Saturday, December 21, 2013

Voices from the Road

I'm working on a longer, more text-heavy post (teaser: it might have the words "bucket list" in the title), but in the meantime, I wanted to share some of the comics from my recently-completed book, That Hidden Road. The images below represent a sampling, and they are sprinkled throughout the manuscript. I decided to draw and write these comics because, when I bicycled across the country, I had a lot of encounters with people that stuck with me, but they didn't seem substantive enough to warrant space in the narrative proper. These comics seemed like a good solution, especially because I've always thought that the medium excels at amplifying quiet moments.

Here they are:


















To any publishers and/or agents out there, the book is finished and clocks in at 100,000 words. And if the fact that I have cancer makes you interested out of pity, I'm totally okay with that...




Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Numbers Don't Lie

Good news to report: I got the results of my blood tests back after the first week of chemo, and my two tumor markers--alpha Fetoprotein (AFP) and human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG)--are dropping. So, the evidence is strong that the chemo is doing more than just turning me into a naked mole rat.


Also dropping, unfortunately, are my white blood cells, which apparently are important in fighting off germs and bacteria. That means some changes for me: I'm carrying a little bottle of Purell and squirting it on anything and anyone I come in contact with, I'm not driving on any roads where there's a Taco Bell, and I'm no longer honoring the "Five Second Rule" (although truthfully, I've always stretched it to more of a "Five Minute Rule," especially if the fallen object was candy. Or bacon.)

In other news, with some help from my buddy John, I've got all of the comics done that are going to go in my second book, That Hidden Road. There are about 35 pages all together that will be intercut with the larger narrative, and I may post some of these pages here if there's any interest. That, by the way, is my non-subtle invitation to any readers out there to express some interest.




Thursday, November 28, 2013

Hair Today...

Well, the time has come. For the last few days, I’ve stepped out of the shower to find my neck matted with hair. Yesterday, all that hair loss became--at least to me--noticeable; I looked like I’d had a haircut. This morning, I could gently pinch the hair on my head and come away with this:


So, here’s where I started:


I don’t know how many people have shaved their heads before, but it has to be done in stages. Stage one is with the electric clippers, starting at the third-lowest setting and working down to the lowest. And perhaps it goes without saying that this stage demands a Mohawk:


I post this picture in part as a shout-out to one of my students this semetser (you know who you are, and thanks again for the book!)

Next, I lose the Mohawk:


Up to this point, I’ve been using only my electric clippers. Now it’s time to get serious, so out comes the shaving cream:


The result? A head as smooth as a baby’s bottom:


So is this how I’ll venture out into the world? Probably not; I think I’ll make my initial appearances with a little more flair:


For now, I'm going to leave my facial hair. It's falling out, too, but I'm content to let it come out on its own. As for the new look, I don't think that “Heisenberg” will work as an alter ego—I don’t know enough about science. Maybe…Hemingway?

I’m open to suggestions.







Monday, November 25, 2013

Mailbag!


I’m a little more than a week removed from my first chemo treatments, and I’m happy to report that my appetite is strong and my energy is up. I was afraid that I’d be too cashed to teach, but last week went really well—so great to see all my colleagues and students again—and I’m looking forward to one more week of rest before I head back for my infusions on the 2nd.

So what does all of this mean? Another post, of course.

Readers of my last blog (the fun one, the one I kept when I biked across America), might remember how I received a fair amount of reader mail while on the road and how I took the time in a couple of posts (here and here) to answer this mail.

Incredibly, it’s been happening again—letters from all over. Since they’ve been piling up and Shannon’s been complaining that they’re taking up too much space, I figure it’s time to answer a few. So let’s get right to it.


Joe from Pratt, Kansas, writes,

          Are you related to the designer?

Lots of people ask me that, and my short answer is, “Not that I know of.” However, my grandfather believed that we were distant cousins. It turns out that the original spelling of our last name is with an “e” (Versace), and his—my grandfather’s—family came from Reggio Calabria, which is the same part of Italy that Gianni Versace is from. So who knows?


Alex from Oceanside, California, writes,

          Dude, how can you write about this stuff? It seems
          crazy personal.

Alex, I wonder about that myself. I’m from the Midwest, and I come from people who value privacy, so it really doesn’t make a lot of sense. However, I’m also a product of what I’ve been doing for the vast majority of my life—studying, reading, and teaching literature—and from this I’ve learned that there’s a healing power in writing. This blog has helped me work through experiences that would be tough to deal with if I just kept them locked up in my head.


Marie from Ames, Iowa, writes,

          Did you lose your hair?

As of this writing, I still have a full head of hair. However, I noticed this morning that I can pull out tufts of it pretty easily. It’s just a matter of time before I start developing little bald patches and look like a post-Apocalypse refugee. When that happens, I’ll shave it off (and, of course, post pictures).


Ken “Buster” Carter from Stillwater, Oklahoma, writes,

          Been reading your blog and it made me think of back
          when I was in high school. We had a science teacher
          there named Mr. Benson. He must have had what you have
          because word got around that he was “missing”
          something. People started calling him “One Ball
          Benson.” If I’m being totally honest here, I guess I
          kind of started it. A few of us broke into the gym one
          weekend and we started leaving things around for Mr.
          Benson. A golf ball on his desk. A basketball on the
          hood of his car. One guy slipped a baseball into his
          lunch bag. He ended up leaving a month before the end
          of the school year. Someone said he got a job at
          another school. Anyway, do you think I’m going to hell?

Buster, I don’t believe in hell. But if I did, there’s probably a special seat with your name on it there.


Louise from Bolingbrook, Illinois, writes,

          My father (never smoked a day in his life) died of lung
          cancer when he was still a young man in his 60s. My
          sister has survived breast cancer twice. My mother-in-
          law wasn’t so lucky. Breast cancer took her in her 50s.
          A friend of mine sent me the link to your post on your
          surgery. She liked it, but I just can’t see what’s so
          funny about cancer.

Louise, let me first tell you how sorry I am that your family has been hit unusually hard by this disease. Believe me when I say that I don’t think there’s anything funny about cancer. But we all have different ways of dealing with the challenges that we face. I guess I like to look for the funny when I can; I don’t see much profit in dwelling on how awful things might seem or how awful things might get. Of course, it’s a big help that my prognosis is good. I might tell the story a little differently if I was looking at a dimmer future. I hope I wouldn’t, but I might.


George from Lansing, Michigan, writes,

          What’s it feel like to have one ball?

Not that different, actually. A little roomier.


Sara T. from Tucumcari, New Mexico, writes,

          Are you still biking?

No, and it’s killing me. I hate driving to work, I hate being stuck in traffic, I hate walking past my bikes while I avert my eyes. I imagine them wondering why I’ve been ignoring them.


Mike from Huntsville, Alabama, writes,

          You told Buster that you don’t believe in Hell (I
          always learned it should be capitalized). Why not?

