Positively Kick Ass

Here be dragons!

With my new visual deficits, dangers are coming at me from left field.  I make an innocent request  for happy, silly dog pics, and THESE are the near-lethal result. I could have burst a tired vessel in my brain! Proceed at your own risk.

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Forza!
Gretchen

Faraway, so close

I hope it's okay if I get a little less careful here, put up fragments where I'd like to complete my thoughts.There's just so much I still want to say. Most urgently right now, I want to give tribute to my teachers. Alive and gone, they are palpably present, the scaffolding holding me together.

There's really only one place to start, with my mom, Cashie Kieckhefer. If you didn't know her personally, her name won't ring any bells, but if you did, it will sound a note both clear and resonant. She was mighty in will but untouched by ambition; she cared nothing for status or power as they're commonly understood but impressed her spirit on every encounter. She knew her own measure exactly and rarely wasted breath or effort. Her reach was literal, defined by her long arms and strong voice. (You always knew where she was at a party, as her volume rose about a decibel per drink.) Anyone who felt her embrace felt her influence.

She loved. That was all. But she loved truly, and that was everything. The German word Schadenfreude has passed into common usage because it describes such a common feeling: the joy we take in others' failures and suffering. The joy we might take in their joys remains so rare that few of us have a name for it, but the Buddhists call it mudita. They recognize it as one of four sublime attitudes we can cultivate toward the world and all those who struggle alongside us. Mom got it as a pretty direct inheritance from her mom, our Gramma, Margaret Parkhill.

When we have the great fortune to be at the receiving end of mudita, we experience it as a borrowed buoyancy, lifting us out of our smallness. The success that might have isolated us in self-admiration is no longer ours alone; the precious moment whose shadow we try to grasp lights a smile in the face of another. Radiant sympathy gives our joys currency, movement, life. We are tempted always toward miserliness, but under a generous touch our own hands may open.

 Of course, the center of the world rarely shows up in pictures, but here's a rare sighting. Mom and Gramma are rightmost. San Diego airport, 1980, waiting for the plane that will take us away from our sun-kissed coast to Pittsburgh, PA.

Of course, the center of the world rarely shows up in pictures, but here's a rare sighting. Mom and Gramma are rightmost. San Diego airport, 1980, waiting for the plane that will take us away from our sun-kissed coast to Pittsburgh, PA.

And a semi-random playlist for the small hours of a Tuesday:

1. "The Sisters" from Dubliners by James Joyce, read by Frank McCourt.

2. "We Will Rebuild with Smooth Stones," Balmorhea

3. "Lost Stars," Adam Levine (embarrassing, but whatchyou gonna do? )

4. "Louise," Bonnie Raitt version

5. "Love Came Here," Lhasa de Sela

6. "Wake Me Up," Aloe Blacc

7. "Lay Me Down," The Frames

"Green," Lee Baby Sims

9. "Confutatis" from Mozart's Requiem as sung by Las Rubias del Norte

10. "Jigsaw," Amelia

Forza!
Gretchen

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Making the most of smallish vices

Like vanity.

Back in April, I tried and failed to hook up with Oregon Humanities' "Conversation Project" with a proposal to talk wolves with the good (and fractious) people of our adopted state. The folks (sorry, contagious Obama-speak) who eventually rejected my application were almost certainly wise not to entrust such a hot potato to these less-than-steady hands, though I do think I might have managed it if I were at full health and strength.

Anyhoo, as someone who hasn't always responded well to frustration and rejection, I was proud even in the moment that I laid disappointment and self-doubt aside to dance a new step in the tough guy tango choreographed by Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." I sent in a short piece for consideration for their magazine, for a summer issue with the theme "Start."

I forgot to let you all know that they published it, and I have their permission to put it up here. Hope you like it.

 From  Edmund Dulac's  illustrations of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid."

From Edmund Dulac's illustrations of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid."

Non-negotiable

Fantasies of transformation flock to the New Year like overwintering birds. We may be thirteen or seventy, and still we home in the dead cold to a bright dream. We may no longer believe in Santa Claus, but our search for fairy godmothers intensifies as the old year wanes. We scour the self-help shelves and page through catalogs fat with promises: New Year. New Look. New You. This time, we think. At midnight the exhausted husk of outworn artifice will finally split, and we will emerge in all the tenderness of truth: our destined selves.

But we should be careful what we wish for. Metamorphosis always exacts a price.

Never in my life have I had as much confidence as I did this year that I would be transformed. On a day in late December when I waited in line at Safeway to buy gauze and rubbing alcohol, I laughed to read the headlines on Marie Claire: “Lose Four Pounds and Six Inches Overnight.” It can be done, I thought. Ask me how.

