Friday, July 31, 2009

End-of-July poetry challenge

July ends, summer
ends: August rushes in to
clutter up datebooks.

Meetings, syllabi,
learning new software--party's
over. Tomorrow.

Now it's your turn: share your thoughts about the last day of July in haiku--or whatever poetic form suits you best.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

O'Brien on imagination

Every creative writing student in creation ought to read Tim O'Brien's essay "Telling Tails" in the Atlantic's summer fiction issue. The fiction itself is great--I won't soon forget Tea Obreht's "The Laugh" with its blood and passion and tenderness, and "PS" by Jill McCorkle made me laugh out loud in a doctor's waiting room full of sick people watching Dr. Phil, which is quite an accomplishment.

But the piece that will stick with me and eventually find its way to my writing students is O'Brien's wonderful essay, which playfully evokes small boys' bedtime and breakfast rituals and superhero fixations while attending to a serious topic: "the centrality of imagination in enduring fiction."

O'Brien notes that in many writing workshops, "classroom discussion seems to revolve almost exclusively around issues of verisimilitude. Declarations such as these abound: I didn't believe in that character. I need to know more about that character's background. I can't see that character's face. I don't understand why that character would behave so insipidly (or violently, or whatever)."

"These are legitimate questions," admits O'Brien. "But for me, as a reader, the more dangerous problem with unsuccessful stories is usually much less complex: I am bored. And I would remain bored even if the story were packed with pages of detail aimed at establishing verisimilitude."

The problem, says O'Brien, is that it's simply easier for writing workshops to focus on issues of verisimilitude than to tackle the real problem: "the failure of imagination." Having diagnosed the problem, O'Brien offers some concrete solutions illustrated with charming original tales about tails--but for that, you'll have to read the essay.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Suddenly, tattoos

You'd think that a person who'd waited 47 years to get her first tattoo would select something attractive or meaningful, something worth showing off--a hovering hummingbird on the biceps, say, or "I Heart My Volvo" on the ankle. But no: my tattoos are just dots, six of 'em, and they're in a location I'm not likely to show off to anyone who's not (a) my husband or (b) a certified medical professional.

But these tattoos are not designed to be ornamental. They exist only to guide the medical professionals charged with exposing my errant cells to large doses of radiation.

That's something else I've managed to avoid all my life: voluntarily exposing my innards to radiation. Remember all those times back in elementary school when we had to duck-and-cover under those wooden desks to practice avoiding nuclear fallout? Now I'm expected to welcome radiation, to open my arms wide to its wonders. Feel the burn, baby.

And never mind how carefully I've avoided opening my bloodstream to alien substances. After 47 years of clean living, I'm getting a port installed to make it easier for my blood vessels to receive regular doses of potent poisons. I don't drink or smoke or do drugs--but I do ingest poison on a regular basis.

Poisonous drugs, radiation, tattoos--three things I never thought I'd need but that have suddenly learned to welcome into my life. It's all part of the New Normal.

Hey, maybe that's what I should get on my next tattoo...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fun with fennel

We've been trying to figure what to do with the fennel growing like a weed in the new raised-bed herb garden we planted this spring just uphill from the house. The soil up there is poor, with lots of hard rock close to the surface, so we added manure and peat moss and hoped the herbs would find a way to thrive. Some are doing quite well: I can walk out the front door and pick an armload of basil leaves any day of the week, and there's no lack for sage or parsley. But the dill is sparse and the thyme thin, and there's no sign of any cilantro at all. Two years in a row we have utterly failed to raise cilantro. What are we doing wrong?

The fennel, on the other hand, is growing beautifully, its big feathery leaves scenting the air so that I can't resist stuffing a few in my mouth every time I walk by. It looks like dill but tastes like licorice with a bit of a bite. I've never cooked much with fennel before so I'm mulling over where to use the sweet and savory flavor: with grilled white fish and veggies, maybe, or in a sweet custard. Yesterday my husband topped honeydew melon with blueberries and chopped fennel leaves for a remarkably refreshing dessert. But beyond that, I'm stumped: what kind of fun can we have with fennel?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Gluey smoothies

I'm sitting on the sofa trying to choke down a quart of barium sulfate misleadingly labeled a "smoothie" while my resident cheerleader holds my hand and helps me along the way.

