Monday, December 27, 2010

How Was Your Holiday?

How was your holiday? And by holiday, I mean Christmas? I don't know about you, but I'm always a little startled these days when someone who doesn't know me at all wishes me a merry Christmas, or asks how my Christmas was. But at the same time, I kind of like it, because it seems so, well, rebellious. We all know that we are meant to say HOLIDAY as a way of avoiding insensitivity toward other faiths, which is fine, except that now I exclusively say holiday just as a reflex, which is kind of too bad.

Anyway, my Christmas was quite nice. Really no "buts" here. Last year, there were some "buts." My Christmas was nice, but my front tooth had broken, and it broke some more during Christmas dinner, so I had to get up in the middle of the meal and get some Super Glue to put it back on, in addition to which my sister was recovering from surgery and my boyfriend had been sick and had to get out to the suburbs in the snow in a ZipCar.

No such buts here. Everyone was healthy, present and accounted for. I felt very lucky for that.

There were a couple of moments, of course. Not buts. Maybe alsos.

My aunt defied the Thanksgiving pact stating that none of us would bring gifts for extended family this year. She brought gifts for everyone -- everyone except my boyfriend. My uncle saw his wife deliver my gift to me and said to her (as if the bf and I were not within earshot), "Did you get gifts for..." and yanked his head unsubtly toward my bf and my brother's girlfriend. My aunt looked flummoxed for a moment, then recovered with a cleverly worded reply. "Yes, I got gifts for all the kids!" she answered him triumphantly. There was no gift for my bf -- but then, he's not one of "the kids."

My gift was a lidded tea mug that looked ceramic, but claimed to have Thermos-like properties that kept the inner contents hot while keeping the outside cool to the touch. "I got it for you because I know how much you love to drink tea," my aunt enthused as though we'd talked about my beverage preferences at length, when in fact she has no way of knowing whether I drink tea. I mean sure, yes, I do drink tea. But how odd that she gave me this gift based on a pretense that could be entirely false, for all she knew! And we had agreed no gifts...

My dad had gotten my mom a set of wireless speakers to put around the house, because he'd noticed that she listens to music when he's not around. "I noticed that you always listen to music when I play golf," he said by way of explanation as she opened it.

"What? When you play golf? I don't listen to music when you play golf," she said in the unnecessarily offended way that only people who have been married 40-plus years can use with each other -- in the way that suggests there are years, RIVERS really, of transgressions buried here in this seemingly innocuous exchange that you as a bystander know nothing about.

"Yes you do, when I come back from golf, you're always playing music on your computer," my dad persisted. She finally got what he was saying, sort of.

"He was being thoughtful, mom," I said later.

"I just didn't understand what he meant! I thought he was saying that I play music when we go out golfing together, and I never do that!" she said. To be fair, my mom is a little too accustomed to my dad being -- well, not thoughtful.

When a gift-giver is truly thoughtful -- in other words, actually thinking about what you might want, instead of just giving a token prize, or worse, giving what s/he really wants -- it's a wonderful thing. But sometimes the gift-giver is thoughtful toward a version of you that does not exist; or existed 10 years ago but no longer does; or exists now, but has not been properly verified. And so we can't see the thoughtfulness, because we're staring at the petrified trees of old resentments and habits.

The tea mug, by the way, gets unmanageably hot within about a minute of being filled with boiling water, just like a regular mug would, except that this mug doesn't have a handle (because, you know, it has double insulation), which renders it nearly useless.

Still, my aunt had been so psyched about giving it to me. And it really was very thoughtful. So I will probably keep trying to use it, depending on how many burns my hands can withstand.

My dad is in charge of the stockings at Christmas. This year he included the customary Ban roll-on at the bottom of my stocking, which is an inexplicable family in-joke (and not related to anything regarding my personal hygiene), even though I now have more Ban than I'll ever be able to use. He also got me a copy of Rolling Stone, which I haven't read in about 10 years, but subscribed to from my teens through my 20s.

In previous years, he has given me investing magazines, even though I'd taken a 10-year hiatus from stocks and I never read investing magazines. He was remembering that time in the '90s when I was excited about stocks.

But what I love about these magazines is that (and this is going to sound pathetic, but I try always to remain true to the spirit of this blog) they tell me I am seen. I am seen in a kind of blurry, Coke-bottle way, but when it comes to my dad, I'll take it. Besides, I liked catching up with Rolling Stone. It was kind of like visiting an old friend who got too annoying to hang out with, but had some redeeming qualities you'd forgotten.

Basically, that's all anybody wants from a gift: The sense that the giver sees you.

Did your holiday come with any buts or alsos?

Friday, December 10, 2010

HuffPo and the Spectrum of American Life.

