TWO DOWN NONE TO GO

IMG_2949I knew there was a problem the moment it happened. First snowfall of the winter and the first winter without Jake’s young, brawny arms living with us. Sue was crystal clear: stay inside and she’d dig everything out.

I waited until she geared up, went downstairs and began digging before I dressed and followed. Sue started yelling as soon as she saw me, but I pretended not to hear. No way I was gonna let her do the porch, stairs, walks, and cars by herself.

I knew enough to protect my right shoulder from any heavy lifting given my surgeon’s warnings that the last operation was a “one and done” deal. But I was too dumb to protect my left shoulder from overcompensating.

By the time I was back upstairs my left was throbbing and I should have let her shovel alone because a steady diet of Advil reduced the pain, but never took it away.

You might think one dumb was enough. Not me. Why stick with one when there’s more on the table? Rather than going to my doctor as soon as I realized the hurt wasn’t about to vanish, I decided to just live with it until just before Sue and I went to Mexico in the spring. Then I paid a call to my doc and received a cortisone shot to be as pain-free as possible during the trip. I also really harbored a belief that the shot would clear up the problem once and for all.

Well, at least it worked for the trip but not the “once and for all.”

Still, I hesitated making another doctor’s appointment upon our return. My gut knew another doctor visit meant another operation.

I finally went and my “gut” came true. But what surprised me was the surgeon’s announcement that the surgery had to be done the following week. I had dreamed of delaying it for a year—or, at least until after November so I could introduce myself to my newly born twin granddaughters without looking like a monster movie poster. And be able to somewhat comfortably hold them.

Wasn’t happening. He made it absolutely clear that that any delay would cost too much range of motion in my arm.

Suddenly the operation became a no brainer.

"Stone walls do not a prison make"

“Stone walls do not a prison make.”

Nevertheless this “no brainer” filled my head with dread. I remembered all too well being stuck in a recliner, unable to get out on my own, for months and months. Remembered all the times I had to call Jake in the middle of the night to help me out so I could use the john. And this time there’d be no Jake to call.

Nor was it going to be six months. Turns out there’s a new way to do shoulder surgeries and while the recovery pain is the same, the recovery time has been greatly reduced. This recovery period was just gonna be around six weeks, but the pain will be much better than my other arm when all is healed. Which Jake reminds me of every time I start feeling sorry for myself.

And no, he hasn’t moved back into the house. He used brain, not brawn. He Craiglisted to find and buy a motorized recliner that allows me to get in and out by myself. It really has made this recovery a whole lot more tolerable.

Truth is, this is really just a 1st World problem. People throughout the globe live without doctors, painkillers, operations, and limbs.

Which, in some ways has made sitting in the house more difficult. Every morning coffee is filled with newspaper horror stories. Makes me sick while I sit around waiting to use my arm. And man, after reading the papers I really want to hit something.

But that’s a price you pay when living in the belly of the beast. The contradiction of a life comfortably lived—shoulder pain or not—while most of the world exists in squalor.

Only these days I’m much less focused on my own life contradictions and much more concerned about the lives of all the kids and twins. What goes around, comes around is never far from my mind. Fact is, we can’t be bogarting most of the world’s resources and imagine this can last forever. There will be a price.

So I mostly focus on my return to writing, try to be a decent partner, friend, and father. Which I’m sure, like the shoulder I fucked up, I’ll mess up more than once. Nonetheless, I’ll keep trying.

The world will take us where it wants despite our meat-headed grandiosity.

IMG_2958In any event, it’s good to be back writing Just sayin’ and once the meds actually wear off I hope to fill the columns with more outrage, reviews, hopes and Interviews with the Dead. In other words facts, fiction, and guest posts. In other words, I’m back.

I also want to thank Kent Ballard for the last column. I found it moving, thought provoking, and deeply personal. What I call “writing from the heart.” Thanks, friend.

You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus. ~ Mark Twain

SKIPPING THROUGH THAT LONESOME VALLEY

 (Although my name is at the top of the post, the author is Kent Ballard, one of my great guest columnists.)

By Kent Ballard

When the news reports came about the death of Robin Williams, most folks were stunned. How could one of the funniest men in America be gone so suddenly, with no warning? Within hours the press informed us it was a suicide. Further reports went into more detail—damn their eyes—that he’d hanged himself with his belt and there were superficial cuts on his arms. I think that information should have been kept private for his family’s sake, but then I’m not a mega-conglomerate interested only in how much money I can rake in selling dog food and beer commercials.

