Positively Kick Ass

An opening

Owing to an overabundance of pride and a tendency toward claustrophobia (fear of mental cul-de-sacs and small spaces with locked doors), I've never been much of a joiner. The stronger a group's communal identity, the greater the support it lends its members and the higher the levy it exacts from them (in range of movement and thought). I sometimes long to belong, but I'm rarely willing to pay the going price.

That said, I've always been attracted to the idea of secret societies, the more spontaneous the better. I believe with E.M. Forster in a special form of aristocracy: "Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky." I look for the gossamer threads that sometimes appear with a shift in the light, linking people who never suspected their capacity to share comfort, strength, and inspiration.

So while I don't guess I'll be grabbing a haybale seat on the BC sisterhood wagon, I do find it difficult to regret my diagnosis when it has connected me instantaneously and irrevocably with remarkable people who would otherwise have remained strangers or near strangers. One of these is Naomi Seid-Cronkite, the mother of a good friend. She's an artist in clay, and she sculpted this powerful, unsentimental response to her own mastectomy some years ago:

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As much as I love seeing big men wear pink, and as much as I appreciate the real good that major breast cancer organizations have effected and the real comfort that the "survivor" identity offers (especially in mitigating the loneliness of a frightening diagnosis), I am most grateful right now to individual artists like Naomi who have the pluck and tenacity to insist "This is what it's like for me if for no other." I don't need to identify wholly (or at all) with her vision of rupture (though I do) in order to recognize and take courage from its alchemical power.

Big thanks to Naomi for sharing it with me and letting me share it with others.

Forza!
Gretchen

Creature comfort

Parental advisory: The following contains graphic violence, strong thematic content, and pervasive language.

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Many others have observed that one of the great luxuries of physical health is an ability to forget that we are physical. When we are ill, by contrast, our bodies insist moment to moment on their presence, their pains, their petty but consuming needs. These are times when we can safely use that overused phrase "I am literally..."

Five days out of surgery, I am literally deflated. I am literally drained. If Frankenstein had made me, this would be the point in the story where he'd flee in horror back to his rosy-cheeked Swiss family and try to forget that he ever dreamed me to material life. I am a hybrid human-mechanical monster, darkly scored in two great slashes across my collapsed chest. On either side, a small wad of gauze blessedly hides an open wound from which a tube snakes out and leaks fluid - now thick and crimson, now watery and yellow - into a clear silicone receptacle the size and shape of a toy grenade. These drains will be with me at least until Monday. Warm with my own internal heat, they nestle in specially designed pockets in my specially designed "post-surgical camisoles," of which I was prescribed two. The camisoles also have pockets for "softies," tear-shaped pillows that wait on my bedroom dresser (two A/B pillows and two C/D) for the day I am ready to play (as I did when I was ten) with the shape of my body, to make multiple, provisional reconstructions of my femininity. For now, concave is the version of womanly that suits me best.

I cannot run from me. And Peter, bless his stout heart, does not. He and I share a tendency toward squeamishness but have discovered together that this delicacy of feeling is simply not an option at present. There's shit that needs doing, and we're the ones to do it. Three times a day, more often when the flow to my drains is sluggish, we "repair" to the bathroom, where we have all but perfected our little routine of cleaning, stripping, emptying, and measuring: 2cc's from the left, 3 from the right. I tuck the grenades back into their holsters and we wash our hands again. Sometimes I dare a look in the mirror before I zip my camisole closed, sometimes I do not.

Thursday was hard. Dr. Lee had instructed us to remove the "tegoderm" bandages and gauze that covered my long seams. I already suspected from our discussion post-surgery and from what I could see around the gauze that he had not achieved the flat scape I had hoped for. For someone who intends to get implants, a surgeon will leave extra skin if possible, the better to accommodate them, but I've chosen (for reasons I'll save for another post) not to pursue reconstruction, and insofar as I had any aesthetic desires invested in my surgery (very small in proportion to the "I want to live!" desires) they all flew in the direction of Kansas. I had in my mind a tabula rasa, blank canvas, bare ground. But I found that I am moon-cratered. Where mountains stood there are now depressions. My body holds a rumpled memory of abundance.

I couldn't think immediately what they resembled, these transformed features of my new topography. Then it came to me: "I have Eeyore boobs, Pete. Happy birthday."

"Still have your honeypot" was his rejoinder. 

Thus a gal who is literally deflated may feel her spirits lift and expand.

