Good Narrative Principles

June 15, 2009
by Lee Eiferman

Week Three

There is this peculiar intersection of gut feelings that came on me this morning. First the dream that Nick was on his way finally to his job (first day as a line cook) and I’m doing the car do-se-do with him when this guy pulls up in a maroon American bankrupt car and starts quizzing Nick on whether or not he was at such and such a place. it seems that he is guilty of something far more sinister than brushing against another car and driving away. Now it’s like murder or something. I try and intervene but they grab Nick and drive him away.

I’m on the curb reciting the license plate number when the cops show up.

I wake up and have to remind myself that the world isn’t as mean and vengeful a place as I think it is, and then I open the  paper and read about illustrators being approached by  Google to submit their art for consideration on line free to download. Illustrators rightly took issue with their work being given away for free and that got me to thinking/worry about if this new revolution the idea of making money on your skill/art will cease being viable.

There has never been more music being made, more videos being produced and available but the model of making money at it, having a viable career is being maybe thrown on its head.

And while I’m at it I am painfully aware that I have two more weeks of not fretting about money before I have to rejoin the money race and again knock on unwelcoming doors.

So we walk in the woods and I pick up half-filled cans of Milwaukee’s  Best and Coors Light and Natural Ice.

I have great plans for writing today and it all falls flat like a gooey pancake that never sets up right.

And that’s what it’s like to be alive today racing to capture this thought before heading off to radiation.

Monday. Last day of week 3.EEK

May 28, 2009
by Lee Eiferman

A Prayer

An image like a magic incantation.

The gates our open. Light streams in as people flow in and out — carrying their wares, exchanging a joke, a recipe, a juicy bit of gossip.

The phone rings. It’s for Tim or Nick or Jonah. They are flying in and out of the house, their schedules a blur to me.

I am trying to squeeze in a quick goodbye. My bags are packed. I am on my way to LA or to the city. With a slender notebook or legal pad. A good solid pen and the script. We pour over the pages. I talk through the various choices I made and why I made them. We order in lunch. And around two we take a walk and stretch our legs.

Maybe the rolling Pacific is in view. Maybe we see kids going back to school in the West Village. The line of young children holding onto a rope threaded with large tear drop handles so that each little child can be kept in line as they toddle down the street.

Things are moving faster now. At home we arrange a dinner for all of us to exchange stories. John shows up or Alita or Nathan for Jonah.

We pour some wine. I indulge and have a little.

The gates are open. People want to come to this city we have here at 61 Briary. We are part of the larger world community. Swept in. The doorbell rings. The in-box is full of knocks at the door.

A script I’ve written gets shot, gets released, gets reviewed and goes into the world.

The sun streams in as the gates open on another day rich with chapters and good health.

May 20, 2009
by Lee Eiferman

Radioactive at 55

To call it surreal is to somehow place this experience in the realm of other things I have come across in my life and have it be true. But sorry that is not the case.

It is at once very ordinary, in other words, there is the size of the room, large for one machine and a sliding table and the other worldly, the lights flashing, the noise indicating radiation is present.

There is also the knowledge that I will be there for six weeks. So really I don’t have to record everything today. There is next week or the week after. They’ll be sunburn and fatigue. And a small chance of all the other scary stuff that they tell you about slowly with candor and equal emphasis.

There is also the staff. People to whom I bear my breast too. I enter the room and I slip my arm out of a three arm-hole robe and tried to be discrete at least for the first few days. But what a joke. The whole thing falls away and so both breasts are on display. At first it was an all women crew. But now they’ve started introducing the male assistant. He marks me with a scuff pen, that by the way happens to be carcinogenic. They call off numbers. My job is to stay still. Passive.

And the flashing and the zapping begins.

Today it stopped and I thought fuck it I’ll get up I don’t need for them to release me. Turns out I do. The machine stopped mid-zap and had to be reset.

They reassure me that this so rarely happens that they didn’t even bother mentioning it at first. But of course I worry about that.

Today, being my birthday I feel glum about the whole thing. About being there. Tears slide down my face as I sit under the machine.

