Above is another of P. DuPont’s wonderful pictures of the Bay-called-Green. Every year or so, she comes to visit me for my birthday, which, unfortunately for her, is in late October, so she freezes the whole time. This year, she had an agenda: She had offered to paint my upstairs bathroom, kitchen ceiling, and part of another room where my contractor had repaired some cracks and plastered them over. I guess she likes to have a purpose in life. (I would rather pay other people to carry out my purposes in life, at least when they involve house maintenance and yard work. Of course, I “paid” her only in sparkling conversation.)
She also wanted to see the 49’ers game—a problem, because I got rid of my TV some months ago. (I’m not a TV snob; just wanted to save some money.) I watch “Modern Family” on hulu.com, buy season passes to “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and “The Good Wife” on iTunes, and beg my sister Barb to let me come over and watch “Dexter” and “In Treatment” on Sunday nights (like an ex-smoker who doesn’t buy cigarettes anymore but cadges them off other people). Then it turned out that P’s beloved S.F. Giants were in the World Series, so it became a project to figure out how she could see or at least hear some of the games.
Oct. 27: As usual, I drove down to Green Bay to pick her up. She was supposed to arrive at about 10 p.m., but in the “It Goes Without Saying” Department, her plane was late. So I found myself sitting all alone—no passengers, no one else waiting for an arrival, not even an employee in sight—in the airport at 11:30, staring at the monitor of arrivals and departures, searching in vain for any record of her flight. We were apparently going to begin Airport Life anew the next morning at 6 a.m. I took this as a bad sign. It was an odd feeling, like I had missed the End of the World and was stuck there alone forever with only the peanuts and candy bars in the vending machine for sustenance. I called United, and the friendly robot voice informed me that P’s plane was indeed in the air between Chicago and G.B., so that was comforting. An employee eventually turned up, asked me where the plane was, and I told her it was expected at 12:03 but was already 20 minutes late. She chuckled at the fact that the flight had “dropped off the board a while ago” so she’d had to get the information from me, a mere nobody. I could have trashed the restroom and set fire to the seats in the waiting area while she lounged in some back room doing God knows what, but I guess they don’t worry about security at midnight in the middle of the week.
Oct. 28: P rooted around in the garage and found the paint my sister K had used for the kitchen ceiling—“Travertine Beige”—a really nice color that I call “Yellow”—and set about the task of repainting the large area that had been covered by my ancient fluorescent light fixture. Later, we drove back down to Green Bay for dinner at the Republic Chophouse, which P had found online. The food was excellent, and I couldn’t get over how nice the booths were: secluded, with generously sized, upholstered benches rather than naugahyde-over-foam repaired in spots with duct tape. I also exclaimed over the cloth napkins, told P I hadn’t eaten anywhere in 6 years where the silverware wasn’t wrapped and taped into a paper napkin (I exaggerated slightly, as is my wont). I have made the transition to hick in record time. On the way home we found the World Series game on the radio. The Giants had already won Game 1, so P was stoked. When we got back to my house, we tried to get reception on my tiny Sony radio, but it was hard going. Still, we managed to listen and marveled at the number of runs her team was racking up. In the eighth inning, with 2 out and a comfortable lead of 6 to nothing, she inexplicably decided to call C in Oregon to tell her about our day. I heard her asking C if the cat missed her. I took the radio upstairs, where the reception was only marginally better, and suddenly—I must have spaced out or just didn’t understand what was happening—the Giants got 3 more runs, and I’m yelling down to P, “9 to nothing! 9 to nothing!” She came upstairs and started looking for the game streaming online (never found it), while I continued to listen with the radio up to my ear, reporting on every pitch until it was over. It was a weird role reversal.
Oct. 29: To Menard’s (home improvement store) to get supplies for the bathroom paint job. P suggested a dark gray to cover the boring white, and while I was skeptical of the color she picked out, we appreciated the aptness of the name—“Family Ties.” (They don’t bother to name colors colors anymore.) I can barely walk lately, so after the excruciating torment of navigating the huge store—paint in one far corner, cashiers in opposite far corner—I mostly napped while she worked (she actually whistled) until it was time to go to the ritual birthday dinner at Schussler’s with my sisters (Barb and K) and brother-in-law (MP). They first met P not long after I did and get along fine. P and K, in particular, are hilarious together. They both laugh a lot, so the two of them in K’s kitchen trying to cut the birthday cake and transfer it to plates was apparently the height of comedy. P and MP talked football and baseball, and I sat in (K’s) recliner starring as the Birthday Girl and raking in the many generous gifts. The World Series wasn’t on that day, so we didn’t have to worry about finding the game.