Forza!
Gretchen

p.s. There's a lot that I'm finding unintentionally comical these days. Somehow I don't think Garnet Hill had me in mind when they sent out their new catalog, as apt as their tag may be. The image of exuberant fecundity (a little freezer burnt in transit) also gets spun in an unexpected direction by my present turn of mind:

 

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Busted!

Kim McGinty (née Terauds) has known me since fifth grade, when we were reckless together in the way of girls who can't quite escape being good but like to pretend. She reminds me that there was another time in my life when I needed some help up top. Check out this sassy pair:

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So we travel in circles. This was also about the last time I wore that shade of hot violet that's now blooming everywhere in my wardrobe.

Forza!
Gretchen

 

The good and the bad

  

 

Just a few words from your bleary correspondent. As promised, I've been relieved of a significant weight, literal and figurative. My breasts and I are parted. The surgery was lengthy but without complication, and while it will be another week before definitive pathology results come in, the news is tentatively excellent. Two "sentinel" lymph nodes (acting much like Francisco and Bernardo on the ramparts of Elsinore) reported no hostile incursion, and the border of the tumor likewise appeared clear. We're holding off on the champagne for now (not a good mix with Oxycodone), but we have real grounds to hope that the enemy has been successfully expelled.

The bad news actually came Friday, but I could not post it here until I'd had a chance to talk with those whom it affects. I had a call from Cheryl Miranda, the genetics counselor I'd seen, relaying my test results. She told me that I do indeed carry a mutation of the BRCA-1 gene, which we can only assume I inherited from Mom (and she from her mother or father). While the heaviest risks from this mutation fall on women (who face a 60-80% chance of developing breast cancer and a 40-60% chance of developing ovarian cancer over a lifetime), it can also raise a man's risk for prostate cancer, melanoma, and even breast cancer. Thus my bad news is also potentially bad news for everyone in my matriline. The odds that my brother, sister, or uncle carries the mutation are 50-50.

I know it's utterly irrational but also probably inevitable that I feel as if I have personally put them in danger, laid a blood curse on my nearest and dearest. But the curse is really one of knowledge, and therefore mixed. We now have an explanation for our family's lousy "luck," and we can take precautions, some of them radical. I learned when I called Megan that she had been rehearsing her response for weeks, readying herself for an expected blow. Predictably, she worries most for her daughter, Maya; as to her own health she is coolly pragmatic. "Someone asked me the other day what plans I had for the summer, and I said I don't know, maybe getting a double mastectomy." My brave, loving sis has always been ready to follow me anywhere, but I fervently hope she won't follow me here.

Forza!
Gretchen

 

First and last day as a pinup

 Posing on the edge.

Posing on the edge.

I had to laugh the other day when I caught sight of a copy of Woman's World while waiting in the check-out line at Safeway. A headline read: "Lose 4 pounds and 6 inches overnight!"

It can be done, I thought. Ask me how.

In about twelve hours, I'll be thrown back to the boyishness of my early youth. If I could get my good knees back in return for what I'll be losing, I'd consider it a good trade. As it is, I do hope to have more spring in my step. (I'll certainly have less bounce.)

Pete and I returned this morning from a brief but restful stay in the "Little Apple," Manzanita. We lucked into a spell of spectacular weather, clear enough that, when we hiked yesterday through a fir forest and deep muck out to Cape Falcon, we could see the breath of migrating gray whales rise in bright plumes near the horizon.

 Sweet man on a sweet beach.

Sweet man on a sweet beach.

We got back (by design) in time to see the Chargers dance with their glass slippers right past the Bengals. This could be their year, it really could.

Surgery is scheduled for 12:45 p.m. tomorrow and could take four hours or more. Please keep me in your thoughts. Pete or I will try to post here tomorrow night to let you know how things go.

Forza!
Gretchen

Goodbye to glamour!

 Full of inner beauty, no doubt.

Full of inner beauty, no doubt.

Well, the fun and easy bit (all relative here) will be drawing to a close nine days sooner than originally anticipated: my surgery has been moved from January fifteenth to the sixth, one week from today. The hypothetical is about to get painfully real. A few needle pokes and claustrophobia-inducing scans aside, I've so far had to endure little in the way of physical insults; apart from a bad cold a couple of weeks ago, I've been the picture of health (to anyone without the technological means to look deep). As you know, I've been very much in a partying frame of mind, and well able to sustain a face that others call brave. But I've only had to smile down the horror of my diagnosis in the abstract. I really can't say how bravely I'll face what's to come.

