Wednesday, March 27, 2013

boob bomber

I woke up at four a.m. this morning to fly to Houston. In the shower, I realized that the metal ports in my temporary boob implants* would create all sorts of good times at LAX.

“Fuck,” I said out loud to the soap.

I know that airports are prepared for this kind of things. There are probably all sorts of ADA guidelines in place to minimize my humiliation. But fuck. As I packed my antidepressants and a bag of Lifesavers, I practiced explaining in the simplest way possible.

“I’m between reconstructive surgeries for breast cancer, and the temporary implants I have have a metal component.”

The good part was that it avoided using the word “breast” except in association with “cancer,” which pretty much de-sex-ifies the word. I could say “breast cancer” to a TSA person, but I would rather not say “breast implant.”** I didn’t like the double “have.” It slowed things down.

I also thought that anything short of a body cavity search couldn’t be worse than an average day at the doctor’s office.

Robot chicken breasts.
When I got to the airport, I took a deep breath before walking up to the security labyrinth. I figured the first-stop TSA lady didn’t need the full explanation. I’d save that for the higher-ups.

“Um, I have a medical device that I think will set off the metal detectors. Is there—”

Except instead of “metal detector,” I said, “medical detector.” There was a time when I wondered if those things could see breast cancer, and TSA would know something about my body that I didn’t. The woman unhooked a non-velvet rope and waved me through without saying a word.

I walked past the glacially moving line of regular people and took my place behind flight crew folks and rich people. Sicky VIP status! I’m always suspicious of it—being treated too well always makes me feel like I’m dying, and a short line, or a waiting room with a fountain in it or something, is my crappy consolation prize.

To the next TSA guy I reached, I said, “Um, I have a medical device that I think will set off the medical detectors. The metal detectors.”

“What is it?”

“I’m between reconstructive surgeries for breast cancer, and the temporary implants I have, there’s like a metal component.”

He thought about it. “I think it should be fine. People with pacemakers go through. It was the old machines that were the problem. These radio-wave machines—”

“I’m not worried about me, I just don’t want you guys to think I’m, like, carrying something.”

I did not want to be mistaken for the world’s first boob bomber. Also, did he think I was worried the scanner would make little lightning bolts come down and zap my implants or something? What exactly would it mean for a breast implant to stop working? Unlike a pacemaker, all it has to do to mimic an actual breast is sit there.

So I went through the scanner. It beeped. The woman with the wand beckoned.

“I have—” I began.

“It’s just your zippers.” She waved her wand over my jeans. “You’re fine.”

Only $5 on Etsy! Cheaper than an LAX latte!
Now I’m at the Phoenix Airport, where I have a two-hour stopover. Where apparently they don’t sell sandwiches without ham in them, let alone anything vegan-esque. I should be reading The Hunger Games for the YA lit class I’ll be teaching soon, but instead I’m reading Myriam Gurba’s new chapbook, “A White Girl Named Shaquanda: A Chomo Allegory and Trewish Story,” which is GREAT.

Her language is so sharp and funny and fearless, and it makes me want to sit down and write. Her askew worldview reminds me a little of Andrea Seigel’s, except Andrea Seigel has multi-book publishing deals and a movie deal, and it may not be a coincidence that Andrea Seigel is white and straight and talks less about bodily functions.

Anyway, here’s a taste of “Shaquanda,” from the part where the narrator is reading The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time:

“It was a little slow. Anne Frank slept in an attic. She was thankful to eat dinner, though it wasn’t very good. Going to the bathroom was awkward. How was this any different from going to my grandmother’s house? There was even a Nazi there. Her second husband was German. She was into white guys.”


*Yes, I have metal cyborg tits. Actually, imagine a pool toy, but instead of blowing it up with that little rubber tube, you have a metal disc the size of a quarter, which they find with a stud finder like my dad used to use when hammering things into the wall. My plastic surgeon’s PA sticks a needle in it and shoots me up with a comically large syringe of water to make the muscle tissue stretch to the size I want. That size is not that big, so that sentence should actually have been in the past tense. My inflatable fake boobs have inflated all they’re going to. It all looks pretty normal from the outside (except for the no-nipples thing), but if you hug me hard enough, you might hurt yourself. This is probably a metaphor. 

**Because I believe that finding language for a thing is one of the best ways to own it, I have decided that I no longer have breasts—which are physiological, baby-feeding organs, or a part of a chicken—but I still have boobs, which are lady humps you dress in hourglass-shaped clothes.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

the unhappiness project, starring michelle williams

1. my best life may or may not contain cheese

It’s the first day of spring. I love new beginnings—I love the metaphor of life regenerating after a long hard winter (we had SEVERAL DAYS OF RAIN this year in L.A.). On a less poetic front, I love an excuse to convince myself that starting now, I’m going to do it all right. I know better, and I know the danger of this myth, but the more I see it for what it is, the more pleasure I take in it.

