Thursday, September 29, 2005

Neil Gaiman is Jewish, my age, and wears all black! I knew we were soulmates!

Oh man. Obviously a younger Neil, but still...

Well, anyway, what I say in the title of this post is true. I was stressed yesterday (you will find out why below after reading the Gaiman speech) so I decided to read up on Neil Gaiman a little more to escape my depression and writer's block...okay, I admit it, what I really did is look at his picture some more, but I learned that yeah, yeah, just like me: A babyboomer, Jewish, and dresses all in black. But as I stalked his website, I also found a very inspirational speech he gave, and I'll publish an excerpt, because I know most of my readers here are either musicians or writers, so this applies to YOU! So without further ado, here it is:

I've learned over the years that everything is more or less the same amount of work, so you may as well set your sights high and try and do something really cool.

There are other people around who can do the mediocre, meat-and-potatoes work that anybody can do. So let them do that. You make the art that only you can make. You tell the stories only you can tell.

As a solution to various problems you may encounter upon the way, let me suggest this:

Make Good Art.

It's very simple. But it seems to work. Life fallen apart? Make good art. True love ran off with the milkman? Make good art. Bank foreclosing? Make good art.

Keep moving, learn new skills. Enjoy yourself.

Most of the work I've done that's been highly regarded has happened in places where, when I was working on it I tended to suspect that it would go one of two ways – either I was doing something cool that, if I was lucky, people would talk about for some time, or I was doing something that people would have a particularly good laugh about, in the places where they gather to discuss the embarrassing mistakes of those who went before them.

Be proud of your mistakes. Well, proud may not be exactly the right word, but respect them, treasure them, be kind to them, learn from them.

And, more than that, and more important than that, make them.

Make mistakes. Make great mistakes, make wonderful mistakes, make glorious mistakes. Better to make a hundred mistakes than to stare at a blank piece of paper too scared to do anything wrong, too scared to do anything.

Critics will grumble. Of course they will. That's one of the functions of critics. As an artist it's your job to give them ulcers, and perhaps even something to get apoplectic about.

Most of the things I've got right over the years, I got right because I'd got them wrong first. It's how we make art.

So. Is that cool or what? Am I right about Gaiman being great or not? Yes, yes, I am the last person on Earth to discover this, I know, but in case you have been living under the rock with me....

Wait. This just in and this I can't believe altogether. His short story book to which I refer, Smoke and Mirrors, was on my bookshelf for almost two years. As I was leaving for vacation a couple of weeks ago, I started foraging through my stack of unread books and found it. "Hmmm...I don't remember buying this," I thought. "But it looks great -- maybe someone gave it to me?" I had no idea. Anyway, when my son came down to the beach for the day, he saw me reading the book and he said "Oh my god, where did you get that? That's my ex-girlfriend's book! She loaned it to me two years ago and I never read it and when we broke up, she called me like every day asking for it back and I couldn't find it anywhere!" (Um, Eric, it was right in our book cases...where else would a book be?). recap. I never hear of this guy, read his book out of nowhere...and look what Gaiman just posts in his journal:

"I do not normally drink champagne with my publisher while sitting on a step in the sun in a busy square in the middle of San Francisco, with me and my publisher alternately not saying anything and then babbling and then not saying anything again. Still, it's not every day that you get told that a book you wrote has just gone on to next week's NYT Bestseller list at Number One. And it seemed a very appropriate sort of a thing to do."

In other words, I read his book, focus on him like a maniac for a week, and now out of nowhere this author has a number one book on the New York Times best seller list?

Coincidence? I think not! I have powers, baby.

(and if you believe that...but still, I dunno, I find the whole thing kind, very...weird)

In other writing news, I want to congratulate a couple of pals. Two of my close writer workshop friends, Myfanwy Collins and Kathy Fish (who is too humble to have a website but trust me, has been published everywhere and is one of the most talented flash fiction writers EVER. Google her and read her stuff!) are finalists in the Night Train Literary Magazine Firebox Fiction Competition. That's just incredible news and I'm thrilled for them. Also, my pal Pia Z. Ehrhardt won first prize in Narrative Magazine's emerging fiction writer contest. Pia is amazing. Go. Read her story. And finally, drink some champagne for Ellen Meister, who has just sold her second book, The Smart Ones, based on six chapters and a synopsis! How fucking cool is that!

Anyway, now for some rotten news. I was hesitant about posting this, but my kids know, and it makes for a good story, so what the hell. Besides, after this post, depending on how things go, I may be off line a few days, so I figure I'll leave you with at least something to somewhat laugh over.

Remember a few months ago, just as I was about to leave my job, my doctor told me I'd better get that weird mole on my back checked? And I actually joked about it? To make a long story short, it took almost two months to get an appointment with the top dermatologist in Philly (I don't mess around), and he removed it in his office, and told me he was sending it for a biopsy and I'd have the answer in a few weeks. This was on July 28, one day before I left my nine to five job for good. I felt it was ominous having that appointment then, right as I was about to start a new life as Robin Slick, full time writer, but that appointment was too hard to get and I knew it was dangerous to cancel. Besides, I'm much too superstitious for that. So I was screwed either way. And then, when the doctor examined me, my neurotic Jewish radar was working full force - I knew this was not just a beauty mark we were dealing with.

Uneven color, size, shape -- he said the words and then handed me the world's scariest pamphlet on melanoma. And he didn't look me in the eye.

I weakly attempted pressing him for more information, but all he would say is: We won't know until we get the results of the biopsy. If we got it all here in the office and in time, it's 100% curable. If the pamphlet.

Oh, I read the fucking pamphlet alright.

Good news. If he didn't "get it all", I'd be dead in a year.