Yes, I was offended. Because Robin Williams and I were from the same family, in a manner of speaking.

In 1991 I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, Type II. For 23 years I’ve been with the same psychiatrist. In that length of time he’s risen through the ranks to become the head of the Indianapolis Psychiatric Association, because he’s good, very good, at what he does. I’m lucky to have him. I clearly remember our first few talks. There is actually very little known about Bipolar Disorder, much less than you might think. Even the discovery that lithium can treat some portions of it was made by accident. To this day no one has a clue what it does or how it works but it’s the prime drug prescribed to bipolars. Everything about Bipolar Disorder is mysterious in some way. It used to simply be known as “manic-depression” which is actually more descriptive, but now considered politically incorrect.

The symptoms usually manifest themselves in the late teens to early twenties, but there are many exceptions. People can develop this in their 40′s or 50′s. In my case, when I pressed my shrink, asking him when Bipolar Disorder took over my head, he gave me a straight answer: “Kent, you should have had lithium in your baby bottle. As nearly as I can tell, you were born with it. That’s rare, but not unheard of.” He then leaned in a bit closer, as if he wanted to get a point across to me in a manner that I would never forget. “Do you realize what that means? It means your entire sum total of life experience was lived as a bipolar. Every book you ever read, every movie you ever saw, every conversation in your life, every friend you ever made, everything you ever learned, every date you ever went on, all of your experiences, every one, was lived through and understood and became part of you filtered through Bipolar Disorder. You’ve never known anything else. You probably never will.”

As you might guess, THAT rocked me back on my heels. I sat there and blinked for some time, then quietly asked, “Doctor, are you telling me that…that I’m crazy?”

No, quite the opposite was the case. Take a moment and do something interesting. Google “famous bipolars” and see what you get. You’ll see a list of some of the world’s greatest artists, military leaders, composers, physicists, doctors, a whole galaxy of people you’ve studied in school or know about from their sheer fame. In that sense, I’m in wonderful company. What made them famous, regardless of their field of expertise, was their ability to think outside the box, to see around corners, to think thoughts and dream up concepts no one ever had before. As Patty Duke Austin wrote in her magnificent autobiography of a bipolar life, “A Brilliant Madness,” “Manic-depression is the only mental disorder with a GOOD side.”

And it is. Believe me when I tell you there is no high like a bipolar high. If they could put that into a bottle the world would become addicted overnight. I’ve had moments of nearly superhuman strength, of being involved in affairs where people would later say I was either the bravest—or the craziest—person they had ever met, of days when I required no sleep, of having every child I ever met fall in love with me, the ability to tell almost instantly when I am being lied to, and ten thousand other things that have been pretty handy over the years. But it’s no free ride. There is a price to pay for all this, one so heavy it literally kills people.

And this is what took Robin Williams. Sir Winston Churchill used to write about the “black dog” of depression in his private journals. Many bipolars have days when they cannot force themselves out of bed. And all bipolars drink. And they will drink to excess as soon as they can supply themselves with alcohol. I started at age 13 and never stopped until 1999, and it damned near killed me in the process. Science at least has an answer for that. They now know it to be a misguided–almost pitiful– attempt at self-medication.

Go through YouTube and look at some of Williams’ work. Can you imagine how incredibly fast he must have been thinking? How he seems to come at you from all sides at once? How he appears to be almost maniacal in his thoughts? He wasn’t acting. Bipolars think faster than other people. But they often think so fast they become erratic. Watch enough of his films and sooner or later you’ll see spots where he was not controlling it. It was controlling him.

The leading cause of death among those with Bipolar Disorder is suicide. More bipolars die of that than any other cause. With typical perversity, it can simply pop into a bipolar’s mind that this is the answer to the questions they’ve asked all their lives. It can and will kill bipolars in mere minutes. A sudden depression so deep no human can withstand it. Also perversely, bipolars tend to leave behind cheerful suicide notes. My shrink told me fascinating stories of some he had read. Many were actually so happy and funny that he found himself laughing until he remembered what he was reading.

