Sunday, October 2, 2011


Ah, October. Rolling in to awe us with vivid autumnal colors: scarlet, tangerine, gold . . . and pink. Yes, pink.

What started with simple ribbons has evolved into a veritable industry of pink, everything from apparel to spatulas to vacuum cleaners. It's as if the entire nation were enveloped in a Christo exhibition, especially in Dallas, the home of the Susan G. Komen Foundation and epicenter of Pink Mania. A person can't possibly be unaware that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Every month used to be awareness month for me. I am a fourth-generation breast cancer candidate. When my mother, a two-time survivor, was first diagnosed with an aggressive pre-menopausal strain, her doctor recommended that I, 21 at the time, undergo a prophylactic mastectomy. I was horrified. "Geez, Mom, if you had brain cancer would he tell me to have a lobotomy?"
I didn't choose that drastic route back then, but I did begin a booby dance: a regimen of annual mammograms and ultrasounds. When MRIs became available, they too were added to the guest list. If anything suspicious was detected, I would undergo a biopsy then step up the dance schedule to quarterly. I tell my male friends to imagine slapping a testicle on a glass plate and then watching as a second plate was lowered to squash that jewel in a vise. Then repeat. I don't need to repeat their unanimous reaction.

Then a few years ago, my breast doctor and I decided to go on the offensive against the "area of concern" she had been monitoring. A double mastectomy later, and the not-if-but-when dance was over.

I had no emotional issues about whacking off my breasts, in part because I had long thought of them as mere silos for potentially fatal missiles. I wrote my doctor a parody, to the tune of Bye Bye Blackbird: "No more mammograms or MRIs, and my brand new boobs are just the perfect size, bye bye boobies." Over wine, friends and I made a list of tattoo "nipples" such as bulls' eyes, owls (hooters), and hand prints. I and my new ta-tas, Thelma and Louise, were on our merry way. (My then fourteen-year-old niece said in her most appalled eye-rolling voice, "You named them?")

Then one day I stood at the sign-up table for a Race for the Cure event. In Komenland, survivors are given special recognition, a badge of membership in The Sisterhood that sets them apart from those participating in an event in honor or in memory of loved ones, or just because.
Which box to check? The "area" that concerned my doctor was pre-cancerous, so am I a "survivor" if technically I never had breast cancer? Surely the mastectomies, those awful drains, the tissue expanders, the reconstructions count for something. Am I less of a survivor than the woman who had one cancer cell and a simple lumpectomy? Yet dare I equate myself with my mother, after I rubbed diaper rash cream on her bald head to soothe the irritation from her wig and stood helplessly as she hugged the toilet?

This wouldn't even have been a question until recently. The Big C was so verboten that my grandmother didn't even tell her own family right away. In the next generation, support groups were common, but women certainly didn't broadcast their medical history in hot pink letters. Now, though, the pink ribbon is almost – dare I say it – bragging rights.

Don't get me wrong. I'm glad that we've come out of the mammary closet. I'm thrilled that millions of dollars are poured into research so that my nieces and their daughters may never get an invitation to the booby dance. I have never questioned that my decision was the right one for me. But I do question whether I am claiming something I didn't "earn" if I join in one of the ubiquitous conversations with a me too.

What exactly does it mean to avoid being voted off the breast cancer island? Is the person who evacuates his beach house during the first winds of a hurricane less of a survivor than the one who rides out the buffeting gusts and torrential rains in the house next door? Is the neighbor to the other side a survivor if she was on another continent when the storm demolished her house?
I don't know.

So each October I find my cheeks burning pink to match the caps and Cuisinarts and, yes, cars. I don't regret cheating cancer, but I feel like I may be caught cheating on the comprehensive test, nailed for circumventing a climbing wall of the obstacle course. Then I ease my guilt with one thought: I don't know if I am a survivor, but I know that I am alive.

Amy Bourret is the author of the novel Mothers and Other Liars, a Target Stores Breakout Book published in August by St. Martin's Press. She is happy to report that she and Thelma and Louise are all in the pink.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Sound Track of My Life

