Mammograms as necessary irritants

I don’t know what it is about getting my yearly mammogram that is so damned frightening. Of course, the spectre of breast cancer hovers over the entire procedure — how can it not? And considering how prevalent breast cancer is among women, it’s not surprising that the yearly reminder of one’s vulnerability can be nerve-wracking.

But there are other annual medical check-ups that I go through that, although they have their own nerve-wracking aspects, don’t seem to make my stomach churn quite as much. There are the annual checkups by my GP and the all-revealing blood tests. There are oh-so-much-fun gynecological exams and their accompanying Pap tests. There are the eye exams, and the visits to the dermatologist — I take all of these in my stride. But the annual mammogram makes me go into what I call “efficiency mode” — completely concentrated on the task at hand in the most emotionless fashion possible in order to get it done and finished.

This may be because I actually found a small lump in one of my breasts when I was 23, and it was removed and biopsied. With today’s technology, the procedure wouldn’t have been needed or even considered. But back then, it was performed “just in case,” and meant an overnight stay in the hospital, a couple of weeks of discomfort, and several days of waiting to find out the results. When word came finally came that it was benign, I told my parents (with whom I was living at the time) and then went up to my bedroom and wept for a solid ten minutes in a paroxysm of relief and released terror.

So there’s that.

And of course, it doesn’t help that mammograms are damned uncomfortable. For those lucky males who have never had to suffer one, it means you have to stand while twisted in a totally unnatural position with your arms placed just so, your head turned to the side, and one of your breasts painfully squeezed between two cold plates. And then you are told not to move or breathe for several seconds. Then comes position number two, which is even more unnatural than position number one, and here come the heavy plates, and you’re wondering what you’ll look like with completely flat breasts. “All right, stand still please. Don’t breathe. Okay, you can breathe now.”

And then you get to do it all over again on the other side.

And then you get to wait to find out whether there’s anything to be really worried about.

This year, I made my appointment for early in the morning, 7:45 am, so that I’d lose as little time at work as possible. It was, as I discovered, early enough so that most of the other women in the waiting room were there not for exams, but for surgery. The staff did their paperwork quickly and efficiently, reassured them of the skills of the doctors and staff, and hurried them back so that they wouldn’t have to sit worrying for too long.

And I sat and waited for my name to be called, and wondered what my tests results would be this year, and if I’d ever find myself once again to be one of the women who were coming in early to see the surgeon. And wished them all well.

Nostalgia — or, maybe not.

The former Fairfield Towers. We lived in the right corner apartment, second from the top.

This morning, I drove Jim to a site in East New York (that’s in Brooklyn, for those who don’t know), and found myself passing, for the first time in many years, through the area where I spent my adolescence. My family moved to that neighborhood when I was in sixth grade, and then moved from an apartment to a real, true house when I was in college. On the way back, I made a last-minute decision to drive past my old building, just to see it and see how I felt about it.

I was surprised at how little it affected me. I do have many memories associated with it:  The new smells of the building (it had just been built), and of the padding in the elevators. Doing picture puzzles while my pet parakeet picked up puzzle pieces and dropped them back into the box. Begging my mother to let me go to an outdoor concert in Woodstock, NY (she didn’t). Watching Star Trek with my father. Getting my first makeup kit from my Aunt Edna. Fetching the mail, and opening an envelope telling me that a poem I wrote was accepted for an anthology.

And yet, when I drove past the front of the building, parked, got out and looked at it, I didn’t feel much attachment to it at all.

Chana in later years
My grandmother, my uncle Rube, and an adolescent Barbara hang out on the terrace at Fairfield Towers. 

I drove around the corner, parked again, and got out again. Our apartment was located at the back of the building, on the corner of the seventh floor, overlooking the parking lot and, in the distance, Jamaica Bay. (Several years later, a new and large housing project was built on the landfill between us and the Bay, waking me every morning as girders were pounded in place and as the buildings rose to block our view of the Bay.) I could see our apartment and the houses across the street where several of my friends once lived. There was a sign with the name of the project on it: It was now called MeadowWood at Gateway rather than Fairfield Towers, and the apartments were now being sold as condominiums rather than rented out. But it was the place I remembered.

I still didn’t feel very nostalgic.

