Thursday, April 29, 2021

Enough for Now

I’m being watched, tracked, followed. Prostate, thyroid, dry eyes. My heart and sludgy arteries, my deaf ear, (the hearing gone suddenly one winter morning when I was 49) and now the skin, the very architecture of my body –- the café-au-lait birthmark that maps the terrain of my left arm and chest, which has birthed two melanomas, the second one larger than the first. It’s always on my left side that things go wrong – left eye (dry), left hip (shattered in a car accident when I was 5), left forearm (sliced deep in another childhood accident) and now a suspicious mole – one of many, but this one hidden, stealthy, the melanoma embedded in one of a hundred moles on that arm, layered on the birthmark that encircles my biceps and triceps. After two rounds of melanoma 15 years apart, twice blessed as they were caught early by the same specialist, I lay face up in a long tube, the rectangular lens pressed in so close that I’m convinced it will bore into my face, shoulder, upper arm. The machine zaps and sputters, snapping pics, tracing potential pathways into my lymph nodes. I hope to come up clear, to dodge another bullet despite my redhead’s complexion, my “Jewish-Irish” skin. Freckles I’d ignored until my early 40s morph, blend and darken. I do not trust the surface of my own body. My skin is too light, permeable, transparent, without the protective shell of coloration. The left side is my history, a map of accidents, disease, a human jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces missing. I wear that history on my body. Meanwhile, my right side marches forward stoically as the left veers off course. I lurch this way and that and try to maintain my balance, to ignore the wear and tear of sixty years, to deny what my body is trying to tell me. I am an antique, a 1957 Studebaker, long out of warranty, no longer in production. I need service, repair, a patch job. But the manufacturer makes no promises; many of my contemporaries are no longer on the road, replaced by newer, sleeker models with smooth skin, flawless bodies, shiny coats. In my 20s, 35 seemed middle-aged, 45 almost elderly. Today, I’ve stretched the upper limit to 65, but now I’m pushing up against that glass ceiling, one I don’t want to shatter. Still, it beats the alternative. Living through a pandemic, there are constant reminders that life is tenuous, uncertain, not to be taken for granted. Those reminders gibe with this moment, when I find myself rolling toward the OR in Mass General Hospital’s Lunder Cancer Building for something called a “wide excision” of the melanoma, that tiny mole on my left arm –- which will leave me with a six-inch long scar, a snaky line –- and removal of several lymph nodes, to see if the cancer has spread inside my body. I come through the surgery, emerging from the general anesthesia three hours after I went under, encased in gauze, numb. The next week is hazy, a blur, as I move gingerly from one room to the next in my apartment, relying on my good right arm to wash up, get dressed, feed the cat. Before surgery, the oncologist tells me I have 90/10 odds –- just a 10% chance that the cancer has reached my lymph nodes. Still, I wonder how I would handle living with active cancer, of moving from Stage 1 to Stage 3, the countdown clock ticking ever louder in my bad ears. A week later, I call his office to discuss my symptoms. The doctor is out of town, so I ask his nurse-practitioner when I might get my biopsy results. “I’m looking at your report now,” she says. “It’s all good—your lymph nodes are clear.” Four weeks post-surgery, my arm aches, lymph fluid has pooled inside my armpit, I have minor complications. A two-time skin cancer survivor, I must be vigilant –- another condition to watch. Still, I’m alive and relatively healthy. That’s enough for now.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The View from Here: My Life in Late Middle Age

