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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Tanya's Awkward Book Launch Speech

So, I'm happy and humbled to announce that my book launch was a resounding success, in the being-surrounded-by-lovely people sense. It's a privilege to be among so many friends and writers whose work I admire. To those who could make it, thanks so much for being there. I wish I'd had more time to spend with each of you. To those who could not make it, happy thanksgiving, my dears! I'll be seeing you soon.

We'd planned to video this speech, because I really wanted to thank people who were instrumental in the creation of Pelee Island Stories, but were unable to be there. Unfortunately, someone forgot to hit record. So I've included the text of my speech below. I'd also promised to share the entire text of Swimming Lessons, the short story from which I read a tiny excerpt. It is here.

Photo credit: The lovely Jeanne Meinke.
"Hi everyone. Thanks for coming. First of all, I have to assign some blame: This is all Adam’s fault. My husband, Adam Coovadia, made me do this. Because, let’s face it, the writer in the room is the last person to be throwing the party. More often, she's the one sitting in a corner, quietly writing down your conversation.

But Adam says art is communication, and that, unless you share your work, it doesn't fully exist. So here we all are. Thanks Adam!

And thanks to Jeff Schorr, proprietor of the amazing Craftsman House Gallery, for offering up this lovely space.


I'd be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the tall, hooded, scythe-wielding elephant in the room. I have terminal cancer. It's a daily fact in my family's life. It's also the reason we're here today, too early, in my opinion, in my career as a writer. But the fact is, I simply don't have a lot of time. And the truth is, none of us do. As Adam says, we're all dying. I'm just doing it a little faster than the rest of you. So I've asked my friends who share this podium to talk about death, if they're comfortable doing so. I encourage all of you to do the same. Death is inevitable, after all. Ignoring it does not make it go away. Or we'd all live forever.

I have so many people to thank, we'd be here forever if I got to them all. Hilary Flower, for example, has been an incredible reader and editor and all-round doula of my work. Dee Gill has been listening to me go on for years about a novel that now resides in a drawer. David Pinto has been an insightful, careful reader of that same novel. Sterling Watson, who sent Peter Mienke in his stead today, has been my valued mentor for years, first at Writers in Paradise, then at Pine Manor College’s Solstice program, where he helped me put together a critical thesis to be proud of. I owe all of these people a lifetime of thanks.


And I have to thank all of you here today, for coming. Thank you very much. Except for you mom--attendance is pretty much mandatory for you.


So now I really have to talk about how this little book came about.


In many group writing situations
an oxymoron if there ever was onethere's this underlying rivalry. A quiet tension that goads you into engaging in what amounts to competitive writing. I think it's because the publishing industry is so capricious (and financially unrewarding) and lately, ineffectual, that writers seem increasingly beside the point. We're all gamely battering ourselves against the industry's walls. Meanwhile, the industry churns out "50 Shades of Dating Your Predator" as though it's actual literature.

It’s true that, historically, the publishing industry's primary role has been to prevent people from publishing.
And, honestly, that's been an important job. There's a reason we're all suspicious of self publishing. A lot of self-published work—probably the majority of it—is pure, uncurated, dreck. Publishing's traditional, primary purpose was to serve as a sort of dreck filter.


And yet we’re wading through 50 shades of it.


Anyway, I was talking about competitive writing, and how writers, not the most socialized people to begin with, oftentimes end up viewing each other as rivals.


But the Solstice program, where I did my MFA, works toward the opposite goal. Director Meg Kearney has managed to create a freakishly supportive community of writers. Her regular admonishment, throughout the program, is to fall in love with another student’s work. And in a place where everyone is working toward honing his and her craft, there’s a lot to choose from.


Jane Cawthorne, a brilliant writer and established Canadian playright, chose to fall in love with my stories. As for her work, I was completely smitten. She’s writing this gorgeous novel. It’s artful and poignant and meaningful. And entertaining. I mean, Jane herself is a rock star. She’s the kind of person who writes a very successful play, entitled the Abortion Monologues, and bravely weathers years of crazies. She’s the type of person who survives Hodgkins Lymphoma to take up mountaineering. In her fifties.


She’s also the type of person who would gravitate toward a talented writers collective. And now we come to my not-so-secret agenda. Because, as the profit model fails publishing, as the dreck filter fails to differentiate the dreck, as we all move forward in a world where any artistic endeavor that can be digitalized is considered free for the taking, what remains is the work. And other writers. We can curate each other’s work, and we should. I think we have a responsibility to do so.


