Monday, March 18, 2013

kick start german

I came to Berlin because I wanted to hear some German. In Montreal I get the odd German movie, the occasional chance meeting. I´d hoped to ease into it gently. We landed at Tegel airport and discovered that our bags hadn´t made the trip from Heathrow with us. Jetlagged, not yet sure how to phrase the problem, I accosted a man leaning on a broom who directed me links dann rechts dann links dann wieder rechts to the Lost & Found. The L & F is the best kept secret at Tegel airport. I had to ask several more times. I decided that asking in German would make the person feel more kindly disposed toward me. Who knows? Someone finally gave the names of some shops that made more sense than all the rights and lefts. I don´t follow directions too well. There was already a long line up. The glass door was to be kept closed. The sign said so. No one was to enter unless someone came out. Presumably there was always someone in there to come out. The line moved only slowly. A woman about 7 months pregnant lay on the bench. There were smudged nose and fingerprints on the glass. R had said he would rely on me to talk German. He was. I just hadn´t expected to have to start so quickly.
Anyhow, anyhow. We´ve seen lots of interesting things in Berlin so far. The best yet was the Kathe Kollwitz museum. Google her.
Our bags were returned this morning.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

go ask alice

Go ask Alice.
Depending on how old you are, you'll know that the next line is, I think she'll know.
I love the song for the many references to Alice in Wonderland, my patron saint in all matters practical and metaphorical. Remember, I grew up steeped in Grimms' fairy tales. I sometimes wonder which side of the looking glass I'm on. Of course, I knew this was a drug song, but I didn't do drugs. I knew that the Dormouse didn't say, "Feed your head." The Dormouse said, "Did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness?" Or, "You might just as well say... that 'I breathe when I sleep' is the same thing as 'I sleep when I breathe'!" When you ponder logic like this, you don't need to do drugs. But I'm not writing about hallucinatory aids, Jefferson Airplane, or Alice in Wonderland (though work often felt like that). I'm saying goodbye to my job.

For many years I've been the Go Ask Alice person on a surgical floor in a hospital. Should I say which? Does it matter? L’Hôpital Général Juif aka The Jewish in Montreal. Before that, I did the same kind of work when I was a student in Toronto. It's a clerical/coordinator position. I'm the sitting duck at the helm of the nursing station. You're a new patient. You come to me. You're a family member or friend. You come to me. You're a nurse who wants to know what tests the patient needs before surgery. You're a doctor who wants to know if the tests have been done. You're a nurse who wants the doctor to be paged. You're a doctor who wants to tell the nurse what to do. Go Ask Alice. I filter, redirect, coordinate, file. Over the years, the job title has changed several times. It still boils down to Go Ask Alice. Sometimes I know the answer. If I don't, there's a good chance I know who does and how to reach that person. (So you should be polite to be. Amazing how many people don't understand that little trick.) Mind you, it's true, it's a hospital--and sometimes there are no answers to the questions people ask. Or too many questions get asked all at once. Some people think their question is the most important.  The atmosphere can be strained and hectic. You've seen TV shows set in hospitals? I don't mean afternoon soaps, but episodes of ER or Grey's Anatomy. Where I work is often just like that--except that in real life doctors don't wheel patients to their x-rays or spend anywhere near as much time at the bedside. In real life support staff do the labour and doctors waft through like divas with only moments to spare. (This is not a gripe about doctors, but about the portrayal of patient care on TV shows. Even doctors agree that once they've done their surgical intervention, they depend on nurses and orderlies to monitor patients. That's, say, two hours of scalpel and stitch time versus two weeks of checking epidural pumps, inserting IVs, sliding bedpans, drawing blood, walking patients...)

My rationale, when I took the Go Ask Alice job, was that I wanted to keep my time and energy free for writing. Most of the people I knew, who wanted to write, were working as teachers, translators, librarians, editors--work more in line with their interests and status as writers. A Go Ask Alice job was in no way intellectually challenging. I could do more. Once upon a time, I'd studied Goethe, Chaucer, Donne, Zola. But I still can't understand how people perform at real jobs and write. I'm too slow. I need a pool of quiet around me. I like lots of time.

I decided that playing Alice would allow me time to write. The work paid just well enough that I could do it part-time. Admittedly, there was a certain sameness of routine that sometimes had me biting my cheeks. I was asked the same questions day after day, week after week, year upon year. But mostly the pace was so busy that I hardly noticed the work. The environment is interesting in a way that typing in a cubicle or serving drinks in a bar isn't. I love the language--deconstructing all those Latinate words. Cholecystitis. Oopherectomy. Pneumothorax. Subglottal. Blebectomy. (Any guesses what that operation is?)

