Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Fame, Part I

My maternal grandfather, Henry Février, was brushed by greatness. So was my mother, Marie-Thérèse, and, I suppose, so was I
My friend Raoul, a playwright, also had his close encounter. His plays were produced throughout the United States and there was no reason not to think he wouldn’t become a Miller or an Albee. Jimbo, a guitarist friend, was among the founding members of a pretty well-known band that moved on without him, though he’s still called upon when the group does nostalgia tours. Karen, a Baltimore girl with a wondrous voice was flown to Europe to sing and open for a major act, and James, a prolific yet unknown writer, has had his work mentioned in passing in the New York Times and the New Yorker. None of them became really successful at their chosen trade. If I were to really think about it, I’m sure I could come up with a dozen more names of people–most of them artists of one ilk or another–who came very close to fame, and then saw it elude them.   
Grandfather Henry wrote operas when such things were the equivalent of heavy-duty rock ‘n’ roll shows. In 1910 he composed Monna Vanna with the then-renowned Maurice Maeterlinck who a year later would win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Henry’s Monna Vanna was pretty well panned in Paris, but he accompanied the opera’s cast on a tour of the US Midwest where he garnered praise and good press. He returned to France and, although a prolific and talented composer, he was for all good purposes never heard from again.
My mother, Marie Thérèse, grew up in an environment that bled music from every pore. Ravel was a frequent houseguest. Her brother, my Oncle Jacques, much favored over his sister by Grandfather Henry, would in time become a celebrated concert pianist whose interpretations of Ravel and Poulenc are to this day considered sans pareille. Mom, a troublesome child from the get-go, started hanging out with the artists of Montparnasse when she was 16 and in no time at all found herself pregnant. The father was a Jewish physician and film-maker from North Africa. They got married, much to the displeasure of Henry and company.
In time my mother contributed to the creation of Babar,  and later published a well-received children’s book that was compared to St. Exupery’s Little Prince. But fame did not come quickly enough for her. She went back to her first love, painting, and did both oils and watercolors of beautiful scenes from the Belle Époque, weddings, wooings, picnics, and strolls through the park, Parisian neighborhoods, proud men in boaters posing before large automobiles, and a stunning little oil-on-cardboard Bastille Day that remains one of my happiest possessions. Her style was called naïf  by the critics. She was featured in Paris-Match and had several shows in Paris and later in Washington. Her paintings sold quite well, but not well enough to please her.
When we came to the United States, her works were displayed in some local galleries, and she undertook a massive project: a single, 12-foot-long oil showing each and every First Lady from Martha Washington to Jacquie Kennedy.  My father built the frame and stretched the canvas himself. The painting dominated our living room–the only space in our home long to house it–and it took her two years to finish. A reporter wrote a story about it for the Washington Post, and somewhere I still have a faded clipping showing my mother wielding a camel hair brush and looking properly bohemian.
The painting never sold so she sought to donate it to the Smithsonian, thinking, perhaps, that it might hang in the same room where the First Ladies’ inaugural dresses were displayed. The Smithsonian turned down her gift.
Though she never said so, I think this was the ultimate rebuff. She seldom painted after this, limiting herself to small pen and ink sketches of friends, and pelicans when she was in Florida.
I’m not sure if she was bitter about her brushes with fame, or if she simply accepted them. She was a fatalistic woman seldom surprised when things went wrong.  I think she passed that trait on to me.  
I’ve had my minor brushes with fame as well, though mine, compared with Grand Père Henry and my mother, were truly ephemeral. I’ll write about those next time.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


