Friday, April 19, 2019

Twilight.

"Wow, look at those nails. Did you do that yourself?" the anesthesiologist asked.

He was lifting the top of my gown and plunking electrodes along the top of my chest as he talked. Yes, I said, I'd done it myself. It looked like nail art, but it was just a polish. 

The night before, I’d chosen the multichrome coating of sparkle expressly for this day, anticipating the discomfort and the waiting. Within the small universe of things I could control, applying what looked like a far-away galaxy on my fingertips was one.

But that felt like a lot to say, so instead I muttered, “There’s a lot of innovation in nail polish these days.” The anesthesiologist, though, seemed to have stopped listening for my answers and had moved on to joke with the (male) assistant about how he maybe he would do the same to his nails later. As they worked over me, enjoying their own banter, I realized I didn’t need to be part of this conversation. In 90 seconds I was going to be unconscious.

On the phone before the surgery, the nurse had made a point of saying my anesthesia would be of the "twilight" variety. As she described it, I would be unconscious but would wake up quickly afterward. Though the use of twilight didn't really make sense to me in this context, I appreciated the word. It suggested a sunset, winding down, and cheesy novels.

But when asked before the surgery which type the anesthesia would be—"twilight" or "general"—the doctor wasn't having it. 

"Well, that's semantics," he said. "If you're asleep, it's all general, right?" 

I looked at him blankly. "Any other questions?" he asked. His demeanor did not encourage further questions.

In another room, a nurse was interviewing an elderly man. "On a scale of 0 to 10, what is your pain?" 

"Three or four," he said, "But I can't walk!" As in, "Duh, I'd be having a lot more pain if I were ambulatory."

"And when you leave here, what would you like your pain level to be, on a scale of 0 to 10?"

"Zero!" he answered, quite reasonably.

"We can't do zero," she said, making me wonder what she was really asking, then. Another nurse had told me the same thing when going over the discharge instructions. "We will manage your pain as best we can," she said, "keeping in mind that we can't necessarily get it to zero."

These conversations were not the first time the problem of semantics had appeared over the past several weeks, when words seemed like critically important yet wholly inadequate tools for describing whatever was happening to me. The medical oncologist I saw, for example, had stopped herself from uttering the C-word when describing my condition. My surgeon, on the other hand, was unequivocal. “This is cancer,” she said.

Ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS, apparently, occupies the same place of semantic limbo as twilight anesthesia and pain scales. Mine was extremely low grade and going nowhere, I was assured. To some, this means it qualifies as something else. But to others—well, semantics. That C in DCIS is there for a reason.

Many doctors agree that DCIS is, in and of itself, not life-threatening, but they do not seem to agree on what can or should be done to ensure it stays that way. "DCIS is probably overtreated," my oncologist said. That's because if it comes back, half the time it will be invasive. Who's up for a game of boobie roulette? 

In my case, the DCIS was not palpable and nearly invisible. If the radiologist hadn't spotted some tiny but suspicious calcifications on my annual mammogram, I wouldn't have known it was there. 

That, combined with the lack of consensus on whether DCIS even rates as cancer, made the whole experience feel disconcertingly interpretive. I had a range of options, from preventive mastectomy to minor surgery with or without radiation and/or Tamoxifen, with no "right" answer. 

How aggressive I wanted to be in treating this essentially came down to how unlucky I was feeling. 

I was handed multiple comparative probability charts, with caveats—there is no handy scale that includes every single factor that will influence whether not you get cancer. The highest number I saw was an 18 percent chance of DCIS recurrence within 10 years—that's with no mastectomy, no radiation therapy, no Tamoxifen. 

Some people might be OK with 18 percent. Others find even 10 percent intolerable, my doctor told me. They want zero.

But there is no zero guarantee for recurrence, any more than for pain. Even a mastectomy carries with it a 5 percent chance that some cell in there will, once again, go rogue. For me, even though the genetics testing came back clear, my mom's breast cancer, along with other factors, put me in a "high risk" category.

The day after my second surgery, which was done to "clear the margins" after the first round revealed DCIS, I was lying comfortably on the couch reading Anne Boyer's harrowing account in The New Yorker of what it is like to really have breast cancer. My pathology on the second round had come back clear. For the umpteenth time I became aware of how the odds had worked out in my favor. This should make me relieved and happy—and intellectually, it does. 

