MY JEWISH BOOK CLUB –EXCERPT FROM “BEAUTY AND THE BREAST: A TALE OF BREAST CANCER, LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP.

 

 

Before I learned I had breast cancer, I belonged to a Jewish book club. Eight Jewish women meeting for forty years, once a month in one of our houses.

Did we ever read a book? Who knows? Did we ever discuss a book? We had arguments every time:

“Why should I read a historical novel when I’m not interested in historical novels?”

“Then why should I read a book about how Yiddish is coming back from a lost language when my grandparents only wanted that it should be a lost language?”

“They told secrets in my house in Yiddish so the kids wouldn’t know what they were talking about.”

“I think next month we should read a modern romance novel. There’s a new one on the bestseller list.”

“I’m against reading bestsellers. They’re crap.”

“I’m too old for romance. I can’t be bothered with romance.”

“Molly, you’ve had three husbands. How did you manage that without romance?”

“Look at my breasts! They speak for themselves. Also I’m a good cook.”

“Could it be your cooking poisoned the first two?”

“Funny that is not.”

“Sex must figure in somewhere.”

“If it figures, it figures. Remember how in Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye sings, ‘Do you love me?’ and his wife answers, ‘For twenty-five years I’ve cooked your meals, washed your clothes, shared your bed …. If that isn’t love, what is?’ ”

“It’s your bosoms, it’s not your cooking, that got you three husbands.”

“They should live and be well,” Molly said, patting her bosoms lovingly. “But you never know. One in eight women gets breast cancer. It could be one of us.”

“Never one of us. We’re not the type.”

We are the type, in fact. We are especially the type. Women with Ashkenazic genetics are especially at risk. If we carry the Braca gene mutation, we have an eighty-five percent risk of being diagnosed with cancer in our lifetime, and are also at high risk for ovarian cancer.

Sprinkled over the years among our discussions of life and literature were exchanges of really important information. Who were the best pediatricians? Orthodontists? The best summer camps for the kids? When busing started in our city, most of the neighborhood children were pulled out and put into Christian or Catholic private schools. And since all of us in our book club had been educated in the public schools of New York—the Bronx or Brooklyn—we strongly resisted private schools. Pay for schools? Ridiculous! Didn’t we all feel grateful for our public school educations? And look how smart we were!

Smart we were. There was no argument there.

UNPLUGGED

UNPLUGGED

By Merrill Joan Gerber

 

It happens innocently at first—you intend to make a phone call to your daughter, you pick up the phone and there’s no dial tone. Hmm. Did you leave another phone off-hook?  Better check.

No dial tone there…or there. Wonder why the phone is out. Probably some local outage that will be corrected shortly.  Instead of the phone call, you’ll send an e mail to your daughter.

But wait, the computer says “no internet connection.” What’s this?  You call down the hall to your husband, who is at his computer.  “Are you on line?”

“Funny,” he says. “No, I can’t get on line.”

“What about the TV?” We both go into the kitchen and turn on the TV.  Nothing!

Nothing! Better call the cable company.  Okay, I know how to do it, I know the number by heart (and why would that be?  This has happened before.) I use my cell phone, which has limited minutes (very limited).

After you listen to the message, give your phone number associated with your account, hear it read back to you, say Yes, this is my number, the automated voice says that most problems can be corrected by rebooting your modem. “Do you want instructions as to how to do this?” “No! I do not!  Representative!” I cry, helplessly, into the non-human tape recording keeping me from a human being.  “Tell us in a few words what your problem might be, such as ‘I can’t use my phone.’”  “Representative!!” I cry again.

In time a human being gets on the phone, a person from another, distant country, whose language does not resemble mine. “We do not see an outage in your area,” the person says. “The outage is in my house!” I say, “that is definitely in my area.”

Further words are exchanged; I cannot understand this person. I make it as clear as I can: “We have no phone, no internet and no TV.  We can’t call out, we can’t do our work!  We can’t send an e mail.”

He determines that a service call may be in order, three days from now.

“Three days! That’s unacceptable. We are paralyzed here.”

“I can possibly offer you an appointment tomorrow night between 6 and 7 PM.”

“Tomorrow night!”

I am informed there’s no sooner appointment. Tough luck. Life is hard. Technicians are busy with broken equipment city-wide.  I lose my cool. I say, “I pay $250 a month to your company—I require better service than this.”

The foreign voice is firm…tomorrow night and someone over the age of eighteen must be home when our technician arrives there.” (My God! We are nearly sixty years over the age of eighteen, I think.)

I tell my husband our fate. All the rest of today and all tomorrow, unplugged.

We take it in, we try to control our panic. Perhaps I can take my Kindle to Starbucks or to the library or to Kaiser to send my daughter an e mail.  Let us not fall to pieces over this.  We have things to do in our house—don’t we?  I can sort my underwear drawer.

My husband can do…well, whatever he usually does when not playing FreeCell on his computer. Let us handle this logically.

The day moves on. We can still light the stove and fry some eggs for lunch. I can wash the dishes. The afternoon looms.  My husband brings into the kitchen a book!

We are going to be forced to read books! I also have a book I was thinking of reading…for years.  I get my reading glasses and open to the first page.

Somehow, we count the hours. We feel oppressed, cut off from life, deeply uneasy, deeply threatened. When I check “wireless settings” on my computer, I see a list of the names of neighbors all around me, with various titles like “Williams Residence,” “Maggie 22,” “Hot Dog”—all of these lucky people plugged in and happily oblivious to this vacuum of silence we face.

