Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ode to ukeleles

Terrific article in the New York Times about the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain (read it here). The thought of a group of tuxedo-clad Brits playing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on ukeleles is funny enough, but here is my favorite part:

But the high point may have been when the band invited members of the audience to bring their own ukuleles and join in a group rendition of Beethovens “Ode to Joy,” part of their aim to spread the joy of ukuleles among the populace. There were more than 1,000 audience ukuleles, by an official count, and even the obviously unschooled joined in by swaying and waving their ukuleles in the air, like blissed-out teenagers wielding lighters at a rock concert.

We need a ukelele orchestra! And I know just the person to start one. Trivia quiz: which MC faculty member is a closeted ukelele aficionado? (Hint: not me.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Weighing in

"You've gained some weight! Good for you!" said the perky nurse in a tone suggesting she just might toss me a puppy treat.

For decades doctors and their ilk had only one message for me: "You ought to lose some weight." And then when I lost weight, they'd say, "You ought to lose some more weight." No one ever expressed delight at my ability to pile on the pounds.

I can put my finger on the exact moment when this changed: I was in the hospital recovering from surgery and my oncologist paid me a visit, during which he asked to see my incision. Given the number of white-coated people who insisted on viewing my incision, I ought to have sold tickets. The oncologist had to nudge a little persistent belly fat out of the way to see my incision and I joked about how I wished the surgeons had just cut that fat out while they were in there, and he looked up and in a serious tone said, "You're gonna need that fat."

Five words I never expected to hear from a doctor: "You're gonna need that fat."

And of course he was right. (That's why he earns the big bucks.) Last Wednesday the nurse expressed delight at my having gained a few pounds (thanks to lack of exercise), and then within the next five days I lost five pounds--without even trying! There's a weight-loss plan for you.

Good thing I held on to that fat. I"m gonna need it.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Zombie Mom

My adorable daughter and son-in-law were here yesterday for a brief but energetic visit. While they applied their youthful talents to taking over the Farmers' Market booth in the morning and baking a terrific eggplant quiche for supper, I mostly snoozed on the sofa.

I didn't particularly want to snooze. I would have loved to play some Scrabble or venture out for a walk despite the rain, but nasty side effects that keep me sprinting to the bathroom all night long combined with the drugs intended to head off these same side effects leave me a little lacking in alertness during the day.

I take comfort in knowing that the current round of awful side effects should ease up pretty soon. Meanwhile, I've developed a sure-fire method of keeping my overactive gray cells from wandering off into the morass of worry when I'm awake in the night: I plan events to liven up my post-cancer life. Some nights I lie awake assembling the guest list for my Posse Party or compiling menus composed entirely of foods I can't eat right now: big fat burritos, jalapeno poppers, hot fudge sundaes, and cheese, lots of cheese.

Or I plan a trip. It really doesn't matter where since it's a pipe dream, but I may as well make it a nice trip. So I lie awake working on a road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway from Big Sur to Monterey and then proceeding north to visit friends in San Francisco and Portland and perhaps going all the way to Seattle.

After all that late-night wandering, it's no wonder I'm Zombie Mom by morning. Even imaginary trips can be exhausting.

One of these days I'll figure out how to bring back pictures. Meanwhile, I plan.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A plague of (terrific) papers

I'm reading student drafts this weekend and loving it--really. Aside from the usual roughness associated with drafts, these are pretty good papers. In fact, the first set of papers this class produced was way above average, earning a pile of A's and B's and just a few lower grades. The best papers sparkled with wit and insight, couched complex ideas in sophisticated syntax, and employed rhythm and alliteration with aplomb. Even the mediocre papers were not that bad.

Which makes me wonder: are these papers really that good or am I losing my ability to distinguish between good papers and garbage? Are my students terrific writers or am I so drug-addled that they just seem that way? Am I going soft on student writing?

Only my students know for sure...and if I am getting more lenient, I doubt that they'll complain.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: theme song

After yesterday's post it occurred to me that my cancer-kicking posse needs a theme song. (T-shirts there an artist in the house?) I'm a little too doped up to produce any poetry right now, but if my poetry-writing posse will contribute the verses, I'll provide the title: Kicking Cancer's Butt.

Now over to you.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Me and My Posse: Kicking Cancer's Butt

Yesterday for the first time since my diagnosis I suddenly started believing, deep down and without reservation, that I'm going to survive.

Of course I've known from the start that survival is an option--only an idiot would enter into such an unpleasant and expensive course of treatment without some faint glimmer of hope that it just might work. But I've also known that 40 percent of patients diagnosed with stage III endometrial cancer are dead within five years even with treatment, and given my proven ability to end up grasping the short end of the statistical stick, I've been carrying within me the spectre of death.

So even while I've been doing everything possible to stay alive, I have also updated my will and worked on getting my financial affairs in order. (Well, make that "less disorder.") The Grim Reaper haunts me when I happen upon someone who can't bear to look me in the face and when the radiation girls casually say things like, "We'll shoot a few more x-rays just to make sure you're positioned correctly." I am here to tell you that the human body doesn't like radiation. Tastes like death.

But then yesterday, as I was waiting for the latest bag of powerful plant alkaloids to be delivered to my bloodstream, a smiling nurse came tripping in to bless me with my latest test results: my white blood count is low and I'm still anemic (so what else is new?), but the tumor markers fell to 19. From an original high over 150.


That was the moment when I started to believe--to really believe--that I'm going to live.

Right now I'm sitting at the keyboard at 4 a.m. unable to sleep because my body feels as if it's about to produce one of those parasitic aliens that were always bothering Sigourney Weaver, but it doesn't taste like death any more. Tastes like life, as if I'm kicking cancer's butt.

