La Vie est Belle and Cancer Sucks

As often happens in your thirties, a lot of my favorite people live in different parts of the country and I don’t get to see them very often. Two such far-flung loved ones were on my mind this weekend as I sat down to watch a new show on ABC Family called Chasing Life.

One of those far away friends lives in California and makes his living as an actor. He was featured on the show, and admittedly my initial impetus for watching was simply to support him as his star continues to rise. The other far away friend lives in Tennessee, and her life has been completely upended by repeat sparring matches with cancer.

For starters, I need to thank M for being the reason I sat down to watch this show in the first place. Second, I need to long-distance-hug G. Because of her, I connected to this show in wholly unexpected ways.

Chasing Life is about a young woman who is blindsided by a diagnosis of leukemia at age twenty-four. The pilot episode introduces us to her and her career as an ambitious, newbie reporter, her newfound love interest, her BFF and her matriarchal family, and just barely, her cancer.

I’ve never watched a show on ABC Family before. The promos I’ve seen for that network often look somewhat cheesy, and I admittedly can be resistant when it comes to schmaltz. But I have zero regrets about the 45 minutes I spent with Chasing Life, and here’s why:

The Bechdel Test: Chasing Life passed right out of the gate with flying colors. The opening scenes were between the protagonist, April, and several men in her sphere (boss, uncle, interview subject – Go, M!), but within the first 12 minutes she’s unapologetically owning the brand of Feminist (which gave me more of a thrill than it probably should’ve in the 21st Century), and shortly thereafter, we’re introduced to her sister, mother, and grandmother, and they all – guess what! – have more to talk about than men. So not only has Chasing Life already won me over with its lady-centric awesomeness, but it’s clever and funny, too.

The world is not white (!): This is TV, so of course everyone has to be gorgeous, but I’m happy to say that everyone is not gorgeous and white. The show was adapted from a Mexican TV series, Terminales, so April and her family have a vague, not-totally-white vibe about them. Moreover, April’s coworker is Indian, her boss is black, her bestie is black (and… Australian? …British? had trouble pinning down the accent), and these characters are all presented without hubbub or commentary. It’s more along the lines of ‘there are people in this story who happen to be people of color’, or as I like to call it, life.

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The Carver Family – Chasing Life

Schmaltz is not king: Sure, there was a decent amount of schmaltz. The younger sister is Troubled and winds up Wasted at a Party because of a Guy Who Is Bad For Her. The grandma is Feisty, the mom is a bit Flighty, and the boss is Stern and Demanding. But the schmaltz was outdone by the quality of the writing, the engaging nature of the characters, and an impressively unexpected twist at the end (hint: cancer isn’t the only curveball April will have to navigate).

Women at the helm: Lastly, I learned from M that there are lady writers at the helm of this show, and I learned from the interwebs that these lady writers, Susanna Fogel and Joni Lefkowitz, are also Executive Producers. If you’ve been with us even a short time, you know that Beauty Coup is the champion of quality programming created by women. So to sum up, Chasing Life is winning on many fronts.

Where it hit me in my heart muscle is of course in how much it made me think about G. I don’t know what lies ahead for fictional April and her fictional leukemia, but for several years now I’ve watched the all too real journey of G vs. breast cancer.

If you know someone with cancer, then I don’t need to say any more. If you don’t, take a moment to be thoroughly grateful for that blessing. Then spend some time with G over at her blog, My Left Tit. Witnessing the actual experiences of an actual person dealing with actual cancer is as sobering as it gets. It is also a fire-fueling, rabble-rousing, eye-opener. Even while they live, cancer can rob people of their lives. If Chasing Life gives even a glimpse of that, it will be doing a service to those living with cancer by illuminating the truth of their realities.

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Chasing Life airs on ABC Family starting June 10th. You can watch the pilot episode early by downloading the ABC Family app.

 

 

Gwen Rocks On

As this is my birthday week and birthdays are all about celebration, I declare this Shout Out Week on RLB. Each day will bring a new Shout Out, celebrating all sorts of things – courage, beauty, tenacity, gumption – if it makes you feel good and tips its glass to life, we shall celebrate it here!

To begin, I’d like to give RLB readers an update on one Miss Gwen Edwards, who recently appeared in an RLB interview. She has had another surgery (which you can read about on her blog), and prior to going under the knife yet again, she invited me to be a part of her experience by continuing to document what cancer is doing to her body. Gwen is very grateful to everyone who is following her story. She is navigating the trials and tribulations of this journey with the utmost grace, and as an example of that, she has granted me permission to post one of the images I captured.

