mouse running along the wall.

Not much later I was in the kitchen I was talking on the phone and saw a little gray mouse feeding from the black box there. He scampered on top of the mousetrap, ran into the cardboard box, and ran out the other side. Fuck you, I hissed into the phone at my bewildered friend P. I explained that I was cursing at the mouse who had stepped right on the yellow plastic fake-cheese platform on the mousetrap. If someone steps on the platform, it's supposed to set off the trap. But apparently our mice are too light to set off the guillotine. This mouse was about half the size of the gerbils I had when I was a kid.

Tonight I bought some Victor traps from the Ace up the street. These are smaller and I hope more sensitive traps than the ones from Walgreens. I set them with jelly (we were out of peanut butter) and I put them inside the cardboard boxes and around the little black boxes.

So I wait and obsess. I kept running back and forth from room to room and checking the traps, over and over so that I had to leave the apartment in order to get work done. It's such a shame: I think the mice are so cute, I've always been enchanted by stories of prisoners and servant girls who tame the mice who come into their quarters. I'm thinking of A Little Princess, how Sara tamed the rat Melchisedec. And my parents bought me rodents as pets. Plus I haven't eaten mammals for almost 30 years: no mammal has been killed in my name. But these mice don't belong in my living quarters. They're unhygenic. Of course. So we have to go after them. This is what makes me feel guilty: I like hunting them down. It's so satisfying to catch one. I'm a hunter. I grew up stalking little lizards in Houston. I didn't kill them. I usually let them go. But the capture is thrilling. How happy cats must be.

But beyond all that--they are fascinating. This is like going on safari. They are funny furry little animals suddenly in my purview. They are outwitting me. It's in their best interest to do so. Otherwise, down comes the wire necklace with a snap.

Victor makes Live Catch Mouse Traps. I could catch and release. Where? Outside, in the cold, so the rodents could scurry back to the warmth inside?

The cold spell is supposed to break soon. Maybe the mice will leave on their own, about the same time the ground hog comes out to predict the rest of the season for us humans.

One Mastectomy, To Go

You've no doubt heard of "drive-by surgeries"--the derisive term coined by health reformers for inadequate hospital stays mandated or permitted by health insurance companies. I thought of fast mastectomies as I read a profile of photographer Lee Miller (1907-1977) in the January 21 New Yorker. In Paris, she took jobs that her mentor and lover May Ray passed down to her. One of these assignments was to take pictures of operations at the Sorbonne medical school. The year was 1930. We're told: "Having watched a mastectomy, she asked the surgeon if she could keep the amputated breast. She arrived for a fashion shoot at the studio of French Vogue in a buoywant mood, carrying this grisly trophy on a dinner plate, then photographed it at a place setting, next to a knife and fork." Serve that at your dinner party, Judy Chicago!

The two small contact prints of a breast on a white plate were shown for the first time in a recent retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The show ended earlier this month. Miller's son told the Times of London that she was in the operating room not on assignment, but because she was having affair with the surgeon. The doctor invited her to take pictures and gave her the breasts because she asked for them. (As a sign of his love? Did the patient on the operating table wonder where her breasts had gone, could she have imagined that what had been inside of her would suddenly be put on a plate like the head of John the Baptist? That woman is the unknown soldier.)

Opines the Times: "For years [Miller] had been celebrated for the beauty of her breasts. At one time, her breasts had even inspired the design of a champagne glass. Images of her face and body, particularly her breasts, had been snipped up by Man Ray as part of his reductive process of control. 'What did all that do to her, I wonder,' says [son Tony] Penrose. 'The knowledge that men loved her body. Here she was, saying, "OK, you revere breasts. OK, here’s one. Have it. Eat it." And the shoot took place in the Vogue studio, where the commodification of women occurred every day.'"

How easy it is to offer someone else's breasts.

These days, a photographer couldn't run off with someone's breasts hot off the body. Can you imagine? Stop, thief! Once I was in a restaurant and the waitress told us someone had come into the kitchen and made off with half our pizza. But breasts?

How wrong it feels to have parts of ourselves that never see the light--to have them taken from inside of us and looked at.

