Friday, April 29, 2011

Another Writing Pep Talk

Magical Keystrokes

As a kid I loved a musty old copy of Ripley's Believe It Or Not! that we kept in the basement. One of my favorite stories in its yellowed pages was that of a condemned man whose life was saved by punctuation.

"Pardon Impossible. To Be Sent To Siberia," read the telegram deciding his fate. His wife intercepted the message and altered it to read, "Pardon. Impossible To Be Sent To Siberia," saving him from exile and certain death.

I got shivers when I read that story, my first introduction to the magical power of revision. When we, (that's you and me, fellow writers,) when we tackle our writing for a second or third or ninth time, alchemy can happen. Sodden prose and limp dialogue can become infused with light and motion. Your writing work is not far from that of a professional magician - it takes much practice and revision work to cast a spell of effortlessness, but it is possible.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Joanna Newsom's Jackrabbits

I was tired of being drunk
My face cracked like a joke
So I swung through here like a brace of jackrabbits
With their necks all broke

I stumbled at the door with my boot
And I knocked against the jamb
And I scrabbled at your chest like a mute
With my fists of ham

Trying to tell you that I am
Telling you I can
I can love you again
Love you again

I'm squinting towards the East
My faith makes me a dope
But you can take my hand in the darkness, darling
Like a length of rope

I shaped up overnight, you know
The day after she died
When I saw my heart, and I tell you, darling
It was open wide

What with telling you I am
Telling I can
I can love you again
Love you again

And it can have no bounds, you know
It can have no end
But you can take my hand in the darkness, darling
When you need a friend

And it can change in shape and form
But never change in size
Well, the water, it runs deep, my darling
Where it don't run wide

The feather of a hawk was bound
Bound around my neck
A poultice made of fig
The eager little vultures peck

And the verse I read in jest
And Matthew spoke to me
Said, there's a flame that moves like a low-down pest
That says, "you will be free"

Only tell me that I can
Tell me that I can
I can love you again
Love you again

Love you again (x9)
Love you

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

One Bad Diagnosis Can Save Your Whole Day

Even I can't tolerate my own gloom, so here's a palate cleanser from the last tough post.

The dental assistant sitting behind me wants to chat but his efforts are so heavy they make me feel even more relaxed and leaden in this soft reclined chair with the views of the Evanston library.

"When's spring coming?"

I manage a giggle. "Oh, I don't know."

"It's supposed to be warmer tomorrow. Let's hope we can get some sun."

"Hmm." My eyes are closing. I'm not drugged, not yet at least, I'm just letting go in this comfortable place, creepy medicinal smells notwithstanding, because I have no choice, do I?

A little harmless emergency like a tooth turned too sore to ignore stops all my plans and usual worries in their tracks and replaces them with this - this way place, this suspension, this transition between the everyday and the new normal, like this day between winter and real spring, when the air is cool and wet and the buds are just starting to show.

I like this time, I don't say to the technician. I'm too relaxed, or tired, or perhaps too resigned, to disagree. I'm in no hurry to push the riot of loud tulip colors and the clouds of lilac smell; I'm in no hurry for Dr. Fischl's diagnosis. Right now, in this chair, magazine left behind in the waiting room, I am fine.

"Maybe when it warms up, we'll see some peregrine falcon eggs hatching."

He's talking about the library across the street, I realize.

"Where are they," I muster.

"On the second column, at the very top." I can't see anything through the tree branches, still bare as whips.

"Cool," I say, which is all I can give the poor guy. My dentist, on the other hand, gets a big "Hi, Dr. Paul!" because he showed me he knows the value of silence that one time when I nearly fainted and all I needed was a cold compress on my forehead and some horizontal time and quiet.

Five gentle minutes later, I'm out the door with the address of the root canal specialist and a warning not to delay.

