succumbing to peer pressure

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Everybody asks me how she's doin'
Has she really lost her mind?
I said, I couldn't tell you
I've lost mine

The desperately sad thing that happened to my friend last month - this is how it went.

On Wednesday night I had dinner with the Canadians, sort of a goodbye, only really just prolonging, since I was scheduled to come back by the next day to help them load their u-haul trailer. Corrine was four months pregnant and couldn't really lift anything, so Mike asked me to help him carry their tv and mattress down the stairs. They were going for an ultra-sound in the morning, to find out if they were having a boy or a girl, and would call me when they got back.

Thursday afternoon, I'm standing in my local market, paying for a deli sandwich, headed back home to pack my own car for a weekend trip to Florida (family business). Corrine's number shows up on the caller id, and I say hi cheerily and ask her to hang on so I'm not terribly rude to the check out clerk. Turns out it's Mike instead, and he sounds funny. The ultra sound wasn't good. So many things wrong, he says. I can't tell anyone else, he says. Will you call our friends? Be sure to spread the word in my department, make someone tell my boss. I'm not coming in to work today.

I start the friend phone tree, not really sure what I'm telling them. Have they lost the baby? Is it going to be a complicated pregnancy? Is Corrine ok? Corrine calls back a couple of hours later with definitive word. They've lost the baby. She's scheduled for a D&E in the morning. She's never had surgery before, and can't stop shaking.

I make the telephone rounds again, this time with specific bad news. Everyone asks what to do? Fuck, I don't know. I'm no more experienced in this than you are. Well, I think, they're all packed up to move to California. That must make cooking difficult. They don't want to see or talk to anyone, but we could arrange to have food delivered. Make that one small logistical area of their life suck less. I order flowers. Shit. I'm still supposed to drive to Florida. Do I go? Do I stay? Do I just postpone?

In the end, I go. But it isn't until I cross the threshold of more than halfway there that I stop considering turning around. I still think I should have put the trip off one day. C needed me to hold her hand as they wheeled her in to that surgery. Of course, Mike was there, but he was in it too. I should have been there.

In between helping my grandfather in and out of chairs and having repetitive conversations with Marion (whose short term memory is long gone) I call C, to make sure she's ok, physically. That night, from the hotel room, I call some friends, remind them about the food delivery idea.

I get home Sunday night, discover no one has done anything, they're all waiting for me to hold their hand. I'm pissed. We're all grown-ups! I get that I naturally fall into this leadership role, but I had hoped it fell short of enabling. You should be able to act when I'm not around.

Monday morning I deliver two bags of groceries to their apartment, then spend the week fielding calls from everyone else as they try to figure out how to do the same. Thursday night I'm back at M and C's house, lying in bed with C, watching Mike pack, watching tv. Not really talking about anything. Friday morning I'm back again - time to finally help carry the tv downstairs.

And then they're gone. And finally I'm sad.

It's not my story to tell. I would never begin to imagine that I know what M and C are going through, or that I feel a tiny fraction of their pain.

But on the other hand, I did go through it. I lost that kid too. I was going to be a part of its life. Auntie Megan. I was writing a letter to baby Wilson (something AWB thought of and did years ago for her best friend). M and C were only here two years, for his post doc, so I was going to write this letter, about what they were like as people, as my friends. What their life was like here. I was going to put together a book with pictures of all our different parties and places we hung out in atlanta and M and C looking happy. C pregnant, but not showing yet.

I lost that kid too. And I lost my best friend. And I'm mourning and people keep asking me how she's doing, which is right, I'm the one who knows. But they just want me to say she's hanging in there, doing better. They look surprised and confused when I say I'm sad. They ask why. I lost that kid too. I sit still for too long and it sneaks up on me. During meditation in yoga class I have to fight back the tears. It seems too hard to explain, to justify, that I'm grieving the loss of a child who wasn't mine.

