Archive for August, 2010

with your best breath

My dad has lung cancer.”

Oh, did he smoke?”

This response happens more often than not, and it hurts. Sympathy comes second when you share the news of lung cancer.

Lung cancer isn’t sexy, and it’s a disease for which it’s tempting to blame the victim. But lung cancer is far from the only cancer with links to lifestyle factors. According the National Cancer Institute,

  • “Studies suggest that people whose diet is high in fat have an increased risk of cancers of the colon, uterus, and prostate.”
  • “Lack of physical activity and being overweight are risk factors for cancers of the breast, colon, esophagus, kidney, and uterus.” [1]

We all make choices we know are bad for us (I’m looking at you, Häagen-Dazs, you minx). It’s human nature.

Those who blame the victim see a lifestyle choice leading to a natural conclusion. We see our fathers, mothers, and loved ones gasping for air. We see a light put out too soon.

Searching frantically for any food our loved ones can hold down during chemo to keep up crucial strength. Watching them go bald and shrink, our powerful parents reverting to helpless babies. In these moments, does it help to know that in the swirling cauldron of cancer causes, a lifestyle choice may be to blame for the mutant cells? No. In the moment of agony, what matters is the person, as he is now.

Yes, my dad smoked. He quit seventeen years ago. Luckily, blessedly, he seems to be responding well to radiation and chemo. He is the exception to the rule, and the exception to my worst fears, after watching one of this world’s sassiest, brightest lights—my dear friend’s vibrant young mother—get put out by this heartbreaking disease in May 2008.

No one on this beautiful Earth deserves cancer. Let’s focus our energy on helping today’s smokers quit—supporting them and understanding the very real complexities of addiction—and trying to keep kids from ever starting. A criticism of a cancer victim is a waste of precious breath. And let’s work for a cure for every cancer.

At the very least, please keep in mind that when someone tells you her loved one has lung cancer—and with more than 222,000 new cases expected this year alone[2], sadly you likely will—please don’t ask the smoking question. Please respond with the same sympathy as you would to any other disease. To patients and those who care for them, that sympathy and resistance to stigma means the world.

1. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/cancer/page4

2. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/commoncancers


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We felt something we couldn’t name. More each day, gray seeped in around the edges of our privileged college lives and quietly menaced the ordinary colors. Nothing was really wrong, but something wasn’t quite right.

Our creative writing professor taught us: ennui. Maybe we should have known it already, at twenty and word nerds. It comes from annoyance and to vex and to make loathsome, the sense of weariness and boredom. We were in the middle of college, disenchanted with our liberal arts majors, zero plans for the future that, uncaring, accelerated toward us. We wanted to enforce its speed limit. The three of us drifted together and allied against this gray creeping.

We fought it with crayons, reverting to our earliest methods of fun. We painted. Laura and I made fun of Dex, how we’d covered our canvasses already and he was still stuck trying to finish a nose.

We fought it with alcohol, with so very much red wine. On one night, with a pitcher of Long Islands Laura and I got some stranger to buy for us by batting our eyelashes at him, ignoring him after the money changed hands.

We fought it homeopathically sometimes, adding darkness to darkness in parks at midnight. Laura and Dex were small and quick and daring; I was thick and slow-moving, a slave to rules and order, afraid of everything. Still I swung and climbed through the night, park rules be damned. I had hated swings even as a six-year-old; now the queasy swimming sensation felt like a small victory.

Photo by 00hCaffiene via a Creative Commons license

Music worked, always, and dancing as silly as we could. The sound and movement reshaped the air around us and inside us and needled the edges of the gray lump, vexing what vexed us. We had these dance parties where we’d blast oldies out of my car in random parking lots, seeing if we could get strangers to join in while we created our peace while disturbing others’. Near the end of it all Laura made a CD soundtrack to our friendship that is the closest thing to a time machine I’ve ever known.

We were our best selves outside, barefoot, running through corn mazes and garden paths, rolling down hills. We wore the wrong things to parties on purpose, swore too much, and fed on arguments.

We broke out by breaking in. One Wednesday at midnight we decided to take off. We drove three hours to the city and broke into a closed-off stretch of lakefront beach. I had never climbed a fence before. We invented rituals and cast our sadness into the water, and it worked. We drove back to school, getting back just before class, and went to writing workshop exhausted and exhilarated.

Those gray feelings were growing pains, I can see now. Teeth hiding beneath the surface waiting to rupture and we the unsuspecting children without the language to name our pain. And we did grow up, and grew together and apart and in three different directions. And of course ennui shows up from time to time, pushing me from inside, and I fight it like they’re with me. I reach for colors; I swing.

