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November 01, 2008

Looking Back

[This one was published in last month's O Magazine and is reprinted here for the Young Survivors I met last week at the Gilda's Club event.]

It’s clear to you immediately that you can have anything you want when you have cancer.

Your doctor called at 1pm and since that moment, your husband has met your every need, even anticipating needs (proving that he had been capable of such all along).

Word spreads and your doorstep shows it -- a cheery bunch of Gerber daisies, a little tin of peanut butter cookies, a calla lily. The phone calls are endless. You think to yourself that your diagnosis is probably generating as much curiosity and awkwardness as winning the lottery would.

Everyone treats you like you are a saint, an elderly disabled saint.

Except two people who still want you to find their bunny -- not that one! -- and fill their sippy cups and read them a book. They never say please and they always interrupt and they lean into you even when you are so hot already. And their ignorant self-centeredness is proof that you are still managing to put your children first even when you are in the crisis of your life.

Claire comes towards you with her bulging diaper and her hair is stuck to her forehead with the musty sweat that builds up during her morning nap. She knocks over your tall pilsner glass of iced peppermint tea, the one that Edward made for you in a moment as romantic as the one in which he proposed. Claire doesn’t say she’s sorry, she just cries because her t-shirt is wet on the bottom part and she loves her Elmo and Rosita t-shirt. Georgia also cries, because the tea went onto her paper where she is scribbling. She is so close to three. Her party is in five days. You’ve been talking about it for months -- when you push her in the swing, when you put her to bed, when you cut up her apple.

“Guess what’s happening in two weeks from today?” you say.

Then, between calls to medical centers, long sessions on breastcancer.org, and emails to work colleagues, Edward says, “We’re not gonna do the party, right? It’s too much.” But you say “No! She has to have it!” because you are feeling dramatic and magnanimous and like you can’t possibly let cancer have it’s way with your daughter’s first real birthday party. He says, “She’ll never even remember it.”

“I will,” you say.

On Wednesday, you swing into the Mammography center to pick up your films to take them over to the national expert you will wait three hours to see, making lists and pretending to sleep and reading old People magazines about Jen and Brad and that Angelina Jolie. On the way home, even though you’ve just been told you will do chemo for 5 months and then probably have a mastectomy after that, even though it’s dinnertime, you pass Michael’s craft store and you tell Edward to pull in -- “real quick” -- so you can get some decorations and order the helium balloons and he looks at you like you’ve just cut your own hair with a kitchen knife.

But then you’re in there, at Michael's, and it’s so exciting to be in line with the other people whose great concerns are finding three matching green photo mats and some extra wide gross grain ribbon for their fall door wreath. You’re up and the tired cashier says, “How are you tonight?” and you say, “Good!” and it’s the biggest lie you ever told as well as the God’s honest truth and you don’t really know what you’re doing but someone’s gonna have a great birthday on Saturday and it’ll all be because of you and you aren’t irrelevant yet, even if you are defective and are messing everything up for your family.

You are perky coming out of the store, even holding the door for the woman behind you, who is having a bad day, you can tell. Edward is slumped over the steering wheel like he’s been shot from behind, which he kinda has. He sits up when he feels you coming towards the car. He is “fine, just tired.”

Your kids are asleep when you get home and Sophie, the babysitter who breaks out every time she has a pop quiz, looks at you tragically but you divert her by saying, “Look! Look at these great party hats -- they go with the plates -- see?” You sound like Mrs. Dalloway. Edward hands Sophie a wad of twenties and says, “Thanks Soph.”

You unpack your shopping bag from Michael’s and show Edward the candy decorations for the cake you haven’t made but will and he says “Good” and you can’t bear to ask him how he is again because it might come out this time for real and so you just turn on the stereo and as he heads to the answering machine, you say, “Let’s do that tomorrow” because the machine says 14 people called and every one of them wants to tell you that you are in their prayers and that God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle and what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger but Edward is responsible and level-headed and says, “It could be about your bone scan.” You realize you forgot something in the car, maybe, so you say “OK, I gotta go get something in the trunk anyway” and when you come back he says, “The scan is on Friday. I’ll call Sophie.”

