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Archive for February, 2012

unexpected beauty

Happened across this photo (and others) by Thomas Jackson. Quirky, fun, beautiful.

Cups by Thomas Jackson

Sort of like an urban counterpart to another artist, Andy Goldsworthy, who does amazing things with natural (and ephemeral) materials.

Horn (1986) by Andy Goldsworthy

Click that link for an excellent web site with photos of Goldsworthy’s early work. He does small, temporary work and monumental, more permanent creations as well. I love the descriptions of the pieces, which make it sound like he just wanders around, finding natural materials and making beautiful pieces of art, then photographing them.

Find beauty wherever and however you can.

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Cable TV has never been a priority for me. I’m hopelessly old school and cheap when it comes to paying for entertainment. I believe this has been a source of some disappointment to my children, but we’ve never paid extra for TV channels. Actually, we do have a basic cable deal that we pay for, but it’s because we have no choice. We live in a community with an owners’ association, and everyone here is required to sign up for the community cable deal. One hundred-plus channels are available to us, and at any given time about one-hundred-plus channels are completely useless to me.

So if there’s a pay-cable series worth watching, I usually wait for it to come out on DVD, and then I wait for the county library system to get a copy. Cheap, cheap, cheap. It’s rare that I care enough about a series to pay for it.

I’ve been meaning to review a couple of cable TV series for oh, about a year now. I guess it’s time. Then I’ll get back to writing sentimental memories that will put me back on the search engine lists for stuff I never meant to be associated with. (Really? I’m now the go-to guy for Tina the Ballerina fans? Who’d have guessed? Or worse, people looking for info about permacaths are directed to my complainy post about getting one for Provenge treatments. Oh well. I hope they’re not too annoyed.)

Today’s topics: cancer, and comedy.

You know, when your life and future get blasted by a cancer diagnosis, and you’re reeling from this impossible turn in your destiny, you’re hit with all kinds of emotions. Usually within a few minutes’ time, you can careen from panic to fear to hopelessness and anger, then cycle through who-knows-what-else before you know what hit you. As you start trying to make sense of it all, it’s a relief to find anyone who understands. You get to the angry stage, and it helps to find angry people. You want to be able to laugh about it, so you look for humor.

But cancer as comedy? Not so easy to pull off. Yes, I do need to laugh. Absolutely. I want to find ways to communicate the experience to others. And I know that I can’t begrudge anyone else’s need to express their experience through comedy. Still, you need to know that I’m a grouch, a man of a melancholy disposition, and I do not want anyone to try to convince me that happy thoughts and humor are the way through my valley-of-the-shadow-of-death experience. Especially if they’re making a career out of it.

However, comedy is a personal thing. I get that. What works for you may not work for me. And your openness to joking will likely vary depending on whether you’re in the lows of chemo or some other treatment, or in the highs of just getting good test results and feeling like maybe, just a little, you can laugh about it.

In the last two years there have been two attempts at cancer comedy, a cable series and a movie. I’m puzzled: Why is this the time for cancer comedy? What does this say about the perception of cancer in American society?

Let’s start with the movie:   50/50 opened nationally in September 2011. I heard that it was a thoughtful comedy about a young man with cancer and how people close to him reacted to his diagnosis. At least that’s what I gathered from reviews. I really did want to see this one, but, oh, I was busy dealing with CHEMO and didn’t have the energy. How’s that for irony?

50/50 just came out on DVD, and I now have the energy to give it a look. Will Reiser, the writer/producer who created the movie with Seth Rogen, went through treatment for neurofibrosarcoma a few years ago and is in remission. In interviews, he’s spoken about wanting to make a movie about the cancer experience, specifically about how strange and funny the experience can be.

So, with Rogen on board, it’s not surprising that 50/50 is a young-guy-cancer-comedy, “from the guys who brought you Superbad” (as the film’s web site boasts). Sure, but is it really “consistently uproariously funny”? (Come on, who writes this promotional stuff, anyway?) Well, at least give them credit for bringing young men into the arena of cancer cinema, which is typically a woman’s world.