Oct. 30: My birthday! I don’t remember much about it, actually, but I never forget a meal, so I can report that P and I had a wonderful dinner at The Landing, now one of two (S.F.) Bay Area-quality restaurants in “historic downtown Menominee.” My favorite waitress, Cindy, was working, and I got to brag about having a friend who not only came all the way from Oregon for my birthday but was painting my bathroom. Cindy was suitably impressed. She had met Terry and Jean (from Massachusetts), and Diane (from San Francisco) 2 years ago so has this image of me as someone who is much loved by friends from all over (which is true, amazingly enough). Conversely, when Cindy came by my sister’s garage sale last summer, MP could hardly believe that I knew someone locally that he didn’t know.
Oct. 31: I met the dog next door, who’s named Buttons and is as cute as one. I was outside feeding the birds and she was barking up a storm, anxious to get at me, so there but for the grace of 2 fences went my rabid attacker. When I turned to see what the commotion was all about, there was my neighbor waving at me. He and Buttons were both dressed for winter, and I was out there in a t-shirt and shorts. My body is apparently “burning up from the inside” (according to an alarming article I found online), so I’m always hot, and it might also be the cause of my sudden-onset “arthritis” in both knees. I’m not one to ask, “Why me?,” but it’s funny how put out I feel at having anything go wrong with my body, even at the age of the Beatles’ lyrics, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me….” Like: Am I really expected to hobble painfully for the rest of my life?
K called and invited us over to watch the Packer game and order pizza for lunch. I started obsessing about what to do, because we had already made plans with Barb. P calmly pointed out that we could go to K&MP’s for football and Barb’s for the World Series. Which is what we did. We brought take-out to Barb’s from our new Mexican restaurant, La Cabaña—I’m so excited—The citizenry has taken to La Cabaña in droves. It may not be the best Mexican food I’ve ever had, but it’s way better than Taco Bell or Taco John’s, and it’s run by real Mexicans. According to my haircutter, the owner worked in his father’s restaurants in Chicago and moved up here because he found the area so beautiful. I’ve heard all my life about how much Chicagoans love the U.P, which I guess they see as wild rather than boring. Well, come on down! Or UP, rather.
Nov. 1: By now, pages were flying off the calendar like in a Frank Capra movie. Only 2 days to P’s departure. She finished painting the bathroom and did a beautiful job; she was right about the color, a kind of gray/brown that changes subtly with the light. We went to Schloegel’s (family dining establishment) for supper. I had lobbied for Mexican again, but she didn’t go for that. So when she was perusing the menu at Schloegel’s, it took me a few seconds to respond to her idle question, “Have you ever had their taco salad?” When it finally hit me, I said, “If you order a taco salad, I’m going to kill you.” We both laughed like madwomen—the main pleasure in having her here, along with the long, leisurely talks that we usually conduct on the phone once a week. She’d overheard a woman in a nearby booth tell the waitress that she preferred Taco Bell to the new Mexican restaurant (which is next door to Schloegel’s) because it’s “pricey” ($7.99 for 3 steak enchiladas, rice, salad, and chips). Some people have also remarked that there’s a “language barrier” there, as if we have to point and grunt at the menu to be understood. We just don’t know how to handle the differently ethnic around here.
Nov. 2: P has a calming influence on me when it comes to doing what needs to be done. It was election day, and I had reluctantly concluded that I wasn’t on permanent absentee ballot status as I had thought—meaning that I had to go to the high school, find the gym, and remember how to vote in public. (I was a permanent absentee voter in California for many years.) I devoutly wished that I could just forget the whole thing, but I knew that both P and my sister (who wanted me to vote for certain school board members) wouldn’t hear of it. We also had to go back to Menard’s to see if we could find a match for the paint in the cats’ room*. And I had to buy food for the little beasts, and I wanted to get a sandwich for lunch because I knew I’d never make it to our 7:30 dinner reservation. I was stressing about the effort it would take to accomplish all this, but P couldn’t have been more calm about it—but then, she can walk.
*Yes, Brutus and Luther have their own room.
We made all the requisite stops and I even managed to get through it all without having to pee. The voting place was well hidden: I guess you’re just supposed to know where it is, having lived here all your life. It was annoyingly unorganized, but I got through it, and I later found out that one of the board members on Barb’s list won by 1 vote! Mine! She was happy about that, and in another example of my sudden wielding of serendipitous power, I mentioned that the flat white thing she described finding in her cat’s litter could be a tapeworm—and it was! She was ecstatic (that she was able to get him treated for it), and I felt, temporarily, like I could do no wrong. Didn’t last long, but you know.
