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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

I’m on track

There are a lot of questions coming now; over coffee, over lunch, on walk, in email, at chance meetings: Are you excited? Are you afraid?

No. Mostly when I think about it, which I don’t have to, very much – tickets bought
all packed – my feeling is one of O.K., I’m on track.

I take a great interest in my health these days, because I need to pass a thallium stress test next Monday. Doctors used to freak when they saw my EKG, and warn me off eggs and sports. I don’t want any of that between here and the operation, so I have been hiking, stairclimbing, and even running – something I have not done in over a decade – for the last two months. I’m down about 14 pounds from my Thanksgiving fiasco, but not enough. I wanted to weigh 170 in Miami, but that proved unrealistic. It will be about 180. Even so, the machinery is running better. It can do 20 flights of steps without a rest, and then sprint for two more. I’m as ready for the test as I will ever be.

The other concern is the ease with which people here in the Willamette Valley share illnesses – especially university students. They hand you a bit of scratch paper with a call number on it, and BOOM! You come down with any one of sixty-five rhinoviruses, all known locally as “the crud” and all presenting a range of flu-like and bronchial symptoms. One such nameless disease went through here a few years ago, with all of the symptoms of whooping cough. It actually killed people. Mine lasted sixty days.

So I simply fail to take the paper or the ID card, or whatever, and, through what I hope is friendly but firm body language, get them to drop it on the counter.

Ordinarily I walk patrons to a public terminal to train them on lookups, but currently I simply demo it from the service desk, turning the monitor for them to see. This one keyboard and mouse I know I can keep clean.

If I were to catch anything, of course, the surgeon would kindly reschedule. But I would have difficulty getting money back from the airline. And there would go the summer, which I’m trying to protect from all this. I have not properly vacationed in decades.

Meanwhile, a co-worker, looking over my shoulder, saw on my calendar the notations off estrogen and, two weeks farther on, off spiro.

"How’s that going? Not having the meds, I mean?"

Not so good.

Of course, I was warned about that. One friend said that, for her, that was absolutely the worst part of the operation. And she described psychological horrors such as no woman would want to go through.

I’m not doing that badly, but it’s not exactly salad days, either. I will tell you what I can.

My world has gone grey. Its palette of a thousand colors seems to have shrunk down to ten. The same, though of course there doesn’t seem to be much in English that can describe it, is happening to my skin. I cannot feel beauty
as when one touches silk – with my accustomed sensitivity.

I feel, though the people around me deny it, that I’m becoming ugly. It’s that face from three years ago, the one on which I had so resolutely turned my back, only older. I now know that it takes six months on six milligrams/day of estrogen, with 200 of spironolactone, to build the face I want, and one week, off estrogen, to lose it. This happened when I was very ill, last August, and here it is again. And, yes, it does feel a bit like dying.

More surprising, because I have not heard of this from others, is the discovery that I am having problems controlling my voice, postures, gestures, and manner of walking. One would think these were, in a sense, superfluities, based in acting skills alone acquired for safety reasons
a necessary part of passing, not something connected directly to hormones.

Apparently, one would be wrong.

So I have all this to live with, but it does not seem so burdensome, nor so depressing, as I have been told. There is an end in view, and it is only fourteen days away. I would have put up with much, much more.

I'm not, as I was told I would be, depressed or terrified. I am only a little sad. I can do this, as any woman does mourning: one day at a time.

One takes refuge in small things: rise, build the fire, make a small breakfast, read for a bit, wash up, make up, dress up, drive. Work. Make small talk. Get in the exercise whenever the opportunity presents itself, in company with friends, or alone. Make and keep appointments. Keep drinking fluids. Drive home, stopping, perhaps, for gas, with an extra dollar for the attendant who is taking on all that wind and rain for you, for minimum wage. Take 1000 mg. Vitamin C, morning and evening. Arnica Montana, four, sublingually, four times a day. No vitamin E. Read. Listen to good music. Fuss over which socks to bring (I like the ones with the bright chili peppers – they’re more her kind of thing, but I find them cheery and warm when convalescing). Read.

