The Things We Remember

[Student prison, no longer in service, U of Heidelberg]

At the 30th high school reunion, I told S that I remembered that in elementary school she asked a question when the Kotex lady showed her film. She didn't remember. Via Facebook, I told A how embarrassed I'd been when I brought her a pack of cards for her birthday. She had a slumber party and I hadn't realized it was her birthday party, too. I brought, for reasons not remembered now, cards that someone had given my parents that showed racy hospital jokes--busty nurses with big syringes and so on. A didn't remember. I have just friended E, and I remember that once in the carpool she referred to her stepfather as a dumb bald, as opposed to dumb blonde. She herself had dark hair and bangs and a wide smiling mouth. She was assured. R writes that she remembers me as kind and sweet. I didn't feel kind and sweet in high school or junior high. There is the cliche, of course, that all of us were insecure and had secret crushes on people who--lo, it turns out!--were insecure and had secret crushes on us. There was a boutique around these parts owned by a couple who'd reconnected at a high school reunion. The store is now a very successful Italian restaurant. In Vienna many years ago I went to an underground pub that was very famous and very historic. Many years before that I went to the student jail in Heidelberg, walls covered with centuries of graffiti. We want everything to last. We live in an age of planned obsolescence. We want to be able to buy new, fire our friends, get divorced, move across the country. We want others to stay rooted and traditional so that we can extract comfort from them comfort whenever we want. Or need. We wax nostalgic over TV show theme songs. Because there are so many of us from the Baby Boom, we think that our numbers make all aspects of our childhoods important. We form groups: to remember Peppermint Park (2,477 members on Facebook), Westbury Square (a shopping center disguised as a pretend Victorian village), Kiddie Wonderland, where we rode ponies and drove miniature cars. This, all in Houston, a city intent on obliterating its past.

We wanted to believe that the city's beauty would save it. (refugee from Dubrovnik, in The Suitcase: Refugee Voices from Bosnia and Croatia).

Facebook/Who we were

In junior high, we were S and S and S (same names, two different spellings) and L, and sometimes the other L, who wasn't Jewish. S and L were the original friends, I think. I remember going to S's house (I was one of the other Ss) and sitting on the couch, talking to her young bouncy mother, and petting the very smart dog Fluffy. You could put your hand out in front of her forehead and she would move her head down and across so that you were petting her, passively. I was so innocent that I didn't know it was trite to name a fluffy dog Fluffy. We had a dachshund named Pretzel and didn't know that a dachshund named Pretzel was the protagonist in a children's book by the creators of Curious George.

L and S and I would plan how we would dress. We read about makeup. We cut out beauty hints from teen magazines.

Is it true that L is now a swimming instructor in Philadelphia? Or is my Googling conclusion not right? I don't remember any particular love of the water when she was 14. Why has S's mother not accepted my offer of friendship from 20 hours ago? Where does S (former owner of Fluffy) live with her husband J? I see her profile on Facebook and there's no town, no state. Why do these people change their last names? I think some of them insert the maiden name just so old friends can find them, they don't use them in everyday life. Even the divorced ones will go by their ex-husband's name.

Why does it seem that only the gay people from high school are progressive politically? (An exaggeration, but close.) How does J, whom I know from her days in Chicago, know D, the daughter of my mother's good friend? How can H not respond to my request to "friend"? Does it have anything to do with her not recognizing me at the last reunion?

At the reunion, W was cool to me as usual, couldn't be bothered, but her husband was enthusiastic about meeting a writer. W never answered my friending request. Was my request sincere? Why was I collecting her?

More than 40 years ago I used to put my Barbie and her clothes and accessories in a shiny black Barbie case and go down the street to play with D. Now D has had breast cancer; she's one of nine women in her family who's had it. Another D (member of my carpool) had cancer of the appendix! All kinds of not-so-close relatives of mine have had breast cancer: two second cousins once removed (both died of it), my aunt is living with it, my first cousin (other side) has survived it, my great-grandmother's sister had throat cancer. My grandparents had colon cancer. Or was it just my grandfather? I remember answering the intern genetic counselor's questions as I was walking down Irving Park a couple of years ago. My uncle and aunt (his younger sister) died of lung cancer. He smoked, she didn't. She asked about every family member, and noted their level of education, and I remember I kept answering, master's, master's, master's.