Everybody asks me how she's doing
Since she went away
I said I couldn't tell you
I'm OK I'm OK (I'm OK)

Today is damn near perfect. It's warm enough to be comfortable in very little clothing, but not so hot as to be oppressive. It wasn't all rainbows and (motherfucking) unicorns, from beginning to end, of course. But right now...right now is pretty fucking swell. I have just the right amount of alcohol in my system - sober enough to drive safely but relaxed. I know that's probably not a terrific idea to endorse, but frankly, if self-medicating feels this good, I'm all for it. This morning I was a little cranky, a little sleep deprived, and a little impatient with my little tutorees. Then I rushed to get to kickball on time and the first few innings of our playoff game were so high pressure that my heart kept flippety-flopping in my chest quite uncomfortably. But then we settled in, and although we ultimately lost, we played really well. Followed up by pizza and beer at mellow mushroom and more beer at the after-pool-party (where I did my best to suppress the inevitable feeling of beached whale on the first bathing-suit-wearing occasion of the summer). Then the drive home with the sun and the windows down and the radio up. Life is ok. I'm ok. It's a great relief to grin unexpectedly, and to find that familiar feeling of deep comfort and satisfaction with the world around me. What a welcome change from crying unexpectedly during the quiet moments.

Dave Matthews Band, of course.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Thanks to April for nerdy goodness.

Seating for optimal social arrangement at the movies.

Venn diagram of love.
The Riemann-zeta function can't give you herpes.
Hamster ball.
Math Love.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Emergency Sex (and other desperate measures)

I haven't had a book crawl under my skin and stay like this since the heady emotional days of my adolescence (when everything hit a nerve). After the first night of reading before bed I had nightmares about being in a Somali prison with Ken.

Re-cap - the book is the true story/memoir of three friends who spend the 90s working as UN peacekeepers in Cambodia, Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, and Liberia. It's also a damning indictment of UN and US incompetence, but I'll get to that.

It's the first book in a long time that I haven't had the willpower to put down; it's been keeping me up nights. So tonight I sat down to finish it, and dragged myself as quickly as possible toward the end, needing the three authors to find hope so that I could find it too, and surfaced again an hour later as if emerging from a deep sleep. I had no idea so much time had passed and very nearly read completely through a meeting.

I was really afraid this book would break my heart, and it almost did. I'm not sure if it's because I recognize my friends and students and classmates or because I'm dreaming of applying to the UN and WHO after graduation (hopefully next year) but the evolution of these three people, watching their growing disillusion, it nearly undid me.

(Andrew, October 14, 1993) We just showed Haitians that our lives are more valuable than theirs. The logic of the mission was ours, not theirs, and so is the logic of our retreat. "Tell us the truth and we will seek justice" was our idea. "It's too dangerous and we must evacuate" is our privilege. Neither applies to the Haitians. A ship with soldiers arrives at the dock and exits the dock. Haitians have no exit.
The most basic principle they teach you at medical school, years before you even get to touch your first patient, is "First, do no ham." But harm is exactly what we've done, identifying the next victims for the assassins running Haiti. It was a vicious setup from the beginning.
(Ken, October 19, 1993) Dee Dee's taking questions from reporters now. I have a question, Dee Dee. Aidid was to be arrested for killing twenty-four Pakistanis in June, and then was pardoned for the crime and resurrected as a credible negotiating partner after killing eighteen Americans in October. What's the message if the policy of accountability for the crime of attacking peacekeepers is abandoned after a successful repetition of the same crime? How can the policy our soldiers died for reverse the next day, because of their death?
(Ken, 1996, Liberia) There is an area in the south where a Nigerian ECOMOG contingent was deployed for several months this summer. They were in the habit of encouraging very young Liberian girls from the nearby displaced persons camp to visit and "seducing" them with rice and a little money. The girls were nine or ten. Then a Ghanaian ECOMOG contingent established a camp nearby. The Ghanaians were more gentle and generous with the girls. They would give them a whole can full of rice as opposed to the more paltry handful from the Nigerians. So the girls started frequenting the Ghanaian camp more than the Nigerian. One day dead little girls started appearing on the path from the displaced persons camp to the Ghanaian camp - but not on the path to the Nigerians. The girls had been decapitated and their heads inserted inside their nine-year-old genitals. In the opinion of the investigating officer, this was a message to the girls from the Nigerians that it wouldn't be worth it to frequent the Ghanaians for the sake of a little extra rice.
And these are the peacekeepers.
(Ken, April 2003, NY) Maybe it's not me, maybe I'm done volunteering. Perhaps I should just admit that I now understand the world is corrupt and brutal, that most nations look out only for their own interests, and people seldom rush to dangerous acts of selfless sacrifice. No shit. Where did I get the idea I would find otherwise?
We actually set out to save the world. That is what was insane - not ten-year-old warlords with bad breath and voodoo fetishes in Liberia, not Matt's assassin, not the boss in Somalia who set us up for an ambush in exchange for a fifteen percent kickback on the judges' salaries, not the Hutu militias who butchered a minority who had repressed them or the Tutsi survivors who executed the suspects - but me, for thinking I could enter a war and personally restore order.
So that's the easy answer: forswear idealism; resign myself to a sad maturity, put away the things of youth; be thankful I survived and move on.
But that's horseshit too, a craven capitulation...If everyone resigns themselves to cynicism, isn't that exactly how vulnerable millions end up dead?
One million civilians we promised to protect died on our watch. There are many competing versions of this story - U.S., UN, NATO, EU. But we were there, and capital letters always lie and our version has no meaning if no one renders it.