Watch the birds at the bird feeder.

Take a friend for a long walk.

Read. At present I’m reading The Happy Isles by Paul Theroux. During the journey I plan to read all the Mary Poppins books.

Beloved asked for, and to her surprise got, a small combo-drive television for the bedroom. She’s taken to it, in spite of the fuss she made, and watches CDs of Mr. Bean, the Dick Van Dyke Show, Lucy, Northern Exposure. She got me a Buster Keaton set, including The General, which I greatly appreciate, but have not yet opened.

I find that, when the shows are on in the late evening, and I hear her healthy laughter ringing through the house, that I’m glad for her but don’t wish to watch, and cannot easily fall asleep under the flickering imagery and laugh tracks – even with my good ear buried in the pillow and another pillow draped over my head. So I go to my own room, and run a small space heater there, and read travel books until I’m sleepy. Turning off the heater and the lamp, I’m plunged into near-total darkness, the starlight from outside having been absorbed by the thick Oregon cloud cover and the immense rains. I feel my way though the house, imagining I’m Helen Keller, and slip beneath the blankets on my side of the bed.

Beloved, still only half asleep, stirs somewhere deep in the mountain of quilts and comforters on her side of the bed. Her hand seeks me through the cold and the blackness.

She finds my lips with her index finger, and I bless it with a little kiss.


-- risa b

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Attentive and kindly

Body language is 70% of speech, I read somewhere.

I was asked to talk about my experiences with the body language of others.

Ok... let's take on the grumps first.

One knows instantly whether anyone disputes your humanity. It can be little things. There is a tendency for these persons to wear a mask of expressionlessness when you approach them with a question or whatever. They give the shortest answer, and then turn away. You observe them with others. They're not doing it to them. Yet if you challenge them on it -- "Don't you like me anymore? etc." they will typically deny there is a problem, and wear an aggrieved expression, as if to say: "not only are you weird, you're also paranoid."

Or, their eyes may sweep over a group of people that you're standing with -- mutual friends, shall we say. The eyes may move faster when they cross the space you're in. You are not there.

Or, they may talk only to the person next to you, not both of you. You may be interrupted or ignored when you chime in.

Or, they look with mild distaste at a coffee carafe when they realize you have just used it. For now, they may decide to switch to tea. They may make an effort to get into the other line at potlucks, using the utensils before you do. They do not turn around to chat. They may actually hover with their plate and cup, waiting to choose a table at which you are not sitting.

Or, they may turn and leave the bathroom quickly when they discover you are in there. (If, of course, you went back to the old bathroom there would be even more trouble. But you have no option to pee in front of the doors -- some have had serious bladder and urethral injuries while dealing with this, especially elementary and junior high school students.)

Or, when they call your office they may not choose your number, even though the matter at hand is in your area of responsibility. Or they may perhaps wait until your shift is up and then come to the service desk. Or they may walk the short way through the area when you are not seen to be there, but the long way around if you are seen to be there.

Or, when it's your turn to present to a meeting they may stare out the window or doodle on their notepad. As soon as some other person begins speaking they straighten up and pay attention again. Or in roundtable discussion, if they are the moderator and you raise you hand, you are not called on. If you hand out papers they fail to take one or even fail to hand them on. If someone else hands out papers they pick them up.

Or, in a group that is going somewhere, they may pair off with someone else. They will answer if anyone else in the group replies to something they have said to "everyone," but when you reply they simply switch to another topic, or start talking to the person next to them, even if you're not done yet.

Or, they may nudge one another when you are approaching, and give one another "significant" glances. Their conversation drops in volume and their heads move closer together. This posture says "Don't join this conversation."

Or, jokes may be made about you but only in your absence; these are told only to trusted comrades as this is expressly forbidden by (in my case) company policy.

In many places it is unspoken (but understood) company policy that such behavior towards you is to be encouraged.