I didn’t have a fairy godmother, but I did have a diagnosis, insurance, and a handsome young surgeon. He’d drawn my breasts in rough diagram on the paper carapace of the examining table and shown me the angle of the cuts he’d make. Though I’d given up dreaming of radiant re-emergence when I’d discovered the depth of my desire simply to stay alive, my sudden passion for the staus quo would radically alter me.

The catalogs try to sell you a sun-kissed life for the price of a fine slipper or sandal, but Hans Christian Andersen had a better grasp on the true costs of transformation. The witch who offers legs to the little mermaid tells her: “The best you possess is my price for the precious drink. I shall have to put my own blood into it, to make the drink as sharp as a two-edged sword… Put out your little tongue; then I’ll cut it off in payment, and you shall have your magic drink!”

Midway through this newest year, I’m much changed by my encounters with knives and double-edged drinks. My breasts and hair are gone, but they weren’t the best I possess. As long as I keep a tongue in my mouth, I’ll count my bargain a good one.

Forza!
Gretchen

 

Made it

and doing ridiculously well in the circumstances, thanks to everyone here and all of you out there. More when I or Pete can manage it.

So happy and grateful still to be here.  And still to have a tan.

 

 Totally missed my calling as a game show host. Are you ready for the Showcase Showdown??

Totally missed my calling as a game show host. Are you ready for the Showcase Showdown??

Before.

 

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After. (Really, Pete?)

Forza! 

Gretchen

Please don't tell my grandmother

I flirted for a long time before my cancer diagnosis with the idea of getting a tattoo. If you haven't yet taken the plunge, deliberating what you'd get and where you'd get it has some of the same fun and frisson that trying out baby names does for the never-been-pregnant. Fortunately for tattoo flirts like me, Portland is a walking gallery of skin art. I've been adding for years to a mental inventory of images I like for their beauty, wit, or personal import, but I only got serious about getting inked last December.

Facing a double-mastectomy and the question of how I might be forced to revise my ideals of "natural" and "whole," I first assumed (as many do, including many surgeons and physicians) that the answer would include silicone. But Pete and I both found "reconstruction" a depressing prospect. In the best case scenario, I would undergo months' worth of additional surgeries and potentially a lifetime (however long that might be) of discomfort, all for the privilege of carrying around a couple of memorial domes: Here lay my breasts, RIP.

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As soon as we gave up looking at San Onofre-style racks and started looking at tattoos, our spirits lifted. I decided I'd take full advantage of the flat canvas that would be left to me and reached out to a local artist, Alice Carrier, whose gorgeous work is primarily inspired by old botanical drawings. She's in extremely high demand and opens her schedule to new bookings only a couple of times a year. Furthermore, she let me know that she likes clients to wait at least a year after major surgery to ensure that the scars and surrounding skin have fully recovered and settled. So I'll need to wait awhile, but some gray morning next spring, I'll be one of those in line outside the doors of Wonderland Tattoo Studio, hoping for a date with Alice.

You might think that a needle-phobic gal like me would have been happy to take as long a break as possible from injections of every kind; you might think it would be nuts for someone who's been getting poisoned for months to run out and welcome a brand-new variety of foreign weirdness into her body. And maybe it was nuts, but the day after my final chemo treatment found me at Scapegoat Tattoo, scheduling a consultation with John M. Wilson. I liked his portfolio, liked him even better when we met. On Friday he showed me the original design he'd created from photos and other bits of inspiration I'd sent, then inscribed it on my skin.

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It's still healing and shedding, and I'll be going back to get some darker shading on the tail, but it already feels at home to me. The quotation, which wraps around to my inner bicep (that was the most sensitive and twangy bit for me), comes from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself." (Astonishingly, we were able to use a font that someone has created to mimic Whitman's script!) The surrounding stanzas read thus:

Long enough have you dream'd contemptible dreams,
Now I wash the gum from your eyes, 
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.

Long have you timidly waded holding a plank by the shore, 
 Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, nod to me, shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.

Forza!
Gretchen

A rejoinder

From Camus (I'm reading Robert Zaretsky's fine new biography):

"The misery and greatness of this world: it offers no truths, but only objects for love. Absurdity is king, but love saves us from it."

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Forza!
Gretchen

Give someone else a lift

It's the only thing that worked to mend my spirits today when I crashed hard from Tuesday's treatment (and steroid accompaniment). Teach a man to fish and he'll never go hungry. Teach a woman to use a glue stick and she'll never go entirely mad.

 A fairy tale life...

A fairy tale life...

Looking good, Brad! But you've got nothing on Doogie... 

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And no, I'm not on drugs. Not today. That seems to be the problem.

Five rounds of Taxol down, seven to go. 

Forza!
Gretchen

p.s. A lot of the credit (or blame) for inspiring my foray onto the fertile ground of collage (where grotesques grow as rampantly as Himalayan blackberry does here in Portland) goes to my friend W. Davies King, who practices the fine and rigorous art of bibliolage. It must be seen to be believed: www.williamdaviesking.com