Friday, December 27, 2013

“Well, things are bad, but at least nothing else can go wrong.”

If I asked you the best way to find an optimist- not an Optimist, you'll note, an optimist – how would you go about it?
Well, consider the person for whom one thing after another is going wrong. Some are big, some are not, but they are cumulative. The person is pretty much brought to their knees, but in a last ditch effort to remain positive, they say to no one I particular, “Well, things are bad, but at least nothing else can go wrong.”

Hello optimist! I don't know about you, but in my experience, I haven't been aware of some cosmic scale that says, “OK. Enough already. Let's stop at five bad things. Two of them were really wretched after all.” How'd that work out for Job? Poop happens and sometimes it happens to you and it stops when it stops. Right? Same with good things, actually, but we tend to be less focused on that.

Let's take Sheri and Jim as an example of our poop happens theory. We've had a couple of big things go wrong in the last five months, not the least of which, obviously, was my getting cancer. But I believe we humans are built, for the most part, to cope with big things. It's the steady drip, drip, drip of little things on top of the big things that cause people to cry, “Well, things are bad, but at least nothing else can go wrong.”

Drip, drip, drip. You don't need to be bored by the details of our situation, you know exactly what I mean. We all know the feeling of those accumulated poop drippings.  

Still, The Arnolds are managing. It's Christmas! What better time to ward off you-know-what than Christmas? Well....

Monday, Dec. 23, between 2 and 4 pm, our power goes out, presumably due to the ice storm. We're pretty used to the power going out. We don't actually live in “the sticks,” but you can see them from our back deck. We will never be Mainers, but in 15 years we have become Mainers-lite. Power? Bah! We're Mainers-Lite baby. Who needs it. We have our propane-fueled Jodl faux wood-burning stove and we cook with propane gas.

Tuesday, Dec. 24, power still out, but it's Christmas Eve, man. 'Tis the season! We aren't going to be left without power on Christmas Eve. No way. But it is getting a little nippy in here. Well, we have our candles and hurricane lamps. No running water, no flushing toilets, no phones until we can charge our cells at a friend's tomorrow. But we're Mainers-lite! Right?

Christmas Day! Power still out. We've taken to chopping ice and melting it in pans on our Jodl to wash with. We are conserving our one bottle of distilled water. We start to open our Christmas gifts, but need to stop to meet some friends in town. We do, and with our cell phones charged, we head home. And lo, what light shines from yonder stickish countryside? Sheri and I excitedly take turns identifying the areas with power as we go along... right up to our road. Nothin'. This is starting to feel a little personal. Since it starts to get dark up here before 4 pm, we now finish opening our gifts in the dark. But we have flashlights, candles and... well, we ran out of oil for the lamps. But we have flashlights and candles!

It is now really cold in here. Some of the medicines I take cause me to have hot flashes. For the first time, I'm okay with that. But, alas, not tonight. Give me a break.

We each have our little batch of candles to huddle around, the heat almost as important as the light. We are both wearing sweatshirts with the hoods pulled over our heads, and buried in blankets and comforters; Sheri on the sofa, me in my recliner. Anyone looking in the window could easily have mistaken us for a minor sect of mad monks making some statement about the real meaning of Christmas.

So, we read and huddled, read and huddled, until 8 pm, when we decided it was time to go to bed. Well, that just seemed plain wrong. It was Christmas! So we talked for about another 50 minutes before we figured Christmas was close enough to over anyway, and we called it a night.

Thursday, Dec. 26, Boxing Day in the country of my birth. Another day with no power in the land of where I live now. You'll notice, not once have I said, “Well, things are bad, but at least nothing else can go wrong”? But. C'mon. Really? Still no power. People all around us were flaunting theirs. Lights on in the daytime. Christmas lights lit. Probably online chatting with friends. Have they no pity?

