Archive for November 7th, 2010

Hitchens on cancer etiquette … and Randy Pausch

Sunday, November 7th, 2010

The Miss Manners of cancer etiquette?

Christopher Hitchens, in a new Vanity Fair piece, sets out a few guidelines about cancer etiquette.  How to deal with the repeated questions, beginning with the simple “How are you”?  When oncology clinic staff ask, he replies simply, “I seem to have cancer today.”

He’s aware of the perils in cataloging gaffes on the part of either patient or non-patient.  He describes the patient’s “unreasonable urge to have a kind of monopoly on, or a sort of veto over, what was actually sayable. Cancer victimhood contains a permanent temptation to be self-centered and even solipsistic.”

While he points out the pitfalls of inevitable awkwardnesses, and the dangers of saying too much and too little, he once again grapples with the clichés of cancer — a subject we discussed earlier.  I always enjoy the ferociousness with which he takes on calcified thinking and stale modes of feeling.  For example, witness this digression into Randy Pausch‘s Last Lecture:

It would be in bad taste to say that this—a pre-recorded farewell by the late professor Randy Pausch—had “gone viral” on the Internet, but so it has. It should bear its own health warning: so sugary that you may need an insulin shot to withstand it. Pausch used to work for Disney and it shows. He includes a whole section in defense of cliché, not omitting: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” The words “kid” or “childhood” and “dream” are employed as if for the very first time. (“Anyone who uses ‘childhood’ and ‘dream’ in the same sentence usually gets my attention.”) Pausch taught at Carnegie Mellon, but it’s the Dale Carnegie note that he likes to strike. (“Brick walls are there for a reason … to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”) Of course, you don’t have to read Pausch’s book, but many students and colleagues did have to attend the lecture, at which Pausch did push-ups, showed home videos, mugged for the camera, and generally joshed his head off. It ought to be an offense to be excruciating and unfunny in circumstances where your audience is almost morally obliged to enthuse.