Monday, November 25, 2013


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

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.

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