Cancers R Us

In the Nov. 8 New Yorker Steven Shapin has an interesting review of “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Among other things, Shapin notes: In chemotherapy, too, the lines between cruelty and cure have not always been obvious, nor have consciences always been untroubled.
Shapin also notes: The book also has little to say about prevention, aside from the campaign against tobacco, comparing the book to Robert Proctor’s “Cancer Wars” (1995)epidemiologist Devra Davis' in “The Secret History of the War on Cancer” (2007).


Tonight at rowing practice (indoors) we were to row hard for one minute, then not as hard for one minute, for a total of 40 minutes. After 20 minutes I got a hot flash and felt enervated, which does happen after I've exercised a while. Then I get my energy back. This time it didn't come back and I felt light-headed and so I stopped, still sitting there on the erg (rowing machine) and moving my feet a little. I was sweating and weeping, weeping because that's what I do when I'm in physical distress. I was shaking and my heart seemed to be beating fast but when I timed it, it was slow. I couldn't get control of my breath. I wondered if I was having a heart attack, but thought probably not. Everyone else kept rowing and I wondered what would have happened if it really were a heart attack or if I had a stroke. Eventually, would they just step over me? The person next to me asked if I was OK and I shook my head. She asked if I wanted to lie down and I said no. Eventually the coaches noticed and got me some food. I had just eaten some bread and cheese at a cocktail party, so I don't think that lack of nourishment was the problem. And I hadn't had any alcohol. I was shaken up and people asked if I was OK and I would continue to shake my head. I was too upset to really talk. J is a nurse and said that the blood hadn't gone to my limbs. Or maybe she said the opposite, I don't know. The numbness in the hands seemed to be part of the whole about-to-faint scenario. S, one of the coaches, gave herself food-poisoning on Saturday and said she almost fainted Saturday night, and felt the same way. I've never fainted, though I wanted to for years and years because my sister R did.

I got a ride home with the lovely and kind S, and I decided to cancel a video taping tonight. It was at DePaul, for an anthology of nature poetry and essays. I don't know who was doing the taping. My essay is about being afraid of open spaces; fear of the nature is my theme and that essay has been my calling card in a couple of anthologies so far. I'm the anti-nature writer. I called G to get a phone number for C, the guy who was organizing the book and the taping. I left him a message and emailed him and then, unusual for me, didn't worry about it any more. It took me at least an hour to start breathing normally. I think my heart is still beating too deeply. If that can be said about a heart-beat.

I always weep when I scare myself with my physical state. Last week I was talking to a nurse at my phototherapy place (where I am zapped in order to alleviate the itching caused by polycythemia vera) who'd been gone on maternity leave. She said that she'd been in labor 29 hours and had to have a C section, but there wasn't enough time to put her under with general anesthesia, so she'd had local only, and could feel the pressure (and pain) of the doctors cutting her open, and could also feel them taking out her uterus and bladder. I almost cried, she said.

Almost??? If that didn't make her cry, what would?


[Hitchens photo from Vanity Fair, by Jonas Fredwell Karlsson]

My friend S sent me the link to this post from D.G. Meyers, author of The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880, and a person with stage four prostate cancer. He gives advice about what to say to someone with stage four, adding that saying anything is better than being out of touch. He writes: Then there were those who never even contacted me, including my own sister. Nothing quite makes you more aware of the nothingness that awaits you on the other side of Stage Four cancer.
His post begins, in turn, with quotes from Christopher Hitchens' piece in Vanity Fair about cancer etiquette. Here's the link to Miss Manners and the Big C by Hitchens.

Should we have names?

