Just thinking while floating down the river, that dragon flies must be a good sign, their miraculous appearances evidence of some symbiotic justice, hovering, darting, wings of flying color, wondering how many would mean too many? Be damned! More dragonflies! Alien acrobats of aerodynamics, then gone fast like forgot, hitting little hyperspace buttons around your canoe. They are certainly a good sign. Unless they're spies. Ferns curved into rare, cool places, shadowed and concave and wet places, so green almost aglow. And underneath the bridge all the swallows swooping out from the black holes off center, from mud-brown hemispheres, a village tucked under the bridge, swallows calling and swirling above. Making good time, early spring river time, faster than an old man jogging back to the truck past a grove of elderly cedar stretching down the bluff, crowning it and clinging to its sides, centuries of holding it together, centuries of breaking it apart, are those cracks looking ominous or is it just the times? So far underneath the overhanging bluff, gazing up at the earth above. Been up there, been down here, paddling fast through the turning water and under the cantilevered rock. And the roads and paths that wind above, uphill and downhill and round the curves, been down them, as a boy, as a teenager, a young man, a sad man, a tired man, an uncertain man, a happy man, turning toward the meadows green. And I wonder when that rock's going to break free and fall, I worry that those cracks are growing wider, little changes that over time and time keep adding up and adding up and always little pieces breaking free and tumbling down and then later that night I get to see my wife's beautiful face smiling up into the warmly falling summer rain, that warm and soft and caressing summer rain, laughing rain, spinning around rain, you-have-to-stand-out-in-it rain, and I hear her laughter and see her there in front of me.
Musings from the afterglow of caucusing in Iowa
Hello again, OutStanders.
I come to you in good health and sound mind, both aided by a sturdy Iowa winter. I hope this finds you the same.
Here are a few thoughts that have been rattling around in my bucket today as I shoveled the driveway. Twice. So far.
Last night we participated in our democracy. Never have so many eyes been on the Iowan caucus-goers and their caucuses, where diversity means Ford, Chevy, AND Dodge hats in attendance. It was wonderful. I was proud to be a part of it. Don’t you dare take away our right to caucus before anyone else caucuses.
I have read much about delays, long lines, throngs of democracy-thirsty Caucasian caucus-goers scrambling to participate, be heard, be counted, and still make it home in time to watch NCIS.
I suspect there exists a verifiable correlation between the size of the pain in my neck and the per capita saturation of knuckleheads whenever 2 or more of us are gathered in something or other’s name around here. I call it KSF, Knucklehead Saturation Factor, and it comes into play often when decision-making in these parts, or anywhere else, I imagine.
Thankfully, there was no ruckus at our caucus. It was not a raucous caucus.
I suggested to my beautiful wife that we walk to our caucus. The temperature was in the low 30’s, fairly pleasant for this time of year, and it is only a few blocks to the elementary school where we would gather and be counted. After slipping and sliding, mittened hand in mittened hand, and traipsing around half-frozen puddles, laughing and wondering aloud who in the hell thought this was a good idea, I arrived so full of love for this woman beside me I didn’t give two squirts who was running for president.
We made our choice, sat and listened, chatted with some folks we knew and some we didn’t, and when the meeting was adjourned, we folded up our chairs and put them back on the rack like good Iowans. Good people pick up after themselves. There were lots of chairs left, however, for the volunteers.
I remembered a littler caucus. This was a bigger caucus.
We took a caucus selfie. We saw reports from other caucuses. We digested results. When we got home, we had a glass of wine and tried to imagine some of the caucus winners actually, you know, winning.
I’ve shoveled twice today already, but that’s ok. We’ve been shoveling it for awhile ’round here, getting ready for all this caucusing. By some accounts, the highest pile seems to have won.
The most critical element in a successful shoveling session is making sure your shovel is properly waxed before beginning.
That’s about all, DayDreamers. Don’t put too much pressure on us Iowans. We’ve got to dig ourselves out now.
Hello again, Steadfast Uplifters. Been awhile. It’s time for giving thanks.
