April 26, 2005

You can talk in your sleep, if you can sleep

The "slut and a gentleman" I met at my friend's band gig and whom I don't know well recently said: "I think you and Bunny make a good couple because you both seem very independent, self-sufficient and easy to please. (These are good traits.)"

Very independent. Hmmm. Learned behavior? Need I say my mom did walk home from the hospital? I'm not sure it occurred to the doctor to tell her not to. Don't ask, don't tell was the premise with which my mother hit the sidewalk. I, on the other hand, wonder about a hospital that discharges even ambulatory patients with a wave as they walk out the door. (Upon further reflection, I don't wonder: every time I have been an ER patient, I have come and go of my own accord, except for the time I fell into the subway stairs and someone called 911 for the EMTs.)

After my one hospital stay, which I don't remember very well, as I was pumped full of barbituates for five days, some hospital employee wheeled me to the door to leave. (My mom then had to prop me up against a lamp post so she could hail a cab, since I wasn't standing of my own volition.) It hadn't occurred to me to ask anyone to come with me to the hospital initially, though my housekeeper insisted on accompanying me.

Bunny? Independent? Try, catered to: he gets three meals a day, plus hay, all purchased and delivered by me. The off-White Rabbit is of the sub-specialty "house," meaning that he plays Eloise every night of the week and doesn't have a blessed clue how lucky he is.

Self-sufficient? Somehow I am reminded of the zen koan, what is the sound of one hand clapping? Years ago I stopped screaming with migraine pain when I learned to live alone and realized that the only person to dispense meds to me was, well, me. This has not stopped me from more nights of hysteria than I can count, but the principle remains the same.

My mother has nightmares. When we travel together, I hear her scream -- if I am not sound asleep myself and talking to whichever wall is paying attention.

Easy to please? I am of an age when I have stopped asking so much of people, where I know the line between what I may want and what they may offer may not coincide. It took years to accept that just because I was asking for more than I could receive didn't mean I was a bad person for asking. I did, however, have to adjust my expectations.

I have had to rethink radically my brother's place in my life, to the point where I'm not quite as surprised as I once would have been that he didn't so much as send my mother flowers for her surgery. Yes, we can have a family reunion in the back of a taxi, and it doesn't need to be a minivan. I have since spoken to him, and it looks like I'll have Thanksgiving with him and his family. What a concept.

What I have learned, I fear, is that love, oftentimes, is not enough. What I have yet to learn is, what is. In any event, I talk in my sleep, whether there is anyone there to tell me what I said, or not.

April 21, 2005

Mom doesn't follow SOP so well

My mother called at noon, having arrived at 8:30 am at the hospital (on 12 hours notice from the cath lab scheduling people), and they still hadn't taken her in for the surgery. I walked the two blocks to the site of my brother's birth at about 1 pm, and my mom had just been taken into the OR.

Time to wait in the multilingual, dueling-TVs waiting room, where I was sure I smelled cigarettes (someone had been smoking in the bathroom, I finally figured out), and they smelled divine. I make a lousy non-smoker, at least recently.

Nowhere have I felt more like an only child, an only adult, than in that room, waiting alone for my mother. My brother wasn't even answering his cell phone.

Saw the doctor briefly after my mom was in recovery -- I had a list of questions, but he wasn't as helpful as he could have been. According to my mom's chart, the floor nurse says she's supposed to start taking a cholesterol lowering pill.

My mom and I both of us thought the point of the surgery was so that she wouldn't need more pills -- that the vein in her leg would be cleared, that that was the whole point. However, the nurse could only recite something about standard operating procedure. I presume the doctor will see my mom again in the morning, but who knows. Whether my mom listens is another question entirely.

The surgery went fine, although neither of us is clear on exactly what the procedure was: we know they put two stents in her leg, but whether she had an angiogram or not, we can't tell. The procedure took place in the cath lab, where they also do heart surgery, but the surgeon seemed flippant about the procedure.

All I know is, my family's previous experience with vascular surgery had to do with my dad's heart, and the procedure they did 20 years ago, ultimately, was not a resounding success.

The recovery room nurse was supposed to come fetch me, but didn't. I finally got up and asked, and they said, just go down the hall and make a right. It would have been nice if someone could have conveyed that info sooner.

Standard operating procedure is anathema to my family: when my father was alive, in a midtown hospital having an angiogram and angioplasty (clearing an artery in his heart), he ordered in from the deli across the street, because the hospital food was so bad. In those days, hospitals had smoking lounges, for patients and visitors.

I can't imagine heart-healthy was my dad's major interest in what the deli provided. Back then, anyone could walk into any New York hospital without identifying themselves as a delivery guy. It is only post 9/11 that anyone has ever stopped me to paste a name tag on me, and without metal detectors and X-ray machines for bags and packages, how relevant is my name?