I’m sprawled across my favorite chair--that big, soft, warm hug of a chair. I’m kind of bored, kind of restless but not motivated enough to do anything I should be doing. Like getting out of my pajamas. Paying bills. Cleaning out my sock drawer. Oh, and writing. 
You know the kind of day. And the mood, when you’re just plain itchy in your own skin and it doesn’t have a thing to do with the 110 degree temperatures sizzling outside.
I’m also feeling a little reproachable, like I’m ten years old again and my Mom’s going to come upstairs and find me lying on my stomach in the space between my pink bed and the pink wall reading Nancy Drew instead of changing out the rumpled set of pink sheets for a Spring-fresh set of pink sheets, or whatever other Saturday chore she had sent me up to perform.
So I go to the computer with the best intentions of writing – something, anything. But iTunes pops up instead, and I find myself scrolling through the thousands and thousands of songs. And it is at that moment that I have this epiphany, about mid-way on the Richter-or-whatever scale for epiphanies: I can throw aside the scrap books with all those cherished mementos--like the piece of school bus seat stuffing-fuzz that Bobby Hardy gave me in sixth grade as a sure sign of his unwavering love. I can lock away the photo albums that bear sad witness to my ever-evolving sense of style and fashion. Instead, I can put together a soundtrack of my life. 
I read somewhere that our sense of smell is our most evocative memory-producer. And I believed it. I mean how could I ever forget the particular smell of my high-school boyfriend’s red RX-7 on those humid Spring nights on the way to the bowling alley. And there is this combination, of grease and clorox and linoleum and old ovens, that immediately transports me back to my fifth-grade cafeteria when one of those long, heavy institutional lunch tables tumped over on top of Stuart Edelman (you remember how certain boys were assigned each week to push the tables from both ends until the middles rose up almost to the buzzing fluorescent lights and the tables folded together to be rolled against the wall like so many umbrellas awaiting tomorrow’s noon-time storm, all to make room for square dancing or some other activity specially planned to torture gawky, self-conscious pre-pubescent kids) and Mrs. Maddox, the social studies teacher who plucked all her eyebrows then painted them back in perfectly horrifying baby-poop brown arches, reached her hand down the front of Stuart’s pants to check his budding family jewels for lunch-table trauma in front of the entire fifth grade.       

Sure I believed the scent-is-superior theory. At least until today. When there it is in odorless black and white: Twelve-year-old me, coveting my older sister’s carefree hipness, sitting outside the ever-slammed door to her haven, a black-light-and-beaded center of teen-age curves and grace and secrets, in contrast to my palace of pink. Hearing wisps of 45's mingled with spicy whispers and loaded laughs. “Bye Bye Miss American Pie.” “Jeremiah was a Bullfrog.” Or a friend’s older sister, long, straight hair parted Ali McGraw Love Story- style, strumming “Blowing in the Wind. Anthems of a generation that rallied together while I was off reading Alice in Wonderland with my favorite stuffed frog. Like a seventies-era March Hare, I would be too late for that party. Or how about pulling up in front of my college dorm on a sunny afternoon. Spring semester, Sophomore year.  Dorm windows open, car windows open, Reo Speedwagon. Hi-Infidelity. “Take it on the Run.” blaring from the cassette player.

Here I am in my pajamas, taking a stroll down memory lane with a music catalogue:

·       Best of Bread, side two: freshman year of high school, the Friday night parties at Bobby Hardy’s (yes, the bus-seat-fuzz Bobby from third grade. But no longer a romantic interest; my fickleness is long-practiced.) Inside, couples mugging in chairs, in corners to Baby I’m a Want You, and outside on the street, “Cat Scratch Fever” and the clink of empty beer cans rolling against the curb.

·       Uptown Girl”: my crazy college roommate, now suburban housewife, mother of two and kitchen product demonstrator.

·       Take it to the Limit”: my junior high gymnastics team on the way to the regional meet, the Eagles eight-track blaring hypnotically from the coach’s van like a mantra.

·       Rick Astley: 1988. I’ve finally finished seven years of higher education. A real apartment. A real job. A fun, rowdy group of single-but-dating girlfriends all piled in one friend’s Jetta (before the radio was stolen for the third and final time) on the way to somewhere or anywhere singing “Together forever, together with you” in wine-induced harmony. The Knack. “My Sharona”: junior year of high school. Freedom to drive. Cruising. Sitting on top of the open car door window, butt hanging outside. Looking and laughing across the roof of Lisa’s hand-me-down LeMans at Tammy, hanging out the other side. Beating out the chorus on the roo’f top. Lisa’s accompaniment of punches at the car horn. “Da da da da Dum dum Dum dum Dum dum... My, my, my Sharona.”

·       Laura Branigan (RIP, Laura): two-thirds of the way through the eight-hour drive from home to college, three-fourths of the way to graduation.

·       The Bangles. “Walk like an Egyptian”: Aerobics class in the old, cavernous ivy league gymnasium my last year of law school with a classmate, daughter of an immigrant plumbing-store owner on Long Island, first in her family to graduate college and venting the family pressure through bulimia. (Facebook tells me she’s retired from a lucrative Wall Street practice, happily living in Westchester County with a husband and children.)

