I wish my first time (my first CONSENSUAL time) had not been with someone who was drunk and using me. I'm not sorry I did it, only who I did it with.
I wonder how many of us would say the same thing. I read a study of straight women which said that, on average, their first sexual partner was a male four years older than them. When you're 13-16, four years older is a significant difference in power. It seems hard for me to believe they are meeting as equals, with sweet exploration and unhurried joy.
I remember when the Hite Report came out in 1976. The consciousness-raising and other women's groups I was in at the time could talk of nothing else. Straight women were focused on sex as if it was a brand-new idea. Women married for decades discovered orgasms. You think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not.
The woman I became lovers with when I was 17 and she was 22 had been married for four years and had one child, plus had been pregnant twice more. She didn't know she had a clitoris. She had never come. When she had her child, the doctor performed an episiotomy and then stitched her up with "one extra stitch" which he explained with a grin was "for her husband". She was grateful for the medically-recommended six weeks abstinence period after birth, but her husband chose not to wait, forcing her into intercourse after a month. That "extra stitch" was torn out.
They were considered to have a good marriage. A Christian marriage.
But here's the thing: Six years ago I went out to eat with a group of straight women who were, like me, all connected with local community radio. Women who were activitists, producers, extremely smart and independent, verbal and definitely feminist. Mixed class, mixed race, a couple of them married to progressive husbands. Over our pho, someone brought up the topic of orgasms. We began comparing notes, and of those very sexually active women, none had orgasms more than half the time. I was appalled. I began asking questions about technique, and I wound up having to draw diagrams of female anatomy on a napkin because they were unaware of all the structures in their own body. Or the possibilities therein. We sat a long time after the food was gone, talking excitedly (well, they were) about the chance to have more fulfilling sex.
I think we're still faking it. By we, I mean women as a group, not me. I never have, because I've never had to. The sexual relationships I've been in have had enough leeway for me to simply say I hadn't come, if I hadn't. And, when you do what me and my lovers liked to do, faking is pretty hard to do anyhow. We're both women, we've got our faces and hands involved, and (for me at least) paying attention to what was actually going on with my lover -- not just the verbalized response, but the actual physiological changes down there -- was as pleasurable as coming myself.
I know there are straight men who share this kind of consideration and attention, I've talked with one or two. But my straight women friends say they are few and far between. Yeah, I've known some assholey, selfish dykes, too, and slept with a couple (though not repeatedly). I think this is a matter of conditioning, and it appears to me as if we've lost ground over the past 30 years. Ground we seriously did not need to lose.
It's been replaced with fakery, with porn instead of intense intimacy, with role-playing which I know can create strong orgasms but satisfaction is a lot more than coming, it's building layer on layer of connection and trust. I always laughed when I got called vanilla, because as a cook I knew that genuine vanilla flavor required pure ingredients and much more skill to achieve than other flavors.
In an interview a couple of years ago, Shere Hite said "Women can have orgasms very easily, but the kind of stimulation women need isn't being included in sex...Women need to be half of the equation, and, if we're going to have equality in sex, it has to be re-thought because female orgasm happens in a different way than during the act. This implies many things for redefining intimate activity. I'm arguing for sex to be two bodies trying to communicate. We should be trying to get each other as aroused as possible rather than racing each other for orgasm."
The Wikipedia article on her work states 'Shere Hite has focused on understanding how individuals regard sexual experience and the meaning it holds for them. Hite has criticised Masters and Johnson's work for uncritically incorporating cultural attitudes on sexual behaviour into their research. For example, Hite's work showed that 70% of women do not have orgasms through in-out, thrusting intercourse but are able to achieve orgasm easily by masturbation or other direct clitoral stimulation. Only 30% of the women in her study reported ever experiencing orgasm during thrusting intercourse. She has criticised Masters and Johnson's argument that enough clitoral stimulation to achieve orgasm should be provided by thrusting during intercourse, and the inference that the failure of this is a sign of female "sexual dysfunction." Whilst not denying that both Kinsey and Masters and Johnson have been a crucial step in sex research, she believes that we must understand the cultural and personal construction of sexual experience to make the research relevant to sexual behaviour outside the laboratory. She offered the criticism that limiting test subjects to "normal" women who report orgasming during coitus was basing research on the faulty assumption that orgasming during coitus was normal, something that her own research strongly refuted.'
The Hite Report was the first conducted by women for women, without funding from pharmaceutical or other profit-based sources, was completely anonymous, and created world-wide controversy because of "its groundbreaking conclusion that women can orgasm easily (during self-stimulation), that it is is not women but society that has a problem and needs to change". It argues against penis size, dominance, or pounding penetration as being related to women's pleasure. The attacks on Hite from male-dominated institutions was so ferocious that she eventually gave up her U.S. citizenship and moved to Germany, where she is a respected scholar today.
Oh, yeah, we gotten stop someone who's talking about women's pleasure taking precedence. Just another example of when feminism GOES TOO FAR.
Well, here's the essay that started us down the road to pleasure (or perdition). Enjoy.
THE MYTH OF THE VAGINAL ORGASM
by Anne Koedt (1970). A classic article by the NY based feminist writer. Widely read throughout the women's liberation movement at the time. Found at the Chicago Women's Liberation Union Herstory Archives -- please give them your support.
Whenever female orgasm and frigidity are discussed, a false distinction is made between the vaginal and the clitoral orgasm. Frigidity has generally been defined by men as the failure of women to have vaginal orgasms. Actually the vagina is not a highly sensitive area and is not constructed to achieve orgasm. It is the clitoris which is the center of sexual sensitivity and which is the female equivalent of the penis.
I think this explains a great many things: First of all, the fact that the so-called frigidity rate among women is phenomenally high. Rather than tracing female frigidity to the false assumptions about female anatomy, our "experts" have declared frigidity a psychological problem of women. Those women who complained about it were recommended psychiatrists, so that they might discover their "problem" -diagnosed generally as a failure to adjust to their role as women.
The facts of female anatomy and sexual response tell a different story. Although there are many areas for sexual arousal, there is only one area for sexual climax; that area is the clitoris. All orgasms are extensions of sensation from this area. Since the clitoris is not necessarily stimulated sufficiently in the conventional sexual positions, we are left "frigid."
Aside from physical stimulation, which is the common cause of orgasm for most people, there is also stimulation through primarily mental processes. Some women, for example, may achieve orgasm through sexual fantasies, or through fetishes. However, while the stimulation may be psychological, the orgasm manifests itself physically. Thus, while the cause is psychological, the effect is still physical, and the orgasm necessarily takes place in the sexual organ equipped for sexual climax, the clitoris. The orgasm experience may also differ in degree of intensity - some more localized, and some more diffuse and sensitive. But they are all clitoral orgasms.
All this leads to some interesting questions about conventional sex and our role in it. Men have orgasms essentially by friction with the vagina, not the clitoral area, which is external and not able to cause friction the way penetration does. Women have thus been defined sexually in terms of what pleases men; our own biology has not been properly analyzed. Instead, we are fed the myth of the liberated woman and her vaginal orgasm - an orgasm which in fact does not exist.
What we must do is redefine our sexuality. We must discard the "normal" concepts of sex and create new guidelines which take into account mutual sexual enjoyment. While the idea of mutual enjoyment is liberally applauded in marriage manuals, it is not followed to its logical conclusion. We must begin to demand that if certain sexual positions now defined as "standard" are not mutually conducive to orgasm, they no longer be defined as standard. New techniques must be used or devised which transform this particular aspect of our current sexual exploitation.
Freud -- A Father of the Vaginal Orgasm
Freud contended that the clitoral orgasm was adolescent, and that upon puberty, when women began having intercourse with men, women should transfer the center of orgasm to the vagina. The vagina, it was assumed, was able to produce a parallel, but more mature, orgasm than the clitoris. Much work was done to elaborate on this theory, but little was done to challenge the basic assumptions.
To fully appreciate this incredible invention, perhaps Freud's general attitude about women should first be recalled. Mary Ellman, in Thinking About Women, summed it up this way:
Everything in Freud's patronizing and fearful attitude toward women follows from their lack of a penis, but it is only in his essay The Psychology of Women that Freud makes explicit... the deprecations of women which are implicit in his work. He then prescribes for them the abandonment of the life of the mind, which will interfere with their sexual function. When the psycho-analyzed patient is male, the analyst sets himself the task of developing the man's capacities; but with women patients, the job is to resign them to the limits of their sexuality. As Mr. Rieff puts it: For Freud, "Analysis cannot encourage in women new energies for success and achievement, but only teach them the lesson of rational resignation."
It was Freud's feelings about women's secondary and inferior relationship to men that formed the basis for his theories on female sexuality.
Once having laid down the law about the nature of our sexuality, Freud not so strangely discovered a tremendous problem of frigidity in women. His recommended cure for a woman who was frigid was psychiatric care. She was suffering from failure to mentally adjust to her "natural" role as a woman. Frank S. Caprio, a contemporary follower of these ideas, states:
...whenever a woman is incapable of achieving an orgasm via coitus, provided the husband is an adequate partner, and prefers clitoral stimulation to any other form of sexual activity, she can be regarded as suffering from frigidity and requires psychiatric assistance. (The Sexually Adequate Female, p.64.)
The explanation given was that women were envious of men - renunciation of womanhood. Thus it was diagnosed as an anti-male phenomenon.
It is important to emphasize that Freud did not base his theory upon a study of woman's anatomy, but rather upon his assumptions of woman as an inferior appendage to man, and her consequent social and psychological role. In their attempts to deal with the ensuing problem of mass frigidity, Freudians embarked on elaborate mental gymnastics. Marie Bonaparte, in Female Sexuality, goes so far as to suggest surgery to help women back on their rightful path. Having discovered a strange connection between the non-frigid woman and the location of the clitoris near the vagina,
it then occurred to me that where, in certain women, this gap was excessive, and clitoral fixation obdurate, a clitoral-vaginal reconciliation might be effected by surgical means, which would then benefit the normal erotic function. Professor Halban, of Vienna, as much a biologist as surgeon, became interested in the problem and worked out a simple operative technique. In this, the suspensory ligament of the clitoris was severed and the clitoris secured to the underlying structures, thus fixing it in a lower position, with eventual reduction of the labia minora. (p.148.)
But the severest damage was not in the area of surgery, where Freudians ran around absurdly trying to change female anatomy to fit their basic assumptions. The worst damage was done to the mental health of women, who either suffered silently with self-blame, or flocked to psychiatrists looking desperately for the hidden and terrible repression that had kept from them their vaginal destiny.
Lack of Evidence
One may perhaps at first claim that these are unknown and unexplored areas, but upon closer examination this is certainly not true today, nor was it true even in the past. For example, men have known that women suffered from frigidity often during intercourse. So the problem was there. Also, there is much specific evidence. Men knew that the clitoris was and is the essential organ for masturbation, whether in children or adult women. So obviously women made it clear where they thought their sexuality was located. Men also seem suspiciously aware of the clitoral powers during "foreplay," when they want to arouse women and produce the necessary lubrication for penetration. Foreplay is a concept created for male purposes, but works to the disadvantage of many women, since as soon as the woman is aroused the man changes to vaginal stimulation, leaving her both aroused and unsatisfied.
It has also been known that women need no anesthesia inside the vagina during surgery, thus pointing to the fact that the vagina is in fact not a highly sensitive area.
Today, with extensive knowledge of anatomy, with Kelly, Kinsey, and Masters and Johnson, to mention just a few sources, there is no ignorance on the subject. There are, however, social reasons why this knowledge has not been popularized. We are living in a male society which has not sought change in women's role.
Rather than starting with what women ought to feel, it would seem logical to start out with the anatomical facts regarding the clitoris and vagina.