Even Terry Gross had on a boring guest talking about the ever lowering profile of the war in Iraq now that Obama is in office and has declared we are pulling out. And they are right. I wish there was another guest on. Someone who will fill me with inspiration and talk to me about the continuity of thought and the eureka nature of an insight and how like John Doe the punk turned country/western singer the certainty of Zen optimism.

Today while Ooming in yoga I realized I was born 55 years ago NOW. And that at my birth I was probably very scared. The thought returned to me again during shivasana and then I factored in my Mother holding me as a new baby. She always told me what  a pretty baby I was. Blue eyes. A girl.

Who is now 55 and being radiated.

May 15, 2009
by Lee Eiferman

In Position

I’m in position. I can’t move. They let me know this many times. It’s an alternating chorus between “don’t move” and “you’re doing great”. As if me staying still, perfectly still with these daunting machines staring down at me is reason for praise.

The machine rotates. And holds. Hovering over me so that I can see the reflection of my left breast in the dark glass surface of the machine’s face. They tell me what they are doing. Treatment hasn’t started yet. This is just the dry run. Smile for the picture.

Someone has thoughtfully replaced the tiles right my head with a little scene of a blue sky and bare tree limbs. It reminds me of one of my first memories — lying on my back and staring at limbs against a blue sky. I remember feeling bored.

In this moment while writing this I am also acutely aware of exhausting all associations and leaving nothing further to think about or respond to during the long six week trudge through therapy.

Week after week I’ll lie under this machine to be burned a bit more. It feels crazy to me. You’re whole life you’re taught that radiation is bad. There is that memory of watching a movie on Saturday night — a Fright Night feature about this island of beautiful women walking around with bandaged faces. The whole time you’re wondering what is under those bandages? A man lands on the island. A scientist maybe or a drifter. The details are sketchy. He falls in love with one of the bandaged women and pleads with her to leave. She yells at him that she can’t leave. He begs her. No is not an answer and so she says ” you want to know why I can’t leave? This is why!” and she rips off the  bandage around her eyes to reveal bloody putrid skin caused no doubt by radiation.

I wonder if this is what I’ll be thinking about 15 minutes a day, five days a week for six weeks?

Plunked down in the middle of the painted blue sky is a black and white line drawing of happy fish. It could have been cut very carefully from a coloring book and tapped up to the ceiling. So the illusion of the sky is rudely interrupted by the happy fish. Carp maybe. A nice fat series of line drawings.

For the benefit of a child no doubt.

Everything about this causes my heart to break.

I’ve been trying to come to peace with this, the six weeks of treatment, the having to relay my sorry medical history again and again and I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve done something wrong. I keep having to revisit the scene of the crime.

My left breast.

How did it happen they want to know? They ask the same series of questions but never in the same order so that I have to think about it. Age of first period? Age of menopause? HRT? Birth control? History of bc? Pregnancies? Breast-feeding?

And when no satisfactory answer emerges each Doctor shrugs. I’m still the patient. I still am there to charge up a bill.

To be taken care of.

The drama has changed since surgery. Then I was in the hands of the gifted surgeon who could either extract the necessary amount without doing too much harm or not. There was the lead up…the finding the right surgeon…the tests…the big day…the happy news.

It should be done.

It should be over.

But crawling back to yet a new set of doctors and hearing that no this is not over seems unfair. I want to scream I am not a criminal.

Let me go already.

I try to come to peace with it through a variety of strategies. I try the “think about those less fortunate than me” approach. A woman for instance died the other day having spent 66 years in an iron lung. She hosted dinner parties. Emailed friends. Had a documentary made about her. Evidently she was able to face her afflictions with grace and rise above them.

I think about the child who is hopefully distracted by the picture of the colored in carps. I think about the mother of the child, feeling so responsible and just plain bad as she’s advised to leave the room while the radiation is being administered.

None of this really helps me. Perspective is not what I need right now. Or maybe it is what I need right now but I am so far gone, so deep into my own getting through process that I am merely struck by this news as opposed to healed by it.

I wish someone could just slap me across the face, like the man does to an hysterical woman in a movie and yell “get over it” and I do.

And then I’m OK. The truth is present in its proper proportion and I can move on and not be haunted by a daily reminder — some day I will die.