Years ago I met an at-the-time older man who told me his philosophy towards life could be reduced to two sentences:
1. Don’t get your hopes up; and
2. They’re going to screw you.
He didn’t use the word ‘screw,’ preferring a stronger expletive that I, personally, rarely need to see on a written page, but please, feel free to substitute the f-word if that makes the concept clearer.
I pondered his thinking for a long time.
Sentence Number One has its virtues; it deals with expectations and the resentments caused when these don’t come through. There’s a common sense to acceptance (but not to resignation): A true fatalist by definition is never disappointed by unfortunate turns of events. He has factored them into his life calculations. He may be pleasantly surprised if things come out somewhat better than expected, but by expecting the worse, he steels himself against failure. I’ve known people like that, the Eeyores of the world. All of us have a little Eeyore somewhere in our souls, a counter-Pollyanna we use to temper unreasonable optimism.  In many of us, Eeyore might be somewhat dominant; he struggles for supremacy when times are harsh. We allow him to take over on rainy days during flu season.    
Sentence Number Two is more complex, implying the existence of an almost conspirational environment one must be aware of at all times. It smacks of paranoia, of deluded self-importance. Anyone who truly believes “they’re” going to get him has, among other things, a monstrously large ego, a sense of self so outsized he can believe he’s significant enough to warrant the negative will of others.  People like that are incredibly, terminally, boring. And a little scary. I know a few, and I stay away from them. Their anger, frustration and vehemence are enormous, and their inability to express their fears make them borderline dangerous.
Me, I believe things simply are. We’re largely powerless over forces much greater than ourselves. Mutating cells, tiny little entities without minds or thoughts of their own, threaten my life. How odd is that, being endangered by microscopic entities that can’t even read “See Spot run”?
I do what I can to deal with the hazard they pose, but things will occur as they will, with minimal influence from me. Most things, actually, are far more potent than I am. I’m powerless but not necessarily completely helpless. I try to mitigate harm without any guarantee that my actions will in anyway alter the future in my favor.
More and more I believe in coincidences although for the past few decades I’ve been told weekly that there are no such things. I think there are. Serendipity, synchronicity, seriality–one event unconnected to another yet influencing a third or a fourth—all these make my life what it is.  It’s as good a theory as any other and allows me not to think quite as hard about the vagaries of existence.   
So there. Merry holidays, one and all!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Post Surgery

So the last surgery did not work out exactly how I planned. Instead of removing a small benign tumor, the good doctor “roto-rootered” me—his very words—which would explain why this eighth procedure has been a particularly rough one.  Additionally, what he took out was, while not classified as invasive, nevertheless malignant. There is a possibility that within months he’ll suggest surgically removing my bladder, which I will decline. Then he told me to forget about it, have good holidays and come back to see him in three months.
My only response, when the doctor told me all this, was “Yikes.” Quite a while back, I decided that I have no desire to live with a permanent catheter installed in my gut. My resolution may fail with time, but I remember my dad who, after undergoing prostate surgery when such procedures were not routine, was forced for months to wear a colostomy bag.  Though he healed and eventually recovered, he was never the same. The surgery was brutal and its aftermath demeaning. He became the shell of who he’d been, hating his sudden dependence on others to assist him through cruel times. I can’t see myself going through such a change. But of course, I’ve said many “I can’t…” over the years.
In the meantime, I’ve had a CT scan because there appears to be some unwanted lumps forming in my abdominal area. I’d never had such a procedure; I thought they might wave a kitten over my stomach (CAT Scan, get it?) but no, it’s somewhat more complex than that. They shoot iodine into your veins and do what is essentially an X-ray. A very nice nurse told me to pull my pants down and though every fiber in my body screamed for a witty rejoinder, I kept quiet. I think the nurse was appreciative I hope to get the test results in a few days.
And last but not least, some nasty flu bug not covered by the flu shot I had weeks ago has taken up residence in my lungs. I suspect the raft of not-good news has left my resistance and immune system battered.  
Friends have been, well, friends with offers of rides, soup, an ear to bend, corn muffins and brown rice sushi. I have entertained few offers. I am in slob mode—sweats, thermal socks, unshaven for the last couple of days and huddled under layers of blankets.
All this being said, one friend, a lovely woman and writer of adult fairy tales, has promised me things will get better after December 23rd. I’m not sure how she knows this but I’ll take it.  Straws are perfectly valid things to grasp.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Number 8