"Take another sip, now," he says. "You can do it."

But I can't. I'm feeling pretty queasy, perhaps from last Friday's chemotherapy or perhaps from the absence of breakfast or quite possibly from the presence in my hand of a plastic bottle containing a vile fluid that looks like Elmer's Glue and tastes about like what I imagine Elmer's Glue would taste like, not that I've ever tried it. I have to drink it in preparation for a CT scan later in the day, but every sip makes my stomach rebel.

"Halfway done now," he says. "Try another sip."

I try another sip, emit another grimace, another groan.

"Look at the goldfinches attacking those sunflowers," he says. I look. They are lovely, all yellow and black and full of life. But then again, they don't have to eat vile fluids that look like glue.

"Just a little more," he says. "Have you ever noticed how some of the hummingbirds hover above the feeder while others perch?"

I notice. I take another sip. I wonder whether this pseudo-smoothie could tempt a hummingbird to hover or perch or do anything but fly swiftly in the extreme opposite direction.

"One more sip," he says. I wish he would go away so I could dump this stuff down the sink and go back to bed, but he's not going to give up until I've taken my medicine. "Just drink it down," he says gently, patiently, firmly. "Drink it down."

I drink it down. For a while it doesn't feel as if it's going to stay down, but it does and I'm done with it. No more gluey smoothies for a while. Instead, I'll celebrate the glue that keeps my resident cheerleader by my side through thick and thin, through just one more sip. And then just one more.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

In the woods

My first walk into our upper woods since the surgery revealed some interesting growing things: wild blackberries (surrounded by poison ivy), Indian pipes, butterfly bushes hosting butterflies and caterpillars, and oak saplings growing like weeds.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A pleasant and instructive afternoon

On the first page of a collection of P.G. Wodehouse short stories, a previous reader of the book has helpfully highlighted the following phrase in pink: "looking like a character out of a Greek tragedy pursued by the Fates." The line occurs in the story "Uncle Fred Flits By," undoubtedly among the funniest stories ever written, simply bursting with outrageously wonderful lines, colorful characters, and a ridiculous plot, but the mystery highlighter (and I'm going to be hopelessly sexist and assume she's female simply because of the pink ink) has selected insipid passages on which to leave her mark:

"slipping his collar and getting loose"

"a pleasant and instructive afternoon"

"which you with your pure mind would scarcely credit"

"his mood was one of sober ecstasy"

"exchanging glances with a grey parrot which hung in a cage in the window"

"bowed down with weight of woe"

"from the recesses of his costume"

In fact, the only really memorable image our highlighter found worthy of selection was "up he came from behind the settee like a leaping salmon." In another story she finds it necessary to highlight the phrase "golfing garrulity" and a reference to Spanish influenza, but the highlighting stops entirely after about 40 pages.

Why did she stop? And why, for that matter, did she ever begin? Was she reading this for a class? Did our mystery highlighter expect to be required to regurgitate information from the story on a test? If so, why not highlight more substantive passages? Who gives tests on Wodehouse anyway? And does that teacher, whoever he or she may be, really want students to be able to remind him of the phrase "a pleasant and instructive afternoon"?

The mystery highlighter has entirely overlooked the meat of the story--the chaos occasioned when Uncle Fred (aka Lord Ickenham) walks into an empty house and, pretending to be its owner, resolves a disagreement between a young girl who wants to get married and her parents, who disapprove of the potential groom simply because he is an assistant at a jellied-eel shop:

"But surely," said Lord Ickenham, "that speaks well for him. The capacity to jelly eel seems to me to argue intelligence of a high order. It isn't everyone who can do it, by any means. I know if someone came to me and said 'Jelly this eel!' I should be nonplussed. And so, or I am very mistaken, would be Ramsay MacDonald and Winston Churchill."