I cross the wet street at a trot, hurrying again toward my car and my To Do list, feeling around for sensation, like my tongue has been working the tender gum the last few days. I find nothing but a light excitement, even as I register that I'll be getting anxious later. It is root canal, after all, whose jokes and awful reputation precedes the thing itself. I don't even know what it is! I'll go home after the grocery store and the kids' resale shop and check out the web, ("probably the most maligned of all dental procedures," one North Caroline dentist's site reassures me,) but for now, the wind rushes across my face, cool but not too cool, it's an emergency but not too much of one, I've got new plans and arrangements to make and I am fine.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Cruel April

Eastertime has always felt cruel to me. Colder than Christmas. Skinny girls in their thin flowery dresses and first tottering heels get buffeted by the wicked wind crossing the parking lot. You sit in church, or used to, anyway, starving because you're supposed to fast an hour before eating the flesh of the god and once you make it past Sunday all the things you gave up for Lent don't seem as great as that one night you broke down and cheated. The jelly donut is kind of cloying, actually, and waxy bunny chocolate is never as delicious as the gorgeous arrays at cozy Christmas cookie exchanges. And how can you get past the torture, the violent death three days ago?

Randy's mother (a minister's wife!) came out of The Passion of Christ saying that as a mother she would never allow her Son to go through such an experience which I think is part of the atheist point.

Nora cries and cries, wretchedly, at Easter brunch today. She wants to go home, she doesn't want to eat ANYTHING! and she HATES this place, HATES this Rick Tramonto's big hotel spread with the cute kids' table and the silent Easter Bunny wandering around giving silent hugs and the little pastries that don't feel like Mom is really eating so many calories since the yummy nutty sticky light goodness is so small. The creamy tang of lox is on a mini bagel that is so mini it feels non-caloric but at the same time almost as naughty and good as a drink since Mom's been forgoing fish lately, on top of the meat and caffeine and alcohol. But we're talking about Nora here, who seems inconsolable until, high on my illicit smoked salmon, I tell her she gets to be like a college girl who eats her dessert first!

So she perks up and asks me to go to the buffet line with her and after the cookies and M&Ms and THEN the pasta and bagel and melon (the second request to accompany her made via emphatic sign language, because, she explains later, it's rude to talk with your mouth full), her face has plumped up and turned beautiful again and when she take a rubber band from the bundle of crayons and uses it for an impromptu headband, it somehow does something perfect to her blond tangles.

The conversation turns to whether the marshmallow Peeps that big sister Mia (who has been a patient, helpful and compliant trooper this whole time, but that is hard to notice in the face of all of Nora's loud and unnecessary sobbing) is soaking in her ice water will melt or turn hard. We plan their microwave blowup later this afternoon and Mia wonders if the gummy bear who has been expanding to three times his size in a bowl of cold water on our kitchen counter all week is a slow motion version of the anticipated Peep explosion.

I catch Daddy's eye and wonder if I can remember that tantrums are always temporary, remember that this glorious Sunday recovery is worth the black despair of Friday and Saturday, wonder if I can remember in the thick of it next time (and whether that next time will be next month or next cruel spring, I do not know, which is part of the problem) that I have the great and precious fortune to experience highs that almost nearly just about make the lows worth the Gethsemane.

Forgive me for that overwrought comparison but yesterday in the shower, while I cried and cried, wretchedly, my mind slipped from agony to agony in excruciating rhymes of loss and denial and frustration and rage that kept waves of sobs coming until the themes of pain were like an aria. It has been a bit dramatic around here of late.

The family visit dynamics that set off my operatic binge could be lovingly tucked to sleep with a little application of compassion and maturity. Uncle Sid told my daughter not to whine. A few times. Nothing much, right? I have given her and her mother as much criticism in the paragraphs above. But in my current state, his gentle correction on Friday night set off my emotional tornado.