Or not me--we. Me and my posse--my skilled surgeons and my cheerful oncologist and my radiation guru and all my nurses and radiation technicians and lab technicians and the office staff and volunteers at the cancer center and even the annoying drug sales rep, and let's not forget all my colleagues and friends and family who cover my classes and drive me to appointments and bring me meals and shower me with scarves and send me ginger ale and books and cards and an iPod and a car and I don't remember what else, and my students who carry heavy things for me and put up with my occasional absences and lapses of attention, and the wonderful honors class that gave me a chemotherapy care package (I highly recommend the soothing eye pad), and people I've never met who send encouraging words my way, and probably a bunch of others I've forgotten.

This number's for you, my cancer-kicking-posse: 19. Savor it. One of these days when I'm through with treatment we'll have a big party to celebrate our communal effort, so consider yourselves invited. Me and my posse: kicking cancer's butt.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What dreams may come

"When you write, you draw readers into a dream--and you don't want to give them any reason to wake up."

Anthony Doerr said something like that at a reading here last night, but he said it more concisely and elegantly and memorably--in fact, I made a point of trying to remember his wording at the time, but it came toward the end of a long and exciting day and I was pretty exhausted. Why didn't I write it down? Why did I sit down to listen to an author I admire without first equipping myself with paper and pen? I may as well admit it: the little gray cells just aren't functioning as efficiently as they once did.

But the reading was terrific! He read a vivid short essay on mobility called "Butterfly Wheel" and a section of a new story called "Memory Wall" coming out soon in McSweeney's. Now I need to get hold of the rest of the story so I can see how it ends.

The day ended with a reception and book-signing and started with the author visiting creative writing classes and having lunch with students. In the past some visiting authors have resisted spending time with students, but Doerr seemed delighted to discuss writing with ours. A very down-to-earth fellow is Anthony Doerr. I'm recommending Four Seasons in Rome to everyone I know (for reasons I explained in this post), and it wouldn't surprise me at all if inscribed copies started wending their way through the mails to some of my favorite people.

Right now, I'm waiting for drugs to start wending their way through my bloodstream. Chemotherapy is slated to start any minute now; we're just waiting for the drugs to arrive. I'm excited about my latest test results--tumor markers down to 19, from a high over 150! That's reason to celebrate, if only I had any energy left after yesterday's excitement.

Instead, I intend to spend the next three hours plunged into what dreams may come--and I hope no one gives me any reason to wake up.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sweet mysteries of life

So I'm sitting in my office blithely composing a blog post when a student worker delivers three big boxes of Reed's ginger products: ginger beer, ginger chews, crystallized favorites!

But who is responsible for this wonderful bounty? A card in the bottom of one box says simply "From one of your friends." But which one? Wish I knew so I could offer appropriate thanks...then again, maybe it's better if I don't know. I'll just spread a spirit of gratitude around wherever I go.

This calls for a celebration. Ginger, anyone?


Yesterday we picked a peck (or more) of beautiful hot peppers--orange habaneros, red cherry bombs and chilis, tiny yellow Thai peppers, and others I can't immediately identify--for our Annual Assembling of the Hot Pepper Sauce. My husband donned gloves to gut the peppers while I chopped onions and garlic and got the whole mess cooking in a pot that released a scent demanding that we open windows and turn on fans. Afterward I washed the dishes in dishwater turned dangerous thanks to the presence of peppery knives and pots: my nose ran, my eyes watered, my hands turned red, and I could taste the peppers without ever taking a bite. This morning our house still smells piquant, promising delightful flavors to come.

I'll take a handful of habaneros to campus today to share with some adventuresome colleagues, but I won't be tasting them myself until I'm through with cancer-treatment side effects. The more orange they get, the more fruity they taste, producing a heat suffused by a hint of sweetness. Right now, though, I'll have to content myself with looking at them. Aren't they lovely? I can taste them with my eyes....and now you can too!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Things that go "jump" in the night

One advantage of living in the country is that night falls quickly: soon after the sun drops behind the hill, thick darkness covers the unlit fields and roads. This is also a disadvantage, as we discovered last night when a walk lasted longer than expected.

We'd been listening to the Cleveland Browns game on the radio until our team's awfulness sent us out of the house. We walked along the creek and up the big horrible hill, and I was just congratulating myself on making it to the top when we encountered a neighbor we don't often see, who invited us into his yard to see his new birds.

Now these were not ordinary run-of-the-mill birds but beautiful golden pheasants and tiny little pocket quail. My husband, whose childhood hobby was poultry husbandry, enjoyed talking chicks with the neighbor while I helpfully reminded Hopeful that the caged birds did not qualify as dog food.

We finally managed to break away only to discover, to our dismay, that the road was verging toward invisible. It's not a particularly safe road in the broad daylight--a steep, narrow track covered with loose gravel and twisting around blind curves--but in the dark it was downright treacherous. My husband's white sweat socks seemed to be glowing in the dark, but Hopeful's black coat blended with the velvety darkness. I worried about traffic, but only one car came by, an immense pickup that blinded us even further with its bright headlights.

We kept trying to pick up the pace so we'd get home before it was completely black outside, but walking downhill on gravel can be a little tricky. I was startled the first time I saw a small patch of darkness detach itself from the road and hop across our path, but it was just a frog--one of many. Why did the frogs cross the road? I don't know, but they were out en masse last night.

The night was quiet aside from the hop-plop of the frogs. It now seems strange that in the five years we've lived in the woods, we've never explored our area in the dead of night. We often hear owls and coyotes at night, but aside from a few bonfires in the meadow, we've never ventured into the night world to see what's out there.