As we approach 6 PM of the next day, my heart quickens. I watch out the window as for a lover.  Where is he? Is he coming? And if so, when!  When!

At 6:30 the beloved image of the cable truck pulls up to the house. Relief is almost here.  A large and imposing man, laden with belts and other things around his waist, rings the bell, shakes hands with my husband, asks to be taken around to the back of the house.  Then back in the house, he unplugs a cable from my TV and tests it in a black machine.  “Totally dead,” he says. “I need to get up a pole but it’s not in your yard.  It’s two houses down the street.”  He clanks out the door, his equipment swinging and disappears.  Is he leaving?  Oh no, don’t let him leave.

But he is back in five minutes. No one is home but a young girl at that house with the precious pole in the yard. She says her parents won’t be home for a while.  “If they get home, here’s my card, call me, I’ll be in the area for another hour and I’ll come back.”

He gets into his truck and drives away. I stand in our front yard and watch for a car to come  home to the now most desired of houses with poles.  And a car comes!  Parks in the driveway!  The parents are home.  I pull out my cell phone and call the cable guy.  The phone rings and rings: “Sorry, the voice mailbox for Mr. so and so is filled and can take no more messages.”

We are doomed.

(Does any reader want to waste more of his time than he has already spent on this? Everyone knows the dance, everyone has heard the music of this dance, “Frustration Rag” it is called.)

We go to bed at night without the evening news. We can’t even find our portable radio. Not interested, anyway.

In the morning, repeating the call to the cable company (I won’t recount the deadly nature of it again) we are told a tech can come out today between 1 and 5 PM. “We are desperate here,” I remind the person in the foreign country. “We are sorry for the inconvenience.”  The voice is either from  India or the Philippines or the deep South…I decide.  Why don’t they hire someone in California, who talks like me?

By now I have knocked on the door and met the man who lives in the house with a pole. He’s very sympathetic, he has in the past been hit by this blight.  He generously writes a note for me to give to the cable guy, allowing access into his back yard and to the pole. (He will keep his dog locked in the house today.)

Again, after 1 pm, I begin to watch the road, watch for the truck to appear…And suddenly, at 1:30—how lucky is that?—a cable truck pulls up across the street.

No one gets out. The man inside is busy. Doing paperwork, or checking his I Phone, or finishing his lunch…but he’s there.  After twenty minutes, I ask my husband if I should go out to his truck and tap on his door, tell him he’s at the right house.  But no, we will simply wait. And then, oh my God, can this be happening, he revs up his motor and drives away.  He disappears!  He’s gone!

I use my cell phone to call the cable company. “He was here, and he never rang our doorbell. He’s vanished.” “Let me check, Madam, can you hold?” “I’m using up all my cell phone minutes, how long do I have to hold?”

The phone goes dead, anyway. We are now reaching the end of the third day.  I slump in my chair.  My husband is reading an enormous book, the history of the Civil Rights Era.  He has the gift of patience and application. Unlike me.

And when we least expect it, there’s a knock on the door. Outside is yet another cable truck, and at the door is a handsome, young, cheerful tech…who shakes my hand and tells me he is Leonardo.  He has lovely tattoos on his hands and arms, and in his ears are white disks, the kind that extend the earlobes.  I don’t mind.  I love this boy.  My husband and I accompany him down the street to the house with the pole.  We go in the side gate, as instructed. No one is home, but we are allowed to be here.  And there at the far end of the yard is the magical pole that holds the answer to our yearnings.  Bravely, this young tall man begins to climb the pole…up and up, higher and higher, shaking palm fronds from a neighboring tree out of his way.  For me he is risking his life.  He is doing something up there with tools.  My husband and I stand in this neighbor’s yard and wonder at  the challenges of having a life like this young man has.

He calls down: “Squirrel chewed up the wires. I’ll get it, don’t worry.”

We go home and wait for him to return to our house. He’s smiling.  “Turn on the TV,” he says, and we do, and there it is, big as life, a commercial for a heartburn drug.  Oh, thank you so much!  So very much.  This young man isn’t from a foreign country, he’s a local boy, with elegant tattoos that seem to be of flowers and lace. One never knows who will become meaningful in one’s life and will always be remembered.

After dinner, we turn on the TV for our fix, for news of the world, of the coming election, of Trump vs Hillary. But no, there is no news of that.  There is instead a horror happening, in two places, far from each other, in Minnesota and Louisiana, in both instances a white policeman has shot and killed a black man. One man was stopped for a broken taillight, and one man was selling CDs outside of a convenience store. Within minutes, each man was shot dead.

Without warning we are shown the video taken by the girlfriend of the man in the car with a broken taillight. She is filming the policeman even as he is shooting off the arm of her boyfriend.

Her four year old daughter is in the back seat. The woman is saying “yes sir, yes sir” to the cop, and begging him not to shoot her boyfriend again. He is slumped over and slowly bleeding to death.  His girlfriend assures the cop, “I’ll keep my hands up, sir” and then she finally screams in the horror of what she has just witnessed while her little girl, behind her, says “I’m here with you, Mommy.”

My husband and I now have TV access to horror. And more to come, more! Hours later, at a peaceful rally about “Black Lives Matter” in Dallas, a sniper shoots and kills five policeman from the top of a tall building. He injures six more.  The injured are taken to Parkland Hospital.

