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What it’s like to wait to hear whether or not you have cancer (again).

You’re trapped in a serial killer’s basement.

He’s holding you hostage, you’re tied to a chair, and the serial killer is sitting across from you, sharpening his knife. He’s got that crazy-eyed look, particularly if you’ve escaped from him once before: Now, he’s pissed. And he’s smarter.

Meanwhile the SWAT team suspects the serial killer’s got you. But they don’t know which house you’re in. You can hear them outside conferring about it. One of them says he thinks the serial killer lives down the block somewhere and another one says he lives next door and still another one says no, I think he’s in another state entirely.

Plus, the leader of the SWAT team is also busy hunting for other serial killers who are keeping other people locked in their basements, and he’s kind of distracted.

You begin to wonder if the SWAT team will ever figure out where the serial killer might be, or if they’ll manage to shoot the killer in the head before he slashes your throat. Plus, there’s always the danger that the SWAT team will accidentally shoot you in the head during the whole scuffle. You don’t know.

So while you’re trapped down there in the basement with the serial killer, waiting for something to happen, you still have to follow up on your work emails and carry on as if the killer isn’t staring at you with his crazy I-wanna-kill-you eyes.

But he hands over your laptop and lets you check your email because there’s really nobody who can help you except the SWAT team. In fact, he encourages you to Google “serial killers” and find out about how horrible they are and how many people have been slashed to death. You give that up after a while and go back to your emails.

You search through your messages, a few from friends who know you might have been kidnapped. One of them tells you her Aunt Rita was once held hostage by a serial killer and she’s fine now, so you shouldn’t worry. Then you see a message from the insurance company that says it isn’t sure it’s going to continue to fund the SWAT team, particularly since you didn’t bother to get a referral. So you ask the serial killer if you can borrow his phone. He hands it to you, laughing maniacally, and says, “The insurance company is my twin brother!! Bwaahahahaha!!”

Now you get word that the SWAT team has figured out which house you’re in, but they’re still not sure where the serial killer is, so they’re using their thermal imaging cameras to scan the house. They see somebody else in there with you. But now they’re not sure yet if it’s an actual serial killer or just some joker pretending to be one. And it would be bad to shoot a joker in the head, even if he’s a total asshole for pretending to be a killer.

Then the SWAT team starts arguing. One says yes, that is a serial killer, and another says, well, I’m not sure – it looks like a serial killer but it is not behaving like other serial killers we’ve seen. Still another says, maybe we should just watch him and see if he does something serial-killery.

So you start to wonder if you need a SWAT team at all. You go back to the Internet and read about how SWAT teams are dangerous and some people have fought their serial killers by making peace with them and sharing glasses of wheatgrass. So you ask the serial killer if he would like some wheatgrass and he laughs and says, “Nice try, scream queen!” and starts shaving his head with his hunting knife.

You give up on the wheatgrass idea and the SWAT team calls you, finally, and you’re so relieved that someone is finally going to help you. But then they say something like, “We’d like to find out if he really is a serial killer or just some joker. Can you ask him for a sample?”

If the serial killer turns out to be a joker, turn to p. 36 and decide whether to have a wheatgrass smoothie or collapse into a ball.

If the serial killer turns out to be a serial killer, turn to p. 85 and decide whether or not to burn the house down or flood it.

This has been a Public Service Announcement. For continued reading, try the Choose Your Own Adventure series and this awesome piece by Caitlin Feeley on what it’s like to go through cancer treatment.




Pieces of place

I travel big but I travel small, gradually expanding my boundaries once I arrive. Acclimating. I adore and absorb the details that create for me a sense of wholeness. I can only travel with those who understand that I don’t necessarily want to pack an itinerary from morning to night and accept my quirk of wanting to stop and take photos of interesting sewer grates.

I woke this morning in Cape Town, a view of Table Mountain from my breakfast window, groggy, adjusting from a day and a half of travel, knowing that I have to take it slow. The evidence is clear: Last night I ventured out for dinner and left my wallet in my room. This morning, I dressed with both my bra and t-shirt on backwards.