Back into town. Get warm and recharge cells (phones) and iPods. Sheri stays with one of our friends to take a shower and visit. Me? I welcome the dirt and discomfort. I'm so cold I can't smell anything, so that made it easier. I come home, not hopeless, but certainly with hope on the wain. And yes! No power.

It's the last day of my current course of chemotherapy which I take at home, but it still wears me out. I realize daylight is a wasting but don't really care. I flop in my chair, cover myself with my special comforter, pull my hood up over my head, feel sorry for myself for a moment or two, then pick up my book. As soon as Sheri gets home, though, I settle down for a long winter's nap wearing all my clothes, hoodie covering my head, blankets piled high. Happy Boxing Day.

I lose track of time, daylight is gone and Sheri seems to be talking to someone in the living room. But. No. Wait!! It's the TV!! Power baby! I run around and turn on virtually every downstairs' light... because I can!! I make toast... because I can! I flush the toilet and run some hot water... BIC.

I'll spare you the part about how grateful you become for the little things, but...

I'll also let you consider the karmic implications of all of this, but I have to tell you. This was the best Christmas the two of us have had in a long time. Look, I don't blame you if you think that's another load of Jim Arnold hooey, but it's true. We were cut off from our families, which was unfortunate, but we were also removed from the madness of the season. We came to realize how much stimulation we are bombarded with everyday, not just at Christmas. I wouldn't go as far as to say it was a Christmas miracle, but I might buy it as a Saturnalia surprise.

I think this year Sheri and Jim got the Christmas they deserved. Good for them.

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

So this is Christmas

I've been thinking a lot about Christmas this week. I know, just in time, right? It hasn't replaced you-know-what as my number one think, but it has been on my mind.

The thinking hasn't been about finding the perfect gifts, or the same overwrought Christmas music playing everywhere you go, or asking people how they're doing only to be met with a list of things “I have to do” before Christmas Day, or even friends bracing for visits from family while making their relatives sound, to me, like people they wouldn't let in their homes if they weren't related.

Nope. I've just been thinking about Christmas in general and whether it means anything different to me because I have cancer this year.

First, I would say this would certainly be one of my more contended Christmases. I know that might be hard for some people to believe; it has the air of spunk about it and we all know how much I hate spunk. But look around you; having cancer while surrounded by people who love and care about you is far from the worst way to spend Christmas. Right? You don't have to look very far to see plenty of worse situations to be in during this holiday. You can even be glad I'm the one with cancer and not you. See how easy it can be?

Christmas first entered the picture back in early September when I was diagnosed and our treatment plan was laid out. The second course of chemotherapy would be right around Christmas. We had no idea what that meant, but I knew I didn't want my wife, kids or grand-kids to be lumbered with it during the holiday. And they didn't really have to be, as it turned out. My last oncologist visit on Nov. 30th was good news, and I don't go back til Jan. 2. There's a dose of gratitude right there.

When I say I've been thinking a lot about Christmas, I'm not kidding. For example, I've had plenty of time to think about the annual lament that the day is becoming more and more commercialized. But more commercialized than what, than when? I'm 64 years old and I don't remember a time when we weren't bombarded with commercialism at Christmas. And if we're going to look to back in the day...

...“Miracle on 34th Street” wasn't about a Santa Claus for a fictional department store, with a fictional parade which captured plenty of screen time, now was it? No, it was about Macy's which, despite a couple of shaky moments, came out smelling like a rose. Gimbles didn't do too badly in the end either. Product placement in spades before we even knew what product placement was!

I gave plenty of my thinking time to folks who say, “Well... It ain't like I used to be.” What does that mean? Indoor plumbing has ruined that after-Christmas dinner trip to the outhouse? Bob Hope isn't entertaining the troops and putting it on television anymore, his being dead and all? For me, and maybe for me only, it's exactly like it used to be, as best I remember. Good times, bad times, in-between times, putting too much pressure on ourselves to have the “perfect” Christmas. It feels like it always has.