Does this recall the days of the shooting of President Kennedy? A sniper in a tall building? A wild ride to Parkland Hospital.

In those days, when we were young, we had no TV. We had a one year old daughter. We didn’t want a TV in the house.  Then Presidentl Kennedy was assassinated. We went to a friend’s house to watch the funeral procession.  The friend asked us if we weren’t someday going to get a TV.  My husband joked, “I guess we better, to watch all future assassinations.”  A sardonic joke, perhaps, but we did buy a TV, and we were in front of it when Martin Luther King was killed, and also when Robert Kennedy was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Tonight we sit dulled and in shock in front of the TV we so badly wanted to have restored to us. The pain of the world pours out of the screen and buries us in terror and fear and outrage and helplessness.  In recent days Americans have been forced to watch these events again and again, the carnage, the bloody killings, the humans who were spared but fell next to those who were killed– and within days, the names and faces of the dead appear on our screen, we learn of their plans to marry or of their pregnant mourning wives. We are told of their services to their country, their good hearts.  One or another, picked off by a madman in a dance hall, picked off by a sniper on a roof, or murdered by an enraged and terrified policeman.

Plugged in again, here we are, lost at sea, at risk and heartsick.

 

 

 

 

 

A DAY AT THE BEACH

A Day at the Beach

By Merrill Joan Gerber

 

I once took a poetry class with a poet who published poems about Superman, Wonder Woman, Dixie cups, skate keys, Good N’Plenty candies, Blackjack gum—all things that live in our memories and still create a shiver of pleasure when we think of them. He advised us to name every poem “A Day at the Beach” in order not to give away the heart of the experience, the meaning of the poem, the shape of the poem—all of which remained to be revealed by the elements, the words, the journey on which the poem was devised to take us.

Recently I had an experience I want to call “A Day at the Beach”–a trip to my chosen medical facility where I had scheduled four appointments in one day with doctors and trained medical personnel, all highly paid, all of whom had access to my body or, as my Buddhist friend calls it, “my meat suit.”

At 8 AM I began at the Mammogram Super bowl–the drill well-known by nearly every woman in the civilized world: Enter the dressing room: remove your shirt or blouse, put on the gown open at the front, then sit and wait with other women in the small waiting room wondering which of us is destined to be the “one in eight” who will have breast cancer. (I already know. I am the one in eight.  I have already been treated for breast cancer with two surgeries, a year of chemo, and radiation.)

Even now, years hence, I cannot calmly manage to have my mammogram, without feeling panic. I am this month five years out from the day of my first surgery, the magic five years that some suggest means you have got away with your life. But it’s not the case, it’s never the case with cancer, every three months I still have a blood test for cancer markers and for abnormal readings in other organs, every three months I see my oncologist who examines my breasts and every year the mammogram is still required.

Today, I endure the crushing of my breast and a half. I ask the tech if, since I have had cancer, I might get a radiologist to tell me results of this mammogram before I leave and not have to wait the required ten days for a letter to arrive. She says no radiologist has yet come in, but why don’t I stop back later. Later?  I tell her that my next appointment is with a knee surgeon to verify if I am a candidate for knee replacement surgery, and my appointment after that is with my oncologist, “Dr. B.” “Oh,” the tech says, “she is my oncologist, too.”  “You have had breast cancer?” “Mine is colon cancer.” “She’s a wonderful doctor,” I volunteer.  “Yes, she’s amazing,” the tech answers.  “The best!”  I go into the dressing room, discard my hospital gown get dressed, and find, in the waiting room my patient husband, doing a crossword puzzle but willing to rush with me to my next appointment.

The knee surgeon is an hour and a half late. My husband and I sit in the examining room where there are brochures on hip replacement, knee replacement, and various size purple gloves.  After the first half hour, I wander out in the hall. No nurse is around.  After the second half hour, I go out to find someone, some nurse, and I’m told the doctor is really backed up.  I inform her that I have an appointment in twenty minutes with my oncologist which I can’t miss. “You may have to reschedule with the surgeon,” she says to me, and I tell her I refuse to do that!  I explain how difficult it was for me to schedule these four appointments at which I have to appear today!  It was almost a feat of magic.

After fifteen more minutes in the room, in which I have begun to open cabinet drawers and count syringes, I rush out into the hall and nearly crash into a man who says to me, “I’ll be right in!” “Are you the knee surgeon?” He admits that he is. He isn’t what I expected. He’s quite short and he is smiling.

One minute later he comes into the examining room and asks me what level of pain I am in. “None,” I tell him. “I’m sitting down.”  He glances at my knees, asks me to bend them forward and back and then to wiggle my ankles up and down.  He tells me he has looked at my ex-rays, my knee bones are grinding like razorblades upon one another and I am a definite candidate for knee replacement.  He states, “I want you to know knee surgery has the most painful recovery there is from any surgery. And there is a four to five month waiting list. Think it over and let me know.” He adds. “I know you have an appointment with another doctor now.  I believe you can make it if you hurry.”

As my husband and I rush across the hospital grounds toward the Oncology department, as I am imagining my knee being sawed off and a metal prosthesis being stuck into my thigh bone, I hear my name being called. The tech from the mammogram department is running after me, flapping an envelope in her hand. I gasp with alarm as she approaches me, calling, “I knew you were having an appointment in Oncology. I have the report from the radiologist.”  She hands me the envelope and I hear her saying “Don’t worry, it’s good.”  I figure out what she must mean and begin to cry.  We hug each other.  We both are crying in this remarkable moment.

