Dreams into Dust

This morning, as I read about the popularity of the vada pav in Mumbai (Bombay), my mind returned to the place I’ve been advised by so many to avoid: a busy street corner or tiny strip center where I would work to satisfy the hunger of adventurous eaters.  Just the other evening, I heard a woman speak of her desire to open a restaurant, a desire her husband (and several others around the table) quickly warned against. Though I understand the danger and the risk and the potential for burnout such an endeavor might involve, I felt my pulse quicken at her comment. I felt a commonality with the woman because I, too, have that desire. And when I read about street food, regardless of its country of origin, that desire bubbles up and surrounds me with a pungent flavor that only time can wash from my tongue.

The idea that an aging man who’s still in the early stages of dealing with lung cancer treatment would be so attracted to an off-the-wall idea like operating a street-food cart is madness. And I’m not so enamored of operating it; I just want to create the processses by which the food is prepared (including the recipes, etc.) and turn the hard work over to someone younger and who possesses more stamina than I, but who is passionate about ethnic street food. I’ve written so many times about my passions for ethnic foods that it feels almost old and boring to write about them again. But not quite. I’m still enamored of creating foods that blend the best flavors and textures and ingredients from multiple cultures, resulting in unique dishes that have the potential of appealing to adventurous eaters. I’ve even gone so far as to begin to seek names for my little food cart or dive diner or whatever it might ultimately be: Synthesis. Alloy. Amalgam. Blend.

And then I wake up, out of my daydream. I realize it’s pointless. It’s a young man’s dream. It’s something I should have acted on twenty or thirty years ago when I first wanted to do it (or maybe even earlier, when the dreams first began to simmer). I should have done that at the same time I should have bought my acreage and purchased a tractor and pursued yet another dream I let wither. It’s not dead, but it’s crippled and near the grave, starving  from malnutrition and dying of thirst. I’m unable to pursue any of those dreams now. They are shreds of history that I might as well discard and let them float away in a dust storm. I can’t begin to express how utterly depressed and sad I feel when I realize I’m no longer able to take the risks I never took. I’m stuck circling a drain.

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Gone Too Young

The nephew of a blogger I’ve never met, Ellie, died of an overdose several days ago. What I know of the blogger’s family I know only because she wrote about them extensively and shared copious pictures of them. Her exuberance for her family and friends burst from the screen every time I opened one of her posts. By reading her posts and viewing the photos she shared, I came to appreciate her and each member of her family in a way that’s hard to express. Though we rarely communicated directly with one another or commented on one another’s blogs in recent years. I felt like I knew her and her family rather well. It was an odd feeling, the sense that there was this entire close-knit family, who lived on opposite coasts, that were almost like my family; though we might not know each other if we came across one another on the street.

The death of this nineteen year old boy had an extraordinary impact on me today. I felt like the earth had developed a crack and was in danger of imploding on itself. I knew very little of the kid. But simply knowing that he was part of this close family, this “tribe” of people who were madly in love with one another, was sufficient to create an emotional earthquake. I’ll get over it. Quickly, I suspect. That’s not the case with the people who are really members of the tribe. I’ll watch them from afar and know that they suffer. I wish they didn’t have to go through it.

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Hallucinations of Bangalore

I make periodic stops at a blog entitled Hallucinations, written by Shruthi Rao, a young woman who lives in Bangalore, a high-tech center in southern India. The subjects of her posts range as widely as mine, perhaps even wider. But her posts are more disciplined and and less apt to suggest the reader call the authorities in the interest of societal protection. I say the woman lives in Bangalore; maybe she lives in San Francisco. A recent post about going on her daughter’s field trip in San Francisco Bay. Yet another post invited readers to attend a writing workshop for children held at Aakruti Books, 3rd block Rajajinagar, Bangalore. I think I’m making my way toward knowledge of what’s up with her: she now lives in the San Francisco Bay area but originally was from Bangalore. I don’t know whether Bangalore is the “home” to which she plans to return or whether she has adopted the Bay Area as her new home. As with so many things about which I write, the answer is no more important than the question. I suppose it’s irrelevant. What I find relevant and intriguing is the fact that Shruthi Rao seems to me to be so utterly fluent in the cultures of two countries on two continents. She merges her understanding of two strings of experience into an extremely interesting position from which to view the world. At least that’s how I see it. And, as I was contemplating her experience with the two cultures, I discovered more “data” about her: a post from June 2017 revealed that she had returned to Bangalore after a two-year absence and was struck by how the weather was a non-issue. Unlike most “multi-cultural” blogs I visit on occasion, this one is not sharp-edged and provocative. Instead, it is soft and almost annoying in its decency. But that sort of thing can be valuable, bringing balance to an otherwise frenetic life.

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To Prove It’s Me

My blog, once a repository for creative ideas I wanted to save from the ravages of time, seems to have become a repository for experiences I would rather have avoided. Instead of letting my blog serve as the moderately willing audience for my fantasia, I’ve forced it into another role entirely; it has become the unwilling audience for my slow-motion, stumble-by-stumble decline into ruin. I’ve successfully restricted, for a couple of weeks, the volume of posts that delve into my emotional response to my lung cancer diagnosis. I explained that the pause in my posts was a response to the physical pain of sitting at my computer, typing. And that was true to an extent. The more complete explanation would have assigned more responsibility to the emotional pain that I tried and failed to muffle as I wrote about my experiences. There’s something decidedly unmasculine about admitting to, much less talking or writing about, emotional pain. Despite my anger that such a social/societal restraint exists (and I’ll go on record that I find the imposition of such social restraints fundamentally cruel and wrong), I opted to stop writing for a while, rather than risk revealing even more cracks in my emotional armor. That is, I succumbed to weakness and fear. But I discovered during my hiatus in posting here (though I did continue to write, though not much about cancer) some evidence that cracks in one’s emotional armor can be used by some people as targets for their pry bars; emotional “weakness” is like a magnet for the intrusive tools of the person who pretends to care but who, instead, simply craves life in a soap opera to the real world. More on that later.

This post was intended to “make up” for the lack of updates since my last post almost two week ago. I’ve let it slide, as I am wont to do, into territory unrelated to its trigger. So, back to where I intended it to go.

When my surgeon and my oncologist told me the results of the lab pathology tests revealed that excising my tumor did not excise all of the cancer, I was surprised and unhappy. But I got over it, I thought. I would just need to add radiation therapy to the treatment regimen. That’s all.

Yesterday, I visited the radiation oncologist. He reviewed my medical records and told me he had spoken to my surgeon. The results clearly indicated a need for radiation. What surprised me was the fact that radiation would not be a ‘minor’ as I expected. Instead, I will need to have thirty (30) sessions, five days a week for six weeks.  They will begin just a few days in advance of my chemotherapy and will continue daily (weekdays) until February 13. He made a point that I could drive myself to and from the radiation therapy. Except that, when I’m in the midst of chemotherapy and physically drained, I will need my wife to drive me to and from those sessions. According to my calendar, my chemo sessions will be January 7, January 28, February 18, and March 11. I haven’t driven since November 19, the morning of my surgery. I drove from the motel where we stayed the night before to the hospital, where we had to show up at 5:00 a.m. Wow. A month without getting behind the wheel. That must be a record.

As I look at my calendar—at how damn much of 2019 will be devoted to dealing with cancer—I just don’t know whether I want to put myself and my wife through it.  My wife suggested yesterday that we might ask people who have offered to help to follow through with their offers. She doesn’t have any more interest than I in giving over her life to an endeavor that may or may not give the results we want. She, though, tends to believe all the offers of help. I know some people whose offers are absolutely dependable. But I’ve learned during the course of my experiences so far that some people wag their tongues as a means of gathering accolades for selflessness that doesn’t exist. “I wanted to call/come see you but didn’t want to bother you” or “I wanted to spend some time with you but my calendar is crazy-full.”  Uh-huh. As if email, being a twentieth century technology, no longer exists and texts are not dependable because…uh…who knows. I find it hard to be civil to those people. And not because they are treating me like I’m stupid enough to believe their artificial empathy but because I know they must have treated others the same way and the others may not so readily let lies run off their backs like water on a duck. But I guess the fact that I recognize those people for what they are makes me more likely to be cynical about people I don’t know as well. Are those other folks who seemed to want to help really genuine in their offers or are they just attempting to paint over the flaws in their compassion with a magician’s magic?  On the other hand, people who are not particularly close to us and who share virtually no attitudes with us socially, politically, religiously, intellectually, etc., stopped by with food and an offer to take us grocery shopping or to chemo treatments, etc. These are people we consider distant acquaintances. But those good people, as much as I appreciate them, don’t erase the disdain I have for the others.

