Sunday, July 27, 2014

What not to say to someone with cancer

Dawn sky
I did not post an entry to this cancer journal last week because another five-day round of chemo had me pretty much flat out beat, exhausted, energy depleted. When that happens, you’ll find me on a bed somewhere, either reading or sleeping, often both at the same time.

This month’s MRI and visit with the neurooncologist went OK, though my wife and I admitted to some dread beforehand. You don’t know what the news is going to be. Swelling around the tumor site was down a little, and my platelet count looked promising for that next round of chemo. My left hand and arm remain mostly numb and may stay that way, though I have some sensation of touch, pressure, and temperature.

Hard to describe: I encourage anyone reading this to fully appreciate the complexity of neural sensations that interrelate without our conscious awareness most of the time and permit us to perform everyday tasks requiring hands and arms. Meanwhile, I have recovered the ability to touch my left index finger to my nose with eyes closed, though I suspect I have relearned that somehow in the same way I relearned how to tie my shoes and floss my teeth.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: U-V
(ulster – vug)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of mostly frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

ulster = heavy coat worn over ordinary clothing in cold weather. “He was tall, youthful, and stalwart of figure, dressed for a winter journey, in seal-skin cap and belted ulster.” Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim.

Sheep-lined ulsters, 1906
unchancy = unlucky, dangerous. “My unfortunate horse put his foot in that unchancy burrow and sent me flying.” Frederick Niven, The Lost Cabin Mine.

under the rose = in secret, privately, in a manner that forbids disclosure. “Tommy had started it, and he might conclude that it wasn’t worth following up—or at least inaugurate his private war under the rose, so to speak.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West.

underhack = an earmark on an animal made by cutting up on the underside of the ear about one inch. “I’m workin’ a bunch of cattle; Cross-K is the brand; y’ear-marks a swallow-fork in the left, with the right y’ear onderhacked.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

underhand stoping = the working of an ore deposit from the top downwards. “He would be compelled to a little ‘underhand stoping in another level’; and a very low level it was that he contemplated.” Lewis B. France, Pine Valley.

undress = informal, casual attire. “A child clad in leathern breeches, a miniature undress shirt, such as is affected by cow-boys, a great collar to boot, and a rough steeple-crowned form of straw sombrero, appeared.” Frances Charles, In The Country God Forgot.

undying worm = a reference to biblical prophecies regarding eternal punishment of the wicked. “The evangelist, a stout man of bull-like build, proceeded to cut off yards of the ‘undying worm,’ and to measure bushels of the ‘fire that quencheth not.’” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads (1891)

First published in 1891, this collection of stories challenges beliefs about life on the frontier that persist in the collective imagination still today. Set variously in the upper Mississippi Valley and as far west as Dakota, they cast the homesteading farm family in a harsh light robbed of any myth or romance. 

While modernization in later years may remove some of the back-breaking labor of working the soil and tending livestock, Garland portrays the grim reality of daily toil for the first generation of homesteaders who settled on the land following the Civil War.

Full of hope and aspirations, they were often ground down by the vagaries of weather, adverse living conditions, and an economic system that favored banks and land speculators. Growing up on farms in Wisconsin and Iowa, Garland knew firsthand the toll taken on the human spirit, as families sank into debt and lived precariously from one crop year to the next, always on the edge of crushing poverty.

In successive editions of the book—the last appearing in 1922—the number of stories collected in it grew from six to eleven. While you can find whole sections that capture picturesque aspects of rural living, these are embedded in accounts of lives lived in constant drudgery, monotony, and hopelessness.