The party is scheduled for Saturday afternoon and when you send out the email about it -- yes, it’s happening, please no cancer talk -- you realize you will have to have a conversation with your children before all these people come over. You google talking to children about cancer and you start to worry that some kid will say “My grandma died of cancer” and then you realize your daughters don’t know what death is. Because why should they?

Then you find this line: “Cancer is like weeds in a garden.” That’s really good. You think you should send a thank you card to the person who came up with that phrase. See how important words are, you think.

The bone scan makes you cry. “Stay still please,” says the technician, who has an Irish accent and looks like a guy who loves his pub. It’s so big, the machine, it’s so Willy Wonka/Mike TV and you can tell it is extremely expensive and you know very little but still enough to know that if they find it in your bones, you’ll probably die before you turn 40. And that’s why you cry and that’s why the technician asks you again to “stay very still” but when he comes to your side to help you up off the table, he has tears in his eyes and you know that he does this every day so why would he cry?

Friday is a two-Ambien night. Sleep is deep and black and divine.

Saturday! The party. Georgia is at your feet in no time. “Mommy! I’m three! I’m three years old!”

“You are, do you feel any different?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“No, I don’t feel anything. Everything feels exactly the same.” She looks concerned, like maybe if she can’t feel it, it didn’t happen.

“Well, even if you can’t feel it, it’s real,” you say, newly expert in the matter.

Edward comes in and lifts Georgia up and she is so happy and the party will be great.

Everyone will come with a bigger gift that they had planned -- at the last minute they will tape something extra on the top; a recorder, a pony tail holder, a My Pretty Pony. Claire will also get a pile of gifts. In an hour, Georgia will blow out her candles and there will be wrapping paper everywhere and the goodie bags that compliment the paper plates will be torn through and it’ll all be on film and towards the end, after about half the people have left and the afternoon is drifting towards five o clock, you will open a bottle of chardonnay and the remaining mothers will gather around and fill little polka dot paper cups and you will all stand in the sun and look at each other and your children and shake your heads and make that little sound you do when you don’t know what else to say, the little sound that says didn’t see this coming and you will lean into one of them and feel that tiny contraction in your throat that means you’re going to cry and you will decide to let it come, it’s really okay now, because Georgia is running in circles on the back deck with her new butterfly wings on and a hot pink helium balloon tied to each wrist and needs absolutely not one more thing from you.

For now.

September 22, 2008

Things Women Do

A couple weeks ago, I was the "Guest of Honor" at one of the country's largest breast cancer walks. It was goofy, like Mardi Gras, but sober, like a church square dance. People wore boas and cowboy hats and put their Boston Terriers in pink TuTus. Women like this one:


And these two:



And these W.I.T.'s (Women In Training):


When they release doves into the air to start the walk, I stood next to "the Pats" -- two old friends who started this particular race. 15 years ago, over coffee, Pat 1 and Pat 2 decided Little Rock needed to participate in the Komen movement and that they might as well be the ones to do it.

This year, 46,000 women walked.


I left proud to be a woman and wondering if there will every be anything that I start that is as utterly good as what The Pats have done down in Arkansas.

August 11, 2008

Field Trip

I made a list this morning of places I might take my kids today if I was a better mom -- the Exploratorium, Zeum, Fairyland. But then, I drifted into my office (there's a bad undertow near that door) and started pushing through a hundred emails that need attention. The next thing I knew, thanks to one of those email blasts certain friends send every so often, I was on National Geographic's site and calling out "Girls! Come here! Look!"

Here's one of the shots that blew us away.



"What are those?" Claire asked.

"Eggs," I said, almost in a whisper.

"Will they all become babies?" Georgia asked.

Before a discussion could develop, Claire said "Click the octopus!" 15 minutes later, we were still clicking. A sea anemone. A peacock. A thorny devil lizard in Australia.

Then we got to this one. Which was sort of how I was feeling after walking through all those images with my kids leaning into my shoulders, like it's big world and I'd like to carry them through it for a while and co-exist in that place of wonder where there is no age and nothing has been disturbed and language is not only insufficient but also unnecessary.



And for the rest of the day, and maybe the rest of my life, I will be wondering if all that beauty is God or nature, and if it really matters anyway.

May 12, 2008

Doubt Inside My Doubt

This essay is reprinted here from O, The Oprah Winfrey Magazine, where it appeared in May 2008.

