Thursday, September 29, 2011

The C Word

So it’s official, right there on the medical report, the no-no word, cancer. Mind you, the doctor didn’t tell me, I read the report this morning, sort of an afterthought since it is, after all, a synopsis of what was discussed. Or maybe not.

My dad had colon cancer back when you had to wear a colostomy bag, and I remember that when the surgeon came out to tell us that the operation had been completely successful, everything nasty had been excised, my mother burst into tears and said, “But what about metastasis?”  She had surrounded herself with her hundred best friends, all of whom were in the waiting room offering advice and telling her what the surgeon had said was good news, but my mother was inconsolable. My dad had cancer and he was going to die and that was that. She died of cancer a decade later, and he outlived her by five years.

So this is not exactly unexpected. Still, I’m… Well, I don’t know what I am, but here’s how I feel, kind of:  this is like not studying for an important exam, knowing you’re going to flunk if you don’t study, and then hoping in spite of everything that maybe you’ll pass, while knowing you won’t. And then, of course, you flunk.

This is not a cancer that kills everyone it invades; it’s in the bladder, which makes it both operable and horribly boring. There are no good stories to be told about having a bad bladder since, healthy or not, it is connected to a largely unmentionable organ. My friend Paul’s Uncle Lefty had this very same diagnoses and lived to be 91.

According to Medi-Net, “the five-year survival rate for patients with early stage bladder cancer is 85%. Fortunately, most patients with bladder cancer (up to 80%) will be diagnosed with a superficial tumor. If a tumor has grown into the wall of the bladder but has not spread to other organs, treatment usually involves surgical removal of the tumor, or combined chemotherapy and radiation therapy, with a five-year survival rate of 60%-75%.”

Those are pretty good odds but to tell the truth, anything that has the words “survival rate” with a percentage next to it makes me anxious.

Part of the problem, I think, comes from our having demonized the word cancer. We’ve made the illness, nasty as it can be, a catch-all phrase for anything horrible. Cancer has become the Al Qaeda of diseases. It terrorizes. The mere word sends shivers.

But I’ll try to put it into the correct perspective. As Harold Pinter once said, “I could be a bit of a pain in the arse. Since I've come out of my cancer, I must say I intend to be even more of a pain in the arse.” 

Words to live by.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Acceptance, Ha Ha Ha

Many decades ago, a friend of mine and I undertook an epic road trip on two ridiculously underpowered motorcycles. Kevin had a Yamaha, and I rode a Kawasaki, and the plan was to travel from Maryland to Quebec, then down to Miami and back.

It was the journey of a lifetime, one of those events that define youth and ambition while ignoring the pure silliness of doing something for which one is notoriously unprepared. We had no sleeping bags and so slept under picnic tables and in open-all-night Laundromats; we were bitten, scalded, soaked and stopped by the police a number of times, though never charged. We took outrageous risks, drafting 18-wheelers in the dead of night, racing locals down small town main streets, eating dubious fast food—mostly deep-fried—and gathering a trove of memories. Although both Kevin and I would have loved to do so, we never seduced any ladies, nor rescued families from burning farmhouses. No one considered us handsome wayward heroes and in fact, once in Bangor, Maine, and the second time somewhere in Massachusetts, we were asked to leave town by vaguely amused local sheriffs who had better things to do than deal with vagrants on small motorcycles. 

The trip ended badly. On the return leg, while riding late at night through Great Bear State Park in upstate New York, I hit an eight-point buck. I cartwheeled through the air, landed and skidded on the pavement for 60 feet.  My ruined motorcycle followed closely in a shower of sparks. I distinctly remember having a near-death, out-of-body experience during which I saw my face framed by the bright orange helmet I was wearing, and I heard myself say very calmly in French, “Je vais mourir.” I’m going to die.

I didn’t. Miraculously, I survived without so much as a broken bone though every sinew and ligament in my body was strained, sprained or scraped. The nurses who cut my shredded jeans off were amazed at the lack of blood. Even the ER doctor shook his head in disbelief. The hospital was used to handling human/animal encounters where the humans got the short end of the deal, but the only casualty that day was the stag. I was told that it had been butchered by a hunter and the venison sent to a local orphanage. Charles Dickens would have smiled.

I spent a week at Ramapo General Hospital. My father wired money so Kevin could rent a truck to carry us and my ruined motorcycle back home. It was an inglorious homecoming. It was also the first and frankly only time I’ve come close to feeling completely mortal.

