Wednesday, April 29, 2015

ask me a question/give me a prompt

My self-care has taken a dive these past few days, as I was mired in the stress and absurdity of a federal grant while still working part-time. Also the aforementioned medical tests for me and for Dash, all of which had good results (knockonwood), but which sent cortisol pumping through my veins. Exercise started to seem like a distant memory, and soon I was cramming pastries from Elsa’s Bakery into my face the way Dash crams his (much more nutritious) hands into his. And I haven’t been writing anything that doesn’t come with an RFP.*

Sweet, sweet pan dulce.
I got over the most arduous hump of federal grant (I hope), and today I actually ate five servings of fruits and vegetables, and took a walk. To Starbucks, but still.

On the way home from therapy today, I was listening to one of my new favorite podcasts, The Longest Shortest Time, which is pretty much a parenting-themed This American Life. I like it because it focuses on parents as people, which should be a given, but isn’t. And the parent-people it profiles are genuinely diverse; “alternative” doesn’t just mean making your baby wear rock-band onesies. I liked the piece about the mom who was a makeup artist for the traveling production of Wicked. She had to uproot her family (her husband was with the show too) every six-ish weeks and hire a new nanny in every town she visited and take long car trips with a two-year-old in the backseat. She pulled it off.

Hillary Frank and kiddo.
Anyway, in the most recent episode, host Hillary Frank interviewed a beauty blogger who encouraged her to ditch the notion of returning to her pre-baby weight and just make herself feel great in the body she had. I think this applies to adoptive moms who eat carbs because they’re tired too.

The show also has a really fun app where they pose questions, listeners record and upload an answer, and they play the best ones on the podcast. Of course I responded immediately. I’m such an attention whore.

I like the interactive nature of the app/podcast/Facebook group. It got me thinking that it’s been a while since I asked you, my six loyal readers, for help with my blog. I want you to ask me a question OR give me a creative writing prompt. The latter can be simple (“orange”) or complicated (“Write a piece of flash fiction using the second person and alluding to an event that is never explicitly discussed”).

I’ll spend a half hour each day blogging my answer. When the clock stops, my writing stops, so don’t expect my responses to have lovely little arcs. I just need to do something that feeds my soul instead of my face.

*Request for Proposals. Oh, Grantland. You are not just a sports and pop culture blog. You are a place I am a little sick of right now.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

webmd is like porn for people who want to be miserable

Here is what happens in my favorite episode of Maron: Marc (a stand-up comic in life and on the show) goes on the road and checks into a La Quinta Inn. When the WiFi in his room doesn’t work, the clerk at the front desk (a deadpan Tig Notaro) tells him that sometimes the connection goes out between 8 pm and 12 am. And also between 12 am and 8 pm. But there’s a coffee shop down the street if he wants to watch his porn there.

I've had good times and bad times at the La Quinta Inn in Fresno.
Marc isn’t trolling for porn. He’s Googling “mouth cancer” because he has just discovered a large, suspicious black sore in his mouth. His imagination is already spinning out, and seeing internet images of malignant mouths doesn’t help things. He ruminates about death with his podcast guests. He sees a doctor who shrugs and says “I dunno. But black isn’t good.” By the time he takes the stage that night, he’s half come to terms with dying. In a nod to Tig Notaro’s actual “I have cancer” performance, he tells the audience, “I’m just going to be real with you. I don’t know how long I’ve got.”

He calls a doctor in the audience to the stage. She looks in his mouth. She says it’s a canker sore. She asks what he’s eaten recently and then he remembers: licorice. “Well, it looks like you got some licorice in your canker sore,” she says.

It'll be ironic when we learn that licorice really does cause cancer.
The joke is that Marc is a terrible neurotic hypochondriac, but the episode is shot in such a way—not jokey-jokey, always a little dark without being misanthropic—that the real joke is that Marc is right. He’s going to die. Eventually. The episode captures the absurdity of his self-diagnosis and self-obsession, but also the terror and poignancy of grappling with your own mortality, which isn’t something I’ve seen in on-screen portrayals of hypochondria before.

I hate all diagnostic doctor’s appointments because whether my fears are about nothing (like that time a chiropractor confirmed that the strange lumps on my neck were part of my spine) or something (cancer that could—with a debatable degree of likelihood/unlikelihood—come back), they take me to the same place. It’s a dark place, for sure, but it has its cozy corners. I’ve excised some (some) of the panic and fashioned a kind of deeply sad acceptance. I mean, it’s probably an exaggeration to say I’ve accepted my own mortality. But I’ve accepted that I do a little dance with it at least every few months.

