Bald in the Land of Big Hair: A True Story

( 8 )


Texas is big. Dang big. Big meat, big hats, and big, big, hair. Texas women have hair so big it gives Texas honeybees beehive envy. What's a girl to do when, thanks to chemotherapy, she has to battle cancer without even her god-given right of Big Hair? If you're Joni Rodgers, you use humor, candor, anger, and finally, grace and dignity (sprinkled with healthy doses of sex and Jell-o®). Funny, moving, and inspiring, Bald in the Land of Big Hair is a tribute to the triumph of the human spirit, the importance of ...
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Texas is big. Dang big. Big meat, big hats, and big, big, hair. Texas women have hair so big it gives Texas honeybees beehive envy. What's a girl to do when, thanks to chemotherapy, she has to battle cancer without even her god-given right of Big Hair? If you're Joni Rodgers, you use humor, candor, anger, and finally, grace and dignity (sprinkled with healthy doses of sex and Jell-o®). Funny, moving, and inspiring, Bald in the Land of Big Hair is a tribute to the triumph of the human spirit, the importance of community, an the imperative of living each day with joy and grace. And a darn good wig.

About the Author:
Joni Rodgers is the author of two novels and many articles, and has appeared as a keynote speaker for the Lymphoma Research Foundation, the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, CanCare, and other conference and benefit audiences nationwide. She lives with her family near Houston, TX.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
When Joni Rodgers gazed at her post-chemo face, she noticed a change. "That wasn't me.... It was...Emil Lonnquist! My paternal grandfather, fresh off the boat from Sweden." With horror and humor, Joni greets her post-diagnosis reflection -- and with the same witty dismay, she shares her story in Bald in the Land of Big Hair. It's a story about surviving cancer's many traumas: not only its shock and sorrow but its irritations and embarrassments, too.

Joni's treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma led her from surgery through an aggressive course of chemotherapy drugs. At first, Joni rejected the nightmare of chemo: "I tried to listen, but didn't feel like I was absorbing much as [Dr. Ro] laid out the gruesome possibilities in clinical nomenclature, couching blunt realities like 'barfing' and 'agony' in palatable terms like 'nausea' and 'discomfort.' " Ultimately, however, Joni's warm, goofy husband, Gary, encouraged her to accept her doctor's suggestion. With this decision came life -- and the death of a thousand small vanities.

The first of these, of course, was Joni's hair. And in Joni's home state of Texas, small hair is no small matter. "It's not much fun being a bald girl in the Big Hair Capital of America," Joni notes dryly. "A true Texan woman cruises down the aisle at Mervyn's like the Snoopy balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade; that bouffant would lift her right off the ground if her six children didn't have her tethered by the hand." Joni admits to the distress and shame that accompany hair loss, but with her straight-up humor she puts it in perspective. "I used to hate my hair because it was so ordinary, and I hadn't yet learned the value of ordinary things. I was so busy striving to be exceptional, I missed the dance of the everyday, the red-brown grace of the gloriously mundane."

Joni allows us to share in her experience of the full chemotherapy course: She describes how her favorite sex acts were affected by drugs, how her children coped with her paralyzing and often inexplicable disease, how her faith wavered and reasserted itself. "I'd always given away my time and efforts as easily as an old lady offers knickknacks at a yard sale, asking little and accepting even less.... Now, for the first time in my life, my life was at the top of my agenda." Joni's story offers readers an honest look at surviving cancer, and a new perspective on life's small matters. (Jesse Gale)

