Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Fair Weather Friend?

Dear The Red Dress Club,

Please accept my apologies for being a fair weather friend.  We’ve barely gotten to know one another and I’m sure it seems from your perspective that I’ve dropped you like a hot potato.  That’s not actually what happened, but I can understand why you’d feel that way.  Rather, there’s some big stuff going on in my life at the moment and I just don’t have the focus or concentration necessary to write about it – or much of anything else for that matter.

If you want some background about the “big stuff,” you can check out some of my posts from the last year.  They’re here, here, here, and here.  If you're not inclined to read them, here's the executive summary:  Last spring, in a matter of weeks, my mother died from extremely aggressive, metastatic triple negative breast cancer.  Because her sister (my aunt) also had had breast cancer (but thankfully is a survivor), my sister and I opted to pursue genetic counseling and testing last August.  Based on the age of onset for my mother and my aunt, however, neither of our gynecologists thought we would test positive for any of the BRCA gene mutations common among Ashkenazi Jews.  (Approximately 1 in 40 Ashkenazi Jews is a carrier of a BRCA mutation as compared with rates within the general population of between 1 in 500 and 1 in 800 for BRCA1 and even lower for BRCA2.)  In fact, my sister did test negative, but surprise, surprise...I'm a carrier of one of the BRCA2 "founder mutations"--6174delT to be exact--that suppresses my body's ability to fight certain types of tumors and puts my lifetime risk of developing breast cancer at about 85% (it's 12% in the general population) and my lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer at about 27% (it's 1-2% in the general population).  It is extremely likely that I received this genetic legacy from my mother, but in some families, it is passed from the father down to the next generation--and can be carried by both sons and daughters. You can read more about these specific gene mutations here and here.

Suffice it to say that after much pondering, research and other information gathering, as well as involvement with two different BRCA support groups and a scare after a baseline MRI back in April (that turned out to be nothing), I decided to be proactive, to control what I can control, and to try to do so with some degree of grace, dignity, faith, compassion, courage and humor, while also raising awareness about these mutations and their prevalence (but not exclusivity) within the Jewish community.  Six months ago (in fact it was exactly six months ago today), I had a robotic assisted laparoscopic prophylactic hysterectomy (how's that for a mouthful?!) and three weeks from tomorrow, I'm going to do the rest--a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy (PBM) with immediate reconstruction using a micro-surgical tissue transfer from my abdomen (yes, a tummy tuck).  In BRCA-ville and among plastic surgeons this procedure is known as a DIEP, which is an acronym for the abdominal vessels that are used to provide blood flow to the transplanted tissue. I’m confident in my surgeons’ (yes, there are two of them--this one and this one) skills, abilities, and experience (they do hundreds of these each year) and hopeful that when I come out on the other side of the 10-12 hour surgery that’s scheduled for July 21, all will be well.

I look forward to reconnecting with you then, Red Dress Club—although it likely will take me a few weeks to emerge enough from the anesthesia haze to focus, concentrate and write.  In the meantime, though, I will read the posts of other TRDC-ers and will, I'm sure, be inspired by their stories and memories.  Thanks for hanging in here with me.  See you soon.

Your friend,
~ JanetheWriter.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Gutte Neshuma is a Beautiful Thing

This week's writing prompt:

Physical beauty.

It can open doors - and can also shut them.

Write a scene in which a physically beautiful character is somehow impacted by that trait.

Physical beauty?  As with my earlier posts about sloth and gluttony, I’d like to quote my grandmother on this one:  “Nu?  Who knows from this?”  Of course I know physical beauty (or at least what looks beautiful to me) when I see it, but, like the seven deadly sins, physical beauty—seeking it, possessing it and/or being impacted by it—never took a front-row seat in my life nor in the lives of my closest friends.

Sure, my grandfather always told me I was a shayna madel—a pretty girl—but beyond that, beauty and all its trappings wasn't really on my radar.  As a teen, I seldom primped at a vanity, rarely experimented with make-up, and didn’t even shave my legs for the first time until I was living in a college dorm.  My growing up years were all about working hard in school, burying my nose in a book (and who needs eye shadow or lip gloss to do that?!) and striving to be a gutte neshuma—a good soul—whose actions reflect and promote beauty and goodness in our world.

Today, not much has changed.  Although I now have a repertoire that includes the basics--moisturizer, blush and lipstick (on most days!)—I remain devoted to my work and my studies, spend as much time as possible with my nose buried in a book (or the newest mah jongg card!), and still aim, like so many others I know, to be a gutte neshuma, whose actions release small kernels of beauty and goodness, as well as sacred sparks into our crazy, complicated and convoluted universe.

Red Writing Hood is the writing meme of The Red Dress Club.  The finished piece should be no more than 600 words of either fiction or non-fiction.  Thanks for reading...and feel free to offer thoughts, ideas and/or constructive criticism.  I appreciate hearing what you have to say.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Celebrations All Around?