Here we celebrate Gwen, giving cancer a run for its effing money, in all of her real, bare bones, unaltered beauty.

This is for you, Gwen. Consider this post another testament to the love, faith, and support you have alongside you. You are beautiful.

 

Little G Makes You Think

My friend Gwen is one of the kindest, toughest people I know. After reading a recent post she wrote on her blog, it became evident that kind and tough are not mutually exclusive, and I was challenged to – yet again – think about what determines beauty.

RLB: Let’s talk about your recent blog post… in that post you talk about the abstract concept of what it means to have beauty. You ask yourself some questions, and you touch very lightly on some of the answers… how have those answers evolved?

GE: It is such a weird thing, and I don’t know what it means to be beautiful. I will say, someone posted a comment about how… I’m gonna get this wrong… but about how the – whatever the word is in Greek that means beauty, actually means the essence of truth. It’s posted somewhere, I’m just not remembering it right now. (The woman who posted it) was like “this is the word used for beauty and it literally means the essence of truth,” and I mean, you know, how can you argue with that? But how do you see the essence of truth in someone? I could think myself in circles around this topic. But you know, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and all of that stuff… and what is it about someone, initially, outside of what they look like, that would draw you to them?

RLB: Well, scientifically we could talk about pheromones –

GE: Pheromones.

RLB: – and stuff like that –

GE: We could.

RLB: – but it’s interesting because there was a study done recently were – I can’t remember what the point of it was – but they were showing people pictures of other individuals, and if the person had features similar to their own, they were more likely to be attracted to them. If they had features similar to say, their brother, then they were more likely to be drawn to them as an individual, but not physically attracted to them, because they had these “family member” blockers. But if someone looked like them, personally, there was a certain ego-connect that drew them to these other people.

GE: Wow.

RLB: Yeah, I thought it was really fascinating. And it explains why so many couples –

GE: Look alike.

RLB: Exactly.

GE: My mom and my dad used to always get told that they looked like brother and sister…. So then, are we really only attracted to ourselves? Do we really only find beauty in ourselves?

RLB: I don’t know, is it just all one big ego trip? I have no idea.

GE: Are we just trying to find the other part of ourselves… literally?

RLB: I mean, I do think that this is the kind of conversation that begs more questions than answers. But there’s also something to be said for… even if you don’t look at someone and get an initial spark, you can start having a conversation with someone and have that create the chemistry. I think there’s at least a two-step process to discovering beauty in a person. There’s the initial, sort of thunder-clap of physical attractiveness, but… in your post you also mentioned how it’s people’s hearts that you’re most attracted to.

GE: There’s something more to a real spark than just physical attraction.

RLB: I can recall a handful of dates I went on with someone I found physically attractive, but after five minutes of conversation I knew we’d go nowhere romantically because they were boring or obnoxious, or what have you…

GE: That’s a good point. And it’s amazing, too, how after you know someone for so long, you can just really forget about it (how they look). Amelia and I talk about it frequently… we toured with this woman when we were at Barter, named Wendy, and I remember the day I met Wendy. I walked into the rehearsal hall, and here is this Gorgeous, six-foot tall woman, and I thought, “I cannot work with her for 15 months, because I will feel bad about myself every single second.” Because she’s an Amazon. She’s gorgeous. And after about a week of knowing Wendy, she’s so goofy, and funny, and clumsy, you forget that you’re in a room with an Amazon. And that’s not to say it takes away from how beautiful she is – you just see her as her, instead of this physical representation of what we label “Beautiful.”

RLB: You see her as a person, rather than an ideal.

GE: Yeah, exactly.

RLB: That makes sense. It’s interesting, what you’ve touched on – this ideal standard of beauty. It’s very abstract, or arbitrary, in a way, because it only has to do with contemporary standards. So much of what we label beautiful now, some of it didn’t even exist 100 years ago (e.g. botoxed skin), or it’s the opposite of what was once considered beautiful. Everything has changed so much in terms of what it means to be beautiful. In the distant future, so much of society will have changed, it’s impossible to know what their standards of beauty will be. Yet we cling to current ideals like they are the be all end all.

GE: And it has to last our entire lifetimes, we have to look a certain way until…

RLB: But why?

GE: But why.

RLB: I mean, who decided that these were the things to be considered attractive? It seems like every time a woman comes into the public sphere who is attractive in a new and different way, it doesn’t necessarily change things, it just adds to the standard.