Garland was especially aware of the sacrifices made by frontier women, whose days were an endless round of tasks that kept them bound for months at a time to a meagerly furnished shelter, where cooking, laundry, and childcare kept them virtual prisoners, isolated from social amenities.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: T
(touch a hunchback – tyro)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of mostly frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

touch a hunchback = a superstition, believed to bring good luck. “The mere mention of it brings better fortin’ than touchin’ a hunchback.” Marguerite Merington, Scarlett of the Mounted.

touch-me-not = a person who does not allow or invite touching. “He waited a moment, watching her in mingled amusement and pique. ‘Another touch-me-not,’ he told himself.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

touching pitch = to come under a bad influence; from the proverb “He that touches pitch shall be defiled.” “They were taught copy-book morals about touching pitch, I reckon.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

tow = the coarse and broken part of flax or hemp prepared for spinning. “If a flintlock, the filling was to be taken out and the pan filled with tow or cotton.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

Town Topics = a magazine devoted to gossip about high-society people. “He had been lying for some time with his eyes half closed, a half-consumed cigarette between his lips, an uncut Town Topics in his hand.” Hattie Horner Louthan, This Was a Man!

trail out = death. “I don’t like a knife none myse’f as a trail out.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

trammer = a mine worker loading broken ore or mineral into a tram, a box-like wagon on rails. “The little thin, nervous lady, whose husband was merely a trammer in the mine, had no such violence of energy either for or against in her mind.” Frances Charles, In The Country God Forgot.

trap rock = a dark colored igneous rock of great weight and strength, including basalt and feldspar. “She had rounded the craggy hill on their right and was in sight of a scattered grove of boxelders below a dike of dark colored trap rock that outcropped across the bed of the creek.” Robert Ames Bennet, Out of the Depths.

traps = personal effects, belongings, baggage. “Mike got a few necessary traps together and started.” Frank Lewis Nason, To the End of the Trail.

traveling glass = a drinking glass with carrying case; drinking cup with lid. “I screwed the cover on the traveling-glass, and put it with the sandwiches in the bottom of the stage.” Paul Leicester Ford, The Great K&A Train Robbery.

trencherman = a hearty eater. “You ought to be a valiant trencher-man at your age!” Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim.

trick at the wheel = time allotted to a sailor on duty at the helm. “I’ve played the baby act on this picnic as much as I propose to. It is my trick at the wheel.” Honoré Willsie Morrow, The Heart of the Desert.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Rex Beach, The Spoilers (1906)

As a writer of popular fiction, Rex Beach hit the ground running with this, his first published novel, set in the gold rush days of Nome, Alaska. Its story was based on actual events and portrays attempts by crooked lawyers, politicians, and a judge to jump claims of legitimate miners already extracting fortunes from the gold fields.

Plot. The central character is Roy Glenister, a young and ambitious man, who has been prospecting for three years with his partner, an older man named Dextry. Their mine, the Midas, is one of the richest in the area. Returning by steamer from Seattle, where they have spent the winter, they learn that their claim is being challenged in court, and until the suit is settled, the Midas is being put in receivership, to be operated by a lawyer, Alec McNamara.

His intention is to make off with all the gold while the dispute remains stalled in legal proceedings. The judge, Stillman, provides the authority to carry out the plan, denying all requests to expedite judgment and refusing any appeals. A U.S. marshal arrives to enforce the law, such as it is, and the judge has troops from a nearby army post for support should they be needed.

Once the miners realize that they are the victims of a plot to steal their claims, they organize as vigilantes to take them back by force, threatening Stillman and McNamara with bodily harm. Glenister, who prefers to avoid violence is caught in the middle. He has fallen in love with Stillman’s niece, Helen Chester, and wants to stay in her good graces.

Nome beach, 1898
Romance. A standard theme in fiction of the period, the life-transforming attraction of a man to a young, pretty woman, drives much of the novel’s plot. Out here beyond the fringe of civilization, Helen Chester stands for law and order. Glenister tells her it’s “God’s free country” and the only law that’s needed is courage and a Colt’s. But he offends her when he tells her he subscribes to the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest. “What I want, I take,” he says and steals a kiss.

Realizing that this kind of behavior is not going to win her heart, he complies with court orders without a fight, believing it will show him in a better light. But she is not persuaded. There is a “reckless energy” about him that lacks self-restraint. She is more taken by the likes of McNamara, whom she trusts as a representative of the law and the colleague of her uncle.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Audiobooks: westerns online

The folks over at Librivox have been doing a fine job of picking and recording western novels from the public domain. You can download them to your computer or listen to them online—for free. The titles listed below are currently available.

At the website (, click on the catalog and then the genre/subject tab to find them. (Click through on those below with links for BITS reviews.)

