Saturday, May 24, 2014

a moment in the day: mammogram

The radiologist chats as she works the controls of the upright, six-foot-tall vice clamped down on my naked, puny breast, trying for just the right degree of squish.

"When I had my first child, I was forty-two," she says. "And when I had my second? Forty seven."

She relaxes the grip of the vice, then brings it in tight again. Not tight. Tight-ish. I breathe and tell myself that. Not tight. Tight-ish. Don't worry. Stand up straight in front of this tall, gray hard-plastic device with its wide, boob-mashing clamps set dead center and its big, bulbous alien head hanging overhead, don't look down, look at the wall. I can handle this, my just-about-to-turn-forty-five birthday present to myself, my first mammogram.

"There's still time for you," she says, about the baby I never had and never will.

"Sure," I say, "except that my husband had a vasectomy."

"They don't always take," she says. Tightens it. More than tight-ish. "Tubes tied don't always take. I had two children and then had my tubes tied. I knew a woman with six children and her tubes tied. She was pregnant and she had six children and her tubes were tied."

"We have a dog," I say.

She relaxes the grip of the vice, uses her hands, gentle, to re-position me, then brings the mouth of the vice down again, harder. Not so much that it hurts. It's pressure, but it doesn't hurt. I breathe and tell myself it doesn't hurt.

"You look young for your age," she says. "Not me. I look so much older."

She's doing what women sometimes do. Telling another woman how much prettier, how much better, how much younger.

"Oh, no." I say it more to the tall plastic alien with the boob-mashing clamps than to her. "Not at all." I'm doing what women sometimes do. What I always do. Trying to make the other person feel reassured.

She says, "It's hard to tell Asian women's ages. We look young for a long time and then - boom - very old."

"Oh, now! You totally look young. I was surprised you said you had two children."

I'm downright bubbly. Reassuring her that she's young-looking and beautiful but also that I'm fine, I'm comfortable, I'm not daunted by what she's doing to me. The more I give her reassurance, the bubblier I get. This warm, clammy room, the flat slab of hard plastic cranked down over my tiny, helpless breast. Breast, a word I've always had a hard time saying about myself. I spent so many years feeling so, so small that I hardly have it in my vocabulary to give a name to that part of myself. Chest is what I've always thought - chest, the way a twelve-year-old boy has a chest - even in these last couple years when I've gained a little ground in the chest department, but you can't talk about a chest in two separate components, the left chest that's comfortable and the right chest that's clamped in the jaws of the mammogram machine.

Mammogram machine. I don't know the technical term. When I first walked in here, newly changed into the pink cotton robe, open in the front as per instructions, the radiologist pointed at the machine and said, "Here it is, the torture device."

And laughed. And I laughed because I always laugh when they're saying something that's supposed to be funny. That whole give-reassurance habit, that thing women sometimes do, or maybe it's everyone.

"If you're very small or very large," she says, now, "mammogram is more uncomfortable, but in between, like you? That's easier."

She cranks the vice a little more. OK, that hurts. But this woman who has seen me with my shirt off - and seen lots of women with their shirts off - has just called my breast size "in between." This is a fabulous day.

"Alright, ready to go," she says.

And now she really cranks it. It hurts more and less than I expected. The feeling is not just about pressure. It burns. A bright, shimmery burning pain, but something about it feels manageable, feels like oh-yes-i-guess-i-can-do-this, as the radiologist steps across the small room to work the controls to take the X-ray.

Pain. The swishing robot hum of the machine taking its picture. Rite of passage. That's what Stephen had said: "Your first mammogram. That's a rite of passage." Somehow, I hadn't been thinking about it that way until he said it. Passage to what? Old age? The inevitable accumulation of discomforts, aches and pains, more mammograms? All morning before the mammogram, I thought about rites of passage. First step. First kiss. First time asking a boy to a dance (and the forty minutes I sat in front of the phone trying to make myself dial - excruciating). Driver's license (and how I failed the first test, how my three-point turn turned into a six-point turn - the humiliation - excruciating).  Come to think of it, lots of rites of passage felt excruciating at the time, although they were probably actually just good old uncomfortable.