I am at that point again for quite different reasons. This coming Friday I’ll undergo a biopsy. I’ve been told to bring documents stating my preferences should I be left brain-dead, incapacitated and otherwise unable to take care of myself. I suspect this is standard hospital behavior, and the procedure will probably turn out to be routine. The truth is, the fears have been mostly generated by my doctors’ reactions to the diagnosis (“Hmm, there are lesions,”) than by anything else.  It’s been difficult to get hard information from the medical folks—the urologist who did the original cystoscopy looked at the monitor, saw something he didn’t like, uttered “We’ll have to do a biopsy,” and left the room. I’ve undergone a battery of tests but it will be a few days before I understand the results; right now I don’t know if this will be outpatient surgery or not. And something strange has happened: I am no longer worried about the other issues that used to consume me. Whether I have money or not, as of this moment, is immaterial. The other medical stuff, the diabetes and high blood pressure?  Pfft. The useless people who refuse to return my emails or phone calls? Screw ‘em. I don’t care.

So in fact, an amazingly liberating thing has occurred: I’ve been freed of the daily anxieties by an event over which I am powerless to do anything except practice acceptance. Pretty cool, huh? I think so.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Post Op Advice

For several years now, my friend Paul and I have driven each other to the hospital when one or the other was to undergo a procedure needing anesthesia. For obvious reasons, most health providers will not perform even routine surgery unless the patient is driven to and from the site; my HMO goes a step farther and insists the accompanier be there during and after the surgery.

This has led to a couple of interesting situations, not the least of which is the assumption by the medical folks that Paul and I are an aging gay couple—after all, who but your partner would volunteer to take you to have surgery?

Paul has been married to the same lady for some twenty years, and I’ve been married twice. We are both disgustingly heterosexual and yet on three separate occasions, one or the other has been pulled aside by the post-op nurses and advised of what to be aware of— post-operationally—in the other.  Most recently, Paul was told that he should not allow me to eat too many nuts and legumes and encourage me to sleep on my back.

At some point, we decided that trying to correct the assumptions of others was a losing proposition. In an earlier blog, I mentioned how many women hikers, seeing two men on the trail, will assume the men are gay and therefore not a threat. This, I guess, is good. If I could find other areas were being instantly—and wrongly—labeled as a gay male might be advantageous, I would welcome them. I am sure there are some; I’m simply not aware of them.

I’m going into surgery this coming Friday, and Paul will accompany me. I suspect he will have to endure another iteration of the various what, when, where and how to deal with my health. That’s OK. After all, what are friends for?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Walking and Women

I’ve been lengthening my walk, sometimes going up to six or more miles a day, and it’s been amazing the things I’ve noticed, particularly when encountering others during my strolls. Here are a few.

  • Most women, when they see a largish man headed their way on the sidewalk, have predictable reactions. If alone, they look down at a spot five or six feet in front of them and pass by without a word.
  • One, I swear, began muttering the Lord’s Prayer as we crossed paths.  I sincerely hope it was not because she felt threatened, but I suspect it was.
  • When traveling in pairs, women’s conversations get instantly more intense if they encounter a man on the trail.
  • When they encounter two men, I suspect they feel safer since two men walking together means the men are gay and therefore pose no threat.
  • Asian women look right through you. They are in a different universe.
  • Except for older Asian women. One barred her teeth and hissed at me yesterday, I swear. It sounded like a leaky gas valve, or maybe a sibilant cockroach from Madagascar.
  • Women with dogs will rein them in. Men with dogs will not.
  • Women will not say “Good Morning,” but they may mouth the words.
  • They very seldom return a smile. Occasionally they glare, as if they’re really pissed off.

All of which I don’t really understand as I am not a particularly prepossessing kind of guy.  I wear a small knapsack, shorts and a t-shirt. I have no tattoos, though I do have a large ear ring. Also, I am not in the flower of my youth. I like to think I look friendly rather than menacing.