Yet, while I find those make-believe missionaries of good will patently offensive, there are others whose offers are as good as gold. There are the people who show up on our doorstep with food so we don’t have to worry about making a meal after visits with doctors. I can only begin to count the number of bowls of chile and soup our friends and neighbors have given us. And people have stopped by with casseroles. And they’ve brought pumpkin bread and garlic toast. Without fail, these same people have offered to go to the grocery store for us or give me a ride to the doctor or do any number of other errands for us. Those are the people I believe; they are the ones I would feel comfortable asking for rides to town for radiation treatments. But, then, they are the ones who have already done more than we have any right to expect. And there’s Maddie, who moved away some time ago but whose kindness and decency remained; she reads my blog responds, usually, directly via email. Good people the world over deserve a friend like her.

The worst of the surgery pain is behind me, I think.  I still have considerable pain, especially after riding in the car for a while…hurts like hell with every bump…but I can get through the night without getting up to take painkillers now. But I’m still much more tired than I want to be. And I tired quickly. And I wheeze when I mean to breathe. And I walk so slowly that I’ve come to realize what a bastard I’ve been when stuck behind someone who walks very, very, very slowly through a grocery store.  Just when the worst of the post-surgical pain dissipates, the pains associated with chemo and radiation therapy will begin. My wife suggested I get my head shaved before my first chemo appointment. I didn’t think that would bother me (I’ve often talked about getting my hair cut extremely short) but for some reason the idea of shaving me head in preparation of going in for chemo treatment derails me, emotionally, for a few minutes every time I think about it.

I said I’ve written a bit unrelated (mostly) to my cancer in the past few weeks. And I have. One day, I might finished some of these posts: Tincture of Coconut; Last Lungs; Misdeeds Goes to Washington; Crush; On Coincidence; My Blame; The Grim Season; Christmas Largess; Barrier; and In the Flesh Bloggers. The last one, In the Flesh Bloggers, was prompted by the members of a Facebook group of bloggers to which I belong. This group of people have allowed me to wallow in self-pity without being judgmental; I appreciate them more than I can adequately express. They are among the folks who, if they were closer in proximity, I think would give me rides to radiation treatments or being me food. We should all be as compassionate and caring as they are; they have the credentials for admission to the human race. That’s high praise, coming from me.

I don’t know just what I’ve written here. Like most of my posts, it has scurried through rabbit warrens and exited through lions’  dens, running from something that’s chasing me or toward something I want to catch. For some reason, this morning is hard. Maybe it’s that yesterday’s visit to the radiation oncologist surprised me with its thirty-session program of treatment. Maybe I’ve kept stuff bottled up without unloading here for too long. Or maybe I’m just melting down for no apparent reason, as usual, and it will pass.

It might have been better if I’d let this post join the drafts that haven’t seen the light of day. But I think not. I think I need to sometimes reveal the madness beneath my serenity (that’s a joke…I have no serenity) just to prove it’s me writing this blog.

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Hiatus in the Interest of Serenity

I’ve noticed the decline in the number and quality of my blog posts since my introduction to lung cancer. It’s obvious to me that the reason for the change isn’t the cancer, it’s my response to it. I’ve allowed myself to spend too much time obsessing over the diagnosis and what it may mean for us (my wife and me). To be sure, I think obsessing over a cancer a diagnosis is not crazy; it’s natural. But allowing it to interfere with something I enjoy as much as I enjoy writing is not especially smart. So I’ll try harder. But I realized this morning, earlier, as I “tried harder” that the problem isn’t entirely mental; it’s physical, too. Sitting at the desk typing away, as I’m doing now, hurts. It’s getting better, I think, but it hurts. Trying to be creative, allowing my fingers to paint new and unusual ideas on the screen, is tough when my mind keeps skipping back to the pain I feel in my chest and my side and my upper back. For the most part, these pains are not severe, sharp, angry pains. Instead, they are moderate, blunt-instrument, annoyed pains. They grab my attention and twist my fingers; the words that spill from my fingers are dull and repetitive, just syllables that stammer and shudder and stumble onto the keyboard.

With the aforementioned as a backdrop and inadequate explanation, I may opt to take a break from writing anything for a while. Until my physical pain, at least, has subsided enough that it doesn’t interfere with what I want to write. Before closing the lid on my notebook, though, I wanted to explain to myself why I’m doing it and to assure myself that this is only a temporary reprieve. I’ll be back, writing about cancer and spinning fiction and fantasy just as soon as it feels good to do it.

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A Bump in the Road

I haven’t posted much of late about my experiences learning about and responding to cancer. The primary reason for the drop in output is the decline in my certainty about what I’m dealing with. The certainty…uncertainty…certainty…uncertainty cycles have been torturing my sense of confidence that I know what the hell going on with my body.

Initially, I was sure the problem was relatively minor. I decided it deserved little in the way of detailed explanations. And I was confident my cancer was far less serious than the cancer the majority of people experience. And, then, over the course of several days, I came to realize mine was more serious than I thought. Again, though, I convinced myself it was serious, but not too serious. After my surgery, my surgeon’s quick comment (that all the margins were clear and there were no obvious signs the cancer has spread) was reason to celebrate. A couple of days ago, though, my cause for celebration declined somewhat. My oncologist said there was evidence that cancer had invaded the margins in one area. For that reason, she said, she was inclined to think radiation treatment, in addition to chemotherapy, was in order. Chemo was to be primary, but radiation should  be part of the regimen. By the way, she said, the tumor was considerably larger than the PET scan indicated. Instead of 6.5 cm, the tumor was 7.4 cm. That fact, alone, changed the stage classification of the cancer: it is now classified as a Stage IIIa cancer, versus a State IIb cancer. The day after my appointment with the oncologist, I had my follow-up appointment with the surgeon.

Indeed, he said, he has seen no evidence whatsoever of cancer in the margins. But lab analysis indicated there was cancer in the cells between the lower right lobe—the one removed—and the middle right lobe. He explained that the transition areas in my lobes were clear; typically, he said, the tissues in those areas would be somewhat murky and opaque if cancer cells were present. But the lab analysis showed evidence of cancer, even though the tissues in those areas were clear and virtually transparent. He said he felt certain he could go back in and remove any areas in which there might be cancer, but I had already been through major surgery and doing it again was probably not a wise move. And, he said, the felt confident the radiation could quickly eradicate any remaining cancer. He showed me some still images of the devices used to separate the lobes and which were used to “get rid of” the cancer cells. It made perfectly good sense. The bottom line, he said, was this: if the chemo and radiation didn’t get rid of the cancer, he could go back in later and remove it. But doing it now would present a risk, let alone considerable pain again (not that it’s gone yet). So, the good news is still “pretty good,” but not extremely good. And it’s the sort of news that has effectively hit me in jaw like a cast-iron skillet.

As things stand at this moment, I’ll go back to see the oncologist in about two weeks for various tests, etc. Then, two weeks later, I’ll return (appointment scheduled for December 31) for my first chemo treatment. But I’m apt to change that. I leaning toward rescheduling my first chemo treatment for the week after the first of the year.

I asked the surgeon what the chances were that, even after his surgery, there might be cancer in my body (even assuming nothing went awry with the surgery). The rationale for my question: if the chances were slim, I would think additional treatment would be unnecessary. He said the likelihood is almost certain to be 100%. There is some cancer circulating in my bloodstream, he said. I have to kill it or it will kill me. So declining chemo is out of the question at the moment. That would be madness.

I’ve bounced back and forth so much I can’t believe I haven’t short-circuited my brain. My moods have spun from gleeful to terrified to thrilled to frightened and back again, all in the span of fifteen minutes. And I’ve been conscious of the fact that I absolutely had to keep my emotions in check or I would melt down in the exam room and be unable to recover. I wish I could go out for a long, lonely drive…maybe a several-day diversion in a back-woods cabin somewhere my screams would not alert the police. But I can’t even drive for a while, so that’s out of the question.

The surgeon seems pleased with the results, except that he’s very unhappy that he did not see that cancer cells had spread outside the tumor he removed. And he was surprised at how large the tumor was. I remembered what he had said earlier about what he believed was a 6.5 cm tumor; a tumor that large almost always has spread into the lymph nodes and, frequently, beyond. But the lab results from my surgery showed no evidence that cancer had invaded my lymph nodes. So, on the one hand, I’m very happy that “all the evidence” that’s currently available, suggests the cancer has not spread (except maybe to my middle lobe). On the other hand, I am disappointed to have to go through radiation treatment in addition to the chemo. But maybe I should be grateful that I’ve been presented with the opportunity to fight the bastard that invaded my chest and, if I work hard, win the fight. I’m working on developing that sense of gratitude. I know my circumstances could be far worse. My mood, on the other hand, could be far better. Perhaps my most immediate goal should be to improve the stability of that emotional seesaw.

If I were half smart, I’d look at my most recent information update as merely a bump in the road that needs smoothing. The bump may be a what in Mexico is called a tope (speed bump) or it may be a pothole that needs to be filled. Whatever it is, it won’t get fixed if all I do is bitch about it. Corrective action is on the horizon. Now, what, exactly, does it look like?

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Poisonous Wonder

In the absence of data, I can only guess. I am simply a surmiser, a theorist who hypothesizes and speculates, a man who deduces and presumes based on the logic of conjecture. Yet my inferences carry the nuclear weight of centroidal scientists. The framework upon which my conjectures are built is both rigid and flexible, a malleable steel that supports ideas too heavy to fly in a vacuum and too light to swim in a liquid with no mass.