Maybe after a certain time, our rites of passage are all just little steps forward in the ability to be OK with the realness of life. With the fact that life is not all about comfort and that discomfort is something you can take.

The radiologist comes across the room and smiles at me. She unhinges the boob-mashing clamp.

"Alright, that's one down," she says. "Only five more to go."

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

the last five years at portland center stage

Plays performed down in Portland Center Stage's Ellen Bye Studio are always intimate productions, but The
Last Five Years, which Stephen and I saw the other night, is even more so than usual. It's like standing, invisible, between a man and a woman, bearing witness to the most intimate moments of their entire relationship. From beginning to end. From hope to crash and burn. With singing!

One of the most interesting things about this musical is that it's told in two directions at the same time. With only three players - the woman (Cathy), the man (Jamie) and a piano player only half visible behind a screen - we watch Jamie tell his half of the story from beginning to end and Cathy tell hers from end to beginning. From crash and burn to hope. Folded in together, these two story lines make up an interesting span of emotional geometry. Set in layers, one on top of the other, are expectation, loss,  ambition, jealousy, joy, disillusionment. The most poignant and telling moments along the course of this span, as you'd probably expect, are the show's beginning and its heartbreaking end.

Eric Little played flawless piano for ninety minutes straight, and I don't just say flawless because he's my uncle (he's not). Both actors/singers had beautiful voices and strong control. I thought Drew Harper as Jamie was great in his moments of humor and joy. His exuberant singing of "Shiksa Goddess" (just after he's met Cathy for the first time) is charming, and his burst of giggling jubilation when his dream of becoming a novelist comes true is sweet and hilarious. He also floats some beautiful high notes - not to mention he looks good in his underwear.

Merideth Kaye Clark was lovely as that Shiksa Goddess. She has a clear, shimmery voice and strong, versatile acting chops. I wondered if it was any more difficult for Clark to play her emotional journey in reverse. Maybe not - what the heck do I know about acting? - but it seems like there's a naturalness to the forward thrust of the aforementioned from hope to crash and burn. It makes sense. We can all relate. As an actor, is it harder to walk that same path in reverse? There's something hollowed out about Clark's Cathy at the beginning of the show (her end of the story), a weariness to match the loss she's singing about, yet along the ninety minute production, she cranks that story backwards until the Cathy we see at the end (her beginning) is strikingly different - fresh and full of warmth.

There's part of me that wants a novel out of this play, an unpacking of the scenes, to give more context for the changes in Jamie and Cathy's relationship. And there are some clichés in Jason Robert Brown's lyrics (I stand on a precipice / I struggle to keep my balance), and some mixing of metaphors (I stand on a precipice / I struggle to keep my balance / I open myself / I open myself one stitch at a time). But Brown's strength lies in his manipulation of the bigger picture. His imaginative structuring of this five year relationship, a bittersweet carousel turning around the fulcrum of the couple's wedding. How deftly he uses the forward/backward device to layer irony on top of irony in this simple and universal story.

One of the most powerful things to me is what the play seems to say through the placement - or rather, mostly, absence - of the characters within each scene. For most of the show, there is only one actor on stage. The second character is there, but only as someone implied. The cumulative effect of Jamie singing to an invisible Cathy and Cathy singing to an invisible Jamie illustrates the lack of presence, the lack of there-ness, of these characters throughout much of their relationship. How one-sided it all is.

How one-sided we all are. Too often. The Last Five Years is a potent reminder that in order to hold relationships, we have to stop running around in different directions - focused on ourselves, our wants and our ambitions - and simply connect.

The Last Five Years is playing at the Gerding Theater from now through June 22. More information is here.