That night P and Barb and I tried our newest restaurant, Table Six, which is upscale Italian. I can’t believe we now have two high-end restaurants barely a block from each other. The owners of The Landing are apparently all pissy about the new place and have gone to great lengths to keep Table Six customers from parking in their lot. Small-town rancor is alive and well. We were delighted to discover that the food at Table Six is excellent. Barb and I played it safe with lasagna, but P had steak and asparagus risotto (risotto? in Menominee?), which I know was great because I got the leftovers.
Nov. 3: I drove P to the airport and reluctantly let her go back to her life. I returned to mine by having an early lunch at El Sarape on the east side of Green Bay. I can’t get enough of Mexican food, it seems.
I rarely read the poems in The New Yorker because they’re usually so obscure, but this one caught my eye because of the title (I’m drawn to anything that mentions social security, having finally attained it.) I like the poem a lot and especially appreciate finding a new (to me) poet.
AT THE MANHATTAN SOCIAL SECURITY OFFICE
The mind seeks what is dead, for what is living escapes it. —Miguel de Unamuno
I’m practicing the stoic art of insouciance,
not because I prefer not thinking about
what signing up for Medicare means,
or why so many who came after me are being
called first, but because downstairs
my soul was examined for signs of violence
and duplicity. Its fatigue and ambivalence
weren’t visible, apparently. In the next row
a man is telling a girl bobbing to an iPhone
to sit still before the guard returns.
When I was her age signing up meant going
to Vietnam, which meant practicing
the Zen art of vanishing. At the windows
a blind man is asking why he didn’t receive
his disability payments in prison,
he needs his “…sustenance.” Behind me,
another man is asking to see my paper,
he’s looking for work, he says. Happy
to be free of “Afghanistan: What Could Work,”
I hand him my New York Review of Books.
Bismarck said explaining was a weakness.
As her father explains the necessity
of securing her future, the girl squirms.
She fears only boredom. I feared everything.
In five months my father would die
and mother and I would live on the $200 a month
his Social Security paid. At the windows
the blind man is practicing the existential art
of grovelling, exposing the stitches on his scalp
to a clerk who’s practicing the cynical art
of indifference. The girl’s soul, hovering near
the ceiling, is enjoying its moment of radiance.
My soul, fretfully pacing the water cooler,
is practicing the fatalistic art of understanding
that nothing can be done about Afghanistan,
that in order to influence the future we must kill it.
my body, my (plunged, prodded, and poked) self
Last time, I left you with kind of a cliff-hanger about my medical condition. Well, I have neither fallen off the cliff nor been rescued in the meantime. The wheels of the medical-industrial complex grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.
At least it has been established that I do not have colon cancer, and I do not have breast cancer. That leaves xn places in my body where they may still find something horribly wrong. I feel like the elephant in the fable about the blind men touching its trunk, tail, ears, etc., and trying to guess what it is.
As part of the follow-up to my physical, I’ve had a colonoscopy, a mammogram, an ultrasound when they found something on the mammogram, and a biopsy of the something they found on the mammogram. Still to be resolved are the high cholesterol, high C-reactive protein (CRP), and abnormal white blood cell count. Oh, and a heart murmur. The high CRP was something I knew about before, but the lab tests keep coming back with wildly different results. When I went to a screening clinic for heart desire (Freudian slip! I mean “heart disease”!) a couple years ago, it was 10 (supposed to be no more than 3). A month or so ago, it was 29, and when they checked it again a week or so later it was 14. Also, my heart rate has been erratic at the doctor’s office—between 80 and 116 at different times, for no apparent reason.
Before the colonoscopy, a nurse who had just taken my blood pressure proceeded to ask me a million questions that I had already answered a million times. Those people are thorough—different nurses kept popping up and asking me my name and birthdate as if they were trying to catch me in a lie. While the first nurse was questioning me and entering my answers into a computer, another nurse was trying to get the IV needle in my arm. My sisters and I all have veins that strongly resist capture. So she’s fussing with my arms and hands, poking here and there, and the Question Nurse comes to “Do you have high blood pressure?” And I quip, “I don’t know, you tell me!” (See, she had just taken it. Do I have to explain everything?) And the Needle Nurse smiles! At last! Someone appreciates my feeble attempt at humor! And eventually the needle goes in, mission accomplished.