We are approaching 1 year of this adventure, O Wondrous Outstanders, one orbit around our sun, some random, sacred star. It was Christmas night past when it all began. Well, not when it ALL began, just this twisted little thread of it. A dozen or so moons ago, waxing and waning, hiding and watching over.
The seasons have rolled on- a traumatizing spring, a hopeful summer, a lovely but dry fall and now a nice blanket of snow to begin our winter a bit early. The news is good, Outlasters, at least in my case. The doc says she doesn’t expect me to have any further issues with this business. The neuropathy in the fingers and feet, a by-product of the concoction of mouse parts and chemotherapy targetting my bad cells, should go away eventually. The memory of it all will linger. The world’s seams are coming apart, stressed by ever-growing hatred and fear, greed and hypocrisy, and inadequate stitching- of common sense and empathy and goodness. Or is there enough kindness to withstand the force of hatred, 0f destruction, to keep us civilly clothed, to keep our collective ass from showing? It’s a toss up from where I sit. But my scan is clean.
It seems so far away now- pneumonia, intubation, six days in ICU, psychosis- a dimly lit waiting area, head hanging on my chest, another ct scan, asking “I didn’t make it, did I?” to random people in scrubs, walking in circles in the backyard, being told over and over to stay out of the dirt. “That’s my primary goal” I would mumble to myself. I’m far enough away now to see it more clearly. Lucky to have made it through, I am. The lighthouse that is my love for my sweet wife guided me back. A random, sacred star.
And here I sit. Time for thanksgiving. Numb in the thumb but hair back on my head. Tripping over myself but back at work, trying my hardest to be a good dad at school for the benefit of 7th and 8th graders who need a good dad at school-and for my own benefit, to make me feel like a good man, a good dad. And today I will get another chance to sit around the table and break bread and sip wine. And my wife will be there. And my mother. Brother. Nephews. Family. And I will remember those that are gone. My father, and my sister-in-law, taken so suddenly and too young. I will remind myself how delicate that twisted little thread is. Look around the table one more time this year, ol’ boy. You just never know, so you always should know-live, love, laugh, cry, and look around the table again, and say “Thanks. We’re all lucky to be here. It’s a gift every day.”
Growing up within the confines of the Missouri Synod Lutheran world view, Oh Stout and Steady Evenkeelers, I don’t remember a whole lot of room for things purgatorial. It seemed to be more of an ‘all one way’ or ‘all the other way’ approach, from what I could see. I had some Catholic friends in high school, so I’m sure I was aware of the purgatorial ideal. I didn’t know the details of how it all worked out, but had always considered Purgatory a rather benign consequence. An extra waiting room, not that bad of a deal if the cable worked and there was coffee. Somewhere, sometime before they loaded me into the cyclotron, I experienced a different kind of purgatory, Oh Bold Outlasters, a different kind altogether. I was in a little zone I’ve nicknamed “The Hell Place of Terror and Confusion.” They gave me Prednisone and I had what is called a steroid psychosis response. To the Hell Place I went. Where I knew who I was but not much more, where I was but not why. Nothing made any sense, a phrase I repeated for the next week and a half. I had a walker, and I needed it. Oxygen, and I needed it. And I kept saying “I didn’t make it, did I?” At this time I must ask, Dear Uplifters, if you would allow me to take a moment and address an issue that has arisen of a more personal nature.
You see, it wasn’t just me living through this, it was also my wife. She saw it all first hand. My wife has read these accounts. She likes them for the most part and thinks it’s good for me to write about it. But the account of this last episode, she doesn’t like it. She thinks I am making light of a very serious and scary situaton. She had to watch. She saw what I didn’t, saw what I couldn’t. Convulsions. Aspiration. She heard words from places in my brain where words shouldn’t be allowed. She saw me begging for help. I can’t imagine how she must have felt, how scared she was. I suppose I do try to make light of it all, to protect myself. She brought me home a week into this steroid psychosis business, still not able to be left alone, still wandering around in the back yard, still having difficulty sleeping. She wondered, like I wondered, if I would ever come back to normal.
She was there by my side through it all. She is a miracle. When I was lost in Purgatory Hell Place it was to her side I longed to return. My joy. My strength.