I'm at a nonfiction writers' conference and all the buzz today was about a panel with David Shields that focused on his book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which is a mixed tape of sorts between covers, made up of 618 pieces--about literature, memory, narrative, collage, conventional fiction, forgeries, plagiarism and originality, the flatness of novels, essays--more than half of them written by others than Shields. I'm on page 144 now, and here's part 435, where he's saying that he told his college girlfriend that he wanted a form with only epiphanies. And lo and behold, he's doing it now! I looked in the back and sure enough, the paragraph (#435) was not attributed, so that means it was thought up by Shields and he was the guy in college with the girlfriend. He was on two panels today and i went to the first one, along with about 150 other people who took up almost every seat in the house. It was a panel basically about his book,though there were four other people up there. Two of them read from his book. That seemed like the right idea, to bring out the thoughts and ideas and let them float about the room. The moderator said listening to the duo was exasperating, much like the feeling of reading the book. He wanted narrative. Shields says narrative is a forced form. The world doesn't make sense, so why do we fashion stories that are neat and tidy and full of sense? It's fake, he says. But the whole untidiness of life, I think, makes us yearn for an art that ties things up. At the same time, I don't like writing a regular, straight, linear story. It's not natural for me. And yet am I a hypocrite because I can keep track of a piece of writing better when it has a beginning, middle and end? In the summer after second grade I had the mumps and I read a joke book cover to cover. That is one epiphany after the other, if you can consider a punch line an epiphany.

People were up in arms about originality and attribution because in the galleys (which go to reviewers) the book had no attributions at all. Shield didn't want them, but his publisher's lawyers said he had to have them. The quotes are all Google-able, he said. And besides, his act of curating was an original, idiosyncratic act, and so he is the author. This was a question he'd been asked before. If there's a tyranny of the individual as he says, and we are too entrenched in the idea of the Author, then should he carry his argument further and say that no one's name should be attached to any creation? I asked this question, and I said that he is a revolutionary against capitalistic culture because we are so wedded to the idea of individuality. I imagined our libraries having card catalogs that list books by subject and title only, though of course there aren't physical card catalog drawers and cards any more, everything's on line. In recent Peanuts comic strips (or reprints that have appeared recently in the Tribune), there are a couple of new kids who don't have names but instead have numbers. I forgot the reason. In junior high health class, the teacher asked what we would do to make a stranger remember our names, and a girl named Kristy said she didn't care if someone remembered her name, and that was a revolutionary thought. She just wanted the person to remember her as a person.

Our names don't actually exist, do they? They are a construct. Just like a number is an abstract thing, a collection of sounds and a written symbol to stand for quantity.

I went to dinner with three very smart people, who I will panel with (a verb?) on Saturday and one of them, T, said, We are at the end of the age of reading.
T wrote a very smart review of Reality Hunger in Agni online, which you can read here.

I had volunteered to blog about the conference at and tonight I spent about three hours on three paragraphs. It is as if different URLs are different rooms. I didn't know who I was in the TQO "room." I can be myself in my Cancer Bitch room. But both places are really no where. Just inside the computer, the way the tiny musicians would play songs from inside the radio, that summer when I had the mumps.

We are here at this conference in Iowa City because we are writers and we all want to make a name for ourselves. We want to be remembered. It is threatening, it is the abyss, it is chaos, to think of not attaching our names to our work. Our work being that which comes from our brains and is then shaped. Or we can sigh and let go and say, we will be immortal because we are made up of atoms, which are immortal, and our atoms keep joining the atmosphere so that we are part of everything on earth, so we can never really die, and all the work we create goes from us to the universe, and stays always hanging around the universe, going in and out of other people's brains, and that it is folly to attach a name to the thoughts that flow like that.

My friend K says it is a law in Iowa that parents can wait a whole year after a child's birth to give it a name.

Personal tragedy pay$

I am often critical of Komen and once again I offer an apologia when I mention something good about it. The organization has a scholarship for young people who have suffered. If you meet these criteria you can apply for a $10,000/year scholarship to a state school. Applicants must meet all of the following criteria to be eligible for this scholarship:

* Must have lost a parent/guardian to breast cancer or be a breast cancer survivor diagnosed at 25 years or younger
* Must be a high school senior, college freshman, sophomore or junior
* Must plan to attend a state-supported college or university in the state where they permanently reside (students in Washington DC can attend state-supported schools in Maryland and Virginia)
* Must have a high school and/or college GPA of 2.8 on a 4.0 scale
* Must be no older than 25 years old by May 2011
* Must be a U.S. citizen, or documented permanent resident of the U.S. (or US Territory)
* Never at any time have been subject to any disciplinary action by any institution or entity, including, but not limited to, any educational or law enforcement agency
More info here. Deadline is Jan. 11.