Book Review – The Fault in Our Stars

I didn’t think I’d ever want to review  a thing, but I reviewed a Mad Men episode and it didn’t kill me (smile.)  So, when I stay up late to read and then steal moments the next day to finish a book, I know I’m rather captured by it.  The book is The Fault in Our Stars   by John Green.  Soon, it’ll be a major motion picture by 20th Century Fox.  The trailer is here.

The set up is utterly non-charming.  Two ordinary mid-Western kids with cancer meet at a teenager-focused cancer support group.

The story, though, is utterly charming, as you’d expect it to be since it starts at a rather low point.  Because, naturally, the kids are not ordinary at all and are funnier, smarter, and infinitely wiser than normal healthy teens.  Maybe because they have cancer?  Or maybe because they just are funnier, smarter and infinitely wiser human beings and as we all know – only the funnier, smarter and infinitely wiser die young.  So tragedy mixed with some comedy leads to these amazing children named Hazel Grace Lancaster, 16, and Augustus Waters, 17.

Let me start with – I couldn’t help but love this book and be moved by it (I laughed, I cried).  But still I have two big quibbles.  The first is the cancer narrative which Fault seeks to deconstruct.  (Wow.  Fancy words there.)  I mean, they do make fun of the “bravely fighting cancer patient who becomes all wise and patient to their last dying breath” meme, but at the same time, highlight it completely in their main characters.

The fact is – and if we really think hard about this, we know this – there are some truths to sickness and dying that hold, call them the “Noble Truths of Sickness and Dying.”  One is – we’re all dying as we live.  Every day is one day closer to our death and there is no way around it.  Two – any one of us can have a disease in our body right now at this very instant.  It may not have risen to the point of being diagnosed, but we’re all vulnerable to this process because we are human.  It takes time before cancer is diagnosed – the cells have to get to that critical mass.  So even in the midst of our healthiest, we could have a cancer that could make us sick or kill us and just not know it.  That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?  At least it is to me.

Three is – we die as we lived.  We don’t automatically get braver, more patient or wiser (funnier, more compassionate, smarter) because we’re sick or dying.  If we’re petty before we’re dying of cancer, we’re probably still counting the grudges when we’re on our deathbed, even if we were hoping that cancer would erase our less than attractive personality characteristics.  And four – we’re alive until we’re dead.  Death is both a process and an event.  But until we are actually completely dead as in no brain activity or beating heart dead, we’re alive in some way, shape or form.  The process of death has a somewhat predictable course (I say somewhat because everybody is different and not all deaths occur the same way), and in that process, you can and often do lose consciousness towards the very end.  Even with loss of consciousness, though, until the body is dead, you are still here  At least in some way, shape or form.

These truths are real and I discovered them working in hospice with patients and families. The truths offer a way to think about our own deaths that is both sobering, perhaps a bit scary (what?  I could be sick and not know it – oh my god!), but ultimately comforting, too.  And yes, they are a wake-up call to live our lives right now.  Don’t hesitate  to do the things you really, truly want to do.  There’s no point in that.

So what do these truths have to do with the book, soon-to-be movie?  Just that amazing teenagers, although of course they exist, aren’t necessarily just so due to cancer.

I know it’s hard to write about the other kind of normal, annoying teenager who gets cancer.  And probably nobody would want to read about that kid.  There is one character in this book who fits this fairly closely, but she’s dying of brain cancer, so her nastiness is attributed to this, not to just being a jerky teenager with cancer.  We never find out (she’s a minor, although important, character) if she was a jerk prior to getting brain cancer.  I like to think that this was the case, but who knows?

So, everything is heightened in a story about two “cancer kids” falling in love – they have a big adventure in a foreign country as one of their cancer “perks” (Augustus’ wish that he hadn’t taken advantage of yet).  They drink amazing champagne and eat a romantic dinner before making love for their first, and perhaps only, time.  No backseat fumblings for our protagonists.

And that brings me to my other quibble about this book.