The Clitoris is a small equivalent of the penis, except for the fact that the urethra does not go through it as in the man's penis. Its erection is similar to the male erection, and the head of the clitoris has the same type of structure and function as the head of the penis.
C. Lombard Kelly, in Sexual Feeling in Married Men and Women, says:
The head of the clitoris is also composed of erectile tissue, and it possesses a very sensitive epithelium or surface covering, supplied with special nerve endings called genital corpuscles, which are peculiarly adapted for sensory stimulation that under proper mental conditions terminates in the sexual orgasm. No other part of the female generative tract has such corpuscles. (Pocketbooks; p.35.)
The clitoris has no other function than that of sexual pleasure.
The Vagina -- Its functions are related to, the reproductive function. Principally, 1) menstruation, 2) receive penis, 3) hold semen, and 4) birth passage. The interior of the vagina, which according to the defenders of the vaginally caused orgasm is the center and producer of the orgasm, is:
like nearly all other internal body structures, poorly supplied with end organs of touch. The internal entodermal origin of the lining of the vagina makes it similar in this respect to the rectum and other parts of the digestive tract. (Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, p.580.)
The degree of insensitivity inside the vagina is so high that "Among the women who were tested in our gynecologic sample, less than 14% were at all conscious that they had been touched." (Kinsey, p. 580.)
Even the importance of the vagina as an erotic center (as opposed to an orgasmic center) has been found to be minor.
Other Areas -- Labia minora and the vestibule of the vagina. These two sensitive areas may trigger off a clitoral orgasm. Because they can be effectively stimulated during "normal" coitus, though infrequently, this kind of stimulation is incorrectly thought to be vaginal orgasm. However, it is important to distinguish between areas which can stimulate the clitoris, incapable of producing the orgasm themselves, and the clitoris:
Regardless of what means of excitation is used to bring the individual to the state of sexual climax, the sensation is perceived by the genital corpuscles and is localized where they are situated: in the head of the clitoris or penis. (Kelly, p.49.)
Psychologically Stimulated Orgasm -- Aside from the above mentioned direct and indirect stimulation of the clitoris, there is a third way an orgasm may be triggered. This is through mental (cortical) stimulation, where the imagination stimulates the brain, which in turn stimulates the genital corpuscles of the glans to set off an orgasm.
Women Who Say They Have Vaginal Orgasms
Confusion -- Because of the lack of knowledge of their own anatomy, some women accept the idea that an orgasm felt during "normal" intercourse was vaginally caused. This confusion is caused by a combination of two factors. One, failing to locate the center of the orgasm, and two, by a desire to fit her experience to the male-defined idea of sexual normalcy. Considering that women know little about their anatomy, it is easy to be confused.
Deception -- The vast majority of women who pretend vaginal orgasm to their men are faking it to "get the job." In a new bestselling Danish book, I Accuse, Mette Ejlersen specifically deals with this common problem, which she calls the "sex comedy." This comedy has many causes. First of all, the man brings a great deal of pressure to bear on the woman, because he considers his ability as a lover at stake. So as not to offend his ego, the woman will comply with the prescribed role and go through simulated ecstasy. In some of the other Danish women mentioned, women who were left frigid were turned off to sex, and pretended vaginal orgasm to hurry up the sex act. Others admitted that they had faked vaginal orgasm to catch a man. In one case, the woman pretended vaginal orgasm to get him to leave his first wife, who admitted being vaginally frigid.
Later she was forced to continue the deception, since obviously she couldn't tell him to stimulate her clitorally.
Many more women were simply afraid to establish their right to equal enjoyment, seeing the sexual act as being primarily for the man's benefit, and any pleasure that the woman got as an added extra.
Other women, with just enough ego to reject the man's idea that they needed psychiatric care, refused to admit their frigidity. They wouldn't accept self-blame, but they didn't know how to solve the problem, not knowing the physiological facts about themselves. So they were left in a peculiar limbo.
Again, perhaps one of the most infuriating and damaging results of this whole charade has been that women who were perfectly healthy sexually were taught that they were not. So in addition to being sexually deprived, these women were told to blame themselves when they deserved no blame. Looking for a cure to a problem that has none can lead a woman on an endless path of self-hatred and insecurity. For she is told by her analyst that not even in her one role allowed in a male society-the role of a woman-is she successful. She is put on the defensive, with phony data as evidence that she'd better try to be even more feminine, think more feminine, and reject her envy of men. That is, shuffle even harder, baby.
Why Men Maintain the Myth
1. Sexual Penetration Is Preferred -- The best physical stimulant for the penis is the woman's vagina. It supplies the necessary friction and lubrication. From a strictly technical point of view this position offers the best physical conditions, even though the man may try other positions for variation.
2. The Invisible Woman -- One of the elements of male chauvinism is the refusal or inability to see women as total, separate human beings. Rather, men have chosen to define women only in terms of how they benefited men's lives. Sexually, a woman was not seen as an individual wanting to share equally in the sexual act, any more than she was seen as a person with independent desires when she did anything else in society. Thus, it was easy to make up what was convenient about women; for on top of that, society has been a function of male interests, and women were not organized to form even a vocal opposition to the male experts.
3. The Penis as Epitome of Masculinity -- Men define their lives primarily in terms of masculinity. It is a universal form of ego-boosting. That is, in every society, however homogeneous (i.e., with the absence of racial, ethnic, or major economic differences) there is always a group, women, to oppress. The essence of male chauvinism is in the psychological superiority men exercise over women. This kind of superior-inferior definition of self, rather than positive definition based upon one's own achievements and development, has of course chained victim and oppressor both. But by far the most brutalized of the two is the victim.
An analogy is racism, where the white racist compensates for his feelings of unworthiness by creating an image of the black man (it is primarily a male struggle) as biologically inferior to him. Because of his position in a white male power structure, the white man can socially enforce this mythical division.
To the extent that men try to rationalize and justify male superiority through physical differentiation, masculinity may be symbolized by being the most muscular, the most hairy; having the deepest voice, and the biggest penis. Women, on the other hand, are approved of (i.e., called feminine) if they are weak, petite, shave their legs, have high soft voices.
Since the clitoris is almost identical to the penis, one finds a great deal of evidence of men in various societies trying to either ignore the clitoris and emphasize the vagina (as did Freud), or, as in some places in the Mideast, actually performing clitoridectomy. Freud saw this ancient and still practiced custom as a way of further "feminizing" the female by removing this cardinal vestige of her masculinity. It should be noted also that a big clitoris is considered ugly and masculine. Some cultures engage in the practice of pouring a chemical on the clitoris to make it shrivel up into "proper" size.
It seems clear to me that men in fact fear the clitoris as a threat to masculinity.
4. Sexually Expendable Male -- Men fear that they will become sexually expendable if the clitoris is substituted for the vagina as the center of pleasure for women. Actually this has a great deal of validity if one considers only the anatomy. The position of the penis inside the vagina, while perfect for reproduction, does not necessarily stimulate an orgasm in women because the clitoris is located externally and higher up. Women must rely upon indirect stimulation in the "normal" position.
Lesbian sexuality could make an excellent case, based upon anatomical data, for the irrelevancy of the male organ. Albert Ellis says something to the effect that a man without a penis can make a woman an excellent lover.
Considering that the vagina is very desirable from a man's point of view, purely on physical grounds, one begins to see the dilemma for men. And it forces us as well to discard many "physical" arguments explaining why women go to bed with men. What is left, it seems to me, are primarily psychological reasons why women select men at the exclusion of women as sexual partners.
5. Control of Women -- One reason given to explain the Mid-eastern practice of clitoridectomy is that it will keep the women from straying. By removing the sexual organ capable of orgasm, it must be assumed that her sexual drive will diminish. Considering how men look upon their women as property, particularly in very backward nations, we should begin to consider a great deal more why it is not in men’s interest to have women totally free sexually. The double standard, as practiced for example in Latin America, is set up to keep the woman as total property of the husband, while he is free to have affairs as he wishes. [Note: I have reproduced this essay as originally written, but insist in pointing out and decrying the overt racism of the term "backward nations", which renders this entire paragraph open to criticism.]
6. Lesbianism and Bisexuality -- Aside from the. Strictly anatomical reasons why women might equally seek other women as lovers, there is a fear on men's part that women will seek the company of other women on a full, human basis. The recognition of clitoral orgasm as fact would threaten the heterosexual institution. For it would indicate that sexual pleasure was obtainable from either men or women, thus making heterosexuality not an absolute, but an option. It would thus open up the whole question of human sexual relationships beyond the confines of the present male-female role system.
Books Mentioned in This Essay
Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Alfred C. Kinsey, Pocketbooks, 1953.
Female Sexuality, Marie Bonaparte, Grove Press, 1953.
Sex Without Guilt, Albert Ellis, Grove Press, 1958 and 1965.
Sexual Feelings in Married Men and Women, G. Lombard Kelly, Pocketbooks, 1951 and 1965.
I Accuse (Jeg Anklager), Mette Ejlersen, Chr. Erichsens Forlag (Danish), 1968.
The Sexually Adequate Female, Frank S. Caprio, Fawcett Gold Medal Books, 1953 and 1966.
Thinking About Women, Mary Ellman, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.
Human Sexual Response, Masters and Johnson, Little, Brown, 1966.
Copyright © by Anne Koedt, 1970
Saturday, March 29, 2008
Friday, March 28, 2008
Another excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Ginny Bates. If you are already a familiar reader, begin below. The action in the story resumes immediately after my post three days ago. If you need background, check the links in the sidebar on the right, fifth item down, to get caught up.
Ginny changed direction so she could look Myra directly in her eyes, holding both her hands. With a voice thickened by emotion, she said "Okay, Myra. Now we know what's wrong. We're going to fix this. We've got another doctor on her way, and I'll get Nancy in here as fast as I can. Do you understand me? Am I making sense?"
Myra paused, then said "Okay."
"I need to know this is getting through, Myra. I need some way of you telling me so I know we're actually communicating" said Ginny.
Myra stared at her and wet her lips. Ginny thought she saw something different in Myra's eyes -- she suddenly realized Myra's blankness had been stark terror. After a long minute, Myra's mouth curved into a slight smile and she said "Me and you, Ginny Bates."
Ginny sobbed once, shoving the rest down. "That's exactly right, Myra. That's my girl. Okay, what do you need most? If you can't find the word, maybe you can sign it, or we can guess things until you nod -- "
Myra said "Home."
"You want to go home? Oh, god, me too. All right, to get you out of here, you have to be eating. Do you understand me, Myra? I know how bad things taste, it turns out it's a chemical side effect from one of the drugs you're on. We're not going to give you any more of that drug, but you have to start eating anyhow, before it all gets better. And my darling, I know how hard it will be for you, I know about your glass stomach. This is going to have to be mind over matter, Myra. Your mind is still there, and your Amazon will. Think of the taste in your mouth as just a construct -- like gender, or race. You can shape this reality. Can you try to eat? You have to keep it down."
Myra's eyes were more alive than they had been in days. She nodded and said "Not destiny."
Ginny fought back another wave of tears. She turned and saw that Velda was watching them. "Gillam, cut a very small piece of that lasagna -- "
But Myra shook Ginny's hand and said, after another long pause, "Shabbos -- shabbos."
Tears were leaking down Ginny's face despite her best efforts. "All right, my angel, you're right of course. Margie, set up the candlesticks. Let's open those blinds, see the sun setting." She turned to Velda and said "We're Jewish. This is our sabbath, we do this every Friday night. You're welcome to join us."
"I can't stay long" said Velda.