Anyway...two weeks later the phone call comes and I answer it and I hear the word "cancer" and then nothing but buzzing in my ears. No, seriously, here's what he said. It is melanoma, but he said "he got it all" which means it's Stage II; it didn't spread. However, as a precautionary measure in these cases, because it is melanoma, standard practice is to have healthy tissue removed all around the site of the mole, which requires a visit to the hospital and surgery featuring a skin graft, lots of sutures, and a second biopsy, just to be on the safe side. The doctor told me he would make all the arrangements for me and that his nurse would call me with the date of the surgery and where to go. She called back an hour or so later (after I told the doctor my vacation dates...he didn't seem concerned that it would delay the surgery so I figured I was cool and I had nothing to worry about at all), gave me the date of September 29 (arghhhh...yeah, in like a few hours), told me no Advil two weeks before the surgery (a major crisis...I eat that stuff like candy), and that it would take place at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital.

I go on vacation and try to put the whole thing out of my head but of course you know that's impossible which is why I immersed myself in reading and fantasizing about Neil Gaiman (har har). So I'm now back in Philadelphia, and yesterday, the University of Pennsylvania Hospital called with an automated message, reminding me of my surgery and giving me specifics on where to go and the name of the surgeon. (Believe it or not, I never had this info. My dermatologist, as I said, is the one who made all of the arrangements). Anyway, in the message yesterday, it said "Dr. Chang is your surgeon."

Again, up until yesterday when I got that phone call, I didn't even know the surgeon's name. It's like I did a total block on this and didn't ask one question. After hearing the dermatologist tell me I had melanoma, I just kind of heard white noise but he did keep saying he got it all in his office and the cure rate was 100% and this was just precautionary surgery which would require a lot of stitches and another biopsy which is why it was being done in the hospital. At least that's what I thought he said.

But, me being me, now that I have the doctor's name, figured I'd google him.

I find the link easily, click, and start reading. I almost poop myself. It said that I was going to one of the top cancer centers in the country. Dr. Chang is tops in his field in deadly melanoma. I sat back and almost had a heart attack. Cancer center? When my mother was dying of a brain tumor, I went with her to the cancer center...all the bald heads from chemo, all of these sickly people in the waiting room....oh my fucking god. DEADLY MELANOMA? Why was I being sent to this guy? I read on. I learn the surgery could take anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours to overnight, depending on whether Dr. Chang has to remove a lymph node because the cancer spread. It said he does the biopsy and gets the results during surgery which is when and why he'd remove the node(s). If he removes a lymph node, patient should be prepared to spend the night at the hospital and he suggests you bring a packed overnight bag.

Oh my god, no one ever told me about a packed overnight bag - they just said no Advil.

So now I'm not only shaking, I'm crying.

Then I read some more.

What to do if it has spread to your lymph nodes? It goes on to list all of the various chemotherapies available and their side effects. I tried to stop reading, but I couldn't. I got hysterical. I kept thinking: What did I miss when my doctor called me? Didn't he say he got it all? Didn't he say this was just precautionary and not to worry? Or did he say "I 'think' I got it all?"

It gets worse. They show pics of various deadly melanomas and where they are usually found and for the first time, I saw a mole exactly like mine in what they said is the prime spot - mid back. In the pamphlet the doctor had given me, they had all of these oozing monstrosities so I really did feel pretty confident I didn't have anything serious.

So now I'm completely beside myself. And if things aren't bad enough, I see at the bottom of the website it says "amenities". I click on it, thinking they offer coffee and donuts to family members waiting while the patient is in surgery. I should be so lucky. No, what they list under "amenities" is a grief counselor and a chapel.

I start getting chest pains. I was home alone...I didn't know what the fuck to do. So I decide I'm going to take advantage of one of the website's features: Call our caring counselors/nurses with any questions or concerns.

I force myself to stop sobbing and pick up the phone. I have no idea what I was even going to ask them. Probably "Just what should I pack in my overnight bag and does it involve my Last Will and Testament?"

And then something weird happens. It's not an 800 number, it's got a totally different area code -- one that is definitely not Philadelphia. I look up at the web address I'm on.


Apparently, the Dr. Chang I googled was a resident at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in the 1980s which is why his name came up. I forget exactly how I googled it, because I didn't have his first name, I didn't use quotes - just googled Dr. Chang University of PA Hospital or something on that order.

I literally went limp with relief.

Unbelievably enough, though, because now I'm completely traumatized, I google again. You would have fucking thought I'd have learned my lesson. But this time I google the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. I go to their list of physicians.

My doctor? Benjamin Chang, M.D. A plastic surgeon. He does breast reconstructions and face lifts for Christ sake, though it does also say mole removal on his website.

I wanted to laugh out loud but I was so freaked out I cried another hour and still managed to work myself into a total tizzy about my impending second biopsy and fear that it's invaded my lymph nodes, which I know is not likely but still, not entirely impossible so I'll be holding my breath.

Like that story? Is that typical me or what?
So depending on how much pain I'm in (i.e., how much Percodan they give me), whether or not I will be on line in the immediate future is unclear. Hopefully I won't miss a day and I'll be back with a great tale of how I peed myself in the operating room, but who knows.

Now you know my whole sad story. Let me leave you for now with a funny joke at least. And please, we all know I'm a heathen who hates religion and doesn't believe in praying, but um...light a candle for me or something, okay? Let this just be mere plastic surgery today. Right. That's the end of that. Now go ahead and laugh:

Donald Rumsfeld is giving the President his daily briefing. He concludes by saying:

"Yesterday, 3 Brazilian soldiers were killed."

"OH NO!" the President exclaims. "That's terrible!"

His staff sits stunned at this display of emotion, nervously watching as the President sits, head in hands.

Finally, the President looks up and asks, "How many is a brazillion?"