What’s the point? Does imagining that there’s some horrible place waiting for bad people make life better? More comforting? I think people spend too much time imagining what’s waiting for us after we’re gone and they lose sight of what’s going on right here, right now. If you want to believe in heaven and hell (sorry, not going to capitalize, Mike) and it makes you a better person to those around you, then go for it. I’m not wired that way, though. When I think of hell, I always think of a description that one of the priests gave to my Sunday school class when I was in fifth or sixth grade. He told us to imagine a giant pile of sand as tall as the Sears Tower (a good point of reference for us since we were in Chicago). Then he told us to imagine that every thousand years, a bird would fly to the top of this pile, pick up one grain of sand, and fly away. When the entire pile is gone, he said, you will have spent a single day in hell. It scared me at the time, but it wasn’t until later that I realized fear was the whole point. And I say to hell with that.


Arnold from Grand Junction, Colorado, writes,

          I’m a college student, and I got a call from my
          parents about our neighbor, Tim. He has some kind of
          cancer. He was a really cool guy. When I was a kid, he
          used to take me fishing with him all the time, and
          when I was applying to colleges, he helped me with my
          essays (he’s a teacher). My parents said that I should
          give him a call, but I don’t know what to say. I’m
          getting ready to head back home for the holidays, and
          I feel really weird about seeing him, and I’m afraid
          I’m going to say something stupid. Do you have any
          advice?

Arnold, I certainly can’t speak for everyone with cancer, but I don’t mind talking about it. In fact, talking about it openly makes me feel a little better. I’ve had people that I don’t really know that well reach out to me, and those acts—little and big—have moved me beyond words. What’s bad is when I get the feeling that my illness makes someone uncomfortable, particularly if that person is someone I feel close to. It sounds like you have a really good relationship with Tim—who, by the way, still IS “a really cool guy”—and I can guarantee that he’ll appreciate anything you have to offer him. By the way, where our friends are concerned, “not knowing what to say” does not relieve us of the obligation to try.


John from Portland, Oregon, writes,

          Are these letters even real? Am I real?

You would know, John.

Okay, so that wraps up this edition of “Rocco’s Mailbag.” If I didn’t get to your letter, I sincerely apologize, but please know that I read every single one of them and will eventually provide every sender with a personal reply and a signed photo of my completely hairless body.



Sunday, November 17, 2013

Scenes from Week One

Well, I made it through my first week of chemo and now have two weeks off to recover before I go back. As the days have passed, I’ve been feeling more and more disjointed, so I thought that instead of imposing a false sense of order on everything, I’d try to mirror how scattered I’ve been feeling.

Some basis facts:

I receive my treatments in a large room that sits at the back of my oncologist’s office. From above, the room would look like a wide smile. The teeth, in this case, are cushiony recliners where patients sit as they’re infused.



There are many props in that room, but for some reason I fixate on one in particular.


     
Each day I’m greeted by the nurses and medical techs there—Sue, Heidi, Maria, and Beth—and invited to pick a seat.



“The 70s on 7”—this week’s preferred XM radio station. One of the nurses—Heidi—has so far known all the words to every song that’s come on. Really good voice, too.

“The Night Chicago Died” on Monday morning. When I was a little kid, my cousin and brother once used this song to make me cry; I can’t remember how, exactly, but apparently it didn’t take much.

Englebert Humperdinck’s “After the Lovin’” on Wednesday morning XM. My mom was a huge Humperdinck fan; I remember summers as a kid when she’d play album after album of this guy. According to my brother, my dad hated this song in particular because he misheard the title as “After the Love-In,” and thought it was about an orgy.

Sue, who’s been handling my chemo all this week, is a cancer survivor herself. Like me, she's Italian but doesn't speak the language.

The port is working out well. I didn’t get one last time, and getting stuck with IV needles over and over again in my hands and wrist really took a toll, physically and emotionally. I wasn’t sure what to expect with the port, and just before Sue hooked me up for the first time on Monday, she asked, “Do you want some numbing spray?”
     I had no idea that this was even an option.
     “Um, YES.”
     “Some people don’t like the spray,” Sue said. “It’s a little cold.”
     A little cold? In my mind, the choice between “a little cold” and a needle is not much choice at all.
     And it wasn’t. The spray was kind of refreshing, and I didn’t feel the needle go in at all.

The nurses have a weekly football pool that I horned my way in on. When I turned in my picks and five bucks on Wednesday, I asked if I could get a handicap since I had cancer. Heidi’s immediate reply: “Nope.”



My infusions last about four hours. I try to keep myself busy. Writing, reading, sketching. I do this last one quickly because it has the potential to unnerve others. Also, it's a convenient excuse for my sloppy drawings. 



The side effects don’t waste much time.

Tuesday morning, and I’m wide awake at 2:15 a.m. I’m not anxious, or feeling ill; I’m just awake. I get up and write for about an hour. Then I go back to bed.

The next night, the same thing. This time I read. Maria Semple's Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

On Wednesday, a definite drop in appetite. This feeling is manifest in what I see and feel as a little ball of “queasy” lodged just under my sternum. When I imagine eating—or making one of the juices that I’d planned to make each day—the ball throbs a little and my jaw gets tight. Eating anything becomes just about the last thing I want to do.

I perk up a little on Thursday with the anti-nausea meds, but when the weekend rolls around, I’m just not hungry. Perversely, I can’t stop thinking about eating, which makes that little ball of queasy jump around.

I feel like I’m walking more slowly, more carefully. As if waiting for something to happen. I don’t like this.

This line, from a story by Tobias Wolff: “That room—once you enter it, you never really leave.”

That may be true, and it’s maybe also true that when you’re in that room, it’s easy to feel alone. But that’s not always the case.

On Friday, as Sue inserted the needle into my port, Beth rested her hand against the side of my face, and I thought of this.

Different friends from work have sat with me for a little while each day.

Students have sent me messages. Hope you’re feeling well and  I’m enjoying your blog and Is it okay if I turn the homework in a day late?

Calls, emails, texts from friends. Each morning of chemo, a text from an elementary school friend who—before this last summer—I haven’t spoken to since high school.

Cards in the mail when I get home.

A long, cardboard box. Inside, a giant stuffed T-Rex from my crazy cousin (the same one who helped my brother make me cry). She knows how much I love monsters.

Who else is in that room? The world of the unwell has many citizens:



Melinda (not her real name) is a mother of three who has ovarian cancer. She’s younger than I am and sits quietly through her infusions, which take up even more of the mornings than mine do.

Jack (not his real name) is an older guy and veteran who has multiple growths around his esophagus and in his liver. He told me that he’s been “fighting an uphill battle” since April.

Sam (you get the point about the names, right?) is another older guy who speaks barely above a whisper. Not sure what’s wrong with him, but he’s in for about an hour each morning and reads on his iPad.

