Saturday, August 31, 2013

compliance

Huntington Hospital looked like a hotel, a huge peach building spanning a block, with a turnaround island and two towers connected by a footbridge over the entrance. I don’t remember if there was a fountain, but it definitely seemed like there was a fountain.

An easel held a sign outlining maternity ward visiting hours. A big promotional poster showed a new dad cuddling a dark-haired baby.

Someday, I thought, maybe, maybe we would be here—or at another hospital—to visit our baby and his/her birthmother. But on Thursday, the day of my ovary-nixing surgery, it was just cruel.

I sat quietly with AK in the pre-op room. A blonde, middle-aged nurse named Becky asked me to pee in a cup: the standard-issue pregnancy test they give to every woman of child-bearing age prior to any surgery.

It was time for my big performance.

“Is there something I can sign instead?” I asked.

“I think so, but I’ll have to ask your doctors. They might refuse to do the surgery.”

“I mean, I’ll take the test if I have to, but I’d rather sign something saying I swear I am not pregnant.”

AK piped up. I sort of wanted to give my schpiel—to yell at someone the way I had yelled at the woman who’d mixed up my consent forms (“You have to acknowledge you’re going to be sterilized, see...”) the day before—but it was also really lovely to see AK so supportive of my piece of symbolic performance art.

“Just to clarify,” AK said to Becky, “would they say she has to take a pregnancy test or else they’ll cancel the surgery? Or would they just cancel it without even giving her the chance to do it after all?”

“I’m just saying I’ve seen it happen,” Becky said. She had a vaguely Brooklyn-ish accent, or maybe it was Midwestern; it was the type of voice that had both apology and toughness built into it.

“So they might be divas?” AK said, incredulous. “They might just be like, That’s it! I’m out of here!

AK imagined these hypothetical diva surgeons having a Moon Moon-esque attitude.
“Here’s the thing,” I said, as calmly as possible. “I haven’t had my period since February, from the chemo. My partner is a woman. And I’m here to have a procedure that ensures I will never, ever, ever get pregnant. It just seems kind of cruel to take a pregnancy test. And I’ll do it if I have to, but just as, like, a symbolic thing, I’d rather not.”

Becky tried to explain lawsuit culture: “It’s just that, if they did the D&C, and they found something—”

“They would be finding a miracle Jesus baby,” I said. Becky seemed to like that phrase.

It's equally likely that there's a piece of toast in my uterus.
The anesthesiologist, a good-looking gray-haired guy named Dr. Yarian, came in and explained lawsuit culture to me. He was cheerful, with what AK described as a cocky-pilot attitude.

And I could hear it from him, sort of. At least he wasn’t the one who would actually be taking my ovaries. So I peed in the fucking cup. (And surprise! They did not discover a miracle Jesus baby.)

Dr. Yessaian, the gynecological oncologist, came in, also cheery and animated. Did surgeons love surgery day? Was this a thing they did for the patients’ benefit? She had big dark eyes and stylish drapey clothes, a chunky silver pendant around her neck.

She, apparently, had also been assigned to explain lawsuit culture to me.

“So much paperwork,” she said, flipping through my binder. “For a fifteen-minute procedure, there is an hour of paperwork. You know, other countries don’t have consent like we do. Where I used to practice, twenty years ago, you just trusted that the doctor would do what they thought was best.”

“Where did you practice?” I had a hunch, since I’d looked her up online.

“Baghdad,” she said. “And granted, it was a very retarded system.”

When I saw she’d graduated from the University of Baghdad, I was initially concerned that maybe she was one of those doctors who couldn’t get into an American medical school. But I think those doctors go to universities on tropical islands, not the University of Baghdad. She’d gone to the latter because she lived there. What must she have seen, being an Armenian female physician in Iraq twenty years ago?

“The only consent they had,” she said, “was for hysterectomy and tubal ligation. But then it wasn’t even the woman who had to give consent—it was her husband.”

So yes, it could be worse. A lot worse. I could be a woman in Iraq being sterilized for whatever reason my husband saw fit.

And yet.

When we were alone again, I told AK that the forms my oncologist had to fill out for our adoption agency had included a lot of language about “compliance.” Was the patient compliant with her treatment? You heard a lot of this around AIDS too. The idea that your terrible disease would be manageable if you adopted a submissive stance.

