It's all in the attitude, baby.

It’s all in the attitude, baby.

Shortly after being diagnosed with cancer this spring, I was informed I wasn’t suffering enough.

What he said:

You’re not having surgery? Marjean had a double mastectomy.

You’re keeping your hair? Chuck went bald…twice.

You have insurance. Joan didn’t have any; we’re still doing benefits.

You don’t know what REAL cancer is.

What I could have said:

I get a kidney transplant if the chemo doesn’t work.

Hair grows back.

I’ve had cancer insurance since I was 19 because my mother, who died from cancer, was planning ahead.

You don’t know shit about my experience with REAL cancer. 

What I DID say:

Nothing. I walked away and quit telling people I had cancer.

I’m a third generation cancer patient; there has never been a time in my life when a family member wasn’t battling, beating or dying from cancer. I knew what chemo was before I knew where babies came from. I was so used to bald relatives I couldn’t recognize them with hair. Cancer was something people in my family GOT; this spring, it was just my turn.

Publicly I’ve helped with countless cancer benefits; logged miles in numerous cancer walks, including the 60-mile Breast Cancer 3-Day which I’ll do again next summer in memory of my mom if my doctor says I can; attended cancer awareness and memorial ceremonies; written articles and PSAs about cancer; and amassed an impressive collection of “Cancer Sucks” gear.

Privately I’ve shaved heads when the hair started to go; changed diapers on loved ones who changed mine when I was a baby; squeezed hands during chemo treatments; told doctors to go to hell when they announced there were only months left; whispered goodbye over the phone in the middle of the night because I couldn’t drive the hundreds of miles fast enough to do it in person; and been a pallbearer and a eulogist.

Don’t know what REAL cancer is? Screw you.

Many people live with cancer without ever having it. When you do get that diagnosis, no matter how well it’s delivered (and my doctor did a great job with the news), it scares the hell out of you. Because cancer kills people; everybody knows that.

Myeloma’s not killing me and it’s doubtful it will. It’s one of those cancers where the conditions it can cause – in my case, total kidney failure – is worse than the cancer itself. So I take chemo, do IV treatments, have bone marrow biopsies and wait to see what happens. Do I feel lucky that’s the kind of cancer I have? Every day. Do I feel guilty that I’m getting off easier than so many other people with cancer? Every day.

Unless you’re knocking on death’s door, there will always be someone whose burden is heavier, whose suffering is greater than yours. That can’t diminish the impact of a cancer diagnosis on you and the people who love you. Don’t let anyone make you feel like you don’t have enough cancer to matter. It matters to you and that’s enough.

You may not have heard of myeloma, but you WILL know these people who have or had it: Tom Brokaw, Geraldine Ferraro, Peter Boyle, Roy Scheider, Ann Landers, and Sam Walton.   

Nothing to see here, folks, move along.

Nothing to see here, folks, move along.

We were the first to expose ourselves. It was my husband’s idea, as these things often are. One day we were casually talking about doing it and the next day we let it all hang out for the world to see.

We’ve lived in our house for almost 20 years, and in all that time our bedroom window was hidden from the street by an overgrown pine tree. Then the plumber announced that the reason the sewer was backing up into our basement was because tree roots were obstructing the main sewer line to the house. That was the day Jeremy said the pine tree needed to come down. One day later the front yard was carpeted with sawdust and dead pine needles and the dogs were planted at the bedroom window with an unobstructed view of traffic for the first time in their lives.

“It looks wonderful!” gushed the woman next door, who’d hated that tree. “Think what it’s done for your curb appeal.”

“Loving the new siding!” yelled the man from across the street. We sided the house three years ago.

“It looks naked,” I said. “I want a new tree.”

My husband laughed and walked away.

Since then, nude yards are springing up all over the neighborhood. The stripping of a towering cottonwood tree a few blocks east exposed a tidy bungalow. A rambler north of us shed an old elm, revealing a back door and a side patio. And just yesterday, the old woman’s house kitty-cornered from us threw off two dead trees, one in the back, one curbside. We stood in our bare front yard and watched.

“I thought that house was gold,” Jeremy said.

I shrugged. Looks like we’ll be seeing a lot more of the neighbors this summer.
 

Love your neighbor…but don’t pull down your hedge. – Benjamin Franklin

 

 

Mark Twain wrote “Tom Sawyer” more than 80 years before actors Jodie Foster and Johnny Whitaker were born. But when I picture Becky Thatcher and Tom Sawyer, I’m seeing kid versions of Jodie Foster and Johnny Whitaker. That’s thanks to a 1973 musical version of the novel which, while not the best adaptation of Twain’s work, is unfortunately the one that sticks in my head.

