Sunday, December 30, 2012

eleven books, seven movies and one crappy, love-filled year

I just opened the beat-up little notebook where I write down all the movies I see, to ponder what might make my Best of 2012 list. Instead I flipped to a page where I’d written “ovary removal timeline.” So that tells you most of what you need to know about my 2012.

That said, surgery (on the boobs—the ovaries will have to be a New Year’s resolution) went really well. As I’ve been telling anyone who asks how I’m doing, the same genes that gave me cancer and anxiety also gave me flexible pectoral muscles. So while I feared weeks of needing help wiping my ass, the pain was more along the lines of a really rough work-out at the gym, and I found myself saving my Percocet for when I had cramps a few days later. (No more of that once the ovaries are out—woo-hoo?)

Also, and more importantly, four different tests to look for lymph node metastasis came back negative. The cancer appears to be confined to one giant-ass tumor—I’m looking for a point of comparison size-wise, but I refuse to choose a fruit, because all the pregnancy websites tell you when your fetus is the size of a blueberry, a lime, etc., and the metaphoric implications of what grew inside me instead are already too painful.

So we’ll call it a summer squash, which I hate. Or an iPhone. Or a fist and a half. It was unnervingly big, although they say size doesn’t matter…too much. It was something that could have only hidden in my or Christina Hendricks’ boobs.

I'm sure my tumor would look all cool and arty posed on an antique bench too.

But it’s no longer in me. So it’s possible that I no longer have cancer, and that’s the story I’m going to stick with, although soon I’ll begin six rounds of chemo to make sure. And I might have to do radiation to make extra sure. Those things are daunting, but I’m trying to think of them as just really grueling errands.

People say losing your breasts is tragic, and I felt fully prepared to be freaked out by my temporarily nipple-less body, but so far I’m not. I’m a little wistful when I think about the old ones, but it’s a general wistfulness for a (slightly) more innocent time. I find my boobs-in-progress tidy and interesting and full of possibility.

People (or at least a recent episode of Modern Family, to which AK and I gave the finger) say that getting pregnant is easy and raising kids is the hard part.

I think sometimes people are wrong. I’m not saying raising kids is easy. But since I’ve spent the past few years wrestling with why supposedly-easy things are sometimes so hard for me, I’m going to take solace when hard things occasionally turn out easy(ish). Maybe chemo will be one of them?

And although the past week and a half has been a little heavier on TLC’s Freaky Eaters than I would have liked, and a little lighter on editing my novel and watching classic films, I’m still taking solace in books and movies. Here are my favorites—not necessarily the “best,” but the ones that spoke to me the most. They, and a few wonderful people, got me through 2012.

This cover is pretty great. The book is all about shadows and doubling.
Eleven favorite books:
A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson
Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett
2500 Random Things About Me Too by Matias Viegener
Fiction Ruined My Family by Jeanne Darst
Man in the Woods by Scott Spencer

Honorable mention: Heartburn by Nora Ephron, The Infinite Wait by Julia Wertz, Five Skies by Ron Carlson

Befriend the beast. It's the only way.
Seven favorite movies:
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Life of Pi
Face 2 Face
The Queen of Versailles
Jeff Who Lives at Home
Moonrise Kingdom

Friday, December 14, 2012

credit, blame and feline dental hygiene

1. heavy objects

On Tuesday I looked at my day planner and saw that I’d written “no food or water after midnight.” I was confused. I’m not having surgery until the 19th (send good vibes that day, everyone!). Apparently I’m supposed to lay off booze and other blood thinners for a week prior—which really puts a damper on holiday cocktail parties—but food and water?

Then I realized this applied to Ferdinand. I’d made an appointment for him to get his teeth cleaned as part of my long Get Shit Done While I Can Still Lift Heavy Objects to-do list. So I ruthlessly denied him the meal known around our house as Second Dinner and drove him to our beloved ghetto vet in Lincoln Heights the next morning.

Ferdinand's gleaming smile. Sort of.
When I picked him up, the veterinary assistant—a woman I really like, because she’s friendly and smart and quick to hand out info sheets on how to read your cat’s blood work—said, “He did great. No extractions, just a lot of tartar.”

“Not bad for nine years old,” I said. “Especially since he’s never had his teeth cleaned before.”

“Wow, he’s nine?” she said. “A lot of cats who are four or five years old come in and need a bunch of extractions.”

I felt a small, misplaced sense of pride in Ferd’s superior mouth, as if I’d convinced him to floss every night. Mostly, though, I was glad to avoid the $15 per tooth extraction charge and a week of forcing antibiotics down his throat.

“I guess he has good genes,” I said.

“Does he let you brush his teeth?” she asked.

“No…well, we haven’t really tried.”

“Well,” she said, closing out my payment. “You must be doing something right.”

I wanted to argue with her: No! We’ve done nothing right when it comes to Ferd’s dental hygiene! Don’t you understand that some things are just genetic? Sometimes you can do everything right—or, like, ninety percent of things right—and exercise and avoid soy and maintain a healthy body weight except for the occasional writing residency where they serve pie every night and still get breast cancer in your thirties!