I can imagine how this might turn up on a multiple-choice exam:

According to P.G. Wodehouse, which of the following persons would be nonplussed on being asked to jelly an eel?
A. Winston Churchill
B. Lord Ickenham
C. Ramsay MacDonald
D. A and C but not B
E. None of the above
G. All of the above

Anyone approaching "Uncle Fred Flits By" in anticipation of this kind of question is simply unprepared to fully appreciate the wonders of Wodehouse. It's no wonder she finally put down the pink highlighter. I just hope she didn't give up and put down the book.

Of McCourt and Memoir

Interesting series of articles over at the New York Times about Frank McCourt's influence on the writing of memoirs (read it here). Various writers and publishers comment on the flood of memoirs that followed McCourt's, some mourning that the Golden Age of memoir has passed. But Jay Parini reminds us that "memoirs have always been the central form of American literature," adding, "The reason for this, I suspect is that the United States has always been about singing one's self, as Walt Whitman might say. The individual stands in for society. His or her story is rapidly taken as democratic." He situates McCourt in a long line of memoir-writers including William Bradford, Ben Franklin, Henry David Thoreau, and Booker T. Washington.

"I love memoirs and read them voraciously," writes Parini, "and there is some truth in the idea that Frank McCourt deepened the public appetite for similar books. It is not surprising that most of them are not first-rate. Why should this be the case? Only a handful of amazing works in any genre appear within a decade, and this remains true of memoirs."

Friday, July 24, 2009

The two-percent solution

At first, I thought the worst part of chemotherapy was listening while the nurse explained every possible horrible side effect I might experience. She encouraged me to appreciate my hair while I can because it'll be falling out in bunches before too long, but she played down other side effects. Some patients, she said, suffer a violent allergic reaction to Taxol as soon as it enters the bloodstream, but "Don't worry," she said, "only about two percent of patients have that reaction, so you'll be fine."

I was not fine. Apparently, I'm one of the lucky two percent who are allergic to the fluid in which Taxol is suspended. They stopped the infusion instantly and spent some time bringing me back to normal before starting the second drug, carboplatin--a painless experience causing no reactions except relief. Now I'm at home appreciating my hair. Maybe I should take a picture and set up a little shrine with scented candles and regular offerings of conditioner and ribbons.

I've been reading about chemotherapy drugs online and I was surprised to find that they are mostly powerful plant alkaloids of the kind you'd expect to see in a Sherlock Holmes mystery: the villain returns from a stint in some bleak colonial outpost accompanied by a maimed but loyal Lascar servant and a tiny jar containing enough powerful plant alkaloid to wipe out all of London. Taxol, which I won't be taking again, is derived from the Pacific Yew tree, while another expensive chemotherapy drug is manufactured from mayapple, a wildflower growing abundantly in my woods. Why pay thousands of dollars for each infusion when I could just go out and graze on mayapples for free?

I know the answer: these drugs are so powerful and potentially toxic that the dosage must be carefully controlled--just enough to take my hair, but not enough to take my life.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The truth, but not the whole truth

Lately, people keep asking me a question that has me stumped: "What will you tell your students?"

I've always believed in telling students the truth, but it's not always necessary to tell them the whole truth. Let's face it: there are truths about my current situation that I don't even want to admit to myself much less to a room full of freshmen.

And that's mostly what I'll have in my classes this fall: freshmen who have never seen me before and will have no basis for comparison should chemotherapy make me suddenly drop a whole lot of weight. I have an easy teaching load this fall, with no upper-level literature classes and therefore not many English majors. I'll teach one section of freshman composition, one section of postcolonial literature (a course that fulfills two General Education requirements and therefore attracts mostly non-majors), and one small section of the freshman seminar limited to Honors students (the humor class, which is more play than work). With the exception of a few English majors in the postcolonial class, most of these students will start the semester knowing me only as a name on a schedule. I want them to come to know me as a teacher and scholar and possibly a mentor, but what else do they really need to know?