Note to self: next time, take a flash light.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: time-out box

A man slaps a stranger's two-year-old child in Wal-Mart (read it here), and a woman spanks a stranger's toddler at a thrift store (read it here). (Do these things ever happen at, say, Saks?) You and I, of course, would never consider disciplining a stranger's child--but haven't you been tempted? Better yet, haven't you wanted to send a few parents to the time-out box? This is your opportunity: put your frustration with unruly children and parents into verse of any kind. I'll start:

To the girl who assaults all our ears
In the elevator and then sneers--
We can't ignore you
As you turn the air blue.
Your rancor comes through loud and clear.

But your mom, silent, won't move a muscle
To stop you. Does she fear a tussle?
We wish she'd reach out
And duct-tape your mouth,
But she stand there avoiding a fuss. (Still.)

Later: on the drive to work, I thought of an alternate ending line:
If you won't stop her, maybe then us'll.

And I also came up with another poem, which suggests that maybe my hostility level is running a little high today:

At the salad bar, two charming tykes
Use their hands to decide what they'd like.
Using fingers and thumbs,
They pull out a plum--
Or some pudding, potatoes, or pike.

Where is Mom while they do all this sticking
Of fingers in food and then licking?
She's nowhere in sight.
If she saw them, she might
Deliver to them a sound kicking.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Strictly metaphorical

They keep telling me that cancer is a journey, but sometimes it feels more like a prison. On a good day it's a minimum-security prison with a golf course, riding lessons, and a feng shui class. On a bad day it's Guantanamo. Either way, the food stinks.

Sometimes cancer feels like an unweeded garden where pokeweed colonizes the raspberry patch and poison ivy twines among the tomatoes, so you call in an expert gardener who strafes the whole plot with napalm.

Sometimes cancer feels like a visit to a lunatic asylum where the patients wear rags on their heads and communicate via vomit, but when it's time to leave, you can't find the door.

Sometimes cancer feels like a nightmare in which you're driving merrily along the Pacific Coast Highway when suddenly a hand reaches over and steers you straight off the cliff, and you keep falling and falling, awaiting the crash. The brakes and steering won't do a thing in free-fall, but go ahead and fiddle with the radio if it'll make you feel any better.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Adventures in paragraph development

I took my postcolonial literature students on a whirlwind tour of the Caribbean this morning (there and back in 50 minutes!), and now my freshman composition students are entering the bizarre realm of Paragraph Development. They're using an exercise I developed years ago, one that allows them to exercise some paragraph-development skills while getting really creative.

I start off by looking at a well-developed paragraph that includes a topic sentence, a sentence further explaining the topic sentence, a quote from an authority (C. Vaughan Hornswallow...okay, I made him up), a sentence explaining the significance of the quote, three sentences containing brief specific examples, and a transitional sentence. I give the students a handout with this model paragraph on one side, and on the other is a list of those eight types of sentences. Each student starts the process by writing a topic sentence (One good reason college students should...), and then they pass the papers around so that each succeeding sentence is written by a different student.

Where do they get their quotes and examples? They make them up, of course. I'm careful to remind them that this is the only time all semester that they're allowed to invent supporting evidence, so they'd better make the most of it. And they do! Students can be amazingly inventive when given the opportunity.

This exercise forces students to read very carefully the topic sentence and whatever else has already been written in the incipient paragraph, so that they can make sure what they write follows logically. Also, since every paragraph has to include three brief specific examples, they have to stretch beyond the obvious examples, moving the argument in some new and interesting directions.

What is the result? A lot of silliness, of course, but also a few amazing paragraphs. I'll collect the finished paragraphs and choose a few to share with the class on Friday, but meanwhile, it's fun to just stand here listening as students eagerly create well-developed paragraphs out of nothing.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How about some "dumb blogger" jokes?

I tried an experiment this morning in my humor class. They had read an essay on the origin and function of "dumb blond" jokes, "Blond Ambition," in which Elliot Oring argues that the stereotype of the "dumb blond" serves as a placeholder to allow us to distance ourselves from characteristics that are inappropriate in the world of work (stupidity and sexual promiscuity). We also discussed research on what sorts of ethnic groups get stereotyped as stupid in different places: Canadians might tell "dumb Newfie" jokes and Nigerians tell "dumb Hausa" jokes, but in general, Nigerians are unlikely to tell jokes about those goofy Newfoundlanders. Stereotyping a particular group as stupid seems to require a willingness to project negative behaviors or attitudes on those just outside our own neighborhoods.

After some discussion, I broke the students into pairs and gave them instructions: find a way to distinguish yourself from a neighboring group and develop some negative stereotypes about them. They got to work only after I promised to issue a blanket absolution after they were done.

They're a pretty clever group of students, but they encountered trouble right away. One group came up with an anti-tall-people shtick while another heaped some mild derision on commuters, but we learned more by talking about what made this exercise so difficult. "It's just hard to come up with stereotypes about people we know," explained one student, and isn't that the key? We stereotype people close enough to be visible--sometimes close enough to appear to pose a threat--but not so close that we really know them. Real knowledge negates stereotypes.

When I tell people I'm teaching a humor theory class, they sometimes assume that it must be pretty lightweight. I mean, how difficult can it be to spend an hour talking about dumb blond jokes? Go ahead and stereotype my class as stupid--but don't be surprised if we nod knowingly. We know why you're poking fun at us. Do you?

Monday, September 14, 2009

It can't be wrong when it feels so...whatever

I'm sitting in the sun on the back deck enjoying the gentle breeze, reading today's mail, and watching my husband paint the storage shed. Aside from the slap-slap of paintbrush on wood and the occasional birdcall, the scene is silent, serene, soothing. So why am I so agitated?

Because the first faculty meeting of the academic year is about to start and I'm not there.

I ought to be standing in front of my colleagues with gavel in hand, guiding them through the business of the day (which, truth be told, is pretty boring: reports, information, no action items at all). I ought to be in the thick of things, cutting a clear path through campus controversies and making my mark on academic policies. Instead, I sit and and listen: slap-slap, tweet-tweet, slap-slap.