May 3, 2009
by Lee Eiferman


Ordinarily complicated moments don’t gel at the jewelry counter at the Met gift shop. Ordinarily I float past the lush multi-colored, multi-historical temptations and wrestle down a fleeting temptation to buy, to touch, to own this or that. Sand-blasted green glass seems to be my sweet spot.

Last night everything looked beautiful to me. Even the gaudy, overworked fin de sciéle  pendants and it struck me that the prayer wheel/mezuza that I’ve worn exclusively for months now, since my sister gave it to me is starting to feel a bit like a hair shirt.

The thing I wear regardless of the day, the weather or the choice of blue over black. On goes the prayer wheel/mezuza, even though I’ve officially renounced magical thinking on Tuesday January 13th at around three in the afternoon.

I’m tired, bored restless with being a patient. With sitting on an exam table and relaying my medical history and having my breasts massaged with clinical curiosity. I lay back and the prayer wheel/mezuza slides left or right around my neck.

I’ve entered the baroque phase with it. Last weekend, an old friend showed for Tim’s open studio and was wearing a pendant to which I have the only other complimentary one. Two tarnished angels. In the heat of late afternoon, after the last visitor left I combed through the jewelry box until I found the angels and strung them onto the silver chain. Now both the angels and the prayer wheel/mezuzza swing on my neck pulling it down ever so slightly more claiming that body real estate that could be other happily occupied by pearls for instance. Or green glass beads. Anything that might be a bit more in the daily world — a world that is resolutely healthy, casual and caught up in the grievances and concerns that don’t demand heroic gestures simply to enjoy the next day and the one after that.

Let me stop whining and clearly state that I am not a slender twenty-year old robbed of her youth and promise. I’ve squandered my time in the sun. I’ve tried to embrace the challenges and demands of the art impulse, pursuit, occupation and market which is looking for a smart, appealing package that’s presented in a new and novel way capturing the  correspondence between culture circa ten seconds ago and the vast history and language of what went before.

I fell short. Maybe it is a young person’s game. That’s what struck in going to the Pictures show last night at the Met. How different it is from the lone artist working it out on his/her own. This scene was social, educated and well-fed. The only suffering was realizing that all your friends had slipped away to get high and you weren’t invited.

Which is not to undercut the effort that went into cultivating, embellishing and promoting your individual style. That work was deadly serious. Time here is the great equalizer. Some works fall short, a knee-jerk response to the times that has little depth, akin to a feature film that should have been a comedy skit. And offering yourself to the golden alter of talent/no talent. I could no more have decided whose talent would yield work that looked substantial in those galleries vs. those that where nothing more than graphic tricks, ghosts, puns.

It is constantly surprising to me that this is how life is lived. In time. Falling away. Until the body falls sick, fails your or fate intervenes and you’re gone.

And until then, it’s fine balancing act between this and that. And occasionally a touch of awareness. Maybe even a bit of joy.

April 21, 2009
by Lee Eiferman

Just Desserts

I had this image of going snorkeling as a reward for getting through this cancer ordeal. In Hawaii or someplace spectacular. Where beautiful fish, iridescent, incandescent, blue, yellow orange stripes always in motion are at first thrilling, then calming, then as ordinary as breathing.

Snorkel until your jaw hurts and then you pop up and marvel how far from shore or the boat you are.

Just the feel of water rushing past. A vague awareness that  you’re moving quickly, that the ocean is breathing and everything is in motion.

When I first gave myself this gift of a thought, the next thing I pictured was water heaving into my air tube. Popping up and seeing dark clouds massing where before there was sun and blue sky.

Maybe even lightening. Yeah, that would be good. A real catastrophe. So this sunny vacation image refuses to play out as a counterweight to the horrible winter.

It still feels so personal. So unique to me.

I’ve finished The Wire. All five seasons. As I rounded the corner on Season 5 I panicked a bit because tucking in with The Wire was my strategy to get through recovery. I had no problem picturing myself a mass of stitched together body parts, fuzzy on pain-killers but able to work the remote. I’d sit back and let the story unfold. It washes over me, a bit like snorkeling with no fish, no water, just endless story. Unreliable in that events in the show never go the way I think they should — like in the end when McNulty is cornered I was sure he would kill himself. In other words, I was confident that this world as defined by the creators of The Wire is in fact a tragic place. A bit like mine.

