Monday, September 18, 2006

Still bare

All of a sudden, in the face of losing my house, I’ve become decisive about some of the house-related issues that have plagued me over the past eighteen months. Longtime readers will note the continued presence of Curtains for Living Room over on my To Do list. Other than a burst of indecision in April, no progress was made on this front until last week, when some idle time surfing the web led to some overdue (albeit pointless) revelations.

Have you noticed how houses are sometimes sold with building permits and architectural plans included? The title to ours will come with a detailed plan of how best to approach the window coverings. For what it’s worth, I think the front room needs plantation shutters. The middle room needs a Florence Broadhurst blind. And the living room would be perfectly fine with plain linen Ikea drapes. Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?


Newsflash: The Purple Stripes are playing the Royal Melbourne Show this Thursday, 21 September at 10:30am and 2:30pm. My friend Nicole is scheduled for a 1:30pm C-section, which might mean it’s possible she could make the later show with her brand-new twins.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Why I miss having a stoop

Inexplicably, I woke up yesterday with a black eye. Could this be from crying? It’s possible that soon my head will start rotating fast on its axis, and I’ll start issuing forth green bile.

Until then, Grace Paley.

I started Enormous Changes at the Last Minute while in the hospital. It is Paley’s second collection of stories, published in 1960. My love affair with New York started as a literary one, and there’s almost nothing as pleasurable to me as reading a book in which the city is the story’s beating heart. My life in New York was wholly mediated by literature: by Mary McCarthy, Dawn Powell, Paula Fox. My own life glided lightly over this far richer fictional landscape, of bars and street corners and park fountains that actually existed, but were made real by another’s pen.

On my second to last night living in New York, I spent a long time sitting on my building’s stoop in East Harlem, wanting to remember always the life of the block: the stickball team, with their customised t-shirts, the numbers runners, the short-lived East 105th Street Social Club (closed down by police), the mamas leaning out their front windows in cotton housedresses and hair rollers. At the bodega on the corner, change was slid under a scratched-up Perspex barrier: it was the kind of place where you could buy a single cigarette.

Isaac’s grandfather grew up blocks away, where Mount Sinai hospital now stands, when the area teemed with a earlier generation of immigrants: Jews from Eastern Europe, the Irish. Sid and Ruth, his great-uncle and aunt, live in a Brooklyn old people’s home now, stashing away the (now forbidden) Malomars that visitors bring. Their walls are hung with Ruth’s tapestries: reproductions and interpretations of Miró etc., and, my favourite, a Brooklyn street scene with their sons’ names incorporated into the Hebrew-lettered shop signs and awnings. Sid presents these works as if a docent at the Met: nobody could be prouder. He’s blind, Sid, and Ruth’s demented, but he’ll time a joke like a pro, and she’ll cut you down with sarcasm unblunted by age or senility. It’s their voices I hear when I read Grace Paley.