“There’s, like, a specific meaning to medical compliance,” I said, “and I’m compliant. But I don’t want to be psychologically compliant. I just wanted to stage a little protest.”

Fred is not compliant. But I would totally go see his play.
We also saw Dr. Lehfeldt, my plastic surgeon, during this time, in his fitted greige suit and butter-yellow tie. He gave us hugs and drew some tribal-looking sketch marks on me with his purple Sharpie. I remembered that I was here for a fun reason too.

So here I am, feeling decent on the other side of menopause. So far, it hasn’t made me crazy or mannish or prematurely old, as far as I can tell. I constantly have my ear tuned for the sound of the other shoe dropping—in my mind, there are dozens and dozens of shoes, enough to fill my DSW online shopping cart—but my preemptive catastrophizing is often book-ended by after-the-fact downplaying. It seems more shameful to bellyache about my ovary-free belly now that it can’t be changed. I will do my best to blend in with the general population of thirty-six-year-olds. I’m just a girl who’s no more unpregnant than I was a year ago, who now has, if I do say so myself, really nice boobs.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

bodies without maps

1. nudity of abundance

Sunday afternoon, AK and I went to a potluck for all the participants in Bodies Mapping Time, the photo project I’d posed for a few months back. J Michael Walker, the artist/photographer, had snagged a room at the Flintridge Foundation, a tree-flanked compound in Pasadena.

The room was institutional, with desks arranged in a square donut and a projection screen. I plopped my couscous down among the lentils and zucchini and scones that other people had brought. J Michael had roasted tomatillos from his garden and made a hot, smoky, delicious salsa.

As far as I could tell, he was a Latina woman trapped in a white man’s body. But moving through the world in a white man’s body shapes you. That’s the nature of the body, and the people who witness it.

It wasn’t my nature to trust men who were too quick to idealize women as goddesses. But the shoot had been fun, cozy, intimate but simple. So I trusted J Michael’s sincerity. 

Flashback to the baldy days.
Later, AK reflected on what he said that day about preferring to be in a roomful of women—who would be instantly laughing and crying together, even if they’d started out as strangers—than in a group of men who were all, “So…the Lakers….”

“It was so nice that he said that, but I was like, Oh, he doesn’t know about the weird competition women have, and all the subtle ways they undermine each other and size each other up. And he doesn’t know the pleasures of talking sports—all the things that can happen in those conversations.

Anyway, J Michael was right about one thing: This roomful of women was beautiful. The thirty-one-year-old black girl who’d recently become a life coach and gotten the words I am tattooed on her inner wrists in English and Hebrew. The fifty-year-old white woman who worked as a personal trainer and was trying to deal with the fact that no amount of training could preserve a twenty-year-old body forever. The intense-eyed black woman who’d done her photo shoot ten days after her husband died of cancer.

“I emailed J Michael and said, ‘We better do this now,’” she recalled. “Because you fall into that pit, you know?” She illustrated with her hand—the movement toward a cliff, the falling off.

The thick-limbed Latina woman who’d brought her own Big Gulp to this place of quinoa, who said, somewhat self-consciously, “I’m healthy as a horse.” The two women who introduced themselves before her, whose collective surgeries numbered almost a hundred.

When I say they were beautiful, I mean on the outside. This seemed important: They looked like a roomful of artists, in great jewelry, with cool haircuts and cobalt blue sweaters and billowy peasant skirts. I get why nudity is empowering, but for me clothes are where it’s at. I’ve been known to use the phrase “dressing her with my eyes.” I liked that J Michael had encouraged his naked ladies to wear jewelry. His photos were anything but stark—this was a nudity of abundance, of Navajo rings and African necklaces and, in one case, bright orange strappy sandals.

One woman had agreed to do his warm, goddess-y nude thing, but only if he also photographed her as an armed Armenian warrior. She was very pregnant at the time.

The testimonies were raw, glowing, open—more touchy-feely than I might have been into if I hadn’t also been made raw and open by the experience. It was simple and wonderful to see that women who’d been molested, who’d had forty-six surgeries, who’d lost their soul mates could be so cool. None of them seemed like they’d been relegated to the permanent role of The Bummer At The Party.