I saw my oncologists today, so it was one of those days. I’m happy to report I’m still cancer-free (knockonwood). I got to introduce the doctors who saved my life to the sweet baby I wanted to stick around for. I don’t have breast cancer any more than Marc had mouth cancer. Tig’s presence in the episode was a wink to the audience, saying, Sure, sometimes our fears are silly. But sometimes they’re legit. Usually they’re some combination of both.  

Thursday, April 16, 2015

when you put your arms around me, i get a fever that’s so hard to bear

1. fever isn’t such a new thing

When I had my one-on-one consultation with Dani at Sirenland, I debated out loud whether it made sense to end my memoir with a celebratory chapter about Dash’s birth.

“It’s a book about learning to live with uncertainty, and I don’t want to wrap it up too neatly. I think there should still be some uncertainty.”

She answered more as a parent than as a writer. “Oh, there’s still plenty of uncertainty.”

After B and I broke up, I tried to nail my world down, even as I let it open up. I asked my landlord for bars on my windows, even though I lived on the second floor. He told me to give it a few months. It was like he knew.

Then I met AK and fell in love. The little storytelling voice inside me said, This is your happy ending. Two bad things happened to you: Your mom died and B broke up with you. But now you finally get to live happily ever after.

I was twenty-eight.

Pop off in case of fire.
I wouldn’t have expressed it so smugly, but that’s what security is—a kind of smugness. A couple of months, or maybe only weeks, into our honeymoon phase, Ferdinand got sick and listless. She wasn’t sure what was wrong at first. The vet said something about his heart. I drove to her house feeling shaky, toting a bag of chicken flavored treats and a sparkly blue ball. What had happened to my newly perfect world? My sparkly blue ball? How could cats get sick if I was in love?

I wrote a prose poem about the world cracking and becoming fragile again and posted it on my blog. I just spent a long time looking for it and didn’t find it. Apparently I’ve been blogging for almost ten years. I found entries about neighbors I don’t even remember and posts in which I over-enthused about dinners with friends who weren’t that great. I think that’s how I used to blog: OMG, you know what’s awesome?? Everything!! I thought that was what blogging was. Maybe that was what blogging was in 2006. Maybe I was just more aspirational in general. Now people have Pinterest for that.

2. fever with thy flaming youth

I don’t know if you can have a honeymoon phase with someone who poops on you semi-regularly, but you can definitely fall in love with that little pooper. And when you’re in love, you feel protected. You’re in a bubble, and you believe it’s made of something more durable than soap. Something thick and clear and safe, like whatever dental dams are made of.

Jamie gifted us with a bag of baby-related odds and ends, the stuff no one would think to put on a registry. Gas drops. Diaper cream. A thing that sucks snot out of little noses. Infant Tylenol. I looked at the medicine shelf of our changing table and thought that those things were for other babies.

"We been hawkin' headlines, but we're makin' 'em today!"
Then one night I came home from seeing Newsies* at the Pantages to find AK in bed with a fussy Dashaboo. He was sort of sleeping, but he made a moaning sound as he sucked at his pacifier. When I got up to feed him a few hours later, it occurred to me that we should take his temperature. For the first time, we broke open the rectal thermometer.

His temperature was 103. My adrenaline started pumping, my own heat rising. It’s okay. Babies get sick and then they get better, I told myself. My body told me, No, no…remember? Bad things happen to us. Heartbeats stop. Cancers grow.

I called the nurse line on the back of my insurance card. They asked me if he had a bunch of symptoms that he didn’t have, which I hoped was a good sign. He was not listless. He was not having difficulty breathing, although sometimes he breathed kind of loudly. His fontanel was not pulsing in a weird way.

But he was under three months old, and when babies are so young, all roads lead to the emergency room. AK Googled some things. “It sounds like spinal taps are pretty standard at his age.”

The only Spinal Tap I'd be excited to encounter.
We packed the diaper bag. My hands shook. I couldn’t stop myself from crying, but I also couldn’t let myself fully go there, to the land of self-pity that a good crying session demands. This is not about you, I told myself. Be practical. Stay focused. Do what you need to do. I dug my nails into my neck.