My theories are grounded in suspicion and baseless assumptions. My beliefs arise from swamp gas and nefarious opinions, the same sources that give rise to conspiracy and poisonous wonder.


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Evidence validates the fact that all the broken pieces fit together. It accomplishes nothing more, does it? But doesn’t it show, too, that fragments once meant more together than they do apart? A sphere clutches to all the answers until it releases them the way chaos does.

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Murky Morning

As I look out my window this morning, the landscape seems to have been painted with a thick brush, heavily charged with grey and brown and ochre pigments. My eyes search for familiar shapes amidst the abstractions of branches and leaves and indistinct tops of pine trees. The pines, especially, appear wrapped in cloudy, translucent cellophane as they attempt to pierce the fog, in the hope that a clear blue sky awaits just beyond the murky morning overcast.

The language of an accomplished painter, borrowed by a talented writer, can better describe the world than the sharpest eyesight can experience it. The ability to replicate the world in which we live with paint and language is almost cruel in its beauty.

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The First Recovery Begins

I am out of the hospital. Apparently, though, the hospital adventure was just the start of a series of experiences designed either as lessons, to make me a better person, or as punishments in response to the kind of person I’ve become over the years. Whatever their genesis, it might be best if I recount the experiences in brief:

  1. A lingering cough that led to a diagnosis of lung cancer;
  2. the removal of the lower lobe of my right lung followed the diagnosis;
  3. during my seven-day hospital stay, the death of our car’s battery, leaving my wife at the mercy of the (thankfully) reliable shuttle service to and from the motel where she stayed during my hospitalization;
  4. the stoppage (cloggage? nonfunctionage?) of the toilet in the motel room where my wife was staying; and
  5. returning home (after dealing with numbers 1 through 4 above) to a reasonably warm house that cooled considerably when our HVAC system went down due to an electrical issue (fortunately, my wife’s sister allowed us to stay overnight with her last night in her very comfortable guest room).

With good fortune, our HVAC system was to be repaired today between 1 and 3 p.m. and the other trials we have faced are behind us. Well, that’s asking for too much. The HVAC system is not working, if only temporarily; the repairman will return either later today or tomorrow with a new replacement part—but the temporary fix should last the night. If we can just not have any new challenges in the immediate future, that will be a welcome adjustment. I know, I will have to deal with chemotherapy after my surgical wounds heal. And I know, before my wounds heal, I will have to suffer through the pain of recovering from the surgery. Thus far, since my release from the hospital, the pain has been tolerable more so than it has been intolerable. I hope that lasts. The idea of coping—for long—with an intolerable level of pain is absolutely unappealing. I guess I could do it if I had to, but I think I’d rather be sedated for a week. And I would be (some say “could be,” some say “am”) a most difficult person to be around.

The question is this: what the hell did I do to warrant these self-improvement experiences or punishments (depending on your perspective)? I am certain my life and lifestyle both warrant the imposition of considerable quantities of life-lessons, but I believe, as well, that a cancer diagnosis, alone, would have been sufficient to change me. I did not really need the removal of the lower lobe of my right lung (well, I suppose that could be part of the longer process of a cancer diagnosis). But certainly, my wife should not have suffered the inconvenience of a dead car battery as a consequence of my behavior. And she shouldn’t have to deal with a toilet stoppage as part of my rehabilitation. And she shouldn’t have had to deal with an uncooperative HVAC system. I’m not sure I should have had to deal with that; I am certain she shouldn’t!

Of course this entire string of life-changing events/challenges/aggravations/discomforts could be purely coincidental. In fact, I am relatively sure they are. But I’m not absolutely certain. I’m willing to concede that the universe is sufficiently complex that it may be capable of telegraphing a series of messages to me, hoping I give them considerable thought so that the “lessons” find their way to the intended cerebral stations inside my brain so that I finally “get it” with regard to the messages the universe wishes me to understand. Still, I’m skeptical. But that skepticism notwithstanding, an extensive process of self-criticism is in order. I’ll try not to go into too much detail about that process here on the blog, but I will do some self-reflection, though probably not today.

I do engage in self-reflection and assessment on a regular basis, by the way. I ‘m not sure that comes through clearly in what I write, but I pay quite a lot of attention to my behaviors and thoughts and the motivations behind them. But perhaps I should do more. I’ll remain a skeptic, but will do so from within an open-minded framework.

At any rate, my recovery from surgery has begun. Though the surgeon reported no evidence that there was cancer anywhere but the tumor he removed, I haven’t gotten results of lymph node examinations. I may wait to get that information when I have a follow-up appointment in around two weeks. I look forward to getting the physical recovery behind me. The roller-coaster of pain has been tolerable, I suppose, but my threshold of pain tolerance is not high; I want the pain to end quickly and to never again reach the levels it reached post-surgery. Is that too much to ask?

I’ve learned something since the diagnosis of my cancer. Not about me, but about other people who learned of the diagnosis. Even people I have never met face-to-face.  I’ve learned that people within my “sphere” are kind, generous, loving human beings. So many people have offered support. So many have given it, even without realizing they have done so. Just by expressing sympathy, empathy, or a willingness to be available to my wife and me if and when we need them, people have given us support before I even knew I needed it. That’s evidence of innate compassion, I think. This evening, a friend from church will stop by with a chicken pot pie! She must have read my mind. It’s one of my favorite things, but my wife doesn’t/won’t make it (maybe she would if I begged, but I haven’t begged just yet).

And we’ve been offered rides, errands, food…you name it. An electronic friend in Sweden allowed as how she wished she could send me a post-surgery cookie care package.  I wonder if these folks  realize how important their expressions of support and sympathy make? I wonder if they realize how their willingness to interrupt their lives to make a difference in ours improves my perspective on humanity?

I’ve written so little in the past seven or eight days, I still don’t know just where to begin. I guess this post has been the start. I still want to “journal” my experience in the hospital. A number of experiences merit more words from me, I think, but I guess I’m not yet ready to write them. More to follow. Someday.

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Pain-Based Design Competition.

The first few days after surgery were easily tolerable. The epidural and other pain meds made to easy to believe all was well. Well, the pain was masked. The agony was replaced by strange hallucinations. I spoke to Santa Clause somewhere along the way. Abraham Lincoln learned from me to play Words with Friends; I was his teacher. But I learned an important lesson, too. Online gaming relies heavily on pain-based gamining. The more excruciating the game, the higher the game-creator’s score and the more likely the game will be adopted. I will write more later. This 1-finger story telling in painful. Just what they want.

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From a Small Screen in the Hospital

This post will be short, but happy. Today is Thanksgiving Day and I am in the hospital, short one lobe of my right lung. I am typing this with  one finger on my Samsung smart phone and happy to be doing it. I am alive and, for the moment, able to breathe without the aid of a ventilator or an oxygen mask. When I can get access to a desk, my computer, and am free of the remaining devices to which I am attached, I will write more about my good fortune. I will write about my attitude, which ranges from joy and ecstacy to fear and rage, from thankfulness to anger, from gratitude to a sense of powerlessness like none I have ever felt before.

I miss my daily conversations with myself, undertaken from the tips of my fingers. Despite my joy, this inability to sit at my computer and type is maddening.

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The Day Before Surgery

I awoke in the middle of the night and wrote the post below. Rather than post it right away, I decided to wait and see whether I’d feel differently after the remainder of a night’s sleep, assuming I could get to sleep.

I suspect this may be the last post I’ll make for quite some time. Once I’m in the hospital, I’ll be either sedated or unable to comfortably type or both. Maybe I’ll figure out a way to record comments along the way, during my recovery, that I can later adapt into one or more posts that describe the healing process. Or maybe not. Time will tell. I’ve asked my wife to send an email update post-surgery to people with whom I regularly correspond via email. My sister-in-law agreed to post a similar update to my Facebook page after my surgery. I expect to be neither capable of being my own messenger nor interested in doing anything of the sort after surgery. But I’m not really quite sure what to expect.

You’d think that, by now, I would have conducted sufficient research to have a sense of how I’ll feel in recovery. But I haven’t. Or, I should say, I hadn’t until around 1:00 a.m. Sunday morning. I awoke from a coughing fit caused by sinus drainage. I took advantage of the fact that I was up and awake by looking for information online. The best information I could find was an online PDF produced by the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation based in Liverpool, England. While treatment in England may be different from treatment in the US, I imagine the protocols are similar. I’ll find it interesting to compare. At least after the fact I’ll find it interesting.

The closer I get to the time of reporting for my surgery, about 27 hours from now, the more subdued and anxious I feel. Especially after reading how my life will change, I am not happy with this whole episode. This turn of events in my life was utterly unexpected. I was planning on a long, healthy, happy, continuation of my retirement. I am going into surgery with the hope and expectation that it will go as well as possible, but I know that even the best outcome will leave me changed.