The funny thing is, a woman friend who is a trained martial arts fighter (I am persuaded she could annihilate most opponents, male or otherwise) told me recently that in all the women’s defense classes she has attended and taught, maintaining eye contact with a possible aggressor is one of the better ways of avoiding being aggressed.  That makes perfect sense—looking subservient, scared, or evasive invites bullying behavior…

I think it’s sad we’ve come to this. We’ve really become a frightened society, and perhaps it’s for a good reason. But I do miss the greetings, smiles, and even the occasional conversation one would expect not that loping ago from chance encounters. Another sign we’re heading downhill, I fear.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Biopsy

So there is Something Not Quite Right Going On and I’ll have to undergo a biopsy soon. Biopsy is one of those poisonous words fraught with emotions, fright, despair and depression. It implies a dreaded disease—cancer—when actually all it is, according to an online medical dictionary is the removal and examination, usually microscopic, of tissue from the living body, performed to establish precise diagnosis. That sounds a lot less worrisome.

Still, the procedure, in this case, implies total anesthesia, something I am not good at. Years ago, I woke up during an operation to fix an umbilical hernia and that was not pleasant at all. At the dentist’s, I need doubles doses of Novocain. My body metabolizes drugs very quickly and I never quite seem to get the dosage I need. Plus, this latest incursion into my body will have to be done in a real operating room, and I am very much like Michael Scott of The Office when it comes to hospitals. I associate them, with illness and death and other unpleasant things. I’m also very aware that all hospitals are giant incubators for every malady known to man, and that’s not at all reassuring.

The real issue, though, is that my parents had cancer, and while my father beat it, both my mother and my late sister died from the disease. In my heart of hearts, I have been waiting for decades for the bad news to be announced: “Sorry to tell you but you have cancer of this, that, and the other.”

I am not as frightened as I was two days ago, and the strange thing is that frighten is actually the wrong word. I wasn’t scared; I was sad, bordering on tears, vastly disappointed in life and in myself for not handling it better. It seemed to me that after four decades of steeling myself for the news, I should have been prepared for the worst—which this is not. I got really maudlin, which I hate in myself even more than I hate it in others.

By yesterday, a full anger had taken over. My body is betraying me, after I’ve treated it pretty well tghese last 20 years. Where’s the fairness in that?

So now I’m waiting for the call to set up the appointment for the biopsy. More will be revealed.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Minority Report

It’s official.  According to a recently published study by the Census Bureau, there has been a population shift in my area and the influx and increasing birthrate of Blacks, Latinos and Asians into Northern Virginia has made me and people like me a minority.  I am white, Anglo-Saxon (well, Franco-Saxon) and there are now more not-me’s than me’s where I lived.

My first thought, upon learning this, was to apply for a minority loan from the Small Business Administration.  For years now, I have wanted to open a tattoo removal service, as I figure many of the young women with multi-colored Harley-Davidson wings inked on the small of their back just above the butt, well, these ladies might think better than entering middle-age with an increasingly blurry motorcycle advertisement permanently etched in a conspicuous place. While I would never dream of using the term ‘tramp stamp,’ I nevertheless believe there exists a market to eradicate those highly visible errors made in youth and perhaps under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or a long-gone lover or three. But setting up such shop is expensive, far beyond my means. The equipment runs into the tens of thousands, and you need a Registered Nurse on duty. A minority loan would be helpful.

I also gave some consideration to opening a restaurant called New Caucasus and serving food from that region, dishes comprising Circassian pepper, Circassian cheese, Circassian pastry and Circassian chicken, but I know next to nothing about running an eatery. Also, I had some Circassian cheese once and that was a big mistake.

Suddenly becoming a minority has made me thoughtful. I wonder if I should hang out more frequently with members of my ilk and decry the unfairness of the new majority. Trouble is, I don’t really have anything to complain about quite yet. The majority is treating me relatively well. I don’t think I have been discriminated against, but then again I might not see the difference between discrimination and terminal impoliteness. I can say, though, that my native language is endangered.  Actually, my native language is French, but you know what I mean: English has been maltreated and abused during the last few decades, and I fear for its ability to endure changing times when majority expressions try to encroach. Like H.L. Mencken, I think that if English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me and anyone else who might want to live here.

I am thinking of establishing a traveling dance troupe, orchestra and art exhibit to tour the nation and make sure my minority heritage is not lost, and I see a real future for a veritable library of works on my threatened culture. Entire cultures have been lost without a trace in the past and I don’t want this to happen to Franco-Saxonism.

Truth is, I’m extremely sensitive about my heritage.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


I’ve been writing songs every since I was a little kid. The first one I remember, I was six or seven years old living in Paris, France, and Babette, age nine, whom I loved with fierce if uncertain passion, announced she had started taking singing lessons. I thought a song might be an appropriate way to impress her, but it didn’t turn out that way. I remember that she used the word anodyne, which is the same in French and English, and I thought it had something to do with Mercurochrome, but it didn’t.
I wrote songs in my teens, but mostly I focused on other people’s stuff and quickly figured out that knowing a total of seven chords was more than enough to play 90 percent of what was on the radio. Then, in my late 20’s, I joined a bluegrass band and realized that bluegrass calls on three chords. I wrote a couple of instrumentals and learned to play them badly on the Dobro.

