Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Girls Just Want To….Be Women Who Can Talk About Sex

This past weekend I led a spiritual retreat for women in recovery. We talked about everything that goes with recovery: addictions, relationships, support groups, transferring addictions, “positive addictions”, prayer and God and faith and how to keep on growing and changing.

We also talked about things that women talk about when they get together: food, eating, bodies, health, shopping, shoes, money, men, partners, work, kids, careers, skincare and sex. Yes, sex.

I found myself leading a late night session about sex and aging and we talked about some of the things no one tells us about owning a female body in mid-life. What I loved about that session was that we laughed, and cried and held such a safe space for each other to talk intimately about our sexual needs and sexual dilemmas. It felt truly sacred to be with these women so openly and with so much vulnerability.

That experience triggered a memory from my childhood, which I now realize, is what gave me the confidence to create my own positive sexuality-and maybe also it gave me courage to help other women, and couples. Here is what I remembered about my mother:

When I was about 10 or 11 my mother gave me those little booklets from Kimberly Clark about my changing body and about menstruation. They were pretty risqué I guess even though they showed no actual body parts and never, ever mentioned sex at all. But just the reference to “maturity” and fallopian tubes was a big deal.

After that my mother, Florence, talked to me often about the feelings—the emotional and physical feelings—that were going to come to me as I developed physically. She told me about sex and intercourse and how babies were made yes. But she also talked about desire and the sensations I might encounter when I was attracted to a boy. No, she did not use the word orgasm, that would not have been in her vocabulary, but desire was and she wanted me to understand that desire was not a “Boys Only” experience. She wanted me to understand that I would certainly have physical desire and sensations because she didn’t want me to be surprised when that happened.

Later, when I was in my twenties my mother talked to me about this and she let me in on conversations that she had been having with the mothers of my little girl friends. Florence told me that it infuriated her when she heard women tell girls things like, “Those boys just want one thing” and “Your job is to keep a boy from touching you” and “If a boy touches you it’s all for him and not for you.”

My mother, now I realize how smart she was, told those other mothers, “You are lying to your
daughter, so the first time she feels a crush or a sensation of desire when she has a hug or kiss with a boy she will conclude one of two things: That she is a freak or that you are a liar. And if your daughter thinks you lied about feelings of desire then she will not believe the important things you told her about love and caring and deserving respect. You will have lost her trust.”

My mother told me that I would feel desire and that I might want some of that pleasure but that I would say no. Not because it was all for the boy but because I would care about myself, and I’d be careful with my feelings, and I’d want to have a good reputation. And yes, truth be told—I did hear about the milk and the cow and what happens if it is free. J

This weekend at the podium, talking to women about their bodies and self-care and the timing of female sexual response, I was recalling Florence and finally appreciating what an unusual and helpful mother I had. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Thinking Through Screening and Diagnosis

It began with prostate cancer screenings and mortality studies. Then there was deeper research on breast cancer--early diagnosis and what it means, could mean, might not mean.

Now Gina Kolata writes in this week's New York Times about ways of examining the impact of increased screening versus mortality, and the complicated issues of how we should respond to diagnoses.

The cancer in this story is thyroid cancer--seemingly on the increase in Korea--until you look at the screening and diagnose numbers versus mortality numbers. Is there more cancer or more diagnosed cancer? And in the case of thyroid cancer--like prostate--is the treatment and possible debilitating effects of the treatment worth it given that mortality rates are not changed.

What Kolata describes very well is how complicated all of this is--and at the very time that we have shorter meeting times with doctors and specialists. What's a human being to do?

Do take a look at this and yes, share it with others. We all have cancer; we all have cancer cells in us at all times. So as screening techniques improve and become more refined will we all soon all have "diagnosed cancers"? That's a scary thought--in so many ways.

Here's the article from Gina Kolata. Link below:

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Death is Visiting

Death has been hanging around this week. He’s sitting on the windowsill smoking a cigarette. Whenever I come in or out of the house he just nods and says, “Hey.” I know why he’s here.

A friend’s husband has died. Joe had Alzheimer’s for ten years. Finally, death…but still, death. Another friend of John’s—maybe two weeks to live or maybe four?  John hasn’t seen him in years so he drove to Worchester this morning to say hello, and “Good-bye” after all this time.

And death nods.

And yes, it’s Veteran’s Day. On NPR I hear a mother and father interviewed about the way that they learned of their son’s death, and their experience of going to Arlington this week to see his grave for the first time.

And tomorrow Annie will go to the Saratoga National Cemetery to bury Joe.