To clarify that description, 50/50 is a movie about young single adult men who don’t have emotional depth, but who find themselves in a situation that calls for it. I was generally disappointed with the movie. I don’t recall any part of it being “uproariously funny” — in fact, the laugh-out-loud parts are all in the trailer, if that’s any indication. There is a fair share of gentle humor; the movie is actually quite reserved where it could have played many scenes more broadly. And then there’s Rogen’s character, Kyle, who is so out of his element but blusters through scenes doing what any clueless young guy would do: be self-absorbed, get drunk, and try to pick up chicks.

The problem I had with 50/50 is how the main character, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), seems to be part of a different movie than his buddy. The further he gets into treatment, the more he glides along in his own little world, blank, drawn inward, and oddly passive. This may be one way to show the sense of isolation that cancer survivors feel, even when surrounded by friends and family. This disconnection is a key theme, but the script and direction treat it both too subtly and (in Kyle’s case) clumsily.

My biggest reservation is Rogen’s character. I freely admit that I’ve never seen any of his movies, and I hear he plays Kyle as the same character that he’s done in virtually every movie he’s been in. Maybe it’s a generational thing (am I too old for his brand of guy humor?). More likely, it’s the explicitly vulgar stuff that keeps spewing out of his mouth, starting within about 30 seconds of his first appearance. I realize that his character was drawn this way to contrast with the obsessive, quiet, almost saintly Adam, but Kyle just became a weight dragging down the movie for me. There were plenty of opportunities to explore Adam’s experience that were left out, and too often Kyle’s overbearing presence neutralizes whatever meaning is developing in Adam’s reactions. And when there’s a subtle moment at the end where we’re offered a bit of redemption in Kyle’s role, I didn’t find it convincing.

However, I’ll repeat my earlier disclaimer: comedy is a personal thing. I suppose some people will find Rogen’s character hilarious; I didn’t. I do credit the writer for getting into some meaningful subjects, and keeping the story generally believable (the biggest lapse being a lose-your-license ethical violation on the part of a certain mental health provider). I liked Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance, although his passivity didn’t quite lead up to the big payoff that was obviously intended toward the end of the movie. The director kept the movie light and short, but some connection between Adam’s character and the rest of the movie is missing. On the whole, you have a deeply personal, quiet character sharing the screen with an absurdly obnoxious friend, and the resulting comedy never quite comes together for me.

On to cable-cancer-comedy: The Big C, a Showtime series starring Laura Linney as a crazy, funny, weird, out-of-control suburban mom with melanoma. The series has finished two seasons and will continue with at least a third, but due to Showtime’s no-internet-viewing policy, I’ve only seen the first season on DVD. And I’m very undecided at this point if anything about the show, other than Linney’s acting, makes it worth a recommendation.

The show’s creator, Darlene Hunt, credits the series producer with saying “It’s time for a cancer comedy.” Why, I don’t know. Could this be some weird homage to a show like Breaking Bad, where a high school teacher’s cancer diagnosis is the catalyst for what turns out to be an epic drug lord tragedy? In The Big C, we have  as the show’s premise that a formerly bland suburban mom suddenly turns into a wacky free spirit after her cancer diagnosis. And we are invited to share in the gleeful chaos as she starts acting really strange. Sadly, I’m not sure there will be any epic outcome to the series, at least not on the strengths of the first season.

Unfortunately, season 1 dragged on in an increasingly unbelievable stand-off: Linney’s character tells no one of her diagnosis, except the prickly old lady across the street, whose dog senses the truth. The situations in each episode became more and more unlikely, the whole thing feeling like a wishful hallucination, until the last couple of episodes. Then things got real, and the story could move on. It had the look of a series stuck in its own writing trap: “OK, we’ve got 13 episodes, and we have to hold off on Cathy telling anyone until the last two. So, what do you think—let’s introduce the characters and come up with some insane storylines to fill up the middle 10 episodes.” Didn’t quite work for me, but I know that some people loved it.