I will be short of breath for quite some time, maybe from now on. Damn. Just damn. I’m finding it much harder to be “up” than I have been of late. Until now, I’ve been able to convince myself that, as nasty as having one’s chest opened up might be, all will be well after recovery. But I know that’s not entirely true. But I know of many, many people who have undergone far more traumatic experiences and have bounced back from them. I am going into surgery assuming all will go well. But even the best outcome is an outcome I’d rather not have faced. I’ll try to focus on what’s possible and to consider how people have dealt with far worse hands. But, damn, that’s not an easy attitude to have at this moment.  Maybe it’s just the time of night. It’s approaching 2:00 a.m., not a day-part often associated with glee and good moods.

Posting here about my thoughts on my diagnosis and treatment, pre-surgery, has been extremely therapeutic for me. I deeply appreciate the comments and support I’ve received in response to my posts, whether they were made here on the blog or via email or by members of the close-knit Facebook group I was lucky enough to join several months ago. I am grateful for good people who care. You know who you are. Give yourselves a hug.

Sleep came easily a few hours ago. Maybe it will come just as quickly when I return to bed. I will try.

After we get up in the morning, we’ll go to the regular service, followed by Thanksgiving dinner, at church. Once we get home, we’ll pack what we need for our short stay in Little Rock. I’ll take just a few things, inasmuch as I expect not to be wearing my own clothes much for the next several days. My wife will take more, as she has arranged for a room at a nearby hotel for several days while I am in the hospital. That will be much easier on her that trekking back and forth from home.

If I am of the mood to do it, I may post yet again before I go to bed tonight. Maybe not. Either way, I suspect I’ll be back here with stories to tell in a week or two; maybe less.

Posted in Cancer, Health | 8 Comments

Clare’s Accent Made Me Hungry for a Visit to South Africa

When I heard Clare’s accent on the phone the other day, my mind immediately leapt toward South African food. If I discover Clare is from Angola or Ghana or, god forbid, Ecuador or Romania, I will be deeply embarrassed. Until that mortifying moment that I discover my accent-recognition-meter is badly broken, though, my infatuation with South African cuisine will guide my culinary considerations.

In addition to peri-peri sauce (with a focus on peri-peri chicken), my taste buds are hankering for boerswors, a sausage I’ve never tasted but after which I’ve long lusted. According to the South African media outlet, Independent Media/IOL, boerewors, to comply with South African law, must comprise no less than 90 percent meat–beef with lamb, pork or a mixture of the two–and a fat content of no more than 30 percent. If I had the necessary equipment to attach to our Kitchenaid mixer,  I long ago would have made boerswors (as well as dozens of other types of sausages). However, I have neither the grinder nor the sausage stuffer. Consequently, I’ve never bought the casing I’d need into which to stuff the ground and spiced meat. But were that equipment and material suddenly appear in my kitchen one day, I’d be able to find the right recipes. I believe I’d be able to make boerswors that would make ex-pat South Africans homesick.

My brief conversation with Clare led me beyond food to culture. Though the memory of apartheid is ugly, the fight against it brewed some remarkable literary talent. I remember watching a play by Athol Fugard, “Master Harold”…and the boys, though I don’t remember specifics about the play. I remember it made me cry.  And the remarkable history of Nelson Mandela gives me reason to want to know more about and to see South Africa. And some friends’ recent trip to South Africa, from which they very recently returned, spurred on what had been my flagging desire to see the country. If I’m able to get around by then, we’re going to their house on December 1 to see photos they took during their trip. And one of my partially-written novels is based heavily on imaginary circumstances surrounding South Africa’s now-dismantled nuclear program. For some reason, South Africa—its food and its history and its cultural complexity—has long found a place in my imagination and on my palate. I do, in fact, have a jar of ground peri-peri in my kitchen. And I have had, on many occasions, bottles of Nando’s Peri-Peri Sauce in my refrigerator. I suspect I have one or more of Athol Fugard’s books and/or plays on my bookshelf, though it’s possible it/they were sold or given away in the purge that preceded our move from Dallas to Hot Springs Village.

I prefer writing what I’ve just done to what I wrote in the middle of the night last night. I scheduled that piece moderately depressing bit of writing to go “live” this afternoon about the time I reach Little Rock.  Maybe I’ll let it go live, maybe I won’t. Time will tell, as I sometimes say.


Posted in Food | 2 Comments

Closer to the Cut

Yesterday, two calls from the hospital in Little Rock emphasized that this lung cancer surgery thing is really going to happen. First, a call from someone representing the anaesthesia team called to ask a lot of questions about my medical history, experience under anaesthesia, allergies, etc., etc., etc. I wanted desperately to ask the woman who called whether her accent was South African (because it sounded like a South African accent to me), but I stuck to the issues she raised. I think her name was Clare. If I can remember on Monday morning, I’ll ask someone whether Clare from the anaesthesia team is originally from South Africa. And, if the answer is “yes,” I’ll ask to speak to Clare after I’m well along in recovery so I can inquire about her life story and her experience, pro or con, with peri-peri sauce, one of many South African flavors I find quite appealing.  The second call wasn’t as interesting, but it was slightly more jolting. I had been expecting, based on my interactions with the surgeon, Jason Muesse, that I would be his second procedure of the day; a morning procedure, but not the earliest. But the caller told me I should plan to be at the hospital at 5:00 a.m. on Monday morning in preparation for a 7:00 a.m. surgery. Even for me, 5:00 a.m. is early. For my wife, it’s early to the second power, multiplied many times over. Needless to say, our decision to drive to Little Rock on Sunday afternoon, rather than heading over early Monday, was confirmed in spades. We’ll get a room in a nearby hotel or motel. My wife will plan to stay there for at least another two or three days. I think she’s already made reservations with a place that offers complimentary 24/7 transportation to and from the main hospitals in the area, UAMS and CHI St. Vincent.

I opted for the November 19 surgery date, even though Dr. Muesse intends to be away on holiday/vacation for the remainder of Thanksgiving week. His colleague, Dr. Steliga, will take on responsibility for aftercare until my release from the hospital. Dr. Muesse recommended I get the surgery done ASAP after my meeting with him and, in fact, we set the surgery for November 14 (last Wednesday). After the meeting, though, I had cold feet. I wanted to participate in our little wine/appetizer group’s gathering (this month, it was an Italian theme), which would have been impossible with a November 14 surgery. Methinks I simply got scared and used that as one of a couple dozen convenient excuses. When I opted against November 19, I suggested December 4. Dr. Muesse had suggested I not wait any longer than that, for fear of allowing the tumor to metastasize. We don’t know for certain it hasn’t already, but I certainly didn’t want to give it more time, regardless, so we picked Monday.  I’ve probably already written this. I feel like my writing must seem a little like the words of elderly people who tell the same story over and over and over again.

Despite fears and misgivings, I’ve come to grips with the fact that I’m having lung cancer surgery and that I’ll have chemotherapy afterward. Those facts conspire to force me to admit that it’s more than I’m having surgery for a malignant tumor and subsequent treatment; I have to admit “I have lung cancer.” That is harder to say than I expected it might be. For whatever reason, it’s easier to talk about the matter in a certain way—that a tumor is growing inside of me that, if left untreated, will eventually kill me—than in another—that I have lung cancer. The latter seems more sinister and more deadly for some reason. “You have lung cancer.” None of the doctors thus far have stated it in that way. “The tumor is malignant.” That’s closer to what they’ve said. I wonder whether their choice of words is quite intentional? I wonder whether they explicitly avoid saying “you have lung cancer” because that statement sounds to the patient like a death sentence? Hmm.  I wonder if, in my own mind, I’m better off telling myself that a malignant tumor is growing inside my lung as opposed to informing my already fragile sense of security that I have lung cancer? I’m sure there are resources to answer than question, perhaps people who have explored it more deeply than I can or will, but I’m not planning to spend my time today looking for them. Instead, I’ll spend a couple of hours at the Unitarian Universalist Village Church working on a new long-range plan. I have mixed feelings about that at the moment, but I will do it, nonetheless.

I have the sense that a lot of people don’t want to talk in any depth or detail about my diagnosis. And I can understand that. It’s uncomfortable talking with someone about a diagnosis that carries with it the prospect of that person’s earlier-than-anticipated death. Yet, as the person with the condition, I feel like talking about it. Not to elicit statements of concern and good wishes but to talk about more practical matters like pain management and when I’ll be able to drive after surgery and the number of follow-up visits I’ll have to make to the surgeon and oncologist and other aspects of how this surgery will impact my life and for how long. I can answer the question of “how long?” The rest of my life. But I’m looking not for the long-term minuscule impacts; I’m curious about ongoing dislocations to my quality of life and their impact on both me and my wife. I suppose lung cancer support groups can help answer some of those questions. After I return home from surgery, I’ll plan on seeking information about them. I suspect there are groups locally, perhaps even in Hot Springs Village. The unfortunate fact of life, though is that people in the Village who might have experienced what I’m about to go through are apt to be considerably older than I and may have had surgery and recovery before current techniques were in use. WAIT. Now THAT is the equivalent to the attitude that “we’ve already tried that and it didn’t work.” I hate that! I’ll not go down that road, by god!

