24 March 2009

Saints & Camels

Last year when my friend Dr. Nic had a scare in the bosom, she gathered us around a Suppah Club table and told us -- in no uncertain terms – that if she had cancer she would not (repeat NOT) become one of those positive, inspirationally-gooey people who goes around calling her disease a gift and praising God as if he hadn’t been there all along. She'd be on her knees, shaking her fists at fate: “Bloody hell. Why ME? Why the fuck did it have to be ME?”

We nearly passed out laughing and thankfully, she was fine. Still, I knew where she was coming from. She wasn't talking about having a negative attitude. She was talking about the human tendency to go all evangelical and claim to live on a deeper plane than everyone else when faced with a health crisis. She thinks that's horse shit and so do I. Like former smokers who proselytize and wag their fingers in your face, it's a form of self preservation through sanctimony. Your life doesn't have any more meaning than it did before, it just becomes much more evident that you should be paying attention.

Whatever gets you through the night. Prayer is awesome, and so is red wine.

Positively Horrified
My worst nightmare is to become maudlin, but I was shocked when I was recently asked: "How can you be so positive?" What? I'm certainly not in the bell jar 24/7 but I'm not some shitfaced cheerleader in denial, am I? There isn't a day I don't wake up and think: "Oh SHIT, I could die." But then, so could anyone. Look at poor Natasha Richardson.

I guess it's not the notion of "being positive" that irked me so much as the way the question was posed: "How can you be so positive" -- accusatory --- like I was the man who got arrested for sticking a cucumber in his ass at Shaw's.

Don't get me wrong, I want this blog to have a positive vibe, just not a "Chicken Soup for the Soul-y" vibe. I'm striving for a "Dirty (Filthy!) Martinis for the Soul" vibe (or in my case, "Liquid Perc on the Rocks for the Soul.")

Back from the Wasteland (where I was negative)
Everyone has bad days -- even bad months. T.S Eliot said April is the cruelest month. For me, February is the cruelest and March the most sadistic. A couple of bad days this past week/weekend bloomed into a full-on episode -- and I don't believe it was cancer-related, certainly not entirely. I could feel my serotonin levels plummeting, my mood not far behind.

I've had episodes like this before, always around this time of year: A crop of cartoonish thunderclouds move in right over your head and you can't dispel them. Then, the inner hag, sensing your vulnerability, takes up residence in your soul and turns you into a recluse. For several days, you want to jump out of your skin. You have no energy. You find pleasure in nothing. You can't read or respond to emails. You can't listen to music or write. You can't even make a playlist and go for a five mile walk (an oft-proven remedy for such bouts). You can't stand being awake. All you want to do is go to sleep and wake up when the thunderclouds have passed.

Aside: BTW, I'm completely aware this reads like a bad TV ad for Wellbutrin. I probably have Seasonal Affective Disorder, but that's a blog for another day.

This time around, my physical appearance added to my angst. My baldness. Craving nothing, inside or out. I felt completely inhuman. I was talking to James about how the Nazis dehumanized their concentration camp prisoners by shaving the heads and how effective that probably was for everyone involved.

Aside II: James is thrilled that I’ve now managed to involve the Nazis in this week’s existential crisis.

Thankfully my wee brown ones were wrapped up in school and activities and fun with my sainted sister-in-laws who took them out for many an hour. The kids definitely sensed my bad energy. Caroline even said, "Mommy, your face looks funny." I looked in the mirror and sure enough, my face was contorted. I resembled a sour girl from high school who overplucked her eyebrows to the point of nonrecognition. (Just an FYI: Mine have thinned out from the chemo, I have not pruned them into oblivion. My eyelashes have thinned too, hence the clumpy mascara).

Still, my poor kids:

KIDS: Mommy, can you watch me draw a picture? Can you play this game with me?

ME: Mommy just needs to spend a few more minutes under the sink with these inhalants.

Saints in the Inbox
Over the past nine weeks (it's only been nine weeks!!!), I've met and spoken to so many people who are going through breast cancer or have been there. The majority have been unbelievably helpful and I'm thankful to count them as friends. There's Julie who I broke bread and drank wine with at Rustic Kitchen. She speaks of her BC as "a blip on the radar" nine years ago. I love the sound of that. When she entered the land of NED, she renewed her vows and threw a huge bash. I love the sound of that even more. She turns 50 next month and takes her good times seriously. Fuck cancer, it has nothing to do with it!

There's my friend Doreen who I've mentioned many times here.

There are people I've met through the PU and through friends of friends.

I talked to Kelly Tuthill, whose fight with BC I closely followed three years ago. We have identical diagnoses and she's doing awesome these days. She's also a philanthropist with her time. During our conversation, she mentioned that so many people out there are "counting on her to stay healthy." And I thought that is such a blessing and a curse. It's probably hard enough dealing with grabby, newly-diagnosed people like me who are trying to clamor out of the cluelessness, but she said she enjoys talking to people who are going through the war. It's a sentiment I want to pay forward once I reach the land of NED, but you really have to be self-possessed and have a sense of boundaries so you don't become consumed. I'm wondering if I have them.