I definitely don't want to introduce images of suffering, illness, and death into the scene, especially on the first day of class, already fraught with anxiety and excitement and exhaustion for students adjusting to a whole new way of life. On the other hand, I'll have to cut down my office hours (to make room for radiation and chemotherapy treatments) and I'll have to adjust my syllabi so that students will do online assignments and discussions on my chemotherapy days, and I'd like to be able to give them a reason. But what truth can I tell them that will not suck all the air out of the room?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Unscarred campus

I ran into a colleague this morning on my first half-day back in the office and I asked him if he'd missed me. "Of course we missed you," he said, "but the walls are still standing."

You would think that the three-week absence of a loyal faculty member would inspire, at the very minimum, the collapse of a building, but I saw no sign of cracks. The doorknob in the English department office keeps falling off, threatening to strand faculty and staff inside there forever with nothing to sustain them but three filing cabinets full of old syllabi and budget reports, but my office isn't even in that building any more. Somehow, the campus seems to have survived my surgery without a scar.

Wish I could say the same for myself!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Somebody to lean on

So I'm driving along Interstate 40 outside Raleigh, North Carolina, in a Volvo I've never driven before so I don't know how to change the radio station, and suddenly my drive is enlivened by the song "Lean on Me," which I sing along at the top of my lungs until suddenly I realize that I can't sing and cry at the same time. These are happy tears, springing from the realization that I can call on my brother when I need a hand because we all need somebody to lean on.

Faithful readers of this site may wonder what I was doing driving 14 hours in two days barely three short weeks following surgery. Well, it's complicated. To do the story full justice, I would have to go back more than ten years and cover my baby brother's remarkable transformation from addict to recovering addict to seminary student to pastor, but let's start more recently with my diagnosis of endometrial cancer nearly three weeks ago.

It's important to know that I did not flinch when the doctor told me I had cancer, nor did I blow a gasket when I learned that the five-year survival rate for this particular diagnosis is just 60 percent. I also kept my cool when I found out how thoroughly radiation and chemotherapy will wipe out my finances. But last Friday when I discovered that I was carless, I fell apart.

My Kia had been showing signs of discontent for a while, producing loud and annoying symptoms involving the radiator, the electrical system, and the transmission, three things a car can't really do without. So we handed it over to the mechanic on the day before my surgery, and since I wasn't in any condition to drive anywhere, I just forgot about it and trusted that someday it would return to me in good working condition.

On Friday I finally called the mechanic and received the bad news: fixing the Kia would cost more than we paid for it and wipe out our car-repair budget pretty much forever. Let's review: my husband needs the 14-year-old van for his business; two weeks ago we signed over the 15-year-old Nissan to the newlyweds; and the other 15-year-old Nissan is in Texas transporting the college kid to classes and work. Can't fix my car, can't replace my car, can't walk 17 miles to town every maybe I'll just quit my job and take up a new career as a vagrant.

Yes: despite my proven ability to keep a stiff upper lip, I lost it. I mean, all these competent people and resources are devoted to helping me get well, and I'm going to be defeated by a car?! It's just not fair!

Four hours later my brother called, out of the blue, just to chat. He did not know that I needed a car, but he recently got a new car and felt God leading him to give away his old Volvo, and he wondered whether I would like to have it.


Things happened very quickly after that: a seven-hour drive to Raleigh Sunday afternoon, a quick but heartwarming visit with my brother's family, and a seven-hour trip back home today. The Volvo ran like a dream. Granted, it's 15 years old (no sooner does one 15-year-old car drive out of my life than another arrives in its place!) and has just over 200,000 miles on it, but it looks terrific and (best of all) everything works. It even has seat warmers. At first I was stymied by an unusual gauge on the dashboard--a circle with only a few numbers and two red bars--but then, silly me, I recognized it as a clock. An actual dashboard clock, with hands and everything. And it works.