In that room, age and wisdom don’t always correspond the way you'd think.

I overhead a young woman patient of about thirty (who has clearly been doing this for a while) comforting her seat-neighbor, a woman of about seventy (who was clearly just getting started).

When Sue was getting me hooked up one morning, I said that ten years ago I was the youngest person in the room. Not so much this time around. She told me there were quite a few young regulars, including a nineteen-year-old who, according to her, “probably won’t see twenty-five.”




Tomorrow I’m back to teaching. I’m a little nervous about my energy level, but I know that being back among my friends and students is infinitely better than sitting around at home and thinking about being sick, about being back in that room.




Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The iTunes Syndrome

So I decided to take a self-shot every day for the duration of my chemotherapy and recovery (by which I mean the time it takes for the most visible side effects—puffiness from the steroids, baldness from the drugs, etc.—to fade away). My plan is to then turn them into one of those high-speed animations that love to go viral.

Anyway, I took my first selfie on Monday, and I couldn’t figure out how to move it from my phone’s camera roll into the album I created. It’s probably easy to do, but I was getting a little pressed for time; I had to be at my first chemo session in half an hour. One solution that I turned up on Google was to move it by using iTunes.

I read this, sighed, reluctantly opened up iTunes on my laptop, and was not at all surprised by what I saw next.

“A new version of iTunes is available. Would you like to download it now?”

Well, shit. There went the next twenty minutes.

“Now, Rocco,” one might have said (if one had been in my house and creepily peering over my shoulder), “Just decline and do it later.” Yes, that would be the way to go, assuming that the person sitting at the computer is not obsessive-compulsive about these kinds of things. Which he (I) is (am).

This particular situation—what I’ve come to call the “iTunes Syndrome”—is something with which I’m well-acquainted. Sometimes I just want to hear a specific song that’s been in my head; sometimes I just want to sync something up on my phone; and sometimes I just want to check out one of my playlists. But instead of the quick trip to iTunes I envisioned, I’m suddenly involved in watching a progress bar fill at near-glacial pace.

The “syndrome” is essentially this: my day grinds to a halt because of the well-intentioned programmers at iTunes. And by “well-intentioned programmers,” what I mean is “soulless asshats.”

And to make matters worse, after each and every one of these installs, I have yet to see any discernable difference for the better in how iTunes runs.

So where am I going with all of this?

Naturally, to cancer.

Here’s a fun fact: we all have cancer cells in our bodies. If we’re lucky, our cancer cells are lazy stoners who lie on the couch all day with a big bowl of Cheetos on their laps. If we’re unlucky, our cancer cells are industrious iTunes programmers who work nonstop (until the chemo or radiation hits) to create disruptive changes that no one but them sees any value in.

I don’t know; maybe I’m overthinking all of this. I do have cancer on the brain. Which is better than cancer of the brain—and I hesitate to even write those words lest my little iTunes programmers get going on yet another project.



Sunday, November 10, 2013

Round Two

When I went through chemotherapy ten years ago, I kept a journal. Today, on the day before I start “Round Two – Ten Years Later,” I thought I’d dig it up and see what was on my mind. Here’s what I found:


Sunday, July 13, 2003
It’s the night before my chemotherapy begins. What am I thinking about?

How badly will it kick my ass?
Will there be any long term effects?
How bad will Nick and Tony be frightened?
How bad will I be frightened?
Will it even work?

I can’t dwell on this last question too long. It has to work. It’s important that I stay positive about the whole thing. I know I’m tough and that I’ve got a lot to live for. I also know that I’ve had it pretty fucking easy for all these years, so maybe I’m due for a little suffering. That’s fine—that’s life, and I accept it. I don’t think that my kids are due for any suffering, though.

When I think about dying, I think about the people I’ll leave behind and how devastated they’ll be. But I’m too arrogant—or stupid?—to think that I’ll really die. I’ll probably feel so shitty that I’ll wish I was dead, but I do believe I’m going to come out of this OK.

Other than surviving, I hope that I come out changed in some way. I want to learn something from all this, other than a bunch of tired clich├ęs like life is fragile, you never know what might come next, blah blah blah bullshit bullshit bullshit. I know all this already. Maybe what I’m hoping for is some perspective. Or something about fear.

The bottom line is that I’ve never really faced a struggle, and I’m anxious to see how I’ll do.


Turned out that my thoughts were pretty on target.

There was an incident during my second week of treatment—a severe allergic reaction to one of the drugs I was given—that sent me to the ER and left me feeling so shitty that I did, in fact, want to die (a story for another time, readers).

I came out changed, too, and it had everything in the world to do with perspective. My bout with cancer set in motion a lot of changes in my life and led me straight to the seat of my bicycle and a two-month journey across the country. Since I finished that three years ago, I’ve been working on my book (That Hidden Road) about the ride, about cancer, about a lot of things. Now comes the tricky part of convincing a publisher that people might find it interesting.

And I did learn something about fear. Or rather, I thought I learned it but didn’t know until just recently whether it was true. When I came out the other side ten years ago, I told myself and anyone who was interested that I never expected to be that frightened for myself again.

Sure, when my doctor told me the news a few weeks ago, my first feeling was that I was in an elevator whose cable had snapped. But the shock didn’t last too long, and what replaced it was calmness. I thought that I was in some kind of denial, but the calmness has stuck with me over these weeks, and it has a voice, too, that’s been telling me You’ve been here before (well, not the surgery, but still), you know what you’re in for, and you know what you didn’t know before—you can handle a struggle. There’s no new fear here.

When I saw my students last week, I told them that cancer is a shitty thing any way you look at it, but one thing I took from it was self-knowledge. Cancer taught me something about myself that I suspected but didn’t really know until it came along to show me: I’m a survivor.



Friday, November 8, 2013

Preparing for Battle



"If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt."
                                                                                     --Sun-Tzu, The Art of War



Time to get to know my enemy (with a little help from this birthday gift).





Thursday, November 7, 2013

Fire My Travel Agent



Elev. HCG, AFP
CT (chest, abdomen, pelvis) conf. retroperitoneal mass
Ultrasound conf. test. mass
Right I/O
Testicular biopsy – nonseminomous, terratoma
Retroperitoneal biopsy – nonseminomous, embryonal
EP x 4
Possible RPLND



Um, what?

This is probably the reaction that most people would have when looking at what’s written above. Yes, the letters are familiar, but they’re arranged into words that look like a foreign language. And of course, they are. In this case, it’s a language used in a city that lies in a country that you can’t find on any map. It’s a country that you wouldn’t want to find on any map because you’d never want to visit there.

The country is the United States of Cancer, and the city is Testicularville, a little coastal town—because, why the hell not a coastal town?—with a 100% male population.