Any time you lift words from the page and set them in motion there’s the risk your interpretation will be met with “I don’t get it” or worse, “That sucked”. But if the alternative is that nobody will ever hear those words if you don’t do it, it’s a risk worth taking.

The founders of the poetry film collaboration project Motionpoems were worried that great poems were going unread because people just weren’t reading poetry. So maybe they’d be more interested in WATCHING it.

Motionpoems pairs contemporary poets with filmmakers to create short film adaptations of poems. Some are animated, others live action, some dark, some funny, some so far removed from what a reader might get out of just reading the poem that you might watch it twice because it’s so interesting.

See for yourself. In the waning hours of National Poetry Month and as spring is FINALLY coming to my corner of the Midwest, here’s the Motionpoem “Ecclesiastes 11:1″ by Richard Wilbur, film adaptation by Faith Eskola for your viewing enjoyment.

If you find a Motionpoem that speaks to you, feel free to share it in a comment!

Extraordinary stories of ordinary people

Extraordinary stories of ordinary people


“That’s Mary Ford,” I said, pointing to the faded image of the Army nurse on the man’s tee shirt.

He nodded.

“She was my sister. She’s in here, too,” he said, holding up a booklet.

“I know. I’m the one who put her in there.”

We shook hands and both started crying.

In September of 2006, South Dakota dedicated its Vietnam War Memorial with a three-day celebration. Today, the state observes its first “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day”, an official state holiday to honor those who served in Vietnam.

I was on the planning committee for the 2006 event, the third war memorial dedication in our state. I’d worked on the previous two as well, for the World War II Memorial in 2001 (literally days after 9/11) and the Korean War Memorial in 2004. My duties were to design, write and oversee the production of all the printed materials like invitations, signs, apparel, name badges, banners, concert tickets and so on. And the commemorative program booklet which for the Vietnam War Memorial Dedication included the pictures and stories of more than a dozen South Dakota veterans.

Thousands of veterans, along with friends and family members, submitted photos and stories for the dedication website and a book “The Vietnam War: South Dakota Remembers” that was published in conjunction with the event. I read and reviewed all of them.

I knew some of those people. Dennis Foell, Nick Roseland, Dale Christopherson, the Harford brothers (Warren, Jerry and Doug), Dale Bertsch, Francis Whitebird. Others I didn’t, like Mary Ford. But their memories and images were no less compelling or personal to me.

Some Vietnam veterans wouldn’t attend that weekend and given the reception they got when they first came home after the war, that’s to be expected. Sometimes a “Thank you and welcome home” 30 years later is too little, too late.

There are moments from that fall weekend in 2006 that I will always remember. The biker with the Vietnam Veteran patch who saw the “committee” designation on my shirt and asked if he could hug me. I said yes. The quiet man who handed me his “Find a Buddy” card to hang on the board and whose “buddy” turned out to be the older brother of one of my friends. A few quick phone calls later, they were reunited for the first time since shipping out together. And meeting Mary Ford’s brother who had brought his family to the dedication in her honor because she couldn’t attend herself. The smiling, compassionate woman who’d entered the service on Halloween 1967 and served two tours in Vietnam as an Army nurse died in 1998.

It’s March 30, “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day” in South Dakota. Who are you thanking today?

Grandpa and Pup...or pilot and plane.

Grandpa and Pup…or pilot and plane.

When I was four, my father was nearly decapitated by a flying dog.

Pup was an Eskimo Spitz and as far as I know that was the only time he ever flew. Seconds before take-off, he was crouched on the driveway next to me, his bloody chin inches from mine. Then he was airborne, launched by Grandpa over his shoulder, on a collision course with my unsuspecting father’s head. Dad threw up his arms, awkwardly catching the 30-pound furry missile and setting him on the ground. After which Pup ran to his doghouse and hid.

It wasn’t the dog’s fault. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, really, just a natural reaction by Grandpa to what he saw. Crying child + bloody dog = animal attack.

Except that’s not what it was. I’d fallen on the gravel and cut my lip open, the kind of wound that bleeds like a son-of-a-bitch, and I was crying because it hurt and Pup was bloody because he was licking my face to comfort me. I knew that, he knew that. The only ones not up to speed were the adults. When the truth finally came out, Pup was coaxed from his doghouse and I spent the rest of the day looking at my fat lip in the mirror.
Pup didn’t attack me. He would never attack me because family pets don’t do that.

Apparently, some of them do. Just over a week ago on our end of town, three pit bulls mauled another dog that was in his own yard. All four were family pets; the three attackers belonged to one family, the victim to another. According to the reports, the little boy whose family owns the pit bulls saw it happen but couldn’t stop it. The owner of the other dog heard the commotion and did.