Andy Adams
The Log of a Cowboy
Cattle Brands
Reed Anthony, Cowman: An Autobiography

B M. Bower
The Lure of the Dim Trails

Cyrus Townsend Brady
Christmas When the West was Young

Max Brand
Black Jack
Bull Hunter
Gunman’s Reckoning
The Night Horseman
The Garden of Eden
Riders of the Silences,
Ronicky Doone
The Seventh Man
Way of The Lawless

Sunday, July 13, 2014

No rules

Morning clouds
I keep coming back to one line from the movie of Nikos Kazantzakis's novel Zorba the Greek. Zorba’s young companion turns to him at a certain point and inquires, “Zorba, have you ever been married?” to which Zorba replies (paraphrasing somewhat) “Am I not a man? Of course I've been married. Wife, house, kids, everything . . . The full catastrophe! “
—Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living: Using Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness

Reading Kabat-Zinn’s book about stress reduction, I was taken by this excerpt from its early pages, which accounts for the book’s odd title. It nicely captures an attitude I find really satisfying about dealing with cancer. It recognizes that the rose-garden ideals of a life led in the pursuit of happiness are poor preparation for life itself.  What we can be sure of (besides death and taxes) is that we will face trials and frustrations pretty much without let up.

Despite our best efforts, little truly turns out the way we expect or want. That’s the human condition. The choice we have is to surrender to disappointment or make the best of it—even welcome the opportunity to relish what comes our way to be fully human instead of constantly fighting it, hoping for and expecting the impossible—smooth sailing, despite the certainty of stormy seas.

I found myself this week developing an appreciation for rebelliousness as a useful attitude in dealing with cancer. Rebellion chooses not to be fearful or cautious or to feel weakened or powerless. It says, give me all the advice you want, but I’m going to take what I need and leave the rest. Thank you very much. Most of all, I’m going to do what feels good, and as little as possible of what feels like a chore.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: T
(thorough braces – tot )

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

thorough braces = strips of leather cured to the toughness of steel and strung in pairs to support the body of a coach and enable it to swing back and forth. “In rolled the old thorough-brace coach and its puffing, steaming team of six.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

three cheers and a tiger = cheers followed by a long, drawn-out shriek, often of the word “tiger.” “At the grave we turns in an’ gives three cheers for King, an’ three for Doc Peets; an’ last we gives three more an’ a tiger for the camp.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

through-other = disordered, untidy. “I been too through-other in my housekeeping’.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

throw down = to cover someone with a gun, to shoot. “He had sat up and leveled a finger at me with the throw-down jerk of a marksman.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

throw off = to speak off-handedly. “Those two boys were not throwing off on each other—not a little bit. They meant every word and meant it deep.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

throw twine = to rope, lasso. “The cutting out from the herd of some eighteen or twenty horses for the day’s work, involving much ‘throwing of the twine,’ in cowboy slang, was full of excitement for all concerned.” Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc (1912)

Femme fatale = a dangerously attractive woman (Oxford English Dictionary).

The “lady doc” of Caroline Lockhart’s novel is by no means attractive but she is definitely dangerous. Practicing medicine on the frontier with her only certification from a diploma mill, she is untrained and lacks any ideals usually associated with her chosen profession. She sees it only as a source of income. The lives, health, and welfare of her patients are of little concern to her.

Plot. We first meet Emma Harpe as she is being run out of a Nebraska town after the death of a patient, for which she faces a malpractice suit. Sometime later, she steps off the train in a Wyoming settlement called Crowheart.  Always looking for personal gain, she teams up with a land developer, Andy P. Symes, who is looking for gullible investors in a massive, ill-conceived irrigation project.

Emma Harpe
She persuades him to grant her the contract for providing medical services to his many employees and workmen. Meanwhile, she befriends his wife Augusta (“Gus”) and makes a nuisance of herself by interfering in their marriage and home life.

With her bluff manner and dressing in masculine clothes, Emma wins the hearts and minds of the local residents, who trust her to practice the medical skills she claims to possess. But she soon makes enemies of two men. One, an Italian frontiersman, whose public singing earns him a nickname, “the Dago Duke.” The other is his friend Ogden Van Lennop, from a wealthy family back East.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Film review: Jimmy P.