My mother is fond of telling me I’m over-thinking it, “it” being anything from organic mulch for my flowerbeds to booster seats for my daughters so you can imagine how she feels about my religious ambivalence. While it’s not quite true to say she was 30 with three kids before she met someone who wasn’t Catholic, it’s close enough. Perhaps as a consequence, she is not a woman who has frittered away her days critiquing her religion. Instead, she prays, mostly for her children, who she so hoped would inherit her bulletproof faith but who are more likely to drive away with her navy blue Buick and a leftover case of Chardonnay she bought at a discount over the state line in Delaware. Both my parents shudder over our discerning, noncommittal generation that has something to say about everything but nowhere to go on Sunday mornings.

I envy my parents’ orientation. Supplication, I’ve often thought, must be easier on the body than TUMS and Ambien. How contenting it must be to believe that someday everyone you love will be in one place and will stay there forever. Who wouldn’t want that? But for all of its obvious appeal, I rarely go to church and have only read a few chapters of the Bible. (I got stuck five chapters into Genesis when Adam was said to have lived for five hundred and thirty years.) But even as roll my eyes, I’m not ready to toss out both bath water and baby. There is doubt in my doubt. And from my earliest days as a mother, I have known that someday, say when the girls start elementary school, I’d be expected to take questions from the audience, so to speak.

Then, in the fall of 2004, well before either of my daughters asked me about God, both my father and I were diagnosed with late-stage cancer. I was 36, and the seven-centimeter tumor behind my nipple was technically my second cancer. (In my mid-twenties, I’d had a melanoma as big as a pencil eraser removed from my calf, leaving a little divot and a long scar that remind me to use sun block and stay in the shade at midday.) My dad was 74, and the scattered tumors around his bladder marked round three for him. And as alarming and unsettling as this was, I did not fall to my knees and petition the God of my childhood.

The day my doctor called with the diagnosis, I hung up the phone, looked over the heads of my kids and mouthed to my husband, “It’s cancer.” Then, after a long hug, a cold Corona, and a cigarette (I had squirreled away a half-smoked pack after a party the year before and for reasons I can’t explain, I couldn’t wait to suck up a Merit Ultra Light that afternoon), we went to the computer and starting searching for information on “invasive ductal carcinoma.” My father got his diagnosis in person; after thanking the doctor and scheduling a slew of tests, he and my mother slid into the Buick and drove down to St. Coleman’s, their favorite little church, for noon mass. They gave it to God; we gave it to Google.

Over the course of a year, my dad and I both got better and, especially in his case, people said it was miraculous. At the very least, it was unexpected. Perhaps even unexplainable, though not to Mom, who summed it up in a word: prayer. “People around the world were praying for your father,” she explained (“around the world” referring primarily to a high school friend of mine who lived in Moscow and had always been particularly fond of my dad).)

I had both always prayed and never prayed, which is to say that I often found myself in bed at the end of a day saying to no one in particular, “Thank you for this good man beside me and those girls in the other room.” But had I beseeched God to make me well? Had I begged God for my father’s life? I had not. Among other things, I didn’t want to be—to borrow from sixth-grade parlance—a user, a phony who thought she could get what she wanted by conveniently nuzzling up to someone she usually snubbed.

After my dad recovered, I talked to an old friend about my parents’ confidence in prayer and their belief that God had intervened. Rather than praise the inexplicable glory of God, my friend thought we should acknowledge and exalt the devotion and ingenuity of man. Or, as she put it: It just bugs me how people want to give all the credit away, as if we were all just useless sinners who didn’t know how to take care of ourselves or each other. In other words, maybe it wasn’t prayer that made my dad better—maybe it was the scope with tiny scissors that removed nine moldy tumors from my dad’s bladder without his even having to check in to the OR. Or all that chemo. Or the meticulous doctor who managed his case with such vigil. I liked my friend’s take on things: up with people and their hard work and cool inventions.

But I kept going thinking back to my father’s initial prognosis. The urologist to whom I attributed my dad’s stunning recovery had told us to "brace for the worst." Ten months later, when he declared my father a healthy man, that same doctor said he couldn’t explain “how on earth” my dad was disease-free. So could I really give all the credit to a doctor who shrugged his shoulders and said it was "anybody’s guess" how my dad survived?