This has contributed to my people having, on average, far less income than our peers, leading, in worst case, to chronic joblessness and uninsurability, depression, hunger, self-destructive social behaviors, exposure to increased risk of abusive language, beatings, rape, and murder; to falling into prostitution, porn modeling, alcohol, drugs, STDs, self-injury, assorted preventable medical and debilitating mental conditions, and suicide.

And who would want to rent to or hire people that might let such things happen to them?


Dying beneath a bridge or in an alley, no ones marks the passing of such a one, except perhaps the one who marks the fall of the sparrow.

Yet it is called a lifestyle choice.

Off-campus, before I became fairly passable, people turned about 1/8 so that their eyes could follow me. From peripheral vision I could see that they weren't just staring. I know it as the stare that among my Appalachian kinfolk used to be called the evil eye. If I looked back they would quickly straighten up and look away again, pretending not to have done anything of the sort. This is not good for them; it hardens their hearts.

In such an atmosphere the Nazi Party found their scapegoats, with spectacular results.

Sadly, I would observe that in instances of these kinds of treatment where I knew the identity of the other parties, I also knew them to be notably religious...

I suspect they may have been lied to about what I am, whatever it is I supposedly represent.

When I have looked into this I have learned that Matthew 7:1-5 is not to be applied in my case.

I have no idea why not.

:::

Then there are the others...

Most men for whom I'm not a problem, I think, are able to carry themselves in a relaxed, upward posture that is neither deferential nor condescending, and yet they tend to reach doors before I do, in order to hold them open for me.

They ask how I'm doing, and actually have time to hear the answer.

They lean slightly forward while I'm bringing them up to date, and their eyes and the wrinkles above their cheeks appear both attentive and kindly.

They offer to hug me, and I accept, and it's not a nervous A-frame thing, nor lingeringly salacious in tone, but something like a single bite from a Euphoria® chocolate ...

They call me to ask how I'm doing.

They want to know if I need to sit where I can see or hear better, or am out of the draft, or warm enough, or comfortably seated. At this point, their bodies lean into an active posture, a bit like a runner at the starting line. They will go where I send them.

In a word: gentlemen.

Women walk with me to the restroom and talk with me while I'm washing my hands or checking my eye shadow. They walk towards me when they recognize me, and stand with one hand holding the elbow of the other arm, which says: "I have time for you."

They lean their heads toward mine, in a posture that invites me to do the same: this says private conversation commencing. They ask more precise questions at this time than the men: Does Beloved take you shopping, are you still sleeping in the same bed, is she happy, do you find yourself doing more of the housework; I notice you haven't worn pants in years, whereas I always do ... they're expecting direct replies, information; we walk together, we do not lose track of these topics while interrupting ourselves to admire trees in sunlight, wind-rustled daffodils, absent-minded squirrels and chuckling jays.

Short hugs, long hugs, a squeeze of the arm, a shoulder or hand touched. Shall we have coffee? Let's go stair-climbing. That's great, what you did with your hair. Are you happy? Are you taking care of yourself? Here's something I thought you might like to have. You must make sure you have enough sleep.

The shoulders completely relaxed, the corners of the mouth turned slightly upward without a hint of irony.

The words and gestures run out. They lean on the service desk counter, arms folded, watching passersby in silence with you, eyes shining.

-- risa b

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Not a wallflower

Walking in any direction from the Library I seem to be going upwind. I had taken to walking hunched over, or with my index finger holding down my bangs, or both.

"What are you doing?" asked a friend. ""You look like you're hunting for pennies on the sidewalk. Or in pain."

"Hair. It outs me."

"Nnh?"

"See?" I held up my bangs for her to see the globular, shining forehead, going, way, way, back.

"Indoors, no problem. But out here, every time there's the smallest breeze, people who have just walked by me look a bit shocked."

I patted the bangs back into place, and, making my nails into a comb, raked at my forehead in a vain attempt to look like -- well, me.