This is a busy week for celebrations. 

Yesterday, June 14th, was Flag Day, which Adam Goodheart, in an essay about the holiday, calls “the runty stepchild among American national holidays.”  Perhaps for some, but definitely not for my family.  As has been his longtime custom, my father called me during the morning to offer "Flag Day greetings" and to recite the first and last stanzas of Henry Holcomb Bennett’s 1919 poem, The Flag Goes By:
Hats off!
Along the street there comes
A blare of bugles, a ruffle of drums,
A flash of color beneath the sky:
Hats off!
The flag is passing by!

Blue and crimson and white it shines,
Over the steel-tipped, ordered lines.
Hats off! The colors before us fly;
But more than the flag is passing by.

Sea-fights and land-fights, grim and great,
Fought to make and to save the State:
Weary marches and sinking ships;
Cheers of victory on dying lips;

Days of plenty and years of peace;
March of a strong land’s swift increase;
Equal justice, right and law,
Stately honor and reverend awe;

Sign of a nation, great and strong
To ward her people from foreign wrong:
Pride and glory and honor,—all
Live in the colors to stand or fall.

Hats off! Along the street there comes
A blare of bugles, a ruffle of drums;
And loyal hearts are beating high:
Hats off! The flag is passing by!

This Friday evening, Temple Emanu-El will celebrate Pride Shabbat.  Because this year’s observance falls just a few days before Father’s Day, I commend to you two different, but related articles:  the first from this week’s New York Times, and the second, a blog post written by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Victor Appell, who celebrates both Pride Shabbat and Father’s Day together with his family.

This year, as these holidays and celebrations converge in the same week, let us hope that someday soon, we will truly honor the promise of the Pledge of Allegiance with a guarantee of “liberty and justice for all.”

Friday, June 10, 2011

And She Lived Happily Ever After

This week's Red Writing Hood prompt from The Red Dress Club asked you to spread a little joy.

You were to write a piece where you or your character overcame a challenge and, even if it's just for a moment, has a happy ending.

Hoping the tank was on the right, she steered the tin can rental up alongside the pump, found the latch to unlock the cover, climbed out and filled it like a pro -- with neither dirt nor gas staining her hands.   (After all, she’d been born and raised in New Jersey where self-serve gas didn’t exist.  But, after nearly five years in LA and a few before that in New Hampshire, she’d learned a thing or two about pumping gas.  Too bad she hadn't also learned to listen to her gut...until now.) With the tank full, she set out again, following the signs to “Returns,” where she easily guided the car into an empty spot.  After returning the key, she made her way to the terminal, checked her bag--which could have doubled as a steamer trunk--and proceeded to the gate.

This was her second trip down the 405 to LAX this week.  A few days earlier, her neighbor, Carole, had followed her to the port where she’d dropped her car so it could make the trip back east on a car carrier. Carole then ferried her to the airport, where she’d picked up the rental she’d just now dropped off.  In the intervening days, she’d been busy -- packing and shipping to her parents’ house everything that wasn’t headed for storage.  Yesterday, the movers had come, removing the furniture and boxes--only those without a “Do Not Pack” sign affixed to them--headed for the self-storage locker her mother had rented just last weekend.  She’d tied up a few loose ends at the office and said her goodbyes (yes, even to him) before spending her last night in LA at another Carol’s, this one her friend and colleague, who, as luck would have it, lived near the airport.

With plenty of time to spare at the still empty gate, she watched through the huge glass wall as golf cart drivers swerved around each other, delivering wayward bags to jets at other gates.  At the closest one, workers atop a platform crane loaded meals and supplies onto a parked plane. Taking it all in, she was well aware of the absence of the elephant that recently had departed her being.  A newfound lightness filled her to the core.

An older woman, nodding and smiling, sat down next to her.

“Are you traveling for business or pleasure?” the woman inquired.

She hesitated a moment before answering, “Neither....  I’m leaving my husband.”  With the words hanging in the air, she was stunned.  Where were her filters?

“Is this a good thing for you?” the woman asked, unshaken.

“Oh yes,” she said, empowered by what she’d already accomplished and elated by the new freedoms she knew lay ahead.

Red Writing Hood is the writing meme of The Red Dress Club.  The finished piece should be no more than 600 words of either fiction or non-fiction.  Thanks for reading...and feel free to offer thoughts, ideas and/or constructive criticism.  I appreciate hearing what you have to say.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Thanks, Mr. Job

This week’s RemembeRED prompt: As the school year is wrapping up and we're on the cusp of summer, we've decided to go easy on you.  

We want to know what, from your childhood, do you still know by heart?

