The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.


A year ago I said, “Ask me how I’m doing a year from now.”

So, how am I doing?

Even at the time it seemed stupid but when my second anniversary of being cancer-free came around I was in an emotionally very dark place. Cancer was supposed to change my life, but year two was when I started feeling that it hadn’t really changed anything. It’s not something I should complain about because my life before cancer was good and being able to resume that life, with a few small changes, was something I should have been happy about. I’ll always have the scars, but those are just skin deep, and a year after finishing chemo I was, physically, more or less back to where I was before I’d had cancer. And for most of that year I was fine, but as it went on, the closer I got to the second anniversary, the more depressed I felt about it. September 22rd, 2014, was my last day of chemo. When I was still in treatment I met and heard about people who’d been through cancer and their lives had gone on pretty much the same as before, which is a great thing. There is nothing better than to be able to say, “I survived”. And yet at the time I couldn’t imagine I’d ever be like them. Cancer had changed my life so suddenly and yet, in the middle of it, I couldn’t imagine life without it. I couldn’t imagine what lay beyond. My last day of chemo there was no fanfare, no great celebration. It was just another day at the clinic. I sat in a chair and let a nurse pump poison into my veins, just as I had so many other days, and when it was done I got up and walked out. A year later I hadn’t gone back to the clinic but there had been so much follow-up, so many doctor visits and consultations and new drugs that on September 22nd, 2015, I celebrated my survival even though I felt like I was still fighting cancer. And then over the year that followed, even though I had fewer doctor visits and no reason to think the cancer would ever come back it seemed even harder to accept that it was over. I wondered what “over” meant. On September 22nd, 2016, I looked back on what I’d been through and, difficult as it had been, all I could think was, is that it? The cancer, as far as I knew, was dead and life was back to normal. Was that what I wanted? Shouldn’t things be different? Why had I survived?

What a long strange trip it was.

Last day of chemo–and I couldn’t process it at the time.

Yet I said “Ask me how I’m doing a year from now” because I wanted to give myself something to look forward to. I was staring into the abyss and there seemed to be a strong chance I would fall. Instead I decided to jump.
There’s something powerful about the number three. Three is lucky. Three is the smallest odd number greater than one. The smallest number of straight lines that can create an enclosed space is three. There are three primary colors, three rings in a circus, three laws of motion, three Stooges, three blind mice, three sheets to the wind, three face cards per suit in a standard deck, three miles in a league, three little pigs, three wise monkeys, three men in a tub, the third time’s a charm, there are five stages of grief but you can skip two of them, and three basic particles that make up an atom. If you take any group of numbers, no matter how large, and add them up and the result is three, six, or nine then that number is divisible by three–something that’s obsessed me since I learned it in school. I can’t look at a zip code, phone number, or any string of numbers without figuring out if it’s divisible by three. If it is it makes me happy.
There were three months between my initial diagnosis in June, when I spent three days in the hospital, and my final day of chemotherapy, which came in three rounds, in September. I would have three surgeries–the first orchiectomy, a minor one to install a chest port, and a major one to remove lymph nodes–in the six months between June and December.
So how am I doing?
Every year, every day, every second that I go on takes me farther away from cancer. Maybe it will never be completely out of my mind but I don’t dwell on it like I did. I’m genuinely glad I survived. My wife, the main reason I’m still here, tells me that, according to the doctors, technically the anniversary of my being cancer-free is in December, when I had the last big surgery. I have my reasons for picking September 22nd as my personal marker. The day I finished chemo was a great day, September is when the season just starts to change, and, hey, I’m the one who had cancer. I get some say in this. And yet while I shouldn’t take my health for granted I’ve started to wonder if I’ll even mark the occasion next year, whether September 22nd, 2018 will be anything special, other than a Saturday, and I always look forward to those. Maybe by the end of year three I’ll have stopped thinking in terms of years I’ve survived and instead I’ll only focus on being alive.
So how am I doing?
I’m good. I’m great. I’m odd.


Swing And A Miss.

