Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Feathers and Masks

Another beautiful day, in a string of warm, clear spring days that fill me with that feeling of waking up on the first day of summer, or on the first morning of vacation. The smell of cut grass and the sound of an ice-cream vendor’s jingle lures me outside, and though rain is a distant thought, it’s a thought without apprehension, like a good night’s sleep at the edge of the horizon.

Two weeks off work is nice, but I’m not allowed to drive yet, and even if I could, I’m not healed enough to hike up to the places I love. Mind and spirit eager, body unable. Soon, soon…I’m already planning a slate of conditioning hikes and motivating myself through friends, one of whom sent me beautiful pictures of a hike above the eastern Columbia gorge, and another who successfully summitted Mt. Hood. I’ve been reading extensively, writing a lot, and planning my trip to Peru.

A week ago I came home from my parent’s house following surgery.

My prognosis is the best possible. Even though the mass was cancerous, it was a seminoma, the less aggressive and easiest type to treat. The surgery is the first treatment, and now I undergo staging, beginning with a CT scan to determine if the cancer spread. I’m confident that, like my blood tests, the CT scan will show nothing.

I had cancer. I have cancer. I do not have cancer.

Those words sound strange to me, like a swear-word in poetry. Who’s to say they don’t have a place in my vocabulary, even if their shape is uncomfortable on my tongue and my mind doesn’t accept their blunt meaning?

I say it, and the syllables don’t fit. I say it, and it sounds like copy, like someone is trying to sell me something. I don’t trust it. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. In fact, it’s true.

Technically true. I show no signs of cancer, but tests could reveal it later. And I’ll still be treated as if I have cancer, something I have to accept because I had cancer. I’m not even a survivor, yet – I’m in a limbo of language and medicine, with years of follow-up tests ahead of me and no words to describe my relationship to this illness.

For several years, I'll need surveillance - one of those "war" metaphors we use to describe our battle against devastating illnesses. I'm doing my best not to use those metaphors - they're limiting, they bracket and channel thoughts and contribute to negativity when something goes wrong and you "lose." I'd rather just watch relax and get back into the swing of things. On cold mornings, it's hard to get out of bed and drive to the mountains to go hiking in the rain - but when I'm physically unable to go, it's maddening not to have the choice. I want to go back to work. My spiritual connection with the world feels deeper now, and part of that connection consists of being able to act as I should in all parts of my life - the zen of taking out the trash, paying bills, cleaning the bathroom, all those little necessities that contribute to the "inwardness of life" rather than the outwardness. I feel expansive and generous, and not being able to perform the routine is as frustrating in my convalescence as not being able to jump up off the couch and live a spontaneous life. If I have a relationship to this illness, it isn’t described in words as much as it is described in action.

But words are all we have for discussing it, coming to terms with it in a communal sense.
One of my friends described surgery as being wounded, and that puts a different spin on it. Modern medicine removes much of the emotion from the event, surrounding the patient with professionalism and distance, the comforts of faith in science and technology. But the distancing removes the trauma, and reduces the effect – possibly, even reduces the ability to recover. If surgery is a wound, then by identifying it as such invokes the trauma itself – I imagine receiving a similar laceration in an accident on the trail, the road, at home. I wouldn’t meekly submit to it, but once wounded, there is no anesthesia, no team of trained doctors to fix the problem. Not at first, anyway, not until you get to the hospital. But there’s a difference between walking into day surgery, and walking in to the emergency room.

I’m beginning to think that modern medicine is trusted too much and doesn’t do enough for the patient’s recovery. Modern medicine is easy enough to believe in – for most of our ailments, there’s a treatment, a pill, a procedure to fix us. But afterwards, we’re on our own, and that’s where faith in science and technology fail us.

That’s when we need the strength of our friends. That’s when we need doctors who wear masks and feathers, who heal our spirit so that our body may recover.

I didn’t take vicodin because I don’t like what that type of drug does to me. I reached out to friends and they reached out to me. I’m listening to my body, pushing when I can, reaching when I can and resting when I can. I’m hard and not hard on myself. I don’t have much to guide me in my physical recovery, except myself. But there’s a different story when it comes to healing the mind and spirit.