In this way, I was eager to connect with them. At the same time, when they talked about hating their bodies and then learning to love them via the photo shoot—a narrative J Michael seemed to encourage—I didn’t quite relate.

I’d hated my body when it transitioned from skinny muscular gymnast to gangly-but-with-tits teenager. I’d put a lot of effort into hating it for the next ten years. Then I came out and lost thirty pounds and loved my body in a practical way. I wasn’t a goddess, but I had nice arms and easy orgasms, and that was plenty.

Then I miscarried and hated my body in a new way—not because it was ugly, but because it couldn’t save my babies and it couldn’t save me from myself. And then cancer and a hard-won gratitude for its resiliency, blah, blah, blah. You know this story.

So by the time I arrived at the little studio behind J Michael’s house—crowded with paintings and books and Indonesian furniture—I was already fine with my body. And also not, but the complications were stones rubbed smooth. The shoot wasn’t going to save me from anything my therapists and I hadn’t already saved myself from. But it was still awesome.

2. what i lack in nipples, i make up in narrative

After food and introductions, J Michael showed photos on the big screen, sharing a little story about each woman. The one who’d learned her husband was cheating on her the day before the shoot. The one who kept making him redo the photos because she didn’t like how her hair looked.
 
There were nipples galore—big and small, pink and brown, tattooed, pierced, slightly cross-eyed. But I was the only one with none, and when J Michael talked about my pictures he said, abstractly and not, “The body is so beautiful, even when it’s missing things.”

Which is a compliment, right? And something I agree with. I mean, the girl who works at the coffee shop around the corner from me is missing half a leg and she’s fucking gorgeous, although she would be gorgeous with two full legs too. But it was still weird feeling like such an amputee. Just a couple of weeks before, my plastic surgeon had mentioned in an offhand way that he didn’t recommend full nipple reconstruction because the radiation I’d had might lead to healing problems, but no worries, I could just tattoo ‘em on.

Fake tattoo of real tattoo of fake nipples. So meta!
As I told my therapist later that day, it was like someone saying that, instead of a prosthetic leg, you’d be getting a picture of a leg. And after my sister gave me some temporary nipple tattoos to try on (because they sell these things, because that’s what sisters are for), I decided the whole thing was kind of silly, and I was going to get non-realistic tattoos—an anchor or a star or something—or nothing at all. But it was fucked up that everyone was so used to me losing body parts, myself included, that this was just added to the list like buying gum at the cash register. Except it was subtracting, not adding.

For so much of my life I identified as The Boring One, The Privileged One. I’m still fairly boring and definitely privileged, but with a lot more loss. I used to hear tragedy narratives, and whether they veered toward victim or empowered activist or rebellious punk, I was envious and skeptical. A part of me thought they were lucky to have so much material to mine, and that people who had to make art out of sheer talent and hard work were the ones who really struggled. In this way, I identified with the Big Gulp woman, although I was also certain that her Big Gulp was a marker of some kind of class struggle that my spoiled couscous-and-figs self needed to honor.

Gulp as economic index.
And you know what? I was a little bit right. Having a bunch of loss under my belt has given me a shitload of material, and I’m mixing it with all my talent and hard work—emotional and intellectual and artistic—to make something, although I don’t know what yet. Maybe just a blog. Maybe just a little more empathy next time someone tells me their own story.

You get what you get and you’re allowed to use it how you want. I know that no one would ever choose molestation or poverty or forty-six surgeries in exchange for artistic street cred. And knowing this deeply makes me feel more okay about exploiting my own story.

So that was the arc of the day—I felt good and proud to be part of such a strong, creative group of women. And then I felt weird and kind of bad and overwhelmed by the knowledge that in a few days I would be ovary-less and nipple-less, ever further away from those long-haired, Buddha-bellied pregnant women in the pictures. A woman only in my own mind, although my trans-positivity forces me to believe that’s the most important place. A woman only because the world had made me feel shitty about my body.

3. polar bears and dead explorers save the day

And then we went to our second slideshow of the day, my friend Colin’s report at Machine Project about his floating fellowship to the Arctic Circle a few months ago. Colin has developed a niche as Reporter Of Odd Facts, someone who mines the weird corners of history and nature and relates what he finds there to human nature. It’s really wonderful to have a friend who writes the exact kind of nonfiction you love to read, as if each book were created especially for you.