The more immediate surgery date is a very good thing in the larger analysis, and it's owing entirely to my surgeon's consideration for my well-being and peace of mind. The scheduler, Cynthia, had failed to note when she put me down for the fifteenth that Dr. Lee would be leaving for a conference on the sixteenth and would therefore be unable to follow through with my post-operative care. That made him and me both uneasy, as did the prospect of pushing the surgery further out. When he and Cynthia conferred again, the only earlier date they could find where his availability and that of the OR overlapped was the sixth. Cynthia called to tell me, and if I hadn't thought to ask whether I'd still be coming in first thing in the morning, I might not have learned that Dr. Lee had given up his day off for me. I'll be his only patient.

It will surprise no one who knows my husband that I am a sucker for kindness, all the more when it's allied with competence and wit. I think Pete forgives me for being a little smitten with the man who will cut away my underappreciated assets.

Will I still be punning when he's done? What will become of my own wit, competence, or capacity for kindness when my breasts and hair and final pretensions to youthful imperishability are gone? Will they abandon me completely when I'm ugly, exhausted, and fighting despair? I was at least half joking when I told my Grandma Di the other day that I was stocking up as much capital (in charm and graciousness) as I could manage now, knowing how little I'll soon have to offer. But she took me at my word. "Yes, you're going to be an unlovable specimen for the next while," she told me. "And we're going to love you all the same."

I believe her on both counts. If you're going to be lucky in anything (in the sense of your rewards far outrunning your merits), best to be lucky in love.

Forza!
Gretchen

 

Cancer haiku with product placement

 Photo by pamelarosiedee.

Photo by pamelarosiedee.

A shampoo purchase
Makes me teary. Time to try
Johnson & Johnson's.

What did Beckett know
About existential doubt?
Visit a mall, Sam.

Eat Wetzel's pretzels -
Sinful cinnamon! - and read
Of ancient cancers,

Of tumors that start
As melan cholo babies
But sometimes grow great,

Of rogues and nomads -
Mutinous cells, strivers who
Sail the seas of blood.

 

 

 

My source of inspiration here - pretzel aside - was George Johnson's terrific new book, The Cancer Chronicles, a history of the disease that ranges from the personal to the pathological to the anthropological. As a sometime melancholic, I was struck to learn that Hippocrates believed cancerous tumors to be clots of black bile.

On a related note, I have claimed Pete's sign - Pisces - as my own this week, only because Rob Brezsny's "Free Will" horoscope includes this quotation from the Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho: "I am not fearless, but I'm not overtaken by fear. Fear is quite an interesting animal. It's like a pet. If you mistreat it, it will bite, but if you understand it and accept it in your house, it might protect you."

Forza!
Gretchen

Vocab list

 The right man for the job.

The right man for the job.

Study up! These will all be on the test.

1. codswallopped, adj. Stunned, as by a blow to the face by a large fish of the genus Galus. Sloppy misappropriation of n. "codswallop," British term of indeterminate origin meaning "nonsense."

Use in a sentence:

"I was codswallopped by the diagnosis of an invasive ductal carcinoma."

2. haded, adj. Abducted to the underworld by a pomegranate-bearing S.O.B. with a seriously funny-looking guard dog. Subject to bouts of intense self-pity alternating with wild hope.

Use in a sentence:

"Don't hade on me, dude."

3. overpantsed, adj. Persuaded by one's suddenly peremptory spouse to wear one's underwear over one's head, "because it will make me laugh, and I need to laugh. Are you really going to deny me this simple request?"

Use in a sentence:

"Some men look quite dashing when overpantsed."

Forza!
Gretchen

p.s. The photo above has persuaded me that a piratical look may be the best option if my lumpy head gets exposed to the elements in the coming months. If a mastectomy proves necessary - still an open question - Pete suggests accessorizing this look with a boob patch rakishly tilted over the conspicuous absence.

p.p.s. Big thanks to Shelley S and Ellen A for inspiration for the above. Big thanks to all for inspiration for the rest.

 

Love with conditions

 From Harry Harlow, "The Nature of Love," 1958.

From Harry Harlow, "The Nature of Love," 1958.

