Posted in Publish or Perish on April 14, 2013 by Susan Weiss
April 14, 2013
It's OK. You can make jokes about cancer if you know me well enough that you understand where the lines are that you'd better not cross. I make jokes about cancer--well, about my own cancer, anyway. I don't, though, take well to cancer as the subject of humor by someone who I have no personal relationship with--say, a stand-up comedian or the cashier at a grocery store--or someone who hasn't the teeniest, tiniest notion of what it's like to have a life-threatening illness.
Humor, so they say, is essential to staying well, at least as well as someone who isn't well can manage.
I'm much less inclined to be amused by jokes about only semi-successful writers--especially about me—than by jokes about cancer. Fortunately, I can't recall any such joke being delivered in my presence. I can't even imagine a joke about unrewarded literary toil. (A bit of an exaggeration, true, the part about me being unrewarded as a writer.) Or maybe I can.
Posted in Publish or Perish on March 31, 2013 by Susan Weiss
March 31, 2013
Several years ago, I accidentally watched the last half or so of the movie Saving Private Ryan. I was an out-of-town guest at a friend’s house and much more of a night owl than anyone in the family, so I was invited to poke around in the kitchen or use the TV until I was somewhere near sleepy.
The movie tells the story of an army unit’s mission to find a young soldier whose mother has already lost her other two sons to the war—World War II. Just after finding Private Ryan, the soldiers encounter an enemy and are forced into a horribly violent battle, during which the commanding officer is killed. In the last scene of the movie, an aged Private Ryan, with his family in tow, visits the cemetery where this officer, Captain Miller, is buried. He asks the dead Captain Miller whether his (Ryan’s) life had been worth the sacrifice of Captain Miller’s life. .
I have rarely experienced the jolt of empathy I got from watching this scene; how many people live with the onus that someone else’s life was given in order that she or he might continue to live? I have often, during the past 22 years, asked the same question of my unborn daughter, Thea. I was pregnant with her when first diagnosed with breast cancer, and I complied with the emphatic medical advice I received to terminate the pregnancy so that I could receive the strong and toxic treatment I needed.
Posted in Publish or Perish on March 19, 2013 by Susan Weiss
March 20, 2013
For years a certain question has been knocking around my head like an old shoe, getting kicked aside, sometimes buried under other shoes. But it’s always there, and when it emerges into consciousness, I try to hide the old shoe under a bed or behind a lobe of my brain. The question is this: Is it true that each successive cancer treatment is effective for a shorter period of time until finally, none of them work at all?
My original oncologist here in Burlington brought this to my attention. Though he was a wonderfully encouraging and uplifting doctor, he was also very clear about the facts. This information has haunted me even though I have a long way to go yet—I think. I hope.
But in the world of cancer, change is a given.
Posted in Publish or Perish on March 13, 2013 by Susan Weiss
March 13, 2013
When I learn of the success of some writer I don’t know, say a novelist who has had a first book published, or another whose short-story collection just won her a prize, I have to admit I feel the slightest bit of envy. Not if it’s someone I know, though so many of my fellow/sister writers are slogging along through the mire of literary rejections just like me.
But when I read a published short story or even a novel that I’m not terribly impressed with, I’m not bothered at all by the author’s success. If anything, I feel more convinced than ever that who or what gets published is at least in some part a crap shoot. (I want to assert that I’m delighted by a good portion of published literature.) So whether or not something of mine gets accepted in this or that literary journal or by this or that publisher isn’t necessarily a reflection of its merit.
I suppose I could say something comparable about learning of a good, a miraculous CT scan result of any of the women I know with stage 4/metastatic cancer. Sure, I’d love to be blessed with equally wonderful results, but I don’t begrudge them their reprieves. (Do I envy them? Hard to say.) If anything, I’m cheered by the medical advances that are making this or that breast cancer survivor live on and on. And yes, I guess there’s an element, too, of comfort in the realization that this, too, is a crap shoot—who lives and who dies, who makes it halfway to the finish line and who collapses after a short sprint. No need to search too deeply for a cause, an explanation, an underlying logic. In a way, it’s much easier to accept an arbitrary fate than the inescapable, hard focus of too much certainty.
Posted in Publish or Perish on February 17, 2013 by Susan Weiss
February 24, 2013
Not long ago I spent an hour bagging groceries at my local co-op, a task which earns me a member-worker discount on purchases. Just that morning I had been to my oncologist and got some not-very-good news, but I wasn’t drenched in misery—just bracing myself for change. Yet when a customer and the cashier began lamenting the lack of snow and its impact on the skiing season, culminating in “I wish it would snow,” I blurted out, “I wish I didn’t have cancer.”
Several days later I received a phone call from a co-op staff person, who, very graciously I must say, cautioned me about discussing my cancer while dealing with customers. She was sympathetic to my plight but explained that more than one person had complained about the incident, or at least reported it. I couldn’t remember if I had referred to my cancer more than that one time during the hour of bagging but was certain that I hadn’t launched into gross descriptions of the side effects of medication or what it’s like to have death lurking inches away.
I was most upset that the cashier hadn’t brought this up to me himself, since I thought we had a pretty decent rapport. Anyway, my exchange with the staff person ended with me pledging that this wouldn’t happen again.
But the conversation lingered in my mind, and so about a week later, I went to the co-op and asked to speak with this same staff person. We had another conversation that more or less reiterated each of our points. I was told that there is always someone at the co-op who would talk to me if I needed that kind of support (why would I seek it out there?) but that the checkout line wasn’t the place to bring up the subject of cancer. I would like to believe that in the best of all possible worlds, when this staff person heard the complaints about me, she would have shown appreciation for the complainers’ discomfort but then suggested that we all need to show compassion for people who are having a hard time.
Soon afterwards I was in my son’s room and happened to catch sight of a book on his shelf: Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. I took the book off the shelf and began to read it, then scanned through more of it. While the book was primarily focused on photographs of suffering and misery, I gathered that Sontag’s subject was people’s aversion to being exposed to other people’s pain.