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There are a lot of ways to get rejected. Some of those ways feel a bit better than others (say I, tentatively embracing my emerging role as something of an expert on rejection).

I got another rejection last week. Yes, the third of five.

But let me tell you, compared to the generic form letter rejections I’ve received thus far, this one felt pretty darn good.

Lines like, “I read this with great interest and your talent is obvious.” Oh my, thank you. “I thought the writing was truly engaging, and the pacing and structure were excellent.” This is good to hear because the structure of the first part of the book is made up of a combination of blog posts and private journal-like entries, peppered with select responses from readers. I’m comfortable with the format and can’t quite imagine changing it (at least not at this point) but have been aware that someone might ask me to. So the fact that she liked it is a good sign.

And then, “This was a very compelling read for me, but (but, but, big ol BUT) ultimately, I worry that there is no place for this memoir in trade publishing.” Ohhhh . . . . ouch. The words “too medical” found their way in there too. (Well, to her credit — and mine –, she said she was afraid a publisher would think it was too medical, not that she thought so.)

She admitted that this was more about her (in)ability to move my manuscript through the stages of publication due to her inexperience, which was actually a concern of mine about her from the very beginning. She happens to be all of about 25 years old and obviously hasn’t established herself in the industry yet. A new agent like that can push another young adult vampire novel through the process because there’s a template for that — it gets done every day. But a medical memoir, which nobody seems to want these days (due in part to the fact that every single person who’s had cancer or whose parent, spouse, child, friend or pet has had cancer is told they should “write a book about it”), requires someone with enough connections that they can pick up the phone and call their friend, who happens to be a respected editor at a respectable publishing house, and say, “Listen, I  know nobody wants another medical memoir but trust me, this one’s good.” She admitted that she doesn’t have the ability to do that but reassured me that someone else out there does and that she’s “sure they’ll scoop it right up.”

Well, I hope so.

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You, my trusted and loyal community of readers, have helped me work my way through several major decisions over the past year. First, there was the should-we-or-shouldn’t-we-continue-with-chemo conundrum. Then, of course, came the awful choice between removing Austin’s kidney in a preemptive strike against the possibility of cancer returning thus subjecting him (and all of us) to two years of hemodialysis followed by organ transplant versus trusting that surgery, chemo and radiation had done their job in wiping cancer out of his body. Then there were the smaller decisions about my book and how to incorporate the third section and what to title it. And who can forget the still-unresolved issue of when to send Austin to kindergarten?

But suddenly I have a new decision to ponder and, boy, is it a doozy.

Next year is the tenth anniversary of the St. Baldrick’s event in Cleveland and to celebrate, the planners are trying to enlist ten moms.

As in, ten moms to shave their heads.

Oh man, it makes me nervous to even think about! I want to do it. I mean, I think I do. At least right now, when it’s nothing but an idea, tucked safely eleven months into the future. I’m not worried about how I’d feel that very day. I’ve seen women do it, fourteen of them last week, and they all look strikingly beautiful and very very proud of themselves. (See professional photos from the event here; my family is between 83 and 120.) But the next day or week or month, when they have fuzz sprouting from their heads and have to attend someone’s wedding or a business meeting or who knows what . . . that’s the stuff I worry about.

I know, it’s only hair and it grows back. But it’s hair and it grows back pretty slowly, especially when it’s as long as mine is now. For the past few days, I’ve suddenly found myself admiring my hair, which is not something I’m used to doing.  I’ll catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and think, uncharacteristically, “Wow, my hair looks so full and shiny . . . do I really want to shave it all off?” Classic case of the grass being greener, I think.

It would make quite a statement though to have ten mothers of cancer patients stand up their together and make that sacrifice on behalf of their children. Ten years, ten moms, ten thousand dollars (each!). That would be my motto.

I know how I am. I know I’ll have moments after the fact when I’m in a major awkward stage and feeling rather ugly, when I would question my decision. But I also know that if ten moms are going to sit in AJ Rocco’s next March and shave their heads, there’s no way I’m not going to be one of them.

Now that I no longer gasp in surprise every time one of my boys walks in the room with only fuzz on their heads, here’s the full scoop on our St Baldrick’s Day events:

Austin was excited all day, asking over and over again when we would go pick up Braedan. Finally, the moment arrived and we walked to school without coats for the first time in ages and gathered an equally excited Braedan twenty-five minutes prior to his regular dismissal.