Every fall when school starts again I remember my time with high school golf team. When I started high school my parents informed me I would play a sport. They didn’t specify which one, but it wasn’t an option, so I looked through the school teams for something that would match my complete lack of any athletic ability and settled on golf. I’d played golf some and thought I was pretty good at it. Sure, it was played outside and there was plenty of walking required, but it was a game of slow, steady concentration. And I could usually get the ball through the lighthouse into the clown’s mouth sometimes in as little as five strokes. I also thought, given its Scottish origins, that maybe the team uniform would be a kilt, or at least a tam-o-shanter and some culottes. My parents also occasionally played golf and gave me a set of old clubs that I was able to get most of the rust off of. They signed me up for some lessons at a local golf club with an old guy whose face was so weathered it looked like it had been stretched out and then scrunched up back onto his skull. It was the middle of summer and yet every lesson we had together it was cool and overcast and after the lesson when I was riding home and it was suddenly warm and sunny I realized he created a miserable environment around him. He was a very hands-off kind of instructor, especially after the first time he saw me swing, when he backed up about ten feet and then, after staring at me for several minutes he said, “Walp, the first thing you need to know is the idea is to hit the ball with your club.” So I took another swing and felt the club skim the grass and then, after staring at me for several minutes, he said, “Walp, the next thing you need to know is the idea is to hit the ball with your club.”

I wish I could say the lessons went downhill from there but there was no downhill. If there were the ball might at least have had a chance of going somewhere.

I did a little better by myself hitting the ball around the backyard, maybe because I wasn’t standing around under a cloud of misery and we had a terrible neighbor whose windows gave me something to aim for, but that’s another story.

When school started I found the golf coach who told me practice would be on Wednesday afternoons and I should come to the lobby after school. I lugged my ratty golf bag and only slightly rusted clubs to school that day and when I went to the lobby after school I thought it was strange I was the only one there, but I waited and walked out to the parking lot to see if there was anyone out there. After half an hour I called my mother to ask her to pick me up. The next day the coach told me he’d forgotten I was coming. I wish I could say things went downhill from there but really they just rolled along. The next week practice was cancelled and the coach forgot to tell me. After half an hour I called my mother to ask her to pick me up. The week after that he said he was sure they’d just missed me. After half an hour I called my mother to ask her to pick me up. Finally I got permission to leave my last class early and caught the coach and the rest of the team just as they were leaving. The other four players let me squeeze into the back seat. When we got to the course the other players set up, teed off, and were off and running which surprised me. Who runs in golf? I stepped up to the tee, put my head down, focused, and made an absolutely perfect swing, managing to graze the top of the ball which rolled three feet, and only got that far because it rolled downhill. The coach came up behind me. “You’ve got to play fast! Come on, let’s go, we’re not going to wait for you.” All my ideas of golf as a game of slow, steady concentration were dashed. This was speed golf. We were expected to hit and run, and the coach didn’t want to hear that my handicap was twenty-seven even if it did mean I hit par on every hole.

Panting and sweating at the nineteenth hole I said, “Coach, thank you for the chance. Maybe I’ll try out again next year.” And then I went to the clubhouse and called my mother to ask her to pick me up.

That was the end of my strange and baffling golf career and my parents seemed satisfied with me joining the Latin club, although I never told them I got thrown out for wearing a tam-o-shanter with my toga.

Just Saying.

According to an old saying fish and houseguests start to stink after three days, although that seems like a pretty fishy saying to me because ideally fish should be cleaned, gutted, and served all in the same day and the same goes for houseguests, and neither should be warmed up in the office microwave. That saying obviously predates modern refrigeration and freezing techniques which mean you can keep fish for a lot longer than three days, especially if it’s the stick variety, and if your houseguests are stinking after three days that’s when you should start dropping really strong hints that they’re welcome to use the shower and they can even use those fancy little soaps that are there for, you know, guests.

That saying has been attributed to Benjamin Franklin who also famously said that a penny saved is a penny earned which is even more ridiculous because the only way you can earn a penny by saving a penny is if you’re getting a one-hundred percent return on your investment, and if you are I’d really like to know where you’re putting your money because I’d like to put in my two cents.

