READ ALL ABOUT ME: BIO, PICS, VIDEO. Please see below, following this week's chapter.
FIRST, YOU GET PISSED
(a working memoir)
by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith
The memoir will be posted every Sunday, one chapter a week. If you're getting a late start, you can read CHAPTERS 1-30 by clicking "PREVIOUS CHAPTERS" on the red menu bar above. Today, let me offer an added note: There are three chapters/three weeks left before, as planned, I will take memoir down from this website. The plan also included self-publishing First, You Get Pissed. That's because no agent would so much as read the manuscript because, "Cancer books are out." One agent added, "...unless you just won Dancing with the Stars." No one would listen to me when I tried to explain that my memoir is about a contented, going-about-their-business family when suddenly a monkey wrench gets heaved into their lives. And it's about how I picked up the monkey wrench and tossed it into the dumpster on "Metals and Appliances Pick-Up Day," before making my way back to the house and setting out on an unwanted journey. "It's a monkey wrench book," I insisted, and the Dancing with the Stars agent said, "Face it. It's a cancer book." I asked, "Was The Martian a book about Mars?" I got a shrug. Did I cry? No. I was too fucking pissed off.
Today, howerever, Hallelujah. I just read a review in "The New York Times Book Review," written by Melissa Maerz, titled, "In These Novels, Women With Cancer Decide to Ditch the People-Pleasing." The two books are Craving, by Esther Gerrisen, and The Bus on Thursday, by Shirley Barrett. Ms. Maerz quotes from Shirley Barrett's novel--the narrator writing on her blog: "If they are nudging you toward the scrapbook table, then it is basically code for, 'You will die soon,so quick! Throw some photos in an album as a keepsake for your loved ones. Make sure you are smiling in these photos and have lots of hair. Decorate with butterfly stickers and inspirational quotes about dancing like nobody's watching, etc.'"
Based on the quote, I'd say we'll be reading about another couple of women who are pissed, as well they should be, and reading between the lines something tells me that they will soon come to not giving a shit about anyone but themselves. I mean, they will have so much to do caring for themselves!
As soon as I finish posting today's chapter, I am going to order the two books from everybody's favorite bookstore, "R. J. Julia Booksellers" in Madison, CT. Then I'm going to query a couple of agents and attach the review. Who knows? Ever optimistic, maybe the tide has turned. Maybe someone in addition to all of you will read it. I'm still taking my memoir down, though, after I post the last chapter, but I do want to thank everyone who offered me words of praise, encouragement and yes, suggestions. I'll miss you.
FIRST, YOU GET PISSED
"How long would it have taken me to feel that I had a right to be outraged?"
ON THE FIRST Thursday after the radiation starts, I see Dr. Frye again. I start by telling her a true story:
"I had an epiphany during my treatment yesterday."
"Tell me your epiphany," she says.
"When I was on the table under the machinery, I felt that the radiation was doing what you told me it would do--keeping me from getting cancer again in my breast rather than kill me. I had the epiphany because of the relentlessly positive narrative of your nurses the first day they got me ready for their beams. They are determined to keep me alive."
"Yes, they are. I'm glad you told me that, Mary-Ann. Thank you." She examines Starbright. "She looks good."
I say, "Good," then I look her in the eye and go from telling her a true story to a bold-faced lie. "I'm in a dilemma because I have to go on a business trip to L.A. Amazon Studios has optioned one of my books for a film. I'm supposed to go in two weeks. I'd have to be there for a week."
The film option is the true part. Amazon produces feature films. I will not be surprised if, some day, the giant Smilow sign at Yale-New Haven is gone and in its place: Amazon. Or do they already own hospitals? But never mind. I cannot believe what Dr. Frye says to me. "Well, Mary-Ann, it'll really be okay to take a week off mid-treatment. Gives the tissues damaged by radiation a break so they can heal before the second half of radiation starts."