I ought to be grateful for the opportunity to opt out of faculty governance--and I am. I am grateful to the people who are working harder so I can take it easy, and I have tremendous confidence in my colleague who stepped up to serve as Interim Chair while I'm indisposed.

And I have to admit that I just don't have the energy for campus controversies. I've been studiously avoiding knowledge of all controversial issues and staying away from campus gossip centers because radiation leaves me little energy to devote to such matters, no matter how important they might be. Moreover, the worst side effects tend to strike a few hours after treatment--right about the time the faculty meeting begins. It's impossible to run a public meeting while tethered to the rest room.

So instead, I rest. Slap-slap, tweet-tweet, slap-slap. I tell myself that this is the right thing to do, that the academic world will keep turning without my contributions, but it doesn't feel right. It feels wrong.

Then again, so does cancer. In fact, cancer feels more wrong than missing a faculty meeting. So I guess I should be happy to suffer a small wrong--missing a few meetings--in order to remove from my life a much bigger wrong--cancer. The awfulness of the bigger wrong makes the smaller almost insignificant by comparison--almost, indeed, so right.

So right here I'll sit while my colleagues exercise faculty governance. Slap-slap and tweet-tweet never sounded so right.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Charles Wesley is rolling over in his grave

Holy typo! This morning's church bulletin directed worshipers to a hymn titled "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sin."

Funny, but that's not what it's called in my hymnal.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Patience, patient!

Like most other complex physical and social skills, the ability to wait improves with practice. I have never been known for my patience, but thanks to all the time I've spent in various medical waiting rooms over the past few months, I've developed a Zen-like ability to sit and wait.

Standing and waiting, however, is another matter entirely, as I learned yesterday afternoon at the cancer center.

I had finished with a longer-than-expected doctor visit followed by radiation, and all I had to do before I could go home was to meet with the scheduler to set up my next round of chemotherapy. Now the scheduler is a charming and helpful young man who sits behind a counter in a little cubby-hole behind a glass door, but there's no chair available on the patient's side of the counter. Anyone needing to see the scheduler has to stand and wait, which was tough for me yesterday because a particularly annoying side effect had limited me to about two hours of sleep the night before. But there was only one person ahead of me when I walked in, so how long could it possibly take?

Too long.

One glance at the person ahead of me revealed that I was dealing with a textbook example of the genus Drug Sales Representative: spiffy Italian leather shoes, well-cut suit probably worth my monthly mortgage payment, wheeled sample kit, and an ample measure of the gift of gab. He was trying to set up a lunch meeting with doctors and a separate meeting with nurses and he wanted some contact information for the people who could make this happen.

The scheduler tracked down the information. I leaned against the counter.

The Sales Rep wanted to bring in lunch for the nurses one day, but if lunch wouldn't work, how about breakfast? Could he talk to the head nurse directly?

The scheduler paged the head nurse, only to be told that she was at the other office. I put my head in my hands and closed my eyes.

The Sales Rep had recently visited the other office and chattered a bit about people he had seen and what he had learned there.

The scheduler listened patiently. I considered curling up in a fetal position on the floor, but this would have placed me in close proximity to the Sales Rep's fine Italian leather shoes, which would have aroused envy, which is unhealthy. So I stood. Waiting. Patiently.

Finally the Sales Rep wrapped up his pitch, packed up his case, and rolled on out of there, making room for me to approach the scheduler and tell him what I needed. He put my name into the computer and got to work, but suddenly the Sales Rep barged back in and said, "I have a little something I want to drop off for the nurses."

The scheduler turned toward the Sales Rep and began issuing instructions.

"Tell you what," I said. "How about I'll go out to the waiting room and sit down and you can come and fetch me when you have some free time in your schedule?"

The Sales Rep shut up, the scheduler got back to work, and I was soon on my way out the door with a schedule in my hand. I don't want to know what they said about me after I left, but I doubt that they were applauding my Zen-like patience.

If they want to see that, all they have to do is offer me a chair.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: how do I catalog thee?

My mailbox has been invaded by fall fabrics and colors, courtesy of the L.L. Bean catalog. Even though I rarely order anything, I love to leaf through the pages and admire the texture of the corduroy shirts, the barn jackets in rusty autumn hues, the woolly sweaters and shiny boots. Bean brings autumn to my door and makes me wax poetic.

Time to write a catalog poem--not a poem listing disparate elements but a poem in admiration of catalogs:

Corduroy barn jackets,
plaid flannel, fleece--L.L. Bean
delivers autumn.

Now it's your turn: what catalog makes you happy even if you never order anything?

Why I love teaching honors students

Throw an interesting question out and they run with it.

No groaning over group work.

Every paper turned in on time and in the correct format.

They get my jokes!

Who else will make allusions to Gilbert and Sullivan in the classroom?

I don't have to explain what "allusions" means.

"Is it possible to do three senior capstones?"

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A thrill a minute. Not.

"Someone ought to turn this into a thrill ride," I said to the radiation technician as she pushed buttons to maneuver the platform of the linear accelerator into the proper place. In response to her careful adjustments, the platform makes a clickety-clickety sound similar to what you hear going up the first big hill on a roller-coaster, and the whole radiation experience creates a feeling of suspense common to any entry into the realm of unknown forces. But despite the similarities, I doubt that anyone really wants to vacation at CancerLand.

I can just hear the carnies hawking their wares on the midway: "Step right up to get jabbed by a needle and wait long hours for test results!" "Smoothies, get your ice-cold barium sulfate smoothies right over here!" "Ladies and gentlemen, the Greatest CT Scan on earth!"

Who needs trick mirrors in the Fun House? Regular mirrors reflecting suddenly bald heads will do the trick--and there's a surprise around every corner as insurance agents randomly pop up to approve or deny claims.