It was spring of junior year and my high school classmates and I were deep into studying Shakespeare with Mr. Job (pronounced the same way as the biblical guy, not the place you go each day to earn a living). Young, cute and exceedingly devoted to his students, our teacher provided an engaging introduction to the Bard of Avon.  (I still can see the signature shake of his head that flicked a cowlick out of his eyes, the better to see his own southpaw chicken scratch on the blackboard.)

One of our assignments that semester was to select and memorize a passage from among the many we read in Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. As a result, to this day I still can recite from memory this famous soliloquy from Macbeth:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
In the three decades since I sat in that class, many other terrific memories have stayed with me.  The best, by far, is that of our celebration of the Bard’s birthday, which we marked in 1980 on Wednesday, April 23, the accepted date for his birth, which actually is unknown. Complete with hats--the pointy ones with under-the-chin rubber bands to hold them in place--our celebration also included a thickly frosted birthday cake adorned with sugary roses and inscribed “Happy Birthday, Will” and our choice of a red (grape juice) or white (milk) beverage.  We rounded out the festivities with a hearty toast to Will and individualized recitations of our memorized passage--each one a personal tribute to the guest of honor.

Nearly a decade after that 1980 birthday party, I mailed a postcard from Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon to Mr. Job back at the high school.  It was, I believe, my own personal tribute to the man who not only brought Shakespeare to life, but who also nurtured in me a love of literature that I carry with me to this day.

Remembe(RED) is the memoir meme of The Red Dress Club.  Thanks for reading...and feel free to offer thoughts, ideas and/or constructive criticism.  I appreciate hearing what you have to say.

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Line in the Sand

This week's prompt focused on character development. We asked you to tell us what your character - or you -wants. It's a way to get to know your character or yourself better.

They’d each drawn a line in the sand.  Between the lines was a very deep chasm.  For the first time that she could remember, they couldn’t even agree to disagree.

They’d been invited to honor her mother’s memory.  The part that believed in human rights, civil rights and equal rights.  The part that was ahead of her time.  The part that was, according to one friend, “exceptional.”

He believed in these things too, but resisted the invitation.  In this instance, he believed these things conflicted with his daughter’s best interests.

She didn't see it his way. She longed to honor her mother’s memory.

He didn't see it her way. He longed to protect his daughter.

They’d each drawn a line in the sand.  Between the lines was a very deep chasm.

Red Writing Hood is the writing meme of The Red Dress Club.  The finished piece should be no more than 600 words of either fiction or non-fiction.  Thanks for reading...and feel free to offer thoughts, ideas and/or constructive criticism.  I appreciate hearing what you have to say.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Kindergarten Do-Over

A recent article in the New York Times reminded me of my own kindergarten experience when my family lived in Passaic, New Jersey.  There, in order to enter kindergarten, a child had to be five by February 1.  With a January 29th birthday, I squeaked in just under the wire.  So, in September 1967--at the tender age of four and a half--I left behind the safety of Miss Elaine, Miss Bea and the Children's Corner Nursery and trekked off to Thomas Jefferson Elementary School #1 to begin my academic career.

Although I don’t remember much about it, I understand from family stories that it was quite an inauspicious start.  My teacher, who remains unnamed to this day, had been teaching kindergarten since kids rode dinosaurs about, and hadn’t changed her lesson plans since the days of primeval soup.  As the family lore goes, on one of the first days of school, I came out of the (even then) old-fashioned, mammoth building carrying a construction paper ice cream cone that I’d made in class.  Upon seeing it, the older kid who lived downstairs in the two-family house where we lived upstairs immediately told my mother, “Tomorrow she'll make a traffic light.”  Guess what?  The next day I made a traffic light.

But I digress...

Mrs. Whatever-Her-Name-Was believed that youngsters (that’s what they called us back then) had to learn to be neat and conform to societal norms.  As a result, we weren’t allowed to wear smocks when we finger painted and had to color and paint within the lines, always selecting--and I use that term loosely--green for the grass, blue for the sky, and  yellow for the sun.  What fun is that?

She also believed that children had to learn to be self-sufficient and therefore we got no help from her when it came to tying shoes, zipping coats or buttoning sweaters.  God bless my Aunt Claire, who sewed Velcro on all my clothing so I, too, like the five-year-olds, could “button” and “zip” with the best of them. 

We survived this way for four months, as my mother always told the story, before her prayers were answered:  Mrs. Whatever-Her-Name-Was broke her leg on a skiing trip during winter break and didn’t return to school for the rest of the year.

That summer, when I was five, my family moved from Passaic to Silver Spring, Maryland.  Unlike in Passaic, kindergarten students in Montgomery County had to be five by December 31st. This time around, my January 29th birthday saved me, and by December 31st, I was almost six.  Nonetheless, when my mother registered me for school at Glenallen Elementary, there was no question that I was getting a “kindergarten do-over!”