I’m curious why. I feel much more connected to Bayview Houses in Canarsie, where I spent my childhood, even though that was also a housing project. I even feel more connected to the house my parents moved to in Long Island, even though I only lived there one year (and never felt comfortable with the culture of Long Island) — perhaps because it was a lovely little house, and perhaps because my parents, for whom the house was the culmination of a dream, loved it so much. The apartment in Fairfield Towers was just the place I spent while I passed through an uncomfortable adolescence (what adolescence isn’t?) into adulthood.

And yet. And yet. As I think about my life in that apartment, and some of the events of my life there, I do feel a sense of sadness about some of the things I thought I’d do in my life and didn’t, and some of the opportunities missed, and the people whom I loved and who are no longer with us.

It’s a conundrum.

Revisiting one’s past in fiction

A little while ago, I was looking at a story that was published recently in Mystic Delirium called “The Ladder-Back Chair.” It describes the experiences of a woman who tries to come to terms with her husband’s death by imagining the presence of a chair she associates with their life together. And then I checked my list of published fiction, and realized that a great deal of my fiction written over the past 15 or so years — more than I thought — has been heavily influenced by a single event in my life: The death of my father in the spring of 2001.

First, a short and very incomplete bio of Bernard Krasnoff — Bernie to his friends. He was born in 1923 to immigrant parents, and grew up in Brooklyn. His college education was interrupted by World War II; he served in the Army in Europe and helped to liberate at least one of the lesser known concentration camps (and kept in touch with two young women who, much later in life, met with him and my mother when they visited the U.S. from Israel). After the war, he studied history at Brooklyn College, where he met and eventually married my mother.

Bernie & Einstein, 1976
Bernie & Einstein (my cat) in 1976.

His life was, by all external measures, not extraordinary. He started as a salesman in the “rag trade,” dealing in wholesale women’s clothing. One of my early memories is of visiting his workplace, playing hide and seek among racks and racks of clothes and watching as tailors with pins in their mouths cut out garments amid the smells of machine oil, dust and glue.

Later, after a brief period of unemployment, he managed a mail-order concern for a high-end men’s clothing company. After he retired, he tried out a variety of trades just for the fun of it: He freelanced as a business consultant; worked as a salesman in the men’s department of a clothing store; and became a “meter maid” for the local traffic department (he most enjoyed giving out parking tickets to Cadillacs and other high-priced cars). And perhaps more that I don’t immediately remember.

Other random things I remember: He played the guitar (until my toddler brother sat on it); listened to Woody Guthrie, Alan Sherman, and Beverly Sills; edited a newsletter for the housing project we lived in; supported the Civil Rights movement, opposed the Vietnam War, and was active in local politics; and followed baseball (the Mets), along with other sports (he even watched golf, which for me was about as exciting as watching paint dry). When my family moved from an apartment to a small house in Long Island, he took a huge amount of pleasure in maintaining the house and the garden, and raised an American flag on a flagpole whenever the weather allowed. He supported, defended and loved his family.

I still miss him terribly.

The first story I published after 2001 was called “Lost Connections” (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, 2002) and was a time-travel story in which a woman visits both sets of grandparents in a useless effort to warn the children who would become her parents against their own futures. The next, “In the Loop” (Descant, 2003), was about a man who becomes lost in the nightmarish unreality of dealing with his father’s illness and death.

Interestingly, the one that I wrote just after my father’s death, “Cancer God” (Space and Time, 2009), wasn’t sold until eight years later. It’s about a smart-ass, aging salesman who is in the hospital and tries to fast-talk his way out of dying. “Waiting for Jakie” (Apex, 2009), was written later but sold the same year and is about the inner life of a Holocaust survivor obsessed with a young soldier she met briefly after liberation.

There are others that I never finished, or never sold (including a very angry revenge story about one of his doctors that I will probably never publish). But now, after “The Ladder-Back Chair,” and as fond as I am of the stories I’ve written over the last 15 years, perhaps I should experiment a bit — try to see if I still have the imagination and skill to work in a wider arena.

I’ll let you know if I succeed. Or, perhaps, you’ll let me know.

Waiting for display disaster

dell displayYou wouldn’t think I’d be nervous about setting up new tech. After all, as a tech reviewer — both as an editor and writer — I’ve spent most of my professional life setting up and testing new tech devices. And for the most part (except for the Microsoft Surface that got knocked off a desk a year or two ago), I’ve been able to unpack them, set them up, review them, and pack them up again without a great deal of trouble.