Had I listened to my doctor, I would’ve stayed in bed for two weeks, remained immobile as much as possible, and let my body weaken so that my sutures would close and the muscles would repair themselves. I would’ve drugged myself when the pain and discomfort began to frighten me with all their possibilities of intensity. I would’ve been dependent on others. And what then? I come back weak and frail, muddled in mind and limping? No – I chose to heal by faith, not in science and technology and accepted medical knowledge, but by my own faith in my own body, mind, and spirit, buttressed by the faith of my friends and family. Those are the masks and feathers I needed, those are the doctors I listen to, and those are the doctors so many people want for when they suffer.

It's at times like this that we need words, or at minimum, meaningful silences. Modern medicine doesn’t use words – it uses phrases, forms, and formulas. It dehumanizes because it is ill-equipped to deal with anything as complex as emotion or thought. We aren’t repairing cars, here, we’re repairing people, and as grateful as I am that I received very good care and very effective treatment, I sometimes feel as though we need a mechanic to travel with us for a while, someone who will help translate the new sensations of driving after we pick up our newly repaired vehicle from the shop and take it on the road again.

I’ve had great support and I’m almost ready to hit the road: go back to work, begin hiking again, really start living. The clarity and calm I feel isn’t new, it’s just enhanced. I have not changed, I’ve progressed. I have not learned, I’ve remembered. There’s too much on the path to stay in one place for long, too much to sense, too much to share, so many people to meet and so many words left to say. So much to give back…

There are words for what my masks and feathers have done for me. I don’t know what they are yet, though they’re forming slowly in my mind and my mouth is starting to form them. But I can wait. I have patience. And I will say them, one day.

Since I shamelessly borrowed a phrase from him already, I’d like to end with a few lines from Pearly Everlasting, a poem by Gary Snyder that starts small with renewal from destruction (the title flower in Mt. St. Helens’ blast zone) before roaming from the local to the global in spirit. When we seek, we will have shamans to guide us.

“If you ask for help it comes.
But not in any way you’d ever know
– thank you Loowit, Lawilayt-lá, Smoky Mâ
gracias xiexie grace.”

Sunday, April 12, 2009

“All our lives we postpone everything that can be postponed…”

Because I'm bored, I've been reading Borges and my notes. So, a selection of thoughts on Jorge Luis Borges, culled from my journal, scribbled marginalia, and half-obscure notes, quotes, and bar napkins.

Every time I read Borges I’m more and more astounded at the activity going on beneath what superficially appear to be bizarre and artificial “stories.” And I'm more and more astounded at how deeply affecting his stories are, at how much they serve as repositories of ideas and thoughts, as provocations and conversation startes, and as investigations into the magic that is life.

I said "artificial" above because some contemporary fiction takes itself too seriously, is too self-aware, uses itself as a subject. What such fiction lacks is a good story, with emotional and psychological depth. The story can’t be the story itself, but it can, as Borges proves, be about literature, identity, perception, and translation, and still have a plot, conflict, narrative, characterization. I tend to forget what I’ve read when what I’ve read is linguistically clever but devoid of meaning or feeling. I won’t name names. An equivalent in visual art are the abstract paintings of Rothko, paintings that in my opinion investigate color theory, and nothing else. The idea of art is not art. We focus too much on the outwardness of life, writes Robert Bly in American Poetry, and not enough on the inward. A riveting work of fiction, a lasting work of fiction, and important work of fiction, is not just invention and wordplay but a finer, richer, more fulfilling experience, and more along the lines of what Kafka meant when he spoke of wanting a book to be an axe for the frozen sea inside of us. And Kafka would know; that man had more frozen sea than Shackleton.

So as far as literature goes, I like it when the writing is strong and meaningful, when the thought or inspiration that provoked the writing is hidden beneath the surface and not the subject of the writing itself, when the story isn’t obvious artifice.