Hospitals are filled with scalpels and other sharp instruments. They distribute them to everyone except the patients, who are forced to saw into their heart-healthy chicken with plastic knives. Seems to me if you want to decrease stress for the patient, and you're not going to cut the food for them, the least you can do is provide them with proper cutlery.

By the time my mom got to her room it was almost 4 pm, and they served dinner (!) at 4:30. She sent me out for a cheese danish and high-test coffee -- the meal was one of those tasteless low-sodium, low-cholesterol things, but it came with ice cream as the dessert, so go figure. She remembered that the turkey sandwiches 41 years ago, when my brother was born, had been considerably more tasty. Hospital food, like hospital care, isn't what it used to be.

But I have to hand it to my mom: just because the sign said cell phones weren't allowed in her room didn't stop her from answering and placing calls on mine, even after the cell phone police came after us once. "Screw 'em," mom said. "I'm paying for this room."

She sent me home around 6 pm. I'd managed to break her nightstand (one wheel fell off when I tried to move it) and spill all she didn't eat of her dinner on the tray when I tried to move that, so after her coffee and danish, she figured I should get out of there before I broke anything else. (I'm the responsible offspring, not necessarily the coordinated one.)

However, this is not to say she didn't contemplate yanking the blood pressure machine out of the wall. It beeped at us when it needed a new battery, and swift is not the adverb of choice I would use for its replacement, nor is intelligent a term I would have chosen for the designated battery changer. If the machine had been chirping about something real, I don't know what would have ensued, apart from a lawsuit.

My mother is not allowed to do her power walking for 10 days, but she can drink in 24 hours, just in time for cocktails tomorrow; she almost brought a flask to the hospital, which is about what I would have expected. I offered Xanax on my way out, in case the nurses didn't provide any sedation for the night, but she declined.

This being my mom, she's planning to walk 8 blocks home tomorrow. (My offer to take her home in a taxi was rebuffed.) That's the part I worry about. Yet this is how it goes with parents: you can try to bring them up to the best of your ability, but when the time comes, you can't control if they will decide to play in traffic or not.

April 18, 2005

The way we live now, Part I

Last week I received another e-mail from Serena: the new medications aren't working. So it's time for a new cancer treatment, a different "protocol," as they say in med-speak. In English, the translation is, things are not looking good. Actually, things are looking grim.

Serena's tone was upbeat, but I have been unable to reply, because she's the one who's sick, and I'm the one who would burst into tears if I tried to talk to her. Perhaps I'll send her a postcard about Africa. Or about the off-White Rabbit. What can I say?

Telling her my mom is about to have noncosmetic surgery for the first time in her life is not something Serena needs to know. I'm nervous -- as the older, more responsible, and closer in proximity sibling, I'm the one with the health care proxy. Mom will stay overnight in the hospital where she last spent a night -- 41 years ago -- when my brother was born. It's two blocks from my house.

(My brother lives 1,000 miles away, and while his wife has recovered from her hysterectomy, her daughter, the former teenage terrorist, is extremely ill and several hundred miles from where my brother and current sister-in-law live.)

Might Serena want to know that my reaction to bad health news from anyone this year is to have sex? I can't get much more life-affirming than that. This weekend was the first time in more years than I can count that I brought home someone I hadn't known for 20+ years. (I went downtown to hear my college friend's band, and my connection with him goes back 25+ years. He remembers better than I how and where I lost my virginity, but that is a story for another time.)

In this day and age, my one "virtuous" act is not to have intercourse without latex. I say that laughingly, because the friend of a friend (aka a slut and a gentleman) with whom I spent Friday night didn't expect to have sex because he didn't have any condoms. If I hadn't already been lying on the living-room rug, I would have fallen off my chair and landed there: there is not a drawer in my house that doesn't contain safe-sex items.

Be prepared is the Boy Scout motto. It has served me well, in many capacities. Plus, I've made it this far without testing my reproductive system's ability to multiply, and I plan to carry on that way until it is no longer a factor.

No matter what age, boys will be boys: the compliments on body parts that developed of their own accord haven't changed. (At my age, I'm grateful. When I was younger I thought, thank you, but these breasts are not a news flash.) What has changed is, these days, when the boy (50+) involved is living with someone else, you are presented not with an office phone number but with an e-mail address.

Hey, I get the point. I may not like the point, but I get the message. A good time was had by all (that is to say both; I haven't been invited to an orgy since college) that night. While I might like more such evenings to ensue, there's another boys-will-be-boys clause that suggests it won't: men of any age seem to think that once I've been seduced (or the seducer), follow-up is optional.

Few recognize that I'm the kind of girl who does not believe that being in an altered state of mind gives one a get-out-of-the-house-free card for not having the maturity to say more than "good-bye. It's been real," when we part.