Because look what can come of it. This little book, published by the almost prescient writers, editors and designers of the Crabapple Mews Collective, turned out exactly as it should. In one of my stories, an old man describes the ungainly beauty of pheasants in flight. And here they are, right on the cover. My stories may not be for you--they’re not for everyone--but they are the best possible versions of themselves, because they were curated by a group of people who truly care about the work. So go forth and form collectives! Okay. Bossy lecture aimed at the writers in the room is officially over.


The stories in this book are set on a small Island in the middle of Lake Erie. I’ve asked my fellow readers to talk about Islands... or Florida, which is Island-like in that it’s surrounded on three sides by water--or Death, which is, let’s face it, an underlying theme of today’s event.


So let’s begin…


Lee Irby has the funniest, most entertaining and most completely irrelevant Amazon bio I’ve ever read. There’s absolutely no mention of his writing, but there’s a lot about his college nickname being Mort--short for Mortician--and his abiding interest in licking a cane toad. I can tell you that his first book, 7000 Clams, had Colette Bancroft of the St. Petersburg Times bestow upon him the best nickname a writer ever earned. Meet Lee Irby, aka, "the Sultan of Plot.”


Thomas Hallock is one of the few professors I’ve met who takes academic writing into the realm of poetry. As a specialist of Florida literature, his interests often lie at the juncture of ecology and literature. His books have titles such as “Early Modern Ecostudies: From the Florentine Codex to Shakespeare” and “From the Fallen Tree: Frontier Narratives, Environmental Politics, and the Roots of a National Pastoral.” Weighty titles, but we often think of academics as writing in some dead language or another. Tom Hallock brings language to life.


For many, the next reader is a man who needs no introduction. Eric Deggans is probably the coolest guy I know. And as NPR’s TV critic, he has the coolest job on the planet. He gets advance copies of Fargo--how cool is that?


But Eric is not content to simply entertain us with observations on the current state of entertainment--even on the most erudite platform available. For years, he's been making some very important observations about race, and how it's portrayed—and used for the purpose of manipulation—by society's warped mirror: the media. His book “Race Baiter” is a primer for this most important of topics. Which is the coolest thing of all.


My next guest, here at the behest of my mentor Sterling Watson, is a St. Petersburg institution. The current Poet Laureate of Florida, Peter Meinke has lived in St. Pete since 1966. He was an important member of the Eckerd College faculty for almost three decades, and produced many works over his long career; beautiful books of poetry and non-fiction and short stories. Really wonderful short stories, by the way. I especially loved the "Piano Tuner." Thanks very much for coming, Peter."


My babies and I, launching a book. Thanks Lynn Taylor for the picture,
and for this sweet story in the Gulfport Gabber.