Also while we’re on the subject I’d like to change it entirely and point out that just because you lie down with dogs you won’t get up with fleas and even if you do maybe you’re the one who had the fleas to begin with and now you’ve given them to your dogs. And while most of what goes up will come down sooner or later so far the Voyager spacecraft is zooming along through space with no sign of coming down, and also to get back to the fish there’s another saying that if you give a man a fish he’ll eat for a day, although I think it depends on the size of the fish because if it’s a really big fish then maybe you can feed him for up to three days before it starts to stink. And the saying goes on that if you teach a man to fish you’ll feed him for a lifetime. Maybe that was true at one time but now if you teach a man to fish you’ll just encourage him to need to buy a permit and a rod and reel and if you’ve been to the sporting goods store you know there’s at least fifteen different kinds of fishing line and expensive lures and flies, depending on what kind of fishing we’re talking about. And also that same guy you taught to fish is going to get tired of fish sooner or later and want to use that fishing rod for something else like maybe stabbing small mammals.

All this is just a reminder that everything is relative, especially when your relatives have been staying with you, and that everything you think you know is subject to change. At least that seems to be the case for now. It may be completely different tomorrow.


To-Do List.

At home Billy Joel maintains a large garden and does many of the household chores himself. “It’s very relaxing,” he says, “and helps me take my mind off the big things for a while.”

-Philadelphia Post, June 31, 2017

Mow the lawn, pull some weeds, time to plant the spring seeds,

Patch the brickwork, seal the deck, now replace the back door screen,

Cut the bushes, prune the trees, thank goodness for a cool breeze,

Paint the shutters, fill the feeders, trimmer needs more gasoline.

Yell at squirrels, mulch the beds, why are all my roses dead?

Move the rocks, spray for pests, time to take a little rest,

Clean the gutters, feed the soil, now the mower needs some oil,

Spray the rails, step on snails, watch out for that wasp nest!

I didn’t start the dryer!

The clothes are in the washer and they’re full of water.

I didn’t start the dryer!

Don’t know how I missed it, I had it listed.

Cut the lettuce, pull the beans, squash is looking real keen,

Now it’s time to hoe the row, zucchini is a no-show.

Check the pumpkins and the chard, broccoli is really hard,

Onions, those are beets, when did I plant cilantro?

Cabbages should start to sprout, marigolds keep rabbits out.

Cauliflower’s growing great and I think I saw a snake.

Peppers are up in smoke, I thought this was an artichoke,

Get the sprinkler and the rake, this tomato is a beefsteak!

I didn’t start the dryer!

I did the laundry so it’s ready.

I didn’t start the dryer!

Don’t know how I missed it, I had it listed.

Hang some pictures, make ‘em straight, and the foyer’s looking great,

Clean the blinds, take down the drapes, throw away those plastic grapes,

Get the polish, move some chairs, put new carpet on the stairs.

Clean the windows and the panes, time to get more duct tape.

Time to clean the fireplace, chaise lounge takes too much space,

Make a list for the store, put the flashlight in the dresser drawer,

Dust the table, feed the fishes, gotta wash those dinner dishes.

Scrub the toilet, mop the floor, I can’t take this anymore!

I didn’t start the dryer!

I did the laundry so it’s ready.

I didn’t start the dryer!

Don’t know how I missed it, I had it listed.

The laundry needs tending

Because it’s never ending,

I didn’t start the dryer!

I did the laundry so it’s ready.

I didn’t start the dryer!

Don’t know how I missed it, I had it listed.

Circles And Streets.

Source: Google Maps

The street I grew up on was a cul-de-sac called Tobylynn Circle. Parallel to it was Ashley Court, another cul-de-sac, and houses on both shared backyards separated only by a drainage ditch. When I met Shawn he was on his yard’s side of the ditch and I was on mine and I don’t know which one of us hopped over first but we were immediate friends. We were both eight and lived in adjacent homes so it would be stupid to not be friends although I don’t think either of us thought about it that way. He invited me to his house and I met both his parents. Shawn and his family had just moved to the neighborhood. They seemed nice, but I felt a little uncomfortable with the way his mother asked, “Do your parents know you’re here?” I’d been to other kids’ houses and no one’s mother had ever asked me that before. I felt uncomfortable, though, because I said “Yes” even though Shawn and I had just met ten minutes earlier and I hadn’t thought to tell my parents where I was. Years later I’d realize there might have been a subtext to her question that was “Do your parents know we’re black?” I knew Shawn and his parents were black but I don’t remember giving it much thought beyond that. As a white kid in the suburbs it was easy to be naïve, to think racism was an old problem that no longer existed, or that, like smallpox, it was confined to small, enclosed places. I’d been brought up on Sesame Street so I was used to puppets and people of all colors living in harmony. And before Shawn there were no people of color that I knew in the neighborhood which caused me to develop some weird ideas. Once I asked my mother if I could have hair like Shawn’s because I’d seen his father using a hair dryer–the first time I’d ever seen anyone use a hair dryer–and I thought, “So that’s how he gets his hair all curly.”