I didn’t really book passage to Testicularville (not that anyone ever does; coastal or not, it’s a pretty bad spot). It was more like I got jumped after a night of drinking, thrown into somebody’s trunk, driven across the border, and set up in a really shitty motel near the railyard. So here I am.

To get my bearings, I joined a Testicular Cancer discussion board and immediately saw that every member’s signature includes an abbreviated version of their cancer history that more or less resembles mine above. I paused when I saw the first one, but my confusion lasted only a second. Then I completely understood what I was reading.

In one way, it reminded me of French. Back in high school, I took four years of the language and then never gave it another thought until seven years later, when I was in graduate school. As part of my program requirements there, I had to take a reading class in a foreign language. Not surprisingly, I enrolled in French, but very surprisingly, it all came back as I quickly remembered most of what I thought I’d forgotten.

The same thing happened on the TC boards. But this time, my recognition of the language wasn’t just academic. I felt a much deeper connection that was both comforting and unsettling.

It was comforting because I had an immediate sense of community. All of us reading and writing on that board share some important history even though we haven’t met each other except across the ether. But we speak each other’s language—not just of tests, diagnoses, and treatments, but also of fears, anxieties, and empathy.

But it’s unsettling, too, because it’s a community of the wounded, and if we had the choice, we wouldn’t want to be a part of it.

It’s far from the only one of these communities out there. I’m sure everyone reading this has some place—again, not found on any map—of which he or she is a reluctant citizen. But in the end, those citizenship papers are part of who we are, and you either try to forget you’re carrying them, or you try to do something with them.

Before I sign off, I’ll provide some translation of what’s up top. Specifically, of the “EP x 4.” This is my chemotherapy plan, or “protocol,” which my doctor outlined for me yesterday afternoon. “EP x 4” means that I’ll receive four cycles of two drugs: Etoposide and Platinum (medical name, Cisplatin). Ten years ago, I received three cycles of three drugs: Bleomycin, Etoposide, and Platinum. The Bleomycin, however, carries with it a high risk of permanent lung damage, so my doctor wouldn’t put me on it again. The good news is that EP x 4 has the same effectiveness as BEP x 3. (See how easily you understood these abbreviations?)

Now, you may ask, “What’s a ‘cycle’?” Each cycle for me is three weeks. For the first week, I’ll go in Monday through Friday morning and get an infusion of the E and the P, which should take a few hours. For the second and third weeks, there are no infusions; I rest and recover. That three-week period is one cycle. Week four begins the second cycle, and I go in again, Monday through Friday morning, for my infusions. Weeks five and six are, once again, “off” weeks. Cycle Two completed. And so on through two more cycles for a total of twelve weeks.

During this time, the nurses will draw blood and check the tumor marker levels in my blood, which will hopefully drop. I’m trying to be Zen about the whole thing and stay focused on where I am now.

So where am I? Right now, I’m enjoying my day. If I let myself get a little further ahead, I’ll think about how, later this morning, I’ll see my students, and how, after that, I’ll have a pleasant evening with family and friends.

What I don’t want to do is start to think about Monday morning, when I’ll be back on the streets of Testicularville and driving to my oncologist’s office, where I’ll go to the treatment room in back, sit down on one of the recliners, close my eyes when the nurse plugs the IV needle into my chest port, and immerse myself once again in a strange language that sounds harsh on the tongue but will help me get around.





Saturday, November 2, 2013

Heroes and Monsters

When I had cancer the first time, there was no surgery involved, so my physical encumbrances were all chemo-related—fatigue, loss of appetite, some nausea, neuropathy, yada yada yada. Now, though, it’s different. Less than a week removed from surgery and a few days removed from two procedures that were more invasive than I remembered/realized, I’m finding the physical obstacles to be a lot greater. This morning I was able to take a shower for the first time since Thursday, but first I had to waterproof the bandages covering my port, which basically take up the top right quadrant of my chest. And I’ll have to keep doing this until those bandages come off next Thursday. This led to an interesting shower, during which I was required to perform an amazing array of acrobatics that were made even more challenging because, for some reason, I decided to drop the soap no less than four times.

When I’m not contorting myself in the shower, I sit and stand very carefully and developed the habit of announcing that I’m doing so with either a grimace, wince, or grunt. Sometimes it’s all three at once. As far as walking goes, my gait is somewhere between a lumber and shamble, and as I moving slowly down the hallway this morning, I thought of THIS SCENE. And it reminded me how I spent my down time during chemo back in 2003.

I made monsters.

Not real ones, of course; I made monsters from model kits, mainly from a long-defunct company called Aurora. When I was a kid, model-making was my number-one hobby. But with a ten-year-old’s hands, an impatient and crummy eye for detail, and those awful Testor’s enamels whose fumes probably mutated the cells that turned cancerous on me, the end products looked like crap. For some reason, though, I decided to resurrect this hobby during that summer of chemotherapy.

(Okay, no need to be cute here; there was very clearly a reason—or, more accurately, a blatantly transparent psychological impetus. Faced with my own mortality, I probably felt the need to reach back to my youth in order to recapture its illusion of innocence and safety. Sue me.)

Motivations aside, I spent a lot of time and money on eBay tracking down unbuilt kits from the past. Then, after digging up some modeling tips on the internet and finding out all about acrylic paints, I made some kick-ass models that summer.

Here’s one that captures how I usually feel:



And here’s one that pretty much sums up how I feel right now:



I made other monsters—the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein’s monster—and I made some heroes, too—Batman, Robin, Superman. My favorite characters, however, have always been a little hero and monster. One of these is the Hulk, whom I’ve already written about HERE. Another is this guy:



I might return to this hobby in the upcoming weeks. I still have an unbuilt Dracula model in my closet. I really wish there was a Swamp Thing model out there, though. In fact, I’d give my right nu—


Whoops. Too late for that.



Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mediports and Football: Thursday's Procedures, Part II

The other procedure today was the installation of my mediport. This is a device that’s meant to ease the delivery of chemotherapy, which I’m probably going to start on the week of the 11th. When my doctor mentioned a port, I pictured something like this:  



Ten years ago I did not have a port; back then, they were bulky and external and prone to fun things like infection, leakage, and clogging. Also, it had to stay dry. So I took the second option—an IV stick for every chemo session, which amounted to needles upon needles until I developed a needlephobia that persists to this day. When my oncologist told me that port technology had advanced in the last ten years, and I should really consider getting one, I was skeptical. But then I found out that now, ports look like this:


And once it’s installed, it looks something like this:



The picture above is not my chest or port. Mine is still under wraps until next week, but I’m hoping that it will look something like the above picture when it’s revealed. Right now, it looks like this:


When they installed my port, they lifted me off the table in the biopsy room, wheeled me down the hall, lifted me onto another table in another room, wrapped me up like a mummy with an inflatable, heated pad (very comfortable), and put a tent over my head. Then a nurse named Linda shaved the area and cleaned it with some prep fluid that she told me was orange. “For Halloween,” she said. Once the procedure started, the doctor gave me a series of sharp injections to numb me up so that I wouldn’t feel the incisions. What I would feel—but not be hurt by—was the tugging and rubbing that he had to do in order to work the port in under my skin and get it into place. Hearing this, I was thankful for the tent they set up that shielded my vision.