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work history

I started out serving french fries and sodas to a group of bopping teens who didn’t know they had a werewolf problem. I moved on to a gate attendant gig at an airport, but there was something fishy about that place. Every single ticket was one-way. Creepy, I tell ya.

I stayed at home for a while, helping my nephew get himself out of a pickle. Some guy called Mr. Bumpus just wouldn’t leave him alone. I was a lackey in a chocolate factory that needed some work, safetywise. Then it was on to my real dream: NYC. I went there with three bucks and two bags and I stayed at the Y. I wanted my name in lights, but even I can’t tell you how that story ended. It’s weird: all I remember is my random declaration of burning ambition in a busy plaza where everyone looked like they were in the Depression.

I spent some Christmases in Wales where it was always snowing. I was a telephone operator, old-fashioned like. I worked at a beach resort, was a flunky for a prince, lived in Oklahoma, and was the girlfriend of an immigrant gang member.

I’ve hung out with some weird artistic types. I was a New York socialite, partying with these musical theater composers who would not stop fighting. Time seemed to move backward in those crazy years. And I worked for this classical composer guy, one of those child geniuses you hear about. He was a real womanizer, but I never got caught up in that. Mostly I stayed silent and moved his furniture around.

For a while I lived with some Jewish sisters, but mostly I’ve been Christian. I knew two guys who acted like they were Jesus and I have to admit, I followed them like they were. I was young.

I was working as a missionary when I fell in love with this gambler, who hated me at first. I’d never been in love before. I guess I had been uptight.

In Iowa I cavorted with the mayor and led middle-aged ladies in therapeutic interpretive dances. Thanks to this librarian chick who moved to town, I got over my fear of libraries and fell in love with Balzac.

I stood nobly by the other ladies of my town when we refused to give it up, to stop a war. I searched for one special boy to laugh with, joke with, and have Coke with, and our peaceful suburbia got turned upside down when this stupid rock star came to visit. I spent what seemed like years talking in a dining room.

I worked in a corny hat shop and paraded around the city with my boss and some guys who sold chicken feed for a living. We ended up in night court
but we got off the hook. It didn’t make a ton of sense, but I got to wear some great hats.

dayplaying: Christmas tree

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Like watermelon. Like horchata and bat-crack and thick night air.

Like Claire on our walk, too tired: “The moon wants to carry me, but he’s too far away.”

T calling to tell me to look at the moon. So many sweet moon things.

Post-dance declaration of love (in the cold). The six-year effort to requite it.

Brother cats who curl up in each other’s soft arms, looking mildly embarrassed when you walk in on them. Trotsky’s muffin paw on my manuscript, face, mouth.

The final few months before boys became a constant theme of our narratives. Silly craft projects: tank tops with too many beads; floral flip-flops we made ourselves and wore with pride. A simplicity and pureness of friendship to which it takes far too long to return.

A stolen key from a broken piano.

Fruit buffet after Megan is gone. Self-soothing healthy gorging.

The duck fuzz slowly growing back on Dad’s pale head.

Both nice memories of Grandma: offering to cut my PBJ into a heart shape, like on the commercial; taking it literally the day I learned “we all scream for ice cream.”

Like someone taking the dumbest job for me, selling the un-English-major-iest of wares to be near me.

Like being walked to class, and like freshman dance, the first time a straight boy asked me to dance really. Like dancing slow to a fast song playing coming too low from someone’s boombox they brought from home, in a too-lit industrial-ugly cafeteria. In the next moment his friend will tell him a lie about me, and he will not speak to me for the rest of high school. But it is then and was now so sweet.

photo by miss vichon

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I am playing at Carrie’s, like always. She calls me over to look at something in her dollhouse and instead of walking over like a normal person, I try to vault over the couch like it’s a gymnastics horse, legs swung sideways. I am chubby. I fall.

My arm is now C-shaped. I think it’s awesome because I don’t have to go to violin lessons the next day and because Carrie’s parents give me a get-well present with the best of swag: a box of mac n’ cheese and a new Sweet Valley Twins book.


I am wrong coming out. My hip is out of its socket and I have to wear a hilarious white plastic brace such that it appears I am constantly hatching out of a futuristic egg.

I decide to surprise my mom when she brings the groceries in by hiding behind the heavy door from the garage to the house. I am spatially unintelligent. I get my left pinky stuck in the hinge and its tip falls off. Blood is gushing our Christmas-themed dish towelred reindeer. I learn what paramedics means. Surprise!

Care Bears swingset, unfortunate jump from top of slide, bolt, and lifelong back scar.