There are so many great things I could report, like the fact that there’s an old Norwegian tradition of never saying “polar bear” unless one is charging at you (like not saying “fire” in a crowded theater, basically). Instead people talk about “old bjorn” or “the gentleman in the fur coat” or “the stranger in the white jacket.”

"Polar bears aren't like grizzlies," Colin said. "Polar bears will fuck with you."
But the part that moved me most was his stories of lost nineteenth-century expeditions to the Arctic Circle. Colin had a clear affection for these ballsy, deluded dudes, firm in their belief that there was a temperate sea beyond the ice floes, just because there should be. Sometimes I think there is a god just because there should be, and that that’s enough to conjure one—belief creating reality. My faith is very pomo.

Colin’s slide show opened with a quote from Gravity’s Rainbow, which I’ve never read (I prefer to let my favorite writers read the hard stuff for me), about how we’re wrong to assume that only the explorers who return are successes, and only the ones who don’t are failures. What do the lost ones know? Pynchon wonders. What should we be listening for out there in the ice?

Luckily, Colin did not get lost. In fact, he traveled on an awesome pirate ship and ate great food.
Guided by this quote, I immersed myself in photos of an abandoned Russian mining town (nothing is cooler or lonelier) and stories of people who died in icy vastness. And I’ve said this before, but history feels like church to me. I wasn’t alone. Maybe I had no nipples, but there were people who’d floated on the frozen blue and spotted hovering mirages—the origin of the Flying Dutchman myth—and they were missing things too. They were lost and found too.

Friday, August 23, 2013

dispatch from temple beth ill

Meghan O’Rourke has an essay in this week’s New Yorker about her experience with an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s. I only diagnosed myself with it for a second while reading the article, which is progress for me. I’m lucky that I’ve never had a mysterious constellation of symptoms that takes years to diagnose, and I’ve never had serious pain related to illness. My own sicky situation isn’t even technically chronic, although it is in a de facto way.*

Hashimoto's makes your thyroid all wonky. And talkative?
Nevertheless, the article resonated, and I felt grateful for yet another role model—a sicky-smarty who has managed to navigate illness, even to let it change her, without letting it define her.

My favorite quotes:

“In your loneliness, your preoccupation with an enduring new reality, you want to be understood in a way you can’t be. ‘Pain is always new to the sufferer, but loses its originality for those around him,’ the nineteenth-century French writer Alphonse Daudet observes…. ‘Everyone will get used to it except me.’”

Not that I've ever coded anything, but you get the idea.
“What I had wasn’t just an illness now; it was an identity, a membership in a particularly demanding sect. I had joined the First Assembly of the Diffusely Unwell. The Church of Fatigue, Itching, and Random Neuralgia. Temple Beth Ill.”

“You can’t muscle your way through the enervation and malaise of autoimmunity—if you could, I would have.** The real coming to terms with autoimmune disease is recognizing that you are sick, that the sickness will come and go, and that it is often not the kind of sick you can conquer. But, once you’re feeling O.K.-ish, trying to be the Best Patient in the World can become an isolating preoccupation, even another form of debility…. In order to become well, I would have to temper my own fanatical pursuit of wellness. On the model of D.W. Winnicott’s good-enough mother, the trick was to be the good-enough patient.”

One hundred percent of one-eyed teddy bears think you're doing just fine.
She goes on to write about eating a slice of (gluten-free) cheese pizza, even though cheese is on the list of things that aggravate her condition. I have my own reasons for avoiding cheese, but I had some (homemade, veggie-laden, whole-wheat-crusted) cheese pizza the other day. With any luck, I’m in this lifestyle for the long haul, which by definition means it can’t be perfect, just good enough.


*Knockonwood—because the alternative to years of checkups and estrogen-blocking meds is an acute disease that could kill me.

**Again, not really my situation. But I’ve come to realize that many of my struggles in life could be summed up as misdiagnosing basic human experiences—exhaustion, sadness, denial—as failures of willpower. “We call that a mistaken belief in your own omnipotence,” AK said the other day, re: a guy in our yoga class who was coming dangerously close to quoting The Secret. Belief that you and others can power through shit is hugely egotistical. You are a piece of stardust in a very big universe, my friend.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

i figured out why i sometimes see ducks on the freeway

It’s because there is a river in L.A. I knew this, of course. I saw Chinatown, and I’ve stood on various overpasses watching water trickle between the famous cement banks. I also know that there’s a lot of talk about revitalizing the river, and that now you can legally kayak parts of it.