I try to rationalize the despair away with diagnoses. Take your pick; there are the raging PMS hormones that I hope to attack at the acupuncturist next month, some lingering seasonal affective disorder (whoops, can't use that one this late in the year), a drop in endorphins from an abbreviated workout, too little sleep, low blood sugar, what Hope Edelman calls a "subsequent, temporary upsurge of grief" brought on by imagining the extended families gathering around me for dinners and brunches this week, the whole general rough transition to motherhood, depression (whose tenacious grip this condition shares, but only in intense, brief periods), some loneliness, a moral weakness, isolation, a personality that reveres sentiment and despises repression, the seductive call of transgression, grief grief grief grief grief.

But I dread admitting to any of these being bigger than my optimism and my strength (see "moral weakness" above.) I dread it so much that this blog post may never see the light of day. B+ is more than just my blood type and realistic optimism is my religion, which is not so very odd when you consider studies that have found our brains are hardwired to "interpret unexpected and even unwanted outcomes as being for the best." Take optimism to its furthest degree and you have can find a belief in a benevolent supernatural being Whose Eye is on the sparrow. My optimism does not extend that far.

The concepts of omnipotence and omniscience fall to shreds with a little examination, but organized religion's tools, blind faith and obedience, try to keep analysis at bay, or work it in illogical circles, like the vastness of the universe or the complexity of an eye requiring the explanation of supernatural intervention.

And yet. I found the Wall Street Journal article about optimism on Rachel Troxell's blog about her battle with breast cancer, a battle that her body could not survive. Rachel took great comfort and strength in the abundant prayers raised for her, even those from friends and strangers whose religious beliefs she did not share.

I read Rachel's battle stories in awe, true awe. Here is life and death, here is my friend facing the end of her own life. I read and for the first time in years I bend my head in prayer. Not speaking as into a tin can on a string that stretches into the clouds, like I did as a child, not asking for anything, not asking, but bowing in reverence and awe and gratitude to that one life, the one preciously particular life and light that I was so so lucky to know, that was my friend.

And like the tears that after a while fell because just because I cried, the prayer feeds itself and I am grateful for gratitude, its healing power and its inevitable return.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Can't Afford Lymphedema Sleeves?

The following was written by Susan Niebur and originally posted on her blog, Toddler Planet.

Are you or do you know a breast cancer survivor? Please read today’s post and pass it on. If you can’t afford to purchase a lymphedema sleeve, gauntlet, and/or glove, and you can’t manage your post-mastectomy swelling, Crickett’s Answer and LympheDIVAs want to help.

Today, I am pleased to announce a NEW opportunity for breast cancer survivors who have had a mastectomy and/or axillary dissection of the lymph nodes due to breast cancer and have swelling of one or both arms but cannot afford the $200-$500+ cost for two sets of the compression sleeves and gauntlets that survivors with lymphedema must wear every day to keep the swelling in check.

Although lymphedema sleeves are medically necessary, they are not covered by Medicare OR most insurance plans under current law, and thousands of survivors go without the sleeves, needlessly suffering congestion, swelling, and pain that interferes with their normal activities.

Crickett’s Answer, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization founded in memory of Crickett Julius, has joined forces with LympheDIVAs to help other breast cancer survivors who fight not just the beast that is breast cancer but also the fallout of side effects that includes lymphedema, which may limit survivors’ activities. By working together, they are now able to provide needed lymphedema sleeves and gauntlets to women who need them but cannot afford them out-of-pocket or convince their insurance companies to pay for them. They do this in honor and memory of their loved ones.

Crickett Julius survived breast cancer only four months, but her mother and cousin are dedicated to helping other women enjoy their life post-diagnosis through Crickett’s Answer, a 501(c)3 organization that provides wigs, mastectomy products, oncology/mastectomy/ lymphedema massage, facials, and other pampering services as a way to help women feel feminine and beautiful after losing their hair and/or breasts.