Part of growing up is living with the disturbing and complicating fact that people—even the very smartest people—are sometimes wrong. It was only a generation ago when new mothers smoked cigarettes on the maternity ward while nurses fed the infants nice big bottles of formula, to say nothing of wee Pluto, once required learning for all students of a certain age. Every day, things get grayer and grayer where they used to be neatly partitioned into black and white. Notions that are considered dubious now will, in a just decade or two, become widely accepted. Or vice versa: what is standard practice now will be eschewed, like how no one puts plastic in the microwave anymore. So might we eventually say, “Can you believe that people used to doubt the power of prayer?”

In fact, the federal government has underwritten elaborate and expensive studies asking this very question. Online, I read through a pile of 2002 research that showed a measurable, therapeutic benefit to prayer. People who prayed and were prayed for had higher recovery rates. Sure, the link can be explained away: prayer, like any type of quiet meditation, is relaxing, and relaxation has proven physiological benefits. But a click away from those reports is collated surveys of surgeons and oncologists—a huge majority of whom pray for their patients. Scientists praying. So it’s not just my unguarded, gullible parents. If doctors can get to belief, might I?

If there is a God, he knows how much I want there to be more to human existence than a series of discrete physical experiences that start with birth and end with death. I want all of us—and all of our lives—to be meaningful. But small. I’d be elated to learn that this go-round is only part one of something that has a thousand parts. I’d love to laugh at this life from a distance. As it is, I relish the fact that I am one of six billion people the way my mother revels in Pavarotti’s recording of the Ave Maria. Being one in six billion means my life can’t possibly matter to anyone but me and my little flock and that means almost everything on my mind, all my mistakes and failures and anxieties, is utterly inconsequential. When I forget my place, things begin to matter too much and I find it hard to get a good, deep breath. When that happens, I close my eyes and imagine flying over houses, lifting off the roofs and seeing all the people whose lives are happening concurrently with mine—arguing, dying, cooking, begging, hugging, losing, building, stealing, suffering and laughing, people learning that their adult son shows signs of schizophrenia or their mother is bankrupt, brothers playing air hockey in the basement after a fight, couples listening to music on the sofa, holding each others feet. Each of us a little bitty fish in an inconceivably large pond, swimming in circles, nothing to do but enjoy the water.

But maybe that’s a foolishly incomplete picture. Maybe there’s something between and around and inside of all six billion of us and maybe that something knows every hair on each of our heads. Maybe we are not anonymous. Wouldn’t that be outrageous? And beautiful?


Enter faith, the tallest order, the tightest nut, the humbling of yourself before purposes you don’t—and cannot ever—comprehend. Let’s face it; believing that there is a God who might get involved in your life—your tiny little life—defies all reason. In fact, it’s beyond anti-intellectual. It’s downright foolish. But then there’s the confounding, cuts-both-ways quote from Voltaire, the great French thinker who criticized the church while still seeing evidence for a supreme, eternal being everywhere he looked: who said, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is absurd.”

So, I let my parents share their faith with our children. When we visit Philadelphia where my parents live, I let them take our daughters to church. At night, my mom gets the girls on their knees and shows them how to cross themselves and position their hands and bow their heads. It is a lovely sight, and I would never discourage it. But when we get back to California where we live, the girls are loaded with new ideas and the kinds of questions I always knew were coming.

Claire, who is a senior in preschool recently asked what lights are made of. After I gave her my best answer, something sketchy about filaments and electricity and Thomas Edison, she said, “In church, they said Jesus is a light.” Georgia, a first-grader, reprimanded me for saying ‘Oh my God.’ “God is a bad word,” she said. To which I heard myself say, “Oh no, honey. God is not a bad word. God is a very good word.” Both girls have asked if they could be the Holy Ghost for Halloween.

Regardless of where I am on the spectrum from atheism to theism, I’d rather my girls be grounded in something, even something that seems too good (or too damn crazy) to be true. So when the girls ask me about God, I say that people believe all kinds of things and no one really knows, including me, but that I hope for God. Then I tell them what my husband recently told me with tears in his eyes. I say being with them is the most spiritual experience of my life—the highest high, the deepest yes, the most staggering gift—and that gift must have come from somewhere.