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
At first blush, a lighthearted romp through the horrors of chemotherapy seems like a stretch. Yet that is just what Rodgers has attempted with considerable success in this memoir of her bout with cancer. Even Rodgers admits, "I didn't find cancer all that funny, especially at the time." Then why the comic touch? If her previous novels--Crazy for Trying (1996) and Sugar Land (1999)--are any indication, she delights in creating over-the-top characters whose idiosyncrasies highlight the world's absurdities. And nothing is quite so existentially absurd as a reminder that you are about to die: "You stop living and start staying alive." The comic tone enables Rodgers to render the ordeal without monochromatic grimness. While essentially a story about cancer and its implications, the vehicle is Rodgers herself. She portrays herself as a rebellious, somewhat loopy woman who, almost despite herself, managed to find professional success, marry a good husband and have two kids. Into this setting comes an intruder in the form of a lump in her neck and a puzzling loss of energy: she has a virulent lymphoma that requires aggressive treatment, including chemotherapy. While Rodgers's attempt to convey serious business lightly is commendable, the constant wisecracking keeps the reader at an emotional distance. And when she does turn serious, the insights are pedestrian: "Truly, I promise you, grace is real, God is here, and in the end, everything is going to be all right." Fortunately, Rodgers survived her ordeal. The memoir that sprang from it, though, is stronger on anecdote than insight. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Librarians don't need to buy this first-person cancer narrative, but they'll probably want to. Rodgers, a novelist (Crazy for Trying), actress, and radio DJ living in Houston ("the Land of Big Hair"), discusses being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in her early thirties. She covers the confusion of diagnosis, the horrors of chemotherapy, and, finally, the uncertainty of remission. Rodgers tells her story with wit and clarity. It's not an aggressively sad story--in fact, much of it is funny--but there are moments with her daughter, husband, and mother that are heartbreaking. Her free-spirited life is interesting, even without the cancer stories, and the reader is drawn into her relationships. There are many other cancer-survivor books, but this one stands out for its appeal to general biography readers. Recommended for public and consumer health libraries, particularly in Texas.--Elizabeth Williams, Fresno City Coll. Lib., CA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060955267
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/28/2002
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 391,179
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Meet the Author

Joni Rodgers is the author of the memoir Bald in the Land of Big Hair, and the novels Crazy for Trying and Sugar Land. She lives with her family near Houston, Texas.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One Lunch at the Premonition Café

Men argue. Nature acts.
— Voltaire

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).

I knew I should open my eyes and tell her I was fine, but it was such a lovely feeling.

Being tucked in. Being a child instead of a mommy, just for that brief instant. So I lay therepretending, feeling alittle guilty but mostly grateful for a modicum of that mama-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.”

I honestly thought he was out of my system, but when I sat down during “Reading Rainbow” to write my first novel, it accidentally turned out to be the story of a young disc jockey (me) who falls in love with an aging rancher (gimlet). The original outline ended in humiliation and death for the old sod. But somehow, as the story told itself to me and I told it to the keyboard, the fairy-tale characters performed reconstructive surgery on true life. The fictional man convinced me to forgive the real thing, and the fictional girl reminded me that I didn't love Jon because I was an idiot. I loved him because he was, and is, a remarkable person.

“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-mâché, 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't know 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.”

“It stinks...”

Bald in the Land of Big Hair. Copyright © by Joni Rodgers. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments and Forewarnings ix
Prologue: BC (Before Cancer) 1
1 Lunch at the Premonition Cafe 10
2 Cleopatra, Queen of Denial 21
3 Lights, Cancer, Action 30
4 Hairless in Houston 40
5 Passion Slave: Secret Life of a Lymphomaniac 65
6 Daughters of the Pioneers 79
7 The Queen Has Cancer 108
8 Faith, Prayer, and Platitudes 128
9 What's a Nice Girl Like Me... 150
10 Slow Dance with a Good Man 157
11 Totally Depressing Low-down Mind-Messing Reverse Peristalsis Blues 183
12 Being a Phoenix 194
Epilogue: Life Smarts 244
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Reading Group Guide

About the Book

Joni Rodgers lives in Texas, where big hair is a God-given right. It's essential to any waitressing job, prerequisite for a real estate license, as natural as Naugahyde, and as important as Elvis. But at 32, Joni was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and lost her hair to chemotherapy. It's not fun being a bald girl in the Big Hair Capital of America, but Joni managed to hold on to her sanity -- and her sense of humor. With the same amazing ability to laugh at life, and herself, that helped her survive cancer, Joni now recounts her story -- a deeply affecting tale of industrial-strength drugs, healing herbs, love, sex, prayer, kids, career, and the search for a wig that won't make her look like Betty Rubble.

Bald in the Land of Big Hair is the hilarious -- and often heartbreaking -- tale of Joni's journey through the badlands of cancer. From D-Day ["D" for Diagnosis] ("Biopsy is one of those terms that snags on the back of the mind -- like IRS or subpoena"), through the red tape of treatment ("Apparently it was a Christian Science HMO; any kind of medical treatment was against their relgion"), through remission ("Surviving cancer is the same as emerging from any of lifes refiningfires"), Joni tells her story with humor, occasional anger, and unflinching honesty. Yet this powerful, moving story is much more than one person's memoir. It is the story of all of us; of anyone who has faced what seemed the worst that life has to offer -- and won.