Enough theory, back to Borges. He bewilders easily, in stories such as Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, but like a mystery writer he also leaves clues – he was definitely a fan of Chesterton and probably of Doyle. Nothing shows that better – I think – than The Shape of the Sword.

The Shape of the Sword is more traditional than many of the other stories in The Garden of the Forking Paths and Artifices. My reading notes begin with typical observations about themes, tone, voice, the usual nonsense. Then I read about the main character’s “glacial eyes” and “lean energy,” and I remembered something I’d written earlier about Borges: “will have to read and weigh every word carefully.” And immediately after that, I remembered recording the following quote from Borges’ essay, Narrative Art and Magic: “magic, in which every lucid and determined detail is a prophecy.” That’s when I really began to focus on what was going on in the story, from the descriptive passages to the underlying themes and structures.

As I said, Borges usually included a line or two in his stories that acts as guideposts or keys for comprehension. Certain lines frequently stand out and because they do, they can be misleading. Reading The Shape of the Sword, I thought at first the line “Whatsoever a man does, it is as if all men did it” might be the signature line, until I finished the story and realized I’d underestimated Borges’ cunning.

The scimitar, “in whose frozen crescents the wind and violence of battle seemed to live on,” is not only an evocative and poetic image but a metaphor and physical object in the magic narrative of the story. Everything in this story carries meaning – the sword and the title, the name of Vincent Moon, the odd request by the Irishman not to withhold “contempt or condemnation.” The surprise at the end is stunning, the crossing of identity amazingly well written, and as I thought about the story immediately after reading it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was incredible writing, incredible story-telling. Vincent Moon, the scimitar that lives on, Schopenhauer’s theory, immortality, Shakespeare, Hamlet, guilt, and shame…The story is a shimmering symbol and perfectly magical as defined in Narrative Art and Magic.

The Shape of the Sword is fiction at its finest, and it isn’t difficult to grasp. I don’t believe that fiction must make a point, but it must reveal something, must prompt our intellect as well as our emotions. In those terms, Borges sometimes fails. Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius doesn’t stimulate my feelings much, but certainly it gives me much to chew on intellectually.

Along with Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is about translation – not just of literature, but of reality as well. “Orbis Tertius” is Latin for third world, Earth is the third planet, and perhaps, in Plato’s schema, “third” refers to the third ‘remove’ in his theory of forms. I imagine that there is in each of us an “I” that observes the world and translates it according to everything previously observed. That’s a really condensed philosophic argument; not quite solipsism, but almost. In Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the narrator ends by saying that although the world will become Tlon, he will “go revising… an indecisive translation in the style of Quevedo of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Buriall.” I began to think about the possibility that Tlon was a figment of the narrator’s imagination, that it somehow got away from him and entered the real world, where its effects were observed as alien by the narrator and which ultimately became a labyrinthine and self-supporting fallacy. Schrodinger was right in that we can’t observe something without altering it; Pierre Menard was right in that to properly translate a work of literature, you must take into account the world in which it was created, and at the same time take into account the world in which you translate it. Difficult and deeply philosophical ideas, bordering on madness: a work of literature that doesn’t reveal but obscures…

I can see the attraction to experimentation and also the inherent risk. Adam Thirlwell tackled some of these questions in a recent essay in Believer. But if no one knows what you’re doing, or what you’re doing isn’t easily understood, what is the point of what you’re doing? I confess to losing the thread of Thirlwell’s argument in the Believer essay. The reason I write poetry is deeply personal, and for myself alone, and if someone else likes it, that's incidental to my writing it. I interpret the world though poetry and I explore inwardly to gain insight and wisdom – a life of art, I suppose. So assume Borges did the same, and Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is one of the results of his explorations. Aren’t we both just doing translations?

I suppose that the preceding paragraph is as difficult as Borges would be to a fifth-grader, and for that, I apologize. I would like to return to those particular lines that stand out in Borges, the lines that encapsulate something greater than the story at hand.

“What he wrote on the paper one day, he did not see the next; for this happens to every one there when he commits any thing to paper from the external man only, and not at the same time from the internal, thus from compulsion and not from freedom; it is obliterated of itself…” (Et Cetera).

