Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Friday, May 25, 2007

Losing Some Of My Parts

I gave my uterine fibroids the boot, as so many women have before me, with a hysterectomy. So now I get to tell the tale, actually two tales, a hero's journey of the body.

With elective surgery, the question becomes at what point do you say you've had enough? With fibroids it's usually the heavy bleeding, the can't-leave-the-house periods. I had the bleeding, but I could still manage since it was only one bad day a month. I had been lucky. I hadn't bled into my socks or had some other unfortunate incident while away from home.

For many women the deciding point comes when they can't have sex because the fibroids have taken up so much space, no one can get in there. Not exactly an issue for me, but my breaking point did have to do with how I used my body. I couldn't do a leaping, spinning back kick without those tennis ball size orbs slamming against my bladder and causing it to leak. This made me mad because it was a problem I couldn't overcome with better technique. But more worrisome was my energy level.

I had been working on my black belt since January and the extra training had pushed me into a state of fitness that now demanded a constant intake of calories. I spent all day eating and on my way home from class I'd be thinking of what I could eat next.

"Your tits are melting away", Catherine said. I now had the body I wish I had as a teenager. I hadn't wanted to grow breasts. By the time I went to college I had a pair that women seemed to envy. There was some compensation in that. When I took up kung fu ten years later, they were brought down a notch. Now they were further diminished. Did Catherine mind? She didn't say. Did I mind? No, not really. My shoulders and upper arms looked so buff in capped sleeve t-shirts and my stomach was a backboard. I was wiry and strong, an Amazon warrior.

I did not pass the black belt test by February. I had forgotten some of the older techniques. During a kata (a long choreographed set of techniques) we were performing, I was suddenly intimidated by the superior performance of one of the black belts and I went into a sort of mental freeze, unable to think what was next. I could see on the faces of my classmates that I had failed. We were marked down for being hesitant.

So, it was not my physical strength that was holding me back. My mind was cluttered, I realized, cluttered with "positive thinking"—visions of grandeur, the stories I would tell. I needed to rehearse the katas and techniques in my mind so they wouldn't fly out of my head under stress. Then in class, I needed to clear everything from my mind and concentrate on what the teacher was saying, even though I'd heard it before. This was an in-the-moment thing. I didn't have to wait to be attacked to wake up to the moment. Duh! How Buddhist. Buddhism was after all the underlying principle of the Asian martial arts. Yes, now you understand, Grasshopper.

Buddhism was my cultural background, but I had not taken up kung fu because I was on a spiritual path. I had taken it up because of the Take Back The Night march in the '70s that brought attention to the ongoing assault on women. Then, of course, there was the fag-bashing going on every weekend in the city. An article in a gay publication showed a picture of the 7-eleven store, at the edge of the Castro street neighborhood, where perpetrators would tank up on beer to get ready for their raids. The community armed itself with whistles. I wore mine on the end of a dog's choke chain, snapped to my leather motorcycle jacket. My feet were shod in steel toe black work boots. Nor was I the only dyke taking martial arts. In the Pride parade, I saw them perform, all lesbian teams of them...

After I failed my black belt test I threw myself into rehearsals for the school demo and there I could appreciate the talent of the six to twelve year olds from the children's classes, as night after night, the boys threw back flips on cue and the girls performed weapon katas, yelling ferociously. The school was my only exposure to children, something I would come to value over time.

While I waited to be tested again, I contemplated how to maintain my strength.
"I can't seem to eat enough," I told my doctor.

"That could be related to the anemia," she said. I'd been taking iron supplements for two years now, but this year I wasn't keeping up. I took a lot of naps, too. She asked why I hadn't had the surgery by now. Because the recovery would be six weeks and that would set me back so far it would be forever before I made my black belt. And I'd already been in class for practically forever; it would be twenty years in September. Soon I would be geriatric. She recommended another doctor for a second opinion—Kate O'Hanlon.

"Wow, she's famous," I said. My doctor had no idea, not being in the lesbian community. Kate had advocated for domestic partner visitor rights at Stanford hospital, among other things, and was the hotshot surgeon everyone went to for breast cancer surgery. I had met her several times at parties.

She remembered me. She told me she could do my surgery laparoscopically and that it would only be a two-week recovery. Only two weeks? A miracle. She made the other doc, I was going to go with, sound like a butcher. I was so happy, I scheduled the surgery for two weeks out.