I was burning through the seasons at a fast clip. Mailing each disk back was stealing a bit from my post-op strategy during the lengthy three month wait.

I also took up knitting. A friend of mine taught me, or rather re-taught me how to knit and purl. It was a quick lesson and she laid out an easy pattern. Four of each for a block and then alternate. I was sure I was following her. That is until she left. I realized I couldn’t tell a knit from a purl and so I flubbed my way for a few rows and then ripped. And then flubbed and knit until I finally could recognize one from the other. Slipping the delicate loops back onto the needles and watching The Wire was how I got through the waiting.

I read in the Times a piece about a wife accompanying her husband through his third round of chemo for lymphoma and they too plugged into The Wire.

Somehow another couple were doing exactly what we did probably around the same time. Simultaneously I feel that we are all part of the human race and that’s comforting. But I’m also just another brick in the wall and that’s not such a great feeling.

I got cancer. So do other people. We aren’t all that unique. It’s personal to us but at the same time maybe there is only a finite number of ways the machine will break down.

Friends have been endlessly comforting and generous and attentive since my diagnoses. I think part of it is that pre-logic, gut awareness that we are all here now together. It goes something like this: people have lived before us and died. And people will be born and live their lives after we are gone. But right now? This is our time. We are all pulling together.

And carrying each other along.

Bobbing. Breathing.  Momentarily, our attention is diverted by a pretty person.

I pop up. Suddenly I’m are aware of where I am and then I take a big gulp of air and dive back in.

April 6, 2009
by Lee Eiferman

Like Joan of Arc

It was maybe 49 hours post surgery and I was watching The Passion of Joan of Arc by Carl Dreyer, admittedly an unlikely choice for post-op recovery. Call it the irony of grooming the Netflix queue and selecting this film for no other reason than I had never seen it before and it was an IMPORTANT film, a hole in my understanding of film history that needed to be filled.

I probably chose it months ago. Maybe even before December 9th, the night of my diagnosis. Getting the call from the surgeon and him saying in his kindly voice “you’re going to want to write this down”

The acting was broad and theatrical. It rolled as a series of close-ups and pans of men’s faces. Disapproving, but still very human. They looked a bit like Franz Hal men without the beer and ruddy cheeks. The stern church men, judging poor, dirty-fingered Joan of Arc, who had this way of looking up at them as if she was appealing directly to God. They asked simple questions. Her lips moved but we didn’t get the benefit of subtitle and so I’ll never know how she responded, particularly since I’m neither adept at reading lips or fluent in French.

It was dull to be honest. And moved at a plodding pace, shaped at a time when the fresh language of film editing and framing was being created, a bit like the Greeks inventing PI and irrational numbers. But I was riveted. There was something about the endless flow of faces that yes, looked like oil paintings. Each person moved in a way that made it clear they had breakfast that morning. It held me.

Poor Joan’s predicament was lost to me in the endless maze of details about God and church dogma. She came across as simultaneously a simpleton, a crazy homeless street girl, an artist on her way to martyrdom. She looked up with those big eyes, big tears flowed down her perfect cheeks and yet she was unable to defend herself and stop the tragedy.

She walks to her chair. The red hot coals are sizzling. A pan of faces, her audience, watch, rapt. Like a train wreck, I can’t hit the pause button or fast-forward.

I know she’s going to burn. After all, that’s why you sign up for a dramatic experience called Joan of Arc, you are waiting for that moment, the moment where she burns.

But it was the walk to the chair that haunts me.

I waited for surgery for three months. During that time I got my ducks in a row. I found out all I could, took tests, found a new surgeon and scheduled the date. As it drew closer I closed up shop. I finished the first act of a new screenplay, wrote notes to a friend on her screenplay. I didn’t write my will but the spirit to write it was certainly there.

I made sure to tell Tim I loved him.

The day before was bumpy — horrible. Got a speeding ticket. When I told the Cop, a fresh-faced local kid that I was on my way to the hospital for surgery, he wished me luck as he handed me the ticket. I had this thought that these are the lengths that I must go to get blessed. I was injected with radioactive dye, surprise. Was told that I had UTI and needed to get an antibiotic that was the atom bomb of antibiotics to clear things up quickly. I needed it TODAY. And then I had to fight my surgeon’s office because they had scheduled me for a procedure the next morning at 7:30 that I knew I didn’t need.