I like the idea that what one writes from outside compulsion will disappear. As an artistic idea, it’s empowering to the writer – write what you believe in, say what you want to say. At certain times in history this could be a heretical or dangerous idea, and it works well within the story. I think about all of the next-to-worthless papers I’ve turned in for college classes, papers that were written because I had to write them, papers about topics I didn’t have anything to speak about, papers that were written in the dark hours of morning just before class. How often we forget what we write – but the best writing is that which comes from within, from the sense of intellectual and emotional freedom that accompanies it. Those are the writings that stay with us, the writings whose meaning is never lost.

Rhetorical question: how do we define (translate) our world through language? I won’t attempt to answer such a vast topical question but Borges suggests in Tlon… that memory and imagination are the arbiters of physical existence, and he explores the concept that thought is confined by the structure of language. The story gave him a chance to experiment with his native tongue and see what lingual boundaries he could push. How does our understanding of the world change when language is altered or replaced with another language? What effect does this have on translation of literature?

I am thinking about those questions, now more than ever. I finished reading Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes, an account of the author’s experiences with and conclusions about the Piraha, an Amazonian tribe who lack concepts of color and number, who live entirely in the present, and who speak a language so completely different from any other that it has challenged every existing linguistic theory, Chomsky’s included, as well as ideas about how culture, cognition, and language interact. But that’s for another time. Borges certainly wrote about many of the same questions Chomsky studied, and since I disagree with Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, I’d have to say that, without going into too much detail, Tlon… at the very least becomes another one of Borges’ circular ruins, a narrative that curves in on itself and supports itself like an arch, with language, cognition, and culture the keystone.

“There is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately pointless” (Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote). This is a wonderful quote to drop into a conversation with friends in a bar. It also demonstrates Borges’ sense of humor about what he is writing and why.

The Nothingness of Personality is Borges in his youth, tackling a subject that should, in my opinion, remain vast and obscure at the moment of death from old age. I did not understand the essay and I found it disagreeable.

Pascal’s Sphere: Thomas Kuhn coined the term paradigm shift” in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). While he defined it in a purely scientific context, it has since become useful to describe cultural movements, trends, and revolutions – exactly, or at least similarly – what Borges is discussing in this essay.

One of my friends loves the beauty of Murakami’s sentences in The Wind-up Bird Chronicles. I love the beauty of Borges’ sentences in Funes, His Memory. “All our lives we postpone everything that can be postponed…” The ideas that Borges experiments with make his fiction powerful, rather than the blurring of fiction and non-fiction, or the various modes in which his fiction is presented. Those may be conscious experiments in form, but they only succeed because of skill. I wonder how Borges wrote, about his invention and revision processes. How did he plan a story, choose its form, and know when to put down the pen?

Something to Discover

At the tree-line, the forest falls away from gentle meadows spilling acres of wildflowers up and down sunlit slopes. Under the steep arms of the mountain, and above the deep v’s of glacially carved valleys, small windswept pines bend and twist in the wind. Their trunks are gnarled and bent; snapped limbs reach for the sky with jagged tips; needles bristle and lurch in the direction of growth.

That’s what it’s like in my pants.

It’s bad enough to have stitches where you need to move, but it’s even worse to be shaved in such a delicate place, cut open and stitched up, and forbidden to shower for a few days. If you’re shaving for pleasure, it’s one thing. But if you’re not… I mean, look at me. A complete stranger can tell that I have an aversion to shaving, and that I grow hair like a master hair-grower. Right now, the bristly little varmints stick to everything, pulling and poking and scratching, and making all movement miserable.

And speaking of movements... they aren’t pretty. The single worst thing that’s happened to me since surgery was dropping a three-day deuce with abdominal muscles swollen and stitched and sore from surgery. I will spare further details in the interests of those who may be eating while reading this.

I wrote about finding out in my Mt. Bachelor post, and about the surgery in “I Don’t Remember the Party.” The last two days have been uneventful, really, but I haven’t had much time to dwell on the amputation or think about the upcoming biopsy results. Maybe now is a good time to face those things.