Part of my problem in joking with strangers is that I don’t have the courage of my convictions. I don’t sell it, or I don’t sell it with the requisite ha-ha or strong, confident deadpan. My deadpan only seems to work with people who’ve heard it many times before. I met my new doctor (I think I told you), and at my physical, he was crouched on the floor with one of my feet in each hand for some reason, while I sat in my “gown” on the end of the examining table. I thought of restraining my immediate association but then decided to go ahead. I said, “I’d like to see something in a nice loafer?” See, that questioning uplift at the end of the sentence conveyed my lack of confidence. He just said, “I can’t help you with that,” and when I croaked, “JOKE,” he said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were joking.” I don’t really blame him; he’s doing his thing, and I’m making some bizarre commentary that he has no context for. He’s Barb’s doctor, too, and she had an appointment with him a couple days after mine. She said to him, “It took you a while to get the loafer joke, didn’t it?” He had to agree.
The next time I saw him, I said, “I’ve never felt comfortable with a doctor in my whole life before.” He asked if I was comfortable there, and I said, “Very much.” He seemed pleased. It’s really true, and I still can’t believe it. Is it because it’s the U.P.—no, actually, it’s N.E.W. (Northeastern Wisconsin), but close enough—that they have to try harder? When you go to the hospital (“BA”MC) (I explained that last time, look it up), there are signs everywhere saying “Thank you for choosing BAMC.” And I always think, “I didn’t know I had a choice.” But maybe they’re sensitive because it’s common knowledge that “people from Menominee/Marinette go to Green Bay for health care, and people from Green Bay go to Milwaukee.” I suppose Milwaukeeans set their sights on Chicago. Anyway, everyone who works at the hospital here seems to be genuinely friendly and just busting out all over in their desire to please. That was not my experience in the real (S.F.) Bay Area.
So I’m lying on a hospital bed with an IV sticking out of my hand, waiting to be taken for my colonoscopy. Barb is sitting in the recliner next to the bed crocheting a scarf. (She is an inveterate crocheter, an unrepentant, unregenerate crocheter.) Mounted on the wall is a TV, which is showing a series of nature photographs, but because I don’t have my glasses on, all I can see are blobs of green and blue. I wonder idly what’s in the IV bag, and Barb thinks there must be a mild sedative, though I am feeling anything but sedated—or loopy, one of the consolations I was looking forward to after enduring the 6-hour trial of drinking 9 tall glasses of lemonade-like liquid the night before. (“Lemonade-like” in the sense that someone must have waved a lemon in the general direction of a small dune of powdered laxative before it got to me.) I insisted I wasn’t in the “feeling no pain” zone, but then I started paying closer attention to the blobs of nature on the TV and noticed that now there were fluffy white clouds streaming leftward against a blue background. And I started giggling. Like, if you’re feeling anxious about the soon-to-be hose stuck up your ass, surely you’ll be pleasantly distracted by these faux clouds drifting by. I pointed out to Barb that one of the clouds looked like Dick Cheney, but she did not find this quip amusing, and usually she’s highly amused by me, so that’s when I decided I must indeed be intravenously ingesting some sort of happy concoction. Then I had one of my patented epiphanies when I realized that, in the future, the world will be like the movie Beetlejuice in that there will be no “outside.” You’ll spend your life in rooms without windows (there will be nuclear winter beyond the walls, or maybe just abstract patterns or white noise) but you’ll have a TV monitor—or maybe they will have perfected the showing of images on your retinas—to feed you scenes of life as it used to be. Old people will tell their grandchildren about the far-away long-ago when you could actually be in the picture and surrounded by the picture as you were now surrounded by blank walls and closed-circuit TVs, and the young’uns will roll their eyes at Grandma and Grandpa’s lame, pointless memories, as they do now when we oldsters start waxing nostalgic about Grateful Dead concerts and safe, cheap recreational drugs. As I was going on about all this, I had the distinct feeling that Barb wasn’t listening. Well, at least I was amusing myself. I mean, somebody has to.
They finally come for me, and the last thing I remember is being told to turn on my side. Next thing I know, I’m back in my “room,” Barb is still crocheting, and I have disagreeable pain in my stomach, which lasts all the way through the recovery period and on to the car and the restaurant, Schloegel’s, where I’m desperate to eat something after more than 32 hours of fasting. I’m trying to discreetly let a little air out of my bum in little toots. The Recovery Nurse had said I could eat “anything” now, so I took her at her word and ordered Swedish pancakes and sausage—except that I told the waitress “Swedish meatballs and sausage,” and fortunately Barb noticed and I was spared a meat overdose. At the hospital everyone had been adamant that I wouldn’t remember a thing the doctor or the nurses said to me after the procedure, so I was equally adamant that I was perfectly alert, though I could tell that my glazed eyes betrayed me. And I did remember pretty much everything, which boiled down to “Don’t do anything for the rest of the day; tomorrow you can resume your normal life.” Since my “normal life” consists of not doing much of anything anyway, I did not find this instruction difficult to follow.