I even wrote a very short, near-future short story in which the river’s natural flood planes have been restored. No one is allowed to live there for safety reasons, so naturally a bunch of shantytowns spring up there and get wiped out every time it rains.

But it didn’t really register that we had a river until I biked a giant piece of it today with AK, Pedro, Alberto and Alberto’s new friend Andrea. Alberto was unemployed for a while, and he used a lot of that time to get in superhuman shape. Sometimes he pushed himself too hard and blew out a joint. Again, my alleged perfectionism fails here—I’ve been exercising frequently, but I’m never the person who does a bunch of cardio before yoga class, you know?

Rollin' on the river.
I held my own as we wound through the Elysian Valley, humble homes and car repair shops on one side of us, river on the other. It was really a river, with islands of trees and brush, and long-necked water birds that had an endangered look about them. (The ducks didn’t look endangered. I have a soft spot for hardy, fat, invasive urban species, maybe because I’m a member of one.)

There’s still a no-man’s-land quality to the area, even though it was well populated with bikers, joggers and at least one fisherman, whom I’m a little worried about. The greenery is punctuated by power lines. The backdrops are train yards and freeways. But we did see a brigade of kayakers, and it’s easy to imagine this as hot property in a few years, the junk yards giving way to artisanal olive oil shops.

Department of water and power lines.

Part of me was all excited to tell people Hey, check out the river! But that was dumb—because the birds and the three-eyed fish and the coyotes and the people in the small tagged-up houses already knew about it, and because excitement about semi-ruin is usually the first stage of gentrification.

We rode to the eastern (I think) edge of Griffith Park and ate fruit and veggies and some great couscous salad Andrea made. With baby carrots in hand, I befriended a pair of local rabbits. One was white, one was horchata-colored and both were clearly not native. Griffith Park is a terrible pet-dumping ground, and I worried about what might happen to pale bunnies who didn’t blend into the brush once the sun went down. But at least they would have a good meal before the coyotes got them.

A feast fit for a bunny.
“I think they’re doing fine,” Pedro said. “They look like they could skip a meal, if anything.”

The trip back passed quickly, the way returns always do. The river spat us out on Figueroa, and it was a little disorienting to be back in the land of gas stations and Home Depots. But also nice—within a block of our house, we could get a beer, a smoothie and a patch for AK’s bicycle tire. We felt rich.

Friday, August 16, 2013

the bluebird of well managed anxiety

1. no one is watching

Amy was in town last weekend, and it was so nice, so easy to pick up where we left off, in the way of old friends. At one point, AK said something about my anxiety. The other day, she’d mentioned how poorly I had handled the uncertainty of apartment-hunting five years ago, and I’d balked. Did she really think I was still that person? Yes and no, she said.

Now, I said, “I’m really much less anxious now. I reserve my anxiety for like two things.”

Amy called me out: “Are you less anxious, or do you just distribute your anxiety differently?”

Some people talk about the fearlessness cancer creates in its near-victims. It’s true that I am acutely aware of all the things that won’t kill me, and am accordingly blasé, maybe even too much so: losing my job, writing a story no one likes, offending someone, disappointing someone, not making the bed in the morning.

But the fine print in this fearlessness contract—at least for me—states that in lieu of worrying about all the shit I worried about five years ago, I will worry about recurrences. (And, okay, early menopause.) Instead of pouring my anxiety in a hundred different containers, I’ll fill one giant keg labeled (in Sharpie on masking tape) My Own Mortality and lug it with me everywhere I go. But at least it’s easy to keep track of, and somewhat mitigated by Effexor and a shitload of therapy.

Tuesday night I went to a hip-hop class at the studio where Jamie does ballet. My not-so-secret mission is to see her dance there one day, because if the stretches she does at our conference table are any indication, she’s really good. I hadn’t taken a dance class in a few years, and hadn’t danced regularly since freshman year of college.