I won’t actually get the biopsy results until my follow-up appointment Thursday. On Tuesday, I have another test for tumor markers. The first test was negative and I’m certain future tests will be as well. Last night I had trouble sleeping, and as I tossed and turned in the dark, I asked myself to confront the possibility that I might have cancer.

I didn’t think about it for long. There doesn’t seem to be a reason to think about it. If I have cancer, I’ll deal with it when I find out. If I don’t, why lay awake at night thinking about it? I blocked out the surgery in the days and hours leading up to it, and focused on preparing to stay at my parents and on recovery. I packed up clothes, books, my laptop, ipod, EmergenC, a French-press and mate, medicine. And I avoided fear – partially by blocking out the surgery, partially by staying busy, hanging out with friends, and ignoring the consequences of the surgery and tests. Now that I’m out of surgery, why worry about the test results? I can’t change them.

Maybe this is healthy, and maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s normal, and maybe it’s not. I don’t know. It’s just how I look at things. I’m not living in fear. I’m making a conscious effort not to deny, but to accept – that which I can deny isn’t real yet, and that which I can accept is true.

I can’t expect to be positive all the time. Just yesterday, I woke up from a nap grouchy and in a little pain. But I poured myself a cup of coffee, went outside for some medicine and meditation, and when I came back in, Mom and Dad made pork-chops and pasta and I watched the basketball game. That’s real, that’s true, and that’s all that deserves my consideration. Fear is unproductive, pain is temporary, and whatever is unknown is just something to discover.

And, it doesn’t feel different. Right now, I don’t notice. When I look, it doesn’t really register, not with a bright red scar slashing across swollen skin and sore muscle. I haven’t thought about this, either, and again, I’m not sure if this is a deep, subconscious choice or simply because everything happened so quickly. It’s strange to think I’m missing part of my body. I’m sore, but that’s residual pain from the surgery. There’s no phantom pain, something I’ve only read about and wonder if I’ll experience. There’s no embarrassment, no worry about what future sexual partners will think, no fear about infertility or dysfunction. From my own research and from talking to people, I know that this is treatable and won’t affect those things. I don’t feel like I’m less of a man, less of a person. I’m focusing on recovering from the surgery and getting on with my life – hiking, planning my trip to Peru, spending time with friends and enjoying life. That’s what matters to me – not what I look like in the shower.

Right now I can’t drive and I have lifting restrictions. I’m still hobbling around a bit, and I’m avoiding alcohol. I might have a beer tonight, though, and I have tentative plans with my brewing cohort Mike to brew what we’re calling a “single-nut brown ale.” I can still laugh about all this. I’m going to get better. I feel peaceful, at peace with myself, within myself, with my place in the world. My friends and family have helped immeasurably. I don’t know how to thank them enough.

Friday, April 10, 2009

I Don't Remember The Party

I think my father was a bit shocked by my choice of medicine this morning. A few puffs before coffee and I’m already glad I haven’t needed the vicodin. I haven’t taken one yet – a few ibuprofen, but that’s all.

That said, I’m sore today. Haven’t had the benefit of lingering general and local anesthesia. But the surgery went well, better than I expected. Better than I feared, might be a better phrase.

I got up yesterday at 5:30am, showered, and smoked my last cigarette in the pre-dawn glow. Birds chirped awake and the breeze was muffled in the trees blooming pale along the street and sky. Not a bad day to have a testicle removed.

My parents picked me up and 7, I found myself changing into a gown and robe at the Portland Clinic, downtown. I filled out some forms with one of the nurses, a guy named Seth. One of the forms required me to answer yes or no to a list of medical conditions; I told Seth that “Bleeding Tendency” would make a good name for a metal band. He agreed immediately and we were on great terms from there on. A quick word with my parents and Seth led me to the OR prop room, where I laid down on a bed, and Seth inserted an IV into my inside elbow.