Weak with gratitude, I thank her and proceed into the “Oncology” door to see my beloved oncologist, a woman who glows with some kind of radiant light, ability, without guarantees, to reassure her patients that they are going to live.

She and I go over my recent lab tests, my blood work is okay, my liver is okay, my kidneys are okay…but let’s see, my cancer markers have gone up a second time. “Don’t worry,” she says.  “I’ll put in an order for another CEA test, in a month, and we’ll see what it says.” We both know that if these cancer markers go up a third time, I will be having CT scans of bones and lungs and brain to look for possible cancer sites. She examines my breasts. I glance down: they are what they are now.  I am lucky to have what’s left of them. “You have a good report card,” she says. “Try to enjoy your life.”

Off I go off to the last appointment of the day—it’s a field of vision test after which detailed photographs will be taken of my optic nerves which my optometrist has told me are asymmetrical and may be indicators of glaucoma.  I rest my chin on a little cup (newly wiped with smelly alcohol) and I’m told by the male tech to push a button when a see a flash of light anywhere on the black screen.  I push and push, sometimes I push when there is no light, and I don’t push when there is a light.  My neck hurts at this strange angle where I am positioned. I am so very tired.  I push and push the button till I finally ask the tech to tell me when this will be over.  It’s not over.  He’s a big tall guy with a grim expression.  Next he has to take photographs of my optic nerves. “Look at this light, don’t move your head.” Then he has to test the thickness of my cornea. Then he has to numb my eyes and take a pressure reading.

I’m burning to ask him what he sees so far. And suddenly I do.  It’s forbidden, but I’m old enough to be his mother.  I ask him if so far he thinks I have glaucoma. (My mother had glaucoma, she went blind in one eye.)  Of course he says he can’t tell me.  “But I’m a grown up, and these are my eyes.  If you know something about them, I’m entitled to know, don’t you think?”  He thinks, I can tell, that I should shut up. “I know you know the answer to my question.” He’s immovable. “But when will I know the results?” “It will take a full week for your doctor to get them.”  “A week?  When you know right now?” “You’re all done,” the man says. “You may leave.  Don’t rub your eyes; they will be numb for some time.”  He has the same first name as the knee surgeon.

My poor tired husband is waiting in the downstairs lobby, sitting by the player piano that doles out its dull, monotonal tunes.

I feel as if we are like tri-athletes that have run three, no four, races in this one day. A ridiculous challenge, simply to get it all done at once, not to have to drive these 24 miles more than once for my appointments. What stress, what exhaustion, And certain results still lie ahead!

On the way home, we pass the Yum Yum Donut shop. My husband slows down and asks me, “Would you like me to get you some donuts?”

“I would love a donut,” I tell him, “but let’s pass in the interest of health.”

Not eating a donut, I am sure, will prevent our falling prey to cancer, glaucoma, knee surgery and even death.

As we drive on the freeway, the sun disappears suddenly and we find ourselves under a black cloud. Thunder roars!  Lightning flashes!  Rain beats on the windshield so hard we are nearly blinded.

My husband is trying to steer us to safety. Suddenly the sun comes out again, brilliant and blindingly.  Who knows what all this means? At home, exhausted, we fall straight into bed and sleep till midnight.  The day has been a long poem, a mystery, an adventure– or merely a day at the beach.

On The Writing of Beauty and the Breast

beauty_breastI am so pleased that my breast cancer memoir is now complete, and though it won’t be published till October 1, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it has been brought to life by Coffeetown Press, Seattle, and it is up on Amazon now for advance sales.  Please click here to pre-order and read more about the book.

Here’s how I came to write the book:

During my cancer treatment (I was undergoing radiation at the time), my husband took me to see a concert of the six Brandenburg Concertos by Bach. As I sat in the darkened church listening to this most transcendent music, as I watched the musicians on stage, particularly the women playing violins, a thought came to me: “Breasts are everywhere in Brooklyn.”  I got a pen from my purse and wrote down these words on my program. Further, I reflected, “Breasts are everywhere on women!”

Should this thought have come to me as a revelation, a surprise? I remembered the Italian sisters in Brooklyn who helped me sew my 8th grade graduation dress.  I remembered the big-breasted girl in my class who was always fending off the boys who circled around her.

I began to make notes on the sides and top of my program, suddenly realizing the enormity of the story I could tell, that perhaps I was now destined to tell. Though I was a writer, I had never had an intention of writing the story of my breast cancer journey. Though I had taken photos during my treatment, of my own breast, of the ultrasound image of my cancer, of my nurses and friends, and though I had written a few notes to document my medical treatment, now, suddenly, I saw there was a greater story to tell. Perhaps it was the thrilling music of Bach that loosed a flood of words and images in me.  “Beauty and the Breast” was the result.

OLD AGE LIVING: OUR NEW FUTURE

 

Here is what’s happening with some of my friends—my friends who are over 80 (how can that be possible…people of that age used to be my grandmother’s friends, old ladies who walked slowly along Avenue O in Brooklyn, stopping to sit on the bench in front of our house and talk to my grandmother).  Many of my friends are now over 80 and they have no benches in front of their houses.  In fact, there’s a powerful message going around that their houses are liabilities—soon my friends will be too old to care for them, even to live in them, cook in them, and enjoy the accumulations of fifty years  of stuff in these houses.  The message has a subtext: soon you will may be helpless.  You have made decisions all your life but eventually you may be too feeble to make decisions and carry them out.