I estimate that by now I’ve written maybe 100 tunes. Most are pretty simple progressions though I occasionally like to throw in an F#minor 7th just to keep things interesting. It’s a great and seldom used chord. I also spent time learning to play the pedal steel guitar, an insane instrument with two necks, 20 strings, eight pedals and five knee levers, plus a volume pedal. Watching someone good play the pedal steel is like seeing spasticity in slow motion.

For me, a song starts with a couple of words, perhaps a fragment of or a whole sentence, an image, a brief event, an interesting turn of phrase. Someone might make a comment, unexpected in its clarity or scope, or unwittingly use a phrase that causes a spark. Recently, a friend told of fighting “sad little battles” and it stuck. I’ll be doing something with that.  Another time someone said they were going to nip something in the butt. I thought that was charming if visually alarming. I’ll use that too.

Occasionally, I come up with what I think is a good double-entendre. Then, invariably, tiny grappling hooks become embedded up there in my brain and stay determined not to let go until more words are found, until a story is told in its entirety. It’s an enjoyable quest. I like the challenge of interesting rhymes (and it’s true, nothing rhymes with ‘orange’ unless you’re Cockney, then ‘door hinge’ sort of does), the play of the meter, the cadence and intonations. When the first stanza has taken life, I type it out on an index card that I keep in my wallet. 

By this time I also have a basic idea of the music itself. I’ve played long enough to have heard (and copied) unusual riffs and progressions, as well as special instrument tunings. Drop the high E string of a guitar to a D and you have a built- in chord used by just about everyone from Muddy Waters to the Stanley Brothers to Bowie and the Stones. I have a slide guitar using that tuning and can play some very cool licks just by barring the neck with my index finger.
The band I played with for several years broke up a while back and I haven’t written all that much lately. One of the aspects of songwriting I truly love is the involvement of other musicians in the creation of a musical architecture. Two guitars and a bass can fashion miracles of sound if they’re on the same page, and  I understand perfectly well why some of the greatest tunes of our times have been written by duos: Collaborative music is a joy; there’s nothing quite as delightful as the development of riffs, breaks, turn-arounds and interesting little three- or four-note embellishments that suddenly make a piece of music more interesting, more vital, and sometimes more humorous. I’ve missed that.

I’ve invested time and money into software that creates virtual studios, and I’ve played around with pre-recorded loops to which one can add a melody, but it’s not the same. A good band has a sense of community and achievement which can’t be computer-generated.  So until I find another group, I guess I’ll work on my scales. Do re mi fa sol la si do. Practice makes perfect…

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Dangers of Walking

Lately I have taken to walking a lot, three to six miles a day if I can. It’s part exercise, part clearing my head, part trying to get off a plethora of prescription drugs for high blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol and for all I know cholera, dyspepsia and sleep apnea. Getting older ain’t no cakewalk and the truth is, I hate taking pills of any kind. It probably has something to do with being in recovery.

Whenever possible I find a woodland trail of which there are thousands of miles in Virginia. I see deer, an occasional beaver, many birds, turtles and snakes and interesting bugs. I also stroll from my middle-class neighborhood to a local mall, occasionally walking in the street when there are no sidewalks, which is far too often.

Here are some of the things I have noticed. 