And so it's gone on for more years than I care to remember. Wonder of wonders, I seem to have stayed there long enough that I get a subsistence level pension--subsistence because I only ever worked part-time and I'm leaving well before the usual age for retirement.

Will I miss the work? No.

Will I miss the environment? A little. Being the Go Ask Alice person obliged me to act more "normally" than I might have otherwise. I had responsibilities. I had to behave. (So to speak.) There was always something happening.

Note that I could have done without the varieties and textures of body fluids in the specimen basket, which was at eye level for me, sitting at the desk.

Will I miss the people I worked with? Definitely. I'm a solitary, bookish kind of person who likes to sit alone in a room, with a closed door, make things up and tell stories. Working at the hospital taught me about belonging to a team, which I certainly never learned growing up or during my years at school, when I was always the last to be picked for any kind of team, except for spelling. The nurses and support staff in the department where I worked are good people in a way that solipsistic, writerly types like myself often aren't. (Or should I say that we empathize better in our imagination and on the page than in real life?) I'm not saying that working in a hospital morphed me into a kindly soul who helps elderly women lug their groceries across a busy city street, but I learned some important life lessons working on 4NW, for which I am grateful.  

The best part about my job was hearing the stories of the people I worked with--all stripes, ethnicities, hair styles, accents. Is there any culture or country that isn't represented in an urban hospital? I heard about Vietnam, Eritrea, Lebanon, Brazil, Haiti, Egypt, the Barbados, China, Brazil, Romania, the Congo, Mexico, France, Argentina, Jamaica... (I'm not listing Quebec, because I live in Quebec, voyons donc!) I was shown saris. Given Pakistani burfi (made in Pakistan) to taste. Filipino pan de cocoHamantaschen at Purim. We discussed Bajan versus Trini slang. Female circumcision. I will very much miss rubbing elbows with such a rich cross-section of the population. What a meld of habits and personalities.

Last Saturday my friends at work had an amazing surprise supper for me, which I nearly ruined because I  refused when the waiter tried to move myself and R from the table where we were already nicely ensconced, drinking our wine. R, too, was acting like a crazy man, waffling about what he would like to eat, because he was trying to play his part in the surprise. I only finally followed the waiter because he grabbed my glass of wine and headed up the stairs.

I didn't think I would ever say I enjoyed being the focus of a surprise party--but in this case I did! I'd worked so closely with these people--closer in the hands-on, tight-spaces hospital setting than I've ever been with my own family. Everyone was smiling so broadly, knowing me well enough to wonder if I was going to turn and bolt. (Was that why Keith grabbed me in a firm hug?) And what a lovely Alice gift! A pen made in Florence. Perfect reddish blond--the colour I like to believe my hair was years ago before half of it turned white. How does the ink flow so smoothly? I hope the words keep coming. And yes, I write first draft longhand.

Thank you--for so much!

p.s. I meant to add that I always wanted to wear Grace Slick's fringed Woodstock tunic to work, but the time never seemed right.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

coconut milk ice cubes, tampons, and where is that hole?

A few of us were sitting in the corner nook of a pub on Sherbrooke, celebrating a birthday. Birthday Lady was smiling and talking about ageing. Rings on her fingers, delicate silver bracelets on her arms, birthday cards and glasses of beer on the table.
Coconut milk ice cubes, she said. Organic, she specified.
For some women, menopause means hot flashes as violent as a desert storm, night sweats that have them yanking the bed sheets off at 3 am, memory loss, mood swings, decreased sex drive, sleeplessness, impatience, nervousness.
For all, it means hormones petering out, taking lubrication with them. If you want to continue to have sex (which not all women do--see decreased sex drive), you have to supply the lube. There are products at the pharmacy; products at sex shops. Naturopaths offer herbs and tinctures with plant estrogen. I've heard that motherwort works wonders. I can't use it myself because it interferes with other meds I have to take. Soy milk might help. Almond oil is an option, assuming you're not allergic to nuts. (You don't want to end up with a swollen flower.) Vitamin E comes in capsules you can insert, though it makes you smell like breakfast cereal.
I'd never heard of coconut milk.
She said, I freeze it in ice cube trays. She held out a finger. Pop one in.
Well, that gave me an image!
I didn't know about mini ice cube trays, which you can buy at the dollar store.