Something was going to have to be done.

Later, picking up the phone book on my desk, I learned that there was a "wig boutique" about two miles away. I wrote up a longish lunch hour on the office white board and drove over.

I could see from the street that this was not going to be an obviously accepting kind of place. Walls -- almost creepy. Furniture: old. carpet: faded. operator station chairs: holes in the forearms. Proprietresses: in their seventies.

Putting my courage to the sticking point, I marched in using my best body language.

"May I help you?"

"Yes ... my, my hair has been going away in front and I have -- I have a pony tail of my own hair, but the top's, too-oo, thin to hide to clippies well..."

"Mmm, hmm, that happens a lot. I think you are ready for a wig, my dear. I'm wearing one right now. A survivor, you know."

She settled me in the worn beauty-shop chair before a huge mirror. All around were shelves, floor-to-ceiling -- there must be a ladder somewhere -- each laden with a row, carefully spaced, of expressionless styrofoam heads, each wearing its own distinctive counterfeit of a woman's glory.

"Did you have a price range in mind?"

"Well, I don't have a six thousand dollar head ..."

"Right. We run one to two hundred. Now, size is a factor; these 'smalls' cost less than the 'mediums', and I don't think you need a 'long' ... "

"Umm, right."

"Now, I'm tucking your hair up both ways from the back, into this hair net, see? Above the ears, right along the forehead, and don't let it roll up or it will cut your circulation. I don't recommend human hair in this climate. The rain droops and frizzes unmercifully. "

" ... does, doesn't it?" I rejoined, weakly.

"Right. Now here is a 'medium', much like your own hair, but teased nicely in front."

And it did look nice. But ...

"Too much red? I think so too. Not that they can't be recolored or trimmed as needed, though they don't ever look the same again, and of course they can't grow."

She reached to a higher shelf. Too light; too youngish, really; I would need bare feet and a posy of daisies. She pursed her lips.

"You are aware you have an Audrey Hepburn neck? It's your best feature." Now that was pushing things a bit -- but I knew from that moment I was about to buy. A master saleswoman. "So I want you to try a bit shorter -- you see?"

Oh, god. What had taken me so long? Yes, I did see. "I'll take it."

As I left, I checked, as is my habit, my walking style in the storefront window. Upright already, a woman to reckon with, going into the wind. This was going to work.

Back at the Library, I gathered books from the Returns shelf and, on the way back to my department, visited the office of a friend who had emailed me to stop by for something or other.

"Risa! Omigod -- look -- stand right over here." She pulled from her desk drawer a tiny digital camera, and almost before I knew what was happening, set off the flash.



Of small things are our daily happinesses made.

:::

My mom went out shopping a few days ago and so my call caught my dad off guard.

"Are you taking care of yourself?"

He hung up.

I rang again.

Pick up, pick up, pick up, c'mon, old man, you can do it.

He picked up.

"How are you?"

"Who is this?"

I could tell he was in bed. "Your only child."

"There's no need to hang up," I added quickly. "Just checking, are you ok, all that." My most male remaining voice. Not an easy thing to do.

"Well, I'm poorly."

"Blood pressure, huh?"

"Yeahhh." A long sigh.

"Where's the old lady?"

"Oh, she's out shopping, I guess ... up to no good ..."

"Uh, huh."

Don't let the silence run on, he'll start thinking too much.

"Didya get that envelope I sent, the Georgia Railroad stuff?"

"Yeahhhh, did. Yeahhh."

"What'd you think, all that CSX stuff in the yards and by the depot?"

"It's all diff'rent; that restaurant in there, they closed it. All dead now, them folks that run it. I wouldn't really know the place."

I'll send you one about Coast Guard Lightships, see if the one you were on is in it, O.K.?"

"No need; save yuh money..."

"Well, the way you talked about the lightships, I just hadda look 'em up; I thought it was very interesting."

"That was cold work."

"You liked it."

"Yeahhh. Yeahhh, I liked it."