It even has a fairly new radio with tiny buttons and incomprehensible labels, so I was just stabbing buttons at random when "Lean on Me" came on not long after I'd left my brother's house in my new car. I haven't had much occasion to lean on my brother in the past, but when I needed somebody to lean on, I'm awfully glad he was there.

Sing it with me now: We all need somebody to lean on!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The banner with the slightly-less-strange device

In a poem by Longfellow, a speedy
Young man hoists a message we need. He
Embannered "Excelsior!"
But nobody tells ya
His name, now unknown as his deed. See,

When this blog like a banner unfurled
(Anonymously) to the world,
It called out "Excelsior!"
And the profile now tells ya
Who's calling. That mountain's been hurdled.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Academic action

I think of this as an academic blog, but I don't seem to be blogging much about academics lately. Then again, it's July. What could I possibly be doing in the middle of July that would be considered academic?

1. Teaching an independent study in postcolonial literature, currently wading through Derek Walcott's Omeros.

2. Revising one journal article (due next week) and starting another.

3. Reviewing a few chapters of a new composition textbook.

4. Refereeing a manuscript for an academic journal that thinks I'm some sort of expert on the subject, which I suppose I am, even though it's not my primary field.

5. Reading over a pile of information related to faculty governance in case I actually get to assume my position as Chair of the Faculty in the fall, although I've already informed the Powers That Be that I may have to bow out of that role for medical reasons.

And those medical reasons, of course, can be blamed for interrupting my usual summer season of productivity and putting a lot of academic activity on the back burner. But that doesn't mean I'm doing nothing. I'm doing something...just very slowly.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Twin Z's

Found hiding in my garden this morning: twin zucchinis joined at the hip, or what passes for a hip on a squash. Their yellow color is so intense they seem to glow under the shadow of the huge green leaves, and when you pick them young and tender, they're just the thing to brighten up a salad.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Remote control optional

"Go to the bookshelf closest to the window." I spoke carefully into the phone. "It should be on the second or third shelf down. Look for a blue cover--or maybe green. Blue-green?"

I needed some information from a book in my office and my colleague had offered to help. As I gave her directions over the phone, what I really wished for was a remote-control robot that would go into my office and fetch whatever I needed to complete a writing project while I was stuck at home. Even though my colleagues don't come equipped with remote controls, they've been doing a great job making my recovery more bearable.

They have brought me flowers and sushi, salads and books, and they have sat and chatted when they surely had more important things to do. They have fetched my mail, returned my library books, and driven me to appointments, and they have provided encouraging words when I needed them most. Not to mention ice cream. Let us not underestimate the therapeutic effects of Oreo ice cream.

I have known for a long time that I have some of the coolest colleagues in any college, but not until these past few weeks have I understood the full extent of their gifts. With colleagues like these, remote-control robots need not apply.

Monday, July 13, 2009


Okay, so I can't pull weeds, but there's no reason I can't sit down by the garden and watch my husband pull weeds. And if I'm just going to sit there, why not take a few pictures?

Cabbage leaves spiral in as if to shroud the secrets of the universe, while kohlrabi bulbs appear to have beamed in from Planet Purple. Every single one of those yellow squash blossoms is going to turn into a squash, one right after another, and then the tomatoes will red up by the dozens. Can't wait to sink my teeth into all that fresh garden goodness.

The uneven Erdrich

For the past two weeks I've been immersing myself in Louise Erdrich and it hasn't always been a pleasant dip. I've taught The Painted Drum and the short story "Fleur" and I read her earliest novels as they were published, but I realized recently that there's a whole lot of Erdrich country out there that I've never explored.

So I read Tracks and Plague of Doves and The Antelope Wife, but I was underwhelmed. I found some amazing writing and wonderful characters and charming stories, but I kept losing track of the narrative thread. Besides, I get annoyed when I have to keep looking at a family tree to keep track of how the characters are connected. (Of course, I read some of them while I was on drugs...maybe I'd better give them a second chance later!)