Swimming Lessons

It sounded, we later agreed, like a deer burrowing under the front porch. From the vegetable garden where I wrestled with deep-rooted dandelions, I could see just the edges of the struggle. I shouted for my father to come which, of course, drew the entire family along. From all edges of our property they headed toward the commotion at different speeds, each according to his disposition. My sister was the first to arrive, panting from a quick sprint, my little brother was second, his preferred locomotion a skip. My mother strode up next, removing her gardening gloves from her hands and tucking them into her belt. I fell in behind, shaking the dirt off my skirt and wiping my forehead with the back of my hand.
Our front porch had for years been the site of a pitched battle between Dad and the family of raccoons who thus far had dug through every barricade he'd erected. Today's havoc was wreaked by something much larger than a raccoon, though. The concrete pavers that leaned against the trellis which had been nailed to an old masonry board which had been dug several feet underground; all had been tossed around like toys in a kid's room.
We took turns lying on our stomachs to peek beyond the debris under the porch. Two round golden eyes glowed back at us from the dark.
My dad was last to arrive, limping a little from the wrench he'd dropped on his foot.
"What in hell?" He asked this question all the time, never expecting an answer. This time,  Mom supplied one.
"It's a dog, I think. Probably ran away from the hunt."
Fear didn't occur to us as we stood in the aftermath of the battle for the porch. No predatory animals had been spotted on the Island in decades. After a while Mom left, returning with a peeled boiled egg. She made kissing noises at the eyes. They blinked.
"Come on, boy," she said. "It's okay. Come on, look, a treat!" The eyes focused on her, and a gentle, rhythmic whining issued forth. Mom could wheedle milk from a turkey.
Slowly, the outline of a dog—full chest, tapered waist and hound-dog head blackened by dirt—emerged from under the porch. Formal introductions were made, during which, still shivering, he politely sniffed hands all around. Then he shook, methodically, starting in his shoulders and ending with his tail, spraying us with earth from his coat. Taking the egg delicately from my mother's fingers, he strolled without hesitation through the open door of our house. We followed him into the kitchen and watched him make his bed on the braided rug in front of the sink. This would be his favorite spot for the rest of his life.
Physically, Ranger was the Platonic Ideal of his breed. His brown velvet ears, the saddle on his speckled coat, his brisk, cropped tail, his earnest expression—all were positioned and proportioned as though from a blueprint issued by the American Kennel Club. And he wasn't just a perfect physical specimen; he embodied the German Shorthair Pointer spirit, as well. At the barest hint of a bird's presence, his muscular body formed a perfect point, aimed at the precise location of his prey, and readied itself to launch into action at his master's command.
But at the gun's bark, instead of fetching, he fled.
According to his breeder—a carefully dressed hunter who'd tracked Ranger to our door—the dog had shown great promise until today. His bloodlines were immaculate, his training comprehensive. It was obvious, from the way the hunter spoke, that Ranger had been destined to be top dog in the man's award-winning kennel; to become apex stud of a decades-long breeding program. And, moments before his headlong flight, Ranger seemed poised to fulfill his destiny. He had, the hunter said—with a clipped, bitter pride—quietly pointed to, then, on whistled command, flushed out a brace of pheasants in the confident manner of one born to the task. His owner took out two of the clutch in one shot—this was related in a way that was carefully not self-congratulatory—but the hunter's next command, “Fetch!” fell in empty air on the space where a dog used to be. At the rifle's crack, Ranger had run as though he himself had been shot from the gun. A few minutes and three miles later, he was cowering under our front porch, covered in dirt.
In the space of a single shotgun blast, Ranger had become a blight on his own ancestry.
"There's not much you can do when a dog's born gun shy," the man said. "I mean, when it happens by accident, like if someone stuck some birdshot in his butt, you might be able train it out of him." He lit the smoke he'd pulled from a silver cigarette case "But a dog like this—afraid his own shadow's going to bite him—well, there's not much you can do about that. Besides cull him."
My mother gasped aloud, giving voice to our collective concern. We all thought we'd heard "kill him", which may, in fact, have been implied, but we never knew because our parents volunteered immediately—as if under some hypnotic spell cast by the hunter—to keep Ranger as a pet. In short order, they'd also promised to have him fixed, and tell no one where we'd gotten him. And thus, preempting the negotiations we dog-starved kids had been opening for years, Ranger was invited to live in the sanctuary where his flight from the gun had ended.
Before he drove off in his oversized red pickup, the hunter asked Dad if he could have a last moment with the dog. Dad said yes, of course. As the man grabbed Ranger's collar and pulled him off a distance, we could all see it wasn't just guns the dog feared. The man seemed to be fondling Ranger's ear when the dog uttered two sharp yelps and pulled himself away to gallop back to the kitchen of our house.
When we gathered around Ranger, lounging on the now filthy  braided rug, I saw that the AKC tattoo inside his ear had been replaced with a seeping burn; a fairly common approach for a kennel seeking to protect its reputation from a defective dog. There were worse ways, said Island lore, everyone knew someone who'd said they'd seen gun shy dogs being flung from the Island ferry ten miles from shore.
We were all murmuring sadly over Ranger's poor ear when Mom noticed the lump in the side of his cheek. Gently, she lifted the flap of his jowl to reveal the egg she'd given him two hours before. He dropped it into her hand. It was perfectly intact, without so much as a tooth scratch marring its rubbery surface.