Once the tugging and rubbing started, the anxiety that had been building over the course of the morning felt ready to let loose, when apropos of nothing the doctor asked me, "Do you like football?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Chargers?”

“Bears, actually.”

Several of the attending nurses let out a low, ominous “Oooooooo…”

“What?”

“Your doctor is a Lions fan,” a voice in the room said.

At which point I told him that I was, too, after last week’s game against the Cowboys, when Matthew Stafford—who happens to be the starting quarterback on my fantasy football team—pretty much assured me victory with his ballsy call to fake a spike and run the ball in for a touchdown as time expired.

This led to a longer conversation about fantasy football—my number one non-work related, non-family related obsession—and before I knew it, the procedure was over and I was on my way to the recovery room.

And what was I thinking about there? The folder of instructions for what to do today after having two invasive procedures? The biopsy results, due back next week? My impending chemotherapy?

No. I couldn’t wait to get home to obsess about my fantasy lineup for this week.

Never underestimate the value of a good distraction.





Put Your Hand in the Hand: Thursday's Procedures, Part I

One of my favorite short stories is Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” and no matter what class I’m teaching, I’ll almost always find an excuse to use it. The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who’s anxious because a blind man—a friend of his wife’s from before he knew her—is coming to visit them. Our narrator isn’t a bad guy, but he doesn’t get out much, either, and he’s uncomfortable (to say the least) with anything that exists outside of his own narrowly-defined boundaries. Anyway, this changes over the course of the story in the unlikeliest of ways. After the narrator’s wife has gone to bed, our narrator and the blind man, Robert, are smoking pot in front of a television documentary on cathedrals. The narrator, in the first of a series of small but significant moves outside of his comfort zone, asks Robert if he knows what a cathedral is. He doesn’t, so the two of them decide to draw one together. Or rather, the narrator will draw it while Robert goes along for the ride. Whenever I talk about the story, I always spend a lot of time on two lines that Carver writes to capture this moment:

“He found my hand, the hand with the pen. He closed his hand over my hand.”

I love these lines and how their repetition of the word “hand” shows how much this moment of connection means to the narrator.

I thought of this story and scene today. I was back in the hospital for two procedures—having a mediport installed (which I'll cover in another post) and getting a biopsy done of the growths in my abdominal cavity. We did the biopsy first. This involved me climbing onto a narrow table, lying face down (while protecting my still-tender incision from Monday’s surgery), and remaining as still as possible while they ran CT scans, inserted biopsy needles in my back (thankfully, I couldn’t see this), ran more CT scans to check their position, repositioned the needles, and took samples. I was sedated for this, but I could still feel movement back there. It wasn’t painful, exactly, but it was uncomfortably noticeable, and I started to visualize a long, sharp needle poking organs and arteries and other tender pieces of my insides.

I must have winced or had some kind of a distressed look on my face, because one of the nurses, a woman named Julie, came over and bent down by where my head and arms were sticking out of the CT machine, and as the doctor fooled with the needles in my back, she took both of my hands into hers. She didn’t say anything; she just held my hands through the rest of the procedure.

For these last few days, I’ve been moved at whiplash-inducing speed through doctors’ visits and tests and hospitals, so when someone reaches out—in Julie’s case, literally—to slow me down, I’m grateful beyond words.



Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Post Op Blues

So, I'm a little over twenty-four hours removed from my surgery, and here's where I stand:

I'm not supposed to lift more than ten to fifteen pounds for the next four weeks. I'm not sure how this is going to go; I mean, I've filled plates of food that weigh more than ten to fifteen pounds--just ask anyone who's seen me at a cookout. Of course, my appetite's due to take a nosedive in the upcoming weeks, so maybe it's just as well...

I completely lack the flexibility (without screaming, that is) to put on my socks.

I found out last night that I have a total of three positions for sleeping: Hurts, Also Hurts, and Yep, Still Hurts. Now you may rightly ask, "Didn't they give you any pain medication?" to which I would reply, "Yes. But here's the thing..."

At this point we're about to venture, possibly, into TMI territory, so if you're of delicate temperament, you might want to stop reading here. I suppose I could stop, too, but when you've got cancer, you're pretty much allowed to say whatever the hell is on your mind. People are forgiving that way.

So, the pain pills. They have a pesky side effect. They can constipate.

And in my current state, that would be...well, it would not be a good thing.

Basically I'm dreading going to the bathroom if I have to exert any kind of force. I've tried a couple of times already, and when gravity hasn't kicked in, I've lacked the fortitude to help it out a little. It basically hurts like hell, even with a pillow pressed against the incision on my lower pelvis.

But really, to even get to that point of chickening out is pretty draining. That is, I first need to execute the once-simple act of sitting down on the toilet. To do this, I have to grip the sink with my left hand, grip the handle on the shower door with my right, and s-l-o-w-l-y lower myself until I'm about six inches off the toilet. Then I move first one hand and then the other to the toilet seat and complete the lowering process. Oh yeah, the whole time I'm wincing and sweating. It's only been a day, but I've already forgotten what it's like to get on a toilet without thinking about it.

So please, if you're reading this, the next time you sit down on the can with relative ease, whisper a little thank you. Because it might not always be so easy.



Monday, October 28, 2013

Adios, Sundance

"Count backward from one hundred."

I'm lying on a thin blanket and staring at three powerful-looking lights mounted to the ceiling. People in blue gowns and white masks move all around me; I know this not only because I can hear them but also because they keep popping up above me in my field of vision.

"One hundred..." I say.

My left arm lies against my side, an IV needle sticking out of a soft patch of innner elbow and trailing a long skinny tube that snakes somewhere behind and above me. I've got wires attached to various points on my chest and legs. My calves are wrapped in massage sleeves that are supposed to prevent blood clots. Something is beeping.

"Ninety-nine..."

The last time I was in a place like this, I was fourteen years old and about to have my appendix out.

"Ninety-eight..."

Now I'm having an orchiectomy, a word that I saw for the first time on Friday and that I've had to ask three different medical professionals how to pronounce.

"Ninety-seven..."

I've heard stories--probably bullshit--about anesthesia not working, about people being immobile yet able to feel every clamp, every retraction, every suction, every scissor snip, every scalpel slice. Again, probably bullshit, but when you're on the table, bullshit becomes a living, breathing thing.

"Ninety--"

And then it's over. I can see faces again--nurses', my doctor's--as they're moving my rolling bed back into place in the recovery room.

"How do you feel?" my doctor asks me.