Wednesday night the real earnest minute-by-minute waiting begins. I wait through the night. We wait for 10:00 am when the parking rules change. We wait in a special curtained off alcove, me in dual patient robes and Tim at my side, for Doctors to come, take my history, and then leave.

Lines are drawn on my skin by the Plastic Surgeon as if I’m a paper doll and she is preparing instructions for the next person on the assembly line, fold here and here.

And then it’s time. It comes so under the radar. The anesthesiologist, a sweet chubby guy shows up and grabs my IV pole. I hand my glasses to Tim. We walk down one corridor make a right then a left.

I am walking like Joan of Arc towards the big moment. Images float around me in a myopic haze of blobs, color and panic.

They open the door. I slide onto the table. It’s startlingly warm.

I’m covered with what feels like bubble wrap.

I breathe in the anesthesia.

I feel like I will pass out.

And then I do.

March 27, 2009
by Lee Eiferman

The Limits of Mauve

I have been waiting for 3 hours to get a mammogram. Three long hours. Around me are women in blue gowns each of whom have adopted a variation on a finite theme of fastening the robe.

Some tie the two dangling chords around their slender waists. Some tie it in the front but that doesn’t quite do the trick. The breast has a tendency to flop out. One woman, a spirited conversationalists (unfortunately or fortunately for me she was jabbering away in Spanish and my feeble take on the language zeroed in on arbitrary words that still remained locked in my head. So that my running translation would sputter and falter at critical junctures) her breast, long and large was fully exposed for all to see.

As if she was saying a big fuck you to the inherent drama of waiting.

Friends suggest that I should take something, anything to relieve the anxiety. But the suggestion doesn’t stick. This is an anxious situation, so why should I blunt the feeling? My fuckin’ life is at stake after all.

I should feel anxious.

I get into the mammogram theater. Pose. Am shifted around like an uptight mannequin. Hold your arm up. Relax your shoulder. Tilt up your chin. Higher. My head starts to bobble in fear. Relax your shoulder. Relax it. Down girl. Don’t breathe. How are you doing?

And then I’m deposited back out in the hallway to wait.

I monitor the time passing on my phone. The battery life has tipped to the red zone. I can’t compulsively check email. And strangest of all I left the house without something to read. I had this idea that an 8:30 appointment implied in and out. There is a hearty pace implied in an 8:30 appointment. Spring out of bed, whip out your breast. Squeeze it and have it blessed.

But it didn’t work like that. And so I am thrown back to my inner resources for entertainment and sheer coping. I watch my companions to the right and left of me in Waiting Room #1 — the ones who were with me say 2 hours ago come and go.  One woman remains. She’s finished her fat Nora Roberts novel and winds her long legs tight. We exchange information about alternate side of the street parking. The time to move her car comes and goes and still she waits. Her phone rings. I hear her telling a friend, I assume, that they saw some lumps and want more images. She looks alternately angry and upset.

This is not a happy place to be.

Some patients are called and set free. See ya in a year they sing. And I feel like there are only so many get out of mammo hell cards to play in any given round. And my chances diminish.

I am greedy for health. To go back and think about gardening, my failing writing career.

And still I wait.

I try meditating. My new tool. My new toy. It works for a few moments. But the noise of nurses walking back and forth, laughing behind closed doors then leaving again, the names being summoned to either the mammo theater of the waiting room alcove where I sit is too damn distracting.

I open my eyes and my heart hammers loudly. As loudly as before I started meditating. Without missing a beat the anxiety rushes from heart, to stomach, to knees. And so I stare at the empty mauve Ultrasound room. Unoccupied save for a bouquet of plastic flowers perched on top of a cabinet to the left of the burnt out fluorescent fixture the kind with cross hatched grill protecting it.

The mauve paint of the room matches perfectly the mauve I’ve seen in many surgeons exam room. Something about mauve and what? A comfort of bringing your closer to death. A calm that is meant to lull you along.

Saying softly “no one gets out alive”.

And then they tell me (after another image or two) that in fact I’m OK.

I am thirsty. I am moist in all the wrong places.

But I can go home and cook dinner tonight and prepare for next Thursday.