But emotionally, I've been feeling mainly grief, numbness and confusion after weeks of tests and scans and needles and surgeries. It is as if I've watched myself narrowly avoid a very bad accident. It feels like there should be explanations—reasons that can help me face a non-zero future, matrices to explain why so many others fall on the wrong side of the odds, semantics to smooth it all out—but there aren't. 

Of course there aren't. Such a preposterous notion would occur only to someone gifted years of luck and health. We're talking about a life with only one surgery before I was in my 40s, and it was a tonsillectomy for which I was perfectly prepared by a pop-up book called Going to the Hospital, by Bettina Clark. 

In some ways, for better or worse, this interlude feels similarly preparatory. I couldn't see or feel the DCIS, but could only imagine it. I imagined it as a seed that lived in the twilight. The seed, I am inexpressibly grateful to say, is no longer malevolent. Now that I am awake, maybe it can grow into something else.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Silence.

She had sat there, she said, and thought about her own lifelong habit of explaining herself, and she thought about this power of silence, which put people out of one another's reach....Yet if people were silent about the things that happened to them, was something not being betrayed, even if only the version of themselves that had experienced them? —Rachel Cusk, Outline

More and more I wondered what the point was of constantly chronicling my own experience. How could I possibly say anything original, or worth reading? And why was I even trying to, when so many talented writers could do it so much better than I, and meanwhile, people were paying me to write other, far more practical things?

After awhile, even writing in my own "journal," which had transitioned from paper books to a Word document, because typing was so much faster than writing and I was always rushing somehow to "catch up" the story as if a coherent narrative needed to be maintained, began to seem pointless. Well, pointless and painful. Why dwell on emotions I didn't like to have, or worse yet, chronicle a stretch that felt bland and unremarkable? Why did I need to make some sense of order of my experience? Wasn't that just a way of avoiding the experience itself?

I silenced myself. If I thought of it, the blame would go to my freelance work, which felt unrelenting, or my fatigue, which also felt unrelenting, or just life, with someone or something else's needs constantly on the verge of neglect. Too much going on. Plus, you know, Trump.

But really there was still plenty of time to write for myself. I just declined to take it and instead looked at my phone a lot. Most days, I didn't miss the writing or even recognize that, yes, I was betraying myself. Not because everyone should do this, but because in the moments when I am restored to myself, I do this.

I composed a long farewell post here, saying that I was going to keep this blog up as a sort of archive, but that I would not be writing here anymore, and how I appreciated anyone who had ever visited this blog. 

I still appreciate anyone who has ever visited this blog. And I guess I still feel that there is some value, if only for myself, in framing my experience on a page. Why does it have to be public, though, when half the time I feel embarrassed to think anyone would actually "discover" what I had written and, god forbid, actually read it? Why, in other words, does there have to be a reader?

Sir Uncmo asked me this once. Why did I want to put personal stuff out there for people to read? He wasn't being accusatory, just curious. I couldn't come up with an answer that made sense, and still can't. 

I guess when you've spent a lot of your life feeling locked in, apart somehow from other people, there is a thrill in thinking that you might show something of yourself that you could never adequately speak, and have someone—even a stranger—nod in recognition. It's like assembling the various parts inside yourself into a different body, one that is tied to you but exists separately, and which goes out like a satellite to find other sympathetic beings, even if in the end it's just a different version of yourself a few years down the road.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Like and Subscribe.


There's a subscription box for everything: makeup, snacks, meats. Maybe one day there will be a subscription box for what’s left of the world. You'll receive last of the sea ice, the coral, the fresh water, the endangered species, and put it in your biosphere on Mars storage locker or wherever. An eesthetic commodity just like anything else.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Slowroll.

Sometimes getting older feels like a complimentary crash course in things you never wanted to understand. What it’s like to become seemingly blurrier to other people as a woman. How it feels to have losses accumulate at a higher and higher rate, like contractions before a birth. How you were wrong all of the times you clucked over other people’s misfortunes while vaguely assuming no such thing would ever happen to you—after all, you’re different. Special. Until you’re not.