By then it was early Easter morning. Huntington Hospital was empty except for one sleeping homeless man. They ushered us in and squirted infant Tylenol into Dash’s mouth while they took his vitals. The nurses were friendly and attentive. I tried to read their faces. Were they too attentive?

Soon his fever came down and he started smiling again. There was my Dashaboo! A parade of doctors and nurses and techs came in. Off the record, said one young doctor, I don’t think he has meningitis, which is the thing we’d be most worried about. So maybe no spinal tap.

My heart stopped racing and slowed to a jog. They did a urine test and a blood test and a chest X-ray. So many new things in his day—his first taste of something that wasn’t Similac or Generic Brand Similac, his first needles, his first cancer-causing rays.

Usually I’m terrified of medical results but blasé about medical treatments. I can take the pain, just tell me I’m going to live. But Dash couldn’t console himself that way, and I hated watching him suffer. I almost wondered if some part of me that had immunized myself against blood draws and cold stethoscopes and surgery had finally released a floodgate and admitted that discomfort was, yes, uncomfortable.

They told us it looked like he had a virus. Apparently this was a good thing. They gave him an antibiotic shot in the leg just in case. We came home mid-day and missed Easter with our families. There were a million things we needed to do, but instead we just huddled together, shaken and grateful.

3. sun lights up the daytime, moon lights up the night

A few days later, the results of Dash’s urine culture came back positive for bacteria. The mild virus was just a coincidence. The fever had actually been caused by a UTI, which could have been caused by something as simple as poop getting where it shouldn’t or as serious as a mis-wiring of his plumbing.

The latter would probably be fixable with relatively mild surgery, and the part of me that had learned not to catastrophize could handle this information. Things were fixable. We weren’t out of the game. His pediatrician ordered some tests, which we’ll be doing in a week or so.

Another part of me felt like, Of course. Of course your child, Cheryl, will be less than three months old when his first medical saga begins, because this is your destiny, now handed down to a child who doesn’t even share your genes. It didn’t feel so much like a curse as a job. My job was to go to a million doctor appointments and take pages and pages of notes, and in exchange, my child and I would get to live.

Stay with me.
Of course, that is not my job, and no such deal has been struck with the universe. Into the Woods is my favorite musical of all because it’s about how happy endings don’t last forever; but neither do sad ones.

4. never know how much i love you

It’s been kind of a stressful couple of weeks. It’s hard to work part-time at a fulltime job; everyone has this fantasy that you’ll use your minimal hours to do their thing. It’s hard to have almost zero downtime. It’s hard to find daycare. It’s hard to fail constantly in all realms and immediately pick yourself back up because you have to, because you signed up for this and you know it’s the only way to grow.

Nutty guy with a UTI.
Cliché as it is, seeing Dash smile his gummy smile and laugh his new, incredulous whoop makes it all worthwhile. It brings out a kind of glee I thought lay deflated somewhere in my distant past. There was a night a couple of days back when AK and I were talking about some Dash-related difficulty while he sat on her lap. He smiled a sleepy, sly smile, like, What do you know, Mama? And we both cracked up because of his perfect comedic timing, which cracked him up more. We sat on the bed together laughing and laughing. None of us totally knew why.

I signed up for the problems I have right now, and I think these are the good times. Happy, even, if not an ending. Hopefully not an ending, right?

*Quick review (contains spoilers!): Stories about poor people uniting against the man (Les Mis, etc.) usually make for good musicals. And Cathy and I hearted the 1992 Disney movie Newsies, based on the true story of a newsboy uprising in Jacob Riis-era New York, so much. But then Disney went and Disney-ized it even more for the stage version. In the movie, the fellas rise up against Joseph Pullitzer and win, meaning that he isn’t successful in raising the wholesale price of the papers they sell for a penny.

But apparently the triumph of the proletariat is just too dull for Disney, so in this version, the lead newsboy lands Pullitzer’s daughter and gets a job as an illustrator at the World, the same paper against which he just launched a strike. Disney’s message: Everyone being able to feed themselves is not a happy enough ending. You have to join the elite by means of a fluke talent. They might as well have had him become an NBA player.

Say what you will about Rent’s Vaseline-lensed take on 1980s New York (another musical with an uprising and a song about escaping to Santa Fe), but at least none of the characters gets rich. At least, twenty years into its run, it is still the vision of one guy, not the product of a corporation’s Not So Secret Committee On Maintaining The Capitalist Status Quo.