And what to say about all the little gifts, the everyday stuff like a good cantaloupe or the rebate check coming just in time or a great public school teacher? For that, I’ve taken to saying grace with the girls. We all hold hands while I talk about our friends, our family, our health. Then my husband, generally prompted by my raised eyebrow, says a prayer for the people we know who are having trouble. The girls mostly tolerate it (sometimes adding a thank you for a popsicle or a playdate) and look forward to saying Amen, after which we do the family wave, as if the home team just scored. It feels good, saying grace. Not only because gratitude is a pleasant emotion but also because it is a step in the direction of my childhood, where grace was offered regularly (if quickly) and faith was less ambiguous.

For now, that’s as far as I’ve gotten. I’m just another person pulsing with thankfulness, wondering what will happen next. Someday—despite all medications and all prayers—people in our lives will get sick and will not get better. They will die. Georgia and Claire will ask me where they went and I’ll probably be wondering the same thing. Have they gone to a paradise, a separate plane of existence where God holds them in palm of his hand? Are they internalized in the people who are left behind? Do they become part of the earth and therefore, an endless part of the cycle of life?

If you asked my dad, he’d assure you that heaven exists and boy are you gonna love it. Just like if you asked him why I got better, he’d say something about how God wants me to be here. I tell him I got better because there was an antidote, namely four chemotherapies, each an impressive creation of man. But that just makes him laugh, shake his head and flash his big knowing smile. “Aw Lovey,” he says, “don’t you see? What do you think makes a man spend his days trying to cure cancer?”

April 29, 2008

Virtual Reality

If you can't get to a reading, you might enjoy this video taken at a recent Berkeley event by my old pal, Ricky Friedman. If it seems like I keep looking at someone, my husband, Edward, was in the front row.

April 11, 2008

About Faith

I worked long and hard with a very smart editor at O Magazine named Deborah Way to figure out just how to articulate where I am with faith these days. The back and forth, draft after draft, was the closest thing to therapy that I've had in years. Although there is much left to resolve, I was able to come up with a couple thousand words about it and you can read them in the May issue, which has just hit the newsstands. Since this was written, I've dug into the Bible (a children's version, in particular), some C.S. Lewis, a refresher course on Greek and Roman mythology and a collection of poetry called In Praise of Mortality, by Rilke. Oh, and the 2004 novel, Gilead. Hard to say yet where it's all leading but it definitely feels worthwhile.

The photo that runs with the essay was taken in New York, in January, the same week The Middle Place came out. My dad was with me as the original idea for the photo was to get him walking into the Cathedral and me hesitating out front. [St. Patrick's Cathedral has a noon mass that my dad used to frequent before he retired and stopped commuting to New York.] But in the end, the shot they went to print with was one of the very last they took, while my dad was around the corner getting us coffees. Greenie, you were robbed.

I am very interested to hear from you about your faith (in God, yoga, nature, retail therapy, service--whatever you believe in) so if you have thoughts after you read the essay, please post them.

March 27, 2008

The Midnight Cough

You hear it. First, from a distance. Then it breaks through. You are dumped out of the island hammock that is REM sleep. You do not open your eyes but you roll them. Cough, cough. You pull the pillow over your head. You count. Five, six, seven— Cough, cough. She had it last night too. It never stopped. Not until she stood up. It’s postnasal drip, you can tell. Cough, cough. Nine seconds that time. Maybe it’s slowing. Cough, cough. You should get up. You might as well. It’s not going to stop. Would your husband get up if he were here? Not in a— Cough, cough. Will she wake up her sister? Why do they sleep in the same room? It was your husband’s idea. You could shoot him. If she wakes her up— Cough, cough. Get up. You gotta get up. Where are you slippers? It’s so cold. What time is it? Don’t look, you shout to yourself without speaking. Don’t ever look at the clock in the night. That insomnia article said— Cough, cough. Get up. Get up right now. Put an end to it.