Thank you to Patrick Weishampel for the pictures.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

a moment in the day: decision

I'm driving Stephen to work, and we're making a decision, even though we're not saying so. Noni's funeral in Arlington. Maybe I made my decision earlier, sitting in front of the computer, looking at prices for flights, doing the theoretical math in my head of airfare plus hotel plus transportation plus eating out plus eating out, but a decision isn't really a decision until you say it out loud.

Stephen and I drive in silence under pink and white blossom trees. Once when I was a kid, visiting Noni and Coco in Virginia, we went to Winchester for their famous Apple Blossom Festival. Beautiful old, Colonial buildings and block after block of flowering trees. That's all I remember from that time. That, and the continuing notion that all things lovely and exotic could happen in the company of Noni and Coco.

My memory of that time - and all those wonderful childhood times - is more like a picture postcard than a movie in my head, now. A picture of a moment. Or rather, it's just a picture of a picture of a picture of a moment, and even though I know that every time you remember something, you're only remembering the last memory of the memory before it, I make my memory take another picture of Noni and Coco and all those flowers, for safe keeping.

It's not really just about Noni, of course. Going out for the funeral would be a chance to be with these people I rarely see - Mom and Dad, aunts and uncles, cousins. A decision isn't really a decision until you say it out loud, and so, driving under the pink and white blossom trees, I make my decision: I'm going to let Stephen say it.

He gives a little sigh. "I guess people who are maybe thinking about buying a house should be careful with their money."

I just say, "Yeah."

We pull up at the curb and I let him out. I tell him to have a good day. I head to the grocery store.

On the radio, the classical station is playing that show where they examine the music of the cinema, and today's topic is leitmotif. Recurring musical phrases that embody certain characters or themes in a film (or opera, for that matter). They're playing a piece from Star Wars. An ominous repeat of a single note, then a trio of notes - big John Williams orchestra with the march of an Imperial army underneath. Darth Vader's theme. Just the thought of the great battle of the Rebel forces against the evil Galactic Empire makes me start to cry.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

a moment in the day: dream

I wake up before the alarm goes off, and the last bit of dream sits here, on my pillow. I've dreamed it almost every night for the last month, in some way or other. Dreamed it for the few weeks before I flew to California and I've been dreaming it since I came home. Always the way with one of these California visits. In the dream, it's my last night there and I'm going to have to leave again.

It's weird to me how hard I grieve for that part of my life that's far away. Not weird that I miss my family, but how much. With how good I have it here. A good and interesting man as my husband, a good job, my friends, my endless, beloved projects. My doggie. It's not like before, when every time I left my family in California, I was heading off to an existence that felt crushingly boring and distinctly not mine. But no matter what I have here in this lovely Portland life-after, there's that one deep hole I can't fill.

A week and a half ago, the Saturday of Noni's memorial, stepping up to Mom and Dad's door, me with my good shoes in one hand, Frank and I were talking about death. Partly because of Noni, yes, but also, I think, partly because Frank has a daughter now, and children are the markers of the swift and endless passage of time.

"I think about how I won't exist," he said, "and I think about how I won't exist forever. All that time going on forever and ever..."

He was freaking himself out just thinking about thinking about it.

Though I believe, like my brother, that after I die, my consciousness won't continue, won't go to some heaven or into some new body, death isn't the forever that obsesses me. Walking up to Mom and Dad's house with my good shoes in my hand, I was thinking about my life - all that time - how little of it will be spent with this handful of the people I love most.

The other night, back here in Portland, Stephen and I sat up in bed doing what we love to do, watching an old movie. It was The Merry Widow, with Jeanette MacDonald shrouded in black tulle and Maurice Chevalier singing, "Girls! Girls! Girls!"

Late, ten thirty at least, and I started to doze, just a moment. Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier were embracing, and then my eyes closed and I started to dream. Dreaming about that same hug, but instead of MacDonald and Chevalier, it was Mom and me.