2. the psychology and economics of cheese

The other day, I read this essay by Melissa Petro, which also happens to be about visiting the dentist, but is mostly about the baggage of growing up poor. The dentist at the discount clinic tells her that $70 is not a lot of money for a cleaning, and she should save up.

Elsewhere in the story, she admits that, while she still earns a very low income in her adult life, she buys fancy cheese at Whole Foods, among other upper-middle-class indulgences. I couldn’t help but think that a few wedges of brie could add up to $70 pretty fast, and the dentist had a point. I thought that because I grew up middle-class, raised by parents who had their financial priorities in order: Invest in preventative medicine, education and real estate. Eat at home, buy clothes at Target and the Salvation Army, and take vacations to state parks.

But part of being poor is knowing that things like owning a home are probably permanently off limits, so why not eat the good cheese and enjoy life today? The future is precarious, so what’s the point of constantly investing in it? I can imagine that being told by a smug professional how to spend your money would hit a nerve. That’s Melissa Petro’s thing, the way the myth of health-related blame or credit is mine.

I used to take pride in my own good teeth. I floss and use a Sonicare. But while I’ve only had like three cavities in my life, I’ve also had bad gums since my mid-twenties. If I’m going to take credit for the teeth, I have to accept blame for the gums.

Once a hygienist told me that most people have problems with either their teeth or their gums, depending on the ph balance of their mouths. So now my philosophy about life is that if one thing doesn’t fuck you, something else will.

I don’t think anyone would file this under Positive Attitude, but it’s actually quite liberating. Lately I’ve been tossing back leafy greens and legumes while declaring, “It’s all voodoo, but it makes me feel a false sense of control.” A few people have pointed out that healthy eating is not voodoo, and obviously I must buy it on some level—hence the kale, which even Pitfire Pizza’s expert veggie chefs can’t make taste good.

This rabbit doesn't have breast cancer. Science must be true!
But I also know that my desperate kale consumption isn’t so different from trying to diet away my sexuality when I was fifteen. In a few months, I dropped to 107 pounds, stopped getting my period, grew a layer of peach fuzz on my lower back and received nothing but compliments from the bikini-obsessed citizens of Manhattan Beach. Later that year (and for the next few), I ate boxes of fat-free devil’s food cookies at a sitting and drank canned milk without diluting it and tried to cloak my sexuality in layers of fat. The guidance counselor called me into her office and asked if I was pregnant. A couple of my teachers had noticed how fast I’d gained weight.

Being skinny didn’t make me not gay. Being fat didn’t make me not gay.

I don’t think I’d be able to go on if I didn’t believe in some kind of free will or self-determination, but it’s not nearly as expansive as most Americans like to think, what with our eighty-five choices of peanut butter and two choices of political parties. I’m trying to accept that even if my fate isn’t pre-determined, the factors that will eventually determine it aren’t really up to me. I’m trying and sometimes failing. But even if dairy is probably bad for hormone-receptive breast cancers, I’m eating the good cheese. 

Friday, December 07, 2012

my strange addiction to my strange addiction

I started bingeing on Mad Men a few months ago and finished season four, the last Netflix has to offer, Tuesday night. I love the show for all the reasons critics do—the writing, the exquisite muted painting that is each art-directed frame. All the characters simultaneously perpetuate and are broken by the worst of what mid-century America has to offer. There’s a great scene in which sexpot Joan and career girl Peggy smoke a cigarette and finally admit to each other that they work with a bunch of pigs who take them for granted. But it’s not just the girls who have it bad—Don has the instincts of a good man, but he’s always pushing them down with his desire to be the cool guy in the fedora.

But the real reason I like the show is because everyone is so wonderfully unhappy. Advertising preys not only on people’s existential dissatisfaction, but on their insecurity as well—their belief that just beyond the gate, other people are happy. All the fucking time. And that gate is a Lucky Strike cigarette or a pair of Topaz pantyhose. And the proof of the lie of advertising is the entirety of Mad Men. I watch it as my own antidote to the world of forced happiness.

Cigarettes: the perfect prop for your existential dissatisfaction.
But then I was done. AK came in and went to sleep and I could not. So I retrieved her headphones and opened my laptop again.

My Strange Addiction is no Mad Men. It’s not even American Idol. Like all TLC shows, it’s one step up from a snuff film. But, like Mad Men, it promises me that things are not just peachy for everyone, and I’m a sucker for that message, as uncomfortable as my schadenfreude makes me.

For the uninitiated, every episode profiles two people with odd, compulsive habits. It’s more about compulsion than addiction, despite the title. Inevitably, one of the people eats weird shit: household cleaner (Comet, judging by the green can whose label they never show), hair follicles, couch cushions. The other person might lay in a tanning bed three times a day or bleach her skin twenty times or own two hundred pairs of shoes.

Lately I’ve been torn between wanting to get the most out of each day and wanting to collapse into an exhausted heap. There’s no bigger waste of time than shutting yourself in the bathroom for two hours to pull out your own hair or pick at your scabs, but sometimes the world outside that small safe place is even less appealing.