When I hear the words "unconditional love," I think of Harry Harlow. Harlow was a psychologist and a major contributor to our current understanding of the role that attachment plays in a child's development (though he worked almost exclusively with monkeys, most of them rhesus macaques). What Harlow did in order to learn what he learned can make you wish he'd never taken up the question of love and its distortions - if you don't already know about his research, I need to apologize in advance for possibly breaking your heart. But his damage is done, and his work remains an illuminating bit of darkness.

Harlow's most (in)famous experiments were inspired in part by a fractious debate back in the 1950s about best parenting practices. Behaviorists were then in the ascendancy, and their view of child development held sway in many American laboratories and homes. Mothers got admonished (as they're always getting admonished by someone for something) for "reinforcing" their babies' cries with cooing and cuddles, for comforting their toddlers when they scraped their knees instead of teaching them that pain was part of our common portion. By the behaviorists' lights, "good" parents simply and matter-of-factly answered their children's primary needs for food and shelter; those who indulged in lots of hugs and kisses and "I love you's" were molly-coddlers who infantilized their infants and naively barred their way to becoming stoic, self-reliant, boot-strapping individuals worthy of respect.

The English psychiatrist John Bowlby had already complicated the question of what children really need before Harlow joined the fray. He'd been sent to boarding school when he was all of eight, and his personal experience of the miseries of separation bolstered his adult conviction that we "hunger" most powerfully for attachment itself, that we build ourselves up from the ground of a caregiver's (most often a mother's) steady and immediate presence. He hypothesized that touch satisfied a need distinct from and possibly more powerful than the need for literal nourishment, and Harlow's research helped support his claim.

Harlow untangled the need for food from the need for tactile comfort by taking baby macaques from their mothers only hours after birth and offering them the choice of two inanimate surrogates. In the study's most salient (and at that time surprising) variation, each surrogate roughly approximated the size and shape of an adult female macaque and each was warmed by an internal light, but one was constructed of thick wire mesh and "naked" save for the nipple of a full bottle protruding from its rib cage. The other, made from wood, was covered in foam rubber and terrycloth but nipple-less.

Harlow found that, given a choice, the babies would spend only as long with the hard wire surrogates as they needed to fill their bellies, returning immediately to cling to their softer "moms." As they grew a bit older and bolder, they began to venture out to investigate their small cages, but loud sounds and other novel, frightening stimuli sent them scurrying to the cloth surrogates, which they would cuddle and stroke in ways that appeared to help them self-soothe.

When the monkeys were left alone or with the wire surrogate, they did not learn stoicism or self-sufficiency. On the contrary, they lost their ability to return to calm from even mild experiential shocks. Some would freeze in a crouch, or rock and hold their own bodies tightly, while others would scream and run frantically around their cages. Even a horribly inadequate and unresponsive "mother" (one who never cuddled back) became "a haven of safety" (Harlow's words) for a monkey who'd never known anything better.

These are not the most disturbing of Harlow's studies. He later set out to test the limits of the monkeys' established attachment, by replacing neglectful (but cozy) surrogates with truly abusive ones. He and his research team created "monster mothers" who would unpredictably lash out at their devoted infants, suddenly blasting them with air or poking them with blunt spikes or rocking them violently enough to make their teeth chatter. Many of the little monkeys would hang on through it all, and those who ran away or got dislodged would invariably return to their tormentors for comfort.

This is why the phrase "unconditional love" has a sinister edge for me. Creatures who do  love unconditionally are so often those who have little choice. And on the other side, those who have a moral responsibility to love without conditions - by virtue of having invited or created a deep dependency (e.g. from a child or a pet) - are those most secure in being loved however little they deserve it.

Harlow's horrible research clearly demonstrates that the need for secure attachment among highly social animals is so strong and deep that it can override the imperatives of physical self-preservation, but to my mind that knowledge is cause less for celebration than for caution. We need first to be cautious in creating dependencies, to ask ourselves whether we can wholeheartedly embrace the obligations they entail. But we need also to arrogate back to ourselves when we can the choice of whom to depend on.

Louis C.K. gave an interview to Rolling Stone last year, and something he said there has stayed with me: "You don't owe anyone a relationship." When it comes to relationships among more or less independent adults, I strongly agree. We have the right simply to walk away when love becomes indistinguishable from pain (even if metal spikes don't enter the picture). We have the right to seek out those people whose love for us is reliable in its very limitations. Once we stop expecting to be loved unconditionally, we may be inspired to love more and better.

Forza!
Gretchen