We have bones and muscles to hold our organs in place, so they don't go flopping around inside us, and we have skin so that everything won't fall out of us. There is something horrible about seeing what should be enclosed and encased and hidden by skin.

In Israel there are Orthodox volunteers who gather body parts after a bombing to make sure that the remains have a religious burial. The people who do this often have PTSD.

What did that woman look like, the one who lay on the table at the Sorbonne medical school while another woman made sport of her breasts? Did that woman live? We assume her breasts were cancerous and were removed in order to save her. How old was she? How much longer did she live?

It's not so hard these days to find images of women with mastectomy scars. One of the most famous is Matuschka's 1993 self portrait on the cover on the New York Times Magazine. We can imagine what the Frenchwoman looked like after her surgery, though radical mastectomies were more the norm back then than now.

In 63 years we went from one woman taking a picture of another woman's removed breasts, to a woman taking a picture of her own scarred self after her breast was cut away. Beauty Out of Damage, she called it.

I wonder what Miller did with the breasts after she was finished with them. Who threw them away? I would bet they did not make it into a cemetary.

A dozen years later, Miller was photographing the European theater of war for British Vogue. In Saint Malo she accidentally stepped on the severed hand of an American soldier. She went on to photograph Buchenwald and Dachau; and in an extreme show of bad taste, in Munich she posed for a photo in Hitler's bathtub. This photo became infamous.

After the war she stowed her cameras and turned to cooking and drinking. She died in 1977, of cancer. I don't know what kind.


People say, are you in remission? Are you OK now? They check you, right? They scan you x-ray look for cancer in your blood... right?

People are anxious. They don't want to hear that my cancer could come back. They want to know that someone is watching it, that as soon as an errant cancer cell jumps into existence, some medical exterminator will be there to wipe it out.

I'm anxious. I want that, too.

There's a blood test you can take that indicates ovarian cancer, but there's not one for breast cancer. You can take scans but the oncologist say, listen to your body, see how you feel, if you have deep bone pain, call us.

I have sore vertebrae from falling on my back in aerobics (as reported below), and that soreness is thankfully, going away.

So we sit tight. Exercise, eat well and hope for the best. And take Tamoxifen, which gobbles up the estrogen that the tumor fed on.

Implants--More Dangers

I seem to be on a soap box here. But I must say that I know people with implants from reconstruction and they haven't had infection.

January 22, 2008
Study Says Implants Double Risk of Infection in Breast Reconstruction
Breast cancer patients who had reconstructive surgery using implants immediately after mastectomies were twice as likely to acquire infections as women who immediately had breast reconstruction using their own tissue, according to a study published yesterday.
The article in Archives of Surgery, which examined the medical records of breast surgery patients at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis from mid-1999 to mid-2002, found that 50 of 949 patients acquired an infection at the surgical site within a year after surgery.
Roughly 12 percent of the infections occurred in mastectomy patients who immediately had implant surgery, compared with roughly 6 percent of infections in those who immediately had breast reconstruction using their own abdominal tissue, the study said. In noncancer patients, about 1 percent of infections occurred after breast reductions and no infections occurred after breast augmentation using implants, the study said.
“The bottom line is that implants are associated with an increased risk of infection in breast cancer patients,” said Margaret A. Olsen, the lead author of the study and a research assistant professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “The question is what factors contribute to this increased risk and what can be done to prevent it?”
The study noted whether patients had other medical conditions like diabetes, but it did not report how many underwent radiation or other treatments that might have played a role in the infections.
The study did analyze the cost to the medical center of each infection — about $4,100 per patient — a hospital-acquired complication not covered by managed care, she said.
But both kinds of reconstructive surgery entail risk.
Dr. Stephen R. Colen, the chairman of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, said operations using abdominal tissue took several hours longer than implant surgery, increasing the risk of blood clots and lung embolisms. In 2 percent of patients, the transplanted tissue dies, requiring further surgery, Dr. Colen said.
But implant reconstruction inserts a foreign object into the body, providing a surface on which bacteria may grow. And implantation involves a series of procedures — including one surgery to insert a skin-stretching device in the chest, followed by saline injections to expand the breast, another surgery to put in a permanent implant and a final surgery to attach a nipple — creating more occasions for infection to occur, Dr. Colen said.
Dr. Keith E. Brandt, a professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Washington University and an author of the study, said all patients received prophylactic antibiotics at the time of surgery. But postsurgical treatments for breast cancer, like radiation, may weaken the body’s ability to fight infection.