(One time for my father's birthday we made him a certificate, declaring him Master of Ceremonies. My mother, my sister and I all had master's degrees of our own.)

I didn't think about how we would end up. Even I, morbid as I was, wouldn't imagine the demise of all of us. And I didn't imagine our survival. I didn't think about growing cancer and having it excised, leaving gaps and scars. I didn't think about scars. I worried and wrote notes to my friends, into the night. We compared our hair--our frizz--in the mirrors at school. Few people would sneak a smoke. Our gym suits were one-piece, baggy-legged, like 1920s beauty contestants.' They snapped together in front. Once my shirt was stolen during gym. Most of us girls didn't know how to talk to boys as we gathered outside the building before the bell rang. But D did. Because she found pleasure in talking to them. She found pleasure in much of life. And judging by her family picture on Facebook, she still does. (Though who wouldn't smile in a family photo they'd make public?)

Some of us brooded. We worried about our permanent records, and the rules against wearing short skirts, and having our hairy toes made fun of in gym class. (C was a snob about feet with hair on them. Maybe she gets her whole body waxed now.) We began to worry about college. I wanted to go away--up North, where everyone was intellectual. I never imagined I would become moony and nostalgic about the ordinary, difficult days of junior high, where we analyzed all aspects of a boy's casual Hello or Good-bye. We were always on alert. We watched ourselves. We watched the other girls. We listened to their banter. We gossiped. Later in high school we looked through our yearbooks and decided how everyone should re-groom themselves. Everyone could be improved. Our teen magazines were predicated on that notion. Is it an American one? If we learned how to use blusher and eyeliner and lip liner and so on--would we then be popular? That was all that mattered.

Unbelievably, yesterday I saw a young woman reading Dale Carnegie's book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, first published more than 70 years ago. It was a paperback and looked new. She looked intent, as if she was reading it without irony.


The things we know. The things we think we know. The things we feel we know. We were talking about Germany tonight. T's next book is about Germany. I thought he also said Europe, but L said he just said Germany. We were in a French restaurant. Butter instead of olive oil for the bread. I asked what he thought of the Berlin Jewish Museum. What I thought of it: it was not designed for me. It is defensive. It is begging the visitor to remember, to learn, that Jews belonged in Germany, in Europe. That Jews were part of the history of Germany (however grim; however they were persecuted). My Berlin friend J had objected to the lack of class consciousness in the museum's exhibits. She also objected to the mentions of Christmas, but as we know, Anne Frank's family celebrated it, and in this book I've been reading, Hitler's Exiles, there's repeated mention of it in the individual essays. Everyone is ripe to criticize museums; their public-ness, their please-come-and-visit-ness makes them especially prone to judgments. T said that the museum was trying to normalize Germany. I think this is what he said. I think he said that it was trying to explain the Holocaust as part of Germany's history. In the last room of the museum are eye-level cubes with color photos (note: the Holocaust is always presented in black and white; we think of it in black and white) of Jews in Germany today. We get a description and a quote. All proving: We are like you, o visitor from Europa. We are normal, just as you are normal. Is Germany normal? Not yet.

I talked about Jew-yearning, the people who feel Jewish or think they had a Jewish ancestor, or who know that their family had converted from Judaism. The little girl who spoke to her classmates about her mishpacha and the other kids didn't understand, and so she learned that she was using the Yiddish word for family. As an adult she converted. The way the German Jews (based on two examples) post their mezzuzahs inside their doors instead of outside because they're afraid. Yet the very recent trend of planting square engraved metal panels on the sidewalk in front of your apartment building, the squares with the names of family members who died in the Holocaust. Memorial squares right where you live. Very public. But not so completely public because there's no sure way to know which person in the building had this done. Though you could guess by comparing last names.
[She celebrated Christmas.]