And death sees me coming and going and listening and dressing. He puts out his cigarette on the sill, and just nods.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

What We learn about Healing from Older Teachers

And I mean much older...

I am getting ready to teach a class on Carl Jung next week and going through my materials I find a section that I wrote years ago on the importance of not shrinking from pain. This was, admittedly, before cancer but I think it still applies.

Jung, in talking about why we become neurotic talks about going toward pain, "go toward the thing that scares you" etc. Jung, of course split from Freud over the issues of spirituality in healing and personal growth and he believed that we had to integrate our shadows/pain/fears rather than annihilate them.

In one place he says, "God comes through the wound." I love that. But I loved it even more when I read on and learned that Jung was borrowing from Julian of Norwich who said, "Our wounds become our trophies."

I think, maybe, that is the true essence of celebrating survivor-hood. It is the integration and the god/good in us coming through the wound that is being celebrated rather than "I kicked cancer's ass."

What do you think?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Cancer at The Movies

As I have said before,  life in cancer and caregiving is not a made-for-TV movie. Few films capture the reality of living with --and dying from-- cancer. It is true that a visual medium is challenged to represent what is so very internal and subtle: all the waiting, in inconclusiveness of diagnosis, the boredom of chemo, eating lasagna, throwing out the lasagna that someone with mouth ulcers can’t eat, the sleeping and napping, and of course the ordinariness of what cancer is.

No, movies need drama and they need visuals so the cancer movie clichés are: getting the bad news from the doctor, telling the kids, losing hair, crying –a lot of crying, the moments before surgery, the recovery room, the death bed last words and the absolute misrepresentation of what actual death looks like.

But there are movies that give us better and worse depictions of cancer and caregiving. The one we laugh at most maybe is Love Story, based on the all time best/worst clichéd Chick Flick-before –its-time: "Love Story" by Eric Segal. The story and movie would not have been so memorable except for the two young actors in the lead: Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal who discovered that love means never having to say you are sorry you made this movie and therefore doomed all women with cancer to feel bad for not dying beautifully—and so well-dressed.

But still….cancer is part of life. We all have cancer (see earlier blog posts for the science on that) and we all know someone with cancer, and a lot of us fear cancer so yes, it's a great movie topic.

This week we watched the latest, sweetest and touchingly new cancer movie: “The Fault in Our Stars” based on the Young Adult novel by John Green. And I can absolutely recommend both the book and the movie to you.

It did—because the cast is young and beautiful –make me think of "Love Story" but with more fun, less smarm and better dialogue.

So here are my top ten favorite cancer movies:

     1* The Barbarian Invasions
     2* The Fault in Our Stars
     3* Love Story
     4* Terms of Endearment
     5*  50/50
     6* Wit
     7* Sweet November
     8* My Life Without Me
    9* Erin Brockovitch
    10* Stepmom

What are yours?

Friday, October 31, 2014

It's Not the Monster That Scares Us

One of the scariest moments in a horror movie is when the baby-sitter gets the phone call telling her, “He’s in the house with you!” And “he” of course, is the bad guy or the monster.

On Halloween we have lots of horror stories to entertain us, and one of the great classics is Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. A best seller in 1818, and rarely out of print since, Frankenstein may be the most beautifully written scary book. A gripping story, the novel is packed with social and philosophical issues that will surprise those who only know the movie version of the story.

What makes Shelley’s novel a relevant work for today are the questions that she raised so eloquently: What does it mean to be human? Where will science lead us? And, “How do we discern morality in technology?”

 These questions are as perplexing now as they were at the dawn of the scientific era. The issue of technology’s intrusion into life --and death --is at the heart of today’s news. We continue to learn about new ways to overcome disability, advance fertility, control disease and delay death, but at what costs and to what limits?

It could help us to closely read Shelley’s novel and take up her questions for today.

When we hear the name, “Frankenstein” most people think of the rivet-headed monster immortalized by Boris Karloff in the old movie. We picture the lumbering creature that was assembled from body parts, and this common misidentification shows just how easily we tend to blame the victim and overlook the bad guy. 

In Shelley’s novel the large, disfigured man is simply named “The Creature”.   Frankenstein was not that sad man, the product of then-modern medicine, but rather his creator, the scientist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley showed us that the tragedy of Frankenstein, and what led to the tragic consequences, was scientific experimentation done in isolation. Her brilliant young scientist had no association with his peers, no interactions outside his laboratory, and no ethical or moral constraints to balance his work.

Does that seem an accusation of our times? Dr. Frankenstein confesses his own dilemma: “In the year I created the Creature I had no intimacy, had not read a book, had a meal with friends, heard a concert or been to church.”