Tomorrow, at church, we’re having the annual Thanksgiving Dinner. We’ve participated in the event each of the past two years. It’s not a huge affair, just a luncheon with turkey supplied by the church (purchased from a local vendor that smokes them) and side dishes supplied by church members and friends who sign up to provide specific dishes. We’ll be among several to bring green bean casseroles. If I were on the committee responsible for organizing the event, I’d lobby for something different. Perhaps an Indian-inspired turkey dinner. I just did a quick search and found a Tandoori turkey and chutney dinner on the epicurious website. The accompaniments include rice pilaf with almonds and raisins, caramelized cumin-roasted carrots, scalloped potatoes with coconut milk and chiles, and raita. Now THAT is a dinner I’d get excited about. But the excitement might fizzle when I realize only a half-dozen others in the congregation would share our excitement. And we’d have to cook the turkeys, rather than have someone else do it. Ah, well, I can dream. Perhaps next year my wife and I can offer a supplemental Thanksgiving dinner for adventurous diners, both inside and outside our church.

This food fixation presumes I’ll be able to eat what I want after surgery and that my attention won’t be focused primarily on pain management as opposed to the promotion of pleasure (I’m still alliterative, even when I’m shivering in fear). I read last night that fifty percent of lung cancer patients deal with severe chronic pain after surgery. That ups the ante for me, a man who readily admits to being allergic to pain. I’m banking on being in the fifty percent of patients who do NOT experience severe chronic pain after surgery. But even if I am in that fortunate fifty percent, I already feel empathy for those people who do suffer it. It’s an awful choice; between dying—and, in the process, suffering severe pain for a relatively short amount of time—and living for an unknown length of time while suffering from chronic severe pain. I sometimes wonder whether the focus of medicine should be regularly revisited with an examination of the philosophy that pain reduction should be given priority over life extension. Or, perhaps, we ought to openly discuss ways in which, on an individual-specific basis, we can measure that precise point at which, on one side, quality of life outweighs the price in pain paid to live it and, on the other side, the pain one would have to endure to continue to live one’s life is too great a price to pay to live. Just suggesting the discussion of such an equation may reveal how selfish and self-centered I am. The impact on others’ lives—wives, husbands, sons, daughters, parents, friends, et al—should figure into the equation. And, ultimately, we would probably decide that there is no equation sufficiently elegant and complex to determine that point at which life with pain is preferable to death. It’s an interesting problem to think about. But I’d rather think of it in the abstract that be forced to consider it as an immediately practical matter.

I do hope, when I come out of surgery, I’m able to talk with Clare about South African food. Assuming, of course, she was reared in South Africa. Even if she wasn’t, I hope I’m able after surgery to talk her about South African food. Or anything, really. Anything at all.

Posted in Cancer, Health | 3 Comments

Dreamscapes and Their Kin

Strange dreams last night.

I was in a  Japanese shipyard, where ships were being launched from an enormous automated contraption that suspended huge cargo ships along a track perpendicular to the waterfront. At the  very end of the track, the ships spun ninety degrees and slid down into the water. I somehow hung unto the railing of several of these ships as they made the ninety degree turn into the water. Japanese men snatched me as I dangled over the water and returned me to an observation spot way back dockside, away from the water, where another ship came by and I did the same thing again. What I found most fascinating was the enormity of the ships. They were the length of several football fields. And I had the sense that they were being assembled at high speed in a factory setting, perhaps several dozen ships per day. I do not know how I knew the shipyard was Japanese. I saw no writing, nor any indication I was in Japan. Only people who I knew, somehow, were Japanese.

Different dream, I assume. I was in a high-rise building in New York, where I shared an apartment with people I did not know. My bedroom was just off an elevator lobby, as were at least two other bedrooms. Another door from the elevator lobby was a bathroom. The toilet was stopped up. I needed to use the bathroom, so I took the elevator to the building lobby. I went outside the building to find a bathroom and walked around the block, but somehow I got turned around and confused and found myself in a run-down neighborhood where buildings with broken windows sat unoccupied and decaying. At some point, I decided to turn around and go back the way I came, but as I did, I realized darkness had fallen and there were no street lights nor any sidewalks. I was walking in the right lane of the street. Cars came up behind me and swerved around me. I expected to be hit any moment.

Perhaps as part of the same New York dream, but not sure, I left a high-rise building and followed a pathway through a large park-like area away from the building. At some point as I was crossing a huge field, I noticed the ground was wet. It got wetter the further I walked until, suddenly, I stepped into a puddle of sticky mud an inch deep. Mud splashed up on my pants leg and covered my shoes almost up to the laces. The shoes were made of a light violet-colored felt-like material. Ahead of me, people who had walked through the same path that I was walking had reached the street, where they were rinsing their shoes and lower legs at a fire hydrant that was spraying water to the side.


I remember thinking the grey sky a few days ago looked “sullen.” To me, sullen connotes subsurface anger, displeasure, and an unwillingness to engage. So when I thought the sky was sullen, I was ascribing human characteristics to it. Anthropomorphizing it. When people speak or write of animals or inanimate objects  (or large swaths of the universe) as if they share qualities with humans, I think they (we) either are minimizing the superiority of the physical world around us or elevating our own importance and influence. Or both. Yet, perhaps, the universe and everything in it is a living, breathing organization; we might well need to dramatically expand our understanding of the context  and definitions of “living” and “breathing” to better understand the universe. I seriously doubt that the universe possesses what we would call consciousness, but I suspect our definition of consciousness is small and feeble. I do not mean to say, in any respect, that the universe is god or God or almighty or Almighty. But this collective existence of things and space and stars and galaxies and endlessness is something beyond my comprehension.


Mortality is on my mind of late, courtesy of my selfish view of the universe. I like the idea that we are made of stardust and we will eventually return to stardust. But I’d rather like my return, and that of everyone I hold dear, to hold off until the end of time. That’s a play on words, by the way. Time, I think, is a construct to help us understand change. Change cannot occur, in our myopic view of the universe, without the passage of time. We look back in time and we remember what we did or did not do that makes us proud or full of regret. And we know we cannot correct mistakes already made. And we have to recognize that past mistakes shape us as we change, i.e., move forward in time. Regret is made of memories we’d rather not have living in our brains. Mortality wouldn’t be such an onerous concept if it didn’t share a place in our minds with regret.  Oh, I do wish I could change so many things about who I was and who I am. One doesn’t often think of such things so much in the invincible years of youth. We’re advised to never look back, to always look ahead to how we can be better and live better in the future. “You can’t change the past, but you can change the future.” Yes, to an extent. But the extent of change depends on the available future. Back to time and change, though; I wonder if time can be slowed by examining each element of change with a microscope? I’ll not test the theory.


Solvent means “having the power of dissolving.” (Among other definitions.) Solvency means “the ability to pay all just debts.” Insolvency means “bankrupt.” I’m of a mind that one could become rich if he or she developed a superior caustic that would erase bankruptcy.

“Just spray Solvitol on your bank statements and those fingers that just itch to spend money, wait half an hour, and presto! No more insolvency.”

I think I’d rather have a U.S. government-approved printing press and the appropriate plates and ink so I could print twenty-dollar-bills. Not that I’m insolvent, mind you. I’m just your average American citizen, consumed with unspeakable greed and living under the assumption that money can solve all problems, big and small. Lung cancer? For the right amount of money we can turn back time and remove that tumor with video-assisted-thoracic surgery. Mortality creeps in to every damn conversation! I can speak about a bowl of milk and wonder how long before it goes sour. Morbid! (Just kidding, you know.)


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Okra & Tomatoes

My “memories” of okra &  tomatoes from my childhood may or may not be actual memories. Instead, they may be artificial recollections created from conversations with family members about foods my mother cooked when I was a child. I think I recall my mother making okra & tomatoes, but I’m not sure those memories are real. Not that it matters.

Apparently, I grew up eating okra & tomatoes. I’ve liked the dish for as long as I can remember. I still do. In fact, I seem to be enjoying it more with every opportunity to taste it. I was surprised, after searching my blog, that I had written only once about okra & tomatoes and, then, only in passing. The absence of posts about okra & tomatoes is a shameful oversight I am now trying to correct. You see, okra & tomatoes connects me to cultures for which I have no business connecting. I grew up in Texas. I spent four years in Illinois. I spent just under a year in New York. I traveled extensively outside of Texas, but rarely to the deep south. I never got to India, though I thought about it more than occasionally. The absence of India and the deep south (of the USA) from memories of my youth should have blocked an almost unnatural attachment to okra & tomatoes. Why, you ask? I’ll tell you why. Mind you, this explanation is not necessarily based in fact but in fancy. It could have some seeds of truth to it, but if so they are entirely accidental and have been soaked in creative juices to aid in germination. Well, that’s not entirely true, either. Seeds of truth about okra & tomatoes actually gave rise the creation of this explanation about the roots of okra & tomatoes and the reason there is not a natural explanation for my affinity for them. Got it? Let’s begin, anyway.