I wrote my instructors, Mr. and Mrs. Kane, a note about how I couldn't take the extra classes for belt advancement because I would be recovering from surgery. They acknowledged this, but said no more about it. I figured I would be coming back to build myself back up after the surgery. Still Mr. Kane kept an eye on me, especially while performing one of the advanced katas. He had me perform it solo in front of class and all the intimidating black belts. The kata was called, appropriately, Magic Phoenix. I gave it my fiercest best, stumbling slightly at one point, since we had had a long hard workout that night. Near the end, I paused, my mind going blank. One of my mates called out to me the name of the move and I finished it, breathing hard. My coach let it go, said I did well. I had already done it the night before, perfectly, for the lower belt class.

The final class of the week was again unrelenting. I was beginning to wonder if this was a new standard. Non-stop rounds of kicking the bag, footwork drills, shadow boxing and jumping rope, finishing off with 50 push-ups. When we were done Mrs. Kane took me into the office. I thought she was going to talk about my being away. After more words than we'd ever exchanged in the eight years they had owned the school, she told me I was being awarded the black belt. My mouth dropped open. They had been testing me without telling me.

"We could have beat you up a bit more, but we are confident that you can defend yourself on the street," she said, then went on to speak of my black belt attitude, coming back after failing the test the first time, showing I was committed to whatever it took. "You have heart," she said. She asked how long I'd been coming to class and noted that I wasn't getting any younger, after all. "You are a role model here," she said, "there are forty-year-olds, thirty-year-olds who look up to you, all the way down to the youngest who's thirteen". Really, I thought, the kids don't think I'm a dork? I could never tell. But there outside the office, the entire class was all lined up waiting for me to come out. They applauded me and I walked up to each one to exchange the karate handshake and from most a hug. It was something.

So when the admitting nurse checked my blood pressure and said I was in great shape, I proudly told her I just got my black belt that week. Turns out her son was in my class and had told her about my being awarded the belt. That was such a serendipitous coincidence, I actually got excited about this procedure.

"Don't you want the happy juice," Catherine asked, "it will relax you".

"I feel fine," I said, "how about you?" She gave me a scared-out-of-her-wits cartoon face. I laughed. "It's just like flying," I said. She was thinking of all the worse case scenarios, but I firmly refused to go there any more than I would open an airlock on the Battlestar Gallactica. Some things were not worth risking the psychic energy. It could suck you inside out.

"You're the one who wants the drugs," the nurse joked to Catherine, then asked if she was going to be picking me up to take me home the next day.

"I thought we'd walk home," I said half joking. The hospital was just a few blocks from our house.

"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that", she said. And she warned me sternly not to over do it afterwards; after all, I was removing a major organ.

Yes, that organ, the one that embodied all that was female. I had, at one time, spent several years thinking about having a child, reading Mothering Magazine and searching for a father/donor. I talked to my ghost child quite a lot during that time, monologing all that I wanted to tell it about life. In the end it was more about me not wanting to be a tribe of one. Eventually I let it go with no regrets. Too old, now, anyway. I said goodbye to the uterus I never used.

Kate said she'd throw in an appendectomy for free, which she routinely did because she didn't want it causing any trouble down the line. She wanted to take the ovaries too, to reduce the potential for ovarian cancer, but she let me keep them. Somehow I still felt I had a use for them even apart from the whole hormonal shut down.

"How do you feel?" Kate asked me when I arrived in the operating room via gurney. (I had enjoyed the ride, gliding down the hall, amusement park, fun house style.) She looked smaller from table height. Wiry and thin, she too, had been a martial artist.

"Great," I said, "I've already done the hard part." The bowel prep.; the vile bio-Drano you have to drink. Then filling yourself up like a sink and waiting for it all to drain through in about the same time as it works in a real sink. Yes, ecstatic to be past that part. Put me under.

Dreamt about being in some sunny warm place, going to meet someone. Opened my eyes to see a good looking male nurse with a thick black mustache, stroking my hand and smiling at me. I smiled back. A male nurse was so unusual; I liked him immediately.

"You're not breathing," he told me, "take a deep breath when you hear the beep."
"You mean I have to breath consciously?" I asked.
"Yeah." He didn't seem too worried about it, so neither was I. Then he walked away. The machine beeped again. "Amanda," he called out, from the nurses' station, "keep breathing".

I couldn't seem to connect the beeping with my well-being. We spent the afternoon there, with my guy calling my name over and over, singing it to me and everybody in the recovery room with me.

Kate came by, told me it was a big uterus as if we'd just gone out fishing. She was going to send it in to be weighed. (Later she reported that it was nine times its usual size.)

I was surprised to see the clock said 5 p.m. My surgery had been at 12:45 p.m. and I was still sleepy. Wasn't it quitting time? I was almost the last one there.

"Can I breath and sleep at the same time?" I asked my nurse guy.
"Uh, yeah, you can do that." I was just beginning to realize the absurdity of this conversation when, finally, the beeping stopped and I was being wheeled out of there.