After we ate, I needed to get some groceries, and I asked Barb if she thought I “deserved” to buy a batch of bakery cookies after everything I’d been through, and she wholeheartedly agreed, which I knew she would. So I bought white chocolate-macadamia nut cookies, some broccoli, and the all-too-seldom-appearing cream of broccoli soup from the soup bar. I could give up cookies if I absolutely had to, but I couldn’t give up broccoli. Barb dropped me off at home, and I got set up in my comfy armchair with the cookies and a Thermos of water by my side and spent the next 10 hours alternately sleeping and waking up long enough to eat a couple of cookies, add a word or two to the crossword puzzle I was working on, and go back to sleep. I felt great when I woke up.
Oh, the doctor found a “medium-size” polyp in me that was presumably benign and sternly announced that I would have to have another colonoscopy in 3 years. Hey, piece o’ cake, doc. 3 years is like forever.
And on we go. Two days later, I went for my mammogram—which always makes me think of “candygram” from the “Saturday Night Live” sketch about the land shark; I picture a tech in a white smock knocking on my door with the coy implication that she has something wonderful to give me. I was sitting in the waiting room and looked up to see that several large panels in the ceiling—alternating with regular gray acoustic tiles—showed clouds and blue sky like in the colonoscopy room, but they weren’t moving. It was an odd look, and it made me wonder, Who designs this shit? And of course everything was pink. I hate pink, therefore I am not a real woman. (I was once told to my face that I wasn’t a real woman, and it’s surprising how much it hurt, as if I had been born with 2 heads or something. This was back in the ‘70s when I worked at Commerce Clearing House in San Rafael, and a coworker who’d been asked if she and her roommate [an obvious dyke] were lesbians said it was like being called a prostitute. Another coworker was describing someone as “queer,” and I, being newly recruited to the cause [though I never got my toaster], piped up, “I’m queer,” whereupon another coworker friendly to me said, “Oh, Mary, you are not.” I wasn’t sure how to take that, but I knew she meant well. That’s when someone else said, perfectly seriously, that I wasn’t a real woman. Thank God no one around this Bay Area seems to know what dykes look like, because if they did, half the farm women in town would be openly ostracized. I’ve gotten a couple of leers and sneers from men on diner stools, but I easily stare them down. Living here for me is like being an imperialist in a colonial outpost. Because you’ve been exposed to more of the real world than they have, you can culturally lord it over them. So the backwater men here still think they’re at the top of the totem pole, but I can pierce them with my unintimidated gaze like a lean and hungry yon Cassius—or fat and hungry in my case.)
So as I said, they found “something” on the mammogram, so I had to have a biopsy. The surgeon who did it is very well liked (I liked him, too), and my niece said he’s “the best cutter in town.” So I had a sodden thought: If he lived in the Middle East, he could be the best cutter in Qatar. (I swear I’ve heard that name pronounced the same as “cutter,” but the online dictionary claims it rhymes with: afar, ajar, all-star, armoire, and about 150 other words. I include this superfluous information just in case there are any poets out there looking for a rhyme for a small emirate—though it may be easier to use emirate in the first place. Mais non: There are over 400 rhymes for “emirate,” including Watergate, welfare state, and welterweight! I suggest you write about something else.)
The biopsy wasn’t a big deal, but the discharge instructions said I couldn’t lift more than 10 pounds for a few days. Guess who weighs more than 10 pounds each? Fatty McBrutus and Fatty McLuther. Even if I don’t lift them, they’re used to using my body, especially my chest, as an alternative bed-slash-stomping ground. I had to keep shooing them away or trying to hold on to them with only one arm. Try explaining that to a couple of selfish felines. But the excision healed up nicely, and the “something” turned out to be “nothing.”
At the follow-up appointment a week later, nice Dr. Surgeon called me “young lady.” I had vowed to educate the next person (always a man) who called me that in the mistaken belief that I would be flattered by the obvious lie. But it backfired on me. Dr. Surgeon said he was sorry if he offended me (though he was clearly the one who was offended) and that he thought of me as “young”—his last two patients had been 87 and 89. Well, OK. He then suggested that he call me “pleasant lady” because I’m “pleasant.” Was that a dig? By then I wished I had kept my mouth shut. What do you ever get for bucking the system, I ask you?
If you’re still with me, congratulations. You are a real trouper, which is why I’ve always liked you.