No adult can really write teenagers all that well.  But the problem with teenagers writing a book like this – most of them aren’t good enough writers yet and they’d bungle writing the parents and other adults.  Perhaps it’s better to be left with the polished adult author writing a first-person narrative of a 16-year-old girl with terminal cancer.  She’s a very sophisticated thinker, our Hazel Grace.  Almost preternaturally so.  Almost as an afterthought, the author gives Hazel a girlfriend who is a more normal teenaged girl.  And in some ways, Kaitlyn, the friend, would have been more interesting to me as a cancer kid, but see, she would be too oriented to what she was wearing and who she was dumping this week (in other words – too shallow), to be interesting to the author.  She’d be the annoying cancer kid and that wouldn’t do.

So we get an author who has fallen in love with his main characters, and they are wittier, smarter, able to use metaphors accurately, more romantic and charming, than any teenager you know or are ever going to know.

And that’s fine.  It makes for better reading and a lot of great quotes, too.  I suspect the filmmakers had a breeze writing the script because the book offers up lots of great scenes and snappy dialogue – sort of like Tracy and Hepburn but in teenagers with cancer!

What I think is this – we all die with our to-do lists undone, and the laundry not yet folded, and our journals left off in mid-sentence.  I have a friend (who was also my hair stylist) who died of a heart attack about a week and half ago.  Right after dinner.  I hope he enjoyed his last meal, although he couldn’t know it would be that, of course.  And I’m not being snarky or cutesy when I say this, I’m being sincere.  He loved good food and was a gourmet chef, so I hope he had a great meal that Sunday night.  He’d probably be highly disappointed if it was just a bowl of cereal, right?  Like, that was it?

But plenty of people do die with “that was it?” and we can’t live our lives with high drama (or great meals and amazing champagne) all of the time.  A lot of life is ordinary, and a lot of death is, too.

Cancer, for all it’s horribleness, is a gift.  It gives the bearer of it usually some time, although never enough.  In that time, you can throw in some drama, some novelty and perhaps, if you’re lucky, some romance.  That’s the best thing about  The Fault in Our Stars – the characters know they are time limited and so they pull out the stops, and they live and love, even knowing they are “grenades” about to go off.

It should never take cancer to teach a person to live in the midst of death.  But then again, we are always living in the midst of death.

We are all grenades about to go off.



Dying with My To-Do List Undone


I have written a bit about retirement and it’s one weird state.  Because once you are in school at the age of four or five or six (depending on where you live, what time you lived in and so on), you are in the harness until you retire.  I mean, that’s like 60 or more years!

First it’s the school harness – you have a place to be for so many hours every day for years (decades in some cases.)  Except for vacations and other holiday periods, you are strapped in, baby.

Then when you are finally released from that harness, you go on to the next harness – working life and adulthood.  Even if you were to marry and start having babies immediately, you are in a particular harness of taking care of your kids and home and so on.  But for most of us, child rearing is the second job.  We have the regular 8-to-5 (or 9-to-6) job at least five days a week and then we’re picking  up the kids from somewhere and we’re home getting homework done, dinner made, baths for the little ones and pure exhaustion for the big ones.

That’s a pretty tight harness.  For most of us, the only time away from it is the weekends (and often at least half of the weekend is for the chores that didn’t get done during the week), and about two to three weeks a year when we are on “vacation.”

Then you retire.

If you’re really considered lucky, you retire before 65 or 70 nowadays.  You get a present and a cake or a luncheon (or all of the above) and human resources processes your last check, you pack up your crap, and you’re done.  For the freaking rest of your life.

Or, like me, you close your business, field the calls and make referrals to people, shut down your website and let your license go inactive.  You don’t get a cake or a final check.  But you might go and buy yourself a cookie.

And then you take off the harness of work or business . . . you breathe . . . inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale . . . slower and slower.

And then what?

It must be a sign of being human that we so want compartmentalization and organization, neat boxes to store our junk (whether real or in our minds.)  We want long to-do lists with plenty of tasks to do on them.

We are genuinely terrified of freedom.

No wonder so many retired folk actually go back to work again – just maybe not as intensely.  They work as consultants to their old employers, or on a contract basis.  They take part-time jobs.  They volunteer.  They welcome jury duty.

Anything to put that harness back on, at least for a little while.