"It's not long" said Ginny. Edwina opened the wine, saying "This is non-alcoholic, just grape juice, basically." Gillam unwrapped the challah, then returned to the bedside to grab one of Myra's hands. Ginny took her other hand and extended her arm to Edwina, who took it. Velda stepped forward and took Gillam's free hand. Margie lit the candles and began pulling the flame toward her with her long, beautiful hands as they sang and prayed. Myra's grip was like iron.
When it was time for wine, Ginny dipped her finger into her own glass and said "Just a taste, Myra, on your tongue." Myra opened her mouth and, although revulsion crossed her face as the wine reached her, she kept her jaw taut. Gillam pulled off a thread of challah and fed that to Myra as well. She swallowed it, clenching her throat against the gag.
"Oh, Myra, you are forever my hera" said Ginny. "Ready to try lasagna?"
Myra nodded. Ginny said to Velda "This is one she made and froze. It's got spinach from our garden, and my marinara, and Myra's recipe of cheeses -- if she can eat anything, it'll be this."
"Worth a try" said Velda. "But only a tablespoon or so for now. Her system has to adjust."
With a superhuman effort, Myra took and kept down four small bites. She waved off the plate after that and said "Dogshit." Gillam laughed loudly. The rest of them ate, gathered around Myra, and even Velda took a serving before leaving for other patients.
As Gillam was throwing away the paper plates and washing the forks he'd brought from home, Dr. Maxwell came into the room, suddenly interested in introducing himself to everyone present.
"Well, I hear there's been progress" he said. Ginny looked at him incredulously. "She's eaten?" he said.
Myra spoke up, startling him. "Lasagna." He looked at her but still did not direct his conversation to her. "And her renal panel has normalized" he said, looking in the chart. "How's her pain issues?"
Ginny tried to unclench her teeth. "Once we found the decubitus, she's not complained again." She turned to Myra and said "Honey, do you want to stay on the Demerol or would you like to try not taking the IV pain meds tonight? See if that helps you with the goddamned brain damage we just got a diagnosis on?"
Myra almost grinned. Dr. Maxwell had frozen. She said "Not hurting. Let's stop 'em."
"All right, you heard her. She's extremely sensitive to chemical assault because she never takes more than an occasional ibuprofen" said Ginny.
"Uh...then we'll give a try, but I'll leave orders for a return to Demerol if her pain breaks through. She can also have Tylenol for minor discomfort -- "
"Tylenol has never worked on her, and given her kidney issues, I'd rather she not take that. Let's stick to ibuprofen, shall we?" said Ginny.
He was going to argue automatically until he looked at her face. "I'll write it for ibuprofen, then. If I may ask, how did Dr. Lefkowitz come to know about this case?"
"Long-time family connection" said Ginny. Gillam raised his eyebrows.
"Well, she's certainly highly regarded. And I agree with her choice of neurologist. We'll await her recommendation, then, push fluids and nutrition, and I'll check back with you in the morning."
Ginny was not going to shake his hand. He looked at Myra and said "Keep up the good work, Ms. Josong." Myra said "Bates-Josong. I'm partnered."
Ginny saw a flicker on his face. After a second, he said "I think my wife has read some of your books." I just bet she has Ginny thought. When no one answered, he nodded and left the room. Margie was whispering to Gillam about who Jules Lefkowitz was, and his face looked like he wanted to doubt her. But Myra got all their attention by roaring like a lion, and nodding her head in the direction of the door where Dr. Maxwell had just exited. Ginny burst into laughter and lay down gladly beside Myra, kissing her face and saying "You got that right. I'm one aggravation away from going into berserker mode."
Myra stared into Ginny's eyes and said "Don't leave me." Ginny said "I won't." She turned to Margie and said "I'm going to need another change of clothes tomorrow, when you come, and I would fucking kill for a salad from home."
Edwina said "I'm going to spend the night with them again. But Allie left a message, she got mine and she's leaving right after the closing event tonight, driving straight through. She said she was coming here first."
"Allie" murmured Myra as she lay back and closed her eyes. They all grew silent, found chairs and sat, watching Myra. When Ginny's cell rang on the bedside table a few minutes later, they all jumped -- except for Myra. As Ginny reached for it, she said quietly to Edwina "I don't think she's hearing bells, she hasn't reacted to any of the higher-pitched sounds around here."
It was Chris. Ginny stood up to talk with her a few minutes. Chris kept swearing, with no humor at all in her voice, and three times she said "I let her down, god fucking dammit." Ginny said "I don't think you could have kept her oxygen supply intact in that operating room", and Chris said "You don't know that." Finally she asked to talk with Myra. Ginny had to shake her -- she was actually asleep. She took the phone but didn't say anything for a while, only shaking or nodding her head. Ginny bent over and said "You have to make words, Myra, she can't see you. Say words to her."
Myra said "Kash-Kash, where are you?" After listening again, she said "Sima's mother died? Oh, no, that's so sad." Her tone and expression were muted, not the grief she had shown the first time she'd heard the news.
After another minute, she handed the phone back to Ginny. Ginny talked to Chris again, saying "Yeah. I know. It's okay, Chris, Allie's going to be here in a few hours, we've got an emergency neurology visit on the way, and, well, I'll call you after that, when we know more. Sima's between a rock and a hard place, I think you two are doing what you have to do, I just wish we could be more support....Okay, if it can be moved up, fine, but otherwise we're on it now, Sunday night will be soon enough...You need a ride from the airport? Okay, I'll call you when I know more, I promise. All our love to Sima."
Myra's eyes were closed again. "She looks like Buddha" whispered Gillam.
"How are they?" asked Edwina.
"Sima's got an estate agent coming to her mother's place tomorrow to make a final inventory. They've sorted through all the personal stuff, but Sima's sister is staying put in New Jersey so it's all on her shoulders. Chris said it had hit her harder than they expected -- Sima, I mean. Lots of what-ifs coming up for her. And Chris is blaming herself for not being here -- which I do hope she's not saying in front of Sima, that's not something she needs to hear right now" said Ginny, her voice starting to get raspy from exhaustion.
Margie picked up the bedside carafe and took it to the bathroom to fill with water. She poured a glass for Ginny, who drank it down, then refilled it and said "Mama? A few sips, as often as you can stand it, would really help you get better faster."
Myra sat up, took the glass, and slid her free hand into Margie's with a clenched grip. She managed three sips before a consulsive gag almost did her in. Margie retrieved the glass hastily and said "Great job, way to go."
Myra looked at her and said "I love you, Marjorie Rose." Margie's reserve broke. She began crying brokenly, saying "Oh Mama, I love you so much, I can't stand what's happened to you!" Ginny came around the bed and pulled her into her arms. Myra watched them expressionlessly. Edwina took Gillam's hand and said "How about you, boyfriend? You need to let the dam burst, too?"
"Not right now" he said hollowly.
"Kudos on the lasagna. Like magic from the skies, it was" Edwina said. He smiled wanly.
Right before visiting hours were up, a short white woman with light-brown hair in braids and a walk like a farmgirl came into the room. She set down a small nylon bag and introduced herself as Dr. Hilary Reading. Ginny leaped to her feet and made introductions of her family, leaving Myra for last. She said "Myra, this woman is a neurologist. You need to convey as much as you can to her."
There was a sudden intensity in Myra's eyes. Ginny thought it must be hope. Dr. Reading had the chart in her hands, and Gillam stood up to offer her a chair. She accepted, reading through the pages in the thick silence around her. When she was done, she looked up and said "How verbal are you usually, Myra?"
Margie said "Like, totally. She's written a dozen books, she's the most brilliant writer in the world, she talks constantly, there isn't a word she doesn't know -- "
Ginny put her hand on Margie's arm. "Let's leave answering to Myra, if we can, okay?" she said gently.
Dr. Reading said "I don't mean to shut you out, but I think this exam would go better if Myra had no distractions. Could I ask you to wait in the hall?"
Everyone looked at Ginny for their cue. She said "Go on, the doctor's right." As they were filing out, she said to Dr. Reading "But not me. She's asked me not to leave her side. I'll stay out of view, sit over here by the wall and not make a sound, I promise."
Dr. Reading agreed. As Ginny made herself small, Dr. Reading sat down beside Myra and began leading her through a series of physical tests -- following a finger with her eyes, responding to taps on her arm and leg, then to sticks with a blunted pin. She asked Myra the date. Myra said she did not know, even when asked if she could name the month or year. She could give her name and that she was in a Seattle hospital, but could not name the hospital.
Dr. Reading was patience personified. She said "I'm going to test your memory. I'm going to name three things, and you say them back to me. Okay?" Myra nodded. "The three things are: firetruck, ball, kitten. Now, you tell them back to me."
Myra said "Kitten...." That was all. Dr. Reading tried several times with different trios of words, but Myra could never retain more than two for the next few seconds. She could not count backwards by 7's from 100; she could name a pencil but not a wristwatch; and she could not repeat "No ifs, ands or buts." However, when Dr. Reading pointed toward Ginny and asked who that was, Myra said "Virginia Leah Josong-Bates." There was strong emotion in her voice, and Ginny reminded herself to not grab Myra's hand.
Dr. Reading handed her pencil to Myra with a pad and asked her to sign her name. Myra took the pencil, adjusted her fingers, and put the lead to the paper, but stopped. Her breathing increased noticeably, and there was panic in her voice as she said "I don't -- I can't remember."
"That's all right" said Dr. Reading calmly. "How about if you write your name in block letters?"
Myra pushed on the pencil and a wobbly line trailed to the edge of the paper. She stopped again and said "I can't." Ginny closed her eyes and clenched her own hands together.
After several more questions, Dr. Reading's unflappability keeping Myra from becoming distraught, Ginny raised her hand. When Dr. Reading looked at her, Ginny said "I don't think she's hearing bells. Like, the phone, or the alarm on her bootie things."
Dr. Reading took some tuning forks from her bag and tested Myra's hearing, striking the fork and placing it at various positions on her head. She pulled a placard out and asked Myra to read the top line of letters. Myra struggled, but got through the line. Dr. Reading pointed to a word and asked Myra to read that. "Book" said Myra after a couple of seconds. Dr. Reading turned the placard over and asked Myra what word she had just read. Myra paused, too long, and said "I don't know."
Dr. Reading began putting items back into her bag and said "Thank you, Myra, you were very helpful." She looked at Ginny and said "Do you want me to tell you alone or do you want the rest of your family in here?"
Ginny slid over next to Myra and said "Just us, I think."
She looked at them steadily to say "There's definitely been an impact on your short-term memory, Myra. We need to get some more tests. A CT scan of your brain, since this hospital does not have an open MRI and you won't fit in a regular one. An echocardiogram and enzymes to rule out a myocardial infarction, although I don't think it's cardiac because your EKG post surgery was fine. Your electrolytes are not quite right, which could be explained by other things, but we need to tweak them because potassium or sodium abnormalities could be playing a role. I see you're being taken off Demerol, and that should help. Since it's mostly just memory, and there's little or no evidence of brain compromise involving your physical function, I think this could be a transient cognitive insult. This means it will pass in time. I can't promise that, but that's my impression right now. I'll order the tests and get back to you."
She stood up. Ginny said "Is -- should we be doing something?"
"Don't worry around her. It won't help. Let her body bring itself back to normal. Keep conversing as much as you can, language is a wonderful tonic. I'll talk with you both soon." She shook Ginny's hand and left.
When her kids flooded back into the room, Gillam had a couple of Luna bars in his hand. "I found these downstairs, and I know there's some sugar in them, Mom, but you were willing to try candy and these are a lot healthier, just for tonight, a bite or two -- "
"Good idea" said Ginny.