LympheDIVAs was founded by Rachel Troxell and Robin Miller, friends and breast cancer survivors who wanted to create a more elegant and comfortable compression sleeve. Rachel continued to build the company during her later recurrence. Even though she died two years ago, at the age of 37, her father, mother, and brother continue to grow the company in her honor and in the hope that LympheDIVAs’ compression apparel will continue to inspire breast cancer survivors everywhere to feel as beautiful, strong, and confident as Rachel was.

To ask for help, please download and complete the forms at Crickett’s Answer, writing in “lymphedema sleeve and gauntlet” on page 2 of the application.

To help someone else, please copy and paste this post on your blog or email it to a friend (or your local cancer center!).

To donate, go here.

To help change the law so that this medical garment is covered by cancer survivors’ insurance, stay tuned for more about the Lymphedema Treatment Act when it is reintroduced in the 2011 Congress.

Because of these women, these three thirty-something women who didn’t ask to get breast cancer, and the men and women who love them, there is now help for women who can’t afford lymphedema sleeves, a medically necessary garment not typically covered by insurance. Their legacy lives on.

Note: Cancer patients who are members of the National Lymphedema Network and who are treated by an NLN therapist can also apply to the NLN garment fund, set up in honor of Marilyn Westerbrook.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Green Tunnel by Kevin Gallagher

A six month journey along the 2,200 mile long Appalachian Trail, condensed and reinterpreted into five minutes of stop-motion.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Tribute to Rachel Troxell

I met Rachel Troxell in 1993 when she was still Rachel Levin and we were at Northwestern getting our masters in secondary ed. We took Dr. Boyle's methods class together and I liked her immediately. She was funny and smart and we became friends, the best friend I made that entire year of grad school. We created a kick-ass project on teaching democracy with our mutual friend Sue and Rachel celebrated with me on my 29th birthday and the next year, my 30th, when we were both employed as full-time teachers. Rachel was five years younger, she had entered grad school directly from undergrad, and I felt so old around her, (especially on the heights of the climbing wall she got me to try,) though I never felt anywhere near as wise. You could tell she would be a talented teacher.

The summer of '94, Rachel invited me and Randy to a cookout with her new beau at his place near the University of Chicago. The guy was someone she had met while rock climbing. "He makes video games," said Rachel. "One called Marathon..." This meant nothing to me. Jason Jones seemed a nice enough guy when I met him - I think I made a pie that he liked or I liked his, I forget, but I do remember that Randy was practically trembling when he got the odd chance to meet one of his idols. Rachel and I laughed about it all later, these boys and their games, like we laughed at the younger and sillier boys we taught, both of us in our first roller-coaster years of teaching English at parochial schools - Rachel at Solomon Schechter, me at Gordon Tech. We shared stories of our favorites, Rachel making me laugh so hard at her crush (I so understood) on a sweet sixth grader whom she called "Rhymes with SchmIvan" in the teachers' lounge. Just the way she said it with her irresistibly pretty smile cracked me up.

We took another class together at Northwestern during the summer - it was a course on African oral lit traditions and Rachel's insight and wisdom made it a mind-blowing experience for me. We watched Souleyman Cisse's film Yeelen from the country of Mali - it was about magic and sacrifice and unlike any Western film I had ever seen. I remember so well one moment in class, a moment I have treasured, Rachel and I were examining a cryptic African proverb, teasing out the meaning of its lines, like "My brother walks beside me. He is dark and I am light. He never leaves me..." On and on, it went, rich and obscure poetic imagery that had us stumped. Until we got it. At once. Both of us. "Duality," we said, nearly simultaneously. The passage was about looking at the world and defining it in terms of binary oppositions, rather than multitudes. It was thrilling - not for what we had found at the heart of the knot, but for the moment of discovery. Yeelen means "brightness." A light dawned. Working with Rachel Levin made me feel brilliant and now I am sad because her light has gone.