There's a line from Emerson, Lake and Palmer's “I Believe in Father Christmas,” I think rings true: “Hallelujah, Noel, be it Heaven or Hell, the Christmas we get we deserve.” I do believe the Christmas we get we deserve. But while I used to relish the hint of cynicism in the observation, I now see the hope in it. Instead of being overwhelmed by it all, we should try to hold on to the bits that make us happy. We deserve those bits, large or small.

So, is this outlook of mine because I have cancer and it's given me a new perspective? I have no idea. Is it because I have a better sense than ever of what really matters? Possibly. If I hadn't spent so many years as a cynic, would I be better able to express myself at this particular point? Almost surely.

So, tell me Jim Arnold. What have you discovered about Christmas as you mark your first one with cancer? Well, after hours and hours of thinking, and looking at Christmases past, I can honestly say... not much. Not really. Certainly nothing to offer to anyone else. This year I think I am getting the Christmas I deserve and I hope you do too because we all face our own battles everyday and Christmas should always be a time of peace and rest for each of us. Merry Christmas, everyone.

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Life and Hard Times of a Raggedy Ann and Andy alarm clock

One of the first must-have gifts I remember one of my kids wanting was a Raggedy Ann and Andy alarm clock. I don't know how old Jennifer was at the time, but her age certainly wasn't in double digits, most likely six or seven.

Why did she need an alarm clock? She didn't. She wanted an alarm clock. Big difference. Why did it have to be a Raggedy Ann and Andy alarm clock? Not sure, but instead of an actual alarm ringing, the two characters would shout out happy phrases to get you to wake up. My personal favorite was “Please get up, brush your teeth and start your Happy Day.”

I hated that clock. I hated it a lot. In order for it to wake Jennifer up, the volume had to cranked... to an 11. This meant of course, that it woke me up as well. Day after day: “Andy. Andy please wake up. It's time to call your friends.” “Please get up, brush your teeth and start your Happy Day.” I wasn't much of a morning person then and being awakened by the falsely chipper, condescending, plastic screeching of two pre-adolescents who spoke in sentence fragments and wouldn't shut up through numerous snoozes didn't help.

This went on for what seemed like months, until one morning I heard Ann, chipper as all get out as usual: “Andy. Andy please wake up, it's time to call your friends.” Then nothing. Silence. It was a little worrisome because Jennifer would usually kick in some sentence fragments of her own, mostly having to do with not wanting to get up at just that moment. Time passed, then Andy: “Okay, Ann, I'm awake. Let's shout it out once more.” There was a vocal reaction to that. It was muffled and raspy, but it seemed to suggest shouting was the exact wrong way to go right at that moment. Silence.

“Please get up, brush you tee........” Halfway through my favorite morning welcome I heard the unmistakable whirring sound of plastic being flung with great velocity, followed by a combination bang/cracking/spronging sounds as the object hit the wall, then... broken bits/ shrapnel? falling to the floor.

Even from another room, it was obvious that Ann wouldn't be telling us to call our friends any more, or encouraging proper dental hygiene. So, I walked over to Jen's room. Oh the humanity! I was completely unprepared for the carnage: springs and other clock doodads lay everywhere; there... was an Andy leg; here... one of Ann's hands; the perpetual smile on Andy's head just looked gruesome as it sat atop a Pooh doll; Ann's torso had landed on some clock piece that continued to move and took her torso with it... I can't even tell you what that looked like.

As a parent, I should have been outraged, but I was so happy to see the end of that clock it would have been hypocritical to lecture. So, I just asked what happened.

“I'm not sure,” she said and it was obvious she wasn't. “I just couldn't listen anymore. I have a bunch of tests today and that's what I'm getting up to face. Not calling my friends, not brushing my teeth and starting my happy day. The next thing I know, Andy and Ann bits are scattered all over the floor.... And Dad... I was happy”

Well, I was happy too. Instead of telling her that though, I probably reached into “The Great Big Book of Things Dads Need to Say, Even if They Don't Believe Them.” Platitudes, in other words. The fact that I would do it differently now doesn't really change that it's all I had then. Sorry, Jen.