Slowly at first, and then with alarming speed, you acquire the same wrinkles, the same sags, the same blue veins as every other old person you have looked at without focusing in enough to recognize your own reflection. You inherit some of the same sad stories, too. You let go of trivial worries, because now there are heavier ones to carry. Loves you once thought were fortresses turn out to be not so impenetrable. All of the mental safeguards that you constructed, all of the little protections for yourself that you carefully laid in over time, like tissue paper in a box, fail to prevent things from shattering. Again.

To top it all off, this is the best-case scenario.

Then again, you find yourself just slightly less prone to repeating old mistakes. That's one blessing. In spite of your best efforts, you have indeed learned a few things—some of those crash courses proved useful. Even if other people don't notice you so much, you're better at noticing yourself (though it's easier after you put your glasses on). You realize what's broken can come to seem beautiful. And when you look back, you see that every time you thought you might be done in, it was just another contraction. This time, when you get the wake-up call, you actually wake up. You understand that you’re not finished. Not quite yet.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Waking Up.


I am not here to add words or feelings about the election of our nation's first orange president. Several other people have expressed all of the words and all of the feelings much more eloquently than I ever could.

I am here to talk about snoring. On Wednesday morning the house was empty but for me and a very persistent, shuffling bass note note rising and falling in the hallway. After picking up my phone to check results, and then putting down the phone to let reality sink in, I just stared at the wall and felt surprisingly comforted by that sound.

GeorginaThe canine doing the snoring, a rescue we are fostering and who herself has caused a whole separate tide of words and feelings on my part, is obviously unconcerned about recent events. She is safe, after too long not being safe. She harbors no feelings for orange people or elections or the climate or the future. Her chief outrages involve the groomer and being denied the couch. It's pretty simple.

You probably have a sound like that in your life. Maybe it's your kid playing, or laughing at something silly. Maybe it's your life boss saying that one phrase, for the millionth time, to the kid or canine, where they use that special voice they use only with that special being—the way they say good morning, or well done, or you're loved. Maybe it's a clock you treasure because it ticked for someone who lived long before you in another place, and now it ticks for you. Maybe it's the trees rustling off their last leaves and your feet shuffling them along, just like last year and the year before that.

When you dial into that sound, whatever it is, understand that it means you have created a place here, and you have life around you that is more important than any four-year turn of events. You have people and creatures who need you, causes you can support, and kindnesses you can supply. We could all stand to listen better. More. Now.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Yes.

I love this thought, speaking as the child author of an unpublished how-to series on spying.

I think innocence is something that adults project upon children that's not really there. Children--in f you think back really what it was like to be a child and what it was like to know other children--children lie all the time. They have to lie. It's the only way they can do what they want to. They have no financial control. They have no control whatsoever. In order to go where they want to, do what they want to--`Oh, I'm just running down to Joshua's house.' Children do it all the time. And I think when adults become parents that a veil of forgetfulness sort of drips gently over them and I think they just forget how much children depend on lying and secrecy. Children love secret club houses. They love secrecy even when there's no need for secrecy.
-- Donna Tartt


Music: "Feeling Nostalgic" (Less Than Zero score by Thomas Newman)

Friday, July 01, 2016

Independence Day.

The passage below, scrabbled on the back of a flyer, was recently culled from my extensive archive. I decided to share it here because to me it's an embarrassingly perfect expression of pure self-pity, especially the kind you feel when you're a single twentysomething in New York in the 1990s.

I can remember whom this is about, but the details, as well as the feelings, are like one of those faded ad murals on the side of brick buildings, chipped away and barely legible. Like... I guess I cared about this at one point?

Still haven't totally conquered the self-pity reflex, and still don't have a good vantage point for the fireworks, but it's nice to come across stuff like this and recognize freedom from the b.s. of the past.

***

It's Independence Day, and appropriately, I have been ditched by friends, who migrated to Long Island, which in an odd reversal becomes the inside for a day while Manhattan is the outside. Realized that my window faces West instead of East, where the fireworks are, and without any rooftop access I'm able to discern, stayed inside alone and watched the reflection of the fireworks in the skyscrapers, listening and wishing the sound was a thunderstorm instead.

I don't feel independent at all. I feel shackled to this notion I had six weeks ago, when we were walking near his apartment one night and, inexplicably, fireworks began going off, so we watched from the corner. I looked forward to watching the "real" show later that summer with him and his friends, having someone to kiss, not having to wonder whether I'd be sitting alone in my apartment, thinking of him watching the same stupid show while kissing someone else.