I joked about the upcoming shave I’d soon receive, saying I didn’t want anyone shaving above the chest. Seth had a moustache that fell from the corners of his lips to his jaw-line, leaving the chin itself bare, and said he’d just shaved his beard. After talking about facial hair, the IV line went in, and we discussed home-brewing beer. Only in Portland…

The operating nurse came in with a few questions and a very attractive smile, then the anesthesiologist arrived. Dr. Shoe, was a big, smiling hulk of a man, a youngish Asian-American or Pacific-Islander – I wish I could be sure, but it doesn’t really matter where he’s from. He asked if I wanted to be completely out – I said, of course I want to be completely out, and when he left to prepare his knock-out concoction, I told him to have fun with it.

I’m glad this all happened fast. It hasn’t given me time to let go to fear, or to think much about the fact I’m having something rather important to me removed from my body. In the long run, though, when I’m twice the age I am now, what will it matter? And right now, if the cancer tests come back positive, I stand a very good chance of beating the hell out of it, considering the best and first treatment is already done. As far as the surgery, I didn’t have much time to worry. Only one day passed between scheduling the surgery and the surgery itself. My urologist and surgeon, Dr. Zusman, wanted to move ahead with all possible haste, and suddenly I find myself in the operating room, hooked up to a tube, with an x drawn on my thigh to indicate the correct operating side for the surgeon.

But, like I said, everyone had been smiling, friendly, and fun, laughing with me and generally putting me at ease. Just before 8am, the operating nurse wheeled me into the OR proper, moved me to a bed with wings to lay my arms out to the side, and Dr. Shoe plugged in to my IV line. He said the initial drug would relax me, and I stared up at the light fixture and -

I opened my eyes to see a post-op nurse and the OR nurse standing by the bed. I was back in the prep room. I looked around and said, “I don’t remember the party.”

Somebody gave me my glasses, most likely the post-op nurse, and I started asking questions. I was lucid, thinking straight, using “big” words and medical phrases. I didn’t feel bad – a bit groggy, but that cleared up quickly. While the post-op nurse talked to me, I reached under the blanket. “Just checking,” I said, “you got the right one.”

A few minutes later, the nurse walked me out to the changing room to change into my own clothes – I told the nurse which locker number I had; it was a test I had set myself to see how well I was coming out of surgery – and soon I was in a wheelchair heading for the waiting room and the car. It was nice to see my brother there. I didn’t talk to Dr. Zusman much. He saw me when I woke and told me everything went well, and that there were no tumor markers in my last blood test. Good news, that. He gave all my post-op instruction to my Mom; she’s an RN, so I’m in great hands.

In the car, the first thing out of my mouth was to ask for a cigarette. Sue me – I just lost part of the family business to a hostile takeover. Man’s gonna smoke.

As I’d predicted to friends the night before, my next course of action was to give my Dad directions out of downtown and to 26. I was that awake, that lucid. I felt no real pain, just uncomfortable. The surgeon makes an incision about four inches long in the groin, just above the thigh, and just below the abdomen. The removal is done this way to prevent any potential cancer from spreading. In this surgery, a fairly important blood vessel is cut, which increases the risk of internal bleeding and the length of recovery time. The stitches are all dissolvable, and there aren’t any bandages, just a strange clear liquid patch that hardens to resemble plastic wrap protecting the incision.

The worst part is I’m a boxer guy, and I have to wear briefs for a week.

Once at my parent’s house, I smoked another cigarette and asked for the phone, calling friends to let them know I was okay. My Mom left to pick up a prescription for vicodin and returned with the milkshake I asked for. I usually never drink milkshakes, but that’s what I was in the mood for – and drinking it was perfect. I hate drugs like vicodin, so I have homegrown alternatives. And for the rest of the day, I laid around, watching basketball, reading books, eating food and smoking occasionally. Same today - read, wrote, ate, and watched the Blazers beat the Lakers. Aside from the soreness, I can't complain. I should get the biopsy results on Tuesday and then I can put this all behind me.

