(This is a post I started months ago and found in my drafts folder.)
I have a friend — an acquaintance who is the spouse of a friend — who has a particularly virulent form of cancer. Last night he wrote on Facebook about the impossibility, in his current situation, of planning for the future, and about trying to live in the reality of the moment and have fun.
I woke up this morning with the kernel of anxiety that is my almost constant companion and I thought about his post, and about that state of no longer planning for the future.
This one night when I was at Cancer Camp, we had a dance. We jumped around to pop music while wearing funny hats and vests and feathery boas from a trunk in the corner and it was a true celebration. It was also surreal, because as I danced, I looked around the room and knew that some of us might be dead soon and that part of “some of us” might be me. But because we were all in the same boat, it seemed strangely okay.
I think often about how much our (or my) ability to enjoy life is social. So much is context. Discontent — or maybe just anxiety – comes from having your expectations exist side by side with other people’s expectations. It’s easy to eat a vegetable plate if vegetables are all that’s at the table and everybody is happy with vegetables. It’s harder if you’re surrounded by people eating pizza – especially if they want you to partake, and your veggie plate is making them feel bad. When I lived in the Outback, I happily wore the same rotation of clothes for months, but when we visited the city and everybody had shiny shoes, suddenly everything I had felt faded and dusty. Death seems like it should be bigger and more important than all of that stuff, but what I found was that it was pretty similar. It was easy to talk about dying with other people who were ill, and harder to talk about it around healthy people. Healthy people like to have conversations about their plans and their futures and things they hope to achieve. Today I am one of those healthy people. I talk about plans. I have career decisions to make, and many worries about the future.
But that memory of the time that I stopped planning lives inside me. It was a very specific feeling. All my concerns about success or failure dropped away. One week I was furiously working toward a deadline for a grant for a little documentary, the next week it felt completely unimportant. It was sad at first, but it was freeing. These days, when projects hit obstacles, as they seem to constantly, I remember how easily it can all feel unimportant, and it’s oddly comforting.
I also think how lucky I was to have experienced that feeling of freedom with like-minded comrades who could appreciate it with me — to have felt the kinship of dancing into the night with others who were equally uncertain of what the next day might bring.
Last night I checked out a monthly literary and music event called Library Girl. Each month the theme for the evening is inspired by a musical artist, and a line from a song. This evening’s inspiration was “Hot Tramp, I Love You So” from the David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel,” one of those songs I don’t remember hearing for the first time, but which seems like it has been ever-present and familiar.
I attended the event because a friend was reading, not out of any great Bowie fandom, but the choice to go seemed particularly fitting when I saw the first obituary only a few hours after.
This morning I watched the music video released on his 69th birthday, two days before his death. It’s called “Lazarus.”
I’ve been extra aware, lately, of aging artists, and thinking about what it means to age as an artist, recognized or unrecognized. I was affected by this depiction, not only of dying, but of the continuing struggle to create, to think of the right phrase, to make art even through, even out of, the process of dying. So much comes into play in this video: Bowie’s age, his illness, his celebrity, his ironic stance. It’s not bombastic. I’d guess it’s exactly what he set out to make — a fitting goodbye.
I’ll keep this post short and wrap up with a poppy, boppy song that permeated my teen years, the kind of song that I could imagine (if not remember) being a pep-band song at our basketball games:
My yearly scans: colonscopy, endoscopy, various ultrasounds and a trip to the dermatologist, are like my annual mini-gauntlet that must be run before the pleasant holidays. The first on that list is, of course, the least favorite, due to the day of fasting, followed by the night-long uncomfortable evening of “prep.”
That evening was last night. To make up for the lack of sleep, food, and physical comfort, I try to offer myself other pleasures in the form of reading or watching multiple episodes of a TV show (TV tends to work a better than movies because frequent bathroom breaks are somehow more conducive TV.
Last night I checked out Master of None, the Netflix series created by Aziz Ansari and loved it.