Liberals are too skittish critiquing the UN: if anyone's values have been betrayed over the past decade it is those of us who believe most deeply in the organization's ideals. It's similar to the Catholic Church's scandals: church hierarchy thinks it's more important to protect the esteem in which the institution is held than to protect the humans the institution exists to serve. We disagree. Passionately.

Twisty isn't for everyone, but her latest (in a long line of awesome) post about cancer should be mandatory reading.

The point of my piece, however, is to complain. Complaining is not virtuous, I realize. In fact, thanks to the corporate breast cancer mascot — the plucky, pinkified Breast Cancer Survivor ™ who’s popularized the insane idea that women embrace the disease as an opportunity for personal growth — there is nothing in this world so unpleasant as a breast cancer sufferer who

• isn’t grateful
• doesn’t feel lucky
• won’t suffer nobly in silence
• thinks all those pious pink volunterrorists are deluded
• believes that the pseudo-concerned Racers-for-the-Cure luxuriate at her expense in a false sense of meaningless “philanthropy”
* is hopping mad over the expectation that she pretend she still has tits
* is even hopping-madder over the expectation that she shut the fuck up

I’m even hopping madder that I find myself capitulating. “So how’re you doing?” people ask me, and I almost always answer that I’m doing “great.” Because it would seem so ungracious to answer any other way. I mean, since after all I’m not dead and wouldn’t it be greedy and ungrateful of me to expect more than that?

Well, I’m puttin’ the kibosh on that bogus shit right now.

This is what it’s like to “survive” breast cancer treatment: you feel, every goddam day, like something that oozed from a rotting log after an acid rain. I mean, every goddam day you experience everything on this list:

• markedly decreased mental acuity that your friends laugh off because they don’t understand it’s not just garden-variety where-did-I-put-my-keys, but is in fact a substantial and debilitating hit in the old IQ (in fact, it’s really dementia, but you can’t bring yourself to call it that because a) you’re only 48, and b) you can’t remember the goddam word anyway)
• crippling joint pain
• either diarrhea or constipation but never neither and you never know which
• dizziness
• depression
• episodic weeping
• insomnia
• hourly hot flashes
• the ‘aura’ of utter despair that precedes, and is substantially more discomfiting than, the hourly hot flashes
• a sense of general debility
• extreme fatigue
• pain and peeling skin on the radiation site
• a flappy, post-hysterectomy bladder
• anxiety that the next scan will reveal a recurrence
• numbness and pain from the center of your chest to your elbow
• the constant sensation, from your dual 7″ scars, that you’re wearing a bra two sizes too small
• a crushing sense of futility
• fear of imminent death

Nothing’s gonna fix all that shit. And let’s face it; socially, it’s just a big pile of stay-away-you-repulse-me. Even I find it repulsive. If I were you, I wouldn’t be touching this blog post with a ten-foot pole.