Replacing, Refilling, Ending, Not Ending

I had intended to end this blog on Jan. 16, the anniversary of my semi-diagnosis, but I find I have more to say. For instance, about implants. The New York Times reported on Thursday about problems with breast implants. First of all, they don't last. Second of all, they can leak and spill and scar. All good reasons not to have an implant, L said, reading over my shoulder. But you notice women's breasts, I said. I didn't marry you for your breasts, he said. I sound like I'm arguing in favor of implants. I kept thinking I would have an implant after I get down to my ideal weight, because if you get an implant and lose weight, the breast stays the same size. But the more and more I live with one breast, the more natural it seems. And the more I hear about how you always feel the implant floating inside you, the less inclined I am to get the surgery.

There's no news peg to the Times piece, except an anti-implant documentary that came out in 2007. It had a NYC press screening in November, and will be shown in Boston at the end of this month. How very odd that it was already shown in Dallas and Buffalo and has a screening in Albuquerque, but there are no plans for it to be shown here. Something to look into. You can read an op-ed that came out before the film here.

I have to admit that I've been feeling lazy for not getting an implant. Or reconstruction, as it's called. Maybe feeling lazy and slatternly for going around braless and one-breastless. O gosh, lost a breast and didn't even sew one back on. As if it were a button fallen off a coat.

Anniversary & the Ritual Crushing of the Pills

On Jan. 16 a year ago, the radiologist at the Mammogram Factory was pretty grim as she looked at my ultrasound and told me I needed a core-needle biopsy. And so the fun began.
I decided that the best way to commemorate this event was to grind up the pills that I'd been issued for chemo side-effects. I mean, my understanding is that I can't have any more chemo, and if there were some kind of chemo for me in the future, I'm sure the drs would issue newerbetterstrongerlongerlasting pills to take.
The party couldn't start till 10 because I had class tonight. It's hard to get people to come to a party on a Wednesday night that begins at 10, especially when first advertised as providing no refreshments and lasting only 15 minutes. I loosened up but the damage was done. Only our loyal voisins de palier came (We know where they live) and we drank champagne, ate cheese and crackers and vegetable dumplings, and crushed the pills. L bought me flowers. That's L, above, crushing. My neighbor A wanted me to put the resulting powder in an urn. Or burn it. Or sell it on the street. I gathered the bits into a pill bottle and and put it in a gold mesh bag and I'm not sure what I'll do with it. I'll decide soon. I think it should stay enclosed so that it doesn't immediately contaminate the lake. My friend D sent me a study not long ago about fish containing Prozac because people excreted the drugs, which went into the water supply. Really, what's the harm? You end up with a little gentler fish and human population. And what's wrong with that??
My friend J is kind of nostalgic for the year she was diagnosed and treated, because she appreciated everything so much. I never had that quickening. At least not much. I don’t think my cancer was a blessing in disguise because it made me value life more, or friends or family more. Though friends and family came through in ways I hadn’t expected. Cancer didn’t cause me to bend more deeply to smell the flowers. It hasn’t made me deeper or wiser though I have become more aware of the manmade causes of the disease. The biggest change from the cancer is physical--my left breast is MIA.
All I can say for sure that I’ve learned is how to respond when someone has cancer. And I would prefer to have learned that second-hand.

The Omniscient Cancer Bitch

I was editing on my computer at Cafe Avanti Saturday night. A young man came in with a slight accent and ordered and lo! when the order was ready, he decided to ask if the cafe took credit cards. No. So the barista said to go ahead and take the food and drink, and the guy said next time he was there he would repay the $5.

So Monday I was in the same place, with my same laptop, when the young man came back. He asked how much different drinks cost ($1.93? with tax?) and chose a cheap drink. He didn't seem about to offer to pay back the money, so I boldly asked, from my chair, so everyone could hear: Aren't you the guy who said he was going to pay back $5?