Hear that, Dear Reader? Take my advice; if you ever have to have radiation and I hope you don't, make up a story that you have a business trip in the middle of your five week-treatment that will create a huge financial burden if you skip it. (I'm offering you the "financial burden" option, speaking of options, since you won't be able to dazzle the doc with…uh… red carpet glamor. Maybe penury will do the trick but don't hold your breath.) So like me, don't you wonder why the hell everyone about to have radiation given a week's break in the middle of treatment to heal the zapped tissue? I don't know, but I bet all our health insurance providers do. Bunch of shitheels.
ps. Might I add one more thing? There used to be a thing called income averaging, allowing artists—painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, writers, actors, etc. to average five years of income and pay income tax on that amount. Otherwise, for five, sometimes more years, when those artists are working on their books, or trying to get a gallery to sell their work, or going to a million auditions till they find work, etc. they get paid very little. I mean, how much do you think a writer earns teaching a fiction class at the local community college? Ergo, when artists finally have that sale or get that part, they end up in the top bracket and have to pay a ton of money for that one year. So add 40% to the 30. But guess who saw to doing away with income averaging? Freaking Ronald Reagan. Grandfatherly Ronald Reagan. What grandfather screws his grandchildren? And him an actor yet! Maybe with the Alzheimer's he forgot about the zillion years he had bit parts in movies that gave him no screen credits until his break-though in 1937 with "Love is On the Air." Sheesh.
Anyway, with lying out of the way and the thumbs up from Dr. Frye, I call "Deep Dive" in Turtle Bay, Hawaii, on the north shore of the island of Oahu. Two years ago, Charlie and I go to Hawaii, and among other things, arrange for an instructional dive. We are thinking our instructor will be a Jacques Cousteau type with a fabulous boat and that our fellow neophytes will be really neat people all itching to breathe under water and shake hands with an octopus. We will pay close attention to our lessons, memorize our instructions, put on our wet suits and our tanks (wow—Tanks!) and then sit down on the rail of the boat and flip over backwards into the water with Jacques just like on TV.
The day arrives and two guys pick us up at our hotel in a ragtop Jeep with ball fringe trim. When I'm a Peace Corps volunteer, I have ragtop jeep compliments of Sargent Shriver. If you're building a library in Cameroon, you have to carry a lot of books around that arrive at the post office, in my case from my mother's fellow employees at the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company. They hold a book drive and donate around a thousand boxes of books. The ragtop is full of holes just like the one the two dive instructors are driving. The rainy season on Mt. Cameroon lasts around 40 days, meaning it rains for 40 straight days and nights non-stop. My Cameroonian friends and acquaintances demonstrate how to dry out: spend all forty evenings—more if necessary—in mimbo bars where there is a smoky fire going nonstop. So I'm at the "Princess Margaret Rose Mimbo Bar" when I run into the Minister of Justice whose nephew owns the bar. (Mimbo is fermented coconut milk. One learns to drink it to be polite, but one never gets used to it.) Tipsy on mimbo, I approach him and tell him I'm going to need some tarps to transport my books. First he buys me another mimbo, and then doesn't he calls the State Department in Washington, speaks to Dean Rusk the Secretary of State, appointed long before by JFK, in case you didn't know, and asks Dean about some tarps. And doesn't Dean send a dozen tarps out on the next plane to Paris and then on to Cameroon. Can you stand it? I give eleven of them to two ladies at the…uh…open-air market, and they make tents for themselves and their limited mounds of veggies—cabbages and taro root—what with the rainy season. I keep the twelfth tarp and secure it to top of my jeep.
But back to Hawaii—Charlie and I are about to let Cheech and Chong rather than Jacques Cousteau lead us into the shark-infested Pacific. Charlie is semi-freaked but he doesn't say, "Who the hell are you guys? Cheech and Chong?"
Instead, I steer him into the back seat of the jeep.
Cheech sticks a disk into their CD player which is attached to the…uh…dashboard rather than built in. Blasting forth is the theme from "Hawaii Five-O." You know I love it. I say, Book 'em, Danno. Cheech and Chong both look over their shoulders at me and laugh their asses off. Shortly thereafter, we arrive at a store/office/shack, and we all climb out of the Jeep. They get a bunch of gear out of a large bin. Cheech asks us, "Have you guys ever snorkeled?"
We say, "Yes."
"Good. You know all you need to know other than if you're in trouble. If you are, just hold your finger up." He holds up his forefinger. He waits. We hold up ours.
It is now registering that we are the only ones in Cheech and Chong's dive class.
Next, Cheech says, "Never surface on your own. Wait till one of us goes with you. We'll be right there the second you put your finger up. Then we press a button on the front of your equipment and you'll rise to the surface slow, with one of us right next to you. Just keep breathing and don't hold us by our necks. We'll hold you."
I do not say, The button lets air out of our tank, right? Never ask a question when the answer will be the one you really don't want to hear.
Then he and Chong pile wetsuits, flippers, snorkels, and masks into the back of the Jeep and we get in again. Charlie whispers to me, "I guess the rest of the lesson is on the boat."