Not sure why it took so long for a news site to cobble together a divorce section, but editors at The Huffington Post have finally done so, and my hat is off to them.

The only thing that enthralls people more than a good love story is a good love implosion, which is why it makes perfect sense that, according to Ariana Huffington, many of the divorce section's readers are actually married.

So while most of the left column of HuffPo Divorce contains practical headlines designed to serve divorced readers ("Is Your Ex-Husband Your BFF?", "Lawyers Love to Hear You Talk"), the center column is dedicated mostly to stoking the schadenfreude associated with watching others' marriages dissolve (Eva, Reese, Courteney) and to studies that might give one the false but satisfying sense that being armed with more statistics can help in avoiding the same fate. (In case you were intrigued by that arresting "DON'T Marry Your Soul Mate" headline in the image above, I'll give you the short version: Don't marry your soul mate -- unless you are rich.)

But the best part about the debut of the divorce section is that it adds another facet to the picture of American life that emerges when you scan only the section touts on the HuffPo front page:


I think if you put the word LESS in front of the topics with asterisks, you'd have it about right.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

False Start.

Awhile back, I announced that I was starting a blog about D.C. life called States and Circles.

I wanted to write about things that I was wondering about, and for which I rarely get good answers: Where's the best place here to get a massage? Is there a pool nearby I can use? Who has the best bubble tea in Dupont Circle? How, for the love of God, can I escape the cupcake craze? (You know -- all the important stuff in life.)

I still want to write about those things, but now acknowledge that I'm never going to do it enough to warrant a separate URL. I started States and Circles while a) embroiled in one job b) looking for another job and c) thinking that I might want to be a local-coverage professional.

Now I am very happy to leave local coverage to the people who are actually good at it and start work that involves something else entirely. I am retiring the States and Circles blog and moving everything right here to UncMo under the tag "d.c. life," accessible at right.

To the .001 percent of you who care, I thank you for your patience and support.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Reformed Underachiever.

The tag attached to the over-the-knee socks I bought yesterday reads:

"Conveying a sophisticated sense of personal style, Passione is elegant, worldly and yet refreshingly relaxed. As at home with blue jeans and tennis shoes, as a black dress and pumps, Passione begs you to leave behind the 'I can't' mind set of the past, to live like never before. Open your heart to a love affair of possibility revealed in the romantic Italian inspired designs that are uniquely Passione."

I know now that you're seeing this knitted wonder, you're saying to yourself, Yes -- I want to date it.

Or perhaps you are saying to yourself that it's time to abandon proper usage of commas and hyphens, to go ahead and make mindset two words -- just like that! Because all of a sudden, you're feeling as though you can live as never before, except for that brief period in the 1980s.

To you, this item indeed evokes a love affair of possibility -- possibility that you can recapture your youth by donning the same type of footwear you would have worn in fifth grade; perhaps even the possibility (dare I utter it?) that we may have been right about leg warmers.

You find yourself opening your heart to the idea of paying $22 for socks, because they are called legwear, and because you have had such a hard time finding anything else remotely wearable in Bloomingdale's today. You're ready to put all those unromantic and emotionally stifling socks behind you. Who knows: Maybe you will even wear them with pumps. You might do anything now!

Well. That's what happened to me, anyway.

How I Feel at Most Museums.

From the guest book at the American Art Museum in D.C. My other favorite is just above it: "Post-apocalyptic, yet accessible for children."

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Slice of Life.

The flat-screen TV on the wall at Washington Radiology Associates is playing, of all things, back-to-back episodes of The Cosby Show. This, to me, is an unexpected and inspired programming decision on the part of WRA: Who, after all, could object to The Cosby Show? Everybody likes The Cosby Show, or they did, until the kids weren't cute anymore and the show got a little too smug for its own good.

In the episode playing, Sondra is informing her parents that she is abandoning her plans to go to law school so that she and her Ewok-like husband, Elvin, can start a business together. They move into a crummy flat and invite the very displeased Cliff and Clair over for dinner. This episode just happens to contain one of my favorite exchanges from the show. At one point during the visit, the front door slams and two frames fall off the wall. Cliff looks at the frames. "These are your degrees from Princeton," he says, looking at them in a detached way. "Yes," Elvin says. "They fell down," Cliff says. "Yes," Elvin says. "Rather symbolic, don't you think?" Cliff says, perfectly deadpan.

Up front at the desk, they are scanning films from my "baseline" mammogram a few years ago. When I was told recently to get my first "regular" mammogram, I realized I had absolutely no recollection of my baseline: what it was like, when exactly it was, where it was done, or where the records were. I had to call around and finally located them in San Francisco. The provider mailed me the films so they could be compared with my mammogram today. I never opened the films. I just handed them over to the receptionist.