You are up. A little lightheaded. You move towards the hall. Were you always this stiff? Is this why they say parenthood is for the young? Cough, cough. There is no cup in the bathroom. How could there be no cup in the bathroom? The cleaners. Why do the cleaners always take the cup—it’s like they hide it, along with your face lotion and your kitchen sponge— Cough, cough. You are down the stairs, in the cabinet, at the fridge. You press the cup against the door. The light—don’t look at the light. You’ll never get back to sleep if you lookCough, cough. You are upstairs again. In the bathroom again. You have to turn on the light over the sink. You keep it low. Where is the Tylenol Cough? What’s this…Robitussin…from 2004. Is that expired? I’ve gotta throw some of this shit out. Cough, cough. Why do we have so much Motrin? Oh yeah, Costco. God, I haven’t been to Costco in years. Well, here’s some Tylenol Flu. Bad idea? Cough, cough. It’s all you’ve got. The little measuring cup—where is the little cup? Goddammit. How many little cups have we gone through? Don’t get mad, you say gently to yourself, it’ll wake you up. Cough, cough. You take the open bottle to your kid, oh and here’s a lozzie. That’ll help. You're at her bedside now. She’s hot and red. “Claire, honey, take a sip…”

CRY (as if dropped-the-ice-cream) “Okay, have a little water. Sit up. Two hands, there you go. Now,” you say as you bring the Tylenol Fl to her lips, “just a sip of—“ CRY (as if car-running-over-toes) “Claire, honey, you have to just take a quick sip so you can sleep—“ CRY (as if lion-charging–her-full-on) “Okay, forget it.” You put down the Tylenol Flu dramatically. “Have this lozzie.” Whimper. “It’s the lozzie or the medicine,” you say to her in the dark. “It’s too spicy,” she half-whispers. You tell her this is the minty kind. She succumbs. “Okay good. Okay lie down now.” Stroke, kiss.

You walk quietly back to your room and slip back into your bed. Still warm. You are so happy to be there. Silence. You imagine her sucking her lozzie on her side and then her back. Silence. Is she okay? Is she choking on her lozzie? You want to check. The coughing wasn’t that bad. You should get up. You are crazy. She is five. She knows how to suck a lozzie. Silence. She could swallow it whole. She could die. Tonight. Just so you could sleep. More silence. Did you put the cap back on the Tylenol Flu? What if she drinks it? All of it. Silence. You know what’s coming. You looked into the light. You know what time it is.

March 17, 2008

Essay from April Issue of Glamour


Glamour's April issue has a great collection of essays on friendship by writers like Jennifer Weiner, Julie Klam and, um, me. I have always felt slightly unworthy of my friendships, like I couldn't possibly have done enough to deserve them. So I was glad to have the chance to spill some ink on a few pals. I hope it gives a little honor to the many women who accompanied me through cancer, including Missy (in the photo at right). Whatever your crisis is--infertility, unemployment, divorce--I'm sure you can agree that when it's over, you're left with a tremendous sense of awe and gratitude for the people who showed up. Here's to you guys, a model for us all.

APRIL GLAMOUR: 7 Friends Every Woman Needs

The friends who show up

You never know until you know, you know? You hope your friends are what you think they are—loyal, deep, fast—but you don’t find out for sure until, say, a big lump in your breast turns out to be a bad tumor. Shannon called from vacation in tears when she heard my news. Mellie hired me a house cleaner. Carolann knitted me a warm, kicky beret that I wore for months until it began to fall apart and my husband said I looked like a 40-year-old pothead. One by one, in choreographed succession, Phoebe, Tracy and Missy packed bags and came from points east to California, because they “had to be with me.” They didn’t know what they were doing—my cancer was a first for all of us—but they came anyway. They brought things— art supplies for my two kids, books for my husband, slippers and sleeping caps for me.

And all this came as quite a surprise to me. Had I earned this much support?

I had lived most of my life in the company of men. When I was growing up, my older brothers dominated our house, as much with their giant bags of sweaty ice hockey equipment that filled the laundry room as with their epic tales of triumph at the boy-girl dance. I lived in the space that was left over, sometimes boldly (if ineffectively) inserting myself into the action, but mostly saving my voice for a later day. I’ve often pretended that I preferred hanging out with men. After all, I had learned how to cuss like a sea hand and tell a joke like a bartender and, damn it, I wasn’t going to rein myself in for a bunch of lily-livered “ladies” who bored me with their small talk about wrap dresses and Pilates and sisal rugs.