We then filled the three rows of my car with eight people and headed into the amazingly crowded (and amazingly drunk) heart of downtown. More people come out for St. Patrick’s Day in Cleveland (especially with temperatures pushing 70) than for any other event, save some select (and now merely nostalgic) Cavs playoff games.

We strode confidently through the crowds and walked into AJ Rocco’s. And it was a zoo. Wall to wall people, like your worst nightmare of a frat party. We had to scoop Austin up or he would have been lost forever in a sea of legs. They called us up to the front immediately after checking in and suddenly it was our turn.

Except that Austin doesn’t like crowds. He doesn’t even really like people. At least not loud mobs of people he’s never seen before. He completely shuts down whenever he’s faced with strangers. He nuzzles his head into the shoulder of whichever parent is holding him, and lets his eyelids droop down as if to hide the sights in front him, and turns his full lips into a perfect little pout.

Oh, pathetic!

So, there they are, on the small platform with three barber’s chairs and three barbers with clippers buzzing in their hands. Braedan hops into his, smiling and ready. Mark hops into his, with Austin in his arms who refuses to leave. Or even look up. He wasn’t crying but he was definitely hiding.

You can’t see me if I can’t see you.

This child doesn’t mind the crowds!

The announcer assumed Austin was backing out and began to call the next shavee up to the chair, but the little guy kept nodding his head, insisting that he did indeed want to do this. We signaled the other barber, so one could shave Mark’s head and the other do Austin’s while they shared a chair. I’m sure people in the crowd thought we were crazy, forcing our poor child to shave his head, but he let out some small smiles while the hair fell around him and I (the only one of my family to shed any tears) knew that he was proud of himself for going through with it.

I see that sneaky smile

Watching his brother

Here we go

Almost done

And done

As soon as it was over and we made our way to the back of the bar, where we could actually put our children down without fearing they’d be trampled, it was all smiles.

Afterward, Austin described it as “Really really fun,” which is sort of like me talking about running marathons after they’re over. AJ Rocco’s raised over $189,000 on that one afternoon, adding to the more than $15 million raised by St Baldrick’s so far this year.

For the Gallagher family, there are no regrets. But just wait until you hear about the plans for next year . . . .

Much too tired right now to tell you the whole St. Baldrick’s story but I will give you just enough — in the form of lovely photos — to satisfy your curiosity.

This morning, before heading off to school:

Immediately following the group shearing:

Look, Mommy’s there too. I don’t get a shirt because I still have my hair:

Bald and happy:

In a day and a half, I will be surrounded by baldies (yet again). I know both Mark and Braedan look spectacularly handsome without their hair — Braedan in particular becomes all eyes and eyelashes (and man, does that kid have eyelashes!). Here they are, following Braedan’s first at-home head shaving last Christmas:

But my little Austi-bean. I’ve only known him bald when he was really really bald. As in hairless. No eyelashes, no eyebrows. Of course, he was still darling but he was also undoubtedly sick. So I feel a tinge of sadness as I prepare to send him up on that stage for his first official St Baldrick’s ‘do.

But here they are now, all long overdue for a haircut:

Braedan’s Devo dance moves

This one even has hair on his back!

Attitude

Tonight, after the final shampooing

Funny, it’s bedtime and only Mark looks tired.

No surprise how this one ended up . . .

Thank you to everyone who’s pledged on their heads. The boys are thrilled with your generosity. Team Austin has raised over $7,500 which is really fantastic considering it’s just the three of them (and they’re all hitting up the same pool of donors!).  Here are their pages again, just in case (but honestly no pressure, they’ve done great already):  Braedan, Austin and Mark.

And now, onward to St Baldrick’s Day . . . and the better-be-right forecast of sunshine and warmer weather.  Lots to look forward to.

I was awakened Friday morning at 6:23 by the robocall from our school district announcing the fifth of our five allowed Calamity Days, for another seemingly-out-of-the-blue overnight snowstorm. When I logged on to Facebook to publicly announce my distress at yet another day cooped up with the kids when I thought I might actually get something done (because that’s what we do with our distress these days), I discovered that my “calamity” paled in comparison to what was happening in the rest of the world.

After watching the computer and TV spew forth new images of death and destruction all day, I was struck my how small we all are in the face of, well, in the face of death and destruction. And yet, how strong and powerful we can be at the very same time. That night, Mark and I rented 127 Hours, the positively stunning true story of hiker Aron Ralston. The next night, we watched Charlotte’s Web with the boys. I know it seems strange to lump these disparate subjects into one narrative, but they seemed to come together in a jumbled and sad and beautiful way. A way that reminds us to appreciate all that we have. To notice how much each small thing matters. The tiny miracle that is the spider spinning its web. The child who believes she can make a difference by fighting for what is just. The strength found deep deep within, when no other strength is left, to cut off one’s own arm.  Out of a simple and sheer and unstoppable desire to live.