He was surprised. I explained that I saw all and knew all. He told the barista that "this lady" had reminded him and he explained how he owed the money (it was a different barista), and I think he assumed I worked there. I do feel like I work there because I've been going there for at least 12 years, probably longer. I organized two art shows by Avanti regulars, and I've gotten to know all but the most recently hired baristas. B & S's son worked there last summer. There was a time when I would go there and always see someone I knew. I know one person who stopped going there when he needed to do work because he'd spend all his time talking. Then a number of people fell away for a number of reasons. It would have made for a great sit-com but only one sit-com-like thing happened. It was this: Customer F was lactose intolerant and always ordered cappuccino with soy milk. She was amazed that barista E made such great foam. (You already see where this is going.) Then one day she discovered the secret to his great soy foam: He used regular dairy milk to make it. When this was discovered, the guy did not apologize to her. So he was fired.

This is why I don't write for TV.

Worry & Not Worry

I fell on my back about a month ago in step aerobics. This may seem impossible, but I did. We were sitting on our risers or whatever you call those long flat boards, holding those colored stretchy bands. I think mine was green, with handles. It was around my feet, but then slipped up and off my feet and I fell back. I wasn't hurt much. This is only important because I still have some pain (mostly when I push at the sites) around one vertebra and on my coccycx. And the pain wouldn't be important except that when cancer metastasizes it goes to the bones and shows itself as pain. I'm worried/not worried about it. I had a check-up appointment today with the surgeon. Her physician's assistant pushed on the places, hard, and said that if it was cancer, most likely it would have hurt more than it did. They both said that if the pain doesn't go away in a month, to call and get an x-ray. Deep down, I think it's nothing. After all, my sentinel node was clear. But I'm still afraid. I won't obsess, but I'll wonder.

I suppose the surgeon must like routine check-up appointments--they're a break from talking to scared women about how you're going to cut their skin and take some insides out. On the other hand, she may like talking to the frightened women and calming them down by giving them concrete information.

The surgeon has moved since I was last there, in the summer. Now she's in a nearby Fancy Hospital building. There used to be one large Breast Corral, with women of all ages waiting for mammograms and ultrasounds and surgeons. On the free phone you could hear people making traumatized personal calls. Now the "imaging" is separate from the surgery. I just followed the sign to a silent and empty waiting room. I saw the nurse there and she recognized me, and said I wouldn't have to wait long. She was right.

People ask me if there are scans to see if the cancer has come back, and there are, but the booklet the oncologist gave me (and which I can't find at the moment) says that there's no reason to do scans all the time, that mostly women report pain or other symptoms that turn out to be cancer. If I had the pain and I hadn't fallen in aerobics, I would be really worried. It does seem rather fast for metastasis. Chemo ended only five months ago, and the chances of cancer coming back without chemo was only 30 percent. I know someone who has "mets" and she did not have chemo. So based on one person I draw my conclusion.


Suddenly it seems I might be on the verge of a book contract. My title is "The Farewell-to-My-Left-Breast Party." I like it and don't like it. I think it's hard to say. Please send me suggestions. "Cancer Bitch Tells All" no
"Cancer Bitch: My Life and Times"--no
Harvey Pekar's already got "Our Cancer Year."
"Cancer and the Jewish Problem"? (That's a variation of the punchline of a joke.)
"A Body in the City" --too general
"Cancer in the City"?--too derivative?
"Tales of a One-Breasted Jewess"--too sexual
"Cancer Made Me Lopsided"
"One in Eight"
"A Jewess in Cancerlandia"
"The Jew in the Tumor"--wait, other way around
"Flat Heart"--???
"Flat Over My Heart"--?
"Why I Refused A Cranial Prosthesis"
"Cancer Jew"
"My Year of the Crab"--not bad, though sloppy book clerks might shelve it with the low-carb stuff
"Year of the Crab"

I know, I know, I shouldn't emphasize the Jewishness because then non-Jews won't want to read it. And it's not that Jewish, anyway.

Let me hear from you. There will be a prize--either a copy of the future book or a copy of one of my current books--choose from fiction and nonfiction.