March 6, 2009
by Lee Eiferman

The Crisis Club

I didn’t know it it was gonna happen but I here I am in this odd club. The Crisis Club. It was like a side of life that was always humming right below the surface, or maybe below the surface, way below  — like digging to China below and how you always imagined it.

You’d dig and dig and if did it long enough up you’d pop on the other side of the world.

But I digress.

The Crisis Club.

All manner of heartache, fear, destabilizing gut-wrenching fear. Cancer. Bankruptcy. Divorce. Death of a Mom. The air is thick with it. Scratching our collective heads and wondering what just happened to me? Is it still going on today? Yes, it is. Am I still in this bleak reality. Yup. And you resume. Plodding one foot in front of the other.

That club.

It is different than how I lived my life before. But not in the ways I’d imagine it.

I still waste time. I still check my email compulsively and not grab those 40 minutes at the end of a heavy writing week and use it to dive back into “Rotten Apples”.

So I waste time.

But maybe I’m happier. Maybe. Maybe the new mantra is “I don’t care.”

What would that be like? Living life being OK with what’s around you. The circumstances you find yourself in. What you’ve accomplished (ah now, that’s the tricky one).

For the last two days I’ve been to the salon. First a color and then the next day a cut. I have to admit I am irritated there. I look and part of me is outraged that a woman would see this life and say “that’s for me”. But then I think about who these woman are and what they are focusing on. And that’s not so bad. I back off. I back away from the attitude.

I don’t talk much. But I’m OK with that.

The hair colorist has just come back from a bout with cancer, and she looks great. Slender. Face softer. We shared war stories. But I couldn’t get at the heart of what I wanted to say in exchange for her reality — go for a double mastectomy. Get it over with. I became a little less myself. Like I was backing away from the person I feel like when I meditate. O.K. with everything ultimately. Not that I set out to fix anything that comes up. An upsetting thought. It just happens.

Like a wave.

Another idea for a ritual — go to the ocean and float in the waves.

Bare breasted. Ha. Like when I was six years old and it was hot and my Mom encouraged me to go bare-chested. And none of the other girls would put their arm around me when we posed for a picture.

Bad advice.

Now, about the hum in my ear…

February 5, 2009
by Lee Eiferman

Collecting Quotes

Gotta wonder if collecting aphorisms is a variation on the petitioning the Lord with prayer theme?

Today a neighbor handed me this little chestnut — “every day is a gift because it’s the present”. There’s also a beautiful thought that Tim cut out and read to me “To love someone is to learn the song that is in their heart and to sing it to them when they have forgotten.”

There are quotes that I pin up around my office area. Here’s one “The world is a narrow bridge, a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be afraid.”

And there are two quotes that I have to get up and read. They hover over my printer as if blessing it. Both capture the same idea of not hiding your light under a bush. (another saying) but in more beautiful and eloquent terms, and each time I read it I am inspired to continue writing in obscurity and not expect anything from what I do on a daily basis but merely to be content that I am here, and I am writing.

“That is enough” both quotes seem to say.

Finally, there is the quote by Charles Kinglsey. I mention his name just to give him his just desserts. It only seems fair after having whined about writing in relative obscurity. His quote is about freedom — “There are two freedoms, — the false where a man is free to do what he likes; the true, where he is free to do what he out.” This was supposed to be the spine, the theme of the screenplay I am currently rewriting for the upteenth time.

So the question is does it really work, this pinning of quotes around your space? It’s nice to keep these thoughts top of mind as you move through your life, but it is a bit pathetic. It strikes me that I don’t know enough about how to exist in the world, you have to take someone else’s wisdom that they’ve struggled to realize, and then graft that onto your life.

It reminds me a bit of reading a book like “A short history of time” and while thumbing through the pages (or watching the video) you get the concepts. But two hours later it’s all kind of vague.

Now if I were a physicist or at the very least mastered the fundamentals of physics in high school taught by a teacher who held you in his grip (I say “he” because it is always a guy) until the concepts settled in, then maybe the concepts conveyed in “A short history of Time” would stick with me.

Similarly if I were a master of living a satisfying life, then these quotes would resonate. But since I’m not, then the best they can do, these inspiring quotes, is light the way with a feeble candle.

And whisper, keep going.