Thursday, April 9, 2015

Go out on a limb with cancer

 
     Maybe the fifth time I heard the commercial I finally snapped. 
     You probably have heard it too.
     They play the damn thing enough.
     In fact, I heard it again Thursday morning, waking up, as the radio turned on. 
     First cello music, sawing away—to convey class.
     "Being diagnosed with cancer can be scary..." a voice says.
     Whereupon I snarl, "No, being diagnosed with cancer IS scary!"
     I should quickly add that this is not personal experience talking. I have not, as yet, been diagnosed with cancer. But I imagine when that diagnosis comes, it is universally a moment that can safely be described as "scary." I would be very surprised if there was a single person who, upon being told by a doctor that he or she has cancer, is not at least a little scared, even though they've made great strides with treatment, even though cancer is not the dread "c-word" of yore, even though people can and do recover all the time, with the help of top notch institutions like Rush University Medical Center, the organization behind the cello-drenched radio spot.
     Still it's scary. It has to be scary. I would love to be proven wrong here, to have readers write in and say, "Why Neil, that's just your ignorance talking, I was told I had leukemia and I just yawned in that doctor's face because, really, like, no biggie, right? I wasn't scared. I was excited to be going on my cancer adventure!"
     I've heard the commercial a dozen times, and invariably I start railing against the timidity of the thing, sometimes to my poor wife, sometimes to myself.
    "Go out on a fucking limb," I'll say. "Say, 'Being diagnosed with cancer is scary'" 
    If you're reluctant to even mention how 99.9 percent of the patients are going to react to the news, then how the hell can claim you'll treat them properly? How can you work with them toward fighting their cancer if you can't even recognize how it makes them feel? Scared! Universally. And a lot.
     Maybe, as a professional writer, I'm a freakishly small and hypercritical audience. Maybe I have an unusual hatred for safe, timid, squishy, bland, pabulumatic writing. It just so happens that the day I heard the commercial, once again, I also got a call from an editor in London working on a piece I've done for a medical web site there.
     She was explaining why she wants to cut a certain scene in the story.
     "It makes you look like an ass," she said.
     "Well, I am an ass," I replied, defensively.
     Be that as it may, she continued, and while your honesty is laudable, you don't want to manifest it to such a degree that the reader wonders why they're reading what this guy has to say.
     Of course I agreed with her. That's one role of editors: to save you from yourself. In fact, I had flagged the passage for just such evaluation, because I knew I didn't come off in the best light. So what? You can go a lot of interesting places as a writer, I always say, if you don't care how you appear. People are so concerned about looking good—or covering their asses, as with Rush's "cancer can be scary" idiocy—they forget to communicate a powerful message.
     And no, I'm not sharing the passage, though not because of any embarrassment—the cow has left the barn on that one—but simply because the article is still being edited. Who knows, maybe that scene will end up being put back. I'd like that.

21 comments:

  1. Well said, Mr. S, especially about not worrying what people think if you are making a message.

    By the way, is the USA today a more conservative paper?

    I never read it until it got into the ST. I've seen some columns there last week by an Olen someone or other that seem a bit more right tilted?

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  2. Agreed. But if they ever run a commercial that starts "Paying for cancer treatments can be scary" I'll cut them some slack.

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  3. You seem to be well armored against criticism, Neil. Essential, I should think, in your line of work. All the same, you may enjoy a word of consolation the playwright ("The Country Wife") William Wycherley received from his young friend Alexander Pope after trying his hand at poetry and having his efforts savaged in the press. "Sir," Pope wrote, "just as no beggar is too poor to keep a cur no author is too fine to have a critic."

    Tom Evans

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    1. It all depends whether the person doing the criticism is correct or not. After yesterday's column, one of my fellow Northbrookites wrote me a "so move the fuck away" email that, well, stung slightly.

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    2. Again from Pope:

      "Those best can bear reproof
      Who merit praise."

      TE

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    3. T.E. here we go again with your literary quotes, yes, we are all impressed

      Mr. S, you open yourself up to so much of that crit. Keep your cards closer to your chest. I'd be worried your neighbors might throw some eggs at your garage or something.

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    4. My neighbors don't read the paper, generally, and that one jerk would stumble upon it is of no concern. I'm not paid to keep my cards close to my chest. It's better to have a thick skin than to try to wallpaper the world.

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    5. he prob saw it online, too cheap to get the paper

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    6. okay, good idea about not wallpapering the world, I'll have to remember that, Im easily offended

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    7. see, I'm learning

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    8. I think you meant "easily offensive."

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    9. oh, you must be truly bitter indeed

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    10. Just when it comes to pointless snark.

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  4. P.S. What's with the pottery? something in an upcoming column perchance?

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    1. Molds for facial prosthetics. For a big piece coming in .... August.

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  5. I remember a few years back, you wrote a column saying you didn't want dogs to pee on your grass. Now you see, as a dogowner, you can't only keep dogs just on their own grass, they must walk. I thought you were a bit fussy and said if that were me I'd say okay, but I recognize you and like your columns. Now those who leave poop on lawn piss me off. I even bought one of those signs from the pet store about curbing their dog. It helped.

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    1. And I remember seeing the Mona Lisa at the 1964 World's Fair, only it wasn't there. I've never written that column, because I've never had that thought, because my lawn is a piebald nightmare and a few dozen spots of dog pee would never be noticed. Memory is faulty. If you find it, I'll stand corrected. But I looked and found nothing.

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  6. get a professional lawn service to fix that then

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    1. I don't know why I thought you wrote that. It was in ST. No, I'm not old or suffering from dementia. I can't imagine any other columnists that would write like that so not sure why that is.

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  7. Here is a fine cultural column, would like your thoughts. Many have heard of the Jews in Rome, how about the ones in Calabria, south Italy? In middle ages times they'd turn the statues to the wall when their neighbors left the house or had to display them when not alone.

    http://www.geni.com/projects/Jews-of-Calabria-Italy/23913

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Thanks for commenting. As soon as I vet your remarks, they'll be posted, assuming they aren't, you know, mean and crazy.