What I Learned at the Little Cafe

When he got married the second time, the man said, it was February, at the height of the season on Miami Beach. He took his bride to his friend's hotel, who told them, I have a special room for you. He got the bellman to take the couple to their room. It was a tent set up on the beach.

That was payback for the time the man had skipped out on his bill by leaving his third-floor room by means of a rope ladder.

They didn't stay in the tent. The bellman led them to another room--in the laundry. And finally to a real room.

Another time the hotel owner had trouble with his old car, a Rolls Royce. The choke was frozen. The man was a car mechanic and set about fixing it. It was a simple problem but he pretended it was difficult, and got someone to get him breakfast. But he couldn't fool the hotelier, who was watching him from inside through binoculars.

The man is laughing as he tells me this. He's getting ready to leave the Little Cafe and he's putting his mittens on. Maybe he's in his 70s. He has a sunken mouth. He says, I went to the funerals of him and his brother, in New York City.


This is what the science teacher does to show kids how to write up their experiments: She tells them to write down instructions on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Then one day she brings in bread and peanut butter and jelly. And has the kids follow the instructions. They forget to include all kinds of things, she says. They forget to describe how to spread the peanut butter, to tell which side of the bread to put it on. They learn that they have to include every step.

I told her it would be a good writing exercise, and described what my friend B does. He has two kids sit in the middle of the room, back to back. Both have blocks in front of them. One of them builds a structure and tells the other how to do it--without using shape or color words. (I'm looking in his book now to get the details. It's from a class in communications. But it would be a good exercise for writers: precision, precision.) Sometimes in classes I'll have students draw something that's described in another student's work, so the latter can see if s/he's been precise.
Of course, there's always a gap: Is your concept of love the same as mine? How about equality or evil or relaxation?

I told my class tonight at WRU about the peanut butter exercise. One student said: That's brilliant. I think it is, too.

Causes, not Cures

"We've been fighting the war on cancer for almost four decades now, since President Richard M. Nixon officially launched it in 1971. It's time to admit that our efforts have often targeted the wrong enemies and used the wrong weapons. Throughout the industrial world, the war on cancer remains focused on commercially fueled efforts to develop drugs and technologies that can find and treat the disease -- to the tune of more than $100 billion a year in the United States alone. Meanwhile, the struggle basically ignores most of the things known to cause cancer, such as tobacco, radiation, sunlight, benzene, asbestos, solvents, and some drugs and hormones. Even now, modern cancer-causing agents such as gasoline exhaust, pesticides and other air pollutants are simply deemed the inevitable price of progress. They're not. Scientists understand that most cancer is not born but made.

"No matter how much our efforts to treat cancer may advance, the best way to reduce cancer's toll is to keep people from getting it. We need to join the rest of the industrialized world by issuing a national ban on asbestos and forbidding smoking in the workplace and other public spaces. We must reduce the hazards faced by those working to build our homes, transport our goods and make the products we consume. We should restrict CT scans of children to medical emergencies, limit the use of diagnostic radiation in general, ban young children from using cellphones and keep the rest of us from using tanning beds. And we must recognize that pollutants do not need passports. Controlling cancer, like controlling global warming, can take place only on an international scale. We can -- and must -- do better."
--University of Pittsburgh 's Graduate School of Public Health, November 4, 2007
quoted on

As the Assertive Cancer Patient says, It's a disease, not a marketing opportunity.

When You Walk Through a Storm

I went to the Bourgeois Pig Cafe tonight and worked on my back-from-the-dead novel. Then I walked home. That's about 2 and a quarter miles. In the cold (about 20 degrees) and wind. I thought this proved that I was cured of the chemo effects, that I had my strength back. At the Pig there were some undergraduate women talking. One of them said when she went home for break her mother walked past her in the airport. Oh, said her mother, I thought you'd be thinner.

The daughter had lost 15 pounds then gained some or all of it back.

I got my cholesterol reading today. Overall it's up compared to a year ago. My HDL is slightly down from last year, and my LDL is higher. Each should be the opposite. It will take machines to make these numbers better. My mother calls her exercise her medicine that's not in a bottle. I have to think of it that way, too.