What followed was an impressive outpouring of support for Badger, the wounded dog, and an interesting discussion over who was at fault: the pit bulls which attacked him or the owners who didn’t train them not to. Pit bulls are a violent, dangerous breed and should be banned, said one camp. It’s the responsibility of the owners to train their dogs correctly, regardless of their breed, said the other.

It’s ironic that this incident happened just weeks after South Dakota passed a law prohibiting local governments from enacting ordinances discriminating against specific breeds and just over a month after some friends of ours officially adopted Ray, one of the abused pit bulls from Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels, after the dog underwent extensive training and therapy.

What happened to Badger was horrific enough but what happened next may be even worse. Because nothing happened. The pitbulls who attacked him were still running around the neighborhood a week later and if Facebook posts and police scanner reports are to be believed, this past weekend one of them bit a child.

My two dogs are not the best trained animals in the world but we’ve taken what steps we can to ensure that they don’t harm others. That’s our responsibility as pet owners as surely as it’s our commitment to our dogs to protect them from other animals and people who might do them harm. It doesn’t matter what breed they are; when you bring that animal home, you become responsible for them. Period. And if you can’t handle that, you don’t deserve one.

That should last me the week...

That should last me the week…

Fifty percent of my household didn’t read a single book last year.

That was my husband. Early in our relationship, he eyed the overflowing bookshelves in my apartment and said, “I don’t read.”

“You’re illiterate? I can teach you,” I offered.

“I know HOW to read. I just don’t read books.”

I don’t know how this marriage has survived so long.

I was raised by readers. My sister’s a reader as are all of my closest friends. I’ve carted favorite books thousands of miles, been late countless times because I couldn’t put a good book down, and if given the choice between buying a dinette set or a comfortable chair and a reading lamp, I will eat dinner over the kitchen sink…then go sit in my chair and read. People who don’t read puzzle me.

A recent Pew Center Research Poll shows that 23 percent of adults didn’t read a single book in 2013. That’s up from 16 percent in 1990 and 8 percent in 1978. And according to the National Endowment for the Arts, only 47% of Americans say they read a book for pleasure in 2012.

Books give us knowledge, insight, inspiration, ideas, truths, lies, instructions, humor, emotional release, a chance to dream, an opportunity to escape, a place to go even if it’s just in our heads. Why WOULDN’T you read one?

RIF (Reading is Fundamental) was still a fairly new literacy program in the early 1970’s when I was learning how to read but its message was already solid: knowing how to read was the key to unlocking a world of doors and it wasn’t just a useful skill, it could also be FUN. I believed that as a kid; now as a bigger kid, I still believe it.

Maria Keller does, too. Maria’s a 13-year-old from Minneapolis, MN who founded her own non-profit organization to promote literacy. When she was 8, she started collecting used books and since then, with the help of thousands of people around the country, her organization Read Indeed has given 1 million books to schools, hospitals and community centers in 30 states and more than a dozen foreign countries. What can you say? The kid likes to read.

Anyone can spread the joy of reading. I recently received some literary love from my 9-year-old nephew who said, “Hey, I got you something” and handed me this:

Kid-approved reading material

Kid-approved reading material

It came from his school book fair; I also got a complimentary Minions’ poster and pencil eraser. Did you know that “Bello” is a popular greeting among Minions and that “Poopaye” is how they say goodbye? True that. I read it in a book.

Read any good books lately? Find me on Goodreads and we can compare notes.

The more you read, the more things you will know.
The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go. – Dr. Seuss

Brushing up on my creative skills

Brushing up on my creative skills

My youngest nephew had a baby quilt with one square turned wrong side out. I know this because I made it for him.  Not that way intentionally, of course.  When I handed the stack of cross-stitched squares to my husband who was assembling the quilt (he sews better than I do), one square was facing stitches up.  When it was time to add that square, he just grabbed it and started sewing. Neither of us noticed the error until he held the finished quilt up and there it was near the bottom. I was horrified.

No one will even notice it, said my husband, who is not a good judge of what people notice because he doesn’t notice a lot of things. I will, every time I see it, I said. He refused to dismantle the quilt and fix it and while I knew I could rip it apart in a heartbeat, I couldn’t sew it back together in any presentable fashion.

When we gave the quilt as it was to my sister-in-law, I pointed out the backward square and apologized profusely. She just laughed and said that meant no one else would ever have one like it.

I create a lot of things – artwork, stories, crafts – and I give most of them away to friends and family because that makes me happy. And while I used to agonize over every detail, building and rebuilding the same project over and over until it was absolutely perfect, now if I find a little creative quirk in the finished piece, I leave it.  Because creativity isn’t about perfection, it’s about uniqueness. What makes the things YOU create unique to you?

Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties. – Erich Fromm