Okra is, depending on who you believe, indigenous to Ethiopia, Western Africa, or South Asia. I choose to believe the roots of okra originated in South Asia. As evidence, I point to all the Indian comestible dishes that include bhindi, the English version of the Hindi word for the plant we call okra. In my world view, the plant migrated to northern Africa, where it was renamed okra, thanks to various African languages. That name caught on with English-speaking people, including slave traders who exported human beings to the Caribbean and, later, the land that would become the deep south in the USA.  Remember, these “facts” flow from a fertile imagination, not from any defensible research. That having been said, the cultivation of okra in the deep south led to its consumption by the folks who were lucky enough to be introduced to the plant. Frankly, I cannot imagine why anyone would think the stuff is edible. It grows on thorny plants and looks and feels like it could be dangerous. That notwithstanding, someone decided to give it a try. And that was a wise decision. Soon (we don’t know how to measure “soon,” but it obviously it wasn’t appreciable a length of time greater than “before long”), eating okra became the rage in the southern USA. Simultaneously, or possibly before or after, people on the Indian subcontinent were eating okra, AKA bhindi. They might have been using different spices and different ingredients with which to pair the vegetable (vegetable pairings were just as popular whenever that was as wine and food pairings are today), but that didn’t really matter. They liked the food.

Now, among the pairings, both in India and along the African-Caribbean-US Coastal slave trading routes, tomatoes were quite popular. Okra and tomatoes, with or without exotic spices and such, became wildly popular in India and the Deep South, as I’ll henceforth call the American slavery belt. If I had grown up in either the Deep South or in India, my affinity for okra & tomatoes would make sense and could be easily explained as a cultural gustatory artifact of my upbringing. But, as I explained earlier, I was not reared in either place. Consequently, my enjoyment of the dish cannot be explained through my cultural connections.

Unless, of course, I was adopted from Indian or Southern parents at a relatively late age and memories of my early years were later erased. That might explain my limited recollection of my youth. I only thought I was born in Brownsville and grew up in Corpus Christi. In fact, I may one day discover, I was born either in the slums of Kolkata (AKA Calcutta) or in a waterfront shack near the mouth of the Mississippi. Kidnapped as an infant, I was taken to an orphanage in Matamoros, Tamaulipas. Mexico. There, the people I knew as my parents, unable to bring into the world by traditional means the sixth child they had always wanted (a body begins to wear out after five or more deliveries),  opted to adopt me and raise me as their own. Little did they know at the time that my cultural DNA, as well as my physical DNA, would predispose me to an almost unnatural attraction to okra and tomatoes. My mother, whose own southern ancestry ingrained in her an appreciation for okra, nurtured my enjoyment of the vegetable. My father, who may have had connections to senior level officials in the Kolkata shipyard though I doubt it, appreciated okra as well, though his passion was for the vegetable breaded and fried. I inherited that passion, as well, though I am just as passionate about okra and tomatoes, if not more so.

Regardless of my history, okra’s history, or my physical or cultural DNA, I have a fondness for okra and tomatoes that borders on devotion. I’ve learned that people who enjoy the flavor and texture of okra and tomatoes are an order of magnitude more intelligent than the average riff-raff roaming the streets and alleys and long, lonely highways of this planet. I’ve learned, too, that they are better looking than their non-okra-and-tomatoes-loving counterparts. Moreover, okra & tomato aficionados tend to live longer and their cars get better gas mileage. And it is not well known that okra’s healing powers, contained in the vegetable’s gelatinous goo some find so offensive, are so extraordinary that people who eat sufficient amounts can actually regrow lost or forgotten limbs.

Take, for instance, little Tory Brian Jones. The last time I saw little Tory Brian, he was about four feet tall. His mother, Melissa Brian Jones, called me the other day to chat. During our conversation, she said “You won’t recognize Tory Brian. He’s grown another foot since you last saw him.” Later, when she came over to visit and brought Tory Brian with her, I was stunned to see that he had, indeed, grown another foot that poked straight up out of the top of his head. I recommended to Melissa Brian that she ought to put a sock and a shoe on it so they wouldn’t have any trouble getting seated at upscale restaurants.  Admittedly, little Tory Brian was a strange child. He craved okra the way most children crave sugar. His mother often found him in Pappy Brian’s big okra garden tearing okra off the plants and eating it raw. His face, scratched raw from the tiny spines that cover the plant, would be covered with okra slime when she found him. Due to the plant’s healing powers, the scratches would disappear by the time she got the boy inside and washed his face. Actually, Melissa Brian used okra slime to heal her son’s chicken pox scars, too. The lesions from his chicken pox blisters covered little Tory Brian’s entire body and left deep, circular scars in his flesh from head to toe. Melissa Brian bathed the boy in okra slime. Miraculously, the next day the boy’s skin was as smooth as a new born baby’s. Melissa Brian, believing she had witnessed a miracle, ran to the church to tell her pastor. The pastor told her to keep the miracle a secret. Years later, after Pastor Nelson Brian Gobson was defrocked for falsely reporting miracles, a secret okra farm was discovered on property he owned in the heart of the Ozark Mountains. He had, it turned out, processed okra and stored its goo in enormous vats. When someone came to him seeking a healing miracle, he simply ladled up some okra goo and secretly slathered it over the person needing the healing, then claimed the redemption was a miracle resulting from his personal conversation with the almighty. We now know, of course, it wasn’t that at all. It was the okra. It’s almost magical.

Now this entire story may seem far-fetched, but I assure you it is as true as the day is tall. Some people might read this story and say to themselves, “The fella who wrote this story is crazy in the head and ought to be locked up for observation.” Fortunately, absurdist fantasy fiction is not a disorder as defined in the DSM-5 (that’s the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, promulgated by the American Psychiatric Association, for those unfamiliar with the lingo). So, I am free to roam the planet, unrestrained by unconventional wisdom about my mental state, as it were. I am not quite sure why I am writing absurdist fantasy fiction lately. Perhaps it is, indeed, a disorder that should be covered by the DSM-5. I’ll investigate and get back to you if I so choose. Until then, I think I’ll go boil a potato, inasmuch as it’s a shade after 6:30 and I have developed a powerful hunger. I’d like to have okra and tomatoes, but that’s what we had for lunch yesterday. You eat too much of that stuff, you grow another foot around your mid-section.


Posted in Absurdist Fantasy | 1 Comment

A Word Dies When Spoken for the Last Time

For some odd reason beyond my comprehension, the word “spill” inhabits a place in my brain that causes it to make regular appearances in my writing. Eighty-five of my 2,38 posts, more than three percent, include the word. Compare that to sixty-six posts in which “damage” was used. But “emotion” appears in a whopping 298 posts, or more than eleven percent of my prolificacy (it’s actually a word). But back to the word that prompted this post: spill. I don’t recall ever thinking about the breadth and range of definitions the word commands. The definitions with which I am most familiar suggest a random or accidental discharge of liquids (oil, milk, blood) or other materials (bolts, grains of rice, flour) from a container. I use the word to suggest a discharge (e.g., words spilling from my fingers). And I’m familiar with informal uses (spilling the beans, spilling secrets). But how about the word used to identify stray and unnecessary or unwanted lights in a theatrical production, such as “spill lights?” And, when reminded, I know the meaning of spill as in “he took a spill and broke his leg.” The latter usage suggests falling or being thrown from a horse or vehicle (e.g., motorcycle). The results of unintended spills also are called spills, e.g., “she saw the spill on the floor and knew instantly the children had been playing in the kitchen.”

If I were of a mind to do the work, I probably could find information on the frequency of usage of the word “spill” over time, but I’m a slothful researcher today. Instead, I’ll simply speculate that usage of the word has declined over time. And I’ll offer my prognostication that its usage will continue to decline until, as some point in the future, the word will be spoken for the last time. That will mark the death of the word. To borrow and adjust a phrase: “A word dies when spoken for the last time.”

Wordplay is not my vocation but my avocation. But my definition of wordplay is not the same one you might find in the dictionary. Instead of (well, in addition to) clever or witty use of words, I define it to mean the pleasurable examination of words and their flexibility or lack thereof. I’ll expect that definition to find its way into Merriam-Webster at some point in the next century. Probably about the same time “spill” will be uttered for the last time. I suspect the last utterance of “spill” will take place in a kitchen in Laugharne, a town in Carmarthenshire, Wales. Dylan Thomas spent the last four years of his life there. He wrote the poem, ‘Over Sir John’s Hill,’ while he was there. Thomas died the year I was born, 1953. Of course this business about Dylan Thomas is neither here nor there with regard to the last utterance of “spill.”