Instead of the Tunnel of Love, loving couples will ride the Tunnel of Anguished Hand-Wringing Over How We're Going To Pay All These Bills.

Every effort will be made to ensure the comfort of guests. Colorful barf bags will be distributed throughout the park, and the Bumper-Wheelchair ride will be located conveniently close to the First Aid station. Can't handle greasy foods? Try the special: mashed potatoes on a stick!

Who would buy tickets for such an experience? An amusement park needs constant action, excitement, adventure, but the cancer journey is characterized by occasional moments of high drama separated by long stretches of sheer boredom and general awfulness.

But that doesn't mean my great idea should be discarded. Maybe it won't work as a thrill ride, but if someone out there is trying to design a new circle of Hell, have I got an idea for you!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

All in the same boat

Stanley Fish is pontificating about college composition (again!) over at the New York Times, while my college composition students bombard me with panicky e-mails about their first papers and schoolchildren everywhere serve as pawns in a heated debate over the President's message. At times like these, it behooves us to change the subject.

So I'm going to babble a bit about a movie I saw on DVD over the weekend, the British film Happy-Go-Lucky. I tried to describe the plot to a friend yesterday and got nowhere, so let's skip that part. It's a clever and charming and sometimes annoying film about a woman whose attempt to maintain a happy-go-lucky attitude faces a few minor challenges. Doesn't that sound just dreadful? If this were a movie on the Lifetime channel, the main character's cheery disposition would eventually melt the hearts of all around her and provide instant solutions to the messiest human problems. Fortunately, this is not a Lifetime movie.

Let's go ahead and admit that the main character, Poppy, is a little annoying. She giggles a lot and acts pretty silly. I can imagine that many people (particularly men) of my acquaintance would find her unbearably lightweight. They might even sympathize with her driving instructor, Scott, whose bitter and misanthropic attitude comes into sharp contrast with Poppy's bubbliness during their weekly driving lessons. Their conflict raises a question that keeps nagging at the back of my mind: whose attitude is a healthier response to the human condition? Is it better to face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with an unreasonably optimistic giggle or with a melancholy gloom always willing to admit the worst?

After all, why couldn't Hamlet just laugh it all off?

If this were a Lifetime movie, Poppy's optimism would eventually cut through Scott's melancholy and convert him into an entirely new person--sort of like what happens to the Ricky Gervais character in Ghost Town, another film pitting cheer against melancholy. But Gervais's conversion in Ghost Town is the least believable part of an entirely unbelievable film (which is nevertheless very funny, particularly when the ditzy doctor is called upon to convey the cheery message, "Everyone dies!").

But Happy-Go-Lucky refuses to take the easy way out. When the conflict between Poppy and Scott finally erupts, the result is not cheerful or optimistic or conventionally satisfying but frightening. In the end, Scott's misanthropy separates him from the human community, while Poppy's cheer keeps her connected to a community that can help her cope with the very real and sometimes frightening insanities of everyday life. She may end up in a boat going aimlessly in circles, but at least she's not alone.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Flattened by an old friend

When the doctors told me to expect fatigue, I thought, No problem. Fatigue and I are old friends. We've slogged together through grad-school seminars, paper-grading marathons, frantic late-night feats of journalism, cross-country relocations, and all-night sleep-deprivation sessions involving sick or screaming children. When a clear goal beckons, I don't mind working myself beyond the point of exhaustion--as long as I can rest and recharge when it's over.

Now, though, I'm seeing a whole new side of my old friend Fatigue. I feel the way the word "fatigue" sounds: flat and flabby, lacking the ability to make any impact on my environment. For the past three days I've done nothing more demanding than walk from the sofa to the bathroom, but every cell in my body desperately wants to go to sleep right now. Sleep, though, doesn't help: I wake up not refreshed but still fatigued, wanting to get up and get moving but lacking the energy to pull up my socks.

I keep reminding myself that this is just temporary. One of these days I'll welcome the old-style fatigue that comes from tackling a task that demands every ounce of energy I can muster. Today, on the other hand, I'll sit on the sofa and watch the birds, sip some ginger ale, take the occasional snooze, and fondly recall the fun times I once had with my old friend Fatigue.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Awkward public record

Found it!

The other day I bemoaned my inability to locate a quote from James Thurber on the essence of humor (read it here), but a quick response from a helpful librarian led me to a book I happen to have on my shelf at home: Selected Letters of James Thurber, Ed. Helen Thurber and Edward Weeks.

In December 1950, James Thurber wrote the following in a letter to Joel Sayre: "The proof of humor is the ability to put one's self on awkward public record, just as the proof of wit is to do that to others." It's not quite the wording I recall, but it's the thought that counts.

And here, as a bonus, is an excerpt from a 1951 letter from Thurber to E.B. White, which I'll share with my humor class on Tuesday:

"I write humor the way a surgeon operates, because it is a livelihood, because I have a great urge to do it, because many interesting challenges are set up, and because I have the hope that it may do some good. When the leftists got hold of Dorothy Parker, they persuaded her to say in The New Masses, 'Humor is a shield and not a weapon.' It is both and neither, but I remember how, at one battle in Gaul, members of the Tenth Legion banged the bejesus out of the enemy with their shields when their swords were gone."

Friday, September 04, 2009


I spent the day noodling around with networks--computer networks in the morning, human networks in the afternoon--and the experience, while frustrating at times, turned out satisfying in the end.

This morning I stayed home recovering from chemotherapy, but that doesn't mean my students had the day off. My two morning classes had different types of online assignments to complete, and I needed to be available to respond to questions and trouble-shoot technical problems, so I was online pretty much all morning. Yesterday I monitored an online discussion at the cancer center, which has an ultra-fast wireless network; today, though, I was working in slow motion (thanks to the anti-nausea drugs) and so was my computer (thanks to a dial-up connection so slow it appears to be sedated).