They drive to a kind of shelly beach. Strewn within the shells are pieces of dead coral. Cheech empties the jeep and says, "Let's dive!"
There is no boat in sight. I look at Charlie, who is registering along with me: There is no rest of the lesson either. Also, obviously, that we are expected to walk down the beach and into the water, wearing our tanks which weigh more than I do. Charlie manages but Chong has to take the weight of the tank from me with one arm while we make our way. He's damned adorable, did I say? They both are. Good thing.
When we're waist-deep in water Cheech goes under for a few minutes and then rises. Again, he says, "Let's dive!" I don't know what he's checking for, but I don't ask because I don't want to hear great whites.
We put on our masks and the oxygen things into our mouths. Cheech and Chong think to have us try breathing for a few minutes. We pass that test because, after all, we're not under water yet. Cheech then says, "Let's dive!"
We submerge ourselves and begin to swim. I keep my breathing in rhythm with my flippers that I learn to do snorkeling. We come to a reef right away. Do I have to say it's a wondrous sight? It is. And then, without warning, I feel like I'm going to sneeze. I have such a tickle in my nose that I know I'm definitely going to sneeze. How can you sneeze with breathing equipment in your mouth and your nose covered by a mask? A sneeze will blow the breathing mechanism out of your mouth and then you will drown. I panic and start swimming to the surface forgetting all about holding up my finger.
When my head is out of the water, I'm ripping the breathing stuff out of my mouth and the mask off my face and here comes Chong one second behind me. He says, "What the fuck?"
I say, "I was going to sneeze. I was afraid I'd cut off my air supply."
He says, "Well, fuck." Then: "Listen, wahini, you can sneeze, you can cough, you can yawn, you can puke into your mask—whatever. Just pull it off, swish it around, then stick it back on. Jesus! You gave me a fucking heart attack!"
I say…uh…dubiously, "Sorry." But do I love being called wahini, or what?
Charlie and Cheech have now surfaced and I convince Charlie that I'm fine, that I was afraid I was going to sneeze but now I don't have to sneeze anymore.
Cheech says to me, "Just fucking sneeze!"
Chong explains he's already told me that.
Getting a little testy, I say, "You guys skipped that part of the lesson."
Chong says, "Let's dive!"
We head back under the water. Chong swims right next to me. He never leaves my side for an instant, shoulder to shoulder for what I have to call the most exhilarating hour of my life. I would never have seen 90% of the stuff in and around the reef without Chong pointing it all out. We follow a giant manta ray, until he looks back at us with his eye that never closes and Chong puts his hand on my shoulder. My flipper are no longer swishing so Chong is afraid I might do another surface-panic. Actually, I was about to.
We get in close to the reef and he points to the animals that come out of their coral cones, waving their palm fronds around. Big things and little things, followed by sea turtles emerging from somewhere to check us out, more rays that don't, and jellyfish too, performing their effortless ballet—ballooning up and out, inflating, deflating all in such dreamy slow motion. Then such schools of fish! Fish, fish, and more fish. Chong takes me within a school of especially colorful ones. We become one with the school. I am dazzled.
So now, today, here I am, planning my trip to the Dominican, and decide to call "Deep Dive." I recognize Chong's voice. "Aloha cousins. Deep Dive."
I say, "Hi Chong. I'm a former student of yours. I don't know if you remember, but I'm the one who didn't know it was all right to sneeze when you're diving, so I swam to the surface without giving you the signal. Then you never left me by myself. Thanks for the personal tour of the reef."
He says, "Oh man, I can't forget you! You thanked me about ten thousand times, and you tipped me twice as much as anyone else ever has. And you're still thanking me. My pleasure, I tell ya. So what's up, wahini?"
I go slightly orgasmic. But I manage to ask his advice as to whether I can go to the Dominican Republic while I'm having breast cancer radiation based on his diving experience with women.
He says, "Man, it's like all you girls got breast cancer! Like, my mom's got it! She went snorkeling and diving every day while she had radiation. When you dive, your wetsuit will protect you, but if you're snorkeling or swimming just throw on a black T-shirt and wear a rashguard over it. That's what my mom does. I thought the T-shirt was overkill, but, ya know, it was my mom. So, hey, whatever. But when you're not in the water, don't go out in the sun without a hat. My mom did and she got, like, instant headache."
I will remember that. I ask him, "What's a rashguard?"
