Advanced warning: this is one of those Biffle-like stories that requires a couple of tangents, so hang in there.
Braided Ben was artist-in-residence in metals at the Appalachian Center for Crafts, the truly top-notch craft program where Biffle got his BFA in wood. Biffle and I know him as Braided Ben (as opposed to Ben Cowden, his actual given name) because at the time that he and Biffle were at the Crafts Center, there were seven guys there named Ben. The Craft Center is an intimate community nestled on top of an isolated hilltop above Center Hill Lake. The students and faculty work and live together, all day, every day, and they're a weird, creative bunch, so there wasn't really any way to have seven guys just named Ben. They became Big Ben, Roller Ben, Quiet Ben, the unfortunately named Little Round Ben, New Ben, Chef Ben, and Braided Ben. And this is really what they were called. "Hey, where's Big Ben?" "He's in the shop with Ericka."
Braided Ben got that name because he showed up there with a full head of long, braided hair that put my hair to shame. He was wearing sarongs long before Biffle adopted this style. He went to some funky Quaker college that basically sent him all over the world as his education, and his sense of personal style (as well as artistic approach) emerged from this completely eclectic hodgepodge of worldwide experiences. He had some other things he brought back along with the personal style, such as blood worms. He discovered that he had blood worms when he saw a worm swimming between his iris and the skin of his eyeball. He's one of the only people in the US who's had blood worms, so the CDC flies him in once a year to test him and track him for their own research purposes. Don't worry, though--he's fine. He just has blood worms.
Braided Ben, it turns out, was one of the best roommates I've ever had. The year that Biffle headed out to Massachusetts for grad school, Ben finished his residency at the Craft Center and wanted to move to Nashville, where I lived. Ben and I spent a year together on Lischey Ave. What made him such a good roommate--besides his general funky creativity, which, let's face it, I was used to from Biffle--was his enthusiasm and openness. He is probably the least cynical person I know. For example, as a metal worker he often goes to fairs and things with people who do metal work because of their deep desire to recreate the medieval period. These folks make armor for their horses, horses named things like "Baiard the Stormbringer." Ben thought this stuff was funny, but not in a mean way, sort of in a, "Wow, people in the world are really different" sort of way. He seemed delighted to get to interact with folks of all kind, just folks in the world.
While we lived together, Ben expanded beyond his metalworking strengths and started doing a lot of sewing. He made himself some very funky (and complicated!) outfits, and those were cool, but the best thing he made was a t-shirt that said, "I Love the Wub."
The wub is what Braided Ben calls the roll of fat that women have--almost all women, certainly virtually every woman I know, and if you're a woman reading this blog, my strong suspicion is you have one--just below your navel. Not really the same as the muffin top, although related. The wub is specifically on the front. And Ben is a great admirer of the wub. Ben was (and I suspect still is) tall and thin, and I got the impression he was sort of fascinated with body shapes that were different than his own. Rather than being an incredibly boring guy who's into boobs or something, Ben fell in love with the wub.
Most women are a bit self-conscious about their wubs. We hide them, try to do ab workouts to eliminate them, suck them in, wear shirts that disguise them. And my experience so far has been that as you get older, the wub hangs in there with you and often begins to come into its own as a more notable part of your body. It can become a locus of shame, but Braided Ben's reclaiming of the wub is a very effective tool for countering the toxic anti-wub cultural messages. Ben not only made the brilliant move of naming this body part, but he named it the wub--a sweet, charmingly squishy sort of name. He embraced the squishiness. He legitimately loved the wub. And then he made, and wore, a t-shirt proclaiming this fact.
Advanced warning: this is one of those Biffle-like stories that requires a couple of tangents, so hang in there.
Girl power is, as Professor Alison Piepmeier says of her own 10,000 Maniacs and Suzanne Vega-obsessed college years, about "seeking a culture of women's voices. I knew I had things to say and I wanted to find women who were making a public space for themselves." Girl power allows each of us to map out what it means to be a woman in the world, one song at a time.
Thus ends the preface, and begins the serious work of the book. Every time she quotes me I sound so smart. I had the fun experience of being impressed with my own ideas. Everyone who quotes me should follow Marisa Meltzer's lead.
I just posted my first monthly column at Girl w/Pen since the one I wrote in January explaining the brain tumor situation. Because I haven't let that readership know what's up, I tried to do a kind of broad summation of what I've learned from grappling with my own mortality. You know, just a little something.
It turns out that sort of writing project is completely impossible to me right now. So the post is a bit of a mess, but I've put a few thoughts over there that haven't ended up here yet. If you're still intrigued by my brain tumor, have a look over there.