As it will, my memory took its circuitous route through the experiences of my past, and the other morning it brought me the Raggedy Ann and Andy alarm clock story while I was laying in bed taking my morning inventory of how I feel, spitting the memory onto the covers, like your cat bringing you the mouse it had caught for you overnight. See, knowing that clock was going to go off and be annoying brought a small dose of anxiety to my mornings. I think it was the anxiety that was the common denominator, making the story more applicable than I would have thought.

Currently, my morning inventory involves reviewing pretty much the same items each day, always beginning with my ribs.

That's where this whole journey began, after all, checking on a broken rib after being attacked by bees. There's always pain in my ribs. Sometimes it's a lot, but usually it's a little. It's always there though and I do believe my “bee” rib cracked for the third time the other day. Sounds painful, no doubt, and it was the second time I felt it snap. This time, though, not so much.

Then it's on to the rash that's a side effect of my chemotherapy. As soon as I started taking the medicine again, the rash reappeared. This time, though, it's nowhere near as bad as it was. Last time it felt like my skin was being burned; this time it's just a slight itch in only a couple of places. Woo hoo.

Next, I check on things that only bother me off and on, to see if the day is an on day. Usually that means my sternum and my stomach. I can't discern any constant in why they should or should not bother me, so my guess is that stress is involved.

The morning inventory always ends with a visit inside my head; Think Central. Like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, I never know what I'm going to find in there. My brain certainly causes me the most distress because, while the rest of the inventory deals with what is actually happening, given half the chance, my brain will make stuff up, just because it can.

That, in itself, would be okay if it ever made up stuff to help me cope: “That? Nah. That's nothing to worry about.”; “Everybody your age has something like that. Don't give it another thought.” But that's not how it works. My box of chocolates seems to be over flowing with nougats and I hate nougats: “Hey. Was that pain there yesterday? I don't think it was. ”; “Do you feel really flushed? I think I feel a wicked flush coming on and it's bringing a headache with it.” Gggggggggrrrrrrrrr.

All that remains then is to assemble all the data and decide whether or not I actually want to get out of bed and face the challenges inherent in living life with cancer for another day. So far, the answer has always been yes, but some days the chronic fatigue tells me just to stay in bed today. It's then that, God alone knows why, I hear echoes from the past: “Andy. Andy please wake up. It's time to call your friends.” “Please get up, brush your teeth and start your Happy Day.” And what's an aging, loving father whose older daughter loved her Raggedy Ann and Andy clock, until she didn't, supposed to do but get up brush his teeth and start his happy day?

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Don't put off to your bucket list what you can do today

I've spent hours writing hundreds and hundreds of words the past few days on the idea of a bucket list. You know, the list of things you'd like to do before you kick the bucket...die in other words, for the less faint of heart.

If this were an older movie, you would be treated to the cliche of the waste basket overflowing with crumpled sheets of paper as our plucky writer struggled to finish his work. Not only is it not a movie, but deleting has become the new crumpling, so the waste basket remains empty, except for some paper plates and toast crumbs, and something brown that I'm afraid to look at too closely.

When I think of some of the things I've been able to write about here, some of the fears I've been able to face, being stuck writing about a bucket list should seem laughable.
But, here's the thing... I didn't want to just write about it, I wanted to write something important; something pithy; something with substance. Why? I don't know, but it probably had something to do with impressing you, the reader. Let's face it, though, someone with cancer writing about a list of things to do before you die is hardly a stop the presses moment, is it?

And that right there was the first stumbling block. How to take on the subject without coming across as the poor, sick cancer patient facing the Grim Reaper and bravely writing about doing no doubt noble things before he... you know. Yeah. Sounds like a load of hooey to me too, but it didn't stop me from spending a few hundred words, and a lot of hours I'll never get back, on it anyway. By the time I was done futzing with that, I felt like printing out the pages so I could give them the crumpling they deserved.