I gave Shawn’s skin color, and my own, a lot more thought when he met my friend Troy who lived at the bottom of the hill, on Tobylynn Drive. As soon as Troy saw Shawn he froze then stepped back, then turned to me and said he had to go. I knew what racism was but until then it had been an abstraction. It was something I’d never, or at least thought I’d never, encountered. Shawn and I didn’t talk about it, and later when Troy told me I had to choose between playing with him and playing with Shawn I just quietly accepted it and spent a lot of time after that with Shawn because he was fun and we had some things in common, like a love of the Japanese monster movies that were on every Saturday, and he didn’t try to boss me around. When Shawn wasn’t around I still played with Troy and would keep my dislike of having to keep my friends separated at the back of my mind.

Somehow it never really became a problem, probably because Shawn and his family moved away a few months later. They arrived some time before Easter and were gone before school started. While I missed him he eventually became yet another in a string of short-term friends who moved into the neighborhood and then moved away. Troy and I would be friends for years but, looking back, I think we were only friends because we were close in age, and without a lot of other kids in the neighborhood it would be stupid to not be friends. As we got older, though, we would drift apart. What friendship we had would simply fade away and would not be missed.

As for Shawn, well, it’s awkward for me to talk about this because I’m so white I’d be mistaken for a marble statue if I didn’t wear clothes, and white guys have dominated conversations for so long that I’m reluctant to add my voice to the din. I wish I still knew Shawn so that I could talk to him about this experience, if he even remembers it. It’s likely it wasn’t his first experience with racism and even more likely it wasn’t his last and there have probably been those who make Troy look restrained. At the same time I don’t want to reduce Shawn to a stereotype or stand-in. It wouldn’t be his, or anyone else’s, responsibility to tell me about white privilege and how I’ve benefited from it without realizing it, without being aware it exists even though it has shaped who I am. He was–let me rephrase that. Even though I don’t know if he’s still alive I hope he is so he deserves the present tense. He is a person, and while his skin color may be part of who he is, while it may or may not be part of how he sees himself, he’s an individual. He doesn’t speak for all people of color any more than he speaks for all guys named Shawn.

That may seem obvious but it took me a long time to realize it. Even after that early experience with Troy and Shawn I still clung to the racism-as-smallpox view. If you had asked me, although no one did and I didn’t ever bring it up, I would have said that since we were the same age and lived in the same neighborhood there wasn’t that much difference in our experiences. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that there are differences in our backgrounds and family histories that shape how we see the world. There was a portrait of a relative of mine who fought for the Confederate side in the U.S. Civil War that hung in my grandparents’ house. He wasn’t a slave owner but defended the right of others to keep slaves. For a long time I didn’t think about it, although now I think of it as a part of my heritage I’m not proud of. I don’t know how Shawn would think about it but his perspective might be very different.

It’s been a long time since Shawn and I knew each other and the conclusions I’ve come to here have been the result of talking and, more importantly, listening to other people. I don’t know if my views would be any different if I hadn’t known Shawn, but I still think of them as having started with him, having started with us being friends.


A La Mode.

When I was a kid there were certain things about adults that I assumed I’d understand once I became one, like why they’d rather watch the evening news than Sesame Street, although this is one of those things I still don’t understand. Mostly, though, it was expressions adults used, like when they were going on a trip and they’d say they were “going out of town”. We lived in the suburbs which I already thought was outside of town, wherever town was—I’d been to downtown but never, as far as I knew, uptown, and what they really meant was that they were taking a vacation and going to another town and I just realized I was doing terrible observational comedy when I was five, albeit only in my head, but that’s another story.