A single woman, Amalie Hughs, will use the word when speaking of her betrothed. I predict her comment will go something like this: “I was to be married to Finley Jones in September, but he took a spill from his boat last Thursday and he drowned. I suppose the marriage will have to be postponed.” Amalie will not realize until a friend points it out that her marriage to Finley Jones will not be postponed but, instead, cancelled or simply will not take place. One doesn’t marry a dead man, especially a dead man who fell from a boat and whose body was never recovered. That notwithstanding, Amalie will never again speak the word “spill,” nor will anyone else. The word will die the moment she speaks it. Unlike the death of a person, the death of a word is not marked with either celebration or solemnity. It simply occurs. It is not even known until years later, when an anthropological linguist or some such beast comes upon evidence of its existence. Only then will its demise be accorded appropriate recognition.

In an ideal world, I would be able to write more about Amalie Hughs and what happened after the unfortunate death of the man to whom she was to be married. I cannot write more about her at the moment because I smell evidence, drifting in from the kitchen, that my wife is producing something the I predict I will find extremely interesting, even more interesting than Amalie. I may examine Amalie in more depth when I am older. And I may explore Laugharne and Dylan Thomas to the extent that they retain my interest.

Some days I write. Other days I simply put words down in the hope they will turn into sentences and, eventually, into paragraphs.

Off to the kitchen!

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The Fundamental Goodness of Humankind

It didn’t take long yesterday for the friendship and generosity within the
“tribe” to which I attach myself to spill over into the wider world. I wrote that I had promised someone I would give him a ride to and from a medical procedure but that, as it happens, my surgery is to take place at the same time. I reached out to fellow writers to see if one of them might be able and willing to help. Almost immediately, I got a positive response. Millie will help by providing two-way transportation to the man I promised I would help. Millie’s response provides incontrovertible evidence that decency and goodness and kindness do, in fact, exist in humankind. She was immediately willing to help someone outside her own immediate sphere. I will repay her with a hug and the assurance that I will do the same for someone else who needs help when I can provide it.

This situation takes my mind down a path to explore what prompts us to either come to the aid of others in need or allow our circumstances to excuse us from that obligation. At what point is it “okay” (that is, permissible or excusable or understandable) to abandon the principle of altruism in favor of egoism? My decision, opting to move ahead with my scheduled surgery instead of fulfilling my promise to provide transportation for medical appointments for someone else, seems reasonable. But would it have been reasonable break my promise for another reason, say, that I had scheduled a breakfast with a friend during the same time frame? My response is that it may have been reasonable, but not excusable or decent. Context is important, I think. And the degree to which need versus want figures into the matter plays an important part. I might want to have breakfast with my friend, but that want is not as important as someone’s need to get to a medical appointment. As I’m thinking of it, need probably outweighs want in most cases. But, again, context matters.

Ultimately, coming to the aid of people who need help isn’t a mathematical problem in which the relative value of want and need are measured and incorporated into an equation that provides a factual answer. Altruism is not compatible with a discussion of cost-benefit ratios. Compassion and empathy matter as much as, and perhaps more than, context and the relative weight of need versus want. Any attempt at attaching pure logic to what is, at its heart, an emotional issue is evidence of the incompatibility between evidence and empathy. I suspect I could make valid arguments against attaching greater value to the needs of other people than to my own needs, again depending on context. But I suspect, as well, that those arguments would seem cold and heartless and inhuman.

Long ago, in sociology and psychology classes and subsequently in readings on the subjects, I learned that altruism may be a selfish behavior. That is, acts of altruism may be undertaken as much for the way they make the actor feel as for the way they make the recipient of the acts feel. I think that’s a cynical way of looking at the world, though I don’t doubt there’s some truth in it. Maybe I see truth in it because I’m cynical. But I think altruism in general springs from compassion and caring and human decency. If acts of altruism make the person engaged in those acts feel better, who am I to judge? And, more importantly, why would I care? Must good deeds be undertaken only if they do not make the doer feel better? I think my mind is going through another rabbit warren from which there is no escape. I better turn around.

I want, desperately, to believe in the fundamental goodness of humankind. Little acts, like Millie agreeing to interrupt her day by getting up at an ungodly hour to take someone she knows, but only in passing, to a medical appointment, helps me believe it.

Posted in Compassion, Empathy | Leave a comment

Fictional Writing

Wherein the writer attempts, unsuccessfully, to return to writing fiction vignettes, producing swill and incoherent drivel instead.

Coleman Daniel Sprague was the first person convicted under the new thought-crime statutes. The charges against him were extensive. The first count with which he was charged alleged that he imagined sex acts with a woman who had not authorized such daydreams. The second count alleged he thought about thrusting a knife into the heart of Danny Tobler, the abusive husband of the woman connected with the first count. The third count was the most serious, alleging that he fantasized about assassinating the Co-Presidents of the United States, Mimi Huckabee and Robert Jeffress. Multiple other less serious charges were leveled against Sprague, as well: pondering the possibilities of entering a bank and demanding all of its cash; and contemplative road rage, wherein he envisaged dropping a ten thousand pound statue of the Buddha onto a Mazda convertible whose driver cut him off and shot him the finger.

Sprague’s bad luck stemmed from his newspaper’s exposé of the police chief of Curmudgeon Falls. The embezzlement charges against Chief Benedict Bright eventually were dropped, thanks to the fact that the chief’s son was the best friend of the District Attorney. But Bright didn’t forgive Sprague the chief’s brush with prison. So when,  after the thought crime statutes were enacted and  a Federal grant to purchase thought-reading equipment became available, Bright went after it. And he instructed the six members of this police force to put the equipment to exclusive use.

“I want Sprague to pay for his newspaper’s attack on me,” Bright told his officers. “That means I want every errant thought to be recorded. If anything he thinks is even remotely illegal, I want him arrested and booked. Go after him without regard to whether a charge is completely valid. With enough charges, something’s bound to stick.”

Predictably, the ACLU raised holy hell when the statutes were enacted. But by that time, the ACLU’s influence had dwindled to next to nothing. Newly-minuted attorneys were no longer the idealistic crusaders Sprague remembered from his youth. Lawyers fresh from passing their bar exams had no interest in social justice. Their motivations were money and power. If they had to ruin the lives of people as they stepped over bodies on their climb to the top, so be it. The fact that the legal profession was exempted from the thought-crime statutes exacerbated the exodus from decency.

When the time came for Sprague to enter a plea, even his court-appointed attorney recommended he not fight the charges. “Look,” the wet-behind-the-ears semi-solicitor said, “they’ve got your every thought recorded on magnetic media. If you insist on fighting it, you’re not only going to embarrass yourself, you’ll embarrass me as your lawyer. If you have a decent bone in your body, you won’t ruin my chances for a lucrative legal career.” Sprague’s silent mental response to his new lawyer’s statement earned him yet another charge: “attorney annihilation ambition” or “lust for lawyer lynching.” The politicians and lawyers thought their vacuous alliterations were clever, yet more evidence that intelligence was no longer a requisite quality for snollygosters and ambulance chasers.


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Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep

Several weeks ago, I assured someone I would be happy to take him to doctor visits and other medical appointments when he needed me to do it. Last evening, I received an email from him, asking me to help him by giving him a ride (or rides) in connection with a medical appointment (a biopsy) scheduled for Monday, November 19.

That’s the day I have my cancer surgery scheduled. So I answered him that, as much as I wish I could accommodate him, I could not. And, immediately, I felt an overwhelming guilt that I had essentially promised this guy I would help him in his hour of need, only to refuse to live up to my commitment. Frankly, I don’t think I know anyone else who would fault me for saying I’ve got to tend to my own medical issues first. But I told him he could count on me. And, I guess, that was a lie. He could count on me “if it fit my schedule” might have been a more honest assertion. On one hand, I feel perfectly fine about opting to go forward with my surgery and ignoring his need. On the other, I feel like I didn’t follow through on a commitment. I followed up last night by asking him if he would like me to try to find someone else who could help. He responded that he would. So I’m trying to find someone to do it. I’m starting by asking other people I know he knows, people who share his appreciation of writing. And, perhaps, I’ll ask a few other folks who share our sphere. If they can’t help, I’ll expand the search to my neighbors in the “Nextdoor” community. There’s a service called “Village Scat” that I thought might be an option, but the transportation service only provides low-cost rides to and from appointments near the east and west HSV gates, so they won’t provide a ride to Hot Springs.

As I considered this fellow’s request, and the plight that led to it, it occurred to me that there exists a very small handful of people I would consider asking for the help he’s asking me to provide (which I offered without being asked, not thinking I might be unable to fulfill my commitment). It would be hard for me to ask for help from someone who’s not very close to me. I don’t know this fellow exceptionally well, but I suspect he may be of the same mindset. So, if I can’t help him or find someone to help, he may be in a pickle. I don’t know his financial situation. Perhaps he could easily afford a taxi. Or maybe he can’t. I’m not going to ask. I’ll just see what I can do to accommodate him. I believe one ought to be willing to seek an alternative way to meet one’s commitments if circumstances prevent fulfilling them as originally promised. And I rather like that about myself. Now, the trick is to see whether I can actually find an alternative.