I’ve seen a little of season 2, and there may be hope. Maybe the relationships and Cathy’s sense of self will finally start developing into something believable. Maybe the humor will start to feel more natural and less contrived. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll stop being annoyed at the shallow social comedy and gratuitous sex, for the questionable side plots and less-than-believable characters. All these distractions, the R-rated candy sprinkles tossed onto these cable TV cupcakes, just annoy me. The depiction of oncology providers is fast and loose (sorry, but Cathy’s relationship with her young doctor is absurd). Too many characters play a single stereotype or a one-joke role. Too many situations have the feel of a real cancer story with the kind of smart talk that we all wish we had said at the time. What I find discouraging is that the stretch for comedy crowds out the real-emotion moments that make the series worthwhile. And there are, in the end, a few real moments that make me wish for more depth and less comedy.

C’mon, writers and producers, are you really wasting Laura Linney’s winsome performance with this … cancer comedy? The result is a series that feels fragmented, unsure of itself. It’s comedy, but it’s not comedy about cancer: it’s comedy about a woman who sees the world through a radically different filter, one in which mortality is looming. The series tosses out comedy as a distraction but can’t find its own soul in the process. (And yes, all this is subject to revision when I see season 2.)

What really gets me curious is whether there’s another producer quote that was never made public: “Hey, did you see that crazy Canadian series about a woman with breast cancer who turns into a brilliant reality-show star? We should do something like that.” There are no obvious connections between Terminal City and The Big C, but I can’t help wondering if there was something in the first series that sparked the second.

To rewind a little, Terminal City was a 10-episode series broadcast in Canada in 2005 (more recently picked up on the Sundance channel). It’s a satire of media producers, reality TV, and the transgressive extremes producers with no ethical boundaries will go to.  All this centers on a most human story—a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer—as the poker chip they’re all betting with. Within the restraint of only ten episodes, the show was forced to be quick, tough, and beautiful all at once, and it’s a moving, painful, even funny look at what a cancer diagnosis does to a family.

Maria del Mar is stunning as Katie Sampson, the woman pushed into the harsh lights of reality television who pushes back and becomes a media sensation as her life falls apart. There’s a strong interaction between del Mar and Gil Bellows as Katie’s husband Ari: even though they’re both set adrift by the cancer and seem to be flailing in their individual circles, they are the center of the story and are both riveting.

While it’s imperfect, the series plays with many ideas and characters in a very compelling way. Their three children have their own story and characterization that is both realistic and extreme. Some of the side stories are unlikely exercises in gratuitous sex and irrational violence. (So, in Canada, can you really depict underage sex so explicitly?)  The series feels rushed and incomplete toward the end. But it has a rich, dark comedy at its base that lifts it above some of the less believable twists.

The tricky thing with this series is that the crossover between media satire and the structure of the series is a trap: are we being manipulated by this story as we watch the characters and producers manipulate their audience? Is the poetic, edgy, beautiful side of this show just a mirror of the over-the-top show producers who are pushing every boundary they encounter as they try to capture the attention of a young, hip audience?

I liked the series. I really liked del Mar and Bellows, and I was drawn in by the unexpected poetry that would spill out in odd places. There are many moments where the camera lingers on images, allowing a mood to develop with no talky explanations or obvious connections to the story.

And there are many hit-and-run moments where you’re left wondering what just happened. How about this exchange, as Katie and her perplexed, jumpy co-host Jimmy, toss around a quick series of  free associations on Katie’s live broadcast, which is cleverly (?) titled No Show:

Katie: Jimmy Crib, my sidekick. A man who terrifies network executives because he doesn’t like to watch TV.

Jimmy: I like to touch. [reaches out to touch the desk microphone]

Katie: Yes, you do. [laughing]

Jimmy: [falls off the chair, gets up] I can walk.

Katie: Hey—Dr. Strangelove…

Jimmy: Breathe in the air.

Katie: Roger Waters, Pink Floyd… Taking Care of Business.

Jimmy: Greatest rock-n-roll song ever written.

Katie: Really?

Jimmy: It’s post-modern, it’s self-referential.

Katie: Jimmy Crib, you’re on fire!  Cancer.