Catherine arrived at my room just as I was pulling up. My mother showed up shortly after. The nurse was taking my info. I wanted to try out all my brain cells on them, use new words like "ambulate", make them listen to stories that had nothing to do with anything. It was going to be a new lease on life, after this pit stop. As soon as my gut stopped feeling like a herd of large animals had tramped through.

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Naked Ears and Other Portals

Some decades ago I was in Manhattan doing the usual tourist things like waiting in line for a couple of hours to access a famous landmark. It happened to be the Empire State building. As I walked out of the elevator and approached the wall marking the perimeter of the observation deck, I heard music coming over the wall. It was the harmony of a church choir and the sound seemed to rise so that the choir appeared to be invisible, but present all around me. The sensation was so palpable that I beckoned to my companions and asked them to listen with me.

"Do you hear that music?", I asked them and just as the words left my mouth, the sound fell apart like shards of broken glass falling from a darkened window to reveal the traffic noise and horns honking on the street below. It wasn't music at all; it was just me and the ears I came in with. So I just stood in awe of this experience of hearing New York City singing to me out of the raw sounds of taxi cabs and horns honking. I felt like an impressionistic artist. Artists are, after all, tuned to their own peculiarities of perception.

Recently after a year of reading an impressive list of books on all the many ways the planet and humankind was essentially doomed unless we did X, and that X never seemed very convincing, I came to the conclusion that I had reached a dead end; one that seemed to have the fingerprints of patriarchy all over it. Surely this can't be it? I kept asking myself. Surely this is not the end of my journey to save the planet and humankind? How did I manage to acquire the plotline of a comic book superhero anyway?

As I was coming to this conclusion a voice I could not see nor lay a physical claim to, much like the choir singing to me from the gutteral sounds of New York City, delivered a message to me from that same city, via e-mail. It made me stop short at its audaciousness. "Because", she said, "you realize that Henry IS the end of civilzation, even if not consciously." Henry was a code name for cluelessness, for straight men, for a one dimensional consciousness, for the partriarchy. It would take me longer to explain my connection to this young woman, than the notion that angels were serenading me from the heavens. The story is itself a journey of intertwining perceptions, overheard/seen conversations, and a shared obsession; a journey peculiar to this new and perhaps not so new ( if you are under 30) mode of human interaction taking place via the internet.

Last week at a national conference in Minneapolis that I attended, with 860 other organizers, I had an appointment to meet Claire, a colleague who was going to facilitate a panel on which I was to speak. As I joined her on the couch, in the lobby of the hotel, she introduced me to a woman who told me she had seen my shoe covers on the net.

"My shoe covers?" I said incredulous, though I knew exactly what she meant. I had proudly posted pictures of a pair of shoe covers, for cycling in the rain, that I had made from a vinyl briefcase—a conference giveaway discarded by a client. She had been Googling for a pattern to make a bag and when my posting had come up, had taken the time to look at my creation. She recognized my name. This was even more surprising because the shoe covers were on my photo blog, under my pseudonymn Earthworm. She had taken the trouble to discover my actual identity and remember it, which was why we were having this serendipitous moment in Minneapolis. Suddenly I felt that much closer to all my net contacts.

As with the singing from an unseen place, it was my ears that got me so deeply involved in the net in the first place.

I am hard of hearing. Have been at least since fifth grade when I arrived in this technologically rich country and was routinely tested at school. No cause was found for my hearing loss, other than the hereditary example of my great Auntie Jessie who wore one of those clunky hearing aids, the size of a pack of cigarettes, strapped to her brassiere. And though my hearing loss didn't hinder me much, it did leave some lasting marks on the way I related to people.

I annoyed my friends a lot by repeating back to them what I thought they had said, usually with an absurd twist to any possible meaning. I met someone else who did this, too, only he made everything into sexual inuendos. As a result he got laid more than I did, but I was funnier.

I live in a world of fluid meaning. I often experienced two sets of responses, one for what I thought I heard and one for what was actually said. I liked the possibilities. I grew fond of ambiguity. I was also able to ignore a lot, but I could also be a "good" listener.

"You have such an open face," said a business colleague to me once, catching herself in a candid moment. "I felt compelled to tell you my whole life, just now." I was probably just staring earnestly at her as though to hang on every word, lip reading as it were. It took all my concentration.

Through my twenties, so much of my focus was taken up with discerning what was being said (plus looking for the cultural clues I needed to place myself in proper context), that I didn't bother to say much in return. Not that I didn't have plenty to say, I just kept it to myself and spent much of my life writing copiously in my journal in search of the underlying subtext and truth of the interactions I had experienced through the day.