Back then, dancers had to make due without conference tables.
Going up that steep-and-very-narrow stairway* brought back memories of Act III, the one-room Redondo Beach studio where I took lessons in middle and high school. Of taking the last class at night, steaming up the windows and—I was certain—filling passersby with deep envy. Of cutoff sweatpants and kneepads and jazz boots with the tops folded over.

The teacher was a slim, fit black guy with the movements of someone highly trained to look street, like distressed designer jeans. I don’t mean that in a bad way—he was liquid, chameleonic. He could shrug like a thug, and I believed he could have pirouetted like a prima ballerina if he so chose. He conducted the class almost entirely in pantomime, touching his head for “from the top,” making a T with his hands for “half time” and spinning one finger in a circle for “speed it up.” His choreography was clever and not too hard to follow.

Just like teachers at Act III, he periodically divided the class in two so one half could rest and watch while the other put on a show. (What I love about dance, that you do not get from yoga, is that it’s not about “going at your own pace” and “doing what feels best”—it’s about looking good for the audience, dammit.)

I remembered the unofficial choreography of these moments at Act III. When your group is called upon, look sheepish, full of dread. Drag your feet onto the floor. Make an “Eep! I don’t know what I’m doing!” face. I did sort of suck as a dancer back then, so it wasn’t entirely false, but Amy and Bonnie were born dancers and they did the same. Self-consciousness was simply the language of being a teenager.

And heaven forbid we be asked to freestyle for an eight-count.

I didn’t suck so bad Tuesday night. When it was my group’s turn to dance, I Danced Like No One Was Watching. Or maybe I danced like everyone was, and like they liked me well enough anyway, or were just absorbed in their own shit. I do believe, on some level, that life experience makes one funky. I did sweat so hard I weighed three pounds less than usual the next morning.

2. my blue period begins

Cancer also made me particularly fearless about my hair. I got it trimmed for the first time since it grew back last night, just a little off the sides to emphasize the faux hawk that had grown naturally. Then I stopped by CVS for a bottle of blue dye and stayed up late coloring it, which is what happens when you have coffee too late in the day.

During the bleaching phase, I missed a big spot near the back, and during the bluing phase, I didn’t miss anything—not the sink or the walls or my neck or shoulders or fingernails.

The smears on my neck give away the fact that this isn't my natural color.
Tattooed wrist, tattooed fingernails.
Looking around at the Smurf massacre that was our bathroom, I said, “I would make a terrible murderer.”

“You’re no Dexter,” AK agreed.

My OCD, unfortunately, appeared to be limited to hypochondria and straightening picture frames. It would have been useful about now—it would have been good to hunt down petroleum jelly to protect my ears from the dye—but here my healthy, “ehh…good-enough” self took over.

The results are okay. More gutter punk than tidy Rockabilly, I’m afraid, but nothing I can’t live with for a few months.

And apparently my nose is crooked too. Good thing I'm not self-conscious anymore.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

the methadone months

1. kozara

I took Nicole out for her birthday Friday night. We spent the first few minutes staring at the menu, trying to figure out what “kozara” was (Japanese tapas, it turned out).

“Sorry,” she said. “How are you?” It was the voice she used when she was tired, but trying to hold onto her manners.

“I’m good.”

“Sorry, I’m just shaking off the week. Work, you know?” 

“No worries,” I said. “I’m shaking off the week too. My week was fine, but just, you know, Friday.”

If you go to Bar Hayama, order the spicy tuna and crispy rice. DO IT.
That week I’d gotten my teeth cleaned and slogged through the building of an online grant management system at work and gone to the hard yoga class and fought with AK about arriving places late. Earlier Friday afternoon, I’d realized I only thought I’d paid my credit card bill last month, and I could no longer say to myself, Yes, but I’m going through cancer treatment.

“Seriously,” Nicole said, and we went back to studying the menus. It was nice, I thought, that our friendship had reached the level of silent menu reading. We didn’t have to be “on” or cheery. I don’t believe in saving your best self only for acquaintances, but Nicole and I had given each other our best selves plenty of times.

2. vestigial

It was a good, mellow night, until I came home and opened some pre-op instructions from the gynecological oncologist who would be extracting my ovaries in a couple of weeks. It was some kind of standard form letter, and the person who’d filled it out had crossed things out and scrawled ballpoint notes in the margins. I missed the classiness of the Breast Cancer Machine.