Bipolar Disorder is not genetic. It is not passed via genes from parent to child. But it is “familial,” meaning it tends to run in families in odd spurts here and there. There were once three bipolars in my family. When my niece committed suicide she left a warm, loving note telling everyone how much she cared for them. Later, when they were cleaning her apartment, they found a note they’d overlooked. In her handwriting, Gina said there were clothes still running in the dryer, and would someone take them out?

Whatever overcame her took her that fast. She could not and would not wait for the dryer to finish its cycle.

When I got the telephone call in 2008 that my only daughter, Annie, had taken her life my mind flashed back to the several conversations we’d had about the subject. I warned her time and again this was a possibility for all of us, to be frightened of it and to call me, her mother, anyone if she ever felt suicidal. She never had the time to do that. It was as if she’d been cut down by a sniper. Annie loved life and ate it in big bites. She had more friends than I could count, had recently gotten an impressive promotion at her job and a new apartment. Everything was going great for her. Right up until the end.

So don’t think me cruel or uncaring when I say that Robin Williams’ death came as no surprise to me. I’ve had 23 years of training and counseling, learning never to listen to the voice of Death calling me. He’s never far away and I know that. He’s whispered to me more than once and I had the ability to run away. I’ve been careful and lucky so far. Mostly lucky.

If you know someone who’s bipolar, tell them they can call you at any hour. You might make the difference for them. Generally, suicide is preventable among normally depressed people who’ve simply suffered a string of bad things which have happened to them. With bipolars it’s a crap shoot. Whatever hits us so suddenly, and with such speed and overwhelming force, there’s often nothing you can do except listen to your heart rip apart when you get the news they’re gone.

But were these lives wasted? Not really, not in my opinion. Because when they were riding that high bipolar wave they had more fun than you will ever know. They laughed and enjoyed life and were brilliant and deeply, truly, knew they were loved and gave tremendous love in return. They were not candles in the wind. They were, and are, more like skyrockets. It’s only after they roar and shriek up to their zenith and dazzle us all with blinding lights of many colors that, after a moment, we realize how dark the night really is. But friend, when they were firing, they were magnificent.

“My candle burns at both ends

It will not last the night

But oh my foes, and oh my friends

It gives a lovely light” ~ Edna St. Vincent Millay

GETTY’S GOT NOTHING ON ME

In the middle of my latest attempt to bring my office back from chaos into order, I actually began looking at all the stuff I’ve collected. Out-of-print books, a couple of original paintings from an artist I consulted for, framed posters, a neon sign I’d been given by a friend that spells ZACH’S (the name I planned to use whenever I fantasized about opening a bar), and many deco pieces along with a fine gathering of Bakelite radios. Nice things, mostly hunted and gathered years ago.

Now I collect art. Sue collects art, but in a very different way. She looks for paintings, small sculptures, and photographs created by as-yet-unknown artists. Sue, like me, has gone through different collecting obsessions but for the most part has stuck with her holy trinity. For quite a while she also had her “junking” friends keep an eye out for different body part sculptures but that’s seem to have (no pun intended—right) petered out.

I’m different. I want the masters. I want what museums have. And I get ‘em. I bring a notepad and pen whenever we visit an exhibit or gallery to write down artists’ names that I like, then return home and turn on my computer The Google is my personal art repository.

Then I collect. Some connoisseurs specialize and curate, I am eclectic with enough resources (hard drive memory) to indulge my fancies. My private gallery: my desktop image.

Rothko

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes I need a calming influence so I might choose one of my Rothko’s.

 

If I’m feeling playful I spend some time with Pop Art:

Lich

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometime I enjoy a dose of sophisticated irony and turn to Christian Schad:

 

Shad

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

or jump to one of my go-tos, Max Beckmann,

Beckman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and of course, Otto Dix.

OttoDix

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For politics my Mexican muralists often fill the bill: Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and my favorite David Alfaro Siqueiros.

 

Siq

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many moods, many great pictures. But in truth, for me the rubber meets the road with Photorealism. Yes I enjoy Picasso and Modern, the great masters, street art, and pretty much any school that speaks to me. But give me Audrey Flack,

 

Flack

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ralph Goings,

 

Goings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and especially Richard Estes.

 

Estes

 

 

 

 

 

I guess I’m wedded to reality and it shows.

 

Okay, I can’t actually afford to buy anything by these artists, but I don’t have to. My laptop has the world’s greatest art collection and it’s free!