The familiar and the unfamiliar. I remember Walter Abish's book, How German Is It, which I read 25 years ago in grad school, and his questions about what is familiar. Objects can be so familiar that we don't delve into their meaning, or what's beneath them. So familiar that we can't see them as they are. When I was in San Francisco I tried to write descriptions of what I was seeing but the buildings were too familiar. San Francisco looked like San Francisco. I forced myself, as an exercise: in S's neighborhood, two- and three-story houses and apartment buildings, further apart and lighter-looking than the buildings in Berlin, more open to the street; you could walk up the steps to someone's door right off the street. The buildings were wood and stucco and cement, maybe, in pastel and other colors--gray-blue, maroon--sometimes muraled. There was a painted lady at the end of her block. You could walk up to someone's window. But the main difference is the density. The buildings in Noe Valley housed one family or two. In front of many of the homes were lush little gardens: lemon trees, bougainvillea, roses, four-foot tall geraniums, ivy. Our geraniums here don't have a chance to grow that tall outside. Mission Street with its greengrocers and taqerias and dollar stores and abandoned old movie theaters--El Capitan, Tower, Latino. One movie theater, Victor Grand, just turned into a dollar store: Grand Opening. Narrow, deep little stores with hanging pinatas and cheap pairs of socks. Anything you could want or need.
What I love about the Bay Area is its self-indulgence combined with social earnestness: I want my organic ice cream and I feel good that it comes in a biodegradable bowl. I deserve the goat cheese raspberry ice cream and I don't deserve it because over there on the sidewalk is a pile of rags that serves as someone's bed. It becomes defensive ambivalence.
The utmost indulgence, the laughable: a little shop that sells smallbatch raw food for dogs and cats. Always the threat that the rug could be pulled out from under you: This is an unreinforced masonry building. Unreinforced masonry buildings may be unsafe in the event of a major earthquake. Signs in windows in support of gay marriage, jobs in the Mission, the saving of the local firehouse.
Tonight we were in Chicago eating rich food cooked butter and lemon and talking about Germany. There's a deep part of me that feels I understand what it's like to be Jewish in Germany. Now. Maybe because of the pervasiveness of my guilt/shame (see two posts down), my defensiveness, my pride. OK, suppose I do. So what? What will I do with that?
In case you're looking for cancer: Before dinner we went to a party and I was talking a long time with a stranger and when he asked what my newest book was about and I told him, I could see him looking looking at my chest. I was wearing a black tank top under a sleeveless white shirt and you could tell I just had one breast. I choose to make it obvious that I'm one-breasted and yet when someone stares and stares, keeping himself from asking what he wants to ask about the obvious, I feel self-conscious, invaded. What are you looking at? Oh, I know what you're looking at and what troubles you is that you can't understand why I would go around with a flatness on one side. Maybe you even think it's indecent. Look at the result of the scourge of cancer. It's horrifying. But not strange. You can get used to it.

Bay Area

I read from my book last night to a group at the Women's Cancer Resource Center in Oakland. It's independent, and sponsors many groups and events, with a feminist/progressive philosophy. For those of you who shy away from the word feminist, take note: I don't mean that they push ideology, but that they aim to be inclusive. We were talking about Thinking Before You Pink, and the exec director said that the center receives funds from the Avon Walk, which goes to show that the mainstream breast cancer philanthropies are becoming more responsive to grass-roots organizations, and are not so wedded to the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about after making his contributions to it.
Several of the women told their stories and we talked about alternative treatment as well as the politics and emotions of breast cancer.
Before that, I spoke to a class on healing stories at John F. Kennedy University in Contra Costa County. I find I'm speaking more and more about the benefits and uses of humor in living through cancer. You can hear a lecture on this by Enid Schwartz here. You can find my piece on humor in breast cancer narratives on the Jan. 19, 2009, post on this blog.


I have been in therapy, off and on (mostly on), probably longer than many of you have been alive. The short version is, to quote myself on June 13, 2007: I have "the essential feeling: that I do not deserve to live. That I should perish soon. I was not made to live a long time. I was made to live tragically." That sounds melodramatic but it's true. In therapy today I said that this feeling was based on having asthma and thinking,from a young age, that I was able to live only with the outside help of medications, and that if I were born into poverty or if I had been imprisoned in a concentration camp (during a war that ended before I was born), I wouldn't last long. I realized today that to imagine dying in a camp is to give power to the Nazis; to say that under their system I would have perished, and therefore don't deserve to live, is to say in effect that they were right, that the white gloves of Eichmann (pointing to the left or to the right) was a proper way to determine an innocent person's destiny. I was endorsing using torture as a way to determine a person's fitness, letting murderers and madman set a standard. That is crazy. And that is, as I've said before, why I wrote a book called Holocaust Girls, to describe people (like me) who had nothing to do with the Holocaust, but are obsessed with it. Part is the frisson of "there but for fortune would go I," the thrill of having avoided a disastrous fate; and part is that certain of us need an outward symbol of our inner suffering. This is why the crucifix is such a powerful image, and my explanation for the conversion of certain Jews, such as Simone Weil, is that depictions of Jesus on the cross captured their own agony. I think this also explains the power of certain saints. For example, today I said that I felt like St. Sebastian, with arrows stuck in me.