For me, the year Ranger arrived was a complicated one. I was fifteen years old and had begun to find a new purpose for the boys in my small world. I may have been a late bloomer but I was also a practical one, so I took stock of the options available within the confines of our little island in the middle of Lake Erie. My future, contained as it was within the thirty four square miles of my world, seemed set in the island's bedrock.
That was the summer my chest, before then unobtrusively flat, burgeoned forth, making one boy awkward and shuffling, the next aggressive and forward, as though I'd grown breasts just to taunt them.
One night, to the lapping of the lake against the dock where we sat, I kissed Randy Jimson with a confused energy he mistook for invitation. An oddly polite, slow motion struggle ensued. When I finally writhed free, I was left with semen on my jeans and a lasting sense of chagrin.
My best friend Stan, who'd become awkward and shuffling when I grew breasts, became silent and angry after the kiss. Stan and I had spent many summers jumping into the hay in his uncles' barn, lounging around the Island's one general store, fishing in a borrowed boat, or, when we had money to buy ammunition, engaged in target practice in a field. After the kiss, Stan was always too busy or tired or abrupt to play.
After the kiss, Randy called me repeatedly, having the impression that we were now "going together," but I sent him off with a forced. Later, he would tell everyone he ditched me because, sexually, I was both voracious and odd. Rumor is the primary news source in a small community, and the entirety of the island's population—which peaked at 150 during tourist season—had heard the broadcast within a week. While there was no overt unkindness, I could guess what was going unsaid in their neutral tones; the false secret that dogged me in the potluck serving line; the raised eyebrows that made my one friend too busy to fish or swim or even, it seemed, smile.
As time passed, Ranger filled space left by Stan. He wasn't much of a conversationalist, but then, Stan hadn't been all that talkative either. We would walk for hours, up and down the hedge rows, following his nose wherever it led us, as long as it wasn't hunting season. The moment Ranger heard gunshot, though, he'd abandon me for his haven under the porch, running as though pursued by dog-eating demons.
Years of exposure never allayed Ranger's fear of the gun, and his webbed toes and waterproof coat had not averted his fear of water.
Every single time my siblings and I went swimming, from the moment a single one of us was knee deep in the lake until the moment we were all on dry land, Ranger would race back and forth along the length of the beach, barking continually, the length of our swim measured by the hoarseness of his voice. Whether we were in the water for five minutes or two hours, Ranger never lost one iota of conviction: We were willfully endangering ourselves, and he was duty-bound to sound the alarm every second we remained in peril.
"What in hell is he doing?" We watched Dad's head swivel, his face incredulous, as he tracked Ranger's hysterical progress up and down the beach. From our various spots in the water we burst into laughter. This was the first time our father had witnessed what we called Ranger's Erie-o-phobia. We’d grown accustomed to the dog’s tenacious panic, but the expression on Dad’s face renewed the hilarity. We enjoyed the dog's plight, and we'd egg him on every way we could think of. I would call him to me in my sweetest voice, my brother would throw sticks into the water for him to fetch; My sister would shriek and flail and pretend to be pulled under.
Really, it didn't matter what we did—he behaved the same whether we splashed or floated. Ranger's fear wasn't caused by water. It came from inside him.
One afternoon, my dad called me in from my seat between the trellised rows in the vegetable garden, where I was believed to be picking and shelling peas for supper. I'd finished with the peas an hour ago, though, and now Jane Austen was introducing me to Fitzwilliam Darcy's finer qualities. I closed my book and dawdled my way to the house. I had an idea of what was coming.
"Sit down, now," Dad said, indicating the kitchen table, his voice formal. We'd reached an awkward camaraderie over the years. He was a good father, patient and careful, and yet so unlike me it seemed we existed on different planes. He used to say I made him feel like a hen trying to raise a duckling. We loved each other well enough for us both to try to understand when the other talked.
Mom was already sitting at the table, her eyes cast downward—guiltily, I decided—her finger idly tracing the lines in the butcher block.
"Your mother says you only applied to that one college. I thought you'd put down three."
"Well, I'm not really interested in going away to college, Dad." Now I was the one staring hard at the table, "it's just not something I see myself spending four years with."
"Sarah," he said, pausing until I looked up at him. "Not everyone gets a chance to get a higher education. Me and your mum, for example, neither of us could of gotten in if we'd applied. But you've got a real chance to get your bachelors degree. That's an important thing."
"But you don't need to study the Liberal Arts to know how to plan crop rotations, Dad.
You can always read, for fun. But college isn't supposed to be fun. We can't afford to pay tuition for you to read when you're supposed to be managing the harvest." I risked a glance at his face, and he was staring directly into my eyes. Dad was never one for analogy.