Then I read The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. Very impressive: a character I can care about through thick and thin, a story strong enough to carry my interest and make me regret that it has to end, and some startling images I won't soon forget. Definitely worth reading.

The last book in the pile was The Master Butcher's Singing Club, which I almost discarded because by that point I had pretty much overdosed on Louise Erdrich. But I finally opened it up in a desultory way and started reading.

None of my prior reading had prepared me for the wonders of this book.

The Master Butcher's Singing Club is similar to Erdrich's other novels in that it tells a story from several different perspectives, but in this case, the perspective characters are so compelling and believable (despite their unusual lives) that the switches are not jarring. Some of her other books assemble a host of smaller tales that link together in ways that are not always entirely clear; here, everything builds together into one brilliant narrative arc--a love story, or a story of several types of love: for a spouse, a child, a way of life, even a sausage. The novel includes the usual senseless tragedies common to Erdrich's work (including, in this case, both local tragedies and the horrors of two world wars), but through it all runs a tremendous sense of compassion and even, occasionally, hope. Erdrich is capable of expressing great depths of human dignity by means of hints and gestures, which in this novel build into a complex picture of a place and its people that I did not want to put away.

Which raises the question: why can't she write like that all the time?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

If I could talk to the vegetables...

The tomatoes are calling me. Zucchinis too. I heard them distinctly this morning as I walked down to the end of the driveway to pick up the newspaper. I was recalling that just two weeks ago at this time I was in the middle of a brisk six-mile walk through the countryside while today just walking to the mailbox feels like a major accomplishment, when suddenly a flash of orange caught my eye.

It was a squash blossom down in the garden. Zucchini or summer squash--it's hard to tell from a distance. I just weeded that squash bed two weeks ago when the plants were meek and scrawny, but today they send out hefty limbs and blossoms that promise a bumper crop of squash. I wasn't quite up to walk down the slope to the gardens, but I sensed those squashes hiding under the leaves, gathering their strength for a burst of growth which, if we're not careful, will result in a kitchen full of zucchinis the size of baseball bats.

They need attention, those zucchinis. They're right at the point where they need to be checked every morning so the tender young squashes can be picked before they turn into large inedible clubs. Meanwhile, they mock me. They sit in their shady lair and jes' grow, and there's not a blessed thing I can do about it.

And then beyond the squash patch is a row of bright green Bibb lettuce, which looks tender and juicy and ready to eat, and what a terrific salad it would make along with the tiny ripe red cherry tomatoes ready to pick at the other end of the garden. But bending and stooping are not in my repertoire of allowable activities right now, so I walked right by, sauntered right past the garden with my eyes averted. I can't see the gardens from up at the house, but I can hear them crying out to me, those vegetables. "We're growing," they say. "Come and get us while we're ripe!"

I'm supposed to be getting a lot of rest, but who can sleep when the vegetables are calling?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Sunny with a chance of seeds

A thicket of volunteer sunflowers has invaded a corner of my front garden. Technically, they're weeds: we didn't plant them, water them, encourage them, or intend them to be present. But the birds like them and they're not hurting anything and their cheery yellow blossoms make me happy, so we're accepting the invasion as a bit of unexpected grace.

Kind of icky--maybe you'd better skip this one

Yesterday I met with my oncologist, a cheerful man whose very presence is therapeutic, and I asked him the question many people have been asking me: how did this cancer get so far advanced without being detected?

He told me that an aggressive carcinoma such as mine can masquerade as a harmless fibroid, invading tissue and expanding its influence without providing any external symptom except (drum roll please) heavy bleeding.

Okay ladies, show of hands: how many of you have been told by certified medical professionals that heavy bleeding is "not unusual at your age"? Or "it might help if you lost some weight"? (I lost 100 pounds! It didn't help!) Or "you could just tough it out for a few years until menopause"?