 

The second sub-text is: don’t leave a pile of grief for your children. When you are too old to manage matters on your own, your kids will then be responsible for getting you into some place where there will be helpful aides, and institutional food, and assurances of safety.  They will be the ones who have to get rid of all the old furniture, and the knick-knacks you’ve accumulated, they’ll have to clean out the garage and the attic and throw out all the margarine containers you’ve saved, not to mention precious souvenirs from trips you made (like your plastic leaning Tower of Pisa, for example, or a piece of coral you found on the beach that looks like the “Elephant Man” with his one eye visible).

Third sub-text: where are your kids, anyway?  They’ve moved away!  You took good care of them, you loved them, you got them educated, they grew up, and they found jobs across the country somewhere.  Do you even know your grandchildren?  Well, they see you on Skype a few times a year and thank you for the presents you send them.  Mainly, you have no kids nearby to help you out. (Maybe you helped out your old parents, maybe one or another of them even lived with you till they died.  That’s not happening anymore.)

But the modern world now has an answer for you. These are the new campuses for the old!  Just as you did in college, you can take classes there.  Never mind Bingo—you can now study existential philosophy with a visiting professor.  You can have your own private trainer in a workout center where you live. There’s a spa for massages, a beauty shop for manicures and haircuts, a library for study, a theater for movies and live concerts, a heated pool and spa for low-impact exercise.

These homes away from home have thought of everything.  An alarm button in every room in case you feel ill or fall.  Free house- keeping services and free trips to your various and frequent doctor appointments (within a certain few miles of your new home).

 

There’s just one major thing most of you will have to do: sell your house and give these institutions the money. There are various plans, but they all require a look at your financial information and your medical information—and they all charge alarmingly high monthly fees (now that most of you have paid off your houses, and have no rent to pay).

Is it a good deal?  Most of these places promise to keep you till the very end—moving you (after you move in in relatively good health) to “levels” of assisted living that help with the tasks of dressing and feeding and transferring, to “memory gardens” (when you can no longer think for yourself), and to skilled nursing care when you require more constant monitoring.

Homes like these are arising all over the country as a service to the “baby boomers”—those who came of age in the sixties and are now reaching the age where help is needed or soon will be.

My husband and I have visited some of these elegant places; they offer tours, they offer free lunches, they can direct you to those who conduct estate sales, those who help with “gentle transitions” and all manner of reassurance that it can be done, that it is a wise choice, you will never regret it, and you will never again have to call a roofer or a plumber of an electrician.

When we get home from such a visit, we look upon our messy kitchen almost with ecstasy, we walk in the weedy springtime yard with joy, we note the peeling paint near the bathroom tub, we rejoice in that fact that we still see (maybe not so well), still hear, still walk, and can still make our own toast every morning.  Maybe we can’t do the ultimate calculation now!  Maybe we simply refuse to do it at this moment.  Maybe it will never happen to us at all—growing old and helpless.

Why not decide to merely be here now, as we always have been,  to live as we always have lived, to manage as long as we can…and wait for further news from existence?

 

 

 

 

FOLLOW THE THREAD INTO THE LABYRINTH

“FOLLOW THE THREAD INTO THE LABYRINTH”:
A FOND RECOLLECTION OF ANDREW LYTLE

When I first entered Andrew Lytle’s writing class in 1957 (the year he published The Velvet Horn) I was a nineteen year old girl from Brooklyn who had come to the University of Florida by way of Miami Beach. My family had moved to Florida when I was fourteen to escape the cold winters of New York; to me “the south” was mainly a place where a person could get a good suntan.
Our writing class met at night in a rickety wooden structure. Mr. Lytle would arrive, smiling, his glasses strung around his neck on a black grosgrain ribbon, and greet us all heartily. The students sat around long wooden tables, and Mr. Lytle sat in a very old, overstuffed chair. Behind him was a row of windows and, beyond them, were the lights of the library shining in at us. Beside Mr. Lytle, during each class, sat Smith Kirkpatrick, who also taught writing classes at the university and who was, even then, working on his novel The Sun’s Gold. Kirk, with his kind, intense face, usually sat smoking, listening carefully. When Mr. Lytle could not elicit from us the answers he was seeking, he would finally turn to Kirk, who always knew the flaw or excellent thing to which Mr. Lytle was hoping to draw our attention.
Before discussing the students’ stories, Mr. Lytle liked to read one of his own favorites to us. He was an inspired actor, and any story he read took on the dimension of theater. I can still see his face as he began reading Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” (“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind…”) Mr. Lytle’s eyes sparkled with the thrills he knew were coming. Now and then he could not contain himself and would burst out laughing as he read one perfect comic line after another.
On other nights he showed a more somber demeanor; when he read James Joyce’s “The Dead” in class, Mr. Lytle became very serious, indeed. I still have the notes I took on the night of April 16, l959 (I found them in the pages of our textbook, Gordon and Tate’s The House of Fiction.) Here are a few of the comments I took down that night:
“Parts 1 and 2: Gabriel is in his last and sinning state.