"Scratch-Free" does not apply to your teeth.
As I told Andrew at work the next morning, “There but for the grace of something go I. I mean, if my parents had gotten divorced the same summer my cousin turned me on to eating couch cushions, I probably would have consumed seven couches by now too.”

The show sends everyone to a therapist and ends with an epilogue, usually along the lines of “Lauren is still part of the Furry community and doesn’t think she has a problem. But she tries to go out in public without her mask on sometimes.” (Personally, I thought someone should have steered Lauren toward a career in costume design. She was talented, and if someone had pointed it out, her self-esteem might not have been so low as to require her to hide inside a giant pink fox suit every time she wanted to go bowling.)

They are all sort of “working on it.” And doing a lot of backsliding, with the exception of the Comet-eater, who demonstrates the willpower you might imagine from someone capable of regularly swallowing bleach.

Although there is a guy who eats glass, a party trick that gets out of control, most of the people profiled are women. It’s a generalization to say that women turn their pain inward and men turn it outward, but it’s one I sort of buy. Dude eats light bulbs to shock his friends. Girl surreptitiously eats handfuls of couch foam from her purse at stoplights.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

some thoughts on gender, boobs and belly fat

I stand by my promise not to turn this into Cheryl’s Cancer Blog, but I do have to share one of the weirder and funnier parts of this process so far: my visit to Dr. L, plastic surgeon. (Why does he get just an initial? I don’t have anything really bad to say about him, but in case any of my doctors Google themselves in their minimal spare time, I don’t want the surgical equivalent of a waiter spitting in my food, you know?)

Although I mentioned the exciting prospect of new boobs in my last post, I feel compelled to add that reconstruction shouldn’t be a given. One of Meehan’s friends was disturbed that doctors always mentioned plastic surgery before her health. And I just read this post over at I Blame the Patriarchy, about the compulsive feminization of women, breast cancer survivors like the blogger herself included.

But I’m getting new ones, even though Dr. L informed me they’ll have pretty much no feeling, which is totally unnerving (literally—ha!), because I want to look nice in clothes designed for girls. It’s that simple.

And not simple at all, of course. Given that my forthcoming chemo will be hormone-based and will shut down my ovaries, and that I have the BRCA-2 gene mutation and therefore a hysterectomy in my near future to lower my risk of ovarian cancer, and my body has already demonstrated itself to be ambivalent about getting/staying pregnant, any biological femininity I have is somewhat under attack.

Luckily I came of age in a community that believes biology is not destiny. Although of course all of this is happening because of my genes, so biology is some kind of destiny—just hopefully not the only one. If my trans friends can be intrinsically male or female regardless of their body parts, I hope I can be too. Right now I’m feeling kinda FTMTF.

This post was supposed to be about my wacky visit to Dr. L, but I seem to have digressed into philosophy and melancholy.

A nurse (receptionist? both? I wasn’t sure) took the first topless photo of my life; I stood in a very unsexy “before” pose with my arms at forty-five-degree angles. Then I put on a cheap silky gown embroidered with Dr. L’s logo, and Dr. L himself—who has maybe had a little work done around the eyes—came in and showed me dozens of pictures of before and after boobs.

There are way more types of boobs in this world than the movies or my limited sexual adventures prepared me for. And that’s just the befores. The afters were fine—plastic surgery is pretty advanced—although some of the in-betweens were a little rough. Not because they were hideous, not even because they had scars instead of nipples. Just because they were bodies that spoke to transition and hard times.

I’ve had hard times that were entirely invisible, and like a teenager who slices up her arms, the prospect of making pain visible is not entirely unappealing to me, even if the eventual goal is looking good in a halter top.

Given my type of cancer and my type of body, Dr. L recommended implants rather than “flap” surgery (was there ever a less appealing name?), in which they make boobs out of your stomach fat. He might need to borrow a little muscle from my back to protect one of the implants from possible radiation, he said, and I imagined a fig wrapped in prosciutto. But I was too thin for flap surgery, he said.

Implants as appetizer.

The breast cancer world is one of the few in which I’m repeatedly told I’m young and, now, thin. It feels stupid to be flattered by such things—I’m getting treated precisely so I can get old—but I’ll take whatever I can get these days.

“You’re very thin,” he kept saying.

It’s true that lately I’ve been on the Anxiety Diet, which is the exact opposite of the MacDowell diet, but I told him, “You say that, and it’s nice to hear, but I think I have a belly.”

When he finally opened my gown and looked at me topless, he grabbed a hunk of belly and said thoughtfully, “I could probably make a large B-cup out of that.”

Cathy pointed out that his comment was not unlike those of T-Mec’s vet in the strange-gauging-of-women’s-bodies category, although Dr. L wasn’t quite such a whackjob. We quickly returned to the implants option, though, because it’s less invasive and I want to be a C-cup, mainly so the rest of my body doesn’t suddenly look huge in relation to my boobs. Maybe I should be glad that people, even doctors, can’t figure me out just by seeing me with my clothes on.