(Did I mention my naked celebrity folder?)

Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination. ~ Oliver Sacks

RT. 66

Not the highway. Not the song. (Yes, there is a song.) Rather, the long winding path that leads to the Social Security office where I visited last week

This was a funny birthday. Not ha, ha funny. Odd, really. The day came and went without sturm und drang, included a nice dinner out with Sue and Jake, and a sweet telephone call from my older son Matt and his wife Alyssa. Unlike last year when I fell into a funk about mortality (mine), this year seemed smooth sailing. Even after I left the Social Security building there was still no depression.

It was something else entirely, and it hit a couple days later, actually on my music night. I totally sucked. Really sucked. So bad that when I began my lesson, I had trouble playing without squeaking and squawking.

It wasn’t the horn.

I made it through the lesson despite doing everything wrong. Then came time for playing with the ensemble (Polar Vortex). In general, I have difficulty playing at a fast tempo (even a medium tempo to be honest). That night I could barely get my fingers to move at all. It got so bad that for the last 20 minutes of our session, I just stopped playing, sat down, and wondered what I was even doing in the group. I had long before come to terms with being its worst player, but never felt so defeated. Often, exactly the opposite. When I struggled, it usually gave me greater determination to try harder. Not that night.

Much later, lying in bed watching Pawn Star re-runs, I tried to figure things out. Somewhere between a reproduction Gatling gun and a signed first-edition Edgar Allen Poe, I started to get it. There simply isn’t enough of my life left to become a decent musician. The night at music school had been a metaphor for decisions taken and, more importantly, not taken. Despite having always wanted to play an instrument, why hadn’t I first started to learn music long before? Why hadn’t I begun lessons, something where I don’t have natural talent at the time when I began to write—where I do have natural talent? It could have, should have (?) been reversed.

I guess “what ifs” and “if onlys” smack everyone upside the head some time or another. Sue teaches at a “low residency” MFA at Lesley University and, frankly, I’ve been pretty jealous. I’ve helped people with their writing, but working with students on a regular basis would have given me great pleasure. But if you only have one diploma (8th grade) despite attending high school, some college, part of a master’s program, and creating a school for high-school dropouts in Chicago, the end result is strikingly clear.

No teaching for me.

Other decisions also steered me in directions that precluded others. During that long, television-lit night, I reviewed every single one of them. Why did I leave Chicago’s People’s School? Why did I stop my counseling practice in Boston when I knew I was really good at it? Why did I fight my agent, editor, publisher about what they wanted, when I had a critically acclaimed set of novels under my belt. Why did I just stop writing?

Why did I choose serial careerism instead of becoming really, really good at one thing?

Sleep, wonderful restorative sleep. Next morning (after my usual growling, semi-hostile, coffee-deprived wake up) I reconsidered. Sure I’d made decisions that offed alternatives. Everyone does. And, I’ll make book that everyone has regrets similar to what I’d been feeling.

Three cups of coffee and I finally saw daylight. Understood what had immobilized me the night before and saw my way out from under. Blood under the bridge is indeed, blood under the bridge. I have a wife I love and who loves me, children and a daughter–in-law I adore, and oncoming granddaughters. I’ve worked and continue to work with people I respect and who respect me, friends who have my back, and more than just food on the table. Truth is, I can turn my head 180, look at the decisions I did make and feel satisfied.

Bottom line: I got it good and that ain’t bad. Better get my ass back to practicing the sax.

Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky. ~ Rabindranath Tagore

Vital Signs by Sherri Frank

Maybe it’s time, maybe it isn’t. With my other cat, Cleo, it was clear when I needed to put her to sleep. She’d had surgery to remove tumors in her belly. A year later, cancer filled her lungs with fluid and she was panting, her mouth hanging open as she breathed. At the animal hospital, they drained the fluid but said it would come back. I had three more weeks with her before she started panting again. When an animal is in pain and struggling to breathe, the decision is clear—though never easy. I called the hospital and took her in.

But with Gino, it’s not so clear. For months, he’d been losing strength in his back legs. He went from limping, to falling over, to not being able to stand at all within a year. Diagnosed with a degenerative spine disorder, he dragged himself around the house using his front paws, his lifeless legs trailing behind. But his appetite was the same, his energy was the same, his spirit was the same. Surgery wouldn’t fix it, a specialist said, and his functionality would only get worse. But he wasn’t in any pain.Gino 2014

So be it, I thought. He just needs a little help.