She's a young woman who didn't in any way fit my expectations of what a urologist should look like when we had our first appointment last Friday. She didn't fit my girlfriend Shannon's expectations, either, when she met her for the first time that morning. I knew this from her narrowed eyes and the whispered, "We'll talk about this later..."

"Are you feeling okay?" my doctor asks again.

"Yeah," I say. "Big changes for Butch and Sundance."

"Who?" she asks.

I gesture vaguely at my crotch. "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They just became the Lone Ranger."



Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Condition of My Condition

I’ve fallen lots of times on my bike, and it’s always the same. My tire catches on the lip of a curb or slides on some loose gravel, and there’s a sudden shift of weight and space. My body tightens and I imagine my face registers something like shocked surprise. The world as I know it—a carefully balanced ride from here to there—has radically and swiftly rearranged itself, and I’m struggling to catch up.

But that only lasts a split second. The thing to do then is understand that you’re falling and nothing is going to change that. Just ride out the fall and wait to land. Then pick yourself up.

When I heard from my doctor the afternoon of the sonogram and he told me that I had a mass on my right testicle, a weird calm came over me. I took a deep breath, heard the word Okay in my mind, and understood that I had given in to the fall and was waiting to land. Got it. A growth. So what do we do now?

My schedule immediately filled. Appointment with a urologist. Biopsy of the growths that the CT scan turned up. Insertion of a port for chemotherapy. Surgery on the morning of the 28th.

Okay.

The big news was that this was almost definitely not a recurrence of my germ cell cancer from ten years ago; it was a new one—testicular. I’ve never so much as won a fruit basket in a raffle, but apparently I’d hit the cancer lottery twice.

But I’ll take that bad luck because it’s more than balanced out—not even close, really—by my good luck at having the friends I have, and who have leapt into action with a swiftness and focus that makes Seal Team Six look about as efficient as the DMV.

So with all of this in mind, I’m shifting the focus of this “Queasy Writer” blog (a title that is probably going to become more literal than metaphor). I’m going to do my best to update daily or near-daily in order to chart this new journey and the people who help me along the way. It will be a way for people to stay updated on my progress, and I’ll try to make the details of my particular cancer, its treatment, and (fingers crossed) my recovery as lively as possible.



Please Lie Still While I Crush Your Balls

When most people hear the word “sonogram,” they probably conjure up pleasing images of a young man and woman holding hands and expectantly watching a screen while a nurse gently slides the wand-like apparatus over a smooth round belly.

Sadly, this isn’t exactly what happens in a testicular ultrasound.

I’d been dreading this test from the moment my doctor said I needed one to find out if this was in fact a recurrence or something new. I had one ten years ago, and even though it came out negative, it was still pretty much the worst part of that cancer experience. Would a normal person think this? Probably not.

I went in early. The waiting room was empty except for a woman sleeping under the television and an older couple who was having an animated conversation in what I thought might be Hawaiian. I tried to focus on the TV—some morning talk show was on—but I couldn’t follow the interview.

“Verasky?”

I turned to see an attractive woman with glasses who looked like she was about seventeen.

“Versaci?” I tried.

“Oh, okay. Sorry. Come with me, please.”

She introduced herself as Hailey and told me that she was a sonogram technician and would be doing the procedure today.

“That’s perfect,” I said.

As we walked down the hall, I asked, “Have you done a lot of these?”

“You’ll be my second.”

In the small, dimly-lit room, she walked me over to a bed and pulled a curtain around. I felt like I had to come clean.

“Okay,” I said. “A couple of things. First, I’m a little tender down there right now. And second, I’m a huge baby when it comes to my balls.”

She just looked at me.

“I mean, I’m definitely going to be your worst patient of the day.”

She laughed nervously. “I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

“I’m sure I won’t,” I said. “But listen. If I pass out, I want you to just go ahead and do the procedure while I’m out.”

She stared at me. “Can you please take off everything below your waist and sit on the bed? I’ll be right back.”

I stripped and waited. I heard footsteps before the curtain pulled back and there was another woman standing there. Also attractive.

“I’m Natalie, and I’ll be doing your sonogram today.”

“Did I freak out Hailey?”

“A little bit, yeah.”

I gave Natalie the same spiel, all in the interests of full disclosure.

“Well, you just relax, and we’ll go slow.”

“Okay, but I want to apologize in advance for the undignified behavior that you’re about to witness.”

She snorted, then arranged me on the bed, a towel over my thighs just below my scrotum, and a towel over my penis just above my scrotum. She spread some gel on the edge of the sonogram wand, which looked like a little vacuum cleaner attachment.

“This might be a little cold,” she said, and moved the wand down to my balls.

At the moment I sensed contact, my entire body tightened up and I clutched the top towel in my hands. The force pressing down on the most sensitive part of my body was more than I could bear. This was worse than I remembered, worse than I could have imagined.

“I haven’t touched you yet,” Natalie said.

It didn’t get much better. She told me to just breathe normally, and I thought I did, but then she warned me not to hyperventilate. She also mentioned at least twice that it was taking a little longer because she was going so slow.

When it was over, I said, “You’ve been doing this for a while.”

“About thirteen years.”

“So, I know a radiologist has to read this, but can you tell me what you think?”

She looked at me. “I really can’t.”

“I can’t help thinking that if I’d been a better patient, you’d tell me something.”

She smiled. “Go ahead and get dressed.”

Just before I left, I said to her, “You should be grateful. Now you’ve got a ‘this one guy.’”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the next time someone gets anxious on the bed there, you can just say, ‘Listen, I had this one guy…’”

She laughed. “You take care, now.”

With that procedure out of my mind, I could focus on something else. Like my certainty that I had a growth.



The News

So, the tests.

My doctor sent me for another blood test that day, on October 11th. Just to confirm the first results. Of course, they did.

Then a CT scan on the 17th. Chest, abdomen, pelvis. I hadn’t had one in a while, but it’s amazing how fresh the details stay. Choking down almost a full liter of barium in the hour before the scan. I did have my choice of flavors—mint, bubblegum, or orange—but there’s no hiding the chalky texture. For the record, I picked orange, but it really should have been called “vaguely orangish.”

Another part of the CT is the iodine dye that they send through an IV. The technician, a young guy named Eric with a bone-grinding handshake, put the line in my arm and fastened it with what later felt—when he pulled it off—like duct tape. He began to tell me what the iodine would feel like, but I stopped him and said that I’d been here before.

“Okay,” he says. “I’m starting it now.”

A puddle of heat spreads across the back of my throat. I swallow reflexively, but it’s not going to go away. In fact, it grows. I can feel the warmth leak slowly down the length of my spine and pool in my crotch. It’s not pleasant. It’s made even less pleasant by the fact that those two big containers of barium are now pushing urgently against my sphincter.

“We’re almost done,” he says, as if sensing my discomfort.

And then we were.