So I order coffee from a kind woman who asks if I want a cooked breakfast. She brings me French-pressed coffee, strong. I sip the bitter coffee and notice the way whoever renovated the dining room left a square in the wall so you could see the original brick. The way the air smells bright with flowered trees that I’ve never known. How purple hangs heavy over the streets.

The sunflower seeds crusting a slice of bread. The square of butter in a round dish. How the waitress asks a couple sitting nearby whether they want brown toast or white toast. The man, who was white, ordered white. The woman, who was brown, ordered brown. They laughed and laughed.

A scratchy recording of “La Vie en Rose” plays in this quiet breakfast room, decorated with fertility goddesses and mirrors, and I am struck by connections: Remembering this song played by a street accordionist in Florence, the notes echoing agains medieval walls; my friend and I being serenaded on Duval Street in Key West by a singer that looked like this guy:127px-Elisha_Cook,_Jr

One thing I’ve learned this year from returning to places I’ve already been: Experiencing places this way, by moments and by details, rather than by tour bus, doesn’t detract from the whole. Not once have I felt like I missed something big. In fact, each time I’ve felt like I was returning to a very familiar place, like revisiting someplace I never really left.

There and back again

I’m traveling again and it’s weird, and wonderful, as always. Being in one place and then
another place, so different from each other, and so quickly. Our great-great-grandmothers marvel at the speed of our culture collision.

I’m sitting in the Dubai Airport now: It’s sleek, spacious, futuristic and spotless, with an overabundance of smiling people with “May I help you?” printed on the their blue polos. They helpfully point toward waiting lines and sliding train doors. It’s surreal after contorting myself into a dark airplane seat for 12 hours. Now I’m sitting in an Asian restaurant and tried to order breakfast at 8 p.m. local time. I don’t know what time it feels like but breakfast seemed right. I ordered soup instead.

Just this morning I waved good-bye to my parents, yellow leaves covering the gravel driveway. Stopped for gas at the Kwik Trip in Winchester, watching bearded guys dressed in camouflage gas up their pickups that carried lumber or ATVs; in a couple of weeks they’ll be loaded with bloody deer carcasses. Drove on a 20151102_093743-01spacious highway under Skeleton Bridge Road, billboards breaking up the plowed fields and nearly leafless trees. One for a store that sells 70 kinds of cheese & sausage, one with a smiley face made from bullet holes (“We sell silencers!”), one for Jug’s Hitching Post (“It’s the meat that matters!”). And one that says “You don’t use heroin; it uses you.” I pass by an electronic Mobil sign that optimistically proclaims that it’s 91 degrees. Maybe it is where I’m going, I think.

I pass a Love’s tanker truck, a port-o-potty on top of the Mercury Marine plant. I pass under Lost Arrow Road, thinking about all the places I’ve been this year — how they’ve all been back to visit places I’ve already been, except for this one. Wondering what all this revisiting is about. Like I’ve been using the gravitational pull of all these places to slingshot myself somewhere new.

I’ve spent so much of this year traveling, both externally and internally, and a friend suggested that my trip to South Africa might be analogous to new lands I’m trying to find within. I think there’s something to that.

Treasure Hunt

For book lovers in the Fox Cities: Don’t forget this weekend is the AAUW book sale at the Northland Mall. The Appleton branch of the American Association of University Women holds this sale annually to raise scholarship money for girls.

Good cause, and hey, books.

It was at one of these sales that I found an old geographical dictionary that inspired my story, “Geography Lesson,” which won the Wisconsin People and Ideas Fiction Contest this year. I’ll be reading an excerpt from my story at the Wisconsin Book Festival in Madison on Friday.

During the festival the Friends of the Madison Public Library also will be hosting a book sale, billed as the state’s largest. Road trip!

Book sale in Eureka Springs, Ark.

Passport stamps

I invited my mother to Mexico and we went together. We breathed the salty air under navy blue clouds on a beautiful red-flagged beach, bracketed by hurricanes.

Mexico 13 188She had stayed with me in the hospital for two nights while I recovered from surgery. “The last time we stayed together in the hospital was when you were born,” she said. Now we walked on the beach and waded into the ocean in between storms, and when we weren’t on the beach we filled our plates with tasty food and listened to the waves.

We breathed some more.