"What happened?" demanded Margie. Ginny filled them in, as Myra leaned against her side and seemed to go asleep again. Gillam's face drained of color when Ginny said Myra couldn't read or write at this point. Ginny felt unable to shield her children, and when she saw the comprehension on Edwina's face of how bad this could be, she had to look away. She was handling all she could at the moment.
Velda came in and said kindly "We really have to ask visitors to leave the floor. I'm going off shift, it's going to be Francine for the night." Margie and Gillam gave long hugs to Myra, Margie promised to bring what Ginny needed the next day, and they all left. When Francine came in to apply the booties, Ginny said "Her -- sister, Allie, the black woman who was in here the first day -- she's driving back from Canada tonight and I think is going to come right to our room. I hope you'll let her check in with me, we need to confer immediately."
"I'll keep an eye out for her" said Francine. "Dr. Maxwell said it was all right to give her a Restoril for sleep" -- she pointed at Myra.
"Let's try without it. I think actually she stands a better chance of solid rest tonight than so far."
After Francine left, Ginny coaxed a few bites of Luna Bar into Myra, along with a half glass of water. She ate the rest herself, brushed her teeth, dimmed the lights and got into bed. Myra turned to kiss her forehead, and Ginny felt a wave of grief almost undo her. She tucked herself under Myra's blanket and listened to her breathing until she knew Myra was wholly asleep. She dropped off herself at that point. When the booties began beeping, she could not wake up completely; she was beginning to feel disoriented. Francine came in to adjust them, change the IV, check the catheter bag, keeping the room dim and quiet.
Not long after 2:00, Ginny woke up to Allie shaking her gently and saying "Hey. I'm here, pal."
Ginny stood up, her legs like wood, and they went to the bathroom to talk in whispers. Allie looked strained and off color, but once in the light she said "My god, Ginny, you look like hell."
"My current residence" said Ginny.
"I talked with Edwina on the phone while driving and got the latest, I think" said Allie.
"She's sleeping better tonight. Ate a bit more before going to sleep" said Ginny. She was having trouble focusing her vision.
"Gin, you have to take a break. Listen, I parked my car at the edge of the garage, away from traffic. There's a blanket and a pillow in the rear seat, and the front passenger seat will lie all the way back. I want you to go out there and sleep."
"I told Myra I wouldn't leave her" protested Ginny.
"If she's awake when we go back in there, we can tell her. Otherwise, I'll be there beside her, and I know I'm not as good as you, but I'll do. You sleep until you can't any more. If you're not up by the time the kids get here, I'll send one of them to come get you." Allie was insistent. Ginny couldn't think how to make this decision, so Allie repeated "It's okay. This is the right thing to do, you can trust me." She walked with Ginny back to Myra's bed, where Myra was snoring, the first time Ginny had heard her snore, which meant she was in deep slumber. Ginny put on her shoes and coat, took her cell, and whispered in Myra's ear without Myra waking up. Allie was pulling off her belt and jewelry. Ginny hesitated again, and Allie said "I wouldn't let you go if there was any risk. But she needs you rested." She drew a quick map of how to find the car, not sure Ginny could remember instructions, and gave her the keys.
When Ginny left the room, she felt a moment of panic and had to force herself to go on. She stopped by the cafeteria on the way and got a cup of herbal tea laced with milk. She drank it on the way to Allie's car.
Inside, it was wonderfully quiet and still a little warm from Allie's drive. Ginny took a sweater from the back seat and hung it over the passenger window to block out any light. She found a comfortable position, tucked the blanket around her, and that was all she remembered.
Until a persistent rapping at the glass behind the sweater finally brought her, stiff and chilled, to consciousness. She moved the sweater with apprehension, not sure where she was, and saw Margie's face grinning at her. Margie mimed unlocking the car door and Ginny obeyed, letting in a blast of morning cold and light.
"What's wrong, is she okay?" demanded Ginny.
"She's fine. She slept, she ate some eggs and toast without hurling, and she'd like to see you before they take her for the CT."
Ginny was scrambling out of the car. "What time is it?"
"About 8:30. The CT is scheduled for 9:00, they said."
Ginny was nearly running, and Margie grabbed the keys from the dash and locked the car before loping after her. In the hospital room, Myra was sitting up and her face flooded with relief when she saw Ginny. Ginny kissed her several times before her bladder needs intruded. She took a quick pee, washed up, changed into clean clothes, and rushed back to Myra, where Margie had claimed the spot next to her and was combing Myra's hair.
Edwina had her arm through Allie's and said "Ginny, I need to take this one home to bed." Allie began protesting but Ginny said "I agree, we'll take turns relieving each other. It's your turn to recharge now. I'll call and leave a message when we hear anything else."
Gillam motioned to a bag on the tray table. "We brought you applesauce from home, your home-made cottage cheese, and there's some challah left over."
"Heavenly" declared Ginny. She sat down and ate hurriedly but with real pleasure. She persuaded Myra to take a bite each of the applesauce and the cottage cheese. "Is the foul taste getting any better yet?" she asked, and Myra shook her head vehemently.
Myra was put into a wheelchair for transport to the CT scanner, and Ginny accompanied her. Myra looked jittery and pale once she was out in the halls, and Ginny kept murmuring reassurance. It took a long time, and by the end Myra was clinging to Ginny's hand as they returned to the room.
Velda was back, and suggested Myra try sitting on the regular toilet in the bathroom. Myra was able to move her bowels again, to much praise from Velda. Ginny could hear Gillam giggle around the corner. Ginny took the sponge bath materials from Velda and washed Myra thoroughly. Myra stood at the sink to brush her teeth, looking at herself with wide eyes in the mirror for a couple of minutes.
Back in bed, Myra dropped off instantly. Margie had brought a salad from home for Ginny. Ginny sent them to the cafeteria for lunch, asking them to bring her back as big a container of mint tea as they could get. Not long after they left, Dr. Maxwell stopped by. Myra didn't wake up, even though he talked in a normal tone of voice.
"Her renal function is holding well, the preliminary read of the echo is normal, and her electrolytes are back to baseline" he said. "If she keeps on this course, I can discharge her tomorrow morning. Physical therapy is coming by this afternoon, and wound care, to instruct you in how to care for her at home."
"What about the CT scan?" asked Ginny.
"Dr. Reading will review those results and get in touch with you" he said.
"And the pathology from her hysterectomy?" persisted Ginny.
"Uh...I don't see them here. But Dr. Desai will be back tomorrow, she'll call you with those, I'm sure."
Ginny was not going to thank this man. After an awkward pause, he said "Well, keep up the good work" and left. He had not even looked at Myra's incision. Maybe that was being left up to the nurses, but Ginny wished she could divert half his fee to them as well, they were clearly doing all the real work.
Ginny called Allie's house and left a message, then called Chris and Sima's hotel, leaving a message there as well about the small but significant progress. A lunch tray was brought for Myra and she ate two bites of everything, plus drank all the cranberry juice, with an effort Ginny could only call superhuman. Margie returned with two large containers of tea and a deck of cards. Ginny said "I don't think we should ask her to try playing games -- "
"No, this is for us. While we keep her company."
But Gillam pulled a small stack of books from his pack and set them on the nightstand as he claimed the space beside Myra on the bed. He chose a small, battered book from the pile and began thumbing through it.
"What you are doing?" demanded Ginny.
"Well, since she's going to have to learn to read again, I thought I'd bring in books from her childhood" said Gillam.
Myra said "My mama. That was her book."
"Yep, her poetry book in high school, I remembered" said Gillam, looking into her face. "I thought we'd begin with 'The Highwayman', okay?"
Ginny said "Oh, Gillam, no. I know that's your favorite, but it's a complicated piece -- "
"It's not because I love it, it's because it was the first poem she remembers her mother reading to her. When she was a baby. She learned the lines before she could read, didn't you know that?" said Gillam earnestly. Ginny shook her head. "Yeah, so I thought we should go to the bottom of the pile, the deepest part of her memory, and work our way back out. Here, Mom, I'll put the book so you can see the page, and I'll point to the words as I read them, just like you did with us, okay? Do you want to do this, Mama?"
Myra nodded eagerly. Gillam's soft, expressive reading voice began "The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees..."
Fighting tears, Ginny sat down opposite Margie and said "Spades or gin rummy?"
"Gin" said Margie.
After Bess's ghost plaited her last red love-knot into her long black hair, Gillam asked Myra which poem she wanted next. She took the book from him and began trying to read the index. Her face was screwed up in concentration. "Get her the reading glasses from that drawer beside you" commanded Ginny. Gillam put them on Myra's face, and they helped a little, but not enough.
"Let me help" said Gillam tenderly. "What poet?"
"Vincent" said Myra.
"Okay, they've got three of her poems -- it is a sonnet or not?"
Myra nodded. Gillam said "Yes, a sonnet? Then it must be 'Love Is Not All', is that the one? Ah, great choice." They settled back and he began reading again.
But this time Myra's face was on Ginny, and Ginny looked back. When Gillam reached the end:
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
pinned down by need and moaning for release
or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It may well be. I do not think I would.
Myra's eyes had tears standing in them. Ginny stood and crossed to her, saying "It's all right, my darling, I'll hold you safe, you can let it go." Myra wrapped her arms tight around Ginny's middle but did not cry. Ginny thought If she's lost the ability to cry, I don't know what we'll do.
Myra closed the book when she leaned back again and said to Gillam "More later." He gave his spot to Ginny and went to play cards with Margie. Their bickering brought a small smile to Myra's face as she dozed off. Her naps were interrupted often. A wound care nurse came to change the bandages on her incision -- this time, all three of them looked on, though Margie said "Guh-ROSS" -- and teach Ginny how to continue care for it after discharge. A young physical therapist walked Myra up and down the halls until she was shaky and tired, and talked over exercises and yoga allowable at home, Margie taking notes and vowing to be Myra's helper in this.
During the late afternoon blood draw, Allie and Edwina returned. Myra called out "Allie!", then turned to Ginny in sudden concern and said "You're not leaving, are you?"
"No" said Ginny. "I'll sleep with you tonight, I got almost six solid hours last night thanks to Allie, I can make it through on that until you're discharged."
Allie sat down on the edge of the bed, picked up the Ripley action figure from the nightstand and held it in front of Myra. "I brought you this as a get-well present. Can you tell me who it is?"
Myra's face blanked. "I don't know."
"Let's have a little multiple choice quiz." Allie was sweet. "Is this (a) Wonder Woman, (b) Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley of the USCSS Nostromo, or (c) Xena Warrior Princess?"
Myra's face showed recognition. "Ripley."
"Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding!" said Allie. "Correct. Now, was she in the movie Alien, Star Wars, or The Incredible True Adventures of Two Girls in Love?"
Myra was grinning now. "Alien"
Allie said, "Although in Alien Resurrection Winona Ryder wanted her so verra verra bad, it was almost two girls in love, eh? For the final question, let's up the stakes. If you get this one right, I promise when you get home, I'll watch any one of your godawful Doris Day movies with you. Here it is: In the original Alien, the actress who played Navigator Lambert was Veronica Cartwright. Her younger sister Angela was a child actress in the 1960s in two very popular series. Can you name either one of those series?"
Myra's face was beginning to glisten. Small drops of sweat were on her upper lip, and her body was stiff as if she were straining. She did not speak.
"I'll give you a clue: In both series, she had a brother with red hair. In the earlier series, her brother was Rusty, and in the later series, he was Will." Allie was leaned into Myra, encouraging.
Myra looked over at Gillam and Margie. Gillam turned his hands palm up, saying "Got no clue, Mom, we don't get Nick at Night."