A few days later I was telling a friend, also in her 50s, about coconut milk ice cubes.
She, in good storyteller fashion, countered with a tampon story.
I like bumbling tampon adventures because they make me feel like I wasn't the only naive teenager in the Western hemisphere. There were girls at my school who talked like know-it-alls about curling irons, electric toothbrush handles, carrots and zucchini--and even if now, in retrospect, I can imagine they made everything up, they had to know to say it, right?
I didn't. I hadn't yet figured out the how, what and where of my own body. I'd been shown a diagram of a uterus, which was no more helpful than a table  full of ingredients to someone who doesn't know how to bake a cake. All I knew was that there was a thing called a tampon which allowed other girls to come to gym class without a diaper-sized Kotex (the only size available in the early 70s) stuffed in their underpants. And am I misremembering this, or did we really have to wear one-piece bloomers with elasticized legs?
Okay, I just googled gym uniforms and found one. Can you believe this? We had to wear these, buttoned up, shoulders covered, any glimpse of underwear hidden.

Even worse, ours were yellow--so the black girdle my mother gave me to keep my Kotex in place was visible from across the basketball court.
The gym teacher sneered. The other girls sneered. The only solution I could think of was to get hold of these magical devices called tampons.
I begged my mother to buy some, though I didn't have a clue how to use them. My mother demonstrated shoving them up. Shoving them where? I spent a miserable, painful, frustrating hour in the bathroom with the door locked and my mother hectoring from the hallway. I kept the bathroom door locked and didn't successfully figure out how to wear a tampon until after the first time I had sex. That's right. A boy had to show me.
Back to my friend's tampon story... She'd gone to a pool party but wouldn't go in the pool because she was having her period. You know how things get handed around at parties? Her friend gave her a tampon. She had no idea what a tampon was, nor what to do with it. She took it to the bathroom in a state of great puzzlement, finally pulled it apart and stared at the mess of cottony white fluff. Decided to line her bikini bottoms with it. Thank the fates she has no recollection of what happened afterwards. Amnesia can be a mercy.
She did later buy a box of tampons and read the instructions. Insert? How? And where? Unbelievable.
This brings me to a story I've heard several times from men. They recall how, during adolescence, they had a vague longing or instinct (I'm talking about hetero boys here) to push their willies somewhere in a girl's body. But where? Think about it. Why would a boy, who had never seen an anatomical diagram, assume that girls weren't joined at the top of their legs the way they were? There was talk of a hole but where was that hole supposed to be? The belly button? At least one man told me he believed belly buttons made perfect sense because babies grew under belly buttons. Was the hole where girls peed big enough? Another possible hole was the rectum but that didn't sound an attractive prospect. He and his friends puzzled endlessly about this mysterious hole. They were too young to have had their own experiences, and older brothers, who might have told them, were jokers who only added to their mystification.
The same man tells me that when he first understood about girls having periods, he couldn't understand why girls stuffed napkins between their legs. Couldn't they control themselves and hold it in until they went to the toilet?

A few days ago, when I told the Birthday Lady how her organic coconut milk ice cubes segued into a conversation about how a boy wondered why girls didn't keep their periods in until they went to the toilet, she said, Maybe that explains the age-old bafflement between men and women. At a deep-down subconscious level men expect women to control that particular mess for which, however, there is no voluntary muscle.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

finishing a manuscript and other news

Updates to this blog have been sketchy in the past months because I have been trying to finish a novel. Words delight me endlessly--writing, reading, email, snail mail, blogging--but there's only so much time I can spend with them before they start to play tricks on me... changing meaning mid-sentence, playing hide 'n seek with homonyms, jumping the queue, getting maudlin and gregarious when I want them to be clean and concise.

The novel is now finished--as finished as I can finish it--and I can spend more time here. Or somewhere.

Maybe too much time--be forewarned--since I've also decided to leave the hospital clerical job I've been doing since... far too long. I stared hard at the numbers, my necessary expenses and frivolities, decided that I can walk instead of take the subway, cannot cut back on books and visits to Nota Bene, the wonderful Italian papeterie where I buy notebooks, will stop getting my hair cut, will keep using my ancient laptop--and can still afford food, electricity and taxes. Well, I might not be able to afford the latter, but I'll have to pay them.

I have my new rebuilt heart and am even (sort of) growing accustomed to its clackety rhythm. My chest sounds like a longcase clock on a mild dose of amphetamines.

I want to go cycling when the weather gets warmer, learn Spanish, weave on an eight-harness loom, visit  friends, translate more Grimms', get back into slow cooking, write another book.

I feel like I'm beginning a new life, which is unexpected and fun, given that I'm surely more than halfway through my life.