The View from Here--Judah Leblang/2021 I’m coming up on another birthday, (my 64th) an occasion I’m celebrating with mixed emotions. On the one hand it beats the alternative; especially in the age of COVID; on the other I am shocked that this –- my arrival in the land of late middle age –- is happening to me. A few years ago, when I turned 60, I threw myself a party to chase away the blues and received a bunch of birthday cards –- some funny, some almost cruel. One friend reminded me that I was entering my 7th decade and was now “older than most houses, trees, and even some towns.” This gave me pause, as I considered where middle age ends and old age begins. According to Merriam-Webster, the middle years last from 45-64, though now that I can see ‘65’ barreling toward me like a bullet train racing through the French countryside, I want to expand the definition to 70 or even 75. But who am I kidding? I am not in the middle of anything, unless I live to be 120. And though my family name, Leblang, literally means ‘long life’ in German, men in my family tend to die young, a karmic joke or a reflection of God’s twisted humor. At least I have plenty of company. The US Census Bureau reports that the late 1950s formed the peak of the Baby Boom, that huge post-WW II generation that stretches from 1946-64. Growing up in the 1960s and early ‘70s, my classmates and I watched the older Boomers have all the fun we couldn’t. They streaked naked across campus, lit up their joints, protested against the Vietnam War, and grooved to the beat at Woodstock, while my prepubescent friends and I could only listen to the album, tittering at the dirty words and wondering what we missed. By the time I graduated from high school in the mid-1970s, Vietnam was over, a failed experiment. We tipped into the ‘me decade’ and my peers were right with them, focusing on getting high and then moving into high-powered careers, or at least a comfortable lifestyle. The biggest protest I saw was during my college days at Northwestern University, when the administration announced plans to raise our tuition to the staggering sum of $5,000 a year, or about $23,000 in today’s dollars. Years, and then decades went by while I wasn’t paying attention. I remember the “greed is good” 1980’s, when one of my students at Boston University’s School of Management cited Gordon Gecko, the Donald Trump-ish character from the movie “Wall Street” as her role model. While I cycled through a series of relatively low-paying jobs: special education teacher, career counselor, sign language interpreter, and semi-employed writer, my cohort were fast-tracking, moving up their corporate ladders, buying houses, having kids. Meanwhile, I wasn’t getting rich, but I did some meaningful work. And I knew that as the Stones sang back in the ‘60s, time was on my side. Fast-forward 30 years and it is those kids, the Millenials, born roughly between 1981 and 2000, who have become the new Yuppies with their Snapchat and Instagram accounts, their penchant for text messaging, and their inability to talk on the phone. So, where does that leave me, leave us? In 2016, the Pew Research Center cited Census Bureau projections, which predicted that Millenials born between 1981 and 1996 (Pew’s definition of the Millennial generation) would outnumber Boomers sometime in 2019, as more young immigrants come into the country and the oldest Boomers, now past 70, continue to die off. The survivors, I suspect, are determined to stay active, vital, to not get old in a society that both fears and denies the final act. My generation behaved, believed, and hoped that we could avoid the fate of our Depression-era parents, that we would be immortal. But Father Time gives each of us our allotted share, and more of those ‘60s trendsetters zaare checking out, no longer the focus of my teenage envy as they deal with the messiness of physical and mental decline, a reflection of what’s to come. I am a 60-something man watching the years pick up velocity like Newton’s apple, accelerating with the force of gravity and the weight of time. I feel that weight pressing on my chest and etching new lines into my face. By now, my cohort and I know that the river flows in only one direction. Today, if I squint my eyes, I can see the end -- though I don’t really want to look.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Like Snow White, Judahism is awakening from a long sleep

After three-plus years of non-activity, I'm reawakening this blog about my life in middle age. Why should you care? Well, I have a new book out -- the 2nd edition of "Finding My Place: One Man's Journey from Cleveland to Boston and Beyond," which contains all the material from my show, "One Man's Journey through the Middle Ages." So, is this blog just a craven attempt at getting noticed, getting read, of getting my stories out into the world? In a word, 'yes,' but I hope, beyond the stories, that you'll resonate with some of my reflections on mid-life, and my journey through this crazy world where "Man plans, and God laughs.""

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bringing Out the Book

Creating my new book--beyond the writing--has turned out to be a Herculean effort, far beyond anything I had imagined. Yesterday, the proof finally came from the printer, and it does look good--but there was, and is, a little let down, especially because there's so much work left to do: I have to promote it.

Meanwhile, I had overseen the process (sort of like a tennis match) of copy-editing and layout, once it became apparent to me that the original publisher wasn't up to the task. So, after paying her off, I took the book back. Since then, the process has flowed more smoothly, but still, it has taken longer than I imagined.

At least it looks good, and I was confident I'd caught any misspellings--ones often created by the original editor who dropped letters and words at an alarming rate. But this morning, while I was showing off the book, a friend noticed a misspelling on my Acknowledgments page. So now, I have to upload a new file and wait another week, all because of one missing letter.

Still, despite the fact that I'm going to miss most of the Xmas rush, I know it's more important to do it right than to do it fast, and that I'll soon have a book that reflects my work.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

B-Side: Lost

B-Side: Lost

My piece, "Echoes of Jerry" about losing some of my hearing and my connection to my deaf uncle, has just been broadcast on the latest edition of B-Side Radio. Check it out!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Fine Line

Here is my latest Bay Windows column, about one of my recent experiences in P'town--a reminder of how I don't fit the 'gay ideal.' As if I needed a reminder......