"'K, well, you be good to you, hear?"

"Yeahhh."

"Bye now."

The phone in the house on the St. John's River, Florida, clicked off.

I hung up. Beloved was in the hall, sorting old children's books.

"Was that your dad?"

I nodded and burst into tears. She dropped everything and came running.

-- risa b

Friday, February 03, 2006

Know anything cheerful?

My son needs four times the memory in his eMac than it came with, so I picked up two 512 meg DDR SIMMs at the hardware repair shop and dropped by. He rolled the computer over onto its back and we found the simple removable plate there; Apple always does these things right. Pulled his 256, snapped in the 512s, and we were done.

"Borrow your restroom to put on my anaesthetic?"

He gave me that withering look that means "you just gave me too much information."

:::

My electrologist and I have kicked into high gear; everything below the waist has to be done by February 14, which is also when I will need to stop taking my Estrofem.

En route to the small town where the electrologist lives, I popped my painkiller. It's a 1000 mg. size, so I allowed time for a quick chicken-sandwich tummy-settler.

"How ya doin'?" she greeted me.

"I'm here." My stock answer. This always throws people off the first couple of times, but what I mean by it is that I don't know how I'm doing, because the day isn't over yet. The present, which is where everything is, happens just before we're aware of it, that is to say, consciousness runs in the memory's wiring. In a sense, we can only look back. We have no idea where we're going. So, for me, it's the honest answer. Not Dead Yet. Ergo, pretty good really.

"If you say so. Are we gonna do an hour, or more?"

"I'm set for an hour below, and as much as we care for of face after."

"OK, hop up here, I'm all set."

I like her new office. She has a clean sense of style and is adding Persian rugs with matching chairs, prints, and plants -- including the biggest jade tree I've ever seen -- one at a time, getting a feel for how the place is going to be. The layout -- waiting room, medical-secretary station, examination room -- looks like it was set up for a one-doctor practice.

BZZZT!

"O.K?"

"O.K. so far."

BZZZT!

In this position, reversed on the table, I can wear my hearing aid to listen to my surroundings and also converse. My eyes travel around the ceiling and walls, courting color, seeking details to dwell on. But the needle is insistent.

There's a tiny pop just before the buzz of the electricity and a matching tiny pop after. Must be a switch on the rod or something.

The pain is already reaching the no-go level, with half an hour left.

I start singing.

I don't know a lot of songs; love to sing but prefer to have a hymnal or songbook in front of me.

I try out "Careless Love," "Wreck of the 97," "Waiting on a Train" (with the yodels) and "TB Blues."

BZZZT!

You know anything cheerful?" she asks.

Umm, not really. "How about 'Kumbaya?'"

""Oh, come on!"

"Well, there's 'Put Another Log on the Fire.'"

"Want some radio?"

Sigh.

BZZZT!

After awhile, she moves around to the other side.

"Lemme ask you something, if it's O.K. ... When you were a guy, did you ever have a name for this thing? Cuz' it seems like guys generally do."

"Ahh, well ... it was Rufus."

"Rufus?" She's chuckling.

"What ... you prefer, maybe, Andy? George?"

BZZZT!

"And anyway," I add, "It's all moot now."

"What's his technique? Your surgeon, I mean? Heh, heh. Sorry for how that came out."

"Uh, eclectic, he says. Meaning adapts to your presentation or something. But it's mostly penile inversion."

"Hollow it out and turn it around?"

"Mm-mm. But he's way more interested in depth and looks than I am. You have to go twice."

"Second one's for pretty?"

"Labiaplasty, right."

"Are ya worried?"

BZZZT!

"No ... not about the surgery."

"What about, then? If you don't mind my askin'."

"I'm worried about the thallium stress test. He has to know how well my heart works."

I sit up and try to look her right in the magifying glasses. Exept she's rapidly getting blurry.

"I -- it's -- I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't do the surgery ... hnnnnnn ..."

"Here's some tissues."

"Thanks ... "

-- risa b

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