I know precisely what a consenting adult is, and I am one. However, I also have the manners of the lady whom I was raised to be, on which I fall back when emotion is not appropriate to express. I can be a lady and a tramp just as well as I can sleep with a slut and a gentleman.

To this day I'm not sure men believe women realize that it takes two. When TCP called me "an easy lay" in college, I was genuinely perplexed. I believe I said, "You were there, too. What does that make you?"

From an earlier conversation, I gathered the friend of a friend was a Republican. Here's where my personal politics become an issue: is it one thing to fool around with a Republican, but another to have one as a companion/boy or girl friend? Am I as open-minded about politics as I am about sex? If the chemistry's right, and it's well past late in the evening, I suppose I can mostly leave political leanings, unless misogynist, in the newspaper for the off-White Rabbit's use.

There are places where I draw the line -- being bisexual, the first is a no-brainer. Having become a teenager the year Roe v. Wade was passed, so is the second. Coming from an addictive family, I definitely have to give substance abuse a pass. I've been a leading actress in that movie for a lifetime, with no opportunity to turn down the role, no matter how it has evolved.

Surprisingly, perhaps, I don't want equal rights -- I have no desire to be a man in any way, shape or form (except in the woods, where the facilities are lacking). I'm quite happy not to be cannon fodder. I do want equitable rights, and I will protest every day of the week to have and keep them. As a one-time woman's historian, I am well aware of how women have been undermined and denied access -- legally to be her own person, to knowledge, to suffrage, to financial credit in the past. And I won't stand aside while my civil rights are trampled.

Looking back at 20+ years with The Croquet Player, I don't think we ever discussed politics. In later years, TCP and I argued about taxes, but there was something amusingly domestic about the capital gains vs. dividends debate, one that is no longer relevant courtesy of a president I whose politics I abhor on every social issue and whose intelligence I question, but one whose economic policies have benefited me.

CC used to complain about politics, but since she never registered to vote, even if I agreed with her position (usually), I had to point out that those who don't register their opposition in a so-called democratic society have neglected a critical part of standing up for First Amendment rights -- specifically, getting her ass to the polls to articulate what she claimed to believe.

That is not to say I'm not as hypocritical as the next person on April 15. The federal tax cuts were quite appealing. I ended up owing more money to New York State and City. However, when I pay locally, I see where the money goes. Pay nationally, and I'm funding a war abroad and domestic policy I don't consider fair or warranted, so the tax cuts, ironically, benefit my own positions on big issues-of-our-day. (I don't think anyone in Congress saw that one coming.)

The only federal contribution I feel decent about is the one that subsidizes health insurance for my friends who work for U.S. government agencies like the EPA. The TSA, on the other hand, falls into the just-when-you-think-you've-met-the-stupidest-person clause I've discussed previously. Let us not venture into the Patriot Act or the right to privacy.

I attended a panel on journalism this weekend, and I couldn't have been more pleased that when the TV network news guy said, "who has time to read blogs?", the Pulitzer-winning former New York Times writer replied: "the New York Times." Regardless of my personal opinion -- having been on its payroll -- the Times is well regarded by many, many people. This includes anyone who doesn't know what goes into the creation of a newspaper, a very large number, as I discovered from the questions posed by the other audience members.

My co-bloggers, it does feel good to me that we are being read by people who get paychecks for doing just that. And our opinions are just as valid, if not more so, than their publications' news agendas. No one's paying us, and we proclaim opinions all over the place.

As Joan Didion once wrote: "writers are always selling someone out, usually themselves." That's a choice I've made here, and it's not brought to you by corporate sponsorship.

April 11, 2005

Stumbling in the dark

This came in my e-mail today, courtesy of my less-than favorite airline:

Lighters Added As Prohibited Items

Effective April 14, 2005, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will prohibit the carriage of all lighters past the security checkpoints at airports. Please be aware that any type of lighter on your person or in accessible carry on luggage is subject to confiscation during security screening. Currently, passengers may carry up to four books of strike-on-cover matches on their person or in carry on luggage. You may not carry lighters or matches in any checked baggage.

Whose job is it going to be, the designated poor little match-counter? Yours for union wages? If I had a clever filing system for this blog, this entry would fall into the WTF category. That, or "just when you thought you had met the dumbest person in the world, someone else comes along to claim the title." Is the TSA having problems explaining the when and where of the workings of fire to travelers?

Or just to the executive branch of government: Bush, fire, is that so confusing?

Moses? Remember that burning bush? Don't try that here.

A song from another time:

"It is better to light just one little candle
Than to stumble in the dark.
Better far that you light just one little candle,
All you need is a tiny spark.
If we'd all say a prayer that the world would be free,
A wonderful dawn of a new day we'd see...
And if everyone lit just one little candle,
What a bright world this would be...."

That was then; this is now. I sit corrected. Please don't trip or fall on me as you pass by.