I suspect that’s why Susan Mitchell feels obliged to so agreeably acknowledge her indebtedness to the wonders of medical science. It’s impolite to have cancer. It’s even more impoliter, when, a year or so after your last treatment and you’re still not dead, someone asks you “so how are you feeling“, and you go, “Well, Chet, my post-cancer-treatment life is actually a waking nightmare.”

A waking nightmare may be somewhat preferable to death, but only just. It’s definitely not a fucking cure, and I’m done pretending to be grateful for it.

Her point about how repulsive the reality is, even to her, reminds me of a moment from Weeds (yes, I'm comparing someone's real life to a fictional tv show. get over it) when a woman with breast cancer sits down next to a little boy who's father has died and she says they both make people uncomfortable. That no one knows what to say to them and everyone wishes that they would just hurry up and feel better already so that everyone else could go back to knowing how to interact with them. So how do you convince your friends that when you ask how they're doing, you really mean it? You can handle it if they say that they're doing badly or worse and ready to listen without trying to fix. But maybe that isn't what they're looking for either.

Tribes* do it differently.

Just back from a luncheon celebrating a colleague's hooding (awarding of PhD) and I think it crystallized for me some important aspects of my own graduate career. Things I've been trying to deny or at least not embrace and compare to my parents' graduate experiences. The thing is, the more I step back from my hero worship, the more I can see that the reason Dad keeps encouraging me (and others) to move forward, to just get through school and graduate and get a job and start your life already is that that is how school was to him - it wasn't life, it wasn't particularly great, it was simply a means to an end. Something to get through. That, thankfully, is the antithesis of my experience (anxiety and general craziness aside). So I sat today in a room full of friends and family, all celebrating Renee's graduation, and all repeating similar things - how glad they were that earning a PhD hadn't changed who she was as a person. That she had gone through this process without losing herself. And I thought about what it was like to have her around in the department, how much it helped to remind myself that she was here, plugging along, struggling, figuring things out, not always having all the answers, having a life. Faculty stood up and said how proud they were to watch her grow from a new young scholar into a strong independent scholar with her own faculty career unfolding ahead of her. Classmates stood up and reminisced about studying for quals together and how neither would have gotten through it without the other. Her parents stood up and thanked us for being her community, for taking care of her, supporting her, and encouraging her through this process. They said you always worry and hope when you send a child out into the world and they felt lucky that their child was surrounded by people like us. A friend from another department spoke about how writing a dissertation often feels like a very solitary, isolating process and how proud she was of Renee and how much she missed having her around while working on her own dissertation.

My parents got married right before grad school, and although I know they had friends and socialized and whatnot, I also know that the second they both turned in their thesis and dissertation they took off for WV. Neither stayed for graduation, I'm pretty sure neither set of parents came up to offer congratulations in person. Dad had a job to start, they had a life to begin. It worked for them. But I can't see myself doing it that way. I need the room full of people. I need a different life, one with room for non-statistical things.

*Ethan Waters wrote this book (which I haven't read) calling the new non-biological family that many unmarried 20- and 30-somethings surround themselves with an urban tribe.

Sunday, May 13, 2007


This is probably one of those tipsy postings that I'll regret in the morning. But for now, it is what it is. Tonight was ladies' night, and we hit Sutra lounge in midtown. And I know I've been missing dancing, been missing Ken's choreography that somehow managed to make me feel simultaneously athletic and graceful. I had forgotten what that felt like - to give yourself up to music, to really, truly let go. There's no way to say this without sounding flaky, but there's a reason why I like to turn music up so loud I can feel the vibrations - it's in me. It's in my bones and nerve endings and basest being. And I surrendered to that for entire minutes at a time tonight and fuck if that doesn't feel grand. It helped to have a partner who I could trust to find the rhythm. To stop worrying about looking cute or hot and just flail and relax and move the way my body demanded and sweat and sway and not think, not even for a second.