Ginny, almost in Myra's ear, began whistling Londonderry Air. Allie gave her the evil eye as Myra said "The Danny Thomas Show!" Allie kept her gaze on Ginny as she said sternly "Cheaters never prosper." Then she turned back to Myra, her face breaking into exultation, and she gave her a high five. "Right ON. And since I am an honorable woman" -- she mock-scowled at Ginny -- "I am now committed to letting you moon on about fluffy blonde white girls who only want to make their hubby happy."
She turned to Gillam and Margie. "For the peanut gallery: The Danny Thomas Show was also known as Make Room for Daddy. Danny Thomas was the father of Marlo Thomas. The second series was called Lost in Space, a space-age remake of Swiss Family Robinson. There was an annoying robot on that show who was constantly crying out 'Danger, danger"."
"That's where that comes from" said Margie.
"Please Don't Eat The Daisies" said Myra.
Allie said "God help me, I knew that's the one you'd choose." She held up the action figure again. "Now that you know who this is?" She waggled it.
Myra said "Lieutenant Ellen Ripley".
Allie went on "I want you to keep this close to you, dig?" She pressed the figure into Myra's hand. "Channel your inner Ripley." Myra's face showed comprehension. She twisted the figure to make the plastic flame on the flame-thrower shoot in and out.
When the dinner tray came, Myra did her best but could only get down one bite of each item. Allie tasted the greens and the turkey and said "You know what, these are really crappy." As Ginny coaxed more juice into Myra, Allie left the room. Half an hour later, she returned with a Burger King bag.
"I can't believe they've got fast food in a hospital, but let's see if it makes a difference" she said. She unpacked an Angus burger, onion rings, a chocolate shake, and a small Coke. Ginny didn't even raise her eyebrows, saying "Myra, whatever works."
Myra rejected the Coke after one sip, saying "Nasty" which Ginny couldn't help but respond to with "I quite agree". She ate one onion ring, but over half her burger and all of the shake. Ginny handed the kids money and told them to go get dinner wherever they wanted, only bring her back something that wasn't made with processed ingredients.
Velda was back for the night shift. When she came in, Gillam was massaging Myra's feet and Myra said in a clear voice "I'd much rather have you doing that than those fucking booties." Velda laughed and said "I see what I've been missing."
"Her words built our world" said Gillam, a slight break in his voice.
"You're a writer, I hear" Velda said to Myra.
"Poet. And novels" said Myra.
"My oldest granddaughter has read all the Skene books" said Velda. "I'm not supposed to say things like that, it's a HIPAA violation, but I want you to know, she'd be beside herself if she knew I'd met you."
"What's your granddaughter's name?" asked Ginny.
Velda paused, then said "Carolann." She helped Myra get up and go to the bathroom. While Myra was on the toilet, Ginny standing watch beside her, Velda returned to change the sheets and said to Allie "I think I recognize you, too. You wrote the bus book my youngest grandchild loves so much, I think."
"Yes, ma'am" said Allie, moved.
Ginny bathed Myra again and even washed her hair. Back in bed, Myra wrapped her hand around Ripley again said "I feel stronger."
"You're on the mend" said Velda. She looked at Ginny and said "Thanks to you."
"No, it's her" said Ginny. "I just channeled back to her what she's been handing out for years."
© 2008 Maggie Jochild.
BROAD CAST 28 MARCH 2007: THERMAL ZOO IMAGES, FEMALE POETS ON RACISM, BRING YOUR DAUGHTER TO WAR DAY, AND STAR WARS SYNOPSIS
(Tarantula body heat distribution.)
The images I'm using to illustrate this edition of Broad Cast all come from an article by Roger Highfield in the Telegraph.UK online about the use of thermal cameras at the London Zoo to learn how various animals conserve or expel body heat by use of fur, feathers, and other anatomical means. All of the photos are by Steve Lowe using a civiliar FLIR camera (Forward Looking InfraRed). Warmer areas are white, yellow or red; cooler are blue and green.
(Hot-headed penguin, flamingo cutting off blood to one leg to conserve energy, pelican with glowing feet.)
John Lundberg writes a column at Huffington post on poetry, and this week he posted a column entitled Poems about Racism where he discussed, and included examples of, the work of four poets. His choice as examplar poets included Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Michael S. Harper, and Robert Lowell. I was astonished at the all-male bias and the idiotic choice of Robert Lowell, so I posted a comment, which I copy in for you all below:
"I appreciate you making this effort. As a poet, I know the art has been essential to meaningful social change in every instance.
But during this charged time, with race and gender being pitted against each other, could you really only think of MALE poets for examples of works on racism?
Without pausing for breath, I rattled off Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Ntozake Shange, Maya Angelou, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Sonia Sanchez. Brooks won the first Pulitzer ever given to an African-American. The other women on this list have won Guggenheims, Obies, Pushcarts, National Book Awards, also been nominated for a Pulitzer, been poet laureates for several states, founded schools/presses/movements, were chosen to read at Presidential inaugurations -- often while keeping households and raising children. They are far more accomplished than Harper and far more appropriate than the tepid Robert Lowell on the topic of racism.
Hughes and McKay, yes, they are vibrant examples (although I wish you'd mentioned their radical politics/communism and being gay or bi, influences which affected their writing often as much as race). But the other 50% should have come from the other half of this country's population. No excuse."
And, to illustrate my point about what he overlooked in his boys-only club, here's a stunning tour-de-force by Gwendolyn Brooks:
THE POOL PLAYERS.
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
(Zebra stripes have different temperatures, butterfly wings show veins of warmth through delicate tissue.)
This newsclip from the Onion News Network came to my attention via Broadsheet. I found it hilarious. But it's definitely not something for kids to see. I'm including it below: Army Holds Annual 'Bring Your Daughter To War' Day
Army Holds Annual 'Bring Your Daughter To War' Day
And, lastly, another video to share (thx to Austin Kleon for the tip), stars a three-year-old girl synopsizing the plot of Star Wars.
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
(Vision Portal: Crocus, by Lowry Bell)
I've written before at this blog about human brain plasticity and at Maoist Orange Cake about Epigenetics and Cultural Re-Invention. I have more exciting discoveries to share with you.
Last month I watched a superb special on Nova at PBS called Ape Genius. It's introduced with "A rush of discoveries about chimps, from tool use to what they do for fun, are painting a surprising new portrait of ape minds." I've discovered it is also available online, divided into six chapters at the above link, and I've watched it all the way through again. I can't recommend it enough.
It acknowledges, rather tongue-in-cheek, our past human obsession with demarcating the DIFFERENCE between us and apes, our insecurity leaking through as apes crash one barrier after another and we move the goal-posts to keep us "winning". Even as this film does so, it makes it clear the distinction between ape intellect and our own will be the focus of this effort, but with (hopefully) more maturity:
'Congratulations: You are an ape. A "great ape," technically. Alongside us in this brainy family of animals are four other living species: chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos (formerly called "pygmy chimpanzees").
'The biological gap between us and our great ape cousins is small. At last count, only 1.23 percent of our genes differ from those of chimpanzees. But mentally, the gap between us and them is a Grand Canyon.
'On an average day in the life of the human species, we file thousands of patents, post tens of thousands of Internet videos, and think countless thoughts that have never been thought before. On a good day, chimpanzees are lucky to exploit rudimentary tried-and-true techniques, such as using stone tools to crack nuts.
'Not only do we innovate more than the other great apes, we are vastly better at sharing ideas with one another. The majority of recent behavioral studies focus on information-transmission rather than invention. All of the great apes can learn new tricks by imitating a human or another ape. But only humans go one step further and routinely teach each other. Teaching may be the signature skill of our species, and researchers are now zeroing in on three particular mental talents that make it possible."
And here's where the documentary really grabs me: The three mental talents explored are "Mind-Reading", "The Triangle (as used in teaching)", and "Impulse Control". As they were described, I realized not only does this gap exist between us and apes, but within human culture, the development and value placed on these talents varies considerably, with enormous political and survival consequences. And, in my assessment, these extremely human, cooperative, advantageous traits are most under-emphasized in the conditioning we receive as white Westerners and in the conditioning we give males, particularly when cramming them into the "masculine" role.
Which begs the question: Why would we, as a species, be dampening down the most useful of our human evolutionary skills in order to pay obeisance to, say, impulsivity, mimicking without comprehension, competition over empathy and altruism, isolation and exploitation over interdependence?
(Graphic by Austin Cline)
I think we'll have to answer this question before we can reverse the trend. And, of course, part of the lesson will have to include that we have much more choice over our behavior and identities than not. We are not helpless in the grip of biology. We took another path, long ago, and it's quite possible, as a friend stated this week, we're witnessing yet another paradigm shift.
Watch it and tell me what you think.
In a related story, the New York Times just printed an article by Sandra Blakelee titled What a Rodent Can Do With a Rake in Its Paw. It begins:
"Degus are highly social, intelligent rodents native to the highlands of Chile. They adorn the openings of their burrows with piles of sticks and stones, have bubbly personalities and like to play games.
"But in a laboratory setting, degus can do much more than play hide-and-seek, according to a study in the online journal Plos One. They can learn to use tools."
The article includes a short video of a degu engaged in tool use. I could not find an independent link to this, so you'll have to go to the article link above to watch it. It goes on to say:
"While it has long been thought that tool use is a hallmark of higher intelligence, Dr. Iriki said, the brain structures that underlie such abilities may lie dormant in many animals with good hand-and-eye or paw-and-eye coordination. Training them to use tools in captivity provides insights into the plasticity of their brains, he said, and may shed light on how early humans evolved tool use in the first place.
"In the wild many animals use simple tools. Chimpanzees and crows actually create them. But an underlying question is, What changes take place in an animal brain when tool use evolves?
"To find out, Dr. Iriki initially conducted experiments with Japanese macaques, monkeys that do not tend to use tools in the wild. In the laboratory, he trained them to use a rake to reach out and retrieve their favorite treat, raisins. Later the animals learned to use a short rake to pull in a longer rake, which could then be used to fetch more distant raisins.
"As the monkeys developed these skills, their brains showed signs of gene activity in a brain region that integrates vision and touch. The same was likely to be true of the degu, Dr. Iriki said. The rodent has superb paw-and-eye coordination and a pad on its paw that can act like a thumb."
Once again, this study proves that what seems immutable -- genetic organization of a brain -- is actually quite plastic, and that genes themselves alter within an individual animal (not just through reproduction in new generations) as a response to environmental demand.
For those of us who have stepped beyond the Western rigidity of believing "God made us this way" and "Reality is concrete", we're not surprised to discover that we transform our own bodies by transforming our mind-set.
The "persistent delusion" (as I learned from Buddhism) that we all cling to was brought home to me in another way last week during a conversation with a friend. He pointed out that if you measure the wave length of blue light, it is clearly distinguishable from that of all other colored light. Ditto for yellow light, and ditto for green light. But if you shine both blue and yellow light on a surface, what we see is green. Yet if you measure the wave lengths, all that is objectively there is still just blue and yellow. The green is created within our brains: It's a perception, not a scientific property of the light.
I find liberation in this. Yes, it cuts me loose from the wharf, but there are others of us out here bobbing around in the current. All you have to do is love yourself as you are.
(from Stella Marrs)
© 2008 Maggie Jochild; hat tip to Doc and Diamante for the shared thinking
(Robert Frost; photo by Paul Bishop, 1958)
Today is the birthday of one of my favorite poets of all time, and the numero uno man on the list, Robert Lee Frost. Here's what Writer's Almanac has to say about him:
"Robert Frost was born in San Francisco (1874). He cultivated the image of a rural New England poet with a pleasant disposition, but Frost's personal life was full of tragedy and he suffered from dark depressions.