Ranger's terror on the beach routine was an almost daily occurrence that summer. Our favorite swimming spot was two minutes from our house, and the heat was setting new records, so we were there every second our days would allow. Freed both from the heat and from gravity, I'd float on my back, slowly kicking back and forth, while Ranger, trapped onshore, kept up the alarm regardless of the temperature.
Oddly, Ranger always enjoyed the walk to the beach, never anticipating its purpose. He would bounce happily along, occasionally stopping to point at a pheasant peering out from behind a bush, then rushing at the bird with an innate efficiency that belied his sensitive side. Not once did he associate the bathing suits under our clothes, the towels over our arms—even the rubber dingy Dad carried occasionally on his head—with the terror of our immersion in the lake. He'd lope along, oblivious, until the moment one of us was in the water, and that was it. Up and down the beach he'd run, back and forth, never breaking stride, bellowing hysterically all the while.
"He's a total mental case. That's all there is to it." My brother's assessment may have been unkind, but it wasn't untrue. No one had ever heard of a dog who was afraid of the lake. On the Island, water was half of every landscape. Besides, dogs were expected to hold down more than one job. To be a companion, that was an important thing, but you still had to earn your keep. Ranger’s only side project was killing the neighbor’s chickens, a fact which did not endear him to Joe, the antique curmudgeon who owned the farm next to ours. Joe made Mom pay top dollar for every mangled hen Ranger dropped so devotedly at her feet.
On a rainy day that July, as I walked down the hallway between our rooms, my sister Kelly reached out of her room and caught me by the arm. She looked both ways down the hall, then pulled me into her room. Placing a finger over her mouth, she peeked one last time out the door of her room, then closed it and pulled me down to sit beside her on the frilly pink coverlet of her bed. I waited. She smiled broadly, gave a little squeal, and started flapping both arms at the elbows, her blonde curls bouncing in time.
"He asked me!" She finally released in an almost silent, hissing squeal.
Kelly was my favorite person in the world and we'd been communicating in shorthand since she was five and I was three. Things that took me ten minutes to relate to Dad I could tell her in three words.
In the three words she'd uttered that day, she conveyed that John, her boyfriend of four years, had finally proposed and that she had accepted. They'd set a date, they were planning four kids. She likely had ferry tickets in her purse, for her and I to go the mainland to pick out her dress.
Seeing the expression on my face, she put both hands on her hips.
"Oh, stop it, Sarah! You be happy for me, starting right now!"
I didn't say anything. There was no point.
"I know, I know. You think I should move away; maybe live on the mainland for a while first. Explore all the options before I decide. But I don’t need to do that. I just know."
"But how can you possibly 'just know'?" I said. "You've never been off the Island more than a week in your life." My protest was uttered by rote; there was no chance she'd listen, but someone in her life had to suggest investigating other options. And it wouldn't occur to anyone else.
The truth was, though, that I'd always been able to picture her as a farmer's wife; her waist getting thicker, her cheeks rosier, her curls a little tighter with each sensible haircut. The truth also was that she'd be content that way.
All of this was in her quiet eyes as we sat there on the bed that day. So I recanted.
"I'm sorry," I said, fighting for sincerity. "John's a good guy. I know you'll be great together." She laughed, and her eyes grew moist, and I hugged her so she couldn't see that mine remained dry.
She held both my hands in hers and squeezed them for emphasis.
"Don't worry," she said. "You'll meet someone, too, I just know it! I hear John's cousin is thinking of moving back to the Island. He's really cute. Trust me, no-one in John's family would pay attention to anything coming out of Randy Jimson's mouth."
And that's how Randy's rumor circled back to roost. My family had been watching me with an odd, new knowledge in their eyes for at least a week, and that was the moment I noticed it. Now, my father's throat clearing, my brother's sidelong eye, my mother's pointed glance, my sister's worried smile; all had the same meaning as Stan's granite silence.
I protected them all by feigning oblivion, but the knowledge that they'd been affected by the rumor themselves made me very angry; gave me furious dreams of shrinking rooms and steel tunnels and laughing crows.
As much as I couldn't imagine being trapped in the Island's endless cycle of gossip, seed, tractor and combine, Kelly couldn't imagine anything else. So she pulled out the ferry schedule and we planned a trip to pick out dresses and flowers, while I forced myself to smile for her happiness.
Ranger never lost his fear of guns, but his fear of water was cured in about three minutes one very hot day that August. It was a typical afternoon and we were heading for our usual swimming spot. This time, though, we were accompanied by Spanks, an oversized, lumbering Black Lab, lumpy and skinny in all the wrong spots. He wasn’t a pretty dog, but he was as sweet as any you’d ever met. He was gentle and quiet, even with little kids and yappy dogs. And he was an excellent hunter, everyone said. He'd crash through a crust of ice in duck season without hesitation, the moment the bird fell from the sky. He always came back with his prize, dropping it gently at his owner's feet, never leaving so much as a drop of saliva on the bird’s unruffled feathers. He would have been horrified at the idea of killing a defenseless chicken.
One of Spanks' primary responsibilities was to take lunch out to the fields where Bob, his owner, worked long hours to get the crops in. Bob's wife would say, “Take this to Daddy, Spanks; take it to Daddy,” and she'd put the bag—containing all sorts of dog delicacies like cold cuts and cheese, along with the can of Pabst—on the floor. Spanks would just pick it up and let himself out, the screen door banging behind him. Brenda  never even bothered to watch him leave. It didn’t occur to her to worry that Spanks would steal "Daddy's" lunch for himself. He wouldn’t.
This was the paragon of canine virtue who accompanied us the day Ranger learned to swim. If I were a dog, I would have resented Spanks for setting the bar so impossibly high. As a human, I grew tired of hearing how easy Spanks was to train, how fearless and tireless and gentle he was. Every bit of carefully earned praise felt like an insult to my dog. And yet Spanks, for all his eager perfection, could not be less to blame.
Arriving at the shoreline that day, we lay our beach towels on some rocks in the sun and started mincing our way into the water. When Ranger loosed his first volley of hysterical barking. Spanks jumped to his feet and scanned the horizon, trying to determine where the menace from the water originated. No threat became apparent, so he joined Ranger's back and forth flight, barking at random intervals with the expression of one unsure whether it was time to applaud or if this was just a short pause in a long-winded aria. Ranger gave him no notice, just kept up the sound and fury, and eventually Spanks stopped following, sank his haunches to the sand and simply observed. As he watched, panting, his head moving back and forth like the audience at a slow-motion tennis match, Spanks' tongue hung long out the side of his mouth. It was obvious he was thinking, "What in hell?"
The big dog seemed content to observe for a while, but I guess he soon grew tired of the racket and it was an especially hot day for someone in a thick black coat, so, casual as could be, he leapt into the water and swam toward us.
Ranger, observing this momentous act, cut off the alarm abruptly as one beheaded. He froze in place, his body rigid, watching Spanks with something like terrified awe. I think it had never before occurred to him that dogs, like humans, could be suicidal maniacs. Ranger stood there, transfixed, his eyes following Spanks as the big dog pushed himself determinedly through the water, stopping at each person to be patted and praised. Eventually, Spanks circled back to shore. He wasn't more than three feet from Ranger when he stopped and gave several mighty shakes, showering my dog in the droplets flying from his thick black coat. But Ranger didn't flinch. He just waited until the Spanks was done, and then sniffed him all over; the Lab lifting limbs obligingly as Ranger contemplated the meaning of each scent.
Satisfied with his investigations, Ranger trotted to the water's edge, his gaze leveled on me. I called him. He stood very still for a quiet moment, and then, gathering himself, leapt into the lake as though tearing himself from the land. He bounded through the water until it was deep enough to swim and then kept coming, his expression patient, unchanging. When he reached me, he paused long enough to wet my cheek with his nose, then turned and headed back to shore.
Later, when I ran shivering out of the water to throw a towel over my goose-pimpled shoulders, Ranger was lying on a rock, snoozing in the sun.
For the rest of his life, that's what he did whenever we swam.
When we returned to the house that afternoon, my mom was running toward us through the corn, waving an embossed envelope over her head. My father walked behind her, a strained smile pinching his face.
I'd won a scholarship to the college of my choice; a full ride, half a country away.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