How useful is a symptom that can indicate any number of conditions from "normal aging" to "benign fibroid" to "aggressive carcinoma"?

For a long time I stuck with a doctor of the "tough-it-out-until-menopause" variety, but eventually, I got tired of hearing the same old thing and switched to someone new. And here's the really scary question: what if I hadn't switched?

Thursday, July 09, 2009


Is surviving cancer more like a game of chance or a game of skill? It makes a difference.

As any devoted game-player knows, the balance between chance and skill influences the player's strategy. Chance determines whether you land on Boardwalk or pass Go, but skill allows you to decide when to buy, sell, or build hotels. Boggle begins as a game of chance--you shake the cube and the letters fall randomly, and everyone has the same set of letters to work with. But the player who possesses a large vocabulary and the ability to form order from chaos has a distinct advantage

I'm good at Boggle--frighteningly good. I know I'm just as subject to the whims of chance as anyone else, but I've honed my skills to the extent that I'm confident that I can overcome any setback, from a vowel-free throw to an excess of X.

But games of pure chance stymie me. I don't win raffles or door prizes--ever. I don't play the lottery because why not just flush my loose change down the toilet? Faced with a game of pure chance, I tend to throw my hands in the air and give up. If nothing I do can influence the outcome, why bother playing at all?

So here are two distinctly different approaches to playing games: focus all my skills on overcoming the setbacks sent by chance, or give up and hope for the best. Which one is right for this situation? Unless someone can tell me what sort of game I'm playing, I'm afraid I remain a bit boggled.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Can't hurt--can it?

I was feeling pretty good yesterday: strong, well rested, pain-free, not exactly bubbling over with energy but not lethargic either. Felt so good, in fact, that I decided to give my hard-working spouse a break and fill the birdfeeder. Couldn't hurt, I thought. And at first it didn't--but many hours later it hurt enough to wreck my sleep and start my day off rather earlier than I had planned.

I've been trying to be a good patient but it isn't easy. Doctor's orders are simple--sit around and do nothing for a few weeks--but I'm just not very gifted in the nothing-doing department. I can read for only so long before my eyes start to ache, and surfing the internet simply increases the amount of vacuity in my existence. (How does one increase an absence? I need a physics professor to work that one out.)

And then I keep looking around and seeing simple tasks that I could do without pain or effort and I just about have to sit on my hands to keep myself from hopping up and doing them. Why can't I fold a little laundry, wash a few dishes, pay a few bills? Can't hurt. At least not right away.

And then later when it starts to hurt--well, at least I can distract myself by watching the birds visit the feeder I filled yesterday. They toil not, neither do they spin. Sounds like a good plan to me.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Coming-out party?

Ever since I attended an ASLE session with a bunch of really cool bloggers, I've been thinking about dropping the whole anonymity thing and attaching my name to my blog. I'm trying to remember why I chose to remain anonymous when I started this venture four years ago, but all the reasons sound pretty lame (didn't have tenure, didn't know how long I could sustain the commitment, didn't want to embarrass myself or my colleagues...the usual litany).

Now, though, it seems increasingly silly to hold on to the illusion of anonymity. Anyone who really wants to can figure out who I am without too much trouble--and besides, I sort of like some of my little musings and I'd like to hold on to them a little more securely.

These reasons, though, don't seem any more substantial than the ones that led me to choose anonymity in the first place. So I'm taking a vote: maintain the cloak of anonymity or hold a grand and glorious coming-out party? Comments written in haiku or limerick form count double.


I'm not sure what surprises me more: the fact that the mayor of London is named Boris or that he would have a perfectly sound reason for proclaiming, "My friends, someday your plinth will come." Read it here. You won't regret it.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Futile phone calls

I can see already that if I want to remain relatively sane through this period of immobility and isolation, I'm going to have to stop answering the phone.