GE: Well, I guess it’s still good though, if we’re branching out and accepting different things as “beautiful.”

RLB: In theory I think it could be, but what I think needs to happen… it really needs to come from the people who are attracted to women actively loving, and championing women of different types. Celebrating women for all that they are, not just what they look like.

GE: Right. I also think so much of it has to do with how you feel about yourself. I’ve grappled with this a lot because so much is happening to my body that I just have zero control over. I mean, the dry skin, the rashes… there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. But, I feel good on the inside because I’m taking care of myself. My diet is better, I’m much better about not slipping on days of exercise, like, I need to get at least 30 minutes in every day, or there’s a risk of becoming depressed, because that’s what happens when you go through chemo. I’m drinking 12 glasses of water a day – I’ve probably never been so hydrated in my life –

RLB: You quit smoking.

GE: – I quit smoking, I’m not drinking you know, eight shots of whiskey a day –

RLB: Did you used to drink eight shots of whiskey a day?

GE: – yeah probably, throughout the course of a day, it’s possible… yes, probably most days of my adult life I’ve had a good whiskey buzz and not realized it, because that was normal. You know, I’m not depending on caffeine to wake me up in the morning, just overall, no matter what’s happening on the outside, I feel stronger and happier – gosh, I can’t even remember the last time I felt this good about myself. And who would’ve thought that cancer would bring that on? Cancer is supposed to make you feel sick. And I don’t feel sick. And that has been the most – as far as beauty is concerned – I’ve had more people comment on the brightness of my smile, while I’m this sick, cancerous person, because I can feel this good energy radiating outward. That has to be closer to beauty than… whatever I was before. So much about being beautiful has to be about how you feel about yourself.

RLB: That is absolutely true.

GE: And self-acceptance. I think about all of the things I used to get so hung up on about myself physically… they just seem so silly now. They just seem really silly. I accept myself for who I am, and for what all of this is, in a way that – when you’re thirteen you only wish that it could happen someday. That you’ll like yourself. Not to say that I didn’t like myself – insecurities and things of course… but yeah, they just seem trite now. There’s no reason to apologize for who I am or what I might look like.

RLB: I love what you said in your post about how it’s a genetic crapshoot.

GE: It really is.

RLB: You have so little control over how you come out of the womb. My thing is my teeth, and I think it’s because I partly feel responsible for them. First I knocked out my two front teeth when I was a kid trying to do tricks on my bike. Then I had braces and after I’d had them off for only a year or so, I sat on my retainer and broke it. It was never replaced, and so I feel like I’m the reason my teeth are all fucked up because….

GE: Because you were a kid once?

RLB: Because I was a kid. Seriously. I could still fix them if it were really that big of a deal – but do I want adult braces?? See, so you start to get neurotic about these things and then you feel like you’re acting like a thirteen year old, when really you’re in your thirties and you should have the self-love and self-awareness to just let it go.

GE: Let it go. Absolutely. Just as humans we like aesthetically pleasing things. It doesn’t stop at human beings. It’s a very fine line to walk between appreciating something and obsessing over something. Or accepting something, or needing to manipulate it into perfection.

RLB: I concur. What is perfection anyway – who is defining that?

GE: We all define it for ourselves, I guess… But it’s so silly the things other people tell us… the things they think will make us perfect. That we accept that.

RLB: Right, because it’s someone else’s interpretation of how we should be. It’s hard to understand how we can have this knowledge, yet we can also let it affect us so much.

GE: Well, because we all want to be accepted. I mean, acceptance… as human beings. I don’t know what it is that makes the people who love us and care about us the most – why that isn’t enough acceptance. Why we need acceptance from everyone. Maybe it has something to do with the collective consciousness, I don’t know, maybe we all want acceptance so we can truly be One with one another… but there’s definitely some sort of drive to seek that acceptance everywhere.

RLB: Yet sometimes we actively make choices that we know will actively challenge people’s acceptance. Can you talk about your choice to not wear a wig?

GE: The decision to not wear a wig was more practically based than anything else. Wigs are hot and itchy and I could not imagine it ever being worth wearing one in the summertime.  Also… human hair wigs that don’t look fake can be pretty pricey.  And while there are organizations that have wig banks for cancer patients to help with the cost, or cover the cost completely, I couldn’t imagine a scenario, outside of an audition, in which I would really need one. Hats and scarves are much more comfortable.  And really… if it didn’t seem to make other people so uncomfortable, I would probably just rock the baldness. But the questions and stares aren’t worth it. I am looking forward to once it starts growing back in and it looks like shaving my head was a choice. Then… I will rock it.