I'm Literally Radioactive

A pretty pretty PET.
 (not mine)
As a deliberately happy person, recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, I sometimes teeter between a kind of prophylactic pessimism and its opposite, a crying out for hope. This is one of those times.

I had a PET scan today and as I write this I am literally radioactive. Under doctor's orders to not touch babies or pregnant women. I'm extending the courtesy to my family, of course and, well, pretty much everyone I encounter. Or would encounter, since I'm staying home.

The first rule of PET scans is that the prettier they are, the worse the news. My first scan was a lovely thing to watch. Like zipping through a cross-sectioned christmas tree in space. Splashes of color—intense pinks and blues and greens—identified the tumor and its metastatic progeny. And those fuckers were everywhere.

But that was taken in June, when I was first diagnosed. I'm feeling much better these days. I keep most of my food down, most of the time, which is a pleasant change. My weight is within five pounds of normal. So I'm optimistic.

Which poses a problem.

Most of the time I'm sure all of this cancer business is just something I imagined during a notably peculiar bout of indigestion. I feel silly that such a fuss is being made over me; I worry that I'm taking up a chemo chair that an actual sick person might need. It's called denial, and I'm finding it the most nourishing of the Kübler-Ross food groups.

But what if my PET christmas tree has grown more decorations? Or worse, what if my improvement is exactly what the doctor expected, and well within the confines of my shitty prognosis?
I'll let you know. Until then, I'm optimistic.

In happier news, I will be hosting guest bloggers on the topics of death and dying. If you have an essay, a piece of flash or short fiction, a published study or freshly baked cookies to share, contact me here. Actually, if you have slightly stale cookies, contact me here.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Later, in Literary News

A terminal diagnosis makes you do odd things. When they first tell you that your life span, with treatment, is approximately one year, it seems the only sane response is to run around shrieking. But running around shrieking gets tiresome very quickly. Eventually you start to feel silly. You start wondering: what's the hurry? Still, I managed to freak out for a solid month or so before realizing that I have this gorgeous, happy life, and I'd better live it as well as I can, and not just as long as I can.

And wonderful things are always happening. Not the least of which is that a few of my favorite writerly people have had some happy successes lately:

Jordanne Fuller, my own, grown up baby girl, has garnered a lot of attention for her fantasy stories, publishing a zillion pieces of short fiction in several anthologies. She has a unique, witty voice and a deft touch with weird, dark stories. I'm very proud to be her weird, dark mother.