[Jimmy pauses. Long silence.]

Jimmy: [sigh] An orchid. A white orchid.

[Another long silence. Jimmy wiggles his hands around.]

Katie: And we’ll be right back. Man, I even say it like a pro, don’t I, Jimmy?

Jimmy, the baffled blank slate to Katie’s beautiful No Show persona, delivers a central theme for the series, tossed out in a random moment. Cancer isn’t anything but the fragility of life, put in a container, waiting for us to interact with it. Is that ever-present potted orchid a symbol of Katie’s strength and beauty, or her fragile fear of cancer? Is it a defiant reminder of life in the face of stress and the threat of death? Is it just a beautiful image being used to lull us into watching a manipulative show that uses a human life for its own gains?

Whatever. I won’t try to answer that one. But I do recommend the series. With all its absurdities it captures a luminous view of life, love, and death that doesn’t fade easily.

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In November, I decided it was time to scale back living in the awkward place I call cancer culture.

I gave away my red and yellow stronger than cancer T-shirt and all the CANCER SUCKS buttons that were cluttering up a kitchen drawer. I would have given away a couple other shirts but I couldn’t find them. Just as well.

I am keeping the two individually designed shirts that my daughter and wife had made for me. One is a blue shirt with huge white letters, CANCER SUCKS, that earned me a photo on a Cancer Wellness House newsletter and the cover of their pamphlet a few years ago (they photoshopped out the sentiment, and some sweat spots, and stuck their logo on the shirt for the pamphlet). I don’t wear it any more, but I keep it as a reminder of Rachel’s support for me over the years. She was standing with me in the photo that ended up on the brochure, and I figure it was her charm that led them to use the photo.

The other shirt I’m keeping is our family T-shirt for the 2011 Survivors at the Summit, with Love is Stronger than Cancer on the back. We had a lot of interest from other hikers wondering where they could get one, so maybe we should produce it in quantity some day.

That’s about the only sentiment I want to wear any more. I don’t want to wear my anger or my attitude on display in public, or wear the slightly boastful cancer isn’t for sissies shirt. And I don’t feel a need for a team identity even though I know there are many people cheering me on and praying for me. All these things have their place, but I’ve decided I want them out of my daily life.

I’ve given cancer enough attention, I think. It’s always going to be there, but there are plenty of other things more worthy of my time. I’m not sure I want to attend any more cancer events in this new year. I will keep up with the excellent Living Well With Cancer support group that I’ve been a part of for over four years. People have come and gone from the group, and it’s always good to meet new friends through it.

Of course, there are times when I miss those friends and wonder if it’s worth getting to know people who are on a terminal course. Of course it’s worth it, but in a bittersweet way.

And yes, I do think it’s ironic that my last six blog posts have been about cancer, cancer, cancer. Really, I’ve got to try something else. It’s something like the old adage that you have to keep your eyes on the goal, not the ground at your feet. Or is that you have to keep your eyes on the horizon when parachuting, because if you look at the ground you get disoriented? Hm. I do tend to get those metaphors mixed up.

The last few weeks have been tough for personal cancer news. A friend of my daughter Kate lost her sister, in less than a couple of weeks, to cancer. A 17-year-old neighbor is in the middle of harsh chemotherapy for widespread testicular cancer. Seventeen: that is just wrong. I’ve recently been reading blog updates from another metastatic prostate cancer survivor whose kidneys are failing. In the last three weeks I’ve had to medicate some serious, random pain; I’ve met with a new local oncologist (who can take care of basics when I’m not traveling to Vegas) and an interventional pain specialist (just a getting-to-know-you kind of introduction, although he won’t be doing anything for now); and will meet next week with my radiation oncologist to talk about options for spot radiation to my bones.

Cancer’s getting enough of my time: I don’t want to give it any more space in my thoughts and daily life. I’d rather be thinking about this year’s hiking season in Torrey, or where to go when our family takes off for Hawaii in a few weeks.

So, farewell to cancer culture. I don’t want that word hanging around at the edge of my vision any more.

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