But it was the ladies who saved me, physically and emotionally. My surgeon was a woman, as were my ob-gyn, my chemo nurse, my radiation oncologist, my genetic counselor and the psychologist who gave us the words “cancer is like weeds in a garden,” a phrase my husband and I used over and over again with our small children (who are, incidentally, both girls). When my fertility was sacrificed to the cause, I found the empathy I so needed in the arms of Mary Hope and then Meg and then my mother, all of whom knew to listen for a long time (days) before reminding me that the two girls I already had were double-good, and would surely fill me up if I let them. Maybe it was the central role my breasts were suddenly playing in things, but looking back, it was a distinctly feminine time and one that left me wiser than it found me.

Since then, since I’ve become a regular person again instead of a cancer patient, I’ve kept a soft spot in my heart for guy friends, but I woo girlfriends. I cultivate and collect them because I know. Believe me, I know.

—Kelly Corrigan, author of the New York Times best-seller The Middle Place.

February 03, 2008

Revisiting Group Exercise

Kelly's column appears here with permission from The Bay Area News Group.

It’d been a good ten years since someone told me to “grapevine left.” In fact, the last time I was barked at to do a Triple Knee Repeater or a ‘Round The World, the only woman in America who had a headset mic was Madonna. I don’t exercise often and when I do, I try not to sweat too much, so last weekend at the Y, when I saw on the Group Fitness Schedule that Tina’s Basic Step class was “suitable for all levels,” I peaked in. Just about everyone in there was 10-20 pounds overweight. There were no fancy racer back tanks or chafe-free lycra pants. While I was sizing it all up, Tina herself waved me in and so, the next thing I knew, I was over at the equipment wall deciding how many risers to put under my step.

There is, as any honest person will admit, a hierarchy to women’s exercise. The truly fit (and centered) do yoga, Chi Gung, pilates or the Dailey Method. These women are lean and muscular and flexible, and I have always suspected that they were born this way. They like green tea, which they seep in reusable metal strainers, and can confidently pronounce their teachers names: Tuam, Karuna, Shotoa. Many of them are extremely attractive and consider a touch of Burt’s Bees on their lips to be fully made up. They know not the cottage cheese dimple.

Next are the spinners. Atop their stationery cycles, they are slightly less feminine and generally talk and walk louder and faster than the wispy, barefoot yoga-types. The spin class girls are competitive and bring lots of towels to class. They can tell you their heart rate at any moment. They read magazines about fitness, Women’s Health or something, while guzzling Gatorade and doing Kegels. If they’re running late and all the bikes are spoken for, they’ll slip into the back of a Body Sculpt class. They always do the advanced moves and the extra sets. When the instructor offers a low impact option, they just laugh, adrenaline flooding their system.

At my gym, in Berkeley, there is yet a third class of exercisers: the mind/body folks. Think Feldenkrais, Aikido, Karate. These people will probably save the world and at the very least, never yell at their kids, and for these reasons, are beyond my reproach.

Then, there are the people, often middle aged, who just love to move. I have a soft spot for this merry bunch. They do Merengue on Mondays, World Hip Hop on Tuesdays, Belly Dance Basics on Wednesdays, Salsa Fusion on Thursdays and then wind up the week with some TransDance, which integrates tribal motion, freestyle jamming and moving meditation. A woman named Tranquilla teaches this class. People hug on the way out.

Later, after time marches all over your back and drips cement in your joints, there is low impact senior aerobics (using metal folding chairs) and water aerobics with aqua barbells and something “New!” called The Noodle Workout. Perry Como is big in these classes, as is Liza Minelli. Afterwards, participants peel off their webbed gloves, dry off their hands and head over to an afternoon of oversized origami.

Then there’s me, in Tina’s Basic Step class, secretly laughing at my classmates—their funny pumpkin butts, their awkward clapping, their outdated scrunchies. I was yawning through the warm up, Basic Right, Basic Left, and held my own during the steroid version of Justin Timberlake’s Sexy Back, but three songs into things, I started to feel dizzy. Nauseous. By the time we got to “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” my vision was blurred. Pumpkin Butt next to me was fine, even thriving—this was her song! Silver Scrunchie was also high on endorphins—she seemed to love the Charleston/T-Step/Hamstring Curl combo we were doing. Was I going to have to stop? Take out my risers? I drank some water, eliminated any extraneous motion and, after twenty humiliating minutes, I heard the sweet tones of Enya. It was over.