This gorgeous and strange deck of cards is entitled the Family Arcana, and it comes straight from the brain of one of my favorite mentors, the menschy Jedediah Berry. The Family Arcana is a surprisingly riveting story about a family in crisis; a family that would be very comfortable in a Shirley Jackson novel, a family whose stories can be shuffled and strewn about randomly, and yet still arrive in your brain as a cohesive narrative.

Inge Trueman, my lovely sister in Crabapple Mews Collectivity, is launching her second novel, When the Wheels Fall Offtoday. It's a sequel to her wonderful A Root Beer Season, which I read with great enjoyment. I highly recommend you spend some time with Sonja Pfeiffer as she comes of age at the local A&W.

Extra points for people who remember drive-in restaurants.



Lastly, my collection of short stories is now available in soft cover from Amazon's Createspace, and will be available on Amazon proper in a few days. The copies created by the Collective have been held up by the literary mavens at Canada Customs. I assume they're all occupied with pouring over my masterpiece, and that's why they've kept it so long. Unless my dear Jane Cawthorne, another writer whose work I greatly admire, threw something else in the box that Canada Customs found even more interesting than my work.

If you do decide to buy a copy, enter 5Y6JL2QV for the friends' discount.

And if you have literary news of your own, please share in the comments!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

I am happy

Photo credit: Hilary Flower
Cancer sucks dog balls. That said, I've had many, many opportunities for joy since my diagnosis. The best, most recent, resolved itself yesterday:

On Monday, my most dramatic symptoms seemed to return with a vengeance. Food got stuck so high in my throat that it constricted my breathing until I was able to eject it. Terrifying. My long-suffering oncology nurse checked me into the emergency room at Moffitt, where after what seemed a lot of dithering (and what actually amounts to a frightening dearth of staff) they fit me in for another endoscopy. It turns out the stent that was keeping me alive was no longer being kept in place by the cancer.

Upshot: the cancer has shrunk! I can now eat normally, as long as I chew carefully and remember to sip something at the same time. I'll be surprised if I don't need another stent before long, but at this point I'm happy to be able to eat. Which is something most Americans should be thankful for, I suppose.

Here's another ridiculously happy development: I'm soon to be a published author! My wonderful friend Jane Cawthorne and her amazing, brilliant writers' group the Crabapple Mews Collective, have put together this beautiful, professional-looking collection of my short stories.

These stories are linked by place; Pelee Island, where I spent several formative years.  My dear, talented friends Thomas Hallock and Julie Armstrong have offered to host a reading for me as part of their writers' collective. The latest breaking news is that St. Pete's exquisite Craftsman House has agreed to host a book launch for me as well.

In case you think Jane is my only wonderful friend, think again.

This gorgeous, baby-fascinating design
is made entirely of organic materials.
The lovely Surya Sajnani, of the gorgeous, green Wee Gallery (featured at different times in Anthropoligie and MoMA) turned her prodigious talents to gathering up funds to help me keep my house clean for the next six months. Without going into revolting detail, suffice it to say that chemo doesn't lend itself to a clean bathroom, or the energy to get it that way. And yet, it's critical to someone who is so immuno-compromized that she breaks out into a glowing crop of whiteheads exactly one week after her bi-weekly three-day chemo treatment.

But that's not all I have to say about the Sajnani-Pintos. David Pinto has been a careful and extremely insightful first reader of my work. All writers know how invaluable the advice from a smart reader and fellow writer can be. Surya and Dave have spoiled me rotten, and neither would admit it for a second.

The incredible Hilary Flower.
And they're not alone. My dear, too-generous-for-her own good Hilary Flower, always at the ready with delicious phở and a ride and moral support and smoothiesand anything else I needwas a quiet accomplice in the Germ Free movement
The inimitable Mary Harris.
With three kids and 9/10ths of a doctorate in Hydrogeology, she has a few other things to do with her time.

My dear Dr. Mary Harris, another partner in that crime, always has the perfect something at the ready, whether it's a cheery activity for the kids or a great Miso mix or a tasty, esophagus-clearing San Pellegrino or the latest scholarly article on alternative remediesor the loan of her wonderful  sister in law who also happens to be a gifted radiology oncologist. Mary's SIL, whom I've taken to calling "Dr. Kendra" spent an hour on the phone with me as she navigated the wilds of Montana with a car full of littles.

My dear Dee.
Dee Gill is another friend who's helped me through the worst days. When almost nothing would go down my sticky stent, she took me out for oysters, in the middle of the day. She's been there for me in so many ways, it's hard to itemize them all. And she was one of my very first, first readers, always ready to listen to me talk about my work, beer goggles at the ready.