I helped him walk upright by looping a cotton sling beneath his back legs and walking alongside of him. When he had trouble getting into the litter box, I cut the front part of it so he could drag himself in and out. I held up his hind quarters while he did his business: Love, it seemed, had no limits.

But little by little he became incontinent, leaving a trail of urine—and sometimes feces—wherever he went. Soon, he bypassed the litter box altogether. I tried puppy diapers, but they slipped off his skinny haunch no matter how tightly I secured them. Most of the time, he stunk like piss and shit, so I bathed him on a towel in the bathtub, holding him so he wouldn’t fall over; soothing him while he cried.

“Maybe it’s time to put him down,” a friend said.

I shook my head. “Not yet.”

I spent a fortune on paper towels, bleach, and Swiffer wet cloths, wiping up urine and disinfecting floors. It was a lot of work and took up a lot of time.

Still, he was my “Gino Love.” The same “Little Man.” “Handsome Boy.” “Sweet Potato Fellow” whom I’d loved for 17 years. Eating his food with gusto; sitting on my lap with a puppy pad beneath him. How could I consider ending his life just because it was getting difficult to care for him?

At night, I used plastic garbage bags and towels on my bed so he could continue sleeping with me. Good thing I was single. I’d lift him onto the bed and he’d pull his body up to my pillow. Nuzzling his head in my neck, he’d fall asleep purring. Several times each night he’d slide off the bed for food or water, crying when he was ready to get back up again. I kept a flashlight nearby so I could find him in the dark.

To be honest, there were days when I couldn’t take anymore. Days when work had been too long and too demanding, and when others in my life were also clamoring for attention. Coming home to a house that reeked of piss, and a cat that kept pissing even as I tried to clean him up, was more than I could handle. I’ve yelled at him. I’ve picked him up roughly to move him to another spot in the house. I’ve wished he were gone. Though I know those feelings are normal for anyone who’s taking care of a sick person or animal, they left me with a guilt that was difficult to shake.

“It’s selfish to keep him alive,” my friend said. “You need to think about his well-being, not yours.”

But it felt selfish to even think about putting Gino to sleep. I worried that I’d be doing it for my own sake: So that my house would smell clean again. So that I could come home, drink a beer, and eat dinner right away instead of mopping floors and washing towels. So that I could go out after work and not fear the mess I’d find when I returned late at night. In short, I worried that I’d be putting my cat to sleep because it would make my life easier; not because it was the best thing for him.

In the absence of pain—or other obvious signs like vomiting, listlessness, and loss of appetite—what constitutes suffering? What constitutes a diminished quality of life for an animal who can’t tell us what he thinks or feels? That’s what it came down to.

According to the American Humane Association (AHA), it’s a judgment call. “You may ultimately need to make the decision based on your observances of your pet’s behavior and attitude.” I wasn’t sure I trusted my own judgment, which was blinded by love and (sometimes) exhaustion. Yet, because I knew Gino so well, there was no one more qualified to make the decision. The AHA provides a list of signs that might indicate a pet is no longer enjoying a good quality of life. Gino displayed two of the seven signs:

  • He cannot stand on his own or falls down when trying to walk
  • He is incontinent to the degree that he frequently soils himself

Rather than help, this only made it more complicated. We don’t put people to sleep when they can no longer walk, or when they’ve lost control of their bladders and bowels. Should it be any different with our pets? The answer is debatable, of course.

These days, I remain diligent about watching for signs of Gino’s deteriorating health. I take him to the vet for regular check ups, where we no longer talk about treatments, just palliative care. It’s getting more and more difficult to keep him clean, keep the house clean. But he still enjoys lying in the sun curled up next to my other cat, Josie. They groom each other. If I’m late feeding him, he slides over to the electrical outlet and gnaws on my computer cord until I pay attention. He paws at my feet when he wants to sit on my lap. He purrs while I pet him and bats at the ties on my sweatpants. He wants to investigate any new box I bring into the house.

When I look at him, I see an animal still engaged in living and loving, despite his disabilities. And perhaps that’s the best indicator of what he wants.

For now, it’s all I have to go on.