There were plenty of words, but no pith to be found. If I may be permitted a salute to the ever-shrinking number of Gene Pitney fans everywhere... it was a tome without pithy, if you will. I decided to come back to all that and moved on to the bigger picture items of death, dying and man's mortality.

I know. I know. That was never going to work, and for so many reasons. No one wants to talk about death or dying, especially their own. As far as being mortal goes... we all live like death is what happens to the other guy and none of us wants to hear any different. More hundreds of words, zero substance, more printing and crumpling please.

When I started working in newspapers in the fall of 1972, I was the editor of two small circulation weekly newspapers in Central New York: The North Syracuse Star and the Cicero Recorder. I was 23 years old, and looking back, it doesn't seem possible that I could have been as full of myself as I was then... and for no good reason. Seriously. I was just beginning to learn how to write; I had no idea of what it meant to live in and write about a small community; and I completely misunderstood the impact of putting unflattering things about people in the newspaper.

Lots of times the people get mad! And when they do, being a small community, they know where to find you. Even when they can't deny the truth of what you've written, they get mad anyway. In my first couple of years, people canceled their advertising, threatened to run me over if they saw me crossing the street, and in one memorable letter to the editor noted: “It's possible that the person who wrote that has brains, without specifying their exact location.”

In the midst of all this, a cooler, wiser friend made me a sign I kept by my phone for years: “When you're up to your ass in alligators, it can be hard to remember your initial objective was to drain the swamp.”

Right. I had spent hours on this bucket list deal and the message of that sign came back to me because that's exactly how I felt. I had been so determined to say something important, that I forgot the message completely.

And here's the funny part: All I was trying to say was that in the grand scheme of things a bucket list doesn't make much sense. Ta da! Message sent. We make the list and then put it away until... until what? Well, for most of us, I suppose, we put it away until we get closer to an age where the actuary tables say we're most apt to kick the bucket.

Does that really make any sense to you? We end up gambling that we'll be able to still do all this cool stuff because... because... a bunch of insurance people say it's not our time... on average? Hmmmm.

Look, I have an incurable form of cancer called multiple myeloma. It's treatable, but even if it does go into remission, I'll still have it for the rest of my life, or until they find a cure. But guess what? That doesn't mean I won't step out the door tomorrow and be run over by a bus. Actually, there are only about four buses, four small buses, total, in and around where we live, so that might be a bad example, but you get my drift, right?

If the things on your bucket list are important to you, you should stick the list on the fridge and start getting them done. That's all I wanted to say. Oh, and if any of them have to do with mending relationships, I'd start with those. Okay. Now I'm done.

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

“It's a Wonderful Life.” No it isn't. Yes it is.

For some reason, I've been thinking about my father lately. I don't actually do that very often. He died in early June, 1991, in a hospital in Morecambe, England, where he'd been for the last two years of his life, sinking deeper and deeper into dementia, which, in truth, was okay because it relieved each of us from the burden of conversation on the two times I was able get over there to visit him.

By that point, we had nothing to say to each other anyway; hadn't for years. We were a cliché; as real an example of Harry Chapin's “The Cat's in the Cradle” as you could find. As a child, he had no time for me, none, not any. Even the simplest question would be answered “Ask me again later,” which meant not at all. As an adult, I had no time for him and I made sure payback was a bitch.

I was 41 when he died. I have no idea how old he was. Really. Not a clue. I admit, I did stop asking, but there was a time I really wanted to know. Talk about family secrets. But then, I've never known how old my sisters were either. My sister Betty is still living and I guess I could ask, but I've stopped caring about that as well.

I suppose he could have come to mind because I have cancer and you tend to revisit, rethink, a lot of things as part of the journey. But I don't think that's it. My father was so removed from decisions I made about my life for so long, having cancer would've been just one more thing not to talk to him about.