One of those expressions I never hear anymore, one I even stopped hearing long before I came an adult, and that I kind of miss is “like it was goin’ out of style”. This always described someone doing something really aggressively. “I was so hungry I sat down and ate peanut butter and crackers like it was goin’ out of style,” I remember an adult saying, or “Vernon was raking up those leaves in his yard like it was goin’ out of style.” Based on our yard in late fall I think most people would guess that raking leaves really has gone out of style, and if eating peanut butter and crackers has gone out of style, well, I guess I’ll just be a fat fashion faux pas. It was a weird and kind of funny expression that even now doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why would someone start really plowing into something because it was going out of style? Did going out of style mean it was in danger of going away? And if so why not just let it go? I guess it all depended on why it was going out of style in the first place. Some things—bellbottoms, teased hair, and shoulder pads—went out of style because they were really bad ideas, and good riddance, although I realize sounding so makes me sound like a cranky old guy standing on my porch telling you damn kids to get off my leaves. And if I complain that we’ve lost some genuinely good things because we put too much stock in what supposed stylemakers tell us I’m going to sound like an even crankier old guy and you’d be justified in wondering what kind of leaves I’ve been smoking. While the society I live in still has a long way to go toward true egalitarianism there does seem to be a looser approach to style and a greater tolerance of individuality than there once was. Tattoos and hair dyed all the colors of the rainbow used to mark a person as an outsider, but now, well, it’s not just the Isley Brothers who say it’s your thing, do what you wanna do.

Maybe that’s why the expression “goin’ out of style” is no longer fashionable and why I don’t hear it anymore. I’d still like to bring it back, and I plan to start using it myself. I’m going to use it every chance I get. You might even say I’ll be using it like, well, like someone who says it a lot.

He Also Had A Hammer.

From: Kevin DuBrow, CEO, DuBrow Grains

To: All Staff

Subject: Company Morale.

Hello Everyone,

Word has gotten back to me that most of you are unhappy with my decision to fire James Alger, better known to everyone in the company as Jimmy. Well let me be perfectly clear about something: I liked Jimmy too. He’d been with us a very long time and from what I heard was always a good employee. Stories about his practical jokes got back to me. I’m glad he played a part in cheering people up even though I had to speak to him about not doing it on company time. There’s nothing wrong with a little fun. I know that better than anyone. I’m the one who hung up that poster of the cat hanging from the tree in the breakroom, the one that I then had to take down after someone wrote a bad word on it. But let’s make sure we focus on work when we’re working, people.

That brings me to my main point: the reason I fired Jimmy. His actions were bad enough but what really disturbs me is how the rest of you also acted. As you know we had a two and a half ton shipment of corn that Jimmy, for some reason, decided to run through the auxiliary mill. Now first of all every one of you knows the auxiliary mill is exclusively for wheat and millet, not corn. We have never used the auxiliary mill for corn and Jimmy’s decision resulted in extensive and costly cleanup. The corn was supposed to be delivered to the customer whole, since it was popcorn, and I’ve had to try and find a new buyer. If I can the corn will still be sold for a lower price. That will be reflected in everyone’s paychecks for the next quarter.

I’m really sorry about that but Jimmy used the mill when I wasn’t here, and I feel like everyone bears some responsibility. Nobody acted to stop Jimmy or tell him not to move that shipment of corn. No one stopped him from operating the mill by himself. Do I have to spell this out? Jimmy cracked corn and no one cared because I was away.

Everyone, we need to pull together for the success of this company. Please remember what my grandfather, who founded this company, used to say: There is no I in cooperation. We used to have a banner that said that in the breakroom, although I had to take it down when someone wrote a bad word on it. Maybe I should get another one made but banners are expensive. That’s why we only have one every year on my birthday.

I hope you will all reflect on this and I hope I can trust you. Don’t forget that my door is always open when I’m not in a call or really busy and I am always here if you need help or want to talk. Except next week when I’ll be at a conference in Duluth.

Thank you, and let’s all pull together to do a better job.

Kevin DuBrow, CEO, DuBrow Grains

P.S. Casual Fridays are cancelled until further notice.

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