·       Then there is the quadruple-threat memory of that last, forced family car trip, before my Mom and Dad finally accepted the fact that teenagers would rather die than partake of parental bonding. Driving for hours and hours and hours across the vast wasteland we call the Midwest, twisting the radio dial from one backwater scritchy station to the next. And every single one of them had just four songs on the play list: the ever-popular “Afternoon Delight”, “I’ve Got a Brand New Pair of Roller Skates”, “Muskrat Love” and the record holder for the song with the fewest lyrics, “Dog, Dog, Dog Eat Dog.” Indelibly burned in my mind is the absolute hysteria of my sister and me when we walk into the hotel lobby bar to find our tragically-uncool father requesting “Afternoon Delight” from the smarmy piano player.

And of course, no soundtrack could be complete without the “our songs.

·       ” Soul Asylum, “I can feel you tremble when we touch”: first year of law school, renting a car to drive to the city for the funeral of a classmate’s father with the most romantic, attentive, ode-to-me writing, soon-to-be politician I never loved.

·       Phil Collins, “Groovy Kind of Love”: the one I thought I would marry (but am now relieved I didn’t). I remember him laughing when I described Phil Collins as some old washed up singer trying to make a come-back (no offense, Phil. I’ve never been particularly good at keeping artists straight). And then hearing the original version of the song on a red, beat up juke box in a small-town diner on the way to some weekend getaway. Then Phil’s version, our version, coming on the radio just as he came to pick me up for our first reunion date after we had broken up for the second time.

·       The rebound guy (the one I maybe should have married), who tenderly he tried to make me love him while I insisted on living out a good-time-girl phase. He was Guns & Rose; I was Jimmy Buffet, but Barry Manilow’s sappy “Somewhere down the Road” makes me think of him still.

·       Back farther, to the High School Prom and my piercingly-blue-eyed date. The traditional post-prom day at the beach. Tar-infested sand with bikini-clad girls brandishing tight tummies and new tans and almost-men flaunting day-old stubble. That would be Rush and Kansas and Styx. And Christopher Cross “Ride like the Wind,” “Say You’ll be Mine.” I didn’t, and last I heard that date was pushing penny loafers at the mall.

·       Colour My World” will be forever tied to balloons and streamers hanging from the school gym. A young couple clenched in an earnest embrace. My head on his shoulder as we struggled to avoid each other’s feet and other body parts, swaying, barely moving in an awkward square to the Last Song of the freshman Homecoming Dance.

·       I can go back even farther, to fifth grade choir. Cherubs in a half moon, me at one end on the first row, Mike at the other end of the back row.  Singing “Today” like our lives (or at least recess) depended on it, our eyes meeting from across the music room. I will ever think of my very first, sweet kiss, a flustered peck beside a sand trap on the golf course between school and home, when I hear about those blossoms and sweet wine. 

·       I’ll never hear Seal without traveling back to one living room and that first forty-eight-hour-togetherness marathon. Playing cards with his house guests, who had brought the CD of “a new group” for him to hear. How we laughed when he put on his much-played copy and how we joked together for months after, pretending each time to hear Seal for the first time.

·       I’m sure, too, that I will travel across the world to an island in the south of Thailand and a table on a beach, hurriedly carried under a surf-side outcropping of a shadowy cliff, a minor concession to the warm, torrential rain that arrived in synchronicity with a bottle of champagne. Grilled lobster, crashing waves and masterful lightning creating silhouettes of the cliffs along the bay in flawless tempo with the strains of a Thai lounge singer crooning Air Supply’s “Lost in Love.” Too perfect to be true. And it was.

So many tunes, so many times. My life’s soundtrack is long and varied; I’m not quite sure what I would name that playlist. It just goes to show how richly interwoven – possibly even more than scent – is music with memory and music. And speaking of weaving, here’s Carol King’s “Tapestry.” Perhaps I’ll download the original version and the tribute version. Perhaps I’ll even get dressed.

Friday, April 15, 2011

All my memories of All My Children

I read today on another blog to which I am a contributor (Girlfriends Book Club -- check it out at - that All My Children is ending. Maria Geraci (author of The Boyfriend of the Month Club) posted a poignant eulogy, which caused a whole lot of memories to burble out of me.

When my sister and I were little, my mom watched her "shows" while she did her house work. We would pepper her with questions - who's that mommy? why's she crying, mommy? who's the bad guy on this show mommy?

One day she sat us down in front of that big ol' TV console and said "Here's a brand new show that can be YOUR show and you will know who all the bad guys are."

Once we started school, we watched faithfully during summer vacations. And then came the VCR. We would each record it and watch it after school or work -- or have a weekend binge on a whole week's worth of episodes. We would call each other and dish or sob as was warranted. It was "our" show.

Neither of us have watched for years, but I have felt the warm reminder of our show and our story when I recognize an AMC alum on another TV show.

So yes, I share in Maria's sadness. I can feel colorful threads -- like the boondoggle bracelets we made in summer camp -- unraveling deep inside me.

And yes, too, I'm with so with Maria on the Greg/Jenny story being best!