Nah. I think he came to mind because, like a ripple in The Force, Frank Capra's “It's a Wonderful Life” is about to make its annual television appearance.

My dad loved Frank Capra movies. When I was still trying to get his attention, in my early 20s probably, I bought a book from the Book of the Month club called “The Name Above the Title” which chronicled Capra's years in Hollywood to that point. I really enjoyed the book, enough that I've gone back and read it again.

My father loved that book. It would have been a good thing to talk about, I think, if either of us knew how. He said what he liked and I said what I liked, but, again, just because words were exchanged, doesn't mean there was a conversation.

Looking back, I think my father might have related to the story of Capra's family coming to the United States when Frank Junior was six years old. They didn't have very much and worked hard for what they got. My parents came to this country when I was 14 and it was a very different place in 1963 than the one the Capras came to in 1903. Still, I think he could relate to the struggle and the outsidedness that Capra talked about.

But what does any of this have to do with my having cancer in 2013? More than you'd think, and “It's a Wonderful Life” would be at the heart of it.

For a long time I hated that movie; hated it big time. True, in my early 20s, I could still watch with the sense that the moral issues at its core were valid: do the right thing for the right reasons, put yourself second as you helped others, and you would receive back tenfold. How could that not be a good thing? That's the Beatitudes, brothers and sisters, straight out of the Sermon on the Mount.

But it was also around this time- if you'll forgive a terribly tortured metaphor- that I took my first bite of the apple from the tree of cynicism. I took it willingly and went back time and again for more. Terrible metaphor, right? But you know what I'm sayin'. Angels notwithstanding, I simply didn't buy the ending. It seemed to me the worst kind of Capra Corn.

Oh. Did I mention that this cynicism, angst and unhappiness coincided with my anger phase? No? Well it did. The anger legitimized all the cynical crap that poured out of me. It was a case of “Well, you'd feel the same way if you were me. If you had all this stuff going wrong in your life.”
A few years ago, though, it started to dawn on me that I might not have been looking at the big picture on all of that and I started looking at my part in the things that were so upsetting to me. After all, I was the one constant. I was always there when things didn't go right. Hmmmm.

And then I got cancer and ain't that just something a cynic could feast on? Why me? I didn't do anything to deserve this and blah, blah,blah, yackety, yackety, kum ba yah. I'm sure I could return to my apple metaphor and add a couple of additional tortured twists; perhaps along the lines of “I went back to the Forest of Cynicism, but all the trees had been chopped down and roses, carnations and dahlias had bloomed in their place.” Wow. That's embarrassing.

Anyway, suffice to say that the outpouring of support, prayers, get well wishes, “We love yous,” have made the end of “It's a Wonderful Life” real. Seriously. I had no idea that I meant so much to so many people; that people who don't even know me could sense something in me they wanted to acknowledge. I hope that doesn't sound egotistical, because whatever moved people to support me came from God and the hundreds of prayers that have been said on my behalf.
I don't know why writing about this became so important, it just did. Maybe it's because I can't be the only person in America who was irritated year after year by the end of “It's a Wonderful Life.” If you too are annoyed by the ending, because nothing like that has ever happened to you... Don't give up before the miracle happens.

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Jim and Sheri attend a happypalooza

One of the quirkier things that seems to be happening as I go through this fight with cancer, is that moments from my past pop up at the strangest times.

Quirky, I think, because of what my memory chooses to cough up. Has it really hung on to this stuff so it can bring it up now? Really?

Look, I don't remember how we ate supper at my house... ever; lights on, nobody home eating. What was my room like? No clue. Don't remember having one until we moved when I was about 11. You would think, in the grand scheme of things, those would be the things your brain might want to hold on to. Or maybe tender family moments like you used to see on TV when everything was in black and white.

Not my brain. My brain says, “Hey! Remember this? Looks like it's comin' around again, don't it?” and out comes the memory of me, Ian Fisher and Richard Wagner's “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.”