"It's, like, a stretch T-shirt but fifty SPF. Get an O'Neill. RonJon is cheaper but it's junk so it'll stretch and you want your rashguards skin-tight, especially if you're doing the radiation thing, ask my mom. But hey, listen, if you got no stores with rashguards where you come from, just go online, don't buy one at Land's End—you'll look like a dweeb. The best is Guy Harvey—expensive though, what with the graphics. But you'll look really, really good because I remember you were in great shape for someone your age, just like my mom."
Hmmmm…. But I thank Chong again, anyway. He says, "Good luck, wahini."
I mail him another tip. Then I immediately check out a Guy Harvey online. Yeah, expensive. I go shopping and find that Dick's Sporting Goods has all the rashguards you could ever want with a preponderance of O'Neill's ON SALE. I get a black one in the T-shirt style, a chartreuse one with sleeves to the elbow, and a shocking pink, long-sleeved zippered one. In the dressing room, I try them on with bikini bottoms; red with white polka-dots; black stripes; and a chartreuse geometric print. I have to say there is something really sexy about a skin-tight rashguard. I like being a Sea Cup. Did I tell you I'm an A-cup until I breast-feed my children? If you want to try that method of enlarging your breasts, you have to refrain from giving your babies anything but breast milk for six months, and then take another six months to slowly wean them. If you stop on a dime, your breasts kind of collapse. My non-collapse method is actually an invention of Mother Nature, but, sad to say, I think you have to have a cooperative boss to manage it. I'm my own boss so, no problem.
Ivana Trump in the New York Times on raising her children: "I don't believe in breast-feeding." Yeah, right. The Donald threatened to yank her hair by the roots if she dared consider something so repulsive. (He did that once, according to The New York Times. The reporter managed to dig out the original divorce papers before the real one when Ivana expurgated the part where hubby yanked out a hank of her hair when she didn't sympathize sufficiently during his initial hair loss stage. There was worse but I bet you guessed that.)
A week before Charlie and I leave for the Dominican, I go online and read all the testimony to the benefits of salt water to skin being radiated. (On my list of Dr. Frye's radiation treatment's verboten items; swimming of any kind in chlorine pools, lakes, and right on top, the ocean. The on-liners I check in with agree with the chlorine part, but the ocean will soothe me and help heal my skin. They're fifty-fifty on the lakes.)
The financial bottom line is that you save a hundred bucks on sunblock with your black tees and rashguards, plus a zillion more on the style of bathing suits I will never wear again. While I'm packing, Charlie hands me a bag. Inside is a Guy Harvey rashguard and bikini bottoms. It's fabulous—the top is black with turquoise piping, and one mean-looking turquoise shark graphic. The bikini part is turquoise and black print that shows quite a bit more of my butt than I'm used to revealing. I love it. I love Charlie. Charlie loves me and my butt.
As it will turn out, the actual fashion bottom line is that most of the girls on the Punta Cana beach are wearing string bikinis that cover very little. They come up to me and rave about my "diving look." Next day, several of my admirers are copying the look but with their generation's version of bikini bottoms. Charlie is the first to spot one of them whose back is to us as she sashays down the beach. Her rashguard is a Day-Glo orange and black Body Glove. He says, "Holy shit, that girl has on a rashguard and nothing else!"
Below the back of her rashguard are two uncovered brown coconuts.
I say to Charlie, "I saw a sign that said no topless bathing but nothing about no bottomless bathing."
Then the girl turns and walks back up the beach. She is not bottomless. A miniscule triangle of orange bikini compliments the rashguard.
I say, "You think she's celebrating Halloween?"
He says, mindlessly, "Yeah." Then, not wanting to be rude, he asks me, "Will we be back home in time for Halloween?"
He laughs, what with having his mind read.
The girl in the Halloween bikini spots us, gives us a big wave, jogs over, strikes quite the pose, and asks, "What do you think?"
I say, "You look great!"
Charlie can only give her a thumbs-up because he's on the verge of choking to death.
We both get a high-five.
She sashays off to wherever she's going. The thong is held to her butt by a transparent vinyl cord. Egads.
We have such a terrific time in the Dominican Republic. I won't even get into food because you've heard me talk about food enough. However, I can't help but tell you about the vender on the beach who sells coconuts, speaking of coconuts, filled with Miami Vices, five bucks, but only two-fifty after the first one if you promise not to abscond with the coconut. (Try to kid yourself that the guy rinses out the coconuts before refilling them for his next customers. It's not like he has access to fresh water.)