Maybe that seems a heavy admonition against workaholism, but how much do competition, secrecy and speed to market drive this same isolation in science today?

The original story makes the point that scientific experimentation of itself is not wrong; the trouble lies in its separation from social discourse.

Shelley’s point is subtle but important: Dr. Frankenstein is a tragic figure not for experimenting but for neglecting to take responsibility for the impact of his work. The issue is not to prevent creativity but to take responsibility –collectively and individually--for the social and human cost of each new technology.  
Frankenstein is the perfect myth for us right now. It’s about scientific inquiry outside of community dialogue. Think about Syria’s poison gas, our drones, fracking, “killer robots” and our detached way of dealing with death.

It’s so easy to point a finger at science but we find ourselves, as consumers and patients, demanding better healthcare and cures for the diseases that killed our ancestors. Every day we read about medical breakthroughs--new technologies for cancer, heart disease, fertility. How do we draw the line?  

Many of us hope we’ll get to benefit from some of those lifesaving advances, and we may even hope that advanced military technology might shorten war by intimidating our enemies.

We don’t want scientific progress to stop. But we, not just scientists, have to ask Shelley’s questions: What is the value of human life? What is the consequence of saving one? Or of making one?  But we have to consider the unintended consequences and ask, “Who’s the monster now?”

Our tendency is to point a finger and say, “It’s them…” and  “It’s their fault…” But our lesson comes from Shelly’s classic story and the scary movies:  He’s in the house with us.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Amy Winehouse House

This is one of my all time favorite posts. I wrote it at the start of John's cancer tour and it still makes me smile to see the fierceness I found for myself in CancerLand:

The Amy Winehouse House             

A couple of weeks ago we visited a local cancer support center to see what services  might be available. The house is lovely and there are many activities, support groups, yoga, shared meals etc. But about 30 minutes into the orientation I picked up the whiff of overriding condescension that accrues around cancer. Part of it is the pastel and pretty approach to surroundings but it’s also apparent in the tone of voice that is used by staff. It’s a cross between the voice you use when talking to a small child and the voice one uses talking to someone in the midst of a psychotic break. The other hint at condescension is the two-handed handshake: the staff member takes both of your hands in theirs. This is accompanied by the long, deep gaze, which immediately feels like someone told the staff how important it is to make eye contact and that “people with cancer need to be seen.” Well, they are going to make dam sure you know you are seen.

But the greatest tip off to the fact that once you have cancer you’ll never be treated like a competent adult again is revealed in the list of activities offered. At the cancer center, the counselor told me--with that kindergarten teacher lilt in her voice, “We get together on Thursdays and make smoothies!!” Smoothies.  As I told John on the way home, “I have never made a smoothie in my life so why would I make smoothies in someone else’s kitchen with a group of strangers just because you have cancer?”

That smoothie was the turning point for me and it set me to thinking about the kind of cancer support place I’d like to create.  So here is an introduction to my new cancer support organization: The Amy Winehouse House:

The Mission of The Amy Winehouse House is: Fuck Cancer

We believe that cancer and its treatment is fierce and so everything around it should meet that fierceness head on and not back down into pastel prettiness. We don’t coddle and we don’t play word games. We don’t parse “living with” versus “dying from” cancer.

At The Amy Winehouse House we are not nice and not pastel. We don’t believe that having cancer makes you nice or pastel either. If you were an ass before you got cancer now you are an ass with cancer. We don’t ask you to share, process, make crafts or drink smoothies. We offer no bookmarks or anything that has or requires a crocheted cover.

All activities at the Amy Winehouse House are optional and include:

Making martinis
Strip poker night
Learning how to hot wire a car
Our book group is currently reading “Snuff” by Chuck Palahniuk
We have a smoking room
(if you have cancer and are going to die we want you to enjoy a cigarette on us.)
On Saturday nights we have strippers. Yes, for girls too.

And we certainly do have drug education.  We think of this as self-chemo. Our role model, Amy Winehouse, was an expert on self-chemo. Our self-chemo classes explain how to smoke crack and how to play the cancer card to score some medical marijuana. Our movie nights include pornography.  (After all, cancer is pornographic so why get all puppyish and pastel about something that is violent and intrusive.)

In future entries I’ll explain the Board of Directors and our policy for volunteers. (We don’t have tee shirts but you do have to wear eyeliner.) We’ll also talk about why we hate Lance Armstrong (We call him “One Ball” around the House.) We have bracelets too, but ours say, “Fuck Cancer.”