Ian Fisher and I were best mates when we both were in 1a2 of the First Form at the John Nielsen Institution in Paisley, Scotland, circa 1961-62. We were a bit of an odd couple in that Ian came from money and I... I came from parents who wanted to provide me with a better education. But we became best mates anyway, which in a class conscious cauldron like our school in our country at that time was no small feat.

So, Die Meistersinger: Ian, myself and a few other 11-year old boys from the First Form were loaned out to the Senior Choir because we could sing first tenor and the Senior Choir tenor section desperately needed some help. We could sing first tenor, by the way, because our voices hadn't cracked yet, late bloomers that we were.

I know we sang only a selection or two from the four-hour-plus opera, but I couldn't tell you what it was, what it was about, or even how long it lasted. What I do remember is that voices started cracking almost immediately after the first rehearsal, and continued cracking until the performance date loomed and Fisher and Arnold were the only First Form tenors left.

Our choir director got it into his head that the entire evening would be a success if we nailed one particular moment. I couldn't tell you how it fit into the grand scheme of what we were singing, but the entire John Nielsen Institution's Senior Choir's selection from Wagner's massive opera would be a rousing success if we sang two words with tremendous passion and maximum volume, with in key as a bonus: “AT LAAAAASSSSTTTTT!”

During rehearsals, we repeated that “At last” over and over, I have no idea how many times, but it was, in memory, a lot. Since neither Ian nor I knew exactly how much control we had over the whole voice-cracking thing (seriously), we thought we might be well served by not going full volume EVERY time, in case... you know. But the choir director would invariably notice and chastise us in such a smarmy, sarcastic choir director way, that we ended up just pushing the voice-cracking envelope..

Yeah, it seemed a little wacky to us at the time too, but every thing about that night became secondary to making sure our voices didn't crack. They didn't and huzzahs filled the performance hall. “Jolly good show chaps” and all that.

Now, the five weeks since my last face-to-face meeting with my oncologist have seemed excruciatingly more than 35 days. As Dec. 4 came nearer, I began to hear Wagner's “AT LAST” playing in my head. At first, it played sotto voce, nice and quiet, but over the last couple of days had the roar and passion that would have made our John Nielsen Institution Senior Choir director proud.

Obviously it would have been better, probably, not to put that much importance on one appointment, one stop on the journey. But try telling my brain that.

But AT LAST we met with the oncologist and were able to talk about results rather than the disease.

The chemotherapy is working! The biggest marker of progress, as he had said it would be, was the number of proteins that my bone marrow was putting into the rest of my system. The first time it was measured the number was 4,800. It's supposed to be zero. This time it was 700. Still a significant number, but... The doctor was happy, our nurse was happy, Sheri was happy, I was happy. It was a regular happypalooza!!

We thought the treatment plan might change, but after seeing the results, the doctor decided to put me back on the drug and dosage that I had been on, the same as had caused me to suffer such a terrible rash. He pointed out that the rash was a side effect, and all treatment had its side effects. Overall, I guess the rash, while not very pleasant, is nowhere near the worst. However, if I develop large water blisters as part of it... that would move it up the bad scale considerably. Good to know.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I spent a lot of the afternoon/evening feeling confused. It seemed like I should have been happier. Well, that's not quite right. I should have been more demonstrably happy, maybe. Sheri was the only one to see me, but it seemed like I was sending an unclear message. Kind of a reverse, “If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands.”

But as I processed what was happening, I realized that I was used to setbacks and dealing with them. The good news left me with all this leftover anxiety and worry and I had no place to put it! This cancer thing is really tricky, boy.

Of course, I still have cancer. I'm still taking medication that will most likely cause a rash that will keep me awake nights on end. I still have pain from the lesions in my ribs and the fight is far from over. I'm going into the new year with a new oncologist, when I loved the one I had.

But you know what? That's for tomorrow's big think. Right now, Sheri and I are just basking in the glow of the good news before we start basking in the glow from my rash.