However, when it comes to something I actually paid for — something that I bought for my own use and am going to keep, rather than return after a week or a month — that’s a different story. Then I’m suddenly staring at the box that is sitting on my office floor or desk and wondering at what point I should unpack it — and what I’ll find when I do. Will I accidentally drop the phone the moment it’s out of the box? Knock over the monitor while I’m setting it up? Accidentally scratch the tablet?

For example, I just unpacked and set up a new display to use with a small Windows convertible tablet/laptop, a task it only took me over a week after it was delivered to get around to. Part of it was that I was too busy finishing a couple of freelance articles to deal with it — but I’m sure that another part of it was worrying what to do if the monitor didn’t connect properly to the docking station, or had some pixels missing, or somehow needed to be fixed or returned.

Perhaps this nervousness can be attributed to what happened years ago, when I bought a Gateway computer — and the monitor was, well, not up to par. (Gateway was once a fairly well-known company selling mail-order computers.) In those days, we used CRT monitors, which weren’t only not nearly as reliable as LCDs are today, but they were damned heavy; so unpacking and setting them up was not easy for somebody who didn’t have a lot of upper-body strength.

I stared at it from several angles. Yup, there were several dead pixels on the screen; meaning that there was these tiny black spots that would never go away. I called the company and told them about the problem. They agreed to exchange it — so I repacked the monster, schlepped it downstairs to be picked up and then carried the replacement upstairs.

Yep. More dead pixels.

Called the company.

Luckily, Gateway tended to be a good company to deal with. They didn’t mess around; this time, they simply sent me a higher-end third-party monitor that not only worked, but lasted me for years (until LCD displays became ubiquitous). I’ve always been grateful to them for that. (My back was grateful as well).

That was then, and this is now. My nice new display — which weighs a whole lot less than my old CRT — seems to be flawless (at least, until I knock it off its stand, or spray coffee on it, or offer it some other indignity).

Wish it — and me — luck!

Didja know that women were closer to the primitive than men? Didja? Hah?

Sometimes, it’s fun — and occasionally necessary — to see where we came from so that we can have some perspective on today’s battles. Just by chance, browsing through a table of free used books, I picked up a science fiction novel called Sign of the Labrys by Margaret St. Clair, copyright 1963. I don’t remember ever reading one of her works (although I read so much science fiction/fantasy when I was a teenager that I may simply not remember the book). But besides the interest of reading something new that was published back then, I knew I immediately had to take the book when I turned it over and looked at the blurb on the back cover.

And had to show it off. This was considered a positive way to market a skiffy book by somebody who was female and actually admitted to it by not changing her name or using initials. Women are writing science fiction! Really! And because they are closer to the primitive than men, they possess a buried memory of humankind’s past! So this has gotta be a great book!

(Actually, this is apparently one of the earliest uses of Wiccan themes in a speculative fiction novel, so the marketing is understandable. But still…)

I bring you, ladies and gentlebeings, 1963:

"Women are closer to the primitive than men."
“Women are closer to the primitive than men.”

Requiem for a suburban garden

Recently, my mother moved out of the home she had lived in for about 40 years. It was not a home I had many emotional ties with, except for the fact that my mother and father (and occasionally, my brother) had lived there. My parents moved there when I was attending an upstate university, and as a result, except for a couple of summers and a period of about a year just after I graduated from college, I never really considered it my home.

So when, after a rather prolonged period of showing and bargaining and selling and buying, my mother finally moved out, I felt some sadness — after all, it was associated with my family; my father had loved that house and had died in it; it was where I had stored the remaining souvenirs of my childhood and adolescence. But it wasn’t where I had grown up — that happened in a couple of different housing projects in Brooklyn — and so once the difficult process was over, I thought I was done with it.

I now know that wasn’t true.

When my parents moved into the house, they made some changes to the inside. They totally refurbished the kitchen; they painted and carpeted; they removed a large mirror from over the fireplace and installed two lighting sconces; they cleaned the unused fireplace and turned it back into a wood-burning fireplace.

The garden was a different matter. There was a multitude of things growing in that garden, and my parents kept it, loved it, tended it, and added to it.

The house and part of the garden in November 2014, just before the move. The flagpole is on the left; the tree my brother and father planted is the one with the red leaves; the spruce can be seen just behind the house. None of the foliage in this photo still exists.

The house is located on the back of a corner lot. A huge blue spruce towered over it on the left side; the tree was at least twice as high as the house itself, if not taller, and we had no idea how long it had been growing on that site. It was magnificent. The lowest branches hung outside the dining room window, and my father hung a bird feeder there so he could watch the finches and sparrows (and squirrels) at breakfast. The tree’s needles clogged the drains and the branches had to be constantly cut away from the neighbor’s driveway, but my parents didn’t care.