I had a friend in college who said that he felt that his metaphysical core was like an empty roll of toilet paper. He felt that he did not have substance, a deep sense of self. I do have that but I think that I must also have within me a metaphorical magnet that pulls the arrows from the bows of others. My sense of (the rightness of) self is so easily waylaid. Undermined.

Yesterday I was choosing a book on my shelves to read on the L and picked out Hitler's Exiles: Personal Stories of the Flight from Nazi Germany to America, edited by Mark M. Anderson, whom I have met. I was self-deprecating about the choice--more of the same about what I already know, nothing new. But today I realized that I was reading about sense of self by a shipping magnate picked up by the Gestapo in early 1937: "Suddenly it struck me that I was a defenseless prisoner. I was no longer the respected Arnold Bernstein, proud of my record, strong and safe. Suddenly I felt that I was in the hands of ruthless enemies who would not respect either law or human rights and that all my decent life and my merits would be of no help." The world around him has gone crazy, the pressure is so great on people who've been arrested that another writer felt that after four hours of cross-examination, "I had arrived at a stage of exhaustion where I would have admitted anything. I began to understand how under pressure people will sometimes admit things they have never done." (Alice Salomon, born Jewish, converted to Christianity)

Is my point becoming clear? It's that Bernstein was so certain that his "good conscience" and powerful position would keep him safe, though he was planning to leave Germany soon, sailing away on the Queen Mary. He grasped that the system was topsy-turvy, everything rigged against him and his fellow Jews, that the innocent would be found guilty and imprisoned--at best. I seem to be implying that under these conditions I would have started feeling guilty. I don't think I would have, though the very least thing makes me feel guilty now. But I am struck by Bernstein's self-possession. He was afraid of being beaten only because he was afraid he'd "attack the offender with all the consequences to be expected during the Nazi regime." He's put on trial and is determined to fight, and show that he is innocent and that the perpetrators are the criminals. His sense of his own goodness turned out to be a detriment, keeping him in Germany longer than he should have stayed. Yet this sense sustained him, during imprisonment. I feel I can handle the large affronts. It's the small ones that get to me, and I would like to have Bernstein's strength to withstand them.

He was sentenced to almost two years in prison, on trumped-up charges of treason. When he was released he immigrated to New York, where he started all over again, founding another shipping company, which was not nearly as successful at the one in Germany, which he had been forced to turn over to the Nazi government.

"...every time I think of the crucifixion of Christ I commit the sin of envy."--Simone Weil

More progress

I picked L up from the hospital this morning. He was standing outside Fancy Hospital, not in a wheelchair. He is doing fine but has restrictions on swimming, bicycling, driving, picking things up and the like.

I had my six-month mammogram and surgeon-appt. today. Everything is fine. Which means that the slightly suspicious calcifications on my right breast haven't changed, and that I made another appointment for January.

I realized today that the new mammogram area has a theme. There are four "suites," each named after a tree species. And the big key rings for your locker are giant green leaves! I was in Cedar/Dogwood.

I asked the mammographer why they separated people who've had breast cancer from people who haven't, and she said they don't. I'd thought that was the case last time I was there, and wondered why. Were they afraid we'd scare the innocent ones? On the other hand, we would be a shining example of people who'd had cancer and were still well enough to come to the hospital to get our breasts smushed severely. The mammographer said that people getting diagnostic mammos are in one place, and those people have often had cancer. So there is no conspiracy. How disappointing.

L's progress

L is out of the recovery room and is talking baseball (he went to last night's Cubs/Cardinals game) and is as well as could be expected after being poked and cut. He's a little groggy but coherent. He's supposed to be released tomorrow.

The shoe is on the other foot.