Meanwhile, all my lovely friends are working in concert to keep my family fed and my weight up. We highly recommend the Take Them a Meal site, which allows people to co-ordinate these generous efforts. Having friends who are foodies is the most spoiling thing that happens, most days. My dear friend Jen Pace is battling breast cancer and they're using the same site for her... If you can, log in to Take Them a Meal, enter Pace and meals, and take Jen a meal.

Our dear friends the Stoicis are always there for us too. Here's a picture of our happy kids at Busch Gardens. Times like these, happy kids are a joy beyond all others. I know my dear friend Dr. Roxana Stoici is greatly affected by my prognosis, but she swallows her pain and uses her expertise to keep close track of things like my controlling my nausea, my own pain level,  and my daily bowel habits. Now that's friendship ;)

Oh, it seems a minor point, now, but I received my MFA in Creative writing from my beloved Solstice in July. The wonderful people at All Children's Hospital spoiled me rotten over this, with balloons and flowers and sweet congratulatory notes. Maren Twining, Candace Fennel,  Stephanie Smith, Shannon Gower Bethany Peters (whom I don't know but makes kick-ass salads) Thomas Mueller and Maxine Sutcliff have been so generous it's humbling.

Maxine even facilitated our use of a beach house in Englewood, where the kids saw five baby sea turtles scrambling to the sea, and were able to untangle one who'd gotten trapped in a clump of seaweed. It was wonderful to see a creature we thought was dead come back to life and fumble on its inexorable way to the water.


In the great tradition of saving best things for last, my wonderful son Aaron and his equally lovely wife Magali are due to deliver my first granddaughter tomorrow. If she's a traditionalist, she'll arrive several days late, but at least we get to expect her! Aaron and Mags will be absolutely fantastic parents, like my daughter Jordanne, so we can expect great things from the next (ginger?) member of the family.

These are not the only wonderful things that have happened. My grown up baby girl, Jordanne Fuller, has become a published authormore on that in another forumand my husband has started a PhD in Human Genetics at Clemson, which means he's going to take over the planet in about four years. Lucky planet.

Oddly, life is good and I am happy, most days, most times. Cancer is absolutely not a gift, but it sure helps you appreciate the gifts all around you. My gifts are in the form of friends. I have forgotten some in this post. Like Marilyn Marquez Mercado, who is always ready to cheer me up with happy video of adorable animals being adorable.

Luckily, there's no limit to the number of posts I can write, the number of friends I can acknowledge, the amount of happiness I can share.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Incomplete dream application (1288)

That is, verbatim, the subject line of the email I just got from the Dream Foundation, an organization that grants wishes to people facing a premature end of life.

Momentarily, I wondered at the error code. How incomplete was my dream? Was it a Secret-esque oversight, where I'd failed to imagine my way to normal health and would now be punishedwith untimely deathfor my inability to manifest a proper future? Had not been positive enough to live? Some wise soul shared on Facebook that "We Are Never Dealt A Hand We Can't Play." I wanted to offer this wag to trade hands with meI suspect hers is better than minebut I was too daunted by her complete lack of self-awareness to try.

Then of course I realized my dream wasn't actually to stick around for a normal lifespan--I'm not an idiot--but to simply do something nice for my kids. Take them on a nice cancer-perq-funded dream trip.

But dreams are limited and applications can be denied, so I'll say no more about it unless something good comes about. Completing that dream application now...

Saturday, August 8, 2015

You are very, very, very angry

You, are angry. You have never, in fact, been angrier in your life. You're angry at the elderly, for their thirty extra years. You're angry at the bitter, for their wasted time. You're angry at the heedless, who complain in front of you about their lives.


Tanya smash
You are angry at the future, for going on without you.

You are angry at your husband, for his inability to understand, for his every wasted word, for his getting to go on after you're gone. Your husband is angry. You are angry at his anger.

You are angry at your children, for needing you far beyond however long you can promise to be there for them. You are angry because these promises, the daily, mundane promises of parenthood, are specifically denied you.

You are angry at your mother, who seems to be coping through an artful blend of denial and absence. You are angry at yourself for behaving the same way.

You are angry at everything, but most of all, you are angry at yourself. You are furious, in fact, to the point of clenched-fisted, nails-dug-in-palms, fitful paroxysms of self-loathing. You have always, always always! stopped just short of fulfilling your own promise. And now this: The coup de gras. The moment you were going to step back into the workforce, start kicking into the kids' college funds, sell a book or two. Write a few more . . .

Smash! Terminal diagnosis. Smash! You're set to abandon your children, your husband, your mother. Your life! Smash.

You have always been a positive personyou consider happiness a choice and you've always chosen itbut there are limits to the logic of this practice. How positively can you spin an MFA you can't use, a trilogy you'll never finish, a life you'll never live?

Smashing.