April 07, 2005

Split-level life

After touring two of the major cities of South Africa and their environs, I have been pondering suburbia, the land where my parents chose to move when I was of school age. In retrospect, my unhappiness apart, they choose the town wisely.

I lived in one of about three Westchester communities that was legitimately "diverse," as the word is now used. It had a wide socioeconomic mix as an entire entity. Regardless of color, our own neighborhoods consisted, in the first house, of very middle class families; in the second, or "new" house, the families were more established, with more money.

The schools we attended were integrated, overly representative of Jews (about 50% in my elementary school in the tri-state area, where schools are closed for Jewish holy days and have been since I was a child in 1965), with about 25% minority children and about 20% a mix of Catholic and Protestant offspring.

It never seemed fair that the Catholic kids got to leave school an hour early on Wednesdays for "religious instruction," while the Jewish kids had to put in their time after school hours -- Hebrew school for the more observant, and Sunday school, for the Jews like me, who still don't know the major rituals of religious life. Protestants were a distinct minority.

Ours was not the Westchester suburb of white flight, neither 40 years ago or now. Most of the towns surrounding ours were much smaller and much more inclined to be 98% white, and homogeneously upper-middle class.

The first house (herein referred to as "the old house") was one of about 40 in this particular 1950s development. The builder had two models: the side-to-side split level, or the front-to-back split level. We lived in the latter, which had cathedral ceilings and afforded considerably more privacy than did the other model. But was that suburbia?

When I was six, the barn belonging to the house across the street burned down. Also across the street was an unused, uninhabited red-painted one-room schoolhouse. Three houses down the road, our neighbors bred horses.

About a ten-minute walk from the old house was our commercial intersection: 2 gas stations, a bank, a liquor store, a drug store, the corner store (where we got groceries if no one had taken the car to the supermarket), and MilkMaid, our local hamburger joint where I went weekly with my best friend after sleeping over at her house. (Her mother was the president of a local college, so the housekeeper, Missouri, was mostly in charge, and didn't have hard-and-fast rules the way my parents did. We could stay up all night and eat ice cream, if we wanted.)

On Saturdays, my friend's parents would make us do a couple of chores around the house -- polishing brass door-knockers is what I remember -- then her dad would give us $1 each for lunch. En route to MilkMaid, we passed my house, where we hit my dad up for $1 each -- the idea being that I was going to treat. In any case, by the time we got to the restaurant, we had more than enough cash for two solid meals, with dessert and money left over.

The town was known, in the pre-mall days as now, for its shopping -- Saks, B.Altman's, Alexander's, Macy's and Sears were the main draw. We only went to Saks and Altman's, since my mother refused to pay for parking the car. (Yes, logically, the other stores were less expensive, but that was beside the point. Parking money came from her household allowance; store purchases were charged to our accounts and paid for by my father.)

In sixth grade, I hemmed my girl scout uniform very short, so it wouldn't show under my winter coat, which I refused to take off in public places like MilkMaid. I never was a fan of uniforms, at least not for myself.

That was the year we moved to "the new house." The new house was part of a tiny development -- perhaps six to eight houses, all different -- with a stable half a mile up the street. Until the trees were knocked down to build our house, the land had been completely wooded, and much of the mile-and-a-half-wide circle (and its entire interior) on which we lived remained wooded. My brother walked to his riding lessons. I waited for the junior high school bus watching the horses get their morning exercise.

Both houses were located in what previously were individual estates: you could pick the original house out of the split-level or Colonial lineup. The original homes were always huge, and, if the owners hadn't sold all of the property, there were occasional outbuildings as well, mostly in deep decay, ready to give themselves back to the wooded land that had preceded them.

On the other hand, not ten minutes away by car, was some semblance of a downtown, including an IBM office building on Main Street. I was not allowed unsupervised trips "downtown" until the seventh grade.

Within two years, I was allowed to go to "the city," as we called the place of my birth, with friends. Within that same stretch of time, my mother decided I could wear jeans to school. In elementary school, I wore a dress or a skirt every day of my life, even after the official "dress code" had been dropped.

This all occurred in the early 1970s, when our junior high school teachers took us on a "field trip" to see "urban renewal." In retrospect I think how embarrassing it must have been for the primarily black and Hispanic children who lived in that section of town. What the school saw as a perfectly logical outing in fact underlined our differences more than anything else could have. No one ever went to my neighborhood on a field trip.

These days, when I see the city vs. suburb debate as a huge issue for parents, whether on blogs or in my office, I think about the schizophrenic nature of my split-level life. I think about car pools, as well as the endless waiting for my mother to pick me up or drop me off at any lesson or party or school. I wonder how horse-farming lived not ten minutes from urban poverty.

I know the stables on the "new house" street have long since been turned into expensive houses, that the woods where I smoked are no more, and I know I am grateful that I do not live there anymore.