Part 3: Gabriel is regenerated.
“The supernatural appears only through the natural.”
“The three fates (the three muses) are the three women–virgins–completed–living in death.”
“Debauchery and asceticism are both forms of death, one by denial, one by excessive use.”
“Age is dead youth.”
“The head is the upper phallus.”
“Trappist monks don’t speak.”
“In the end we all come to earth.”
This kind of talk was heady stuff to a girl who, before college, was widely read in Seventeen Magazine and who thought she aspired to publish there.
Each night when class ended, the women students had to race back to the dorms to get in by curfew. We were aware Mr. Lytle often stayed to talk with the men after class, but the women did not have such privileges. I knew that Mr. Lytle often visited the male students in their rooms and talked with them about life and art late into the night. The men in our class boasted of this–and I was jealous.
One day I took courage and asked to have a private conference with Mr. Lytle. I’d been writing a story about a young girl who was deeply troubled and who spent a long hot summer crocheting a purple and yellow snake-like rope which she wound into an ever-expanding rug. I called the story “The Purple and Yellow Summer” and I hadn’t the slightest idea what it was about. It seemed sad enough and dense enough to be “artistic”; I thought he and I should talk about it. Mr. Lytle invited me to come to his study at his house in Gainesville. He told me he rose before dawn to work, and asked that I arrive in the early morning, about eight. I distinctly remember walking to his house in the chill woodsy morning. Fall leaves were underfoot and the sun was newly up. I carried my “work” under my arm–never before had I felt so serious; I was a serious writer, on my way to have a talk with the great master.
Mr. Lytle showed me the carved wooden chair in his study; he pointed out the ouroboros on it; it was his favorite symbol–the snake eating its own tail. I indicated my story, which Mr. Lytle had already read, and asked him to help me with the characters and “the plot.”
“What should I have them do?” I asked.
He thought for a moment. Then he said, “Merrill, there is only one way to write: you must follow the thread back into the labyrinth; there and only there you will find the meaning.”
While I was pondering this (in fact, I am pondering it still), a call came from the house. Mrs. Lytle needed help! The baby had broken a jar of peanut butter, and all hands were needed in the cleanup!
I became acquainted with the family, and made friends with the Lytles’ two younger daughters, Kate and Langdon. On several occasions, I babysat for them. One evening as the Lytles were getting ready to go out, Mr. Lytle’s wife, Edna, came from her bedroom to give me some instructions about the children. She looked beautiful in a stunning red dress; when I admired it she took me into her confidence. She smiled, and said (rather mischievously): “When a woman turns forty, Merrill, she either takes a lover or buys a red dress.”
One afternoon I met Mr. Lytle on campus. “I trust you have a story to read in class tonight,” he said. “I’m counting on you.”
“Oh yes, I have one,” I said.
“Good, I’m looking forward to it.” I watched him walk away, feeling extreme panic. It was 2 p.m. I had exactly five hours in which to invent and write a complete short story! I remember thinking, as I ran to my dormitory room, “He’s counting on me!” I sat down and began to type. By 6:45 p.m. I had written a twelve-page story. When Mr. Lytle read it in class that night, no one knew the ink had barely dried on the paper. He admired the story publicly. He was proud of me.
Another time, I had written a story for class about a character I called “Crazy Harry”–Mr. Lytle was much taken with this story and told me that the following week, when he was leaving for New York to meet with his editor, he intended to bring the story, himself, directly to the offices of The New Yorker. Imagine my state of mind during his absence! All week I waited for a telegram! None came. And when I saw Mr. Lytle in class after his trip, he seemed to have no special news. In fact, he gave me no signal at all. After class I tapped his arm, trembling.
“Mr. Lytle. What did The New Yorker say?”
“The New Yorker? Oh my! I forgot about that.”
It seems to me now that the students in our particular writing class (that year, that time, that place) constituted a sacred circle; we were blessed initiates in a mysterious and difficult art. Once the door to that small classroom was shut and Mr. Lytle began reading in his wonderful, expressive voice, a magical aura enclosed us.

In my first semester of graduate work, I applied for a small fellowship from the English Department to help with expenses. I asked Mr. Lytle for a reference; he said he’d be happy to write one. To my delight, I was awarded the grant. When I went to collect my check, Alton C. Morris, then the head of the English department, seemed puzzled.

He said, “Miss Gerber, on the strength of Mr. Lytle’s extremely fine recommendation we decided to give you this money, but now that I am looking at your transcript, I see that you aren’t as brilliant as he said you are. Look at this–you had grades of C in the physical sciences!” With a look of extreme annoyance on his face, he handed me the envelope. “We hope we haven’t made a mistake,” he said.

The following September, I came back to the University of Florida to begin a job as a graduate teaching assistant in the English department. A day before the semester formally began, I received a wire from Brandeis University informing me that a scholarship for which I had applied had just come through. I was beside myself with confusion. My husband-to-be was a graduate student at Brandeis; I wanted to be with him, and to study literature, myself, in their graduate program. But I had committed myself to my rented room and promised my services to the university. (Also, I remembered Dr. Morris’ comment.) I went to Andrew Lytle with my desperate dilemma; he suggested that I search my soul (that cloudy labyrinth?) and do what was necessary. When he saw the answer on my face, he led me to his green Cadillac, drove me to his bank, loaned me enough money to buy a plane ticket to Boston, rounded up some students to help me pack and drive me to the airport. He kissed me goodbye and wished me Godspeed.

DINNER OUT AT THE LOBSTER HOUSE…OR NOT

 

The necessity to eat dinner comes up so often— and there is always a decision to be made about which action makes the greater demand on our energy: staying home and cooking (I do the cooking) or getting dressed to go out for dinner. This involves discussing what we might want to eat, where we might want to go, what night of the week it is (will it be too crowded on the weekend at our favorite places?)