I spent some time trying to figure out the ongoing mystery why my friends keep liking our Lovers In Their Right Mind Facebook page but they don’t show up on our counter and we can’t seem to break the the 500 fans threshold. Although some Facebook support pages indicate that this is due to people’s privacy settings, this seems inaccurate in our case, and more and like a ploy to back us into a corner where we have to pay to “boost” our visibility, but before falling prey to my own cynicism I decided to call my brother and making him play with his privacy settings. It made no difference, so my cynicism is intact, but we also got a chance to chat and I found out he also has a blog, related to learning science and his current job working with education and underprivileged youth. It’s pretty groovy.
Today the “procedure” went okay, but for the fact the surgeon had to remove some tissue and fasten the wound with clips. Not to worry, he says, I just need to eat clear liquids for two days, after which I can have not-clear liquids for two more days. By no means the worst outcome (as I know from having worse outcomes) but it definitely sucked some of my joy to look forward to eating something delicious this evening and then learn that I will be liquid-fasting for four more days.
But I can’t feel too sorry for myself because over the weekend I finished reading my friend Dan’s harrowing memoir Home is Burning, wherein his dad, increasingly paralyzed by ALS, goes on a feeding tube for the last months of his life — the end of solid food — and then dies. So that’s some perspective, I guess. As long as I can avoid getting hit by a truck in the next four days, non-liquid food is almost certainly in my future.
Facebook has this thing now where it randomly shows you a picture from your timeline on a random anniversary of when it first appeared. Last week it showed me this one:
I’m standing outside the convention center at Dragon Con in Atlanta, checking out the line of people waiting to see the big-screen premiere of Paul’s movie Rock Jocks.
What’s less visible is that I’m also standing there with a new cancer diagnosis that I got about a week before we were due in Atlanta…
…Which was about two days before I got word that the studio where my script that was in development had accepted my draft…but wanted a new writer.
As you can imagine, I have mixed feelings when I look at this picture, taken at a moment when so many futures seemed possible.
Paul’s movie was finished. It had (kind of) famous people in it. Several people (including Paul) thought it might launch his career, get him representation and more opportunities.
My script was on the development slate at a studio. If it got made, I could be able to pay off my school loans, get representation and other opportunities.
The cancer, according to the biopsy and my doctors, was an aggressive one. The surgeon I met with was committed to an equally aggressive procedure, worried that otherwise the future didn’t look bright.
In case you’re waiting in suspense, rest assured that three years later, neither the surgeon’s direst predictions, nor the promises and predictions of execs and producers came to pass. Our lives are very similar to what they were three years ago.
However, things didn’t just “stay the same.” There were ups and downs… it just happened to turn out that the end result was sameness.
For no good reason, I feel like that up-and-down journey should have taught me something. I’m not sure it did, but I’m going to share some thoughts anyway, cuz this is my blog and I can do what I want.
Things I have come to believe since this picture was taken:
It doesn’t help to buy into people’s drama.
No matter what it looks like, nobody can predict the future.
Even though no one–including you–can predict your future, you still have to take responsibility for it as much as you can.
Here’s some examples that I think support my beliefs:
On the health front, I didn’t panic when I got the cancer diagnosis—(there’s an ironic advantage to having cancer a second time) and I didn’t buy into the first surgeon’s drama. I found a different surgeon who was willing to listen to my wishes and consider my individual circumstances. The surgery we chose was less invasive, and less likely to impair my quality of life down the road. Today I enjoy good health, and while there was loss, I feel okay about it—I think because I took an active role in making the decision.
Professionally… neither Paul’s nor my projects met with their hoped-for success. That’s pretty common, but I believe I feel less good than I could about those experiences because in both cases, I think we didn’t take a much responsibility as we might have. We let ourselves be in awe of the hierarchy and put too much faith into people who had titles like “producer” and “executive, ” and who worked for companies with names. It’s hard to know exactly what we should have done differently…or what we would do differently now. But maybe in the writing process I could have asserted my authority as a writer and better resisted bad ideas instead of trying to make them work. With Rock Jocks, when we saw there was no real marketing I wonder what would have happened if we took it on the road ourselves.