I was in the hospital for 12 days, the ICU for 5. Finally, on Sunday, April 5, Easter, after 10 days of mumbling and stumbling, hours and hours of family members smiling pleasantly back at me after I said “it doesn’t make any sense” for the twentieth time, my head started to clear a bit. My beautiful wife got me outside for a few walks, doses of medicinal sunshine. A few days later, I was starting to feel pretty normal, other than itching all over. And I finally got some normal sleep. My reward for recovering was the chemo that had been postponed for two weeks. And a PETscan. Which was full of good news, by the way. We’re on the mend, Everlasters, we’re on the mend.
I was just about to my halfway point. Another PETscan was coming up, along with the accompanying anxiety of getting to look at those pictures. But the walnut in my neck was gone, so the poison seemed to be working. I was feeling pretty rundown but figured it was the accumulating effects of the chemo. By the end of the week I was wiped out. I felt like Sylvester after he was pulled through the knothole in the fence.
I remember, Oh Steady Flatlanders, speaking with a co-worker that Friday afternoon before it all went down. I wasn’t speaking so much as whimpering. Like a little girly-man. I felt bad. Was it going to be like this the rest of the way? The dread was starting to pile up around my ankles.
Saturday around 4ish I thought I had recovered. Bounded up the stairs! I’d fought it off. I was on the mend.
At 8 pm we went to the ER. Fever. Short of breath. I was admitted and they started IV antibiotics. By Monday I was still feverish and they transferred me to Mayo. I’d always wanted to go for an ambulance ride but more in a school field trip kind of way. We didn’t even get to hit the lights and siren. Then I passed out. A syncopal episode they call it. Lights and siren, check. Jim, the fireman, was taking care of me. As competent and kind and compassionate as a person could be. His wife had what I had, 8 years ago, and she was doing fine. He made me feel I couldn’t have been in better hands. He put in a new IV for me at 75 mph.
After an evening in St. Mary’s ER, I was admitted to the Infectious Disease floor and the search began to identify the vermin that was making me ill. By Tuesday night I was in ICU and they decided a bronchial scope was necessary, not tomorrow but tonight, and that meant the ventilator. My brother-in-law Steve and his wife Jane, who is a nurse, had just arrived. She was able to explain to Penny what was happening. They gave me some Michael Jackson drugs and put the tubes in, got a sample from my lungs. Tuesday night. Wednesday. Wednesday night. Thursday morning. The Ventilator. Worst hours I’ve ever spent in my life. Terrifying. Balancing on a sliver of consciousness, not knowing for certain if you were alive or something else, not alive but not dead either, not knowing when you got there and when you were coming back. Somewhere in my head I was awake the whole time. I was in a silver capsule when they loaded me into the cyclotron, closed the hatch, and off I went, gaining speed.
Then it got weird.
Good evening, Outstanders.
I’ve been a little stuck lately.
You see, I tried to write about singing. Me and singing. The act has been a thread in the corduroy bellbottoms of my life since corduroy bellbottoms. Wasn’t I trying to write about singing? Why am I writing about pants?
I tried to write about what singing means to me now, how long it’s been a part of who I am, or think I am. And suddenly it got serious. And then I felt silly about how serious. It was like I’d opened an umbrella and then realized “Whoa, that’s a big umbrella. And the wind is blowing 20 miles an hour.” Downright unwieldy. And it seems to be more and more important to me as I get older. And maybe more desperate, like you do when you get older. Don’t you? The thread continues, and I miss those bellbottoms. Again with the pants. And now an umbrella. Wasn’t I trying to write about singing?
I tried to write about what I would do if I couldn’t sing anymore, if some link in the chain faltered and the whole mechanism went caput. Would I just learn to play the clarinet? Or the piano? Or would it affect me way more profoundly? I tried to write about how I sang in school and with this church group, caught the performing bug praising Jesus across Iowa. Felt the validation. Kid stuff. I tried to write about the Air Force Academy Cadet Chorale and singing “oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and watched the skies on laughter-silvered wings”, the words of a pilot killed in WW2, in that beautiful chapel on Sunday morning, knowing I was in the wrong place but not knowing how to tell my dad. And my mom.