“Mama,” Faith said, the last time she visited the Children of Judea, “Ricardo and I aren’t going to be together so much any more.”
“Faithy!” said her mother. “You have a terrible temper. No, no, listen to me. It happens to many people in their lives. He’ll be back in a couple of days. After all, the children… just say you’re sorry. It isn’t even a hill of beans. Nonsense. I thought he was much improved when he was here a couple of months ago. Don’t give it a thought. Clean up the house, put in a steak. Tell the children, be a little quiet, send them next door for the television. He’ll be home before you know it. Don’t pay attention. Do your hair up something special. Papa would be more than glad to give you a little cash. We’re not poverty-stricken, you know. You only have to tell us you want help. Don’t worry. He’ll walk in the door tomorrow. When you get home, he’ll be turning on the hi-fi.”
“Oh, Mama, Mama, he’s tone deaf.”
“Ai, Faithy, you have to do your life a little better than this.”
They sat silently together, their eyes cast down by shame. The doorknob rattled. “My God, Hegel-Shtein,” whispered Mrs. Darwin. “Ssh, Faith, don’t tell Hegel-Shtein. She thinks everything is her business. Don’t even leave a hint.”
Mrs Hegel-Shtein, president of the Grandmothers’ Wool Socks Association, rolled in on oiled wheelchair wheels. She brought a lapful of multi-colored wool in skeins. She was an old lady. Mrs. Darwin was really not an old lady. Mrs. Hegel-Shtein had organized this Active Association because children today wear cotton socks all winter. The grandmothers who lose heat at their extremities at a terrible clip are naturally more sensitive to these facts than the present avocated generation of mothers.
“Shalom, darling,” said Mrs. Darwin to Mrs. Hegel-Shtein. “How’s tricks?” she asked bravely.
“Aah,” said Mrs. Hegel-Shtein. “Mrs. Essie Shifer resigned on account of her wrists.”
“Really? Well, let her come sit with us. Company is healthy.”
“Please, please, what’s the therapy value if she only sits? Phooey!” said Mrs. Hegel-Shtein. “Excuse me, don’t tell me that’s Faith. Faith? Imagine that. Hope I know, but this is really Faith. So it turns out you really have a little time to see your mother… What luck for her you won’t be busy forever.”
“Oh, Celia, I beg you, be quiet,” Faith’s mortified mother said. “I must beg you. Faith comes when she can. She’s a mother. She has two little small boys. She works. Did you forget, Celia, what is was like in those days when they’re little babies? Who comes first? The children… the little children, they come first.”
“Sure, sure, first, I know all about first. Didn’t Archie come first? I had a big honor. I got a Christmas card from Florida from Mr. and Mrs. First. Listen to me, foolish people. I went by them to stay in the summer place, in the woods, near rivers. Only it got no ventilation, the whole place smells from termites and the dog. Please, I beg him, please, Mr. First, I’m an old woman, be sorry for me, I need extra air, leave your door open, I beg, I beg. No, not a word. Bang, every night eleven o’clock, the door gets shut like a rock. For a ten-minute business they close themselves up a whole night long.”
“I’m better off in an old ladies’ home, I told them. Nobody there is ashamed of a little cross-ventilation.”
Mrs. Darwin blushed. Faith said, “Don’t be such a clock-watcher, Mrs. Hegel-Shtein.”
Mrs. Hegel-Shtein, who always seemed to know Faith better than Faith knew Mrs. Hegel-Shtein, said, “All right, all right. You’re here, Faithy, don’t be lazy. Help out. Here. Hold it, this wool on your hands, your mama will make a ball.” Faith didn’t mind. She held the wool out on her arms. Mrs. Darwin twisted and turned it round and round. Mrs. Hegel-Shtein directed in a loud voice, wheeling back and forth and pointing out serious mistakes.
“Gittel, Gittel,” she cried, “it should be rounder, you’re making a square. Faithy, be more steadier. Move a little. You got infantile paralysis?”
“More wool, more wool,” said Mrs. Darwin, dropping one completed ball into a shopping bag. They were busy as bees in a ladies’ murmur about life and lives. They worked. They took vital facts from one another and looked as dedicated as a kibbutz.

From Grace Paley’s Faith in the Afternoon in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York: 1960.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

An off-the-topic question

For Melbourne readers.

Does anyone know where I could find some bush lemons? Short of actually tramping through the bush?

I'm a registered entrant in the Preserves Competition (Novice Division: Lemon Butter) for the upcoming Royal Melbourne Show. As I keep saying, I have things to do. Not important things, but things nonetheless.

[Update: When I was in Queensland weeks ago, and talking about competitive lemon butter-making, my cousin mentioned bush lemons as a possible secret ingredient. They have a great flavour, she said, and thought they might help me pull away from the pack. Turns out, they aren't easy to find. Otherwise known as citronelles, they are a primitive lemon, most commonly used these days as grafting stock for other varieties. Sent out on a mission to the Prahran market this morning, my father returned with the news that the grocer hadn't seen any since 1956.]

Monday, September 04, 2006

<1 in a million

I was back in the hospital for a short while yesterday, and felt a strange sort of nostalgia for the place. I was happy to see Mary on duty, who welcomed me warmly: “Room 61, 6 days, couldn’t get on the internet.” A little embarrassing really, but she definitely remembered me.

When I woke from the anesthesia after the second operation, there was a cluster of nurses at the window, watching someone trying to extricate himself from a parking spot. Over and over it seemed, the person reversed back into the car behind, accelerated into the car in front, then reversed straight back again into the car behind. I followed the nurses’ commentary as closely as I could, which really wasn’t all that close. I think I heard OMD on the radio, possibly for the first time since 1989.

My real fear going into the operation wasn’t the surgery per se, but the projected 7-10 days of bed rest after. I was worried about losing my mind. I brought enough reading material for a six-month stay (including an iPhoto manual.) I had DVDs and podcasts and knitting projects suitable for a prone posture. I had magazines and meditation CDs and pens, pencils and notepaper. I was prepared: no matter that I hadn’t read a word, knit a stitch or slept more than a three-hour stretch since the third week of July.