My students did great work: nearly 100 percent participation, thought-provoking and insightful comments, playful but respectful responses to one another's ideas. Meanwhile, back in Slowsville, I spent a lot of time going click, wait, type, click, wait, repeat until I wanted to tear the keys right off the computer keyboard and toss them out the window. On the other hand, I didn't really have the strength to do much more than click, wait, type, click, wait, repeat, so it was a fairly harmless way to pass what could have been a miserable morning.

Finally I turned off the computer, got in the car, and drove to town for my daily radiation treatment--but first, I stopped at the grocery store for some of that wonderful Reed's extra-strong ginger ale (except this time I promise not to spill any on my computer!) and a few other necessities. But when I came out of the grocery store, my car wouldn't start.

Time to rely on a different kind of network: first, call AAA...except I don't have a cell phone and the only pay phone in the grocery store is being monopolized by a store employee. I stand around waiting for a while, but then I notice a familiar face--one of my colleagues is just leaving the store. I beg for a ride to the cancer center and he gladly provides one. Score one for human networks.

While waiting for my treatment, I borrow the phone and make a few calls, so that by the time I'm done being irradiated, my secretary is on hand to drive me back to my car and AAA is on the way. It's a simple fix--the AAA guy jumps the battery and then points out that the alternator belt is loose--and I'm soon on my way back home.

Which worked better, the online networks or the human ones? My students certainly excelled at using online networks to engage in learning, so the only fault lay in my snoozing dial-up connection. Human networks worked swiftly and smoothly. Both networks fulfilled requirements, but I'll always prefer the human kind--especially when well lubricated by kindness and care.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A day in the life

...because someone asked...

9 a.m.
I'm sitting in the waiting room of the cancer center patiently awaiting lab tests and chemotherapy followed by my daily radiation treatment. I'm early. I'm always early, but this time I'm really, really early. With eight separate medical appointments this week alone, it's not surprising that I get confused. Better early than late, I guess, since I have to be here anyway.

Chemo days always start early, which means I rely on a network of helpful friends to drive out to the middle of nowhere at the crack of dawn to fetch me and then take me home again later. I could drive myself to town in the morning, but the drugs make me too dopey to drive home at the end of the day, so I may as well get a ride both ways and avoid abandoning my car in that annoying parking garage.

On my daily radiation visits I always park in the same general area in that annoying garage: level B (less traffic down there, easy access to the lower exit), on the end near the cancer center entrance (not so far for me to walk), facing out toward fresh air and sunshine (so my car won't get claustrophobic). Today, though, a wonderful colleague dropped me off.

So here I sit in the waiting room, with Regis and Kelly babbling on the television mounted on the wall. It's a lovely waiting room--soothing colors, lots of light, comfy chairs, coffee and snacks, faux waterfall in the corner and stone fireplace right in the middle of the room--but it's generally full of sick people, some with no hair, some in wheelchairs, some haggard and worn and sleeping wherever they land. Sometimes there are children. I always hope the children are here to accompany sick parents. It's just too awful to imagine children suffering through chemotherapy and radiation.

The lab nurse calls me in so she can take my blood. The medi-port makes drawing blood easier, but that doesn't mean it's painless. At first stick she can't get any blood. "That's because I don't have any left," I say, but she doesn't believe me. It's true that the chemotherapy exacerbates my anemia to the point that my cheerful oncologist keeps saying comforting things like "Don't worry, if it gets any worse we can give you blood transfusions," but I haven't run out of blood entirely, so the nurse eventually finds a few lonely blood cells willing to go out for a spin.

Back in the waiting room, I wonder what my numbers will look like this time. Will the tumor markers decrease again? I won't find out until next week, and the suspense is just killing me. Unlike Regis and Kelly, who are causing millions of brain cells to commit suicide out of sheer boredom.

I know! I'll use the cancer center's free wireless internet system to check my mail: junk, mass e-mails regarding events I can't attend, committee meeting minutes, supportive messages from colleagues, the usual. No frantic messages from students so far. I've set up online activities for all three classes today and tomorrow, and I fully expect a few newbies to struggle with the technology even though we've put it through its paces in class several times already. But maybe they'll surprise me.

My honors students in the humor class have already surprised me by posting their discussion questions well in advance of the deadline--and what terrific questions! I'd like to test-drive a few myself, but better to give the students a chance to take 'em out for a spin. I want to see how they handle the question about when it's acceptable to make humor out of human suffering, a topic particularly close to my heart right now.

Let's go check the online discussion board to see how it's going--but first, a detour to the sitemeter faithfully tabulating blog visits. Wow. My numbers have never been better. If I'd know getting cancer would make me so darn popular, I'd have done it years ago.

Sorry. Just a little inappropriate levity re: human suffering.

Nothing new in today's discussion yet...but some students have already posted comments for tomorrow's online class. Which works better, synchronous or asynchronous discussion? I guess I'm getting ready to find out.

10 a.m.
The news is on now, showing strikingly beautiful photos of California burning, which raises the question: when is it acceptable to make art out of human suffering? Is it better to make art or humor or something else entirely?

Oh, now they're reporting on the Jaycee Dugard kidnapping case. It's painful to contemplate the facts, but who can turn away? Will it ever be possible to make either art or humor out of that kind of human suffering? Why or why not? Discuss.

(And who am I addressing here anyway? Hi, whoever you are! Glad you stopped by! Hope you're doing something much more fun than chemotherapy! (If so, why would you want to read this?) Write and tell me about it so I can enjoy it too!)