The results came in the following Monday. I was sitting in my office, ready to bike home but waiting for my doctor to call with the results. Finally, the phone rang.

“How are you?” I asked him.

“I’m fine,” he said. “I wish I could say the same for you.”

He told me that I had “multiple growths” in roughly the same vicinity as last time. He said that he’d never heard of a ten-year recurrence of germ cell cancer. We made an appointment for the next day so that we could go over everything in more detail. I knew it was coming, but clearly a part of me still believed that the two blood tests had all been a giant mistake. And then, as if I needed another reminder that we’re all prisoners in our bodies and slaves to what they might do to us, I got cold, my hands—and, presumably, the rest of me—turned white, my head started to hum, and I felt like I was going to throw up.

The next thing I knew, I was standing in my kitchen and calling my son, whom I was supposed to pick up in twenty minutes. Somehow I had biked home, but I had no memory of the ride. It was gone, just like the fragile security I’d been living in.



Guy Walks into a Doctor's Office...

…and gets told that he has cancer again after ten years.

Sorry, pretty shitty punchline. But it’s the one that I’ve been dealing with since Friday, October 11.

When I finished my chemotherapy for germ cell cancer back in September of 2003, I’ve been going back for regular tests make sure I was still cancer-free. For the first year or two, these tests were intense—blood tests and chest, abdominal, and pelvic CT scans every three months. For a year after that, they dropped to every six months, and then annually. After five years, no more CTs; just blood tests.

My anxieties experienced a similar decline. I thought about my cancer constantly for the first few years, then occasionally, then pretty much not at all.

So this year—my ten year anniversary of being cancer-free—I almost didn’t make an appointment. I’d started to get the feeling that my doctor didn’t need or want to see me anymore. In fact, on my nine-year visit, he turned me over to a physician’s assistant. I figured I was in the clear.

The nurse had just taken my temperature and blood pressure, and I was waiting in the little room for someone—my doctor? another PA?—to come in. As I waited, I Googled “blood pressure charts” because the numbers the nurse recited to me seemed a little high. I was worried that I might have hypertension.

I’m trying to recreate that moment in my head. I’m hunched over in the stiff-backed chair, one hand holding my phone while the other one scrolls through Google hits and waits for them to load. While they do, I stare at my black Vans, which are starting to fade out to gray in the toes a little. One shoelace looks a little loose.

I want to savor this moment because it’s the last moment of peace that I remember. Funny thing is, it didn’t seem peaceful at the time (Do I have high blood pressure? Do I need to get a new pair of shoes?). I thought these were real worries. A few seconds later, they became laughable.

My doctor walked in. He was looking at an open folder in his hands.

“Your tumor markers are up,” he said.

Ba-da-BUM

Thanks, folks, you’ve been great. I’ll be here all week.



Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Evolution of a Page

Time has really gotten away from me. I can’t believe that my last entry was way back in June. Between now and then I’ve been to Chicago twice, taken a trip up the California coast to look at colleges with my high school senior son, and waded through armies of costumed fans at Comic-Con.

Oh, and I finished my book.

To recap, the book is called That Hidden Road, and it’s about my solo cross-country bicycle ride, which I made in the summer of 2010. It’s also about those parts of my life that made me think I needed to go on a long, long ride by myself.

I knew from the start that I wanted comics in the book, and I knew that I wanted to draw them myself. Problem was, my drawing skills were a little rusty and I’ve never made comics before.

As I drafted and revised the manuscript, I played around with some ideas for comics and eventually came up with three main types. Backin early December, I posted a few pages from one of these, which I called the “StuffI Saw” pages. Pretty simple idea—one page of six panels each in a more or less “realistic,” sketchbook-y style. The second group of comics I called the “Voices from the Road” pages. These would also be single-page comics, but have only four panels. The style would be a little more cartoonlike and focus on some people I met along the way who made brief but memorable impressions on me. I finished these over the summer. Finally, the third group of comics would be more sustained narrative; there’s a brief two-page story in the prologue called “Pre-Ride Jitters,” and there’s a longer (eight pages) story in the middle of the book called “Welcome to Springview Farm.”

This story covers the few days that I spent on a farm in Missouri—a farm that belongs to Jan and Bill Montgomery, who happen to be the mom and stepdad of my best friend. I didn’t want to fold that story into one of the other chapters; instead, I wanted it to stand on its own even though I couldn’t—at least early on in the writing—say why.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I decided to write a blog post that went into some detail about how part of this story came together, and I thought that the easiest way to do that would be to document the evolution of a single page from “Welcome to Springview Farm.” The page in question is the third of the story, and it covers part of the tour that Jan gave me of the farm and house.

In writing this and assembling the materials I used, I found it very helpful to me as a writer to step back and examine my creative process a little more closely. As I said before, despite my lifelong love of comics and the fact that I teach and write about them, I’ve never—until this book—tried to make comics myself, at least not in any organized way. So I thought I’d give a shout-out to several helpful sources along the way, including Scott McCloud’s Making Comics, Barrington Barber’s How to Draw Everything, Bruce Blitz’s The Big Book of Cartooning, the many Facebook postings by Ed Piskor of his work on Hip Hop Family Tree, several Youtube videos by Alison Bechdel about the construction of Fun Home, my friend and comics goddess Mary Fleener, and conversations with students much more talented than I am in this regard.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how the story came into being. I think I got the idea within the first hour or two I spent with Jan and Bill. They're incredible people who are also pretty wacky, and as Jan showed me around and told me stories, I realized that the written word alone couldn’t do justice to this bizarre and comic experience. I was going to have to tell the story through comics.

Coming to this realization was the easy part. In writing this book, I’ve found that the most challenging part of memoir comes in trying to shape and narrativize your experience. Fact is, there’s a lot of dead time in our lives, but story demands at least some kind of structure. To get there, we need to arrange, amplify, and discard the pieces of our experience and hope to hell that in doing so we arrive at a meaningful truth. With comics, one’s experience becomes even more fragmented—literally, by individual panels. Plus, the canvas is much smaller, and the words that make it in must be pared down yet still work effectively in conjunction with the corresponding image.

Because I’m a textual kind of guy, I started with a script, though that’s a little generous of a description. It was really more of a sketch with words—lines of dialogue loosely coupled with some ideas for images. The draft was long and rambling, and like most drafts, I ended up axing close to half of it. The section of the script that covers this particular page reads as follows:

Springview Farm is filled with strange and wonderful creatures…

Underfoot, the invisible barn cat
Goosey and Goofy (two llamas)
??? (pygmy goat)
A Watusi bull (image of me taking its picture while it’s trying to mount cow)

      Jan:  “Oh for the love of Mike, don’t show them that.”
      Me:  “Why not?  It’s nature!”
Jan:  “It’s Eskimo!”
Me:  “Huh?”
Jan.  “I don’t like the word ‘nasty,’ so I say ‘Eskimo’ instead.”