The day before surgery, I generally do a number of chores to get ready for a convalescence of indeterminate length. I clean the house, that is to say I vacuum up cat hairballs larger than my fist and I empty the fridge of six-months-old veggies. I buy flowers, the cheaper bouquet from Trader Joe. I also get basic necessities like water, at least one half-pound bar of 74% cacao dark chocolate, coconut-covered cashews, Thai soup and turkey meatballs, some fruit so I can feel virtuous, and a box of Petite Seat Salt Brownies that may or not make it through tonight. I also make sure there’s enough toilet paper in both bathrooms.
I get stuff to read from the library and bring out my collection of DMZ graphic novels and all 18 volumes of Fables. I write a blog which, after eight writings, tends to get repetitious. Sorry.
I do the laundry and run the dishwasher, select movies to watch, and catch up on my emails.  There’s no comfortable position when catheters are involved; I know from experience that sitting at the computer will be near impossible, so I tell my friends what’s going on ahead of time and they’ll know to check on me if there’s silence for more than a week.
I cook. In the winter, I make a stew that will last three or four days, as well as a pot of brown rice and peas (virtuous, again). In the spring or summer, I make a giant bowl of gazpacho.
Tomorrow at 10:15 a.m. will be the eighth surgery in three years, so I know the drill. I’m not enthused.  The last two checkups came out clean but then three weeks ago there was blood in my urine, so it’s back to the drawing board.  That, unfortunately, is often the way bladder cancer works, reoccurring after a period of remission. The good thing is that if I and the doctor keep on top of it with tests every three months or so, it’s possible to fight it to a standstill.
Yet I do worry. I’m completely aware that cancer is the illness of this millennium, and that more and more people are falling victim to it.  There have been vast advances in the battle against many forms of the disease, and only a few types are now considered irremediably fatal. Lung and bronchial cancer kill almost three-quarters of a million Americans a year. Colon and rectal cancer are good for another 250,000.  Bladder cancer isn’t among the top ten killers, but it nevertheless caused the death of my oldest sister a decade ago. Luckily, if spotted early, as was my case, the chances of survival are excellent.
My concerns center more on the operation itself.  Being fully anesthetized eight times in a couple of years can’t be healthy. There are brain cells involved, and some expire each time I have to go under. The fact that during the procedures, my body is pumped full of opioids isn’t good either.
And then there’s the mental and emotional component. This is just no fun at all. It saps my vitality and makes me feel old and ugly. I wrote at some length before about the shaming effect cancer seems to have on people who get it.  I’ve talked with others in my situation. Most of fun can joke about the disease, but deep down it makes us feel dirty and unattractive, as if we’ve done something wrong and are being punished.  Personally, I blame it on religion, which would have us believe in the karmic nature of cancer cells.
Today I try to take stock, to deal with the positive stuff. I have a warm home, food, friends, good stuff to read and listen to.  It’s not snowing. The cat is asleep upstairs and will probably nest on my bed for the next few days. By this time tomorrow whatever’s going to happen will have happened and that’s exactly as things should be.  
I guess…

Friday, December 5, 2014

Seuxal Dissoordeers

Let me ask you this. You receive the following email message:
M.D. appovred,
Are you suffering fromm seuxal dissoordeers? Then you will get interessted by this amazig medciaiton
Does such a note give you hope that whatever you’re suffering from may have a cure? Do you immediately click on the provided URL to see what the amaziq medciaiton is? No?
Didn’t think so, which got me to wonder—is there anyone in the known universe who will respond to this?
Leaving aside any seuxal dissoordeers I might have without knowing it, how did my name get on the mailing list of someone who’s English is so rudimentary that even Spellcheck has issues. 
The sender’s name is Kass Aristophanes operating from the amano.com domain. I wonder if perhaps Kass is harboring some serious seuxal dissoordeers that cause him to be intensely dyslexic.  
Later that same day, I receive:  I am from Geroge,
Got it:
Women's heath drugs to foget aboout probleemss.
Yours, Lucana
Now I’m thinking my job is to get Kass and Lucana together. Or perhaps I should forward this to all the women I know who, I’m pretty certain, have problems of their own.
Having a fertile imagination, I also thought these might be secret codes for either very dumb terrorists or illegal financial activity by 10-year-olds. If it isn’t, and someone is actually peddling a cure-all for female probleemss or seuxal dissoordeers,  what sort of response are they hoping to get?
I’m tempted to reply, yass, pleez sent me deerectlee all tings to cure bad tings. Alzo, prooblems & dissoordeers quicly pls tankyu.
But I won’t because it would feel like taunting a foreigner whose command of the language is spotty, and, having been such a person many years ago, it might provoke bad karma.
So instead, I’ll proffer some basic advice.
If you’re going to try to con someone, make your delivery smooth. Grammar is important.  The patsy shouldn’t have to struggle to figure out what you mean. If you can’t do that, provide photos, since a picture is worth a thousand words. And if you can’t take photos, a line drawing should do.
Oh, and make sure you spell ‘sexual’ right. People have enough problems with the subject as is without having to worry about how it’s spelled.