Mike came over for a few hours on Thursday evening and brought me a Tricerahops double IPA I can’t drink yet – that's gonna be a tasty beer. It was good to see Mike, and good to get the positive messages from friends and coworkers through email and Facebook. Friends called my parents while I was in surgery, and friends have called today from Brookings, OR and Alpine, NJ. It’s nice to know I have a lot of powerful support. Thanks, everyone.

Mt. Bachelor

I'm lying on my back, staring up at a beautiful, snow-covered mountain. Morning sun falls across the golden snow, and a forest of dark trees, still in shadow, marches towards the glowing mountain. The heavens are an indigo abyss... as my perception draws back, I find myself on a table, staring at a poster on the ceiling, while a grandmotherly technician scans my family business with an ultrasound. The poster's subject is the mountain, and the mountain's name is Mt. Bachelor.

I ask the technician if the poster was a cruel joke.

That was the day before I learned I needed surgery for a mass found on my testicle.

A few weeks ago, I woke up in pain, feeling like I’d been kicked. The pain lasted all day, and gave way to swelling. I checked, and thought I felt something, but I also thought I might be imagining it. Maybe I was just paranoid. I didn’t want to jump the gun. But the pain returned periodically, and I made an appointment for a physical.

At the physical, my doctor had me take urine and blood tests. He said he didn’t think my condition was serious, but he scheduled me for the ultrasound just in case. A few days later, the lab work came back – perfectly healthy, except there were some red blood cells in my urine.

Though the lab results were relieving, I still didn’t want to face the results of the ultrasound. The weekend was beautiful, the first warm, sunny days of spring. I went to my appointment on Monday and then spent the afternoon drinking with Mike at Nick’s Coney Island, watching the hipsters and hippies walk down Hawthorne in summer clothes pulled from their wardrobes for the first time in months. I napped when I got home, and missed the message on my machine.

Dr. Crouse wanted me to call him immediately.

It was too late, so after another round of drinks, I set my alarm for 8:30 am and went to bed. The phone rang at 8. I answered it. It was Dr. Crouse.

“The ultrasound indicates a mass. I’ve made you an appointment with a urologist.”


“Today, at 2.”

I thanked him and hung up. There didn’t seem to be much good in getting out of bed.

The urologist’s office called to reschedule for 4. When I arrived at the clinic, I was asked to report to the lab for a urine test. The form was marked STAT in big, red, block letters.

When Dr. Zusman entered the room he asked to examine me. No preamble, really. Very direct, matter of fact. Cold, almost. I laid down on the table and he looked to see if my lymph nodes were swollen. “Do you have family in town?” he asked.

By this time, I’d been poked, probed, and prodded by man, woman, and machine alike. Modesty went the way of the coelacanth many days back. I’d told myself that if things came out worst case, I wanted a doctor that was up-front and didn’t mince words. I got my wish – Dr. Zusman is like that, but when he examined me all I could think was that he was a dick.

He’s not, though. He sat down and adopted his “I have bad news” face. When you’re expecting it, it’s obvious. He had his routine, and I had my tough-guy routine, too. I’d already accepted the diagnosis and I knew what was coming. It sounds easy to say – that I’d made my peace – but I had made my peace, done the research, all indicators pointed to the next step, and when Dr. Zusman recommended surgery, it came as no surprise. We spoke for a while, I signed a consent form and headed down to the lab for a baseline blood test, and then I went to the bar.

On Tuesdays, I play pool at a billiards hall in Hollywood, with two really close friends. I was late arriving. I had to tell them. They were the first to hear about it, and it hasn’t gotten easier informing anyone else. You want your friends to know, but this kind of news is shocking. There’s no way to make it easy on people, and my heart nearly broke seeing the look on Kerri’s face, and hearing Matt blurt out “But you don’t ride a bike!” I’d lived with it for a few weeks; no one else had the chance to catch up.

Part of the problem is that there's no way to determine if this is cancer without removal. Fortunately, removal is the first and best treatment if this turns out to be cancer. And those test results aren’t due back until next Tuesday. I can’t tell people it isn’t a big deal yet. I still have people to call, and each time it’s rough.