Inside the house is just as interesting…

Fisherman lightswitch
Stuffed owl that watched me.
Jan’s closets
      The Fairy Closet
      The Shower Closet
      The Memories Closet
            Closeup of Chuck and Dewey poster
Jan’s dolls

The events depicted on this particular page took place in late June of 2010, and I didn’t really start drafting this script until almost a year later (fortunately, I had my photographs and journal from the trip). Like most of the drafting I do, I didn’t pause too much to double-check details. For example, I couldn’t remember the name of Jan’s pygmy goat, so I let that go. I also didn’t know what kind of bull they had (just that it looked really strange), so I let that go and filled in “Watusi” later, after calling Jan. At that point, I knew that the goat wasn’t going to make it on the page, so I didn’t bother to find out its name (sorry, pal). As I wrote, I also knew that part of my brain was thinking in terms of comics. I had an idea about what to do with that bull, and I see in the writing that I had an idea for both the image and the word balloons.

The next step was to sketch the panel breakdowns. I  saw that there was way too much material here to fit coherently, so I had to narrow it down, to start shaping the experience into narrative. I wanted to make this part of the story unfold as a kind of a “walking tour,” but the big question was, What to keep? Two parts of this section jumped out at me: the Watusi bull and the dolls. For the moment, I put the dolls aside. I knew that I wanted the panel with the bull to be big—the width of the page. In part, that was out of necessity; there was too much image and dialogue to cram into a smaller panel. I figured the rest of the page would break down in a steady rhythm of three equal-sized panels per row. I laid out the panels as textboxes in Word, and they came out like this:


To accommodate this layout, I had to start this page with the bull scene, so I moved the the material in the script that comes before—the cat and the llamas—onto the previous page. That seemed to work well in terms of rhythm, where my introduction to the various animals would climax with the bull, and he’d be at the top his own page in a panel befitting his size and, uh, horniness.

Now, back to those dolls. Sifting through photos, journal entries, and memories, I recognized that the real “punch” of my tour of the farm was Jan’s collection of creepy dolls. Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m terrified of dolls; it all dates back to an episode of Night Gallery that you can read about here.

Because I wanted the “weight” of the page to come down on these dolls, I reserved the bottom row for them. With three panels left in the middle, I had to pick and choose from the remaining details. I knew I needed one of Jan’s closets in there (she has an interesting array of closets in the house), and I went with the converted shower closet, because it’s just so Jan. I also liked the light switch cover where the switch became the naked fisherman’s penis (again, very Jan). It seemed like it would be an interesting visual to pull off, so to speak. I also liked that it comes right after the bull trying to hump the cow. For the third image, I decided on the owl. I originally picked it because my plan was to make it the third image in the row so that two figures—a naked man and a bird—would “frame” the closet. Only later did I come up with a better use and reason for that owl. I did a very rough sketch of how I saw the panels:




The drawings are intentionally primitive; my purpose here was simply to get a very rough sense of what’s going to be on the page.

Now I had to decide on text and put the words into boxes and balloons. By visualizing the “containers” for the text, I’d get a better sense of how much space I had to work with and how to compose the panels. By sharpening the text into the exact language, I’d get a better sense of what exactly to draw. At this stage, I started to think more about that owl and what I was trying to do with the story as a whole. I said earlier that I didn’t want to fold my time at Springview Farm into a prose chapter and I wasn’t sure why. In actively mapping out the story, though, it came to me that it was about finding a substitute family on the road. In fact, “Welcome to Springview Farm” is split into two parts, and they bookend the very central chapter of That Hidden Road, when I drive to Chicago to see my real family. Thus, “Springview Farm” serves as a kind of counterpoint to that experience.

Anyway, back to that owl. The very end of the story is the day I leave the farm. It was raining when I left, and I wound up spending that night in a tiny Missouri town named Houston. I called Jan and Bill to let them know I made it to my next stop in one piece, and Jan confessed to me that they followed me for a few miles in their truck, just to make sure I was okay. As I was writing this part of the script, I wanted to convey that feeling of being watched over, and I remembered the owl, stuffed and staring at me in my room at the farm. Now, the thing about Jan is that she names everything, but I couldn’t remember if the owl had a name. Indulging a little bit in the “creative” part of “creative nonfiction,” I decided to name it “Mama Owl” and attribute it to Jan. I mention Mama Owl again on the last page of the story. At this point, I knew that I had to move Mama Owl to the middle of the page, which is the most important space in a comic. The panel breakdown with text inserted looked like this:


It’s worth noting here that once I typed the text on the page, more revision was needed. I had to shorten some lines, move some of the dialogue around, and play around with font sizes. The point here—and one that I stress to my writing students—is that revision is ongoing and the writing process is recursive; you take two steps forward and one step back almost constantly.

Once I was happy with the page, I printed it up, taped it to my drawing board with artist’s tape and the help of my t-square, boxed and ballooned all the text, and got ready to sketch my pencils. To help with this, I had two main tools at my disposal. First were the many, many photos I took at the farm. Here are some of the ones I used:









    

The second tool was my sketchbook. I’ve found that it’s been indispensible in testing out different visual ideas and to practice drawing different things. Here are a few of the sketches I made while penciling this particular page:





  
In the original sketch, I had Bill standing there, too, but the panel was getting a little crowded. Plus, the dialogue focused more on a back-and-forth between me and Jan, so I cut Bill out. But not to worry; Bill is very present in the rest of the story. And he knows I love him.

The next stage was actually biting the bullet and getting the pencils in the panels. I decided that I wanted to have some fun with the style, so I made the top panel more cartoony and the bottom six panels more realistic. I wanted to give those six panels more of a documentary feel to them—like a camera’s eye roving around the farm—so it made a certain sense to me that the art should reflect that. After the better part of a day filled with plenty of erasures, here’s what the page looked like with the text, boxes & balloons, and pencils:


The final stage was the inking. This is where pencil lines get sharpened and more depth is added through line weight and shading. I’m not yet completely confident with this very difficult skill, so I turned over inking duties to my talented buddy John. He threw my pencils on his lightbox, inked it up (without the text), and scanned it for me. I then opened it in Photoshop, retyped the text (and, yes, revised it some more), and performed some minor tweaks to the images. Here, then, is the final product:




All told, there are over thirty pages of comics in the manuscript of That Hidden Road, and I’ve developed a newfound respect for the work that comic book artists do. I knew intellectually that it was difficult work, but until I tried it myself, I had no idea how difficult.


But it’s also incredibly rewarding, like any kind of creative activity that allows you to “disappear” inside of the work. Entire afternoons would evaporate as I’d get my drawing supplies out, set my iTunes to “shuffle,” and get busy turning my life into story.

Well, if you've made it this far, I thank you. I'd love any feedback on what I have here or on your own process of writing, drawing, or both.