The Caribbean sun never touches me. Every day, Charlie and I celebrate sunset by strolling across the wide beach to the turquoise-aqua-emerald-blue-purple-indigo sea and swim. On several occasions, once under water, I take off my bikini bottoms and Charlie his cool surfer shorts and we try to have sex. We fail to consummate such endeavors because we keep getting bowled over by waves, but we have a lot of laughs. Do you imagine how anyone without a sense of humor can possibly enjoy sex? I do. Once, when we're in Hawaii, we swim naked on a deserted Hawaiian beach, and along come six galloping horses with people on them. They see us before we see them. They wave so we wave back, what the hell. Too late to submerge. But the Dominican is a Catholic country and you don't want to risk arrest.
My break from radiation does me wonders; I'm thinking positively as in, Thank God it's half over, rather than, Still halfway to go.
Sunday, November 18th: Chapter 32
A BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY (with pics and video to follow)
I was born and raised in Hartford, Connecticut and have lived in Connecticut until I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon. There, I lived in Buea, a town situated on a series of ledges five thousand feet up the side of Mt. Cameroon, an active volcano, its peak nearly 14,000 feet above the equatorial sea. Having aspired to be a beach bum, I am happy to say I now live a half-block from the Gulf of Mexico in the town of Fort Myers Beach, a barrier island that takes the brunt of any hurricane leveled at the city of Fort Myers. Most fortunately, I have a water-loving family and a labradoodle named Saltalamacchia, also a water-lover. Salty is my first dog.
My grandparents on my father's side emigrated from the Italian Piedmont, and on my mother's, Quebec. My fondest childhood memories are of sweltering summers blue-crabbing with my French-speaking grandfather from 5 a.m. until 5 p.m., my grandfather wearing a worn three-piece suit and cap, and me, my underpants. When I told my Italian grandfather that I would be going to Cameroon as a Peace Corps volunteer he told me there were very good grapes grown in Africa.
My brother was autistic, a savant, who would not allow singing, laughing, sneezing, electronic sound (including television, radio and anything that produced music), and the flushing of the toilet except when he was asleep and he never seemed to be asleep. He had a library of over two thousand books all on WWII. As his adjutant, I attained a vast pool of knowledge on such things as identifying fighter bombers from their silhouettes and why we dropped the atomic bomb. "To win the war," Tyler told me. "But it didn't work so we dropped another one. Victory at last."
The relationship with my brother was one of three influences on my writing; the second, my father's bedtime poetry and prose following the Our Father and Hail Mary: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look upon my works ye mighty and despair!" The third influence was the shelf of classic children's literature my mother kept stocked with such gems as The Swiss Family Robinson, Bambi, Tom the Water-Boy, Silver Pennies, King Arthur and the Round Table, The Child's Odyssey. Somehow, The Bedside Esquire (1936) found its way to the shelf and I read the extraordinary short fiction within, including Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," Gallico's Keeping "Cool in Conneaut," Salinger's "For "Esmé with Love and Squalor," Hecht's "Snowfall in Childhood," and my favorite, "Latins Make Lousy Lovers," by Anonymous who turned out to be Helen Lawrenson, the only woman with a piece in the collection. (Sheesh.) There was also an excerpt from the novel, Christ in Concrete, by Pietro Di Donato, that so bowled me over I decided I would be a writer, too, just like all the writers who wrote fiction for Esquire Magazine in 1936.
After Peace Corps service, I taught, worked as a librarian and got my first freelance writing job with Reader's Digest. The Digest editor assigned me sports and games for How to Do Just about Anything, a book which sold 50 million copies world-wide. Reader's Digest made a vast fortune on that book alone, while the writers earned $25 to $75 dollars per article. I learned economy of language writing such pieces as "How to Play Tennis" in fifty words.
In 2010, I was awarded the Diana Bennett Fellowship at the Black Mountain Institute at UNLV, where I wrote my most recent novel, The Honoured Guest: Anne Alger Craven, Witness to Sumter, in Her Words.
My work has been reprinted in several foreign languages. I have taught fiction and memoir writing at many venues including the Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT, and on the Aran Islands through the National University of Ireland, Galway, and online via this website.
Presently, I spend time in Fall River, MA, where I went on a tour of the Lizzie Borden house. By the time the tour had ended, I knew who killed Lizzie's parents and it surely wasn't Lizzie. The competition, however, is stiff. Since I started writing this novel, another novel with an entirely different take on the crime was published. And there is a film presently in the works, again, with another take altogether. I'll keep up my work on my own version, which, I'm convinced, is the real one.