A smaller tree was next to it; I don’t remember the name, but in the fall it opened large, purple-blue blossoms that I could see outside my bedroom window. One tree near that one died soon after my parents moved in; my brother and father planted another that blossomed white in the fall; it grew and thrived.

On the left side of the front lawn there was a flagpole; my father, who was a veteran of the European campaign in World War II and a determined left-winger, would fly a flag on all appropriate occasions and made sure that it was folded properly and put away in regulation fashion. Around the flagpole, they planted bushes and marigolds and hyacinths and whatever flowers took their fancy that year.

There were vines and bushes out front, bushes lined the entire lawn. There was a rose bush growing against the side of the garage; there were herbs growing in back.

On the right side of the house there was a pear tree which, for the first 20 years or so, grew plentiful and very edible pears; we would stand on the flat roof of the garage and gather as many as we could. A parakeet and my much-loved cat were buried under its branches. After about 20 years, the pear tree caught a disease which it never completely recovered from, although my father nursed it tenderly. It never grew pears again, but we kept it nonetheless.

After my father died, I’d go with my mother every spring to a large gardening store a few miles away and we’d pick out the annuals that would go under the flagpole and in front of the house and on the side, and the herbs that would grow in back. As the years went on, we became less ambitious in how much we planted, but there were always marigolds around the flagpole and herbs in the back.

When we sold the house — to two adult brothers and their older parents — we were told at one point that they planned to remove the huge spruce because they were afraid their parents would trip on the roots. We tried to dissuade them, told them (and this was the truth) that when Sandy hit, my mother’s was the only roof in the area that didn’t suffer any damage, and the roofer said it was probably because the tree had protected the house. But I knew that the lovely tree would probably go.

What I didn’t know was that the entire garden was going to be a sacrifice to our desertion.

Out of curiosity, I drove past the house yesterday. The tree was indeed gone. In fact, everything was gone — the bushes surrounding the garden, the tree with the blue-purple blossoms, the tree my father and brother had planted, the ivy, the bushes, the rose bush…. In fact, the only thing still there was the flagpole; the only thing growing was the pear tree. Which, I suspect, may not be there much longer either.

My parents’ house was never truly my home; I never made friends there and never wanted to live there. I have some good memories there; but I have good memories associated with other places long gone.

But I mourn the garden. It was a lovely and loved place. I hope whatever takes its place is worthy of its memory.

Looking at Playbills from the past

old playbills

So I’m going through some very old stuff that I kept in a trunk in my room in the house where my mom just moved out of, and found a few really old Playbills (I’ve got a huge number of them in a drawer here, but didn’t realize that I had kept a few older ones there).

Among other things, I discovered that I did not, as I thought, see Herschel Bernardi as Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof in March, 1967 — there is one of those notes in the program that apologizes because Bernardi was ill; the role was played by Harry Goz. However, that was made up for by the fact that the role of Tzeitel, the oldest daughter, was played by Bette Midler. Who knew?

And two years earlier, I had seen Bernardi in the musical Bajour (which I actually have some vague memories of, because there is a comic song sung by an anthropologist who talks about the places she doesn’t want to go, including one line about “the tse-tse fly,” which I remember thinking was hilarious). Other people in Bajour: Harry Goz (yes, the same guy I saw in Fiddler two years later), Paul Sorvino, Nancy Dussault (who I saw in The Sound of Music a couple of years earlier than that), Mae Questel (yes — the “Betty Boop” Mae Questel) and Chita Rivera.

Bajour was my 11th birthday treat (each year, I was given the choice of a party or a musical and I usually chose the latter). I just wish I could go back into my own head at age 11 and see it again, now that I’d be more aware of who the actors were…

Okay, 2014, no more — we’ve lost enough good people

The year 2014 has been, so far, a real bastard. There have been too many people lost to death, most too early — some so far before their time that it makes me ashamed.

There was my cousin Jennifer Greene, a wonderful singer and the mother of a vibrant little boy named Ari, who found out she had cancer before her baby was even weaned.

There was the incandescent Margot Adler, one of the most talented and generous spirits it has ever been my privilege to know. With Margot, I’m still in a vague sort of denial and sometimes find myself thinking, “We should call Margot and ask if she wants to meet and see that weird new movie” a second or two before I remember we can’t. (And I still miss her husband John Gliedman, who died several years ago, a friend and colleague of mine.)