Today, for instance, I've received phone calls from a number of recorded voices expressing sincere concern about the state of my car warranty, my credit card debt, and my investment strategy. There's no point in telling them that my car hasn't had a functioning warranty since the Carter administration, my credit card debt has been sent to the time-out box for bad behavior, and my investment strategy has gone the way of the eight-track tape: these voices refuse to engage with the reality of my situation--and even worse, it's impossible to get them to change the subject. It doesn't matter how many scintillating conversational bon mots I toss out there ("How about them Indians? What's the weather like in cubicle-land? Sarah Palin: Sage or Lunatic?"); they stick to the script as if they haven't heard a word I'm saying.

Maybe they'd be happier talking to someone of their own kind. From now on I'll let the answering machine pick up all calls. That way, the recorded voices can converse all day long while I sit here babbling at the plants and the cat and the birds. They don't listen any better than the phone solicitors, but at least they'll let me change the subject.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Outside my window

This morning I've been watching a female red-bellied woodpecker chomping up sunflower seeds and then regurgitating them into the maw of her plump, impatient young. Yes, this is pretty tame entertainment, but it beats anything I experienced over three days in the hospital, where the chief distractions were provided by the groaning woman across the hall and a television on which every station demonstrated an annoying obsession with Michael Jackson.

Except the Food Network. Not a trace of Michael Jackson or moaning women on the Food Network. I lay there fighting nausea while watching Bobby Flay grill burgers, Rachael Ray assemble ice-cream sandwiches, and Paula Deen celebrate blandness with a recipe combining chopped cooked chicken, cooked broccoli, cream of mushroom soup, cheese, sour cream, mayonnaise, and buttered cracker crumbs. "Every new bride should have this recipe," she said. "It'll help you hold on to your man." But who would want to hold on to a man who thinks canned cream of mushroom soup qualifies as real food?

Outside my window, the birds provide a very different recipe for distraction. Goldfinches, bluejays, cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees and many others flitter and feed and fight for the best spots at the feeders, while ruby-throated hummingbirds stage elaborate battles for possession of the hummingbird feeders and spangled frittillaries flutter over the bright yellow sunflower blossoms bursting into bloom in my front garden. It's a soothing show, constantly changing and always free.

And best of all, there's no sign of Michael Jackson.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Opening Pandora's Box

"My goal," said the friendly oncologist, "is to minimize your toxicity and keep you productive."

I think we can all agree that this is an admirable goal. Toxicity, after all, is not something I seek more of in my life, and I'm always happiest when my productivity is at a maximum. But as much as I approve of the friendly oncologist's goal, I'm not 100 percent thrilled with the methods he proposes for achieving it.

First I'll have to recover from my surgery, and then there will be a battery of tests (but why is the word "battery" inexorably linked in my mind with "assault"?), and then there will be chemotherapy, and then there will be radiation, and then we'll see what happens and play it by ear.

This is really not the way I had planned to spend the rest of my summer break. The plan was to have a routine hysterectomy to remove what everyone believed was a benign tumor, and then to spend the month of July recovering. But surprise! From the moment my surgeon opened me up, he knew there was a problem. (That's the phrase he used: "opened you up." As if I were a Christmas gift or Pandora's box.) After some exploration and tests and consultation with experts, the problem was given a name: endometrial cancer. That's right: the C word. It's a toxic word, worthy of being minimized.

The C word has introduced a whole host of highly competent people into my life (the friendly oncologist, the radiation dude, the helpful folks at the hospital's billing office) and has thrown my fall plans into some confusion. Will I be able to teach in the fall, fulfill my new administrative duties, pick my tomatoes? Nobody knows. All the current answers seem to be cliches: take it one day at a time, keep a positive mental attitude, play it by ear.

Unfortunately, that's a game I'm not particularly good at playing. At least my oncologist has given me a goal and a purpose. So here I sit, home from the hospital, feeling pretty good and focusing all my energies on minimizing toxicity, maximizing productivity, and playing it by ear. It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it.