This spring, I’m telling myself that I’m going to sidle up to veganism. I’m going to keep eating fish, and I’m not going to check every baked good for eggs, but I’m going to try to eat less dairy. Estrogen-positive breast cancer and all that. Right now I’m at Poquito Mas, where I just ordered beans, hold the cheese. It took more willpower than you can imagine.

According to Facebook, my primary news source, it’s also International Happiness Day. Despite my love of new beginnings—or maybe because of my susceptibility to self-improvement narratives—I call bullshit on this. I am sick of magazine covers listing ten ways to be happier. I’m sick of the idea that happiness could be our default state if only we did [insert exhausting, probably consumer-oriented thing here].

Oprah, president of our culture, tells us to live our best life, but isn’t everyone by definition already doing just that? If said life lacks “aha” moments and organic lip gloss, it’s because we’re not Oprah, we’re us. I see it as a kind “wherever you go, there you are” thing. The relentless pressure to Be Happy implies that unhappiness is the result of some kind of system failure rather than a natural part of life.

Be happy. DO IT. Or Oprah will squeeze your head.
And what’s more depressing than the notion that your intermittent depression is further evidence of your personal failure? By accepting unhappiness, I can fend off meta-unhappiness. That’s good enough for me. Good enough is good enough for me.

2. bad-ass in a bonnet

Over the weekend, I watched two Michelle Williams movies. She is like the emo Zooey Deschanel, with all the clothes and none of the perk.

First, Meek’s Cutoff, in which she plays a member of an 1845 wagon train lost somewhere on the Oregon Trail (or, well, off the trail). If not for my love of all things prairie, I could never have watched such a slow movie. You pretty much watch them make their way across the tumbleweed-strewn landscape in real time. It’s excruciating, but that’s the point. You can’t just zip over the hill in your ATV to look for water, let alone find an app for that. You have to rely on your hostile hostage Indian guide, who doesn’t speak English, and you have to lower your wagon down the hill on a rope, and when that rope breaks, you have to leave the wreckage behind. You make your way west because you have some kind of faith in a better life, but you get there because you’re equally comfortable with a lack of luxury, not to mention better options.

My new motto may be, What would a bad-ass frontier woman do?

AK and I also watched Take This Waltz, another slow movie, and a slightly uneven one. Michelle Williams plays a young woman who has a sweet husband (Seth Rogen at his more slender) and a burning passion for her new neighbor, who thinks she’s not living up to her full potential. As she went back and forth about who she wanted to be with, I went back and forth too. I tend to err on the side of staying with the sweet person you married, but maybe she’d been too young to make such a commitment? Maybe divorce was the hard prairie she needed to cross to get to a better-fitting relationship?

Hot guy has a retro kitchen and draws portraits of her. You'd be tempted too.
As it turns out, the guys were—shockingly, refreshingly—not the point. Spoiler alert!-->; She ends up with the new guy. And then that relationship loses its luster too. Because, as her alcoholic sister-in-law says, “Life has a gap in it.”

The most mainstream of movies would make a case for Following Passion (in which case Seth Rogen’s character would have been an asshole); many would encourage Sticking It Out with the dude you exchanged vows with, revealing the hard but rewarding work of love; a few would show her alone at the end of the movie, because A Man Won’t Solve Your Problems. Take This Waltz’s radical statement is that Nothing Will Solve Your Problems. It doesn’t matter who you’re with or not with—life has a gap in it. And once Williams’ character realizes this—as we see her doing over the course of a lonely amusement park ride that gives way to a kind of defeated bliss—she’s almost happy.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

hats off...or on

At Thursday’s chemo session I grabbed a copy of TLC, a catalog of women’s cancer accessories published by the American Cancer Society. It includes lots of hats like this:

Everything's coming up roses...um, I mean, generic flowers.
And turbans like this:

In this case, "royal" means "Come into my moldering mansion and watch silent films starring meeeee."
And wigs like this:

The "Amanda" wig. Don't hurt yourself on its pointy ends.
Okay, so the American Cancer Society is a nonprofit that does a lot of good work, and I would rather they put their resources into finding a cure for cancer than finding a cure for the humiliation-on-top-of-humiliation that is cancer fashion. But the latter is at least highly treatable, and I’m here to do my part.