Being a mostly anxious person, the thought of free floating time is not my first idea of bliss (although it could be, I guess), so I’ve had to adapt or go mad.

One way both my husband and I are organizing our lives and our time is to put ourselves on flexible daily schedules.

We are not lollygagging in bed until noon.  I am up around sevenish, setting up the coffeemaker and taking my only cup of the real stuff downstairs into my old office which is now my “happy place” for journal writing, meditation, reading and yes, one of these days, yoga DVDs.  (Obviously, not quite to the point of the yoga DVD.)

My husband is up just a bit later than I am, feeding the critters, getting the Roomba ready to rumble on our new wood floors upstairs and then he grabs coffee and heads downstairs to HIS office to write, too.

It is a probable gender difference that, for the ‘Publican, he is happiest with projects and for me, I’m more into the zen approach, although I like my projects (meaning – beginning, middle and end) just fine, too.

So he’s not just writing any old stuff – he’s working on a novel which started life as a short story.  He’s working on it for as long as it takes, but usually around noon or so, he’s done for the day.

He also plays in a community orchestra and on various local musical theater companies, so there’s time involved in practice for that.  We try and get to the gym three times a week.  Plus the daily stuff of pet care and people care.  Beyond that, we have two blogs (one is a travel blog we work on together, although now it’s mostly his, and this one for me), plus plenty of reading.  We also regularly donate platelets at the Red Cross.

And we have the ‘Rents – our elderly parents.  The ‘Publican now spends at least once a week visiting and assisting his parents who live a town over and I’m on call for my mom, too.  I take her to appointments and to see family and friends who are outside the dial-a-ride zone.  She’s pretty independent still, so if she can get to a place on her own, she does.  But we’re cognizant that our parents need us more, not less and will continue to do so until they’re gone.

With all this going on, we really have little time leftover.  We don’t watch TV during the day at all.

I actually have a lot of boxes left unticked on my to-do list which is surprising and a bit disconcerting.

Our one big change that we’ve managed to put together is to buy a motorhome for both short and long trips.  This is a big purchase and not exactly a smart one (not if you’re talking investment), but it’s one that I think will improve our lives for the next few decades.  Right now, the trips contemplated are fairly short – three to four days up the coast or out into the desert.

We took a long trip in January and drove (pre-motorhome) back to Florida to see my father and to just explore.  We stayed in motels (found out the La Quinta chain has the best bang for the buck, especially if you have a pet with you – which we did.)  We had a lot of fun chasing the bad weather or having it chase us, so travel is something we want to do before we’re too old to do it, or enjoy it.

I also want to do more international travel, but for that we’re not talking motorhome.  There’s a lot of Europe still to see as far as I’m concerned.  But an awful lot of the USA and Canada is out there and I’m hoping we can work out times to be just on the road for weeks and perhaps months at a time.

I was always one of those people who thought “When X changes, then I’ll start living my life . . .”.  The “X” could be a million things, of course.  When I can drive a car, when I am 18, when I finish high school and go to college, when I lose my virginity, when I get married, when I have a baby, when I’m thinner, when I get this job, when I move to the next house, when I get divorced, when I get married again, when I get my license and leave this awful job, when I build up my practice, when I retire, when I die.

That last one, of course, is the irony of all of the others, right?  If I’m waiting for some condition to change . . . well, the end is predictable.

It was meditation that broke the grip of this pernicious thinking.  It actually taught me that all of my thoughts, good, bad, indifferent, were just part of the passing parade.  And that maybe I could just live right here and right now.  And the things I chose to do in the present would inform my future, but that the future is not even guaranteed.  So those things I chose to do – I just did them.  No more preparing – just doing.

We are definitely works . . . in progress, not perfection.

And yes, I’m expecting that I will die with many things undone on my final to-do list.

ecards to do list



Middle Aged Hair – Not a Tribal Love Rock Musical

Hey, I only wish I had such darn happy hair.  I was really in  a mood to listen to this song today, so thought I’d share it.

