Saturday, May 30, 2015

Not a Victim, Not a Survivor


In my three year acquaintance with cancer, I’ve come to terms with some realizations. For one, I’ve learned this isn’t a fight. A fight implies a winner and a loser. If I were to compare the experience to a military action, I’d say this has been closer to securing endangered perimeters rather than trying to wipe out the adversary. I’ve been through nine surgeries and twice that many cystoscopies, where a tube is inserted up my urethrae and a tiny camera takes stock of the enemy positions. The surgeries remove cancerous cells, but these, so far, always come back. At best, I’m in a holding action.

Also, I’ve decided I really don’t like the term survivor. That makes it sound as if I’ve been the victim of something, and that simply isn’t true. I’ve been the recalcitrant and unhappy host to a guest that doesn’t want to leave, but I am most definitely not a victim. I’ve encountered people who, learning of my cancer, have nodded wisely (and a bit sadly), and told me, “I’m a survivor too…” When I answered, “Really? I’m not,” they looked at me askance, as if I hadn’t yet learned the vocabulary of cancer.

I don’t like defining my life in terms of the disease or, for that matter, any single issue. I’ve met people who do that, men and women who insist on wrapping their lives around a lone concern—work, health, family, alcohol; golf or tennis or coin collections. They have tunnel vision and are inestimably boring. Their conversation and scope of knowledge is sadly limited and I never quite know what to say after the ten minutes they’ve taken to tell me about their single-minded lives.

I have little faith in cancer research. Most people seem to think there will be a silver bullet, a magic pill or treatment that will be a cure-all. That’s not going to happen.

Cancer, basically, is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. It develops when the body’s normal control mechanism stops working. Old cells don’t die as they should, and new, abnormal cells, are formed.

The problem is there are about 200 hundred different types of cells in the body, and within these cells are about 20 different types of structures, called organelles. Each type of cell may require a different sort of treatment when it ceases to act as it should.

Right now, surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are how we treat most cancers. These are aggressive methods, nuclear bomb attacks on the system that often endanger healthy cells. Essentially, these are “kill them all and let God sort it out” treatments.

Nor do I believe that, even if a cure were to be found, it would be immediately made available. A proliferation of research means nothing if the research is not shared with others. The pharmaceutical giants are not likely to share the fruits of their studies; far too much money is at stake. If and when cures are found for particular types of cancers—leukemia, say—you can be sure they will be outrageously expensive. Look for a replay of the marketing of Harvoni, the Hep C drug, which costs almost $100,000 for a 12-week course.

Most cancer patients won’t be able to pay such amounts, and insurance companies probably won’t offer coverage.

Lastly, the battle against cancer is discouraging. I think it is fought with the wrong weapons. A thousand labs across the world are working not in concert but in competition. What we need is a Manhattan Project, and we’ll never get one. Other, more pressing issues, command more attention than does a cell-altering disease.

And yet there has been progress. Fewer people are succumbing, and what was once an almost assured death sentence no longer is. That’s something for which I can be thankful.  


Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day 2015

Memorial Day, 2015

It’s Memorial Day. Like millions of others, I give thanks for the sacrifices made by the many who gave their lives to stave off the Axis forces and kept Europe free.

And every Memorial Day, I also take the opportunity to read the death notices in the back of the Washington Post’s Metro section. Morbid? Well, perhaps, but interesting, too.

Death notices are paid for, unlike obituaries that are considered news and generally written as such by reporters. The notices are written by the families (with an occasional assist by a funeral home) in tiny type, measure a couple of inches across by three-or-so inches long. They almost always feature a small black and white photo of the deceased, and most of these are not flattering. In fact, they often look like smiling corpses, and one gets the impression the photographer arrived just a minute or so too late. The accompanying prose always lauds the deceased.  A typical death notice might read: “Cornelius Squashblossom, beloved husband of Cora, father of sons Lee and Ray and of daughter Leona; grandfather of seven, and great-grandfather of 12, went to join the Lord and meet his Maker Tuesday morning. Mr. Squashblossom was active in the Elks, Lions, Moose, Otters and Rotarians, and delighted in wearing a red tasseled fez while driving a tiny car in Memorial Day parades. He will be remembered for his stewardship of the local library and his chairing of the community’s ‘Ban Bad Books’ campaigns…” 

Personally, I think the notices should skip all the codswallop and instead tell the truth. “Mr. Squashbossom was disliked by his current wife, detested by his ex-wife, and looked down upon by his neighbors for not maintaining his weed-infested yard. Business associates cited his shoddy practices and multiple censures for inappropriate behavior in the office. He is remembered for his successful campaign to ban The Little Prince from school bookshelves on the grounds that the book might incite gayness among teenagers. His three children have moved to Canada, Laos and Montenegro, assumedly to put as much distance as possible between he and themselves. It is doubtful that they will attend the service in his honor, to be held at the Church of St. Exon at 11 a.m. tomorrow. In fact, Mr. Squishblossom’s survivors are at this very moment hosting a private party at Mac’s Bar & Grill to give thanks for his passing.”

For me, when it’s my time, I’d like a photo of someone other than myself to be displayed. If this tiny appearance is to be my last one, let me look better than I do in real life and leave others with the thought that, “Yes, we didn’t notice it so much when he was with us, but he does look remarkably like Al Pacino, except taller and with a bigger jaw.”