The credits roll on the Sondra episode with that boppy, Bobby McFerrin version of the theme song, which I find myself remembering down to every last "doo." I can't focus on my magazine: The Cosby Show is too great a force. The older woman next to me has been chuckling aloud. It's sweet.

The next episode features the bizarre symphonic dance opening of season 5 and starts with Theo's departure for college. My name is called just as Cliff begins searching Theo's jacket for the check that Theo was supposed to have mailed to secure a dorm room. I look back distractedly toward that scene as I walk up to the assistant, as if I don't know exactly what will happen.

In the back, there are a bunch of curtained changing bays and a row of women sitting in gowns along the opposite wall, most of them seemingly older than I. It strikes me as a lot of women, though it's just five or six.

In the changing room, a fact sheet on mammography screenings notes that it is unclear why a medical panel recently recommended screenings every two years instead of annually, despite a study showing that this change would result in a 19 percent reduction of benefits for women. In pen, someone had drawn a line from this passage to the margin and written, "To save $."

I come out of the changing bay and nearly flash the row of everyone waiting, my gown already coming untied. No one notices. "All this, just because we have boobs," I think. I start thinking of insane or absurd things I could do to break the silence while we're all waiting: maybe suggest we start a wave? Flash everyone on purpose? It's so quiet that I don't even mind one woman talking on her cell phone, even though there's a sign prohibiting cell phone use.

In the mammogram room, an older lady asks me to take off my gown and hands me a protective apron to wear around my waist. She waits in front of me and I feel shy all of a sudden, fumbling for the ties on my gown, which is now stubbornly shut. "What is my problem," I think. "My pair is probably about the 500th this lady has seen all day." I drop the gown and she gets to work.

As you know if you have had a mammogram, the screening involves mashing the breast between two plates and taking an X-ray of it. By "mashing," I mean to say "manipulating this body part into a shape that hardly could be thought possible or desirable." By the time the radiologist jams what little I have in there, my boob looks like a pressed orchid petal -- or like a lab specimen, which it suddenly is.

This press n' snap occurs six times: three angles for each side. Slices. Hold still. Hold your breath. OK, relax. It hurts. It is awkward. And then it is over.

"Your doctor will get a report next week, and let you know if anything else is needed," the radiologist says. "They are still digitizing your baseline films, so you can wait for those and get them back, if you like."

I go back outside and sit down, forgetting to position myself in front of The Cosby Show, and then not caring when I realize I can't see it, because I need to stare at nothing for a minute.

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago, when she was 49. In general, I consider myself a pretty good daughter, but whenever I look back on this period, I feel ashamed of myself for how little attention I gave her. The shame increases, rather than lessens, as the years go by.

Her relatively modest treatment, and stellar recovery, had made it astonishingly easy to pretend nothing was wrong. She had a lumpectomy, from which she quickly recovered, and radiation treatments that she received on breaks at the hospital where she works. Her hair did not fall out. She looked the same. She complained very little, asked for very little. She had a scar, of course, but I couldn't see that.

I asked her how she was doing. I offered to do whatever I could. I told her I loved her, as I always did. There was nothing beyond that to do, it seemed, and I liked to think about it all as little as possible.

What there was to do, in retrospect, was to listen -- really listen -- to what she was going through. To ask how she was doing more. To ask how she was doing for longer. I failed in that. She would try to tell me sometimes, and I would listen, but not really encourage more or ask questions. I was too busy avoiding the terror associated with her being ill, and holding on to the idea that, because she was okay, nothing had changed.

The waiting room is crowded with women. I fight back the urge to cry -- kindergarten tears, as if I'd been pushed down on the playground. "What is your problem?" I ask myself again, and shut the tears out. "Nothing has happened to you. You are fine."

But why had it been so uncomfortable this time? Surely I went through the exact same thing for my baseline screening. Maybe it was easier to tolerate when I had the luxury of knowing I could forget about it for a few years. Now it was impossible to avoid the vise of regular mammograms; the vise of even the barest recognition of what my mom had been through, and what she continues to go through in the effort to watch for and ward off the cancer's return; the vise of a sisterhood I don't want.

Once outside with my films shoved in my purse, I well up again, and again scold myself. I have no business crying. There are people back in that room who either do or will have much more to worry about than I have at this moment, and this moment is all I have. My times to worry will come, but not today.

Today, the only things it makes sense to focus on are the cold, clear air, the fact that I'm okay (I think), the fact that my mom is okay, the blissful state of being between jobs, melted gruyere and caramelized onions on toast, Christmas lights and that weird Cosby intro. What were they thinking, anyway?

Music: "Don't Look Back"