None rougher, though, than calling my parents on Tuesday night. Kerri insisted I use her cell phone. I stood in the parking lost in the waning light of day, the first few stars appearing in the darkening sky, and conversed back and forth with my Mom and Dad for half an hour. My mother is a nurse – she can hide her worry behind that. But my father can’t – he can only hide his worry behind care and the macho behaviors and social norms that men are allowed. And maybe those aren’t the healthiest ways to deal with emotion.

I feel like I want to spare the people I care about all the details, but I also want them to know what’s happening. The more information I share, the less friends, family, and coworkers have to worry about. Humor has been really helpful, as have the support of friends I've called upon since the initial decision to perform surgery (and one since the first symptoms). The process was long enough to prepare me for the worst, and so far this isn't the worst. I knew, in a strange, unknowable way, that the first symptoms were serious. I can't explain how I knew that. But I’ve had a chance to live with it for a while. This is one of those things that some people are embarrassed by - patient or otherwise. But it's life, you know? It sucks you-know-what, but it happens. The surgery is minor - an hour or so long, and I come out the same day, half the man I used to be... All jesting aside, it's a simple procedure and after a few days I'll be itching to get out. Those mountain hikes are farther away than my two-week, mandated rest period, though.

On Wednesday morning, the clinic called to tell me my surgery was scheduled for Thursday morning, and I spent the day getting ready to go to my parent’s house. I packed clothes, books to read, went through my bills. I went out with some close friends, but wasn't allowed to drink alcohol. In my mind, I blocked out the surgery, focusing on what I needed to do to prepare, and what I would need afterwards. Thursday morning was a blank spot, and the night seemed the same. I was with my friends, but we all knew what would happen the next morning. We joked about it, I was teased a lot, and it helped distract me. But I can’t say I wasn’t afraid. I got home, washed the dishes, smoked a last cigarette, and went to bed several hours after midnight.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Aladdin's Lamp, by John Freely

In "Aladdin’s Lamp," John Freely tells how Greek science was translated into Arabic, preserved in the schools and texts of the Islamic world, and eventually translated into Latin, helping to spark the European Renaissance. This fascinating culturally important subject deserves both wider recognition and deeper understanding, but unfortunately, "Aladdin’s Lamp" suffers from the sheer scope of its subject and the meticulousness of its author.

"Aladdin’s Lamp" reads like a catalog, presenting the reader with a bewildering amount of information. A randomly chosen and representative page contains six dates; nine names of people, including one in Arabic, one in Greek, and the rest in various romance languages; more than ten subjects of study; and various listings of books (some in Latin) alongside quotes from the Bible and a papal mandate. In such a work, facts float without context to anchor them, and sink from memory.

It isn’t that "Aladdin’s Lamp" fails to make its case. It simply makes its case in too scholarly a fashion. Nevertheless, for the reader who wishes to connect the dots or keep handy a meticulous reference, "Aladdin’s Lamp" will satisfy.

This review originally appeared in the April, 2009 issue of The Sacramento Book Review.

The Ten-Cent Plague, by David Hajdu

In this illuminating history of comic books, David Hajdu examines the cultural forces that led to a mid-century witch-hunt and the near death of an American art-form. Vilified as a source of juvenile delinquency by police and the press, burned in pyres by the church and youth groups, and attacked in congressional hearings and though state and local legislation, comic books and their creators finally fell victim to their publisher’s own attempts to self-regulate content. Not until years later were comics to regain their former range of subject matter, stature, influence, and expression.

Though Hajdu stops short of judging the censors or drawing conclusions about societal effects of the comic-book scare, "The Ten-Cent Plague’s" sympathetic treatment of comic book writers, artists, and editors places the issues of censorship and persecution squarely in the cultural milieu of the 1950s. Hajdu humanizes the faces behind the comics, bringing life to a nearly forgotten chapter of American history that might aptly be titled “Tales from the Crypt.” In doing so, Hajdu allows readers to draw their own conclusions and leaves them hungry for more - and that's not a bad thing.

This review originally appeared in the April, 2009 issue of The Sacramento Book Review.