“Hair” the musical came out when I was a kid.  When it hit Broadway and eventually burgs like Los Angeles where my mom saw it on a date (why I remember it was on a date eludes me), it had made quite  a splash.  It’s subject matter – hippies and free love and their free hair – was only eclipsed by the shenanigans of shocking their audiences with full nudity on stage.

It all seems a bit quaint somehow in today’s world.  But quaint or not, the exuberance that the young men sing about their hair in all its permutations, is enough to make me want to get up and, at least, sashay to the kitchen for another cup of coffee.

My hair never had such a glorious life, although it might have had it if only my mother had let me have long hair.  But she wore hers in a short cut which was quite Audrey Hepburn and gamine (that was the word for it in the 50’s, early 60’s) and so for the first years of my young life, I was given a boyish cut that did confuse a few people when I wore pants.  Girls didn’t wear all pink all the time in my day.  My mom has told me of several times she had to exclaim, “No, she’s a GIRL” to people, so you know the hair was short.

Once I got older and could voice a preference, I proclaimed I wanted a permanent – I wanted curly hair a la Shirley Temple.  Not a pixie cut, in other words.  Mom complied and I, ever after, have had medium to medium long hair.  Now, at 56, it’s just medium length, but I’ve gone pretty long when I was younger.

My hair was thick and I had a lot of it – not entirely straight, it had a natural wave that, left to its own devices, was fairly attractive.  At some point I gave up on perms because I didn’t think the ringlets were me anymore (I’d moved way beyond Shirley by then.)  Of course I complained about my hair – it takes forever to dry! I’d wail, which was one reason to bemoan thick hair.  Plus every stylist would complain about “all that hair” to me either in cutting, coloring or drying/styling it.  I’ve left many a salon with still damp hair.

But the color.  When I was a baby and toddler it was blonde but by the time I got into school, it began darkening.  It never got very dark, though, so by high school I was called a “dish pan” blonde or a dirty blonde.  In my case, dirty blonde didn’t refer to being a naughty girl, just the fact that my hair wasn’t quite brown, but certainly wasn’t a pretty light blonde any longer either.  Plus, it had a lot of ash in the color which is a rather greenish undertone and isn’t warm at all.

Teens would use a product called Sun In on their hair – you’d spray it on to the point of wetness and then sit around in the sun while the chemicals lightened your hair; the homemade version of this was to put lemon juice on your hair, although the Sun In worked faster.  Once I was about 15, I was hooked, as it wasn’t dying or bleaching, but it did get some highlights (some girls got blonde streaks by being more diligent in the regimen than I) in and made the dish pan a little less so.

And when I finally had money as an adult, I started regularly highlighting my hair and have kept at it ever since.  Every few months to sit with tinfoil on your hair seems a small price to pay for pretty hair (or at least prettier hair.)

But in the past few years the regimen has changed with the arrival of the grays and whites.  At first it was such a curiosity I just would sometime stare in the mirror – where’d that come from? I’d wonder.  My mother never had much gray and at almost 80 years old, still doesn’t have much.  But whatever it was, she plain flat-out rejected it and has been going blonde for years.

My hair guy proposed a solution to basically still highlight but in the spots where no highlighter was going to use a more golden brown hair dye to cover any remaining gray.  I did this extra step for a few years as it did cover whatever grey was there, but then one day I thought – why am I doing this?  He’d pronounced that I probably wouldn’t like the version of gray coming in.  And I trusted that for awhile, but then because the brown dye was one that would eventually wash out, I began to see the gray and white in anyway and I just began to think that it wasn’t that bad after all.

So I decided – keep the highlights only and let’s see what happens.  Now, I have a definite area of blondish grayish whitish hair at my temples and the rest is mostly my typical blonde highlighted hair.

I’ve lost a lot of thickness over time, too – but now my stylist says it’s about where most of his clients are, which means I probably won’t be one of those little elderly bald women you occasionally see.  So I’m okay with my hair, even if now I wish I’d kept the thickness longer.

My mom on the other hand still has incredibly thick, short hair which is a bit incongruous considering her age.  She’s got her problems, but her hair ain’t one of them.

And in the end, what counts?  To answer that, another exuberant song from “Hair” (this is from the movie version – not my favorite, but it’s fun to watch):