When e-mail came along, this writing practice burst through on the keyboard and I found myself revealing things to people that I had never offered anyone before. My e-mails became essays, which led to my putting up a blog site because I was writing about my electric car and I just had to post pictures of this eye-popping visual. This I did through the photo-hosting site, flickr, because I wasn't geek enough to blog photos without the help of their interface.

Flickr, like the famous MySpace phenomena, had users who interacted with each other (a dynamic now given the term "Web 2.0", but I like my term — interbloggactic — better). Because of the photographs flickerati took of their own corner of the world, the site had a much more slice-of-life perspective that was largely free of pop culture, but full of talented photographers, subversive cartoonists, artists using salvaged materials, eclectic tool collectors, activist-bicyclists, foodies and animal lovers.

That strangers would actually look at pictures I took as I went about my life was a mystery of curiosity. When they left comments admiring a photo I'd taken, I was so startled I had to adjust to this new public interaction. It was just a little eery. Having not grown up with the Internet, I felt as though I had entered into a land of made up, invisible friends who only existed in my picture brain.

Soon I had collected contacts with similar values and interests, from all over the world. Two years rolled by and I had posted over 600 pictures all with carefully chosen titles and captions which were becoming longer and longer as the site became my behind-the-scenes studio, to test ideas out on my flickr friends who, if they were inspired, would leave appreciative comments, tips and practical solutions for projects I was undergoing.

This photo interface on flickr tapped into a creative space that was different from words. When I accidentally summoned Claire's blog while typing in another address, I found a clue to this otherness in her discussion of the book "The Alphabet and the Goddess". Written words, the book explained, developed the linear, conceptual, aggressive, patriarchal side of the brain while pictures and picture making were the realm of the goddess—the creative, intuitive, holistic side of the brain. No wonder I felt so nurtured on flickr.

I did enter other online interactions, prompted by having become smitten with a TV character, okay, a deaf, lesbian, sculptor who inspired in me a new deaf pride that I couldn't quite lay a claim to, but she was so cool (and hot), I couldn't help myself. Before her appearance, I would not have offered information about my hearing "disability" and unless you were close enough to see my hearing aids, which I don't wear all the time, anyway, you would never have known this about me, and I would never have discovered what an interesting portal my ears were. Or gotten the message from my New York based blogger (whose primary blog existence was to discuss this TV show), prompting me to realize that I had chased my superhero plotline to a patriarchal dead end, which left me repeatedly asking the question, was civilization an act of hubris?

Was literature, art and music merely an act of ego that had allowed us to justify exploiting and abusing our land base for our greater glory?

So there I was in the middle of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, thinking maybe the key to our salvation was not in techno-solutions to counter our impact on the planet, but really was (as had been suggested before) in changing the stories we told ourselves. And what better way to blow our narrative minds than with the visual arts? For it was with this boundary pushing, myth-making, questioning of authority, evocative, provocative portal of artmaking, that we had a chance to explode the old paradigm.

Three days earlier, my moved-to-Minnesota, art professor friend, Christine, had taken me to see a community art project called "Rain Garden", that she and her students had created. I was dumbstruck. Holly mother of the Goddess! I was looking at a textbook, dug-into-the-ground, water-harvesting system that permaculture gardeners were now trying to revive as an eco solution to drought. And it was sculptural and visually interesting, due to the salvaged antique curbstones that had been used to shore up the swales. Here under the name of Art with a capital A, supported and funded by grants and the blessing of the University of Minnesota was a land based, irrigation system transformed into living sculpture.

"Does this project have a website?" I asked Christine because I just had to bring this concept, of art reframing eco-solutions, to the attention of well, everyone. It did not. For Christine, the finished art was the record of her artistic journey and vision. Her paintings and projects were her means of communicating her experience. That's the thing with a work of "fine" art; it is a site specific, physical manifestation usually experienced in the hallowed halls of museums. And as I spent the week visiting museum after museum in this wonderfully accessible city, I kept thinking "I need to explore more about how we/I can more readily access and use art as a means to rejuvinate my/our heroic journey".

On the last day of conference, I gave my presentation on the Simple and Sustainable panel. And because I had lost interest in talking about the importance of being more Green (there didn't seem to be any point due to my conundrum with the existence of civilization), I had planned my talk around the making of cardboard and paper drawer organizers to offer an alternative to buying more plastic. At the podium I folded, for the forty organizers present, an origami box from a picture page of a discarded wall calendar, all the while talking about the perils of plastic littering the ocean. When I had folded down the last flap of the box, I held it up triumphantly.

"There," I said admiring it, "Organizer as Artisan". My delighted audience broke into a nice round of applause.

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