So that’s where I fit into the hierarchy, right there at the very bottom—eating low-cal humble pie and passing out towels to my new role models in Basic Step and wondering if I could ever reach the great heights of TriYoga Flow III.


*******

Hey, if you're still with me, and if you know anyone in NYC, could I ask you help me get the word out about an upcoming event? On Monday February 18 (which is President's Day), I am doing a double bill with an old friend of my husband's who is a killer musician--a cross between Jack Johnson and Stevie Wonder (if you can get your head around that). It is a dream come true for me to "perform" with him and I think will be a very special night.


January 04, 2008

Just Another Citizen of Oz

I had read the descriptions the “rock star candidate,” “the tantalizing, highflying senator.” And I had seen him speak at the ’04 Democratic Convention, when he famously referred to himself as “a skinny guy with a funny name.” But the comparisons to Kennedy, that perfectly-maintained legend we barely knew, put me over the top. See, my dad, a Republican, told me that he met Jack Kennedy when he was running for President and that it was “magic.”

Ooh, magic. What I wouldn’t do for magic.

And so, when the invitation to a fundraising lunch for the one and only Barack Obama landed in my mailbox, I instantly coughed up more money than I spent on my wedding dress and booked a sitter.

The day finally came and just as I was finishing off my third bread stick, there he was.

He spoke for about 15 minutes and answered questions for another 15. I did not get the chills. I did not break into a sweat. I did not shout out in agreement. Barack Obama, it turns out, it just a man, a little older and a whole lot smarter than me, a man who values practicable solutions and incremental change. He has the self-possession of an elder statesman, a moniker generally reserved for retired or dead politicians. He is measured and astute and cerebral. He is (and this is not what I expected from a politician of any stripe) serene.

For days afterwards, I was, well, let down. I had wanted to be whipped up, swept away, lit on fire.

Nursing my disappointment, I found myself listening to the soundtrack from “Wicked,” a musical my daughters love about all their favorite characters from The Wizard of Oz. The CD was on Song 10: Wonderful, the moment in the show when the Wonderful Wizard of Oz is outted as a mere mortal, a nice and good man who had some skills and some potential but was not, alas, magic. He says: “Suddenly I'm here, respected, worshipped, even. Just because the folks in Oz needed someone to believe in. Wonderful! They called me Wonderful! so I said Wonderful, if you insist.”

Oh, but we do insist! Oh, how we need someone to believe in! Give us charisma! Genius! Virtue! But nobody too polished, or too inaccessible, or too formal. Why I do believe we’re just the sort of people to see a man come out of the clear blue sky and expect him to answer all our questions and solve all our problems.

And I think I know why. Not only does it make us feel safer, to have a superhuman on the premises, but it also allows us to go home. Personally, I want to go back to my kids, my husband and my novel--back to my regularly scheduled programming. I’d be delighted just to pay my taxes and have it all done for me: a Four Seasons government.

I know, I know. Democracy depends on active participation from the public. It starts, most obviously, with voting. I often feel, however, that I don’t know enough to vote. Even for president but definitely in local and state elections. I guess never forgot this quote from Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” Consequently, I don’t always go to the polls. I can only admit this publicly because I know that I am in the majority.

I might vote more if someone told me who and what to support -- which bond measures and propositions and congressmen. It’s not a matter of apathy; it’s honesty. What do I know about how to resolve Iraq? Health care? Farm Subsidies? For that matter, what I do know about local issues, where it is said all politics truly reside, like seismic retrofitting, etc. As Kennedy himself said, “the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.”

So if you’re someone who wants to elect someone you can trust, someone who is exponentially smarter than yourself, someone who is level-headed and methodical and absolutely devoted to the sane and rational course, I think I met your guy. If you want to swoon or faint, I recommend old Cary Grant movies. And if we are so fortunate to call Barack Obama "Mr. President," still, we’ll all have to show up to make the change everyone’s shouting about actually happen.