Generally I don't really care much for the Fourth, anyway.

Music: "Game for Fools"

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Billable.

The beginning of this year was a doozy, wasn't it? My posts to this blog seemed like they were going to take flight as if it were the mid-2000s again, as if blogging were still a thing. Then the funding for my job went into slow-motion implosion and, well, priorities shifted.

But it's not just that. This blog sometimes feels like that friend you haven't written to in awhile. You really want to be in touch. You're thinking about that person and wishing you could just sit down and talk, like you used to in the old days. But now so much shit has happened, and there's that one email from a month ago that you never even answered—you're such a dick—and the task of capturing everything you've been feeling and wanting to say is hopelessly gargantuan at this point, and you think...

I have to, have to finally write [him/her/that post] this week.

And that never happens, because you waded out a little too far, and now the waves keep crashing, one after another, a new one towering ahead just as you've managed to catch your breath from the last one.

So you pick the easy things. You fall in love with a hibiscus plant at the Home Depot (not Home Depot, THE Home Depot), a store you used to vaguely recognize as the place your dad likes before it became a prime destination for you. You decide you must adopt the lonely hibiscus displayed way in the back because it looks like a full-on sunset in five petals, and even though you don't live in the tropics, what's so bad about pretending to for a summer and then bringing the thing inside for the winter? You just need the huge ceramic pot and the fertilizer and the specially draining soil...


When everything was still frosted over, you said goodbye to your office and set about building your own business as an army of daffodils marched into the garden, early this year because they were fooled into it by humans, and they reminded you that soon the days wouldn't be so dark. 


You'd always wanted to do your own thing, but you'd been afraid to. Plus, you never had an impetus, until life gave you an impetus, along with a new gig that let you set some of your own terms.

You retrieve some items from your collection to play on the turntable that Sir UM got for the house. The records you have are deep. Like almost comically deep, as things stood on April 2. Bootlegs and side projects, collectibles.


Then, exactly two months ago today, the strangest thing happened.



Even though I've emailed myself some Feelings and tried to draft posts, I still don't have the words to address it, and lord knows no one needs me to, given just how much has been said about it.

So, outside of work, it's picking the low-hanging fruit. It's gazing excessively at plants and nail polishes. Finishing out the school year doing lunch-hour reading with a fifth-grader friend. Making dinners and sometimes desserts for me and Sir UM, who is currently doing his own incredibly hard thing.

We look at rescue dogs online, mentally adopting them, getting ready to maybe one day do it for real. We go to Philadelphia so I can watch my college singing group's amazing spring show and visit with old friends.

But see, all of this is taking place within a new framework, a freelance one where every hour has to be accounted for. In the new world, there's no "slow day." No paid hours chatting by the coffee maker or mooning over terrible world events (so many terrible events), no bank credit while you run to the doctor, or go on vacation.

There's just billable, or not billable. For example:

Billable
- The daytime hours doing assigned writing in my sunroom with good coffee, yay
- The weeknight hours spent interviewing a coal expert in Australia or a conservationist in Indonesia, alright
- The time I spend researching and reporting on topics largely of my own choosing, thank you            

Not Billable
- The daytime trip downtown to meet a friend for coffee, heygoodtoseeyou
- The hours spent looking at Prince-related stories, stopitnowstopit
- Yard breaks, justgoingoutsideforasecond

No complaints. I like working on assignment. I like making the deadlines, helping people out. And it's probably a good thing that I now have to think about my time in a much more granular, purpose-driven way. Sometimes, yes, I miss paid vacation days. but wouldn't trade it for anything. The upshot is, every hour is billable to something. Your livelihood. Your loved ones. Your sanity. Your soul. Remember that's always true, whether you're freelance or not: Every hour is billable.

Music: "Same Ol' Mistakes"

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Stop Telling Women to Smile.

On the way back to the office from an outing today, I spent a good few minutes thinking about being told to smile by strangers on the street. I'd just passed a potential "smile" zone that proved to be quiet, but it made me think how amazing it is that women who go around minding their own business all day long still have to deal with so much unsolicited running commentary.

"Smile for me!"
"Smile, it's not so bad."
"Aw, it's not that bad is it?"