10:20 a.m.
The nurse leads me back to the chemotherapy room, already crowded with patients attached to IV's. I request a window seat as usual, and I settle in on the big comfy yellow reclining chair in a cheery cubicle surrounded by warm wood half-walls topped with frosted glass featuring a lovely leaf motif. A volunteer comes over to see if I need anything--water, warm blanket, snack?--and we chat a bit. He and his wife, both retired, volunteer here twice a week, and he says 99 percent of the patients he works with are nice. What about the rest? "Sometimes it's hard to be nice if you don't feel so good," he explains. Resolved: be nice to the volunteers, regardless.

Voices from the next cubicle:

"She has a laptop over there."

"A laptop? Do you think they have wireless?"

"I'll go ask."

"No, don't ask--I don't want you to bother her."

"Bother me," I call out. A pleasant young man pops over from the next cubicle, where he's keeping his mother company while she gets chemotherapy. They're both delighted to discover the existence of wireless access. "Next time I'll bring my computer," says the mother, "and maybe we can talk." I refrain from pointing out that we could actually talk just as well without a computer, but let's not get contentious.

10:40 a.m.
Lunch arrives. It's a little early, but it'll keep. Sandwich, cole slaw, apple, granola bar. And of course I have my college mug full of green tea with ginger. Sustenance enough to get me through the day.

Further exploration of the lunch bag reveals that the round object in the bottom of the bag is not an apple after all but an orange. Even better: I'll peel it and experience some natural aromatherapy...but apparently I'm not the first one to think of that. Why can't all medical facilities smell like fresh-squeezed oranges?

10:45 The pre-chemo medication drip is doing its thing. These drugs precede the nasty chemo drugs to head off bad reactions and prevent nausea, but they also make me dopey. I may pay a spontaneous visit to la-la land at any moment. Hope I remember to hit "Save" first.

She's four years older than I am, the woman in the next cubicle. I know this because she has been asked twice already to state her name and birthdate. Every medical procedure and every new bag of drugs attached to the IV requires the patient to state his or her name and birthdate. I'm sure I've said it a thousand times since June.

Sounds like this is her first encounter with chemo, but she's staying pretty cheerful. "Is this the stuff that'll make my hair fall out?" she asks. I want to tell her how to do fun things with scarves, but she's busy being introduced to the IV pole that will be her dance partner for the next few hours.

The cubicles all have little televisions tucked into the warm wood half-wall, and some patients pass the time by watching. Last time I was here, the guy in the next cubicle was watching a Nascar race. It's tempting to draw conclusions about cancer patients based on their viewing choices, but what would they say about me?

The IV monitor beeps. "Infusion complete," it proclaims, which would be good news except that it's referring only to the infusion of pre-chemo medications. The really nasty stuff starts right now and lasts until it's through. My first chemotherapy session lasted only a few hours because an allergic reaction caused the first drip to be aborted; the second round lasted three or four hours. I'm not sure how long this one will take, but the nurses have assured me that I'll be done in time for my 2:00 radiation treatment. Radiation waits for no man. Or woman either.

Funny: I feel alert, but the connection between my intentious and my fingers seems to be slipping...I'm leaving letters out of words and hitting other letters that have no excuse for intruding where they are not wanted. This is the chief drawback on these drugs: they slow me down in ways that are not immediately obvious, so at the moment I'm probably not the most reliable source of information on how I'm doing.

Time to check the online discussion board to see how my honors students are doing. Three messages already! Class just started four minutes ago! Students are piling on that question about making humor out of human suffering. Can't wait to see how the rest of the class responds.

Many machines are beeping. Hey, let's get out the iPod! Music to soothe the savage beast. Not that there are any savage beasts here. We're just sick people doing our best to be nice regardless of how we feel.

Still immersed in my students' online discussion. They're doing great! I jumped in to comment at one point and I'll do it again in a minute. Meanwhile, my IV gently drips.

I've read all my students' comments and added a few of my own. They've been eagerly debating why humor about machines is so common: are we frightened of machines or trying to assert our superiority over them? Or do our interactions with machines simply provide many opportunities to expose our incompetence to the world? When it comes to technology, we slip on metaphorical banana peels every day of the week. Who wouldn't laugh?

The machine I'm hooked up to right now makes me feel incompetent every time I need to get up and visit the rest room. It's not possible to sit here absorbing fluids for hours without eventually needing to get up and go, but the process is cumbersome: unplug IV monitor from wall; waltz IV pole carefully through the nest of power cords mingling promiscuously on the floor of the cubicle; drag IV pole over to rest room; figure out how to get both of us in there and shut the door--and then get ready to repeat the whole process in reverse.

One of these days I expect to see a cancer patient waltzing with an IV pole on Dancing with the Stars. Too bad Ted Kennedy's not available for the part...

Here we go again, making humor out of human suffering. Tasteless, tacky, irreverent, or none of the above?

Someone nearby is watching a soap opera. I can't see it but I can hear it: dramatic soap music loudly announcing impending doom, stilted dialogue dealing with situations even stranger than the life of a cancer patient. What is it this time, return of the long-lost twin? Blackmail of a foot-fetishist whose stash of stolen flip-flops is uncovered by the neighbor's dog? I can't hear enough to know what's going on but I refuse to move any closer because those soap-star faces creep me out. They look shiny, stretched and stitched to the point of immobility, like space aliens--or space-alien action figures manufactured from space-age polymers. They just don't look like real people.

The little gray cells are slowing down. Time to do something mindless. Let's load some more music onto the iPod, shall we? And how amazing is it that I can sample, select, and download music to my cute little Shuffle while wedded to an IV pole at the cancer center?

I'm due for radiation a little over an hour from now, but there's still quite a lot of fluid in that IV bag. I've seen people waltzing their IV poles into the radiation rooms, but I don't look forward to taking my strong but silent dance partner on that long a journey. It's hard enough stumbling around on my own two left feet, but the IV pole has five. Come to think of it, five feet ought to make the pole more proficiently mobile than I am. Maybe I'll let the IV pole carry me over there. Your lead, sir.