A morphine drip helped me through the first day and a half. Soon, I adapted to the strange rhythm of the days, the unappetizing meals, the turnover of shifts, the morning carpet vacuum, the arc of the afternoon sun. Other than the bedpan factor, I felt that strangely enough, this was an appropriate place for me given my circumstances: weeks before, I’d been fantasising about being wrapped in warm, white sheets with Buddhist monks laying their healing hands on my body, and though this wasn’t quite the same, it was close. Nurses are gods, I tell you. Over and over, they mopped up ooze and blood and urine and tears with calm talk about knitting and Eric Clapton and In Style magazine. I grew terribly attached to my favourites, and fearful of those I saw as stern or perfunctory or brusque. Nights were the worst, when I’d lie awake listening to far-off groaning, and the animated day-time voices of the night staff. Sometimes, a nurse would come in to take my blood pressure or temperature or unlock the medication store, and rather than use the dimmer lights, would switch on the blinding, white light overhead. At times like this, I’d think, No. That’s not the Andy Paulson way. A certain dismissive tone, and I’d think, Andy’d never say something like that. Or something minor would grate, and I’d think, No rose for you, young lady! But I left wanting to bake cakes, bring presents, heap praise. I left knowing a little of what it will be like to be old. I left feeling as if seared by fire, with total strangers reaching out their hands.


Thank you for all your messages yesterday. I am enormously grateful for my friends: the ones I know and all those I didn’t know I had.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Turning a page

Novels could be written about my last six weeks, and I just might.

That “minor, albeit inconvenient, surgery” I mentioned? Turns out, I have cancer. Or had cancer, I hope. For a long time, I’d joked that the reddish-brown mark on my ankle was an alien probe insertion point, or a birthmark my mother just didn’t happen to remember me having when born. At a routine dermatology appointment a couple of months ago, I blithely mentioned it had been growing, and seemed to be connected to a mass underneath. I was referred to a surgeon, but suggested to him that really, what was the point taking it out? I could put up with the unsightliness, and I had things to do. The surgery was scheduled for August 7.

I chose sedation, rather than a general anesthetic, because my aunt had told me that general anesthetics really mess with the condition of your hair, and well, as I just said, I had things to do. When the anesthesiologist came by for my pre-op consultation, I warned him that 1. I’m claustrophobic (just in case that had any bearing) and 2. I’d had a really rough couple of weeks, and was concerned about blabbing my business to all and sundry while under the influence. He reassured me in a professional manner, and left me to wait in my backless gown and paper shoes.

In addition to the ankle business, I was scheduled to have a small something removed from my lip, which may or may not have been a basal cell carcinoma. This scared me. I had a lot of sun as a child, but I like to think that the fact I’ve worn sunscreen every day of my life since I was 20 years old is adequate penance for the sins of my youth. I was wheeled into theatre, and willed myself to stay conscious in the hope of good blog fodder.

My memories are partial, but vivid. As far as I can remember, my surgeon, who wears scuffed stockman’s boots and smokes Marlboro reds, did not light up nor nick out for a quick one. The assistant surgeon (nameless, faceless) lent on my other leg in a very uncomfortable manner, as if it were a sideboard or chiffonnier. At one point, I felt pain and I cried out I guess, because the anesthesiologist came over and asked if I was OK. Rather than a simple no, I asked him if he’d watched the show Nip/Tuck, then proceeded to explain the premise and assure him that in his line of work, he really must try to see it, because….. I have no memory of the surgery after this.

I went home on crutches that night, with a sore leg and two stitches in my swollen lip. I was resigned to a week with my foot elevated.

For vanity reasons, a doctor friend suggested that I have the stitches taken out of my lip sooner than those in my ankle. He drew a diagram of how to take them out myself after I assured him I had a pair of sharp embroidery scissors. I got cold feet however, and the doctor’s office suggested I pop in at a quarter to five that Friday afternoon.

I had a haircut that day: my first since November. It looked good. As the nurse assessed my lip, I joked about my clumsiness on crutches. Somehow, I’d managed to blacken a toe on my good foot by leaning my full weight on my crutch, which just happened to be on top of my toe. The doctor came in, leaned against the examination bed and flipped open my file.

I knew straight away. If you google dermatofibroma, you’ll find (as I did when it was first suggested that this was what I had), reference to extremely rare occurrences of dermatofibrosarcoma, its malignant cousin. His face darkened as he read through the pages and pages of pathology report, before cutting away all the dressings to look at what was now a useless surgery. This will need to heal, he said, before we cut away a much larger area. It’s full of germs, as it is.

I burst into tears, but felt compelled to explain, that really, I wasn’t crying about this, this I understood, could deal with, it’s just that my husband’s having an affair, he’s leaving me, and really, it’s just all too much. I have things to do.

I’ve heard that a lot of surgeons become surgeons because they prefer their patients anaesthetised, and I’m certain that this was one of those occasions when my doctor would’ve moved heaven and earth to have me in a state where all he had to listen to were my semi-coherent mumblings about a syndicated cable TV show.

More to follow, including why Andy Paulson, a man I’ve never met, has been much on my mind.