And, in fact, gratitude is the theme of this post. Gratitude for niceness. Folks in my community have overwhelmed me with their kindness and thoughtfulness in the time since I was diagnosed. You'll see in the picture above a long string of all the cards I received, cards from colleagues and students, from former colleagues and mentors at Vanderbilt, from my old (and beloved!) Nashville book group, from members of both Biffle's and my parents' churches, and from zine creators and zine archivists I worked with in my book research. You'll notice the very large blue card on the mantel that was made by Women's and Gender Studies minors. In addition to cards, I got hundreds of emails, from colleagues and former students and friends from high school. And gifts: flowers and plants, clothing, books, political calendars called "Barbies We'd Like to See," zines, socks, stickers, soap, lotion, green tea, and if you'll look at the top framed print above, you'll see a picture that says "Keep Kicking Ass," written on the asses of the two gift givers. Plus lots of edibles: boxes of cookies from Sugar, brownies, a gift box of Zabar's best NYC food.
Speaking of food, this was gifted to us again and again--we had meals left on our porch every single night for at least the first three weeks after we came home, fabulous meals that I've mentioned before but probably haven't raved about nearly enough. We weren't just fed--we were comforted and indulged. And although this wasn't planned, we didn't receive the same meal twice, which was pretty cool.
Friends and family did so much for us--camped out at Duke Hospital, moved in with Maybelle while we were gone, moved in with us to help take care of Maybelle, drove long distances to visit (some folks on a very regular basis), coordinated all the food and other supports offered, cleaned the house, drove me around, brought over fun movies to watch. One even had a mass said on my behalf. And, of course, there was the one family member who reviewed all my medical records and offered brain-related expertise.
Even folks I don't know particularly well made sincere, generous offers. One friend hosted a reception for me before the surgery so that my colleagues and I could touch base before I disappeared. Another gave me a list of preferred hotels in the Duke area. A colleague I barely knew at all--really, someone I probably had not spoken to before--became a cherished presence in my life in the weeks before the surgery, when he started sending funny, sweet weekly emails offering help--any kind of help! Really! Weeds need pulling? Dog needs walking? You name it, I'm there! Although I feel a little sad that I wasn't able to come up with the quality or quantity of work he was willing to do, his emails themselves were quite a lovely form of help.
And folks I don't know at all became incredibly helpful, too, like a woman who is a Women's Studies director in another state, and who had a brain tumor removed three years ago. She sent me many lengthy, incredibly informative and comforting emails before the surgery, answering all my questions and also offering me regularly scheduled penguin jokes.
In the midst of all of this, I've said to a number of friends, "There are clearly many people in the world who are much nicer than I am." They'll sometimes laugh, because I think I have the vibe of a nice person. But in fact, I haven't been as aware of other folks, as attuned to what they might need, and as willing to reach out as many of my friends, colleagues, and people I hardly even knew have been. They have been stellar examples, and I'm really grateful.
One of my goals for myself in the wake of this experience is to be nicer.
I mentioned the L.L. Bean catalog in the last post because that picture accidentally has all the elements lifestyle clothing companies like to pack into their promotional shots. Here's the breakdown:
There is one glaring defect , however, and here it is:
No, this isn't totally competent adventure dad on a woolly, yet entirely safe, venture into the backwaters of the Okefenokee Swamp. Instead, this is actually sleepy dad who has driven his Subaru (in bad need of an oil change), down to the beautiful, yet entirely sterile county park.
As a final note, vis-a-vis all this talk of consumerism, i'd like to point out something i noticed as i was photoshopping the photo: In the picture, which is of a privately guided tour Alison, The Ween and I took out at Caw Caw Nature Preserve, there are the many "products" i pointed out (and some i didn't). There's a hat, a pair of glasses, a man, a baby, nature, a baby backpack, water bottle, blue shirt, denim jacket, pink pants...and i think that's it.
The shirt was a gift from my dad, the hat was given to me by my friend Teddy, the back pack a hand-me-down from Nick and Catherine, the denim jacket from Deandra, the pants from my parents, the water bottle from Eliza, the tour a gift from Keith, Alison and i went halves on The Ween, and nature is free. The only element that i actually paid for in the whole blooming photo was my ivy league glasses.
Oh yeah...and Maybelle's disability is a gift, too.
Here's a photograph I particularly like that Alison took on our tour of the Caw Caw Nature Preserve the other day. My friend, Keith, offered to take us on a tour of the swamp and we had a great time. I think the Ween and i look very attractive and outdoors-ey, like and an L. L. Bean catalog, only better.