Also, I’d like there to be some fun facts about me. “He was the founder of the Pants for Pets movement, an offshoot of the now defunct Animal Decency League, which strived to clothe naked animals.” And since my accomplishments have not quite matched my expectations, I think it would be OK to embroider the truth a bit. “Mr. Sagnier, who was distantly related to the Marquis de Lafayette and to the Count of Monte Cristo, wrote a series of best-selling novels set in Byelorussia, notably The Bully of the Balkans, a fictionalized account of the life of Nikola Botev, who rose from being a simple beet farmer to fame as a bloodthirsty warlord.”  Either that, or I would like to be ascribed authorship of the work of others. I will settle for John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy although if this is already taken, you can give me any of Jean-Paul Sartre’s longer works since no one reads them anyway.

Somewhere in the announcement, I would like it to read, “He was wise enough not to have children or grandchildren, though he has maintained cordial if distant relations with a slew of nephews.”

Lastly, I would like the notice to be like one of those novelty birthday cards that when you open up plays a little tune. In my case, it would be a song I wrote and recorded appropriately titled Say Goodnight.  It’s available on iTune for the ridiculously low price of 99¢ and you should download it to honor my memory.



Saturday, May 16, 2015

Why I Should Be Famous

It strikes me as very sad that I am not a famous person, because I would be a wonderful famous person.

I would self-effacing when necessary, and always grateful to the little people who made me famous. I would encourage them to follow in my footsteps and perhaps set up a tax-free non-profit foundation to further my thoughts and teachings.

I would never show up drunk at an award ceremony, or elbow someone off the stage and announce that the honor should go to someone prettier, more talented, and related to me.

I would give money to charity, very anonymously, with only a press release or two and maybe a Facebook announcement. And when the media discovered that I was the one who gave all that money toward deprogramming ISIS terrorists, I would adopt an aw-shucks attitude and say anyone in my famous position would do the same.

I would not dress all in white like Tom Wolfe and pretend to be an albino radish.

I would not, as did Norman Mailer, champion the cause of a convicted murderer/author who, when released, knifes someone to death.

I would not charge millions of dollars to come to your campus and make a twenty minute speech.

I would not own a house in the Hamptons or associate with people who do, except perhaps with Terence Stamp, and that only because of his astounding performance as Bernadette in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. And because he once dated Brigitte Bardot.

I would not pretend familiarity with things I know nothing about.

I would not run for office.

I probably would not become transgender, because I think it’s too late for that.

I would be kind to small animals.

And to children.

And to the elderly.

And to all those people who don’t speak English.

Or French.

I would become a UN Special Ambassador and espouse several worthy causes.

I would write books that leave critics gasping, and then give the books away free on Kindle.

I would compose spectacularly hummable songs that never have more than four chords, so that amateur musicians could play them forever.

I would never, ever, quote Shakespeare.  

And if I were to be in France, I would never, ever, quote Molière.

I would not die at age 27 from a drug overdose.

I would not become a Scientologist.

I would not vanish and reappear several weeks later in the company of someone else’s wife.

Or dog.

I would not text photos of my private parts to anyone.

And if caught doing so, I would not enter rehab with great fanfare.

I would not go on all-expenses-paid trip to former Soviet Nations to give a speech no ne attends.

I would not participate in a sing along of Blueberry Hill with Vladimir Putin.




Saturday, May 9, 2015

Too Many Books

So I’ve been sick the last few days. Nothing serious, but enough to get me to the doctor’s who tells me there’s something going around. I tell her that on top of the sniffling and sneezing and coughing and tearing eyes, my right elbow and forearm really have been hurting for the past few weeks. Tendonitis, she says, and asks, “What have you been doing lately?”

Writing, I say.

Ah. She says, that explains it.

It’s true. I’ve been spending between six and ten hours a day at the computer. In bed yesterday and debating on taking Theraflu or antihistamines, or both, I suddenly realized I was working on eight books at the same time. This is seriously taxing my ADD.

Eight, you ask.


How did that happen?

I have no idea.

My crime novel Thirst is out, but I spend at least an hour a day hyping it on Goodreads, Amazon, Book Bubs and other websites designed to promote ebooks.

Dope is the sequel to Thirst. Colin Marsh investigates why so many addicts are suddenly overdosing. Bikers, politicians, dealers and hit men… I’ve just started writing it and I’m not totally sure where it’s going. I know I like the characters. They’ve got legs; I always enjoy it when characters get a life of their own. That happens with books.

Two novels just came back from the copy editors.

Lurid Tales, Desperate People will be going out to agents within a week or so. It deals with the repercussions of a woman’s half-million-dollar elective surgeries on her neighbors. What happens when mousy Marcia returns a transformed woman after a month in India’s best plastic surgery hospital? By the way, it’s funny. Really. I wrote it and sometimes I laugh aloud when I reread it…

Montparnasse will also be going to the agents soon. This is the story of a young American couple honeymooning in Paris in 1919, when the Montparnasse neighborhood was the epicenter of Western culture. Modigliani, Renoir, Cocteau, Brancusi, and opium addiction. And Landru, France’s first documented serial killer is lurking in the shadows.

L’Amérique  is the first book in a trilogy about a French family’s decision to move to America in the mid-1950s. That one is finished too and needs only a last read-over.

The First Few Years is the working title of the second book in the trilogy. I have about 200 pages written.

The Few and the Fortunate—IVS Volunteers from Asia to the Andes. This is a book I was commissioned to write about International Volunteer Services, the precursor to the Peace Corp. More than 100 former IVS volunteers contributed stories about their years in the field. Anyone interested in development issue should read this. It’s at the designers and should be out within a month or two.   

Lastly, I am going to do a revival of one of my earlier books, The IFO Report. I figure if Auntie Mame and Cabaret can be revived every few years, why not a book?

And of course there are a couple of ideas percolating. I try to stay away from those. 

Eight is enough.