"He graduated from high school at the top of his class but dropped out of Dartmouth after a semester and tried to convince his high school co-valedictorian, Elinor White, to marry him immediately. She refused and insisted on finishing college first. They did marry after she graduated, and it was a union that would be filled with losses and feelings of alienation. Their first son died from cholera at age three; Frost blamed himself for not calling a doctor earlier and believed that God was punishing him for it. His health declined, and his wife became depressed. In 1907, they had a daughter who died three days after birth, and a few years later Elinor had a miscarriage. Within a couple years, his sister Jeanie died in a mental hospital, and his daughter Marjorie, of whom he was extremely fond, was hospitalized with tuberculosis. Marjorie died a slow death after getting married and giving birth, and a few years later, Frost's wife died from heart failure. His adult son, Carol, had become increasingly distraught, and Frost went to visit him and to talk him out of suicide. Thinking the crisis had passed, he returned home, and shortly afterward his son shot himself. He also had to commit his daughter Irma to a mental hospital.
"And through all of this, Robert Frost still became one of the most famous poets in the United States. He said, 'A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a homesickness or a love-sickness. It is a reaching out toward expression, an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the word.'
"And, 'In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on."
After the fold are my four favorite poems by him.
FYI, today is also the birthdays of Tennessee Williams, A.E. Houseman, and Joseph Campbell.
NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
(Water Over Rock, 1938 in Yosemite Country, photo by Ansel Adams)
This is a poem I memorized very early, by age five or six, but find new deep meaning in each year. I think it is perfect in its construction.
STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
For John F Kennedy's inauguration as President of the United States on 20 January 1961, Robert Frost wrote a new poem entitled, "Dedication". But the poet was old (87) and he couldn't see the words because of the sun's glare that bright, cold January day. The poem's newness to him and his unfamiliarity with and uncertainty about the way it went caused him to stumble uncertainly with his voice and tone and he gave up. Instead he fell back on an old one he knew perfectly, and in the most splendidly commanding of voices, recited it impeccably:
THE GIFT OUTRIGHT
The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia.
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak.
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
(Holograph of Frost's poem "The Gift Outright")
The last stanza of this poem is, in fact, part of my code for living.
TWO TRAMPS IN MUD TIME
Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard,
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily "Hit them hard!"
I knew pretty well why he had dropped behind
And let the other go on a way.
I knew pretty well what he had in mind:
He wanted to take my job for pay.
Good blocks of oak it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose to my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.
The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March.
A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn't blue,
But he wouldn't advise a thing to blossom.
The water for which we may have to look
In summertime with a witching wand,
In every wheelrut's now a brook,
In every print of a hoof a pond.
Be glad of water, but don't forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath
That will steal forth after the sun is set
And show on the water its crystal teeth.
The time when most I loved my task
The two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You'd think I never had felt before
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip of earth on outspread feet,
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.
Out of the wood two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps).
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
They judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.
Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man's work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right--agreed.
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Another excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Ginny Bates. If you are already a familiar reader, begin below. The action in the story resumes immediately after my post two days ago. If you need background, check the links in the sidebar on the right, fifth item down, to get caught up.
When they all got up, no one would eat anything, out of solidarity for Myra who had to be empty for her surgery. Ginny did persuade milky honey-sweetened tea into the kids. It was still dark out, the streets slick and almost empty, when they drove to the hospital.
All too soon, Allie and the kids were peeled away and left behind in a waiting room. Myra was having trouble getting warm until she was placed on a gurney and confided her fear to the nurse anesthetist. A warmed blanket was brought for her and she huddled under it, her hand out one side to hold Ginny's hand. Until they pushed her away.
When Ginny went back to the waiting room, Allie was not there. Margie said "Chris called and they talked for a while. Allie went out to the car to do a visualization, I think. She said she's going to stay linked with Mom until the surgery's over."
Ginny thought this must be what Chris would be doing if she were here, and she approved. She coaxed the kids to the cafeteria, where they ate overdone eggs and old fruit salad.
Nancy called as they were walking back to the waiting room to say she was meditating, and she felt nothing but positive energy from her entities. She was leaving for Hawaii at noon, but they had her cell phone number. When Ginny passed this on to her kids, she saw them both brighten a little.
After two hours, Margie was pacing and Ginny had stopped reminding Gillam to not pick at his face. When Ginny saw Allie walking down the hall toward them, she stood up, frightened, and said "What happened? Did you hear something?"
"No" said Allie, "I was wondering if the surgery was over early."
"Nobody's come to tell us anything" said Ginny.
"I was -- I think I was in touch with her" said Allie in a soft voice. She looked like she'd rather not spill this to the kids, but they were crowded in close, of course. "It was deeply cold, and I kept seeing flashes of light at the edge of my vision. You know, I'm not good at this sort of thing" she said apologetically.
"How was she?" demanded Ginny.
"Fine. Like -- some part of her recognized me. There were -- I think there were others there, too. A man, and a woman." Allie stopped. "I can't describe them, it wasn't -- visual. But I knew they were looking after her. It was -- like being at the sweat, only cold, cold."
"Then why are you here?" said Ginny.
"It -- the connection ended. Blip, just like that. I mean, if it was a real connection. I tried for 15 minutes to get it back, and I couldn't, so I thought maybe you'd know more" said Allie. She and Ginny both turned and looked toward the double doors where Myra had been wheeled away.
Ginny wanted to lie down on the floor and scream. But the kids were watching her intently. She forced a ghastly smile and said "There's a lot of reasons why you might have lost signal. Maybe they started up the MRI machine nearby and it crashed your bars."
Allie forced herself to laugh. They sat down again, and when Margie stood up five minutes later to resume pacing, Allie went with her.
Gillam asked Ginny hoarsely, "Do you think it matters to god when somebody is -- when there's so many of us who can't do without her?"
Ginny looked at him. He was too old for her to lie. "You mean, does your Mama have a Clarence somewhere in this hospital right now? I don't know, Gillam. What I do believe, know absolutely, is that when you live a good life, you create a web of connection around you that makes you safer. Binds you here. And your Mama has the strongest ropes I've ever seen."
Half an hour later, Dr. Desai came through the double doors. She had on a clean yellow overblouse, and she was smiling. That smile enabled Ginny to get to her feet. She said Myra was already starting to wake up, but the length of this surgery meant her recovery from anesthesia might be much longer. She said there had been no visible tumors outside the uterus; her ovaries had been studded with polyps but they all looked ordinary; there was no ascites and nothing unusual anywhere. She'd taken several biopies.
She said the only worry was the size of Myra's incision, because of her fatness. She was going to have to be less active than most hysterectomy patients until the staples came out and her incision was reliably closed. Because of that, she was going to put Myra on Lovenox, a drug to prevent blood clots from inactivity, and also call in physical therapy to help her regain function without stressing her incision. She walked with them to Myra's hospital room.
Myra looked blank and bewildered, as she had right after the D&C. She held tight to Ginny's hand and lifted her face for everyone to kiss her. The IV was already running and Dr. Desai said she had been given some morphine to deal with the pain. The catheter would remain in until she could sit up to pee the next day. Ginny leaned her hips on the bed, laying her face next to Myra, and let relief scour through her. Dr. Desai then left, reminding them her fill-in, Dr. Maxwell, would do her rounds later in the day and until she returned on Saturday. They wished her a happy vacation.
Allie tried to josh with Myra a bit, but Myra wasn't talking much yet. She kept closing her eyes, though she was not completely asleep because her grip on Ginny's hand did not release. A tall black nurse with white hair was in and out of the room. After a few minutes, a tech came in with blue booties that he slipped onto Myra's feet. They were attached to an electronic device that created pneumatic pressure at random intervals. This was also to prevent clots in her legs, forcing blood up from her feet.
Myra hated them instantly, tried to slip them off her feet as soon as the tech left. When she dislodged them, a beep would start sounding. The nurse came in and repositioned them. Ginny said "Myra, you can't mess with these, you have to leave them alone." But Myra kept slyly trying to get out of the socks. Ginny began readjusting them every time the beep started. The nurse thanked her and said they would only be on part of the day and night.
Ginny looked at her watch and told the kids they needed to eat lunch. She handed them money and asked for maybe a baked potato or some yogurt for herself. Allie went with them. Ginny slipped off her shoes, let down one of the railings, and lay on the edge of the bed, next to Myra. Myra gave a sigh and seemed to go to sleep then.
After a couple of minutes, Ginny remembered all the other people who would be worried and waiting for word. She returned to the bedside chair and pulled out her cell, calling Chris (where she had to leave a message because they were surely at the funeral or sitting shiva right now), Patty's machine, then her father. She changed the outgoing message on their own machine, put her cell away and got back into bed with Myra.
When the tall black nurse came back in, Ginny didn't budge and the nurse didn't look upset after she made sure Ginny wasn't encroaching on Myra's lines or space. She said her name was Velda. Ginny gave her name and, stealing the idea from Edwina, identified herself as Myra's wife. Which also did not surprise the nurse.
Allie and the kids returned with a baked potato topped by broccoli and cheese. Ginny returned to a chair to eat. Allie sat down on the edge of Myra's bed and said "I brought you something special from home." From her pocket she pulled a small Ripley action figure, putting it into Myra's hand and saying "Your role model." Myra smiled at it and said "Thank you." She then handed it to Margie to put on the bedside table. A while later, Velda was changing Myra's IV and saw the Ripley figure. She pointed to it and asked Myra kindly "Now who is that?" Myra said "I have no idea." Ginny grinned, waiting for the joke, but that was it. She looked around to see if Allie had noticed; Allie, however, was talking with Margie.
Ginny finished her lunch and stashed her trash, returning to Myra's bed. Myra looked at her and said "Something's wrong."
"What's wrong, honey?" asked Ginny. The kids and Allie turned to listen.
Myra looked intently at Ginny, expressionless, and didn't speak. Ginny said "Myra, you had surgery this morning. You had a hysterectomy. Do you remember that?"
After a couple of seconds, Myra shook her head. Ginny said "You had a big operation, and you've still got anesthesia in your system. It'll be better by tomorrow morning. We're taking care of you, you're okay."
Myra closed her eyes. At 4:00, Velda left, to be replaced by a moon-faced white woman with long blonde hair showing black roots at her part. The new nurse was named Francine. She was swamped, but nice to Myra, asking her if she'd passed flatus yet. Gillam giggled as Ginny answered "Yeah, she's passed gas a couple of times." Shortly after, Edwina arrived. Occasionally Ginny or Myra's cell would ring, and Ginny always gave it to one of the kids to answer. When it was Chris, Allie took it and walked out in the hall for a long chat.
At 5:00, Francine brought in a tray for Myra, a bowl of minestrone-looking soup and some jello. Myra sat up with a wince and took a spoonful of the soup. She immediately began gagging. Ginny yelled at Francine, on her way out the door, and Francine pulled a small basin from the cabinet. Myra said "There's something wrong with this soup." She took a sip of her water, and vomited onto the tray. It wasn't much, but enough to send her into her usual cycle of reactive puking if she looked at it.
However, she didn't heave again, though she stared at the tray. Francine cleaned up the mess, while Ginny washed Myra's face. Francine brought in another container of jello, which Ginny opened and offered a bite to Myra. Myra spit it back out instantly, saying "It tastes awful." Ginny tried it and found nothing wrong with it. Francine said sometimes folks had strange reactions post anesthesia; they'd keep her on an IV and try again in the morning.
Myra was not very conversational. Mostly she lay with her eyes closed. When asked a question, she would respond, but she didn't laugh at Gillam's jokes. Ginny hoped to talk with Dr. Maxwell, but he didn't show up. She finally asked Francine about him, and she said he had come by and read the chart, posted orders, but said he didn't need to see the patient.