Discussion Questions

  1. 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 youthink it would have been as powerful?
  2. 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?
  3. "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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. 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?
  9. 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?
  10. 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?
  11. 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?
  12. 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?
  13. Rodgers recommends several books about healing and cancer. Would you recommend this book to someone with cancer? Why or why not?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 8 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2005

    Hilarious and Heartbreaking

    Review of Bald in the Land of Big Hair (a true story) by Joni Rodgers. HarperCollins, 2001. Hardback. 253 pages. ISBN: 0-06-019588-6 Rodgers is the author of two novels, Crazy for Trying, and Sugarland, but has made an impression in the non-fiction field by writing her cancer memoir, and being a keynote speaker for a variety of cancer related organizations. The title is a concise preview of what the reader will encounter. Rodgers is diagnosed with non- Hodgkin¿s lymphoma at the age of thirty-two, while married and raising two children. ¿Bald¿ refers to a side effect of chemotherapy, and ¿big hair¿ refers to the styles of the big state of Texas, where over done hair is the norm. Rodgers takes us through the indignities of cancer and the treatments. In doing so, she reaches to the core of her being, without the accoutrements of clothing, accessories, and flamboyant hairstyles. Although Rodgers tackles the serious subject of her war against cancer, she does so with humor that will have the reader laughing out loud. Even the chapter titles are funny: ¿Cleopatra, Queen of Denial¿ ¿Hairless in Houston¿ ¿Lights, Cancer, Action¿ Yet the prologue offers great prose: ¿When tomorrow was still a given and ignorance was still bliss, I was floating along like a paper sailboat on a lazy river, too caught up in my life to know that I was dying. But the day you¿re diagnosed with cancer, you stop dying and start surviving. You stop living and start staying alive.¿ Anyone who has battled cancer will recognize the truth in this paragraph. Rodgers tells us the truth of her fears, the ugly effects of treatment, and her will to survive. Although cancer is not hilarious, Rodgers makes it sound comical. The dialogue with her husband after she has lost her hair sounds like stuff for a situation comedy: Her husband says of her bald head, ¿There is no denying how sick you are.¿ Rodger says, ¿I¿m not sick.¿ ¿You¿re sick, Joni.¿ ¿I¿m not sick.¿ He says, ¿You have cancer.¿ Joni replies, ¿Throw that in my face, why don¿t you?¿ The infused humor is refreshing. Rodgers incorporates education within the humor, telling the reader: ¿In 1994, I was one of about fifty thousand people diagnosed [with non-Hodgkin¿s lymphoma] and half of us did not live to see the new century. In 2000, more than 62,000 people were told they had lymphoma, even as the overall cancer rate continued a steady decline.¿ She writes, ¿In the great barnyard of life, cancer is a manure pile. It stinks¿¿ What reader can resist this style of writing: a combination of information and wit? Rodgers also writes of the sexual transformations she experienced along with her husband during and after cancer. She adds the conflicts of her children, who alternate between understanding and indignation. In the chapter ¿Being a Phoenix¿ Rodgers tells the reader how she goes on with her life when her cancer goes into remission. The re-growth of her hair seems to be a metaphor for her personal and spiritual growth. Bald in the Land of Big Hair is a breath of fresh air amongst the stacks of educational reading material required for a cancer patient.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2001

    Bald in the Land of Big Hair: A True Story

    After my book group read Joni Rodger's novel SUGAR LAND, which I really loved, I went and got her first book, CRAZY FOR TRYING, which was fun but a little strange. I was looking forward to this book after I saw it in Good Housekeeping Magazine, and it's her best one so far. You wouldn't believe how funny this book is, even though it's about how Joni herself (this one isn't fiction) was diagnosed with cancer and went through chemotherapy. She is very honest and up front about the experiences she had, and though the experiences are scary, she has a funny way of telling about everything. I agree with what Elizabeth Berg says on the back of the book: 'It's like reading an adventure story and a humor story and a love story and a tragedy and a deeply spiritual story all at once.' She also says: 'It's also a book about how to ground yourself in the life you're living. It's about how to let go of false concepts of beauty and of self and start living a far richer, truer life than you might ever have imagined.' This book made me think a lot about myself and my own body image in a new and better way. I plan to have my book group read this book.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2001

    Bald in the Land of Big Hair: A True Story

    This book was passed to me by a friend who got it because she was doing chemo. For her it was a Godsend because she felt like nobody else ever knew what she was going through and being able to laugh was a wonderful gift. I felt the same way, even though I don't have cancer. This book is just so funny, true, and uplifting.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 5, 2013


    Joni's journey is sad and happy and awesome.
    Made me laugh and cry. Everyone should
    Read this story.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted July 26, 2011

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    Posted September 30, 2011

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    Posted August 24, 2013

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