So you just do it, you keep putting one foot in front of the other and you try to become an adult. And this singing is kid stuff, isn’t it? You toy with the idea of singing here and there, but don’t do much of it, not performing anyway. You toy with the idea of becoming an adult here and there, but don’t do much of that either.
And you find yourself adrift. Seriously adrift. I was already reeling and then my father got cancer and died and after that I couldn’t even see land anymore. Some friends I knew who had been in bands together, California boys, decided to start another one. I had always wanted to be in a band. It was time to participate. The man that was making it happen wanted to play classic country. We called ourselves The NuTone Wranglers and we wrote our own songs and did a few covers of Ernest Tubb and Webb Pierce, George Jones and Hank. Pedalsteel guitar and piano, twangy electric guitar, bass and your’s truly singing up front. Pre-drummer country. Felt the validation. We played in little clubs and bars for beers and tips and glory.
The Wranglers turned into the Tri-State Area after a few years. I played mandolin in a band called White Star Dairy, a couple of gals up front doing real nice harmonies. And singing with Jeffrey Luck Lucas is to do this day one of my favorite times in San Francisco. Hard and beautiful times, like a good country song. And singing with Mindi Hadan. And Alison Alstrom. And Dick Deluxe and Applejack. And Tammy Hall. Maybe it wasn’t kid stuff? Maybe there were good reasons I didn’t fully understand for doing it back in those bellbottom days and there still were more good reasons to do it when I was fighting for my life in San Francisco and there are still more good reasons to do it today.
So I sing now with a couple of Yankee fans who love to play and it adds so much to my life it’s almost unbelievable. And now I get to look out and see my beautiful wife sitting there looking back at me. I tried to write about singing, and me, and I’m not sure I got anywhere, Uplifters. I’ll have to try again some other time. By the way, Handy Andy, classic country fan and pedalsteel picker who made the NuTone Wranglers happen- thanks for asking me to be a part of it.
For about 10 years now, I have been working with BD kids. Behavioral disorder in case that’s a foreign acronym. Maybe that’s not the most currently acceptable label. MBA’S. Mind-boggling Behavioral Abilities? It’s my job to be a dad at school, sort of. And a counselor. And a friend. And a big brother. Coach. Encourager. Judge. I don’t have kid s of my own, but two stepsons are a now a beautiful part of my life. Maybe that leaves me with a little extra patience in the reservoir, although there are times when Mother Theresa’s patience would run thin, I swear it. It’s work I’m good at, work I have had excellent training in and work that is inspiring, challenging and difficult to leave behind at 4 pm. When these kids try to function in classrooms, in school, in their chaotic homes, in their fast-changing worlds, it can be, well, a trip. Even after 10 years it still astounds me, what I witness on a daily basis. Unless you have first-hand experience with it, you wouldn’t believe it. But truly the work has filled a hole in me I didn’t know I had. It’s changed my life, flat out. I’ve cried with these kids, been bit by them, headbutted by them, scratched and clawed and hugged by them, watched them actually figure some things out and make some changes. And all the while they have fortified me, made me stronger than I knew I could be, more compassionate than I knew I could be, more dedicated than I knew I could be. I honor all of the amazing people I have met over the years who do this work, and all the amazing children who make it worth it.
Here is a piece from the archives. I wrote this around 1997. Maybe I knew about that hole more than I gave myself credit for…
The bright San Francisco sky is bouncing off all that water, deep and blue. I’m headed out for New Year’s Day visitations in the East Bay and the sun is as high as it’s going to get. I’m waiting at the bus stop for the Fulton #5, watching a father coach his daughter, 11 or 12, big girl, on how to ride her Christmas bike. Now you might say, and as a matter of fact, a passerby did, “She’s a big girl not to know how to ride a bike,” but if your butt’s never been on one, how are you going to know?
She made several passes down the gently declining sidewalk with little success, each time with her dad alongside, acting as emergency brake and bumper. Then she would dismount and together they would walk back up, turn around and try it again. She just couldn’t take her eyes off her feet and she hadn’t realized how to steer the whole contraption, though she wasn’t looking where she was going anyway. The garbage cans and the motorcycle and the trees seemed like magnets for her front wheel. Her father encouraged her, told her to look out in front, where she was headed. “You don’t have to look at your feet to pedal, ” he said. “You know what your feet are doing.”