Serious beeping this time. Infusion complete? The nurse checks: "Just a few more drops." But the end is near! I'll be done in plenty of time for radiation, and I don't even feel awful. Slow, yes, and not entirely connected to reality, but not awful. Awful comes later. Trust me: you'd rather not know.

My ears are full of Chopin, a condition for which a doctor ought to be able to prescribe something. If Chopin were a medical disorder, what symptoms would it produce?

The nurse tells me my color looks good, but my appearance has changed enough to bring tears to the eyes of one colleague yesterday and to spark absolutely no recognition in the eyes of another. Ye shall know me by my scarves.

The nurse unhooks the IV and flushes out the medi-port with saline solution, which immediately creates in my mouth a flavor I can only describe as antiseptic, as if I've been gargling Lysol. This is good news: I'm done with the drip and I can move on to radiation without the assistance of my dance partner.

Now I'm in the radiation waiting room, a cozy space enlivened by the presence of a large aquarium where colorful tropical fish swim for my amusement. They're much more entertaining than Regis and Kelly and far less likely to babble. Bubble, yes; babble, no.

Radiation is easy: lie still and let the machine do its work. At first all the beeping and buzzing were a bit disconcerting, but after eight treatments, I find it easy to block out the noise and fall asleep in the arms of Elekta the elegant linear accelerator.

The women who work here are young and petite, but when it's time to man-handle my body to make sure ever inch is lined up correctly, they have no problem shoving me around like a sack of potatoes. I'd like to see them try that when I'm not lying flat on my back half naked. Then again, maybe not: they have me outnumbered.

The route to Elekta's lair takes me down a nondescript medical office hallway and then down a narrow corridor decorated like the entrance to Grandma's parlor: homey pictures line the wall around a faux brick fireplace topped with dried flower arrangements and family photos. So warm and inviting and homelike...but then I turn the corner and find myself in Sick Bay on the Enterprise. I wonder whether cognitive dissonance is an essential part of the treatment.

1:45 and I have nothing to say. Tired of waiting. Feeling sleepy. Time to shut down for a little while.

2:15 and I'm done! I drifted off to sleep during radiation and then jerked awake moments later, which sort of messed up all that careful positioning. Fortunately, Elekta had reached the last stage in her enigmatic machinations.

Now I'm outside on the sunny courtyard waiting for my wonderful colleague to collect me. Feeling good so far. A little wobbly, a little warped, but not at all awful.

But if I did feel awful, I would strive to make some humor out of it. It's hard to make humor out of a long day of waiting and boredom, but awfulness...well, if I can't make humor out of suffering, then what's it good for?

The naked truth

"Let me be the first to admit that the naked truth about me is to the naked truth about Salvador Dali as an old ukelele in the attic is to a piano in a tree, and I mean a piano with breasts."

James Thurber wrote that wonderful sentence in a 1943 essay called "The Secret Life of James Thurber," and how wonderful is it to be teaching a class with a textbook that includes this essay?

But that reminds me of another naked truth: for years I've been telling my humor classes that James Thurber once said that the essence of humor is the willingness to place oneself on painful public record. I believe that, and I believe Thurber said it, but where? I haven't been able to track the statement down anywhere. If you Google "Thurber" with "public record," you get a whole lot of hits referring to some other Thurber, Fred Thurber or Mike Thurber or Joe Thurber, whose entry into the public record has more to do with crime than with humor. So now I don't know whether to keep telling my students that the essence of humor is the willingness to place oneself on painful public record without attribution, or perhaps I should admit the naked truth about my inability to locate the source. Help?

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Writing about not writing

A New York Times review of Lorrie Moore's new book, A Gate at the Stairs, explains the challenges Moore faced in completing her novel: as a single mother teaching creative writing at the University of Wisconsin, she had trouble finding uninterrupted time to focus on writing. The review quotes fellow writer Jayne Anne Phillips, who "said balancing a job and child-rearing with writing had shaped Ms. Moore's work. 'The double edge of it is that I think any form of real spiritual surrender does inform one's work,' Ms. Phillips said. 'But the problem is that oftentimes one doesn't have time to write the work.'"

I hear that.

I've known from the start that writing would be one key to sanity as I snake my way through the months of chemotherapy and radiation and their various side effects, but when can I write it all down? I can't write in class or in transit or while I'm in the grip of Elekta the elegant linear accelerator, and I can't write when I'm doped up on anti-nausea drugs or falling asleep on the sofa at 7 in the evening (on a good day). I can't write while I'm walking, but walking clears my head and helps me work through ideas to write down later--if I don't fall asleep first. I can't find any long, uninterrupted spans of time to devote to sitting in front of the computer, so I'm taking advantage of fleeting moments and writing in short spurts (like this one).

Anthony Doerr explained that while he was doing research for "Village 113," a terrific short story about change and growth and planting seeds, he ran across this quote from Pope John XXIII: "An old world disappears, another one is being formed, and within this I am trying to conceal some good seed or other that will have its springtime, even if it is somewhat delayed." Maybe someday I'll have the luxury of taking the long view, spending some leisurely time pulling things together and making something more sustained and meaningful than these daily musings, but meanwhile, I'm planting seeds and waiting for springtime.

Tie one on

Yesterday a bunch of friends and colleagues showered me with hats and scarves, enough to keep my bald head colorfully covered for quite some time. I've mastered the Gypsy Queen look--all I need is a crystal ball.

If I had a crystal ball, it might show a time when I won't need scarves or chemotherapy or radiation any more...but I'm certain it would reveal a future in which I am eternally grateful for the support of wonderful friends!