Actor Benicio del Toro is a personal favorite of mine, since we once lived in the same building in LA, and riding the elevator together one day I got to tell him how he made me cry at the end of Traffic. He plays a Blackfeet Indian in the new film Jimmy P., and he darn near made me cry again.

The film is based on a 1951 book, Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, by George Devereux, an ethnologist and Freudian psychoanalyst. Played by French actor Mathieu Almaric, Devereux comes to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, to diagnosis del Toro’s Jimmy Picard, who is suffering from brain injury-related trauma following service in Europe during World War II.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Radio Ron

Blue skies, smilin' at me...
I’ll admit, my meditation style may be unconventional. For one thing, I sit in a chair, my old joints past bending otherwise and my need for lumbar support also making its demands. I have a cup of coffee with me, and a small dog may jump into my lap now and again.

Radio Ron is sometimes playing in my head, though my inner remote can get it back to mute when I notice I’m tuning into stuff from the past (old news) or the future (imagined and unreal) therefore of little relevance to here and now—on the cusp of which I’m making an effort to perch.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: T
(taboret – Thomas, Seth)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

taboret = a small portable stand or cabinet. “Richard lay indolently in the veranda hammock within easy reach of the bottles and glasses on a small taboret.” Hattie Horner Louthan, This Was a Man!

taffrail = a rail and ornamentation around a ship’s stern. “The faintest line of contour yet left visible spoke of the buoyancy of another element; the balustrade of her roof was unmistakably a taffrail.” Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.

taffy = insincere and obvious flattery. “That Simpson’s tryin’ t’ cut me out—and so he’s givin’ you all this taffy about your voice.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

taglock = a matted lock of wool or hair. “This is a large flock of sheep that has come up into this valley of the mountains, and some of them have got tag-locks hanging about them.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

tail a pony = a rough practical joke played by one rider on another, as explained in the following quote. “It’s ridin’ up from the r’ar an’ takin’ a half-hitch on your saddle-horn with the tail of another gent’s pony, an’ then spurrin’ by an’ swappin’ ends with the whole outfit,—gent, hoss, an’ all.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Eugene Manlove Rhodes, The Desire of the Moth (1916)

The last time we saw James Wesley Pringle, he was helping his cowboy pals solve the mystery of a friend’s disappearance. That friend, another cowboy, Jeff Bransford, had been kidnapped and was being held captive in Old Juarez, across the river from El Paso. Through the crafty reading of clues requiring a knowledge of literature, they finally freed their friend.

Some time later, in The Desire of the Moth, Pringle is returning to his old home in Arizona and, while crossing New Mexico, stops in a town there on the banks of the Rio Grande. It is the same part of the Southwest where Rhodes’ other fiction is lovingly set: the Jornada del Muerto, White Sands, and the San Andres Mountains, where Rhodes lived during his formative years.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

John Duncklee, Tales From Corral Fences

I first came across John Duncklee while reading cowboy and ranching memoirs a while ago. Not a Westerner by birth, Duncklee learned about the cattle business the hard way. While a young man in his twenties, he leased a small ranch south of Tucson for three years during a long, severe drought in the 1950s.

His account of that experience, Good Years For the Buzzards (1994), is a well-written portrayal of a man whose intelligence is pitted against a number of challenges: the unpredictable weather, less than scrupulous stock buyers, the fluctuating markets for both cattle and feed, the vagaries of government programs, untrustworthy neighbors, and the risk of loss as disease and mischance threaten to decimate his herd.

A half century later, that experience informs many of the 24 short fiction and nonfiction pieces in Tales From Corral Fences. Some stories in the collection are a product of the imagination—maybe wishful thinking—as he pictures how a rancher’s life might take the form of a satisfying success story.

“Rancho Sierra Linda” tells of how a man builds a cattle business over the decades of a lifetime, making sensible decisions that keep his operation going through good times and bad. Such a man may even find a sympathetic woman to partner with him, and his attachment to her may go as smoothly as the rest of it.