She wobbled to a stop again, and he hung back, a little out of breath and running short of ideas. The Five was coming around the corner. Maybe because she was feeling self-conscious, or maybe because, somewhere inside her, she heard that soft, wise voice children know so well and often stop listening to as the years and failed attempts pile up.
“This way isn’t working, so lets try another way.”
She pushed on down the block this time until she got to the end. Then she turned around and stood there, alone astride her Christmas bike, staring uphill. The bus pulled into the stop. She bit her bottom lip, looked her father in the eye from half a block away and started pedaling, slowly, then more steadily, uphill, uphill, and all who happened to notice, a woman stepping off the bus, myself, a couple of lucky souls sitting on the near side, blessed for paying attention, and her father, especially her father, were rewarded the miracle of her smile, now knowing how, shining across her face , bright as high noon, big blue ocean sky, San Francisco, New Year’s Day.
Thereafter, downhill was easy.
I like words, and I have to admit, lymphoma has a lot going for it.
You really get to use your mouth parts when you say it. You get to go around the curve and spin out a little. Drift. Lymphphphphoma. It’s a lippy word. Spirant.
Or it could be the name of some distant and powdery great aunt, rumored to be part Italian.
“Oh, maybe we should go to that reunion, honey, your dear old Aunt Lymphoma will be there. She’s such a character.”
“She smells funny.”
“And she’s rumored to be part Italian.”
Or maybe it’s the name of a small isle off some gray coast, foggy and cold and foreboding. Where the worst job is head of the struggling Isle of Lymphoma Ministry of Tourism. In a nicotine-stained pale green office, with faded posters and a jammed copy machine. There is a note taped to the door. “Be right back.”
I’ve got it, and it’s cancer, but it’s the one to have if you’ve got to have one, they tell me. It’s “the good Hodgekin’s”. I feel like far too much attention is being paid to it, to me, because it’s the one to have if you’ve got to have one. And everything is going to be fine, they tell me. So you try to hold it all up but it’s hard to hold up much when you’re also holding it as far away from you as you possibly can. But it’s the one to have. 80% cure rate.
“Oh, my uncle had that. He’s fine.” Wonderful.
“You know, cousin Sue’s husband had that. He’s fine.” Really? That’s nice.
“My boss had that. Lost a little weight but he’s fine.” How sweet.
One survival story after another I hear. Each time my odds go down a little in my head. I tell myself that, of course, nobody is going to say “Oh, my friend had that. He died.” And I wouldn’t want to hear that. Really, I wouldn’t.
“I have my suspicions,” Dr. ElbowPatches said.
“Well,” I said, “what are your suspicions?”
“Lymphoma” said Dr. Patches.
In your How To Be A Doctor book, Dr. Patches, once you’ve told someone they may have cancer, make a note- order a biopsy. Right away. Step 1. Schedule it right then and there. Because the next week and a half was a completely unnecessary clusterfuck of dread and stress.
“Good morning. I’m checking to see if anyone has cancelled.”
“No. Sorry. You’re welcome to try again.”
“Is it worth it?”
“Well, that’s up to you.”
Once it actually happened, the biopsy procedure was one of the best experiences I have had with our local hospital. Right up there with the professionals in the colonoscopy suite. I could see the little needle tracings left in my lymph node on the ultrasound display. Total pros all the way around. The pathologists stared at the slides and little owl-eyed Reed Sternberg cells stared back. I am visualizing those little bastards imploding as I stare out the tenth floor windows overlooking a gray, winter’s morning in Rochester. The original Mayo building is just off in the distance, it’s gigantic-beaked gargoyles soaring through the cold sky. Small clouds of steam float up and disappear. You can have a ginger ale, or a yogurt, or peanut butter crackers. My beautiful wife is knitting a cowl. Everyone seems to know exactly what to do and when to do it. People around us are making plane reservations for next time. Round one.