At 8:00, Francine reminded them visiting hours were over. Ginny said she intended to spend the night, and Francine nodded. Ginny made a list of things for Margie to bring after school the next day -- she insisted both kids go to school, despite Gillam trying to argue with her. Allie had to leave at dawn again, to drive to Vancouver, and although she offered twice to sleep at the house with the kids, Ginny refused. She fixed her tired gaze on Margie and said "You're in charge. You'll make sure the alarms are set and everything's safe, right?" Margie squared her shoulders and promised she would.
Allie sat down on the bed to give Myra a long hug and remind her she'd see her again on the weekend. "You're doing great, pal, keep it up" said Allie. Myra said "There's something wrong." Allie's expression turned grave. She took Myra's hand and said "What is it? What's going on? When Myra didn't answer, Ginny said "This one is a lot harder on her. I wish she could drink water, flush out her system faster." Allie talked to Myra a while longer, with Myra just nodding occasionally. Finally she left with Edwina and the kids. Ginny washed her face, brushed her teeth with the corner of a washcloth, and slid onto her side next to Myra.
Even with the lights down and the door almost shut, noise was an issue, as were regular intrusions by Francine, then another nurse, to check IV, catheter, or adjust the pneumatic booties which had been put back on Myra's feet. Ginny slept no more than half an hour at a stretch. She couldn't tell if Myra was sleeping or not. She was still and quiet, but she'd been that way all day.
Myra was brought a breakfast tray at 6:00. Ginny gave her milk first. Myra immediately vomited. Francine had a frown, and said it wasn't good for her to be emptying out like this. They tried one more item, a sip of cranberry juice which Myra spit out, complaining it tasted "like sewage". Ginny drank the rest of the juice and decided not to go for her own breakfast until Dr. Maxwell arrived.
Francine also wore a frown when she changed Myra's catheter bag. It did not look like much urine to Ginny, and the color was mustardy. Ginny called her kids at 7:00 and talked with each of them. They seemed to be okay. Dr. Maxwell finally showed up at 8:00, a fussy man with red curls and no inclination to make eye contact. Ginny was determined to get information from him.
"Are you going to keep her on the IV? Will she be able to get better on that?"
"We can maintain her a while on different kinds of intravenous feeds" he said. "But we are concerned about her renal function. Her kidneys seem to be sluggish. We have to monitor intake until we get that resolved."
He lifted the sheets, pulled up Myra's gown and peeled back the bandage on her abdomen. Ginny did not look away; instead, she moved in for a closer view, taking in the staples and the pucker where it looked like underlying tissue had been excavated out. "Is that how it's supposed to look?" she asked Dr. Maxwell. He nodded and replaced the bandage.
As he was writing things on the chart, which Ginny was later unable to read, he said "There's no cause for concern. Her metabolism will kick back in. Try to impress upon her the need to eat. We can't release her until she's eating normally and has a bowel movement. I'll check back in later." He left after having been in the room less than five minutes.
Myra still only speaking when spoken to, until the early afternoon when she tried to shift position slightly and said to Ginny, "It hurts." Ginny rubbed her hand and said "Yes, sweetheart, the incision is large." When the new nurse came in, not Velda, Ginny said "She's complaining of pain." The nurse looked at the orders, then at the IV. "She's got a dose of morphine on board, she shouldn't be experiencing pain. But patients on morphine frequently hallucinate." She left again. They were very busy on the floor that day.
Myra was still gagging when she tasted anything, even water, and would progress to vomiting if she tried to swallow. One nurse got Myra to open her mouth and inspected her throat so deep that Myra gagged then, too, but the nurse said there was no obstruction. When the kids arrived after school, Ginny handed Gillam a handful of change and told him to go buy a Coke and Myra's favorite candy bar, they'd see if she could keep that down. He was too rattled to get anything for himself.
He held a Hershey bar in front of Myra's face with an eager expression. She said "I am so hungry" and reached for it, then stopped herself and said "It hurts". Gillam peeled back the foil for her and broke off a square. She popped it into her mouth, bit down, and three seconds later vomited down her front. This brought the nurse in, who said Myra could not afford to be retching because it might tear her incision, and they should not bring her anything to eat that wasn't cleared with a nurse or doctor.
"Well, I'm not happy with how she's progressing" said Ginny. "I don't think the morphine is working for her pain, and I'm worried that's was causing her inability to eat." The nurse said she would pass it on.
Ginny told Margie and Gillam she, too, had not eaten all day. Gillam immediately jumped to his feet and offered to get her anything, anywhere. She sent him to the cafeteria with a list, for a meal then and something she could save for later. Margie handed an overnight bag to Ginny, and Ginny went into the bathroom to clean up, brush her teeth with a real brush, and change clothes. After she ate, she felt merely exhausted but no longer lightheaded.
Both the kids had homework. Ginny gave them the arm chairs, lowered Myra's tray table so they could share it, and had them start on it. Ginny sat carefully next to Myra, who repeated "It hurts" if there was any motion. Edwina arrived a while later, and Ginny talked over her concerns with her, choosing her words carefully because Margie and Gillam were openly listening.
"I don't know anything about morphine" said Edwina. "I wish Allie or Chris were here. Listen, why don't you call Davonn, he was a drug user as well as alcohol?"
Ginny grabbed her phone and managed to get through to him. After she hung up, she said "He thinks I might be right, he says lots of people have really negative reactions to morphine. The hospitals use it first because it's cheap." She walked out of the room toward the nurse's station. When she came back, her face was pale with anger.
"That fucker Maxwell came by but didn't bother to check on us directly. He's changed her morphine to Demerol, and they're bringing in a shot now" she said. The nurse who slid a needle into Myra's IV line also reapplied the hated booties, with Myra resisting between complaints of "It hurts". Gillam was becoming agitated, cracking his knuckles and unable to read his text.
Ginny waited for the new drug to kick in. Myra began dozing after fifteen minutes, even with the booties on, and Ginny leaned back against the wall in a near paroxysm of relief. At dinner time, she refused to leave the room, and Margie said "Then I'm not either." They ordered Chinese food delivered, and Edwina walked downstairs to meet the driver. Ginny offered Myra some rice. Myra took a single grain in her mouth, managed to swallow it despite heaving, but shook her head at any more. She repeated "It hurts" every time she moved. The rest of them ate wthout pleasure.
Shortly before 8:00, Ginny told her children "I don't feel okay about leaving her alone overnight. Not the way things are. But I'm concerned about you spending too much time on your own." Edwina said "I'm going home with them tonight. We'll keep each other company, I won't have to face an empty apartment without Allie." Ginny hugged her gratefully. After they left, she tried to call Chris and Sima but had to leave a message.
The night shift nurse was another new face. Every time Myra woke up, she said "It hurts". Ginny tried to find out if the Demerol dose was adequate, but the nurse couldn't explain pharmacology or therapeutic levels, she was young and inexperienced. She promised to have Dr. Maxwell talk to Ginny the next day.
Ginny pushed the two chairs together and slept upright, her feet in the second chair, so as to not disturb Myra. When Myra complained of pain, Ginny stopped reassuring her, refusing to lie any more. Instead she said "I know it hurts, I believe you" and gave her a kiss. Her sleep was ragged.
The nurse who came in at 5 a.m. was Velda again, and Ginny felt a rush of hope when she saw her. She checked Myra's catheter bag, which was still very low, though the urine was not as dark, Ginny thought. Velda was taking her temperature and pulse. With every minute motion she made, Myra was now yelling in pain. She kept saying to Ginny "It hurts, Ginny, it really hurts." Then she said "I can't believe you are letting them to this to me. If you really loved me, you'd stop the hurting."
Ginny stood up beside the bed. She looked at Velda and said "Something's wrong. You don't know this woman, but I know her inside out. She's not a complainer. She's tough. Something's wrong."
Velda said, "I think maybe you're right." She lifted Myra's bandage and looked at the incision, touching around it with her fingers. It was healing rapidly, dry, not swollen. When she pushed gently with her fingers near the incision, she said "Ms. Josong, is this what is hurting you?" Myra looked at her blankly. "Is this what hurts?" Finally Myra shook her head.
Velda pulled down the covers and inspected Myra's legs, bending the knees slightly, checking the toes. She pulled Myra's thighs apart and looked at her groin. Replacing the sheet, she went to the head of the bed and got Myra to lift her head from the pillow. Myra moaned as she did so. Velda untied Myra's gown and pulled it down, exposing her chest and arms. She inspected them thoroughly.
"We need to get her to sit up" she said to Ginny. "You take her arm on that side and let's do all the work for her, pull her just to upright, not further." On Velda's signal, Ginny pulled. Myra yelled again briefly. Velda leaned behind her to look at Myra's back.
Ginny saw it at the same time as Velda. On Myra's low back, just above her buttocks, was a red line about five inches long. The skin was not broken, but when Velda put her hand gently onto the line, Myra shrieked. Velda looked at the bed where Myra had been lying, unmoving, for over two days. A small bulge under the sheet, a wrinkle in the mattress pad, matched the size and angle of the red line exactly.
Velda made a sound of anger. She told Ginny "Keep holding her upright. We're going to have to change this bed, get her to stand up. I need help." She left the room and came back with a young nurse and a bedside commode. "As long as we got her up, let's see if she can have a b.m." Velda pointed out the mark on Myra's back to the new nurse, who shook her head.
"What is that?" said Ginny.
"The beginning of a decubitus" said Velda. "A pressure sore. If we hadn't caught it, there would be skin breakdown. I think we're in time to treat it."
"Is that what's been hurting?" said Ginny.
Velda looked at her. "The pain is exquisite. It's like a severe burn."
Ginny felt faint. They had Myra up on the side of the bed. Now that nothing was pressing against her back, she had stopped moaning and did not appear to be in pain from her incision. She was weak and seemed to have trouble understanding their instructions without repetition. They were trying to hold her weight as she stood up, but also managing the IV line and the catheter snaking down her leg. Ginny came over to that side of the bed and took charge of the tubes running into Myra. They got her safely on the toilet.
"Don't strain, Ms. Josong" said Velda. "But see if you can pass anything."
The toilet chair was open over Myra's low back, so she could lean back in it without pressure. The other nurse left and Velda began stripping the bed swiftly. After a minute, a horrible odor came from the toilet chair. As Velda walked out with the linen, she said to Ginny "Don't let her get up."
She returned with fresh sheets and a mattress pad. She took meticulous care in tightening and smoothing each item that went on the bed. When she was done with that, she heated up some wet towel-like cloths sealed in a bag, then pulled off Myra's gown and gave her a thorough wash. Myra began moaning again, this time from relief. With a final rag, Velda leaned Myra forward and wiped her ass.
"Why does it smell so vile?" asked Ginny.
"Happens after anesthesia" said Velda. "Plus it's been cooking in there a while."
Velda put a clean gown on Myra and walked her over to the chair. Myra was walking a little easier. "Sit here but don't lean back" said Velda. She took the bucket from the commode chair and went into the bathroom. There was a long sound of running water. After the washing was done, Velda dressed the line on Myra's back using a skin-like substance that she peeled off a paper. Ginny helped lead Myra back to the bed, then Velda placed a series of pillows down Myra's back so even if she leaned all the way onto the bed, her lumbar area would not be touching the mattress. Myra sighed once she was prone, and went straight to sleep. Even when Velda gave her the Lovenox injection into her abdomen, Myra did not wake up.
Ginny said "Why couldn't she tell us before this something was hurting on her back?"
"Maybe the morphine" Velda looked at the chart. "But she's been on Demerol for twelve hours now." Velda pursed her lips. "Be sure to talk to Dr. Maxwell about how she's not being herself."