Defibrillator on left; pacemaker on right

Or I'm wearing a different hat. Or, less metaphorically, L is wearing the pale green Fancy Hospital smock today. He's supposed to be out of the operating room at 11:30 am Central Standard Time. Some of you may recall that he has hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. He is getting a cardioverter defibrillator installed to prevent a life-ending event, as the doctor said. He's supposed to be in the recovery room by 11:30 am CST. The very very worst thing about this is he can't play contact sports, for fear of moving the device, so yesterday was his very last basketball game. He loves basketball. It's his in-the-moment, everything-else-disappears activity. He will have to find another, one where a ball or a person or a floor won't hit him in the defibrillator.

In the waiting area today were three men, all with gray hair, two with paunches and canes, and one who looked diminished. One of the cane men was a patient and the other, his friend. L is in such perfect shape. He doesn't look like the usual cardiac patient.

A nurse told us that a (dreaded) Fellow was going to do the operation along with the Attending (the staff cardiologist). I have a horror of Fellows and interns and residents and medical students. They are real doctors, but they're amateurs. I could feel the difference between a Fellow and an Attending during a biopsy. The Fellow was uncertain and tentative and had to be guided after her first attempt to poke around in my breast. I said we wanted the Attending to do it. I don't know if L was forceful enough with the doctor. He just asked, You're going to do it, right? The nurse had demurred, saying, This is a teaching hospital. Yes, but let them learn on someone else's body. I know this isn't charitable or generous or unselfish. So be it.

Compare and contrast

Very quickly, now:
In Sofia, the trash bins on the sidewalk are rusty metal. In Budapest they're nice plastic lined with plastic bags. In Berlin they're plastic with jokey stuff printed on them, such as: Corpus fur alle Delicti.
There are stray dogs and cats in Sofia. Each belongs more or less to a street and people on the street feed them. In winter, said T, the cats come inside. Some people have private dogs, which they walk, but the leashes can be rope.
A story I heard on my travels:
Once there was a cat who peed in the neighbor's flowerbeds. The neighbor didn't like the cat or its smell. So the neighbor trapped it in a cat box.
I asked the same thing. The neighbor got a handyman to make the trap. The cat was caught, then driven far away and let out.
I think this is terrible but I laughed anyway.
What did the cat owners say? Where did they think the cat went?
The cat/trapper doesn't know because they don't speak to one another.

In the US we wouldn't do anything like that. Instead, people catch stray dogs and cats and sell them to labs. /laboratories, not labrador retrievers.

My keyboard has an accent.

From high in the Buda hills...

Budapest is the new Prague, which was the new Paris, which was just plain Paris, and forever Paris because that's what Paris is. And Prague is known for its own magic, which may be what has drawn frat boys from all over the world. In Sofia the people wore dark jeans and mostly dark clothing, solids. Here the people dress baggier and more fashionably and there are a million young people walking around so that it seems like Wrigleyville, where I live. The drunks aren't quite as obnoxious, though. The people are bigger and more well-fed, as are the cars. I don't take note of brands, but the cars are more substantial-looking here and I saw a very long limo the length of half a city block. When I was here 10 years ago I used to keep a log on number of dachshunds vs. number of cell phones. Now the cell phones are definitely winning. I just saw two dachshounds today. One beagle, my first on this trip. I also saw black people. I saw not a one in Bulgaria or Serbia.
There is much angry-looking graffiti here, scrawled all over empty display windows under a cannonade. Adults wear shorts here, and sandals, espcially (for the men) with black socks. There are many bike riders, though few with helmets. The feeling is that this town is here to provide food and drink and fun for anyone who can afford it, and most of all to the young. There are sidewalks filled with cafes and you can see people plugged into their iPods. One street corners you can see the slogan of the right-wing party stenciled on the cement. Like everywhere in Europe, there is a crazy scary party that's popular. The buildings are so solid and heavy that I thought of course they're that way to make the people of the Austro-Hungarian empire feel they were subjects. My friend V said they were not built this way for that reason. Still, it's interesting to think of Paris' graceful buildings, and these heavy, imposing ones. Tonight is Wednesday and people were partying like it was the weekend. It is summer, in the new Europe. V offered me President's cheese today and I think it's the same brand we get at the Jewel. I said it was surprising to see it in Hungary, and she said, This isn't Hungary, it's Europe.
So it is.