  1. The overwhelming number of cars on the roads during rush hour carries one occupant, the driver. It is pretty obvious that carpooling hasn’t caught on around here and that we continue to see driving as a solitary occupation. During non-rush hour, it’s still one occupant, and when it’s more than one it’s generally a mother with kids. In daytime hours, there are by far more women behind the wheel than there are men.
  2. People are pigs. Even in the best of neighborhoods, the roadside is littered with empty plastic bottles and empty packs of cigarettes, butts, discarded clothing—mostly white socks (?)—broken glass, paper, dirty diapers, cans, and, inexplicably, black plastic combs. There is one used condom per 100 spaces in many parking lots.
  3. Most cars are grey or black, reflecting the mood of the country, and though we may have traded in our 20-footers for smaller models, we love our big fat SUVs and the gas mileage is still appalling.
  4. Where I live, recently recognized as one of the most affluent area of the nation, there are more Mercedes, Audi, BMWs and Porsches than there are Toyotas or VWs. A lot of them are entry-level C-Class “Baby” Mercedes which cost in the mid-30s. Asian women appear to like them.
  5. Asian women are the worst drivers in the world. I’ve almost been hit twice by cars (I walk towards traffic) and both times it was by Asian women driving SUVs. Once I had to leap into a ditch to avoid being smushed, and I’m a fairly large, easy to see guy. We may need to institute a special test for ladies from the East, or restrict them to smaller vehicles like Fiats, Minis, or Smart cars.
  6. One out of three drivers is talking on a mobile phone while driving. It’s technically illegal in Virginia but obviously unenforceable.
  7. Policemen do eat donuts. There’s almost always a cop car parked in front of the local 7-11.  
  8. Most people who drive pick-up trucks never pick up anything bigger than a bag of groceries. 
  9. There are two kinds of bicyclists: the ones who use their bike to get to work, and the ones who dress up in $300 of bright yellow and red wicking Lycra and pretend they’re on the Tour de Virginia. The latter are the more annoying. I have never seen an Asian woman on a bicycle, perhaps because the level of havoc they could wreak on one is far smaller than what they can do in an SUV or a C-Class “Baby” Mercedes.
I plan to keep walking though as the days get shorter, I’ll probably try to find more areas with sidewalks even if this does not insure safety. An article in yesterday’s Washington Post tells of a driver whose car went over a median strip, smashed through a fence and hit a man and a dog on the sidewalk.  It was a C-Class Benz.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

It's Broke, Fix It, Part 2

At what point should a country—any country—take stock of itself and admit that its political system no longer really works—not because its citizens are unhappy, but because they’ve become so smug, so complacent that they’re no longer interested in making the nation function effectively?

Or, to put it another way, is it possible that the grand experiment that was America might be failing? Is it conceivable that democracy, as outlined by the Founding Fathers and described in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, simply does not work?

I bring this up because it appears the country is foundering. Potential voters do not vote, abandoning the elections to special interests. Elected officials no longer represent since safeguarding a non-voter’s interests does not lead to re-election. The confederacy of dunces now in positions of power have little to do save protect their offices.

Add to this the fact that large and profitable businesses are leaving the country and employing overseas workers to the detriment of this nation’s workforce. Ninety percent of the wealth is owned by a tiny minority of the population whose main function in life, it seems, is to avoid taxation.

Our infrastructure is falling apart. Roads are Third-Worldish in most of the States. Bridges are on the verge of collapse, the power grid is beyond comprehension and past fixing. Neither law enforcement nor the penal system can keep up with criminal activity. We are the most murderous country in the worlds, with the highest percentage per capita of jail and prison inmates. Mail delivery will soon cease on Saturdays and the USPS foresees a massive lay off and a postage rate increase.

The economy is tanking. Food prices are up, real estate is down, the stock market flounders. Many have lost their savings and homes. The people and entities to whom we have entrusted our moneys have proven incapable of wisely managing it, and often dishonest to boot.

We are, to all appearances, becoming a second-rate country mired in absurdist political power games that totally overlook dire consequences.  What we need right now is a period of economic Marshall law.

In the long run, if the country is ever to regain its superiority, things will have to change.
  • Elect the president and all members of congress, at both the state and national level, to a single seven-year term. This will allow those voted in to devote themselves to the running of the country and not the running of their next election.
  • Have Congress legislate an across-the-board tax rate for the majority, and a super-tax for those who earn in excess of three million dollars a year.
  • Bring all the troops home, except those under the stewardship of the United Nation.
  • Legalize and tax heavily the sale of drugs. Use the tax proceeds for drug education and the prosecution of illegal dealers.
  • Release from people all people convicted of selling small amounts of controlled substances.
  • Create a Job Corps based on the Works Program Administration and give the unemployed fairly-paid work on the nation’s infrastructure. Rebuild roads, bridges, railway lines.
  • Hold all workers whose jobs it is to invest and safeguard citizens’ moneys to the highest level of professional ethics. Prosecute to the full extent of the law those who betray public trust.
  • Freeze fuel prizes at 2002 levels.
  •  Institute a three-strikes-you’re-out policy on crimes involving firearms.

Think these suggestions are draconian? They’re not. The future is starring at us and we can’t afford to blink.