The letter said I had to drink that shit that makes you shit, before my surgery. You know, that colonoscopy milkshake? Why, I didn’t know. They wouldn’t be touching my intestines, but maybe they just assumed I’d be constipated afterward, my body bloating with anger about what had been taken from it. It all seemed so undignified, and it was almost midnight, and I was pissed. Because even though I’d done my very best to process my ovarian outrage for eight months now—because I’m nothing if not proactive—here it was again, realer than ever, and it was only going to get more so between now and August 29.

I felt like a shriveled-up hag in a world of glowing mama-goddesses, and I felt like it showed on my body already. Had I gained five pounds because I was taking meds that made me pseudo-menopausal already, or just because I liked spicy tuna? These days I (mostly) had the eating habits of a Portlandia episode and the thinking of the fifteen-year-old anorexic I had briefly been.

It's cool, I'll just get myself a nice scepter.
I sort of stomped around and ranted for a while, waking up AK, who was sweet about it. “They’re mine,” I told her re: my ovaries. “They didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything.”

“You didn’t,” she said gently. “You have a genetic mutation, and you’re making this choice so you can stay healthy.”

And the gyn onc was planning to do a D&C, so I was going to have a virtual abortion, my uterus cramping and crying for the last time before beginning its new life as a vestigial organ.

3. methadonia

I self-soothed with Netflix, settling on a documentary called Methadonia. Before falling asleep, and again when I woke up in the morning, emotionally hungover, I watched hollow-cheeked New Yorkers share their stories of swapping heroin hell for methadone-and-benzodiazepine purgatory. They weren’t doing anything illegal, but they still nodded off in the middle of sentences and accidentally burnt down their apartments when their cigarettes fell to the floor.

Don't do drugs.
The writing, by Nick Pappas, was unusually poetic and wise, I thought. The voiceover said something like, “The story of someone succumbing to addiction and then getting clean is appealing because it’s a story. Methadone isn’t talked about much because it isn’t a story. It doesn’t end. It keeps you alive, but it ensures that average days of going to work, going to the store, remain just out of reach.”

I rolled around in the schadenfreude, as I do, not gleeful, just grateful. Just a little less alone. I, too, was always looking for the story in my story, but after the big tit chop and the baldness, there was a whole lot of late-night ovary angst that was more private, less dramatic and harder in its own way. I was glad my story wasn’t over, of course. I am glad, every day, not to be dead. But I’ve reached the point where, by my superego’s standards, I should be Over It. I should be waking up early and running three miles and cleaning the house. And I wasn’t.

Monday, August 05, 2013

you can’t spell “mean girl” without “me”

1. chonnie

When Bonnie and I were in fourth grade, we were bussed to GATE (“Gifted and Talented Education”) every Wednesday at a nearby school the district wasn’t using. My main memory of GATE is that there was a microwave there, so you could bring Cup O’ Noodles, which was very exciting. So yes, I went to a special school to learn how to microwave soup.
NoodleBot: what a truly gifted kid would have made for lunch.
But for some reason having to do with the intricate politics of girlhood, Bonnie and I decided to convince our non-gifted-and-talented friend Stephanie (who I think is a marine biologist now) that GATE was an amazing place where the corners of our friendship triangle grew closer. We did this by inventing a super cool girl named Chonnie (as in Cheryl + Bonnie) and talking about her all the time. I don’t remember what made Chonnie so great, but knowing my fourth-grade standards of coolness, she probably had a pet dolphin, and she may have met Pee-Wee Herman.

2. cathy

This past spring, my sister went through some big shit, and I spent a lot of time yelling at her for stealing my cancer spotlight. I’ve been in therapy long enough to know that I was really yelling at Cathy for being born thirty-three years ago and stealing my parents. Back then, I saw quickly that I wasn’t going to get anywhere by being cute and needy now that someone cuter and needier had come along. So I did my three-year-old best to suck it up and be independent and good at things, which got me some decent parental attention.
Sometimes I throw weeknight pity parties too. Weekends are for amateurs.
As a cancer patient, I wasn’t terribly cute, but I was needy, so I enjoyed my dad’s love and concern as a sort of free gift with purchase. He was a basket case sometimes, so this particular free gift was like that makeup bag made out of weird synthetic fabric in a color you’re not so sure about. When my sister’s needs bloomed big and loud, my dad acted like she had cancer, and I concluded that it was time for me to suck it up and be independent and good at things again. I was very self-pitying during this time. I stepped down off the neediness stage as subtly instructed, but I basically stood in the groundling pit throwing angry tomatoes for three months.