The Story of the Pretty Girl

When the pretty girl was seven a new girl came to school. She was from France. Her mother was chic with one side of her hair cut short and the other long. The pretty girl adored the French girl and her French mother and fell in love with France. She promised herself she would go to France one day. When she was 14 she began to learn French. When she was 19 she went to Paris and stayed seven years, studying music, singing and other arts.

I met the pretty girl tonight at a French conversation group. She's probably about 30 now, and her French was very very good, unsurprisingly, and she was very sweet. I also met a young man who has been studying mushrooms for 18 months. He rents a garage on the North Side, which he heats, and where he grows mushrooms. And a man who teaches ESL in a school and is frustrated because the parents of one Mexican girl know that she can't hear very well but have never gotten her hearing testing. The school is pushing for her to get hearing aids.

I've written before here about the strangeness of speaking a foreign language with people you don't know. How odd that this person and that are able to understand your non-English. How much easier it is to disclose in your non-native language. What I want to talk about now is how we package ourselves and our life stories. You can read about this in journals of biographical theory. You can present Exhibit A (French girl) and B (her sophisticated mother) and Intangible Exhibit C (the desire to go to France) and it all makes sense. But of course the pretty girl's life is more complicated. We like reading stories because there's causality. We like reading biographies because we learn that X and Y inexorably led to Z. It's the inexorableness that we crave. As historian and biographical theorist Hayden White says: "...there has been a reluctance to consider historical narratives as what they most manifestly are: verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found..." How I came to this country. Why I want this job. How I chose my major. Why I became a nurse. How Abraham Lincoln became Abraham Lincoln.

How I got cancer? A loose mess. Maybe environment (Which? Houston? Chicago? asthma medicine? plastic cups? hormones in milk?), maybe chance (This little cell got bored and decided to expand?), maybe lack of children, maybe maybe maybe...

The story of cure (of polio, smallpox) is so satisfying. Problem, solution involving heroics, the end. The story of prevention is not a story. It is lack of story. Prevention is invisible. It does not wear a pink ribbon. It does not go for four-day walks to develop its endurance. Prevention can be tracked, but it is always messy: what caused the lower rate of X and Y and Z? Peut-etre ca, peut-etre ca...

The New Year

S and Cancer Bitch, wearing tiara and sequin earrings

We went to B and S's house for new year's eve, as we've done for many years, and as I did for years before meeting L. I met B and S in 1985, and L ten years later. The guests vary a little from year to year, but there are stalwarts. Sometimes it is a sit-down dinner and sometimes it's not. Once it was a barbecue and they turned the heat up and wore Hawaiian shirts. Once their party was hosted by someone else who forgot to invite me and I was hurt and we had people over here and then went to downtown to the Buckingham Fountain for the countdown. That was the millenium and police were standing on street corners in riot gear, afraid of--thousand-year craziness? Oh, terrorists. But that was just before 2001 started. Fear of Y2K. Now we are all battered. B was in his wheechair, of course, and I looked around and thought: Last year I had cancer but didn't know it. Among the people here are two pairs of parents whose sons have died, and I wonder what suffering is in store for all of us; in what new ways will we be damaged next new year's eve? It's the mirror image of Walter Benjamin's angel of history, who looks into the past and sees one tragedy after the other.

We brought a lovely mostly organic salad (lettuces, red cabbage, red onion, hearts of palm and artichoke) and D, our visiting friend and house guest, made baked cheese grits, which were gobbled up. I also brought an experimental trifle. Ever since Thanksgiving I have wanted to replicate a trifile that my cousin S's wife made, but with mostly different ingredients. This, as you can imagine, is nearly impossible. It's a Paula Deen recipe of layered gingerbread, pumpkin puree, Cool Whip, pudding-from-mix and ginger snaps. I made it with gingerbread, yogurt, pumpkin and Bailey's caramel cream. S liked it but no one else. I threw it out and started again around 2am with just gingerbread, yogurt, honey and ginger. They say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Another definition would be taking a known procedure, changing it, and expecting the original result. I think I'm disappointed that the recipeed trifle tasted so wonderful but was made from lowly, store-bought ingredients.

Since Thanksgiving I have been eating too much and drinking too much and it has to stop.