This kind of b.s. used to happen to me so regularly in New York that I thought it must be a side-effect of my condition, RBF. Now that I am old, I get it far less often, but it still happens from time to time. What's even more amazing is how this never really registered to me as harassment, or at least not in any real way, because it wasn't hissing or sex-faces, which would happen too.

Then I heard an interview with the founder of this awesome street-art movement, Stop Telling Women to Smile, and realized it wasn't my RBF, and it wasn't just New York and D.C., and furthermore, it really wasn't my motherfucking problem if some random-ass dude feels entitled to tell me what expression to put on my face.

I thought about how unfortunate it was that the younger me always felt obligated to smile in response, to be "polite" somehow. That maybe I should indeed try to go around looking more cheerful. Not anymore, I thought to myself. How ridiculous. Shaking my head.

I swear what I am about to relate is true. Not 10 minutes after this particular train of thought, I get back to the office, walk through the lobby, and get into the elevator. It's me, a younger dude, and an older dude with a mustache that I've seen around the building before.

Younger dude gets off the elevator and then it's me and the older dude for two more floors. It's quiet and I can tell he's just itching to say something.

Can you guess, reader, what he said?

Oh yes. "Smile," I hear from my periphery. "It's not so bad." A laugh.

But of course, I'm not on the street. I'm in an elevator, next to a fellow employee I might see again. So what did I do? I smiled. It was a sour, weary smile, to be sure, but not the stone-cold shutdown I'd been mentally practicing just a few minutes ago.

Sigh. Maybe next time.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Custard.

Early on in our seven-year history, I learned that Sir UM has a soft spot for the egg custard tart. You usually see this little guy at dim sum meals, but during an early visit to San Francisco, he took me to a bakery in Chinatown JUST to get the tart.

My experience of Asian food growing up white in the Maryland suburbs was: "Chinese takeout." In quotes. That's it. Cashew chicken, moo shu vegetables, pork fried rice. No dim sum. No sushi. No Thai or Vietnamese exposure, even, for this Sbarro aficionado. I'm not saying the options didn't exist; they just weren't in the picture for my family.

Moving to San Francisco changed that, big time, but the allure of dim sum remained opaque to me. A poorly lit, crowded room and food on wheels? During the day? Aren't there better things to do with the sunlit hours?

Now, after finally getting with the program via awesome meals in San Fran and New York, I have the proper appreciation for those rattling metal carts, and we happen to have a great place just a few minutes away in the suburbs, not far from where I grew up, that can satisfy the craving.

It's the kind of place where a crowd starts to form by 12:30 p.m. Where the cheesy name and unassuming exterior belie the deliciousness inside. Where the staff bring out forks to put next to the chopsticks when they seat a white person.



Here is where I finally learned about Sir UM's secret.

"Have you ever tried licking the tart?" he asked at the end of a recent dim sum meal, a plate of custards in front of us.

"What do you mean?" I said. Of course I'd never tried anything of the sort.

Truthfully, the tart always seemed extremely skippable, a fairly anodyne conclusion to a meal that involves whirling steam, chile sauce, and meats mauled into bite-size packages. Its charms are somewhat obscured by how pale and bland it looks. (You know, like me.) I'd eaten maybe four in my whole life.

He explained how, as a little kid in Singapore, he learned to hide his secret compulsion to lick the top of the custard tart.

Tonguing a tart is poor table manners, obviously. But have you ever tried? It turns out you get a hit of the sweetness concentrated at the top, while enjoying the silky smooth perfection of the surface.

His "technique," refined over many meals with adults, involves bringing the tart up to your face with both hands, forming a sort of visual screen, and then tilting the tart toward your mouth so that you can sneak in a lick, without anyone seeing, before you take a bite.

I love this for so many reasons, but the main one is how children can always figure out a way to enjoy life in the face of stiff adult opposition, and how adults are so removed from that enjoyment that they wouldn't necessarily know what to police. Among the many crimes I often got away with as a kid: drinking through a straw without holding the cup on the table, letting my ice cream melt into soup, concocting "potions" out of kitchen condiments, and collecting the colorful wrappers from candy that I'd eaten.

So now when we go to dim sum, I work on my technique, bringing the tart up to my face for a seemingly normal bite and going in for the kill. I treasure the secret, even though it will never be as surreptitiously sweet as it was to the little boy who first had the idea.

What innocent joys did you get away with as a kid?