Synopses & Reviews
Chapter One Lunch at the Premonition Café
"Men argue. Nature acts.
Right off, I discovered the best way to handle the heat of a Houston summer: go to Montana.
Helena is the closest thing I've ever had to a hometown. I wasn't born there, but my children were, and my parents still lived there, along with my big sister and her family and my little brother and his wife. I'd lived there more than I'd ever lived anywhere else and couldn't bear to be away from the mountains for more than twelve months at a stretch. Fortunately, I was able to finance a trip home every year by returning to my old summer job at Grandstreet Theatre, where I taught kindergarten, first-, and second-grade creative drama classes. For two weeks every year, I played the Whoosh-Whoosh game and led my merry little band of jumping beans on imaginary journeys through jungles and dragonlands and mysterious kingdoms where you could become a different person just by changing your hat. (Nice work, if you can get it.)
But this summer, my whoosh-whoosh energy was a little low. After class the first day, I went home and crashed on the couch at my parents' house. When my mom came home from work a little while later, she settled an afghan over me and laid her hand on my forehead for a moment. I'm well acquainted with that universal gesture of motherly concern (the palm of my hand, I like to brag, is accurate to within a tenth of a degree).
Being tucked in. Being a child instead of a mommy, just for that brief instant. So I lay there pretending, feeling a little guilty but mostly grateful for a modicum of thatmama-bear nurturing no one ever gets enough of. Unless they're sick.
Of course, I know anyone you slept with before you slept with your spouse is supposed to be anathema, canceled like a bad check that returns to you stamped NSF for Non-Sufficient . . . um . . . Fellowship. You are to tear this relationship in two, pay the penalty, and never think of it again except in shame and regret.
My folks never approved of Jon, and truth be told, I lie awake contemplating how I'll prevent my own daughter from ever getting involved in such an affair. I was a twenty-year-old disc jockey. He was about forty, stood four inches shorter than I, and introduced me to orgasms, antisocialism, and acid. The relationship had had such a profound effect on my life, it was almost unbearable to realize I was barely a blip on his radar screen. For years, the sting of it was such that I wouldn't speak his name. On the rare occasions I did allow his memory to intrude on my consciousness or my conversations, I referred to him only as the gimlet.
Call me later, he said the day he broke my heart, just so I know we're cool. I'm fairly certain he didn't mean twelve years later, but I decided to call, anyway, to ask his forgiveness and offer mine. We ended up talking for hours, and by the time we hung up, we were cool. Old flames smoldered down to old friends. I sent Jon a copy of the manuscript he'd helped inspire, and we agreed to meet for lunch while I was in Helena.
Montana was sunny and arid and Russel Chatham
watercolor beautiful that day, as it is most days in high July. The theater-school session was almost over. The children and I were putting the finishing touches on our musical adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. After class, I helped them gather their magic carpet squares, construction paper Hobblegobs, and other take-home items, dispensing Tootsie Pops and good-bye hugs as I shooed them out the door.
Slumped in a booth at Bert 'n' Ernie's half an hour later, frowzled by a full morning of Quacknoodles and papier-mâ ché, I waited for Jon to mosey in with his long ponytail and funky attire reflecting his Native American blood and a sturdy tradition of too much sun, country music, and alcohol. But time and miles were beginning to show on him; his hair was cropped to a respectable collar-length, and the crinkles that used to be only for laughing were now set in stone. He'd taken an early retirement. He was sick. Some kind of heart problem.
Hi there, he said warmly, and I wasn't sure if I should get up and hug him, so I just said, Hi there also.
Well. He laid my manuscript on the table and sat down. I didn'tknow you had it in you.
You think it stinks, I instantly concluded. You hate it. I regretted showing it to him. He was intimidatingly well-read, and I was still feeling fragile about my words.
No! I didn't hate it at all.
It's just a rough draft. Rough drafts are allowed to stink horrendously.
It doesn't stink.
"Ms. Rodgers's...book is impressive in its immediacy. With engaging honesty...she describes in ways others may find helpful how cancer has affected her sexuality, her faith [and] her life with her family..." Janet Maslin New York Times
"A brave, uplifting, hilarious, and heartbreaking book. One of the best books I've read this year. I loved it." Patricia Gaffney, author of The Saving Graces
"Memoirs of a cancer survivor with a delicious sense of humor and a well-defined sense of self. Darkly comic, inspiring, and nearly platitude-free." Kirkus Reviews
"A very important book. This is not only a book about cancer...It's also a book about how to ground yourself in the life you're living." Elizabeth Berg author of Open House
While there's nothing funny about having cancer, Rodgers proves there's plenty funny about dealing with it. Through her hilarious and poignant takes on matters such as life, death, sex, parenting, body image, humiliation, God, and doctors, her touching story delivers a powerful message of hope, humor, and inspiration. Rodgers brings the gifts of wisdom and compassion to her work, and shows readers the hidden rewards of surviving life's difficulties.
Bald in the Land of Big Hair is the hilarious-and often heartbreaking-tale of Joni Rodgers's journey through the badlands of cancer told with humor, occasional anger, and unflinching honesty. More than just a cancer book, this is a deeply affecting memoir of one woman's struggle to come to terms with everything that life throws her way.
Ultimately, this is a moving celebration of the true meaning of human triumph and courage, the importance of community and the imperative of living everyday with joy.