 

What are our favorite places? I have to admit I don’t like pricey restaurants where the waiter reels off the night’s “specials” and then hangs out behind our chairs to ask, too often, if everything’s all right or if he can get us anything more. I don’t like places where they take your order, bring rolls and a salad, and 45 minutes later there is no sign of our food. By then, I’ve eaten enough and don’t need dinner anymore.

 

There’s a Japanese place we love: they bang a drum to welcome us as we come in, they offer us the sushi list, which we bypass to order our standard favorite: salmon teriyaki, California roll, salad with ginger dressing, and tempura. The dipping sauce is sweet and delicious, the rice is a fluffy beautiful texture, the chopsticks are a brave pleasure, and the tea is strong and full of flavor. I could come here every night.

 

A friend gave us a gift card to a lobster place. Tonight we decide to venture there. Inside the restaurant we smell a decidedly fishy stink and suddenly we are in front of the lobster cage– the water-filled tank where the creatures are handcuffed and waiting for their death. This is not a pretty sight—a bunch of lobsters are crammed in a corner, standing upon one another, hoping to hide from a pointing finger and a voice saying “I’ll take that one.”

 

There is one enormous lobster in the tank who is trying to get our attention, he’s scrabbling around and coming to the glass to look at us with his beady eyes. “Don’t take me,” he’s telling us. “Don’t you dare.” A young woman appears with a grappling hook and flings it into the case to capture this lobster, thinking he’s the one who has caught our fancy. She lifts him out and we are face to face with this creature of innumerable antennae and limbs and claws (taped together, of course) and all his sharp edges.

“How do you usually kill him?” I ask conversationally.

 

“Oh, the chef stabs him with a knife right here,” she indicates a point behind his eyes. “They feel nothing, lobsters have no brains.”

 

“You don’t boil him alive?”

 

“Oh, no. He would struggle in the pot and splash the chef with boiling water if we just dropped him in. That’s why we stab him first. Or sometimes we freeze him to make him sleepy before we boil him.”

 

Don’t tell me this lobster has no brain. Of course he would struggle in a pot of boiling water. He is looking at us with his black eyes, and he knows what this conversation is about.

 

“You know,” I say to this young woman, “I think we’ll come back another time, thanks for all the information, though,” and I pull my husband out the door.

 

We have a few other choices: there’s a burger place where, once you place your order, you are given a device that flashes when your burger is ready. I really don’t like to hold this device which dozens of others have held and then hold my burger in the same hand. Furthermore, this place features deafening music that makes us want to run outside with our hands over our ears.

 

There’s a pizza place that lets you choose from a list of fifty items to put bits of on your pizza– bacon chips, grated apple, pork rind, cow tongue, spinach, pesto sauce, ground almonds, mango chutney. This asks for too many decisions.

 

Now we really are tired and hungry, and though we don’t discuss it, we automatically know and accept the fact that whatever we eat tonight will have been killed days or weeks prior to our dinnertime. We understand the arguments made by our vegetarian friends, yet we are of a generation that grew up being fed “chopped meat” and chicken soup by our loving mothers.

 

Chicken in every dimension was our mothers’ antidote to life’s problems. My husband and I are so tired and hungry now that we both feel a desire to eat chicken tonight. A place called “Steer and Ale” is around the corner, and Monday is their fried chicken special night. Lots of retired folks go to this place, the price is right, they give you a pile of napkins, and, even before you ask, the waitress brings you take-out boxes.

 

We decide to go for it—my God, what incredible comfort food, a whole quartered chicken fried to perfection, a baked potato sloshing with butter, sour cream and chives, a slab of dripping buttery garlic bread. And, for dessert, we know what is coming are bowls of tapioca pudding topped with whipped cream.

 

We eat with a kind of rapture, with gratitude that such simple joys are still possible for us. That just for tonight we will indulge in this kind of wild orgy and be utterly satisfied and happy. We tear with pleasure at our crunchy pieces of fried chicken. We look at each other and smile. Dinner out. A great thing tonight.