RLB: Speaking of the baldness, let’s chat about that poor piece of direction you got during your last show, when your director told you to “be beautiful.” It was poor direction because he was telling you to force something, to embody some abstract idea… which is bad direction. Frankly, it’s bad direction to tell an actor to “be” anything. Good direction is all about doing, but that’s another blog….. So. Isn’t this whole concept – “Be ______” – would you agree that it’s kind of a microcosm of how society puts this demand out there –

GE: To be beautiful, to be smart, to be understanding –

RLB: Do women need to be smart?

GE: Haha, haha, that’s funny…. That’s really funny…. Being sweet is something that is heaped on us as women. Heaven forbid you get angry about something, or demand respect… and not in a Crazy way –

RLB: But if you do it, you’re automatically branded –

GE: yes, if you do it, you’re automatically branded as crazy. If you ask for respect for yourself… then all the sudden you’re a crazy bitch. Because girls have to be sweet and kind and understanding. Amelia and I were both talking about how in past relationships we’ve been guilted and guilted and guilted into accepting abusive behavior from our partners, because if we spoke out about it we weren’t being sweet. And if you’re not sweet and kind and gentle, what is it about you that’s worth loving? The amount of guilt that can be heaped upon us for not being what society tells us to be… whether that be beautiful, whether that be meek, whether that be humble… it’s different, too, depending on what type of ideal woman you’re talking about. Do you want the ideal wife? Because that is something completely different from… the ideal fling, even.

RLB: The ideal lovah.

GE: Yeah, who you’re gonna take home to mom versus who you’re gonna take to the…. college party. We’re not in college anymore – We don’t even have something that equates that, once we’re in our thirties, do we?

RLB: Sure we do. The one you’re gonna take… on the Business Trip.

GE: On the Business Trip. We just don’t know about business trips because we just pretend to be adults.

RLB: That’s right.

GE: It totally is… Everyone is telling us to be something different. It’s maddening. How can you find yourself in any of that, when you’ve got everyone else telling you what you’re supposed to be from every direction?

RLB ……..Yoga retreat?

GE: Yoga retreat. Or the eight shots of whiskey that I mentioned earlier.

RLB: I’m sure you were Truly Gwen in those moments.

GE: Hahaha, I did used to walk around with a flask in my back pocket. Everywhere.

RLB: Wow. I’m kind of impressed. You were so tough.

GE: Yeah, well, I was younger then… Oh the golden days of my early twenties….

RLB: Yeah… even in my early twenties… oh there was one Weekend, where I went camping and carried around a fifth of tequila in my back pocket. For a weekend. Then I was done being that tough. (Back on track) …It’s interesting because there seems to be a thread, that when people get sick, or are faced with an intense hardship or challenge, that is when they are pushed to this place of self-acceptance. One of the goals of this blog is that I really want girls and women to be able to appreciate all that they are, without catastrophe thrust upon them. We should feel that way all the time. I could get on my bike to go to work tomorrow and get plowed over by a garbage truck. Why do we wait to be confronted with hard truths before we love and accept ourselves?

GE: I don’t know that it always does lead to self-acceptance, though… it sounds stupid, but cancer is by far not the hardest thing I’ve been through in my life. And facing hard, seemingly endless challenges of the human spirit, it never led me to this place before. To a place of self-acceptance… in fact those were probably the moments in my life that were the most self-deprecating. So I don’t know what is different about this particular experience, that it has led me into the good place… other than I think it has a lot to do with being surrounded by the right people… by the people who see you as the beautiful person – whatever that beauty is that you hold within you – being surrounded by people who really see it, and who cherish it, and are not going to let anything get in the way of appreciating it. I think that has been the thing that has led me to self-acceptance. Whereas in the past, when I faced things that were harder than this, there was no support. It (the reaction) was, “oh, well you are no longer defined by the thing that I superimposed on you, so you’re not important to me anymore.” And that’s the thing that – as far as cultivating, in girls, a sense of self-worth, I think that is where they will learn to see their own beauty, is when we teach them that they don’t have to accept that other thing from people. They don’t have to accept someone saying ‘you’re not enough.’ The only thing they ever have to accept is someone loving them for who they are.

 

Clearly, Gwen is an absurdly beautiful person. If you want to keep up with her journey, sponsor her in the Cancer Games, or just tell her how awesome she is, you can visit her at: http://mylefttit.wordpress.com/