She is an awful little girl, as I’ll find out many times over. She steals my coat at recess and makes me chase her for it. I lumber up to her and she clotheslines me with it. Onto the blacktop for concussion number one. The lunchlady everyone always made fun of carries me into the nurse’s office. I feel a secret gratitude toward her then on, and even if I’d had voice enough to participate in the teasing I wouldn’t have had the heart.


Gameboy, clumsy, rugburn, super ivory whitegirl skin, and lifelong knee scar.

My teenage jaw popping out of its socket whenever I get nervous. I get nervous a lot.

A long and ominous spell where everything is okay.

Ankle on the sidewalk on the way to White Horse. I still stay for karaoke. No one at the hospital believes it happened before getting drunk. The staff talks to Jenn instead of me, though I am not doped up yet and certainly (again) not drunk. It is a just a sprain. I eschew crutches for hopping.

Heart, twice. Soul, once.

Tendonitis from too many hours typing at my first real job. Too many hours like multiple two-AMs too many hours. I have to wear this claw hand thing and no one at work says anything nice to me about it. It contributes greatly to my decision to quit, to which I’ve been slowly eking up over the course of a year.

I am picking up my stepcat, who is acting weird and hiding behind the couch. I hit my head on the windowsill on the way up. Stars and a long nap and I think I’m okay, other than the sadness of an empty apartment; the boyfriend is traveling too much for work and even when we’re both there these days, the apartment feels empty. A few days later, I awake from a short nap feeling absolutely sure I am going to die. Mary takes me to the emergency room where four hours later they tell me it’s a concussion (number two!) and concussive syndrome, which means you feel like you have a concussion for a long time. It lasts a month.

A long and ominous spell where everything is okay.

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Three in Ten

I wrote this for a story contest (write about your high school reunion). Names changed, some details too, to protect those who can no longer speak for themselves. Advance apologies if it seems I’m romanticizing anything here or capitalizing on the horror. My intention was just to tell the truth as I felt it.

June 2009

The class of ’99 files into the room. Ten years earlier, we’d graduated from high school. Now we meet in a rental hall and eat chicken and green beans almandine, like we did at prom. I’ve driven in from my apartment in the city, and I’ve chosen an outfit that meets my goals for our reunion: to show everyone that (1) I have confidence now and (2) I have boobs now. The fuchsia halter dress is far from the choir robe and unfortunate bib overalls of high school me.

The popular girls are all here, beautiful still and pleasantly uniform in their life paths: teaching certificate, businessman husband, a baby at home or in the works with another planned in the next few years. I sit with my choir nerd friends, happy to see how they’ve bloomed and hear who still sings.

I crack prepackaged jokes about my job (“I put commas in junk mail!”) and tell tales about my big-city life. It’s all nice and generally uneventful, which, for our class, is a wonderful relief.

November 2005

The class of ’99 files into the room. Well, the honors crowd, at least, and the hippie kids, and the artists. I’ve driven in from my apartment in Oak Park, my very first real-world apartment, paid for with real money scraped together from my real assistant editor job. My outfit is thrown together, dark: later I’ll learn that in a fluster, I had put my shirt on backward.

Adam has come in from upstate New York, where he’s working on his PhD. Jon was on tour with his almost-famous band and canceled a few shows to come home. All our teachers are here, happy to hear of our small successes. We were an especially strong class.

No one has said exactly what happened to Brian, but it seems that it wasn’t an accident. A quarterlife crisis of the worst sort—an extreme version of that drift we all felt after college, the feeling that you’re the only one trapped in your hometown while your brilliant friends have set sail.

Until the month before, I’d been in the same situation, but too shy and sullen to reach out and see if anyone else was still around. I sign my name on the acoustic guitar they’re burying with him.

Later that night we unite at a bar and toast to Brian’s poetry and engineer-brilliance and dry, perfect humor. We drink and dance, manic, the end-of-the-world sad and boundless feeling of mourning young death, watching towers fall, of being as alive as we can because it is our duty.

October 2004

The class of ’99 files into the room. We’ve only been out of college for a little over a year. I’ve driven the short distance from my parents’ house, where I have been living with my liberal arts degree. I’ve been on a couple of interviews lately, so luckily I have a suit. But it’s not a lucky day.

Sarah is at the front of the room. Small, sweet, athletic Sarah, popular but genuine, just didn’t wake up one morning last week. Her heart just stopped. She just stopped, right when we’re all beginning.

She was nice to me every time I got the guts to speak to her in high school, but mostly I’d watched Sarah from afar, wishing I could be that vivacious. At the reception afterward, I’m awkward around her friends, but I summon up the courage to at least say hi: today there is no in-crowd. I have no clue who I am or how I’ll make my way out of this town, but I am alive.

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

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