The first time I met Friedman, Biffle characterized me as "more high-strung than he'd ever seen me." That's saying a lot, and was probably true. The second time I met him was just before the surgery, and that visit went much better. This one Tuesday was the best yet. As you know, I've characterized the man as a lovable curmudgeon during the course of my several phone conversations with him. At the follow-up appointment, both those terms (lovable and curmudgeon) were amplified.
I'd typed up a list of questions for him, in order of priority, and I handed the list to him so that he could skim over it and answer the ones he wanted to. I suspected that this would be a good tactic with him, and it was. He's always quick, has a lot going on, and as you remember, he's not always delighted to answer patient questions. Having them written down gave him control, and maybe a sense of direction.
One thing that was adorable was that the first question he answered was sixth on my list--in other words, a fairly low priority: the question about how pregnancy and my medical treatment would work together. He looked at the list and almost immediately declared, "Have another baby! Babies are great!" The man often speaks in pronouncements. So then we were talking about babies, and pregnancy. Somehow we got on the topic of Down syndrome, and I told him that Maybelle--who was in the room with us, having lunch fed to her by Biffle--has Down syndrome. "I know," he said dismissively, almost rolling his eyes. "I could tell the first time I saw her." And then he shared with us that both times his wife was pregnant, she had amnios, but that both times he was fine with the kids having Down syndrome. That I was not expecting. If the man weren't going at 3,000 miles an hour during every appointment, I would have asked more.
More lovable curmudgeonliness: One of my questions (#3, in fact), was "What will the next ten years look like for me?" "I have no idea," he said, baffled. "I'm not a crystal ball!" I clarified that I meant in terms of my medical regimen, and then his hackles went down a bit.
I prodded him to ask me questions that would enable me to show off my super-star language function, my ability to speak about academic feminism, or whatever. He prodded back by saying it's a good thing he knows well enough not to ask me any math questions, because he'd think he'd done something wrong in the surgery. He thought that one was pretty funny (and actually, it was pretty funny).
I had another question (lowest on the list) about whether my scalp numbness is permanent. When he got to that question, I said, "It really doesn't matter to me--I won't be upset, I just want to know," and he immediately and emphatically said, "I don't care if I upset you!" That actually made me laugh out loud, because I know it's true at some level--and yet, I swear that the man has a sweet side that he thinks doesn't show, but I can see it. Sometimes it seems as if he's just performing brusqueness, but it's not a fully compelling performance. I believe I squeezed his arm affectionately at this point.
At the end of the visit, rather than sweep out the door at a half-run, he walked over to the couch where the cutest person in the room was eating Veggie Booty. He talked to her and was appropriately impressed at the signs I got her to show off to him, plus she waved and smiled, which is always irresistible. The man's fuzziness was almost completely visible at this point. When he stood up this time to walk out of the room, he--without any irony--called me "sweetheart" and made it clear that, although he's not technically going to be my doctor anymore, he plans to come see me when I come back to Duke for visits.
Friedman's clearly got a curmudgeonly persona. He works at a breathtaking pace, often two brain surgeries a day, and he brings this pacing into exam rooms with him. He's gruff, and not necessarily the kind of man I'd be drawn to. And yet, his gruffness at this point almost always strikes me as covering just the tiniest fuzziness. I mean, he helped to start a program at Duke to mentor female athletes who are interested in a medical career. He's married to a woman who is an impressive neurosurgeon, has been a serious trailblazer for women in neurosurgery, and has things to say about balancing work and family--I don't know if she identifies as a feminist, but she certainly sounds like one. Interesting.
Check it out: my friend Eliza and her friend Paula are running in the Race for Hope 5K in DC in May, a race to raise money to fund research and support services for brain tumor patients and their families.
Let's hope that this blog title brings in all the porn searchers who now feel guilty and will donate money. And really, all the rest of you ought to donate a little. Everybody who's sent me a sweet email asking what you can do, here's a little something: $25 to Eliza and Paula's team.
If you're in the DC area and you meet the criteria, you could possibly even be part of the team.
I was delighted to find that College of Charleston's Women's and Gender Studies Program and my Subaru got shout-outs today. Quick thoughts about each of these shout-outs: the interview I did for the WGS article was a great recovery moment for me, because I realized I can do a newspaper interview perfectly effectively. As for the Subaru love, I'd just like to say it's surprising how often I see someone--either on the street or driving behind us--taking a picture of the back of my car. Apparently it's a rich, rewarding text.
Come on back tomorrow when I promise I'll tell you all about my feelings toward Dr. Mo Mo.