And there have been the writers whom I didn’t know well, or didn’t know personally, but whom I admired for what they wrote and who they were — authors such as Lucius Shepard, Jay Lake and now Eugie Foster, who died this morning at the age of 42.

There is nothing that can be said. Losses like these are both sad and incredibly infuriating. All I can do is extend my sympathies to their friends and families, and try to live a life worthy of their memories.

A story of two discounts

The last time I paid children’s rates for anything was when I was 16, and spending a tedious, uncomfortable hot summer afternoon at my grandmother’s while my parents took my younger brother to the doctor.

My grandmother lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, not too far from Erasmus High School; she had moved there after my grandfather died some years earlier. There was nothing on television (and anyway, her apartment wasn’t air conditioned, so it was very uncomfortable), I knew nobody in the neighborhood, and I was bored in the restless way that teenagers can be.

I wandered the main shopping street, which was practically deserted — perhaps everyone was away at the beach, or perhaps it was a holiday of some sort, I don’t remember. Just remember the discomfort, the boredom, and finally the conviction that the only thing to do was find an air-conditioned movie theater and camp out there for a couple of hours.

I found it, and it was playing the latest horror film, Williard. I had no objection to seeing that — was sort of curious, actually — but I had exactly $1 in my pocket, enough for a half-price ticket, but not enough for an adult ticket.

So I went up to the box office, pushed my dollar bill through to the lady on the other side of the window and said, “One child’s ticket, please.”

She glared sternly at me from her throne in the booth. “How old are you?” she asked suspiciously.

I dropped my eyes and looked abashed.  “I’m almost 12,”  I muttered.  The woman stared at me for another moment and then gave me the ticket.

I really enjoyed that movie.

So on Monday, Jim and I decided we really needed a break and went to see Guardians of the Galaxy. It was a hot, damp evening and the last few weeks had been really difficult.

We drove over to the Sheepshead Bay Cinema, parked, had some rather good fried fish in the small fish restaurant across the way from the theatre, and then walked in. There was only one other couple on line — Mondays seem to be really slow — and when we asked for the tickets (Imax, 3-D, and yes, air-conditioning), the kid on the other side of the plexiglass window stared at us and asked,  “Senior discount?”

We shook our heads, but then Jim asked,  “How old do you have to be for senior discount?”

“Sixty, ” the kid said.

We looked at each other. “Yes,” Jim said.  “Senior discount.”

I really enjoyed that movie.

Pete Seeger: A brief memory

Pete Seeger has been part of my life ever since I was very young, and my parents played the Weavers singing “Good Night, Irene” to signal it was time for me to go to bed. I’ve been to a few of his concerts, but I only remember meeting him once.

Back around 1982, my attempt to be a full-time freelance writer was flagging badly, and I was in a training program to become a sign language interpreter. I volunteered to be an interpreter at the Clearwater Festival that year — but when I got there, I wasn’t in a very good mood. I had just failed my final exam (my interpreting skills were excellent, I was told, but my language skills didn’t make the grade), and I told the volunteer coordinator that I would prefer not to do any stage work, since my skills weren’t up to that. She promised that I could just do standby work at the medical tent and information booths.

Well, that didn’t last long — an hour or two later, I was informed that they were short-handed, and that I was going to have to interpret for at least one stage performance. “Don’t worry,” I was told. “It’s a bunch of banjo players; so you’ll just have to do introductions.”

Yeah, it was a bunch of banjo players — doing a workshop, so it was an hour of people talking about banjo technique. I tried to keep up, but was completely overwhelmed; the only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that, at the same time, the National Theatre of the Deaf was doing a performance at another stage, so the chances that my services were actually needed were little to none. It didn’t help that, after the performance, a bunch of hearing people who obviously hadn’t a clue told me what a great job I had done. I felt completely useless.

That night I was camped out in the volunteer section and wondering how I’d make it through the weekend when Pete Seeger came by with a couple of other singers. They sat by the campfire and just sang two or three songs and then he told us all how valuable our contributions were, no matter what we were doing. I had grown up listening to his records and so he was something of a legend to me, but he spoke directly and sincerely. He believed it, and so did we.

After a while, he and the other singers moved on to the next area in the volunteer section. I stopped nursing my bruised ego, and started enjoying the festival and just doing the best I could under the circumstances.

Pete Seeger touched thousands of lives, and will continue to do so.