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections on Ice

Over the weekend I watched a series of ice skating competitions, short and long programs of individual skaters, ice dancing teams, pair skating, and finally a gala show of performance events, the rules and requirements no longer the issue, but the artistry, beauty, grace and majesty of the skaters brought into focus.
Awesome, indeed, these gyrations, death spirals, gravity-defying throws, swizzles and twizzles, throw jumps, overhead lifts, lutz jumps, layback spins and breath-taking catches in mid-air. Not rocket science? I think perhaps it is, the enormity of remembering to execute a thousand choreographed steps with perfect timing, to do this in tempo to music, to do it with cautious respect of the female body (so many lifts require the male skater to support the female by her pubic bone while she holds her hands beneath his for modesty).
How modest is this sport of ice-dancing, in which both men and women wear revealing, tight-fitting costumes, where the thighs and buttocks of the female skaters flash before us in startling perfection, where the strength of the male skaters is heroic, thrillingly manly? Is ice dancing more or less modest than ballet? But modesty falls away under the spell of the stories being told, lovers in crisis, lovers in conflict, and ultimately lovers in sweet resolution. (How often the dancing pairs end their story with a kiss!)
When my daughters were young, we used to watch the famous skaters of the times: Katerina Witt, Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, Debi Thomas. So much drama was attached to their names—personal enmity, thrilling competitive moments, Tonya was charged with an attack on Nancy, and Debi, a Stanford medical student, ultimately, years later, left the sport, left medicine, lost her bearings.
My daughters and I checked out library books trying to learn the meanings of the terms triple lutz, salchow, the quad, the double-throw axel, the inside and outside edges of the blades. But never mind, we failed to learn the lingo and simply let the announcers tell us who landed what, and how good it was!
My own long-ago favorite team skaters were Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini. They had between them some magical sexuality, unmatched, unequaled by even the most famous. (See them on You Tube skating to “Unchained Melody.”) The angle of his body canting toward hers, the delicacy with which he lifted, flung and rescued her from a death spiral, and most of all the way their eyes locked in every performance, they never looked away from each other, their passion was tangible.
Barbara Underhill’s heart was later broken when one of her twin baby daughters crawled out a door of her home and drowned in her pool. She thought she must give up skating. In time, but came back on the ice, she recovered day by day till she found some degree of peace. She later created a foundation to assure the safety of children.
http://www.keepsafefoundation.com
As I see it, Underhill and Martini have never been matched since their winning days.  This past weekend, I watched a new champion with the amazing name of Gracie Gold. She danced Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” she melted the ice with her heat and beauty.
I watched her, transfixed. She spun she jumped, she twirled, she shimmered like a diamond. She landed every leap. Her smile, as she finished in triumph, was transcendent.
I watched with an almost tearful yearning. I let myself think the dreamy impossible: Once upon a time I could have done that. In fact, I used to have thighs just like hers!

Can We Be Anti-Depressed?

I’m wondering lately about these medications that encourage us to think that in “four-to-six weeks” we may feel less grief about our losses, less confusion about our terrors, less anxiety about our inability to manage the demands of daily life, less dread about vulnerably, loneliness and death.

And then, of course, there is the sub-text of these psychotropic drugs as in the TV ads where the principal players are dancing through a meadow or a couple in a sailboat are kissing or a grandfather is throwing hoops with the kids while at the same time the voice-over is warning about suicidal ideation, kidney failure, incurable infections, heart arrhythmia or or fatal anemia.

When we find ourselves in a dead-end tunnel with no light slipping in anywhere, we may elect to try these drugs along, at times, with talk therapy.  The pills are pieces of magic as we ingest them and wait for the miracles. Alert and alarmed, we watch for the sinister side-effects like arrivals of mystery-deliveries.  Tremors of the hands.  Unbearable thirst. A throbbing of the heart in strange places, in the mouth, in the neck.  Sudden, thrilling weight gain! (We feel hunger, we feel ravenous for nourishment and joy, we are up at all hours of the night eating peanut butter sandwiches and lemon tarts.)  Are the panic attacks lessening?  Are we sleeping better?  And what about those “serious sexual side effects” that come with these drugs? Is there any way that those side effects are going to return us to a joyful life?

For days and weeks we count on the implied promise of feeling happy, or maybe just a bit happier if not ecstatic.  We look at the pills as if little genies inside them are gathering potency and soon, any moment now, they will blast forth and we will feel release, and joy, peace and love.

No miracle really happens.  No one knows if these drugs really work, no one is certain, but some think maybe they might.  Some accept that perhaps one’s terrors simply lessen with time and one is not as tuned in to cosmic unhappiness or despair as once one was.

Or we face up to the reality that we’re here, there are no deals to make, and no genies in a bottle.  We get a grip.  Or we lose our grip.  One day follows another and that is the delivery we get each day. A new day every day may feel unremarkable, but it’s all there is.  It is, in fact, everything.

 

 

 

 

A Profound Typo

While reading the obituaries last week, I came across this line:

“She died after a long ballet with cancer.”

Oh yes, I thought, cancer is more like a ballet than a battle! The dance is long and involved, with many steps, variations and rhythms. The choreography changes sometimes weekly—your dance partners (GP, oncologist, surgeon, pathologist, dosimetrist, chemo nurses) revolve around you in dizzying array. In addition there are the cancer pharmacists to whom you have access when you have doubts about your nausea drug, about how many opioids it is safe to take, what to do about the blisters in your mouth and throughout your digestive tract after chemo. Added to the dance may be the dancers in your cancer support group—other souls going through what you are now experiencing, giving encouragement, advice, holding onto you when you melt into tears. There are pauses in the dance to learn about chemo-brain, about neuropathy in your dancing toes, about whether or not you want to have nipples tattooed upon your reconstructed breasts, or where to go to get your free wig. Then there are the inevitable funerals—the memorial services for those you love who have lost the “ballet.”

Each day the obituaries are there to tell us who we have lost, how young, how hard they fought, (in some cases, how carefully they kept their cancer a secret from the public). Sometimes the stories are about calculated survival, about double mastectomies done to prevent the inevitable before a trace of cancer appears. Famous TV personalities let the cameras into their hospital rooms to trace the ordeals of bone marrow transplants and weeks of chemotherapy. Children with cancer get a boost from the “Make A Wish” foundation. But cancer surely is the shadow that haunts us all. My grandmother Fanny died of “a stone in the stomach,” and my father died at 56 from leukemia that was treated then with the most primitive of medicines, a chemical used in WW Two called “mustard gas.”

My own five year mark comes up in March. I know it is just another day, but I await it like one awaits a precious and desired signal, a signal that says “Yes, you may go on! You may go on!”