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Oh, the horror! I was just thinking...

I'm tired of thinking about having cancer.

I mean, I wake up thinking about it; I fall asleep thinking about, and think about it during most of the hours in between.

It wouldn't be so bad if there was some point to all that thinking. There isn't. It's not as if thinking harder will change anything; or thinking longer might lead to some new happy place. Nope. It's just good old-fashioned, wheel-spinning, energy-consuming, time-wasting thinking.

It reminds me of conjugating verbs in French class: I work, you work, he/she works, we work, you work, they work. Great. But if you don't then know how to use the verb in everyday speech, it just becomes that much more useless knowledge cluttering up your brain, like Cary Grant's real name, the 21st vice president of the United States or the seventh man to set foot on the moon.

In my case, the less I'm able to think about other things, the more I feel like that guy with cancer who writes about it, and little else. Would it have been a better decision not to write about it? Should I have chosen to go through it quietly, telling just people who needed to know only what I wanted them to know? Would I be forced to think about it less?

No. In fact, hell no. It's only when I sit down to share with you what's been going on, that the thinking seems to take any useful tack. Writing about it makes me focus on this bit, that bit, this thought, that feeling, that specific part of my treatment. The rest of the time the thinking is just so much noise: “I have cancer. I have cancer. I wish I didn't have cancer. But you do. Yes I do. How'd that happen? Don't know. Guess it doesn't matter. I have cancer, cancer, cancer. Look at that guy over there. He looks like he feels sorry for me cause I have cancer. You don't even know that guy. So? Cancer, cancer, cancer.” And on and on and on.

So what's the end result of all this thinking? Trick question; there is no end to it, but there can be an occasional revelation.

Consider this: I have never been known to exhibit responsible phone behavior. People, including our kids, know that about me. They know chances were slim that I would call them back... because I was irresponsible. You could count on my phone irresponsibility!

Now though, I have to be aware that many of the people who phone, write or text me, don't know that. They might easily interpret no reply as something bad. They might think I'm having a hard day, or feeling physically sicker, or I may have fallen and I can't get up. So, it takes time, but I try to be aware of the possibilities and respond. Responsibility man, who needs it?

I also see that spending so much time thinking about having cancer makes it harder to consider other roles I still need to fulfill.

I'm a husband, father, stepfather, grandfather, whether I have cancer or not, and Christmas is coming.

I trust I'm a friend to my friends, which requires thinking about them, considering their needs and issues. I have to find think time for them, somehow.

I'm a co-worker who, according to the cards and emails I'm receiving from them, could be counted on to lighten things up and make sure we could laugh at ourselves. How's that working out? I haven't been able to go to works for weeks because I am unable to focus on much of anything but myself.

I'm still the guy grieving over the loss of our cat Samantha. We had to put her to sleep this summer after 14 years of constant companionship. I found out I was sick about five weeks after she died. I continue to shed more tears over her loss than I do my own situation.

The one person who would have reveled in all this thinking would have been my mother. She was always after me to think more/harder/better/longer. She thought virtually any situation could be helped by extra thinking. I remember she'd quite often suggest the value of an extra thought: “If you think yerrrr goin' to do that yerrrrr own rrrrrrrrridiculous way, ye've got anotherrrrrrr think comin', so ye do.”

Oh... while I'm thinking of it (ha ha)- this Wednesday will be my first oncologist visit since we started treating my cancer. In the five weeks since we made the appointment, a lot has happened, not the least of which was my negative reaction to the chemotherapy drug at the center of the treatment, which forced us to stop using it only a couple of days into my second course.

So, the focus of our session on Wednesday will be on regrouping, and adjusting the initial treatment plan to fit the new reality of my reaction to the medication. I had thought that this would be he first time I would get some idea what, if any, impact the treatment has had on the multiple myeloma. And that may still happen, but it's also become clear that this fight is going to go the full 15 rounds. I was naive to think otherwise.

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.