There were a lot of reasons we didn’t do those things. Lack of experience for one, and lack of resources for another–it would have been an almost impossible drain of money and time to arrange a tour, and travel and promotional materials all at the same time I was having cancer. On top of that we didn’t want to overstep boundaries, not really understanding what those boundaries were. It was our first time out of the gate, so I’m not mad at us—but I associate our inability to take active roles at key moments to the twinge of disappointment I feel when I recall these two potential “big-break” opportunities than didn’t live up to their potential.
Cancer and making movies – two very different experiences that actually have striking similarities:
Both intense when you are going through them.
Both will keep you up at night and haunt your dreams.
Both arrive on your doorstep with authorities (doctors, producers etc.) to give you guidance and talk about “being on your team.”
Both are highly emotional situations where it’s easy to confuse peoples’ relationship with your project (or illness) as being a relationship with you. (It’s not. Even when they have a great bedside manner. It’s not.)
Both are cases where the people around you are obligated to make choices that are “defendable.” Sometimes those will be the perfect choices for you. Sometimes not so much.
Both are cases where the only person willing to question questionable choices is you.
Both great examples of how no one cares about your health as much as you. No one cares about your script as much as you. No one cares about your movie or your career as much as you.
I get that at a certain points you have to put yourself in the hands of other people. You can’t do surgery on yourself. You can’t single-handedly finance and make a movie. You can’t know everything and control everything.
Three years later, I feel like I’m again at a point of opportunity. My plan is to learn as much as I can; do as much work as I’d do if I were my own, even if it seems like I won’t be; really appreciate the help I am given–at the same time understanding it might be temporary.
Will any of that make things work out better than they did three years ago? Well, no one can predict the future…
Lately I’ve been writing quite a lot, along with my co-writer. In the last three weeks we finished a full draft of a screenplay, which is faster than I’ve ever written a first draft–but it wasn’t pretty, and honestly neither is the draft. Which is not to disparage it–you don’t disparage a big lump of clay that vaguely resembles an elephant–it’s not bad, it’s too early for it to be good or bad. Unless, of course, you put it on display with other people’s more finished elephants, and say it should look like an elephant–which is (of course) what we have done, submitting applications to the Film Independent and Sundance Labs. Whatever. The deadlines were helpful in softening the clay and doing the initial elephant, so maybe that is the reward in itself.
The first deadline was May 1st, and the second was May 5th. Even if you have drafted some of the materials, like artistic statements, synopses, and cover letters, the last days before these deadlines always involve a five and six hours sessions of revising and polishing, so by the evening of the fifth I was pretty fried–getting home a little late to start the prep for my annual round of “medical screenings” on the 6th. Yes–those screenings.
I arrived at the hospital in my normal state–cleaned out and dehydrated–and realized we were doing an upper endoscopy as well as the colonoscopy, and discovered that since I apparently gagged a little on the tube the last go round, I was getting a deeper general anesthesia this time. They found a few things in both stomach and colon to remove–which everyone seems to take in stride, but it’s not my favorite–it makes me feel like there’s some failure in the system. Either I’ve been laxer in my diet, or my body is just getting old and deteriorating–my telomeres are getting shorter or whatever. I know it’s both, though I only have control over one: I’ve been going with the flow, eating meat just to be agreeable, giving in to my sugar cravings, and not juicing and eating a ton of cabbage. The thought of re-establishing all sorts of discipline makes me tired, especially when my whole body is bloated from being inflated with air, and sore from being snipped at. I stayed home from work yesterday and went today. This afternoon at my desk I was thinking, in words, that I feel like my life force is being sucked out of me. A few minutes later the doctor called today to say they needed to cut something out that they couldn’t do on Tuesday, so I’ll need to do it all again in a month. The thing they are cutting is “not cancer” which means I’m at the high-class problem end of the spectrum for being part of a demographic that is highly susceptible to cancer, but I’m throwing myself a very tiny pity party anyway. In two weeks I’m also having and MRI and an x-ray to make sure that the back pain I’m having is also of the “not cancer” variety. Let’s all pray that I don’t look back and wish for tonight’s problems. Count your blessings and be grateful for them, otherwise, when there’s less, you have to look back and feel like an asshole.