Camel Crossing!
Because, based on my interaction with a handful of people, I can see how easy it would be to become consumed. (Let's just say I will never attend another support group). I'll mention three examples: The first woman was a stage 1 and recovering from surgery with an excellent prognosis. The second has been cancer free for almost two years and the third one should, at the very least, be out interviewing bands for her NED celebration. Each of them was dour and negative, seemingly hanging around on hooks waiting for their cancer to advance, recur and take them out once and for all. Together, however, they were a united front: "How can you be so positive?" I felt obligated to try to talk these people off the ledge. Mistake. I should've recognized these types a mile away.

My friend Dave would call these people “camels.”

Camel (n.): One who makes misery for the sake of making misery. Name inspired by the melancholic facial expression of the common camel.

ME: Dave, don't be so judgmental, maybe he/she is just having a bad day.

DAVE: Maybe people he/she is just being a camel. Being a camel because they can be.

Dave's banal, often stereotypical labels for people used to get on my nerves, but man, he was right on with this one. Because, every single time, the "camel" in question was not just having a bad day. It was always something. It was a lifestyle choice.

Example of a common camel: If it's someone's birthday, a holiday party, a wedding, a bridal shower, any reason to celebrate outside the house, the camel will manufacture a crisis. They will either get sick beforehand or find a reason to be offended and leave once they've arrived. Your 40th birthday will coincidentally turn out to be the 14th anniversary of of the camel's grandmother's death. The night of your holiday party, the camel will come down with a crushing migraine and throw up in the hotel lobby (or tell you they did).


So went the conversations with current and former cancer patients: Graphic bowel issues. Leg pain. It's only a matter of time. Always looking over your shoulder. How can you be so positive?

MF camels. If it wasn't cancer, it'd be something else. It's always something.

Ten years from now, these same women will be attending support groups, hell bent on spooking other "positive" assholes like me.

Ask T.S. Eliot
I was looking for a quote from one of his poems because I was thinking about an essay my niece Sarah wrote about her mother, my sister-in-law Paula, who has ovarian cancer. She wrote about "the seasons" and how during the winter months, her mother was sick and bald and was in and out of treatment. Then, springtime came and her mother's hair was growing back. She knew she was getting better when she saw Paula on her hands and knees digging out flower beds and planting annuals. Her essay conveyed a genuine love of life and an appreciation for the turn of the seasons -- something I've always felt deeply connected to as well, particularly this year.

"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?"

This past week, Paula and Sarah flew off to Florida with family and friends to celebrate Jon's cancer-free scans (Yahoo!) Because that's what they do: they celebrate the present. They also know that 38 degrees in March is complete bullshit and unworthy of their presence.

"We should be on Ellen!"
- Paula, on the amount of family members currently undergoing treatment at DF.

Their attitudes strike such a sharp contrast to those of the camels' who -- as camels tend to -- have an inherent distaste for life.

But I give thanks to the camels because they pissed me off! In anger there is adrenaline! And adrenaline is a natural serotonin booster. I'm back on my game.

The "readers guide" for that T.S. poem said "living a life devoid of meaning is death.” That's pretty bad, but it's even worse, I think, to manufacture misery or aspire to have a shitty day.
Don't be a camel.

That said, the thunderclouds have lifted and I’m pre-ordering a case of champagne to be uncorked upon my arrival in the land of NED.

Seven Songs of the Day -- 3/23/2009

Here I Come - Luscious Jackson
In the Journey - Martin Sexton
Stronger - Kanye West
Support System - Liz Phair
Dreams - The Cranberries
You Are the Best Thing - Ray LaMontagne
I Won't Back Down - Tom Petty

Courtesy of Michelle X. Curran (aka Singuloso)

(p.s. Congratulations on your new baby boy, Michelle!)


Dawn said...

Thank you!!! Now I know what to call some of the people that I work with -- Camels!!

Oh, and I think the tone of your blog has been perfect...


Cameo said...

Great, great blog! I'm turning that camel into my PC wallpaper -- LOL funny and a subtle warning to those office camels out there, of which there are many. I too was blue this weekend, Kate -- for absolutely no reason. March is mean. I'm looking forward to seeing the sunshine on your bald head (hopefully not reflecting....heh).xoxo

Anonymous said...

No worries- this blog is not "Chicken Soup for the Soul-y". It is definitely more "Roxicet-y".... whatever that is.

Katie M.

bg said...

KJ - you don't run with the camels.

Anonymous said...


I feel like making this mandatory reading for oh soooo many people I know.

Can I get an AMEN? On all fronts.

Hang in there...March sucks. SAD sucks. Cancer sucks. People SUCK. Alas 60 degree weather is on the horizon.

Let's drink soon.


Roving Lemon said...

Cancer and other horrible events are not a "blessing", in my book. That's not how my theology works.