A Fine Line

Judah Leblang/2009

I’d been in Provincetown for two days, and it was clearly time for a makeover. It was late July, the height of the summer tourist season. Nothing had changed from my previous visits, except that many of the men seemed younger, a reminder that I had grown older. Meanwhile, the parade of handsome men rolled on through town, with their honey-brown tans and “surfboard haircuts” (as I think of them), the crest of the wave rising neatly over their bronzed foreheads.

I had come to P’town, ostensibly, to take a creative writing course at the Fine Arts Work Center. Since the course met for only 3 hours Monday-Friday, I also came to vacation, relax, chill out. But instead of unwinding, I began to feel stressed. I lacked the key characteristics of the well-dressed (or undressed) Provincetown man: perfect haircut, melon-shaped biceps, and tanned skin.

I conducted a mental inventory, whispering my version of the serenity prayer: “Lord, help me to accept my imperfections, and not to compare myself to the gymbots at the Boatslip or Herring Cove.” My reddish complexion and cancer-prone skin meant tanning was out. My lean genes keep me relatively fit, but building muscle is a painfully-slow process, and my life doesn’t revolve around the gym. So I settled on the one thing I could easily change –- my hairstyle.

One afternoon after class, I wandered through town toward a trendy salon I’ll call “Cut and Paste.” My stylist, Gregory, fit the P’town aesthetic to a T, with broad shoulders, bronzed skin, and short, neatly trimmed hair, which framed his face to best effect. After a few minutes, Greg commented on my receding hairline and the affliction of male pattern baldness, which was obviously stalking me.

A solution was at hand, he explained. Years earlier, my stylist had a receding hairline, too. But thanks to a talented physician and the miracle of plastic surgery, Greg had a new improved hairline, which allowed him to look a decade younger than his real (forty-something) age. I had to admit that Greg, along with his hair, looked great; my hair had never looked quite that good. Still, he said it took work –- vigilance, medication, the right hair products.

A half hour later I was back on Commercial, with the same basic haircut I typically get in Somerville, at twice the price. Tucked against my chest, below my trim but thinning mane, was an impressive pamphlet –- a booklet actually -- which outlined the wonders of microsurgery for hair loss.

Back in my steamy East End room, I examined the booklet. On the front cover was a large grayscale image of a bald man, bare head in hands, looking like Rodin’s “Thinker” with a migraine headache. Inside were a series of before and after pictures –- the former images of disheveled unsmiling men with patchy, flyaway hair –- while the after pics showed these same men smiling, their confidence restored. The surgeon, a Dr. Epstein, with offices conveniently located in both New York and Miami, had performed thousands of these procedures, assisted by a team of crack technicians, a line of women in front of microscopes, all outfitted in neat white jackets or surgical scrubs.

I turned the glossy pages of the booklet and considered this new “problem.” I’d always been the one in my family with the “good hair,” thick and plentiful, unlike the thin straw-like locks of my two brothers. Now I was using Propecia, an oral medication, to hold onto what remained.

I have problems in my life –- an awareness of the passage of time, which seems to go faster as the years pile up, hearing loss, and dry eyes -- but I’m not ready or willing to add hair loss to the list. Over the next few days, the brochure, shiny and silvery/white, lay on a chair, soon to be buried under beach towels and souvenir T-shirts.

The days of surfboard haircuts are behind me. Eventually, I sighed, tossed the booklet in the trash and headed outside, the setting sun reflecting off my high forehead.

Friday, June 19, 2009


For the past few months, I've been dating a wonderful man. Initially, I was (as usual) ambivalent about him--not sure if I was really attracted. I've dated a lot of nice guys, but I thought that if the chemistry wasn't there, I couldn't force it, and those men usually went into my friendship category.

This time, I broke my usual pattern, or went beyond its limitations. As I got to know A, my feelings for him grew, and I found him more and more attractive. But just as my feelings were developing, A realized that he was in a difficult financial position,and needed to earn more money than he could get in Mass. Over the past month he's been preparing to move away from the area to work as a traveling nurse. To do that, he has to go where the jobs are--often in out of the way places.

Now, just as I'm getting used to being in relationship, I'm preparing to lose one. The whole process has been accelerated and surprisingly difficult.