Having seen and experienced suffering in the up close and personal way that we have over the past three years gives me an unshakable and indescribable affinity with the suffering of others. I’m not saying I’ve been there, because our suffering is minor compared to that of many, but I do feel like I can recognize it, like I get it.

Of all the images coming out of Japan right now, the ones that show piles of cars and trains and airplanes, or crushed houses, or huge roiling waves of debris, are all breathtaking. And yet, none of them are quite so moving as those of the toddler standing alone crying for its mother, or the four-year-old stoically being tested for radiation by a masked man, or loved ones desperately searching the lists of names taped to the walls.

The moments big and small, personal and national in scale all converge together in one great picture of humanity. The suffering one small boy in a hospital bed, the suffering one young man trapped by a boulder. The suffering of a neighborhood, a state, a nation, a world. And the beauty and strength and grace of all those fighting to move beyond it. To survive one more day.

There is no brilliant new wisdom for me to impart except this: Calamity days or not, we hold ours tight. Hold yours tight too.

I just wanted to let you all know that we have moved both boys from the Chagrin Falls St Baldrick’s event to the one at A.J. Rocco’s. Although it’s not the ideal place to bring little kids, it is a much better organized event and the boys have opted to shave with their daddy, all three on the stage going bald together.

We’re gonna pull Braedan out of school a few minutes early that day and make sure the kids can be shaved between 3 and 4, before the post-parade crowd hits. They will then go home with their aunt and Mark and I will stay downtown for the rest of the event and into the evening, so we still hope many of you will be able to join us and cheer them on or celebrate with us afterwards.

So, I repeat, we will not be at the Chagrin Falls event on Sunday, March 20.  There are a fair number of young people participating at A.J. Rocco’s this year and a grand total of over 110 brave shavees. I think doing it this way will help make the event more special to the kids and having Mark right by their side will hopefully quell some understandable fears.

And again (hint, hint), here are the links to their individual pages: Austin, Braedan and Mark.  The boys have almost reached their goals and are very excited and proud of themselves. I’m still somewhat ambivalent about Austin being bald again, but know this is a wonderful and selfless thing for him to do.

I was reading through some of the pages on the St Baldrick’s site the other day and there’s a team in Cleveland shaving in memory of their grandfather, who recently died of cancer. Obviously, he didn’t have pediatric cancer, but they said that people were always asking him what the worst part of treatment was, chemo or radiation. His response every single time?

“The worst part is sitting next a child in the waiting room.”

After five excruciating weeks of waiting, I have received two rejections from the five literary agents who requested my work at the Pitch Slam. They were both completely generic rejection emails, clearly the form letter variety they send to everyone: “After careful consideration, I’ve decided this is not something I would like to pursue. Best of luck in your future endeavors. Blah blah blah.”

I’m actually not devastated by either one (something that has been a bit surprising to me).  Neither one of them was my top choice. In fact, the first rejection came from an agent who was added at the last minute (she hadn’t preregistered for the Pitch Slam) and I had therefore done no prior research on her, like I had for all the others I pitched to. I simply stood in her line because those precious two hours were coming to a close and there were only two people in front of me. She seemed interested enough in my story, but did mention how last year when her parents both had cancer, she “learned about all these kids with cancer. That’s really something people should know!” It struck me as odd, like did she really not know that children got cancer? That would be rather difficult unless you were living under a rock somewhere.

But the real kicker for her (or the real kick against me) was that when I returned home and did finally research her agency, I read that she does not want any books dealing with dogs, cats, blogs or journals. Well, I am not an animal person, but the first (and longest) section of my book does follow a blog-like format. It is a series of updates, drawn from the original Carepage, interspersed with more personal journal-like entries and select responses from readers. So, had I known that ahead of time, I never would have pitched to her anyway.

I did like the other agent I was rejected by, but she wasn’t one of the ones who I walked away from that fateful Saturday feeling the most hopeful. Two of the remaining three I feel very hopeful about, while the other would shock me if she requested a full. I had really liked what I’d read about her ahead of time, especially this: “Understanding why characters make the hard choices is also integral to building them into a truthful entity—and if your protagonist isn’t worrying over any difficult choices, that’s a problem.” We obviously had some difficult choices to worry over! But she also said she doesn’t want “misery-driven” memoir and even though I would argue that my story is driven by joy and hope and love, I think it still falls into the dreaded misery-driven category.