Tip 1: Own it. In previous posts, I’ve discussed the cringe-y nature of anything that looks like it’s trying to pass. That’s why these models have got to go. I hate it when plus-sized fashions are modeled by regular-sized models—the size-double-zero models look lost in their baggy, pinned-up clothes, whereas size-twelve models would look healthy and unconfused. Similarly, the models above scream, I’m a twenty-nine-year-old dressed like a fifty-five-year-old who’s not letting cancer keep her from her job as an executive assistant.

Fashion is inherently aspirational, so I’m not suggesting we should employ actual sick people in these ads. I also don’t expect everyone to embrace a naked skull—there are matters of age, weather and head shape to consider.

Although if you do go the naked-head route, you might as well have fun with it.

Real tits (I think), fake spikes (I think).
But there’s a way to wear a hat or a scarf that doesn’t say, I’m desperately trying to convince you there’s hair under here. Why not take a cue from our Muslim sisters? I’ve long loved the way Malaysian girls mix prints: colorful, bold and not a strand of hair showing.

I know part of the point is to not look sexy...but I think they look totally sexy.
Tip 2: “Edgy” and “wacky” are not the same. A long time ago my sister told me I had a tendency to over accessorize; this was during my Rent days, when a typical look might include at least two layers of shirts, fingerless gloves, a big knot of friendship bracelets and silver earrings marching up the side of my ear as if making a pilgrimage to my favorite two-tone chenille hat.

Now I try to follow the “take one thing off” rule, but I also firmly believe that getting older shouldn’t mean all black plus one piece of tasteful jewelry. Some women negotiating this tricky balance fall victim to the Red Hat Society phenomenon—accessories that say, Just because I’m old, doesn’t mean I have to go quietly into that good night. In fact, I’ll TAP DANCE mah way there!

The tram might be one accessory too many.
This post by Carrie Leilam Love from the Ironing Board Collective archives (which I am clearly mourning, as evidenced by this post) showcases hats shaped like seashells, in colors like mahogany-and-teal, but their wearers maintain their dignity.

Like so:
Funky beanie + sober houndstooth = yes.
Even Easter colors work when the lines are clean, the fit is good and the background is downtown grit.
Tip 3: Learn from the pros. Some people (see Muslim ladies, above) wear hats and scarves all the time. They know how to do it without looking costume-y or over-accessorized or strangely surprised to find themselves under a hat, as if a flying saucer just landed on their head.

People like old-timey people:

I started streaming Meek's Cutoff last night. Their full-coverage bonnets help them spy on the men folk and prevent melanoma.
And hiker people:

I've been a bandana fan since my days as a UniCamp counselor. It's the best way to control fly-aways and screaming eight-year-olds.
And detectives and dames:

Suits always look good with hats.
And people who live where it’s hot:

This image keeps popping up in various episodes of Nat Geo's Taboo. But I don't see anything taboo about great makeup and Dr. Suess head pieces.
Can you tell I'm into the mixed prints thing?
Or cold:
These kids keep warm in the Andes with help from their Alpaca friends.
Don't worry, I'm sure this fur hat was sustainably raised and died of natural causes.
And animals (okay, animals don’t normally wear hats—but they look great, because they have the ultimate accessory: confidence):

Small hat, big presence.
Vogue meets Cheezburger.
You can get, like, a cheerleading outfit for your dog these days--but this guy keeps it cool with one simple accessory.
Her head is covered, but her tail is bald and proud.
Admiral Smoky McWhiskerton.
From the 2013 resort collection.
And finally, the hat so good-looking it grew right out of his head.

Friday, March 15, 2013

does this mean i’m one shot of whiskey away from making history?

Even the most bad-ass dinosaurs have a dapper side.
Once upon a time my friend Rhonda and I admitted to each other how much we hated that bumper sticker that says: Well-behaved women rarely make history. We sighed. Looks like we’ll never make history.

She called me in tears the other night. She’d taken three hundred kids on a field trip to the Natural History Museum. She didn’t have as many chaperones as the museum’s guidelines stipulated, but the administration at her school assured her they never check those things. And her kids were well-behaved, mostly eighteen, and really wanted to see a T-rex or two.

Nothing went wrong in any serious way, but some kids wandered too far off grounds for lunch, and others laughed at an elementary school kid who dropped his lunch box, and a girl with mental health issues strayed from the group. Next thing you know the cops have an APB out for the girl, and Rhonda’s school is getting kicked out of the museum.

“I try to follow the rules,” she said, “and when I don’t this one time, look what happens.”