3. camella

But the good thing about acting like an immature jerk is that you can write about it, if you happen to be a writer (or even if you don’t). In doing so, you see your own jerkiness with more clarity, but you’re also nicer to your small hurting self on the page than in real life. And so that’s what I did, and the story that resulted from the aforementioned experiences is called “The Legend of Camella,” and it’s available for free download (see Issue 1) at Stone Crowns, a new YA lit mag I’m very excited about.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

what i read in june and july

Kind of like Shutter Island, but funnier.
Quality over quantity, these past coupla months.

Madhouse Fog by Sean Carswell: What made The Matrix amazing wasn't the revelation that the world we know might be fake, but the idea that we can use that knowledge to manipulate hyperreality. The Matrix sequels kind of forgot about that and got hung up on saving sweaty, dingy Zion. But Sean Carswell's appropriately dubbed "metaphysical thriller" seizes the fun part and runs with it. Madhouse Fog is narrated with tight language and humble humor by a punk rocker-turned-grant writer who takes a job in a mental institution and stumbles upon research into the "collective unconscious," a space that opens up all sorts of good and evil possibilities for philanthropy, advertising, personal healing and wacky interactions with Einstein and African griots.

Although the plot can be a little hard to follow, I was always happy to be along for the ride, thanks to the novel's post-postmodern sensibility. By that I mean: It never forgets we live in a highly mediated world, but it knows that we need to construct lives for ourselves once the dust has settled on deconstruction. There's a gentleness to the protagonist and the book's worldview that I love. For example, when he sees a production of Waiting for Godot, he finds himself transcending the play's intellectual concerns, and its bleakness. He sees Vladimir and Estragon's babble as "a way of saying, 'We share this life together. Whatever voids we face, whatever emptiness surrounds us, it's okay.'"

This novel is a rare thing: a funny, expertly written caper; an atheist's spiritual text; and a love story whose female characters are never trite.

Lost at Sea by Jon Ronson: The pieces in this collection, organized around loose themes related to belief, could be viewed as stunt journalism. Girl disappears from a Disney cruise ship, journalist books himself on the next cruise to interview Stepford-like crew members. Guy invents robot with artificial intelligence, journalist interviews robot. But even though some of the pieces felt too short (meaning I probably just wanted them to be more New Yorker-y), ultimately this is first-person journalism at its best. Meaning it's both journalistic and personal--Ronson is honest about his prejudices but is genuinely open to having his mind changed. He's snarky but humble in a way that feels very genuine, as when he details his ever-changing opinions of a possible cult leader who advocates for charitable kidney donation. In my favorite chapter, he interviews people on each rung of America's class ladder about their struggles and happiness. There are no easy conclusions to these mysteries, except when there are--either way, they don't sacrifice reality to narrative demands. This book satisfied my reading palette exactly. It's funny and light, yet weird and soulful and dark. Ronson proves such a combination is possible.

Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie: In this novel, the personal is political is personal is political. It's a chicken-and-egg thing, the story of a youthful love affair in Kashmir that plays out against (and leads to) conflict in the region and across the world. Rushdie tells the story as a yarn, dipping in and out of the points of view of thespian-turned-terrorist Shalimar, his unfaithful wife, the wife's lover and their grown-up lovechild. This style often includes beautiful reveries and poetic wordplay, but it also means the characters feel more like fairytale players than people I could really get to know.

I kept trying to figure out the allegory. Lovechild Kashmira is post-colonial, multi-cultural America, who must be careful not to let her vengeful side get the best of her when the chickens of her parents' involvement come home to roost (to extend the chicken metaphor)? I'm not sure it quite works--maybe the writing just *seems* like allegory. This was my first Rushdie. It was a slow boil, but ultimately I got what all the fuss is about. He's a masterful writer of epics, and I look forward to reading his best-known books.