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The Gravity of Justice

The way I got there is too convoluted to tell. Suffice it to say I made my way to a blog post that described the writer’s journey of being selected as a juror and then, just as the trial was about to start, excused when the defendant and the prosecutor agreed to a plea deal, the particulars are unknown.  At any rate, I read about the writer’s experience. And his experience made me think about how being selected to serve on a jury might make me feel.

Knowing me, at least to a degree, I know I would be extremely interested in the process. I know I would find the allegations and the refutations fascinating. I know I even the most mundane civil case would intrigue me. But a criminal trial would be even more riveting. The intricacies of the law and the ramifications to both parties of a verdict in favor of either party would capture my full attention. But, as I read about the writer’s experiences and thought about the consequences of a jury decision, either way, I realized how important it would be to me to ensure that my vote on the question of guilt or innocence  was right. I would not want to let a victim of a crime feel let down by the justice system. But I would not want an innocent person to pay for a crime he or she did not commit.

What really got me thinking about how crucial it is to “get it right” was my consideration of how finding a guilty person innocent would impact the life of the victim. He would not simply be let down. His reputation would be sullied. His friends and family might question he legitimacy of his claims. His employer might decide he doesn’t merit a raise or a promotion because…maybe he lied. And the victim might have good reason to fear a reprisal from the guilty party, who might want to “teach a lesson” to the accuser.

I can imagine turning that entire thought process around, too. If the accused was wrongly accused, yet it convicted, his life would be turned upside down. He would lose not only his freedom but his livelihood and trust and…on and on.

As I thought about the potential consequences to either party of a “bad” verdict, the weight of jurors’ responsibilities became far clearer to me. What had until just this afternoon been an abstract matter, a simple element of curiosity, evolved into something far more solemn than it had been before. Even a trial in which the life of a defendant is not on the line, the lives of everyone involved are, indeed, on the line. I would hope attorneys for the defense and prosecutors, as well, would feel the same sense that their roles are not simply jobs but are commitments to justice.

I’m sure it is easy to become jaded about justice, or its absence. But it is too important to allow indifference to ruin lives. I am not sure how I would perform as a juror. I’ve never been selected to serve on a jury. But, after deeply pondering the concept of justice this afternoon, I think I might approach the responsibility with the gravity it deserves.

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That Miserable Thought

I euthanized that miserable thought, that idea that reeked of the stench of rancid self-indulgence. I ran a spear through its heart and I severed its head. After a day, I threw the rotting corpse of that thought into a vat of caustic. The caustic was so incensed with the presence of the dead thought that it convulsively spewed a vaporous mist that melted the streams of air that carried it. The odor of melted air is so pungent that acrid tears form in the eyes and stream down the face in abrasive rivers, eroding canyons in the skin.

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Spontaneity matters to me. Spontaneity is real. It mines desires and motivations and wishes from the substance of day-to-day life and turns that raw ore into experience. Friends who can adapt to spontaneity and who become part of it are the sorts of people I love and embrace and appreciate deeply. Yesterday morning (actually, this morning, as I’m writing this on Friday evening, to be posted Saturday morning), my wife agreed to my sudden surprise request that we take an utterly unplanned day trip. And, then, we invited friends who live two and a half hours away to meet us “halfway” for lunch as part of the surprise. They agreed. Even though they had the longer drive, they agreed. We met at a Mexican restaurant in Dardanelle and spent a couple of hours eating and talking and enjoying the company of friends. And then we went on our respective ways home.

We (our friends and all of us humans) ought to do that sort of thing more often. We should treat ourselves to surprises. We should be spontaneous. We should ignore the fact that spontaneity distracts us from schedules and does damage to our neat calendars and drags us away from boredom or routine or rote behavior. Instead, I say we should celebrate opportunities to break free of methodical treks around the clock. I say “should,” because I like spontaneity. But I shouldn’t be prescriptive about it, in fact. Do it if it feels good. Don’t if it doesn’t. Some people don’t like spontaneity. They find deviation from routine upsetting. But I find it uplifting. I find spur of the moment road trips exciting. I enjoy breaking out of routine and doing something unusual. Perhaps my reason for jumping on the idea today was the slim but real possibility that I either won’t recover from my upcoming surgery or I’ll come out of it with disabilities that I never realistically contemplated going in. Given that unlikely possibility, maybe I ought to break out of routine while I can.

I can think of many other things I might want to do, “just in case.” But many of them would be problematic, especially if the operation and recovery go according to plan. Obviously, I can’t go into those here. I can only say that one of the possibilities could land me in prison or worse. So, there’s a limit to the attraction of spontaneity. Unless the prognosis is dire and imminent. That sort of diagnosis could lead to an outbreak of human decency in high places. 😉

Back to spontaneity. Unexpected diversions tend to launch smiles and hugs and kisses. They tend to polish the edges of otherwise mundane moments and make them sparkle with reflective gems of happiness. Spontaneity produces giddiness.

I’m writing this, as I said, on Friday evening. I will schedule it to post sometime Saturday. Oh, the irony of scheduling a post on spontaneity!

I may write something on Saturday morning that will post before or after this. We’ll see how this compares to something written after a night’s sleep or sleeplessness. Maybe I’ll be spontaneous.


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Tells Stories and Believes Them

About four years ago, I wrote a very brief post that began, “Tells stories and believes them.” The quote was my memory (which I believe is correct) of a statement in a psychological inventory’s assessment of my personality. I didn’t recall then whether the quote was my “normal” behavior or my “behavior under stress,” but I’m pretty sure it described behavior under stress. I wonder whether my tendency to write and tell stories might be rooted in whatever that instrument’s measure triggered that statement? Could be. Though I don’t have full faith in the measure. But there was something to it. Maybe more than I was willing to accept at the time the report was made, when I was about 25 years old.

I think we tell stories about ourselves in many ways. One of the ways I believe I tell stories about myself is through the subjects I select to write about. My problem, of course, is that I don’t necessarily understand the plot line nor the message the story intends to convey. One such theme in my writing, whether fiction or journal or essay or what have you, touches on asceticism. Out of curiosity, I searched my blog for the word “ascetic” and got eleven hits. A quick scan of those posts confirmed that I have long been attracted to learning what asceticism might teach me. My repeated attempts at “doing without” something that’s normally part of my life speaks to that interest. And recollections of conversations with a college friend about trekking across India recall my interest in asceticism way, way back. I’ve written about cutting back my consumption (of food and luxuries, for example) many times. I’ve asked myself how my appreciation of the world in which I live might be radically different if luxuries I’ve come to consider necessities were truly hard to come by.

Something draws me to “doing without.” It’s as if refusing to allow myself luxuries might help me find a core within me that will reveal a secret I can’t get at otherwise. Perhaps it’s a sense that living simply would allow me to define myself apart from what I have and, instead, reveal the person beneath. Beneath the homeowner and automobile owner and electric utility customer and bank account holder and casual purchaser of things I think I want but know I don’t really need. But one cannot simply and suddenly shed one’s comfortable skin and live as an ascetic. People have wives and husbands and children and parents and siblings and friends and employers and so many others to consider. Society has bound us together to make it virtually impossible to explore what we can, really, do without. We can’t drag our families and social networks through the desert as we attempt to determine whether we can survive without shelter in the heat of summer.

Some people, though, willingly do live ascetic lives. Many of them do it for religious reasons. But some do it, I think, to get to know the person who resides inside their brain and brawn. I think they do it to test the limits of their ability to interact with the earth in a way that allows them, in a very real sense, to leave only footprints. On the other hand, many more people live not as ascetics but as impoverished victims because they seem to have no other choices. It may seem cold and hard to say this, but I wonder if many of those people could live better lives if they lived as our common ancestors did hundreds or thousands of years ago—forced to either scrape a life out of the earth through hard work and determination—or die trying. But, perhaps, that’s exactly what’s happening. They’re dying while trying to make lives from an unfriendly earth.

Like every other thought I have, I bounce between certainty and doubt and I argue against myself by calling attention to my own hypocrisy. I sit at my desk, warmed by electric heat and comfortable at my computer with a cup of coffee at hand, writing about asceticism. I long to know what and who I am at my core, yet if the opportunity presented itself, would I choose to live in a cave and find or catch my own food or starve?  Just moments ago, I thought “wouldn’t it be nice if I had a very small microwave so I could warm my coffee that I let cool as I was typing?” How can I—can anyone—speak or write about asceticism or poverty or living in harmony with the earth with any integrity unless they have experience with both luxury and crying need? I suspect it can’t be done, at least not believably.

Yet I keep coming back to it. The question seems to be, “if I strip away the soft flesh of a life of ease, would there be a worthy skeleton beneath?” Maybe that’s too dramatic. Maybe I’m not looking for worth but for reality. Would that skeleton comprise human bones or would it be composed of artificial fibers and flakes of plastic and stainless steel rods? I don’t know what it is. I know only that there’s a secret someone hidden beneath us all. And maybe I believe my stories because they are true. Perhaps my return to questions of “doing without” is simply a way to tell a story of who I think I want to be without knowing who I am. Riddles. Just riddles. There are no answers to questions asked of themselves.

Posted in Frustration, Materialism, Philosophy | Leave a comment