“I used to be a big fan of the rules,” I said, “but the rules fail you. If you’d stuck with the museum’s rules, you would have been breaking the rules your administration laid out for you, and a bunch of kids would have missed out on a fun day. Maybe it’s just the new cynical me talking, but you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

I’ve been seeing this amazing woman named Margot through my church’s lay counseling program. She once had a (benign…but lemon-sized) brain tumor, and she talks about how we’re all given ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows. She likes to name her different personalities—in a creative way, not a brain tumor way—and she encouraged me to do the same. This week, we talked about my inner naughty girl. What does she look like? What does she do?

I told her I would think about it…or not, if I decided to be naughty and blow off the assignment. But I wasn’t and didn’t, of course. Instead I wrote this poem.

Former Good Girl Blues

I’m so bad even my cells
don’t follow the rules.
Good cells color inside the lines
but mine mutate, replicate
overachieve like an addict
who finds a vein when everyone else
just smokes the stuff.

I’m so bad I sing the blues
despite my white skin
and good health insurance.
I got an agent this year
but I got the babies done died,
girl left me, hair fell out, girl parts
dried up blues.

I’m so bad my run faded
to a walk after three blocks.
I fed my tumor Oreos by the box
like I was eating for two. I binge
on TV and schadenfreude
whiskey and Klonopin and Star Magazine
but all in moderation, because good girls die hard.

I’m so bad I put the good girl in cage.
I keep her alive with Facebook posts
from other good girls:
My toddler sings AC/DC.
Our CSA box arrived today.
Cheers for first steps, books published
root vegetables I would never cook.

I’m so bad I’m blowing off Easter
with my family for brunch with a Jew
who once thought she had Lou Gherig’s Disease.
First your feet tingle, eventually you can’t talk.
Her friend ran marathons before she was diagnosed.
Then she married her internet boyfriend
and had a baby within the year.

I’m so bad I admire that: a good girl
with a master’s degree and a failing body
who used all her training for a final flailing sprint.
Good girls are there for their daughters’ weddings
don’t get bossy about cakes and dresses.
Bad girls up and die, but they run hard
love hard, don’t save their breath.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

on zombie love as metaphor

Julie's zombie impression. "Too much," grunts R.
AK and I celebrated our seventh anniversary (which is actually March 12) yesterday with a pilgrimage to the Flatiron Truck, where I decided that crispy fried broccoli doused with ponzu sauce and flecked with bright pink pickled onions totally still counts as broccoli. Chef Timothy and Heather were celebrating the truck’s second birthday, and their daughter Skylar, who wasn’t even eating solid food the last time I saw her, was running around and demonstrating her arsenal of animal noises. Oh, time.

Year seven was hard for me, hard for AK, hard on our relationship, although not always in the ways or at the times you might think. That made food-truck dinner and a movie that much sweeter.

Warm Bodies, the movie we saw, was the sweetest I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a perfect date movie, which usually means “action for him! romance for her!”—but I just mean it made you have genuine faith in love without being too heavy. It’s a zombie movie from a zombie’s point of view, which is cleverness enough for me. I’m all for problematizing the zeitgeist’s obvious villains.

The story: Zombie R eats the brain of a human girl’s boyfriend, absorbs his memories and falls in love with her. Once she realizes he’s not going to eat her, they bond over his vinyl collection and joyride through the apocalyptic landscape in an abandoned BMW. Their star-crossed love seems doomed (she’s Julie to his R[omeo]) until a funny thing happens—by empathizing with the dead bf and holding hands with Julie, R’s dead Grinchy heart grows three sizes.

I love zombie love as metaphor: When something terrible happens to you, you become the living dead. Love is the only thing that can bring you back, but with it comes risk and pain. The alternative, though, is to become one of the “bonies,” the soul-less skeletal zombies that are too far gone to save.

There are lots of great little moments, like the well timed grunts of R’s best friend and the makeover scene during which Julie’s best friend (the underused Analeigh Tipton) puts on “Pretty Woman” and tries to apply enough blush to R’s face to make him pass for human. There’s the requisite fight scene at the end, but refreshingly, the rest of the movie isn’t just build-up to it.

Why can’t more mainstream movies be like this? Why didn’t this movie get more attention? Probably something lame having to do with the dark business side of Hollywood. Because life and Hollywood are unfair. But it’s what you have to endure to get to the charming zombie love.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

is yogurt an alkaline food or something?

[Interior, morning, La Quinta Inn in Fresno, California. Guests help themselves to cereal, coffee and make-your-own waffles. CHERYL walks in, blinking and squinty-eyed, having slept with her contacts in.]

CLERK [calling from front desk]: Good morning ma'am! How are you?

CHERYL [blinking, trying to figure out whether a container of cereal is Cocoa Pebbles or granola]: I'm okay, how are you?