Myra refused breakfast. Ginny didn't push her. Not any more. She ate Myra's breakfast for her. When Edwina called to reassure her about the kids making it to school, Ginny told her what had happened. Edwina said "Allie's cell is not working, I don't think -- I've left her a couple of messages. I'm going to leave a message for her at her hotel."
At noon, Margie walked in the door. "Don't yell, but I can't stay away, I turned in my assignments and told them I was leaving, I can afford to miss the classes this afternoon." Ginny said "All right. I'm glad to have you. Leave a message on Gillam's cell about where you are."
"I already did" said Margie. She turned to Myra, who had woken up, and said "Mom, you've got a lot of calls on the voice mail at home, people who love you sending you their best. Would you like to listen to them?" Myra paused, then nodded. She didn't reach for the phone, so Margie picked it up and put it her hand. Myra looked at the dial and carefully pressed the 7 button four times in a row, then placed the receiver up to her ear.
Margie looked at Ginny, who stepped over and took the phone gently from Myra. "You have to dial our access number, honey. Here, let me do it for you". She dialed the phone, then handed it back to Myra. "When the outgoing message ends, push 686 and you'll get the first saved message." Myra looked at the dial again, then pressed 7 twice before placing the phone to her ear.
Ginny took the phone away again. "How about if we do this a little later?" she said very gently. Myra nodded and closed her eyes.
"Mom" breathed Margie. "I know" said Ginny. "My god."
Ginny tried the hotel where Chris and Sima were staying and talked to the desk clerk, who had no information about their whereabouts. She left a message for them to call her instantly. She called Edwina back and talked to her for a minute, asking Edwina to have Allie leave for home as soon as she could. She left a message on Nancy's cell phone; she didn't have the number where Nancy was in Hawaii. She called Dr. Desai's service and asked if she could get through to Dr. Desai directly, and was deflected to Dr. Maxwell. Ginny hung up, feeling increasingly desperate.
"What about Dr. Bratcher?" asked Margie. This was Ginny's family practice physician, whom both kids had begun seeing once they outgrew their pediatrician.
"Myra's only seen her once, years ago for a bout of bronchitis. She's mostly only gone to Aradia, and since they closed down, she's -- she doesn't have a doctor who knows her" said Ginny.
Velda came back into the room and Ginny said "If Maxwell shows, tell him there's been a change in her condition, it's urgent that he examine her." Velda looked startled and Ginny told her what had happened, then asked if they could get another doctor on the floor or from the ER to come look at Myra. Velda, obviously torn, said "It doesn't -- they won't agree it's an emergency, not enough to disrupt the process. Dr. Maxwell is supposed to make rounds this afternoon, we have to wait on him."
After Velda left, Ginny stood for a minute, watching Myra. She took Myra's hand and said "Honey, do you remember coming to the hospital for your surgery?"
Myra nodded slowly. "Those beets" she said, not smiling.
"Not that surgery" said Ginny. "Your hysterectomy, the big surgery you just had." Myra looked confused and stayed silent.
"Last weekend, we went to Bloedel" said Ginny. "You remember the red-winged blackbird you saw, how beautiful it was?"
Myra shook her head blankly. "How about last shabbos, where we had two kinds of meatloaf and Sima's kiwi tart?" persisted Ginny. Myra's face changed a little then. "The potatoes went too long but nobody minded, we like the brown bits" said Myra.
"That's right" breathed Ginny. "Okay, so that's the last you remember?" After a long pause, Myra nodded. Ginny wanted her face to show expression, anything, even fear, but it was smooth.
She said to Margie "Stay here with her. Guard her. I'll be in the hall, I have to make a call." She left the room.
When she came back in, Margie looked even more upset: "I asked her if she wanted to watch TV. I turned it on, and one of the channels was showing a rerun of Northern Exposure. You know how much she loves that show. Chris in the Morning was talking, and after a bit, Mama turned to me and said 'Could we find a channel that's in English?' But it was in English."
Myra's eyes were closed again. Ginny said "Myra? I called Jules Lefkowitz. She's the only really good doctor I know. She's one of the best. Do you remember who Jules is?"
Myra paused, then shook her head. "Well, she's coming by at 3:00 to look at you. She's going to help us."
Ginny sat down suddenly, refusing to cry. Myra closed her eyes again.
Margie said "I don't know this person, do I?"
Ginny shook her head, then said reluctantly "She's one of my exes. We haven't seen each other since before you were born. She wasn't thrilled to hear from me, but I begged her....She's one hell of a doctor. And the thing is -- Myra's always been crazy jealous of her."
Margie looked at Myra's blank face. "Oh, god."
When Jules wasn't there by 3:00, Ginny was having trouble thinking at all. Margie's cell rang and she answered, saying it was Gillam. She talked to him briefly and said "He needs a ride from home."
"Go ahead" said Ginny. Five minutes after she left, Jules walked in carrying Myra's chart. Her blonde hair was now streaked with grey and long, down to her shoulders. She had on a tailored women's suit underneath her white coat. Ginny wondered what on earth she'd ever seen in her.
"Hello, Ginny" she said, using a cool tone to counteract the awkwardness.
"Jules, I can't thank you enough. I really can't."
Jules was looking through the chart. She got very still after a while, looked around for a chair, sat down, and kept reading. Edwina walked in before she was done. Finally, Jules closed the chart and looked at Ginny. Ginny forgot to introduce Edwina, staring at Jules urgently.
"I'll cover everything, because I'm not sure what you know" began Jules "She's in renal failure."
Edwina sucked in air. Ginny said "That means her kidneys, right? Are her kidneys failed?"
"No, not completely. It could come completely back, and this morning's labs aren't in here so I can't tell if she's responding. The ins and outs are off kilter. I'm worried about her glycemic state, but so are they, seem to be on top of it. The switch in pain medication hasn't made any difference, as far as I can determine. There is no sign of any other organ damage or failure. Her saturations are good, her telemetry is fine -- her heart and lungs are fine -- and there's no sign of overt neurological deficit, but no formal testing has been done." She paused. Here it comes, thought Ginny. "There was an episode during her surgery. It doesn't show up on the dictated op report, but it's there in the anesthesiologist's notes. Her pulse oximetry showed a precipitous drop for a period of two minutes. Her sats went down into the 50s. They adjusted her flow and other things, and it came back to normal after two minutes. But to me it looks like she had anoxia during the surgery."
"I don't know what anoxia is" said Ginny, having to clear her throat to get it out.
"Loss of blood supply to the brain. It was brief, if it really occurred. Brief enough to cause only partial damage. I suspect that's the source of her renal failure, not the morphine. And it could be temporary."
"You're talking about brain damage. She may have brain damage." Ginny was looking at Myra, who seemed to still be asleep.
"Possible. And possibly reversible. You need a neurologist to check her out."
At this point, Velda came back in. Jules stood up and said "I'm Julia Lefkowitz. I'm doing a consult on this patient at her family's request." She didn't offer to shake Velda's hand. Velda said "Are you going to assume care?"
"No, Dr. Maxwell is the attending. I'll call him when I leave here. In case I can't reach him, I'm leaving him a note about my impression. I am requesting a neurological consult for -- " she paused, glanced down at the chart -- "Ms. Josong. I have privileges here and don't advise waiting for Dr. Maxwell, whom I'm certain will sign off on this, so I'm going to ask Dr. Hilary Reading to do an emergency neuro assessment as soon as possible. She's also on the staff list for this facility. I'll dictate my note into the chart this afternoon, but for now, I'm adding fall and aspiration precautions to this patient's orders."
"Do you know if Dr. Maxwell has requested a nephrology consult?"
"Not yet, he's waiting on today's BUN and creatinine."
"All right, I'll leave that to him."
Jules turned to Ginny. "Hilary Reading is a superb neurologist. She's probably going to want to do a brain scan and run other tests. She'll find out what there is to find out. I can't stay on this case, but if you need a follow-up consult, feel free to call me." She shook Ginny's hand, then Edwina's, then left with the chart for the nurse's station.
Velda began putting the pneumatic booties onto Myra's feet. Myra woke up and protested. Ginny lowered the bed rail, scooted in next to Myra, and said "Here, focus on me. Put your arm around me and try to match my breathing rate." Myra pulled Ginny in tight and closed her eyes again. Ginny could feel a faint tremor in Myra's arm. Ginny said to Velda, "Be sure to tell Dr. Maxwell he has to speak with us when he gets here."
Velda said, "Oh, he'll be paying attention to you now". She added, "Can I get you all anything else?"
"No. Velda -- god bless you."
At that moment, Gillam and Margie came in. Gillam was carrying one of Myra's spinach lasagnas, heated through in the microwave at home, and a loaf of challah on top. Margie had a bag containing wine, glasses, candlesticks and candles. Ginny stayed entwined with Myra but pulled her children in close and told them what she'd just found out.
Gillam stood protectively beside Myra and whispered "What are we going to do?"
Before Ginny could answer, Jules walked back in. She hesitated at the sight of Ginny draped around Myra and the two teenagers. Ginny said "These are our children. Margie and Gillam. Kids, this is Dr. Jules Lefkowitz."
Jules looked at them appraisingly, lingering on Margie's face, and said drily "The very image of you." She went on "I just thought of something, and checked in the PDR out there to be sure. Lovenox, in less than 5% of cases, has a side reaction of causing a disruption in the --- the taste buds, to make it simple. Patients report that anything placed in the mouth tastes extremely caustic. I'm leaving a recommendation for Dr. Maxwell that he switch her to another anticoagulant. If that's what's causing her inability to eat, it will take a few days to completely clear her system, but her normal function will return. If you can get across to her what's happening and can persuade her to eat and drink, it will make a serious difference in her recovery."
"Thank you, Jules. Thank you for helping our family."
Jules hesitated again. "Good luck, Ginny." She left with a brisk stride.
© 2008 Maggie Jochild.
Afterword: I want to take the opportunity here to thank Kathy Plakovic, a precious friend and a gifted healer, for her editing and suggestions with regard to this section around Myra's surgery. Her revisions have made it much, much better (and any errors remaining are all mine). If you need a Nurse Practitioner in the Austin area, you won't do better than Kathy.
I first wrote this section of the novel over a year ago, out of sequence, early in the process. I knew this episode was going to play a major role in the story, and I got 30 pages of it down. It's been fascinating to me how extensive my recent rewrite has had to be. This is not just because of the goofs and inconsistencies Kathy caught, but also because my relationship to the characters has altered, and the story has had to change to match.
What happened to Myra in this section more or less happened to me with my knee surgery. Except (and this is a big exception) I had no Ginny, no Allie or Chris or Nancy. I had no one who saw what was occurring, no doctor who diagnosed me, no help at all with what turned out to be brain damage. I did have some wonderful friends who showed up and did what they could, given their understanding (I couldn't express what was happening for a long time), and I'll never forget their kindnesses: Heather Burmeister, Ginger Webb, the Deagans, Donna Hoffman, Nancy Crossthwaite, Ixchel Rosal, Dawn Surratt, Jamila Tharp, Kathy Plakovic, and my little brother Bill immediately come to mind.
Of the three people in whom I placed my deepest trust (plus power of attorney), one was persistently misled by impatient, arrogant physicians to ignore what I was trying to tell them. I forgave her for her error right away. The other two, old friends, betrayed me in egregious ways and, eventually, I ended those relationships, in no small part to how they failed to stand by me when I was in my most terrible trouble.
Get powers of attorney, living wills, and clear instructions in place for yourselves, no matter your circumstances. Think about the unthinkable and make sure you are your own best advocate in advance.
And my eternal gratitude to Dr. Reading who, almost three years after my nightmare, listened to me well enough to piece together what had occurred and help me make sense of it all. Answers, and reassurance, are never too late to bestow.