Reading Rachel's blog of her battle with breast cancer, from her diagnosis at the age of 34 to the end, is both terrible and wonderful. Terrible because the miracle of being reunited with her only happens in my mind as I read. But also wonderful because I can hear her voice again, I am inspired once again by her tremendous courage, strength, optimism and serenity, the depths of which I saw only hints of when we knew each other in our twenties. She had gone on from teaching to do amazing things, including form the LympheDIVAs company which outfits women with wicked stylish options to treat their lymphedema, a frequent side effect of breast cancer treatment. Her loving parents and her business partner continue her work of making women feel good about themselves, a work for which Rachel had a great and special talent.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard

I started thinking about culture shock even before we left for Mexico.

Our little family had just breached the departure doors at O'Hare Monday morning a week ago to find a solid mass of travelers standing in indecipherable lines that snaked through the lobby. No signs or borders. Baggage check in? Security? I wouldn't interrupt the chattering teenagers who made up most of the crowd massed in front us to ask a question -- high schoolers lose half their IQ points waiting in groups.

A lone besieged airline worker offered information in the middle of a scrum of travelers. My dear husband Randy, too polite by half, waited patiently to cross the line of spring-breakers and began with "Good morning...."

I barged forward, barking, "International baggage check in!" I got a pointed direction and the reply, "Six."

It may not have been my best moment, but our flight was scheduled before 9 a.m. and I'd had four hours of nervous sleep. Hey, this is Chicago. We get the job done. We just elected Rahm Emanuel with 56 goddamn percent of the fucking vote, baby. Deal with it.

Still, an episode from Elizabeth Bard's charming memoir Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes rang in my head, chiding me as we found our way to check-in kiosk #6.

Bard falls in love nearly simultaneously with her French boyfriend and the cuisine of his native land. After months of soaking up and in Paris culture, she visits a cookwear shop with her mother, who has not yet learned the ways of the true Parisienne. Bard's mother approaches a salesman with a piece of pottery and announces, "I want to buy this." Wincing, Bard escorts her mother out of the store and conducts the transaction herself in the properly French way, polite and correct.

"What?" asks her mother on the sidewalk.

Where to begin? "You didn't say 'Good morning,'" replies Bard, who writes of feeling like she has "centuries of catching up to do."

The scene, like so many tales of culture clash in this memoir and in most travelers' memories, is about much more than a simple misunderstanding. Entering a foreign world means occasionally facing a volatile mix of cultural pride, personal desire, and the needs of the group versus those of the individual.

I was feeling what Bard calls "a cultural jet lag" as I drove the desert highway that leads into our destination town of Todos Santos later that day. Some portions of the road are dinky single lane with steep gullies on either side and occasional chunks missing from the white line on the edge. Some stretches are recently refinished blacktop, eight lanes wide, but with no markings, no yellow or white lines, and little guidance when your lane suddenly disappears and you hope the cars coming the opposite direction stay to the right.

Our host laughs at this and tells us a story of a town in the Netherlands that took away all their stop signs and streetlights. Car accidents became rare from the subsequent eye contact and caution.

Courtesy and care - it's not a bad way to move through the world, especially where you don't yet know the rules, but you already feel yourself falling in love. The trick is knowing how to execute that courtesy.

Brent tells another story of when he first arrived in the little town, keeping his head down as he passed people on their porches, until he learned, quickly, the abundant response his hellos would receive.

My little Nora calls a chirpy, "Hola! Hola!" to strangers out the car window. I wince, like Bard.

Two little old ladies in knee length dresses and black pantyhose walk slowly arm in arm up the hill in the neighborhood of Los Pinos. "I've learned to say, 'Buenos dios, Senoras,'" Brent explains, as he demonstrates a slow turn to face their precious and terrible dignity with a deep nod. Some early mornings on holy days, he and Serena can hear them singing, fifteen or so ladies, in a procession to the orange stucco chapel down the road.

The publisher of Lunch in Paris sent me a copy of the book with no obligation. You can read more posts about the memoir at From Left to Write.