About the Author
Joni Rodgers is the author of two novels -- Crazy for Trying and Sugarland -- and many articles. She has appeared as a keynote speaker for the Lymphoma Research Foundation, the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, CanCare, and other conferece and benefit audiences nationwide. She lives with her family near Houston.
Reading Group Guide
ABOUT THE BOOK
You know from the title that Bald in the Land of Big Hair
will make you laugh. But what you don't know is that it will make you laugh really hard
. And what you may not expect is how this memoir of a cancer survivor will also make you cry, cheer, and reflect. Joni Rodgers would be the first person to tell you that her life before cancer was less than extraordinary. She relished the role of mother and freelance worker, but at a certain point she became aware that she needed more stimulation from life. And then she was diagnosed with cancer. Needless to say, she had all the stimulation she needed.
Rodgers chronicles her diagnosis, treatment, and remission with unswerving honesty. She writes about the endless succession of doctors, symptoms, drugs, and emotions that accompany every cancer case, and about how her illness affected her family. She doesn't seek to glorify her own heroic campaign against the disease, but describes instead her most heartfelt feelings of fear, dread, depression, anger, hope, embarrassment, pride, loneliness, sorrow, and joy. In addition she offers up her own gleefully twisted take on the day to day life of a cancer patient. From the haunting sensation that your body has been invaded to your doctor's maddening inscrutability; from the constant nausea and vomiting that accompanies chemotherapy to the frustrations of trying to shower with a cath port in your arm; from a husband's ambiguous feelings about sex to a child's confusion and resentment over his mother's illness; from despairing that God has abandoned you to discovering that God is ever present in your life. And from realizing that hair is hair and that wigs are just too darn hot for Texas.
Joni Rodgers doesn't recommend any one treatment or therapy. She doesn't proselytize about religion or healthy eating or even healthy thinking. She just gives her story, and generous helpings of support and encouragement for anyone faced with cancer. Still there are many life lessons to be learned from her experiences: about faith and spirituality, about love and sex, about nurturing and being nurtured, about living and eventually dying. Cancer may not be pretty, but the courage and dignity with which Joni Rodgers writes about it is indescribably beautiful.
- What do you think of the way Rodgers uses humor in her memoir? How do we use humor to tell stories about our own lives? If this book hadn't been so funny, do you think it would have been as powerful?
- Why does Rodgers place so much emphasis on the hair loss she experienced as a result of her cancer? Is baldness merely a leitmotif or does it carry a deeper meaning? How would you feel if you were to go bald because of illness? Would you choose to disguise the condition?
- "For the first time in my life," writes Rodgers after her biopsy, "my life was at the top of my agenda. . . . Women of my generation don't know what to do with that." Do you or women you know feel that they routinely place the needs of others before their own? If so, why? What are the consequences of this kind of selflessness? And why does it take a disease as traumatic as cancer to force a woman to place her own needs first?
- Rodgers is honest-often explicitly so-about her experiences: the side effects of chemotherapy, her sex life, her relationships with her children and husband, and her feelings towards others and herself. Does Rodgers's straightforward narrative ever make you uncomfortable? Why do you think she was willing to reveal so much about her private life? Are you this honest with others, or with yourself?
- What do you think of the way Rodgers interacted with her children during her illness? Should young children be shielded from the more extreme realities of a parent's illness?
- How did cancer effect the Rodgers family as a whole? What are the psychological ramifications of cancer for children, parents, and the extended family? How might dealing with cancer strengthen a family, and how might it tear a family apart?
- Cancer profoundly altered Rodgers's spiritual life. She evolved from being a "fair-to-middlin' Christian" to being angry that God had deserted her, to realizing that God was closer to her than ever. "When we can't confine god in a framework of human characteristic, we shroud God in mystery, because the idea of God actually being accessible to us, well, that would mean we are accessible to God. And that's a terrifying concept." What does Rodgers mean by this? Why do we tend to put so much space between God and ourselves? How did Rodgers's suffering change her faith in God?
- Rodgers writes about an incident in which a young man turns away from a water fountain she has just used, as if her illness were contagious. How does this scene illustrate the stigma and prejudice attached to long-term illness? How do you think you would react to drinking from the same water fountain as a visibly sick woman-or man? What did this incident teach Rodgers about other kinds of prejudice and her own deep-seated feelings about those less fortunate than she?
- Rodgers decided against radiation after her chemotherapy and included in her healing process visits with a shaman and a naturopath. How would you react if a loved one decided against traditional treatments for his or her cancer? Whose decision should this be?
- Why do you think Rodgers devoted so much attention to her infatuation with her editor? What do you think the infatuation was really about? Where did the feelings come from, and why were they directed at her editor?
- Rodgers writes about a friend of hers whose metatastic breast cancer went undiagnosed-despite her insistence that she was sick-and who ultimately died from the disease. "There are far too many cases like Shannon's, partly because many of us are easily dismissed and sometimes even intimidated by our doctors, partly because many of us have been taught to dismiss ourselves." Do you agree with this statement? How does our society discourage women from focusing on own their physical and emotional health? What can, and should, be done to change this?
- Think about your own experiences with cancer in relation to the author's: how she handled her treatment and its side effects, her fears and anger, her family and support network. What did you learn from Joni Rodgers's story?
- Rodgers recommends several books about healing and cancer. Would you recommend this book to someone with cancer? Why or why not?