We visited Chichen Itza on the day of the fall equinox — one of two days when the shadow of a snake appears on the side of the pyramid and connects with an ancient carved snake head at the base. We saw the shadow start before it clouded over and rained.

That was in 2013. The Mexico trip acted as a sort of springboard. My friend and I kept our plans and went to Key West in January 2014. Then some classmates of mine started a writing retreat in Italy and I went in September. By that time I was completely restless, wanting to move back to the west coast where winters wouldn’t keep me shut inside — I wanted to be outside more, to get more exercise, to get more Vitamin D. But I also liked being near family in the Midwest. And I needed to keep working, and I wanted to keep traveling.

What to do.

Mexico 13 285DSCF0153

Mexico 13 219

The long road home


I really don’t mind taking a long drive alone. While company would have been welcome on my four-day trip, it’s good headspace time, particularly after the emotion of the previous week.

It was easier than I thought to let go of most of the things I had packed away. And that made it both easier and more difficult emotionally. Easier in the fact that I didn’t agonize much about what to keep and what to sell or give away. (Dad’s mantra helped: “If you can replace it, leave it there.”) But it was more difficult in the way of getting a sense of how much energy and time and money I invested in hanging on to and accumulating things that didn’t matter.

How much time, energy and money do we put into “stuff” when we could be investing it elsewhere? How many things are useful, and how many things are meant to crete a sense of self?

Does our “stuff” hinder us or help us? (And can it help someone else?)

Like everyone, I had a lot of hopes and dreams about who I would be and what my life would look like. I surrounded myself with things that I thought fit in that vision, interests I wanted to be associated with, talents I wanted to acquire, strengths I wanted to possess. But opening box after box of unread books, unused items and clothing that wasn’t right for me felt like opening boxes of desire, envy and insecurity.

I stacked box after box into the truck to take to the rummage sale. When the boxes filled the floor of the truck, I just began flinging items on top of the boxes. Do I want this, need this, have energy for this in my life? No. Fling!

It felt good, to let go. To pack up the things that I still wanted, to drive that long road.

– Originally posted at:

Where I’m Working Today


On the floor in a weirdly empty part of the Denver Airport, where a few other introverted Mac users and/or dead-tired travelers have found some quiet space. It’s a five-hour layover for my connecting flight to California, where I’m emptying out my storage unit, which I left behind in 2008. (Storage Wars terrifies me because I always think they’re going to auction off my unit). I’m selling my own stuff, thank you. My fundraising project: a cancer survivor volunteer trip to South Africa. Like A Fresh Chapter founder Terri Wingham says, it’s a big audacious dream.

Best kind there is.

Two years

Two years ago yesterday, the day before the Mayan calendar ended and we waited for predicted apocalypses, I learned that I had early stage breast cancer. A few days earlier I’d had my first mammogram, supposedly routine. (Note to every over-40 female: Do schedule a mammogram. Don’t do it a week before Christmas.)

An early-stage cancer diagnosis quickly became more complicated when I learned I carried the BRCA-2 gene mutation, increasing my chances of a recurrence.

I could only process the next two months through metaphor: I was stuck in a house of horrors, trapped with a serial killer and a lot of sharp objects, forced to make impossible decisions about my fate. A Jigsaw Killer victim, thrown into a twisted game of ‘would you rather.’

And suddenly my body wasn’t my own anymore but the territory of a team of professionals, one step removed from my humanity, knowing that so many others had gone through this but still feeling like I was the only one. Like being encased in a moon suit and tethered in a tenuous orbit of despair.

I needed something to look forward to.

Just before the diagnosis, a friend and I had planned a Key West vacation for the following year to A.) Go someplace warm in winter and B.) Visit the Hemingway House and dozens of hemingcats. Despite mounting medical bills, I was determined to hold onto that trip.

The Mayan calendar ends

We stare at images of my breast
faceless to each other

“Here,” the doctor says. “And here.”

He traces invisible circles
claiming territory
on the spiderwebbed surface of the moon

This is where he will take
core samples
and mine for my future

The shadow of a snake appears
on the temple of sacrifices

Somewhere a hunter stumbles
upon a lone rabbit’s foot left
clamped in metal jaws