CLERK [running up to CHERYL, nearly touching her arm, speaking intimately]: We have some yogurt.

CHERYL: Um, okay.

CLERK: Some people like yogurt. We don't have it out, but I wanted to let you know it's available. 

CHERYL: Thanks, I'm good, though.

[Camera pans to a tray full of yogurt, which is TOTALLY ALREADY OUT.]

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

further adventures in baldness

[Interior, day, La Quinta Inn in Fresno, California. A CLERK looks at the ID of a road-weary woman, CHERYL, as she checks in.]

CLERK: So...you don't have hair no more, or you're just keeping it short under that hat?

CHERYL: No, I'm going through chemo right now.

CLERK: Oh, yeah, I had a feeling. I didn't want to say anything, though. I didn't want to ask and be rude.

CHERYL: But you did ask.

CLERK: Sorry, I shouldn't have been intrusive.

CHERYL: It's okay, I could have lied if I wanted to.

CLERK: I don't like liars.

Friday, March 01, 2013

abnormally tired white girl, or: what I read in february

If you like hookworm and Honey Boo Boo, you'll love this book.
I only finished one book in the whole month of February. And when I say that to people, in my usual self-flagellating way, they’re like, “Yeah, but you have a lot going on.” By which they mean cancer. I think what I have going on is Words With Friends and an inability to go to sleep without watching bad TV on my laptop. Of course, these things are not unrelated.

I’m helping my aunt build a website for her therapy practice, and in going through “other resources” links, I stumbled on a quiz that told me there was a good chance I was mildly depressed, but I should consult with a professional to be sure. Part of me was like, Fuck, another diagnosis? Another part of me was like, I’m only mildly depressed? Well, that’s pretty good. You could live your whole life like that. My belief that It Doesn’t Get Better—which is also a stubborn refusal to put all my eggs in the Future basket, when who knows if that basket even exists, and do not get me started on the subject of my eggs—is the depression part, I guess. My belief that things are actually pretty okay right now is the mild part.

Also, some of the questions were like, Have you felt abnormally tired in the past two weeks? So in that way, chemo literally makes you depressed.

But the one book I read last month? Damn good. Whenever AK saw me reading it, she kind of laughed and was like, “Oh, right, your book about white people.” Because you know, it’s not like they’re uncharted territory. But then when she picked up the book and read a few pages, she was like, “Wow, this is really well written.” And she realized, I think, like I did, that the story of poor white people in America is also the story of how anyone gets Othered.

***Wait, this just in! According to Goodreads, I actually read TWO books in February. One was a really short graphic novel. But it still counts.***

Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness by Matt Wray: As anyone who's guiltily (or shamelessly) watched Honey Boo Boo knows, our nation's obsession with "white trash" culture is in full swing--"they" are people to be entertained by and feel better than, and for some reason it's accepted in a way a minstrel show would not be. Matt Wray's well written blend of history, sociology and cultural criticism takes us back to colonial times and up through the early twentieth century to show us how we got there.

Anyone who doubts the worthiness of "white studies" should consider this: In the antebellum South, seventy-five percent of white people owned no slaves. Their stories are absent from Django Unchained and its pop culture predecessors, but, as Wray points out, were crucial in shaping the race and class dynamics of the South and beyond. I was particularly intrigued by the chapters on the eugenics movement--which was more about stigmatizing and sterilizing poor U.S. whites than about Nazis killing Jews--and felt thoroughly disturbed by the intrusion of prejudice on people's actual bodies. Maybe because, as a cancer patient, I feel very fucked-with by outside forces lately, even if I've signed consent forms.

The book, which is slim and one of the quickest academic reads you'll find, does an excellent job of showing how the white trash "stigmatype" came to be made and remade. But I frequently found myself thinking, "Okay, now we know how the negative story got perpetuated--but what was the real story? If poor whites weren't lazy, shiftless sluts, what were their actual lives like?" Stuff for another book, I suppose. But this one does what it does in a highly compelling manner.

Stitches by David Small: I'm still on my graphic-memoir-about-illness kick, and this is the first book that earns superlatives on both the writing and illustration fronts. David is a sickly boy who becomes the subject of his father's almost Frankenstein-ish efforts to cure him, but his biggest ailment is his family's own dark moods. The backdrop is 1950s and '60s Detroit, a place of moldering Victorians and broken technological promises. Here love is twisted and inverted almost beyond recognition. It all works, but I think I read the book too fast (I guess it's a victim of its own compelling-ness), which diminished its impact. I'm a narrative girl, and I'm still learning how to read both graphic novels and poetry. But I'm enjoying the process.