None of this is very surprising. A lot of agents request partial reads at events like Pitch Slams simply because they’re nice and feel bad rejecting people face to face (that is made so much easier by email!). I read somewhere that after last year’s event, four writers out of more than 300 attendees actually found representation from the Pitch Slam. Plus I keep reading article after article and blog post after blog post about how no publishing houses want memoirs that aren’t written by someone famous (i.e., Sarah Palin) or at least with an established writing career (i.e., Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love who was already a professional writer). It’s very frustrating of course, but I seem to have written my little book at the wrong time in the publishing industry.

So now I wait and wait and wait some more. And hope for at least one measly agent who wants to read my full manuscript. Just one! One, one, one (okay, maybe two . . .).

OK, I will let the kindergarten discussion rest for a bit. But I do thank those of you who’ve shared your experiences with us. It has been extremely useful to hear about the decision you each made, how you reached that decision and what the consequences were.

But now, it’s time to focus on the most important — and much more fun — event of March (besides the much-awaited arrival of spring!): St. Baldrick’s!

Two weeks from today, Mark will be shaving his head at A.J. Rocco’s (816 Huron Rd) along with 92 other shavees, including more than a dozen women (better them than me, that’s for sure). If you’re able to get off work early or have someone to watch your kids, we’d love to have as many of you as possible join us that afternoon.  Shaving starts around 3, following the end of the parade.  Some children do attend that event, but it is definitely a crowded bar experience on a very drunken day, so plan accordingly.

The boys are shaving their heads the following Sunday, March 20 at the Greenville Inn in Chagrin Falls (7150 Pine St). They are scheduled at 3pm if you are able to come and cheer them on (this one is definitely more family-oriented). They are both excited and a little bit nervous, so friendly faces might help.

And, of course, it’s not too late to give. So far, you’ve all done a beautiful job of keeping Braedan and Austin‘s donations perfectly even (an extra thank you for that).  I know you’ve all been very generous in the past so I hate to make too hard a sell but I cannot say enough good things about the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. They give more money to pediatric cancer research than any other organization in the country besides the federal government. Research that is absolutely vital to saving the lives of our youngest patients and to helping them live those lives with the fewest long-term complications. Just think of how different his process would have been for us, so far and into the future, if Austin’s cancer had been the only thing we’d needed to worry about. More research is critical.

So, again, I thank you on behalf of all my soon-to-be bald boys. Oh, and by the way, who’s brave enough to join Team Austin???

You know how once you start thinking hard about something, it seems to pop up everywhere?

Well, this kindergarten things seems to be popping up everywhere. Yesterday, I read this article from a recent Newsweek, which focuses on parents who hold their kids back from kindergarten (often upon the recommendation of the private schools to which they’re applying) in order to give them an advantage over their classmates, particularly when it comes to standardized test scores.  Reading stories like that make me absolutely want to send Austin “early” (on time) because I find it so frustrating that parents constantly push their kids to be the best best best.

Then today I read this (worth your time, I promise), not specifically about kindergarten but just about how we’ve turned childhood into some kind of race, a massive competition between the super-successful and those lagging behind, and about how we should return to a time when kids were allowed to be kids for as long as possible. It made me second guess sending him for a completely new reason, one that only a few people have mentioned thus far. Everyone keeps talking about how holding him back will give him advantages later — in his schooling, in his  social life, in his future. And so much of it smacks of having advantages over others — being the best, the brightest, the oldest.

But this little essay made me think about the advantage of just letting him be a kid, right now, less stress, less structure, fewer expectations, for an entire extra year. Like a freebie. Here, little Austin, you’ve had to do lots of grown-up things already (way too many way too grown-up things; you should hear my four-year-old talk about “bwood pwessure cuffs”), so here, take a break. Stay in preschool, build fantastic vehicles out of popsicle sticks, run on the playground, sing songs and do kiddie yoga, don’t fret your pretty little head about phonemic awareness and SmartBoards and Mandarin Chinese.

I’m not so concerned about my kids having advantages over other kids (although admittedly they do — parents who’ve read to them incessantly since birth being chief among them). But I am certainly all about them enjoying the advantages of well-rounded, old-fashioned childhood — freedom and exploration and creativity and self-expression.

Hmmmm, back to the drawing board.

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March 2011
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