They can, however, be an opportunity to learn something useful about life, and hopefully yourself. Clearly not an opportunity the camels have chosen to take.

(It's interesting--I was assuming 'camels' was for the huge loads of $#@% they were carrying around, or the desert of life they're travelling--an apt nickname on many levels.)

Camels are DEFINITELY bad for the tumor. Stay far, far away from their toxicity. These people could live to be 90 and not learn what you already know.

Your blog should be subtitled "Drinking and Swearing and Savage Humor for the Soul".

Don't let the bastards grind you down.


Bean Down Under said...

KJ - I also thought it strange that people would call such events 'blessings'. Blessings are not things that require IV drips and spending days in the hospital. Great blog. With the thundercloud references the song MLK came into my head....and is still in it!

Anonymous said...

Hi Kate:

Here I'll say it: FUCK THE CAMELS!! They are bad for the tumor!

We all have them in our lives - if we choose to keep them: I have flushed some of them out of mine!

YOU and your blog have enriched my life this year, sharing your journey - as shitty as it is - has been a positive and uplifting experience - dont' change a thing!! I log on everyday to read it.

Keep being KATE - you are GREAT!


Auntie J

Goy said...

Newburyport or bust baby!!! No camels there just fat free fluff and purple passion.

Cols said...

Sorry "Bean Down Under" but I don't think we can put a specific label on what a "blessing" is. I believe that a blessing can sometimes first be a curse and vice versa. Sometimes it's obvious because of the way we feel--happy and uplifted, other times it takes a while to reveal itself to us. I’d say “cancer” falls into the latter category. What matters is how you receive it when it comes and these "camels" have turned the other cheek to it. Cheers to you PU for not inhaling their negativity, it’s more toxic than the red death!

For those of us loyal PU followers and consumers of Kate’s wisdom pre-cancer I have to say that your insight and friendship has always been a blessing but this disease has raised it a level and allowed you to share that with a whole bunch of new people who I know are grateful—just look at the blog responses! Here’s to March and cancer being a “blip” on the radar screen soon my friend. Pass the Veuve Cliquot!


sarah_derby said...

I have always said that illness/dramatic life altering events do not change people, it just emphasizes who they already are, because the bullshit gets stripped away. Hence, the camels become more camel-like, and the fabulous become more fabulous. This post just emphasizes this, oh fabulous one.


Paula said...


Thanks for putting a label to something I have always known... that "Camels" do exist.. Let me share....

I was a relatively new therapist working on a pediatric rehab floor and yes, overwhelmed at most of the sad and tragic stories that surrounded me.. i always wanted to be the bright spot and keep the kids up and hopefully add a little sunshine... BE POSITIVE...
I had this client... 16 y.o. boy, with a spinal cord injury, paralyzed from mid chest down... angry, hard to work with and very disrespectful ... Every morning I would grit my teeth and think to myself, I am not letting this kid get to me...
One morning I was in early to do a shower with the kid... who was ripola having refused showering for the past 3 or 4 days... STINKY... There I was Polly sunshine ... bargaining, cajoling, bribing...all to no avail... His response to me was "Get the fuck out, bitch.. I don't need you or anyone!".. I was speechless... It was at that moment when our Doc on the floor chose to walk in.. heard what he said and totally lambasted the kid, basically telling him he was lucky that I didn't just walk out and let him be stinky... (he said it in a little bit stronger language than that).. I was shocked... I couldn't believe that the doc couldn't see that this kid was just reacting to his sitch... WRONG.. apparently this doc had spoken with this kids parents who had let him know that the kid was basically on the fast lane to jail before his injury (which I hadn't at the time know occured when he crashed his stolen car fleeing from the police).. I was open mouthed and walked out with this doc.. who is still a friend of mine today... when he gave me the words of wisdom that helped me get through the next six years... "Don't let him get to you.. he was a punk before his accident and his paralysis hasn't changed his personality... he will continue being a punk.. let's just hope it doesn't cause his to end up alone, and without anyone like you willing to help him... "...

He may not have been a camel... but was in the same vein... You are so right .. and you are so not a camel...

Love you girl...

Anonymous said...


I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching to Geico;)

Thought I'd lighten the mood a bit. I heard Camels are great drinkers.


ko said...

Perfectly timed... I heard of a "camel incident" that happened to a friend at work today. So true that these people are toxic and have a nuclear aura. Stay away and zip up your invisible Hazmat suit.

ps. my word verification is Zesmoma- as in "Zes Moma is gonna kick ur ass, take that BC!"

Dr. Nic said...

Hold on ! A man got arrested for sticking a cucumber in his ass at Shaw's ? Really ?

Kate, you keep it real ! love it.

Tim Griffin said...

Camel Soup - by TS Eliot

What is hell? Hell is oneself.
Hell is alone, the other figures in it
Merely projections. There is nothing to escape from
And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.

Anonymous said...

What does that camel have coming out of his left nostril?